Monday, May 05, 2008

Thoughts on Hugo Nominees 2008: Short Stories

Monday, May 05, 2008
"Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, ed. by George Mann)
"Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov's June 2007)
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken MacLeod (The New Space Opera, ed. by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan)
"Distant Replay" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's May-June 2007)
"A Small Room in Koboldtown" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's April/May 2007; The Dog Said Bow-Wow)

I’ll start with one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Bear. Her story “Tideline” is set in what has to be some sort of a post apocalyptic setting because there is a former military robot scavenging on a beach. The robot, named Chalcedony, helps rescue a boy of indeterminate age and she (Chalcedony) feeds the boy and teaches the boy. “Tideline” is, I think, about memory and loss, hope and responsibility. Despite my quite obvious delight in the novels of Elizabeth Bear, “Tideline” is not a story I would have put on this of Nominees. Don’t get me wrong, I am more than happy that eBear is nominated for major awards and I don’t understand at all why her novel Whiskey and Water hasn’t been nominated for either a Hugo or a Nebula (because it was the best damn thing published in 2007), but “Tideline” is not (I don’t think) a story that worked for me as much as I had hoped it would. Perhaps my expectations were too high, and I hate saying anything negative about Bear’s writing since I want her to have more recognition and not less, but I just can’t get excited about “Tideline”.

I first read “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359” back in late September 2007 along with the rest of the stories in The New Space Opera. By the time the Hugo nomination came about I couldn’t remember a single thing about the story. So, re-reading the story it is easy to see why it was so difficult to remember. A man (almost a post-human) breaks some arcane law and his punishment is to be sent out to investigate a failed business colony on the planet Wolf 359. Half the story is the man getting to a quarter of the story is the man’s arrest, half the story is his travel to the world, and the final quarter is man on planet and the result. Ken MacLeod packs a whole lot into a little package, and while the story is conceptually interesting, I felt that there was too little actual story for the grander tale that MacLeod sort of told. “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359” could easily have been expanded to twice its size, but instead we are given an almost deus ex machine conclusion and the story wrapped up rather abruptly. This isn’t a story I would have nominated, but then I don’t have a Worldcon membership so I couldn’t nominate.

Seldom will there be a Mike Resnick story which fails to entertain and delight. “Distant Replay” is no exception. Resnick spins a short story about an elderly man who for several weeks sees a woman who looks exactly like his wife did as a younger woman, down to her taste in clothes and the scent of her perfume. Except this man’s wife has been dead for seven years. When Walter (that’s his name) sees the woman at his favorite restaurant, he finally asks if he could speak with her, and the story unfolds from there. The story does not go the way I expected it to, but at the same time “Distant Replay” felt so familiar, as if Resnick was telling a story we’ve all heard but barely remember. Perhaps he is. I don’t know. What I do know is that “Distant Replay” was a pleasant story and a delight to read. Some will likely argue that “Distant Replay” is too “lightweight” to be award worthy, but I don’t know about that. I just know that it was a story I was glad to have read and one that is likely to age well.

“Last Contact” has to be one of the most mournful stories I have read, and a beautiful one at the same time. The story opens on the ides of March with a strained conversation between a mother and her grown daughter. There is talk about multiple “last contacts” early on, but no explanation of what that means. But then we get a hint. A moment later we realize what it means. Another conversation on June 5, and finally on October 14. Overhanging the entire story is what happens on October 14. Stephen Baxter absolutely nailed this story. It is a quiet story between a mother and a daughter, about the ultimate fate of the universe, and about letting go. By the end I was stunned by how simple and perfect it was.

The story I was least excited about was Michael Swanwick’s “A Small Room in Koboldtown”, another story based off one of his novels and from reading "Lord Weary’s Empire" last year, I wasn’t too thrilled by the idea of another Swanwick. This one was better, though I think if I knew more about the setting I’d have more of a feel for the story. There’s a murder investigation. The murder was possibly committed by a haint (think ghost, but able to interact actively with “solids”) and a haint politician Salem Toussaint has his man, Will le Fey, involved in the investigation. It is the setting which is so fascinating here. I want to know more about the haints, how this city works, what are the underlying issues, and just get in deeper into Koboldtown and the surrounding environs. But Swanwick keeps the story in pretty tight to the investigation, nothing more. Details are revealed in the course of the investigation, but everything came together so quickly, and was resolved so fast that I couldn’t help but feel that “A Small Room in Koboldtown” was simply a small chapter in something larger. So, while the story was decent, I felt empty by the conclusion, like I ate the icing but was never served the cupcake. I want my cupcake!!

My Choice: “Last Contact”, by Stephen Baxter. It’s a small localized story set in the middle of something extraordinarily large and I loved every page of it.

Previous Thoughts:
John W. Campbell Award

This leads me to Abigail Nussbaum’s article on these same Hugo nominees. I disagree with pretty much everything she says, even though she does a better job giving her opinions on the fiction. Actually, I only half disagree with her portrait of Mike Resnick’s fiction. I see her point about the simplicity and sameness from his stories, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t a good read. What Abigail seems to be looking for, hoping for, is something (L)iterature, showing intellectual rigor as well as craftsmanship in the prose. Yeah, that’s great, but tell me a good story, a story I care about and want to read again. If the writer can achieve the intellectual rigor while delivering a story that flows, is readable, and is interesting as more than just an intellectual game, that’s a bonus. If not, I want a story that makes me think about what I just read and that “entertains” on some level. The definition of entertainment is up in the air. Some can find intellectual entertainment, others want it on a more visceral level. I think I’m somewhere in between. It is clear to me, though, that what I want from a story is quite different than what Abigail Nussbaum wants. That’s cool. We’re both readers, both want to read a good story. I agree with what she said at the end, that she hopes Elizabeth Bear wins. I just want Bear to win for more personal reasons (i.e. Bear's novels kick ass), and Nussbaum would like to see “Tideline” win on its own merits. Forgetting about the authors, I think “Last Contact” is the one.


ThRiNiDiR said...

Another great article, Joe.

Joe Sherry said...

Thank you.

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