Thoughts on the Hugo Nominated Short Stories by Adam Callaway

18 May

(Edit:  this post was actually written by Adam Callaway.  I forgot that WordPress would use my ID to indicate the author if I was the one who created it.  Sorry for any confusion.)

I am both pleasantly surprised and just a little disappointed with this year’s batch of nominees. There were no short stories I found to be of poor quality. In my opinion, there was one mediocre story, two good ones, and one very good one. I wish there had been a full ballot of short stories to read through. I also wish there had been more diversity in terms of theme and content.

In the end, I feel like these are incredibly mature stories that show the changing face of speculative literature in the 21st century. In many ways, they share more in common with fiction published in the New Yorker than Amazing Stories. Instead of ray guns and magic swords, you have metafiction and magical realism. Regardless of the quality of these stories, this is a Good Thing for the future of the genre.

But are these really the best stories genre produced last year? Hmm…

Here are my brief thoughts on each of the nominees:

If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky

If there is a sure-fire way to put me off of a story, it’s using the second person. However, this is Hugo season. Even if it is a *popular* award, we should judge stories on their quality. I have a degree in English literature, so I’m pretty much an expert at disliking a story but recognizing its worth and quality.

The best term to describe this story is “poetic.” In fact, I’m still wondering if this is a story or more of a prose-poem. The conceit of the story is that the narrator’s partner was attacked and beaten almost to death, and he’s in a coma. She’s talking to him (which is the “you” of the story) about how none of this would have happened if he were a dinosaur. The descriptions are vivid. The flow is lyrical. The story seems to be separated into stanzas.

Even the most well-written stories, though, need some sort of plot or driving force to keep you reading. The prose is outstanding, but I couldn’t help but think, “Okay, where is all of this going?” The ending pulls it together. It’s like a two-fisted punch to the gut. Fiction that incites such an emotional response is a good, needful thing.

However, I couldn’t shake a few thoughts from my mind. Was this truly a “short story?” I’m not debating art here, but what genre would this piece fall into (here I use “genre” to mean “form”). I mentioned earlier that it felt more poem than short story at times. Poems can (and do) tell stories. I am not the best to judge this question of form. I will say that the plot is thin, and only materializes once you know the ending.

Another thought I had – and this will be a theme throughout the entire short story category – was:  is this story speculative (meaning:  does it contain elements of SF and fantasy)? It does mention dinosaurs and a bit of plausible science. But does the injured “you” ever turn into a dinosaur to take revenge upon his attacks? No.

It does speculate. In fact, its purpose as a story is to speculate, often repeating the line “If you were a dinosaur…”

So this story is both non-speculative and speculative. Another toss-up.

These are personal thoughts; opinions. I said I wouldn’t judge the work based on my personal opinion. My professional opinion is that this story is a well-written, character-driven short story with a powerful ending. The story nevertheless suffers from over-sentimentality and a lack of plot.

The Ink Readers of Doi Saket by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Another theme you’ll see running through this article is one of form. Where the Swirsky’s story bent the genres of poetry and short story to its will, Heuvelt’s story rides the divide between traditional fiction and religious parable. While there is a “protagonist,” point-of-view jumps around in an almost, but not quite, omniscient matter.

I’m not familiar with Thai culture, so I can’t make a judgment on the accuracy of Heuvelt’s story; instead, I will judge it as if it was a created culture. If I go by that metric, the culture is interesting, colorful, and fully developed. There are footnotes to explain certain turns-of-phrase and idiosyncrasies. I skipped them during my first read-through and did not find myself lost in the world (in the bad sense of the word).

However, I did feel like this story was confused, to put it delicately. The story seems to pick at random when to jump to other POVs and when to digress. It made for a jarring, difficult reading experience (in the bad sense, again).

The dialog of the story felt flat. Its purpose was thematic and didn’t lend much color or verve to the world.

There was a plot, but as I said, it was tough to see for all the digressions and jumps. The plot was resolved, though, which is rare among this year’s Hugo short story nominees.  In the end, I couldn’t tell if the plot was purposefully obfuscated or if it was unintentional.

The speculative elements centered around religion, the working of miracles and granting of wishes. However, we learn early on that the wishes are being granted by the corrupt church in exchange for “donations.” The only truly speculative elements arrive at the very end of the story, and the story heavily hints that the granting of these wishes may be by chance of nature or divine intervention. There was a fair bit of this sort of digression that to me says “author intrusion.”

To sum up:  this is an interesting look at a foreign culture, muddled by its execution.

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar

When I started reading this story, I had no idea what a “selkie story” was. When I finished it, I was still unsure, although less so. After doing a quick bit of research and figuring out what exactly a selkie is, everything settled into place.

Like the other nominees, this piece is character-driven with very little plot. The characters, though, are very good, very human.

Also like the other nominees, the speculative elements are light. It is implied that the protagonist’s mother was a selkie, but this is not confirmed. The only thing we know is that the protagonist’s mother left her and that her father will only speak cryptically about it. The abandonment by her mother greatly influences her character.

The structure is interesting, to0. The story is told in first person and uses that form well. Interspersed throughout the personal narrative are reflections on selkie stories, what they are, what they are not, and their impact on the protagonist.

This story is the least speculative and has little plot, but it’s also very well-crafted with interesting relationships.

The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

I’ll just put this out there:  if I were voting for the Hugos, this would be my number one choice. It follows the same trends as the other nominees – strong relationships, diverse characters, weak speculative elements, strong prose – but it combines it with an actual plot that resolves everything. It also has the strongest characters and relationships, and even though it deals with serious issues, it avoids sentimentality.

The speculative elements in this story are not the strongest I’ve ever seen, but they are present and used better than they were in the other stories. In this story, lying brings with it spontaneous rain, while telling the true can evaporate the water. This element is used to forward both the plot and the characters. It may be a weak element, but it’s explored thoroughly and in the context of how it affects the characters.

A very strong story filled with interesting and diverse relationships.

———————————

Here’s my theoretical ballot:

  1. The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere
  2. Selkie Stories are for Losers
  3. If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love
  4. No Award
  5. The Ink Readers of Doi Saket

What about you?  What do you think about the nominees?

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3 Responses to “Thoughts on the Hugo Nominated Short Stories by Adam Callaway”

  1. Mike Reeves-McMillan May 18, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

    I’ve only read “Selkie Stories” and “Ink Readers,” but I broadly agree. I read them in the Strahan-edited Best SF and Fantasy of the Year Vol 8, and my overall impression of that volume was that stories are becoming more literary (sometimes a good thing, sometimes not if it becomes too artful and self-conscious); that the speculative elements are not always very strong or foregrounded; that there’s a trend to not having endings, but just stopping; that dystopian, depressing and technopessimist stories are in favour; and that there’s a (to me, encouraging) trend in favour of diversity of setting and characters.

    I’ve also read this year’s Writers of the Future anthology, and I’m currently reading Paula Guran’s Magic City: Recent Spells, and to a greater or lesser extent I see the same trends there (though the Guran volume consists of reprinted stories going back as far as 2002).

    Of these trends, the two I personally dislike the most are the lack of plot/ending and the pessimism. I want to see a protagonist, not merely a viewpoint character, who wants something and strives to achieve it, and preferably succeeds, though failure can also be interesting if handled well. Alienated losers who whine about their complex feelings while tragic events happen to them are, to me, not enjoyable to read about, however beautiful the prose.

  2. Joachim Boaz May 18, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    I find it intriguing that “metafiction” is changing face of speculative literature in the 21st century… I mean, authors in the New Wave deployed metafiction with ease — in often more sophisticated and polished ways than now (Effinger, Malzberg, etc etc etc).

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