Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The 2014 Hugos: My Final Novelette Ballot

So, as I observed in my last post on the Hugos, the short story category seems to be in real trouble. I've been a Hugo voter for four years now, and I can honestly say that I have not yet read a nominated short story that I truly loved. I'm consequently left wondering: Where is today's Ray Bradbury? And what do we have to do to wrench that talent out of obscurity and bring him or her to the attention of the World Con audience?

Thankfully, the novelette category is not as dominated by dreck. As a matter of fact, I think the novelette category is the strongest category in this year's short list. All the stories could legitimately be classified as sci-fi/fantasy, and I only felt prompted to leave one off the ballot. Below is my final ranking with explanations for each choice:
  1. "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang. Yes, this surprises me too. I have either actively disliked or simply felt indifferent about other stories written by this author, but this novelette is a remarkably balanced exploration of enhancements to human memory and their impacts on society and our relationships. The sections dealing with literacy's effect on an oral indigenous culture scared me at first, but in the end, Chiang doesn't really come down on the side of "the literate Europeans are evil despoilers!" And the sections dealing with the futuristic "life logs" and "Remem" search engines actually did make me think. Indeed, Mom and I had a pretty good discussion in re: this story and whether we thought perfect mechanical memory was desirable. Ultimately, we decided we disagreed with Chiang's narrator; Mom pointed out that forgetfulness is often how child abuse victims and sufferers of PTSD protect themselves and heal, and I think she's absolutely right. But our dissent does not in any way alter my judgment that "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" is good science fiction -- not of the optimistic "ray guns and aliens" space opera/adventure type, to be sure, but the genre has also been built on reflective pieces that tackle technology and its interactions with human nature, and I would like to see more in this mode.
  2. "The Exchange Officers" by Brad Torgersen. If you don't like hard military science fiction, this is probably not the story for you. In my opinion, however, the near-future depicted here is well-conceived and all-too-plausible -- as is the future tech. I think Brad has written other stories that are far superior to this one (see also: my upcoming post on the novellas) -- but this is still a solid piece.
  3. "Opera Vita Aeterna" by Vox Day. Day needs to control his urge to show off his erudition; the old-fashioned style of his prose and the lengthy dialogues on Thomistic theology do weigh down this story and prevent me from giving it a higher ranking. "Opera Vita Aeterna" is far from awful, though. What I especially appreciate is the message: Even if you come from entirely different backgrounds - and even if you hold radically opposed worldviews - you can still build a friendship based on mutual respect. And the fact that the atheistic elf never really changes his mind despite the efforts of the devout abbot makes this a fair work and not, as many of Day's detractors might assume, a piece of religious propaganda.
  4. No Award.
  5. "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal. This story deeply disturbs me for reasons I will explain in just a moment, but I didn't leave it off the ballot because I did connect, on some level, with Kowal's depiction of Nathaniel's terminal illness and thought it was well-written and accurate. I can't accept the conclusion, though. I don't like that Nathaniel's acquiescence to his own abandonment is depicted as noble. People are needy -- and as they get older and sicker, they only become needier. This is the natural progression of life that you must accept when, in an act of will, you decide to love someone. To imply that this inevitable dependence is an unfair burden and not an integral feature of a marriage is to fundamentally misunderstand what marriage is. It also misses the many ways we can become better when we comfort someone who is suffering. Dad, for example, may be a pretty irreverent character most of the time, but he becomes something else entirely when Mom is not well -- someone who may just get into heaven despite his occasionally sacrilegious jests. Consequently, I'm convinced - and there are very few things I believe with a fiercer passion - that my dad has been saved (in the Christian sense) in the act of caring for my mom -- and that while chronic and/or terminal illness is difficult and ugly, it is not ultimately purposeless or something we should avoid.
And as for "The Waiting Stars," in which sentient ship "Minds" are pulled from their rightful homes and forced to inhabit limited bodies in a society that curtails their rights? That didn't make it onto my ballot, as I found it difficult to look past the author's obvious desire to air her feminist and racial grievances -- and there were no other features of the story that really grabbed me.

Next up: the novellas!

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