Friday, October 30, 2009

Thoughts on 2009 World Fantasy Award Nominees: Short Story

“Caverns of Mystery”, Kage Baker (Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy)
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”, Kij Johnson (Asimov’s 7/08)
“Pride and Prometheus”, John Kessel (F&SF 1/08)
“Our Man in the Sudan”, Sarah Pinborough (The Second Humdrumming Book of Horror Stories)
A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica”, Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld 5/08)

Welcome to the first of the World Fantasy Award coverage posts. I’m going to take a look at the Short Story category today. If this is your first time reading one of my award wrap-ups, welcome. I list the stories out in reverse order of my esteem for them. The first story listed is, relatively speaking, in the place of dishonor. This year that dishonor goes to…

“Pride and Prometheus”.

My thoughts on "Pride and Prometheus": Kessel’s story is well written and there is a strong aspect of intellectual interest to the chronology of the story and working out the little clues as to what is going on. John Kessel works in the inherent horror of the situation perfectly. The main problem here is simply that because I am not a fan of the original source material, I am not the ideal reader for “Pride and Prometheus”. For me, the story only works on the “hey, Kessel’s doing something kind of cool here” level.

A counterpoint to "Pride and Prometheus" would come from a person who I recommended this story to. She is a fan of Jane Austen's work and is very familiar with the characters / setting. She loved the story. I can only appreciate the story on an intellectual level.

My thoughts on "Caverns of Mystery": The story features Baker's usual quietly graceful writing. Seldom is Baker ever flashy in her storytelling, but "Caverns of Mystery" fails to deliver...well, mystery, or wonder, or anything to compel readers to want to commit to the story. Obviously that statement cannot be entirely true given the World Fantasy Award nomination, but "Caverns of Mystery" isn't even the best story in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy, let alone one of the best five fantasy stories of 2008.

The struggle here is how to articulate this. "Caverns of Mystery" isn't bad, it's just ordinary. It's the sort of story that if I wasn't trying to talk about the World Fantasy Award nominations, or of it was not nominated (which it shouldn't have been), I would never have mentioned the story at all. It's just a story. Competent. Well written. Ordinary. Slightly boring.

My thoughts on "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica"
: “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” has been recognized and praised by many and is being reprinted in Best of the Year anthologies, and the story deserves that praise. On its surface it is not a straightforward narrative going from Point A to Point B, but in a sense, it does. It features a hero, a villain, a conflict, and a resolution. Valente just tells the story in a non-traditional manner, one which serves the emotions of the story in a more authentic manner. The story works.

My thoughts on “Our Man in the Sudan”: The deeper level of spookiness that pervades the story, beyond what Stephen Jones said about it, is that for so much of the story the reader never knows what happened to Cartwright. The death is written off as just a death, but Fanshawe has very strange messages from Cartwright prior to his death. It’s that feeling of knowing something is around the corner, but you don’t know exactly what.

At the very least “Our Man in the Sudan” is a fascinating look at the environs of Khartoum, but there is more than that. There is atmosphere and there is *something* going on. There are hints of what it is, but Pinborough never comes right out and tells the reader. That’s okay, because the story works.

My thoughts on “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” from much earlier this year: The story is in turns clever, sweet, funny, and sad. After reading last year’s nominated story “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” I was quite impressed with Kij Johnson’s storytelling skill and was curious to read more of her work. “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is a story of one woman’s healing among a show full of performing monkeys – monkeys that accepted her, not the other way around.

It’s good. It’s really good. Last year’s story was one of my favorite nominated stories and after reading this, I expect “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” will be one of this year’s favorites.

Sarah Pinborough’s story was an excellent one and well worth the nomination, but I’ve been enamored with “26 Monkeys” since it was nominated for the Nebula earlier this year. It’s just one of those stories that connected with me and grabbed me and didn’t let go. With that said, I have a feeling “Our Man in the Sudan” will win this award. I would much prefer if the John Kessel or the Kage Baker stories fail to win the award, and I don’t have a problem with Catherynne Valente winning, but if I was on the jury this would be a two horse race between Sarah Pinborough and Kij Johnson. You can’t go wrong with either.

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