These reviews got long, so I’m breaking them into two parts. Novelettes today, Short Stories tomorrow, as that’s the same order we discussed them in my bookclub.
Overall Puppy Note (preemptive!): It’s impossible not to talk about the Puppies heavily when reviewing these stories, since the Puppies vandalized the Hugos this year. As such, many of my reviews address them directly. Based on the readings of the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominations, there are two things I think can be definitively said about the Puppies. The first is that they don’t much care about thinking through the implications of their worlds or spending mental effort to make them make sense. The second is less flattering, and so I’m putting it off until tomorrow’s post, where it is much more thoroughly supported (due to it being more strongly represented in the Short Stories).
“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart
A decent, if fairly unremarkable tale. An example of “didn’t bother to think through the world-building.” The basic premise is that a technologically- and militarily-dominant alien species is oppressing a human settlement on a planet they both colonized, and the humans chase them away by exploiting a simple superstition in their religious beliefs. “Drive Away Your Alien Overlords With This One Weird Trick!” They have a fear of bodies buried under the earth, and so are willing to give up military dominance of billions in infrastructure to get away from those scary buried corpses. If anyone bothered to think on this for more than ten seconds they’d realize any such belief system would have been weeded out of the memetic ecosystem aeons ago. No expansionary society can have a belief system so easily hacked. If one guy with a shovel can overthrow any size military occupation in a single night, your belief system will not propagate.
The story itself failed to strike much emotion. No one seemed particularly harmed by the alien “oppression”, as far as I could tell we were supposed to be cheering for the humans merely because they are human. That’s OK, I guess, but it’s not compelling.
Puppy Note: The story’s basic premise is remarkably stupid (but sadly not the stupidest thing the Puppies nominated). But it had to be stupid, to get across the moral of the story, which seemed to be “Your religion is stupid. Look how stupid it is, we can exploit it so easily! It’s important to have a non-stupid religion, like ours!” /sigh
“Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner
Oh dear lord. Remember how much I hated The Dark Between The Stars? THIS IS THAT BOOK, IN STORY FORM! Just apply everything I wrote in that review to this story. To recap: “as much emotion as reading a bad history textbook” and “there is not a single person in this book. There are a bunch of plot-advancing devices that have names. But they are empty husks, whose only purpose is to get us from Event A to Event B to Event C, and give us no reason to care about any event or any person.” Holy cow is it bad.
Puppy Note: Let’s get the obvious out of the way. This is not a short story. It’s a novel excerpt. For the Puppies to have nominated this is an insult to the Novelette award. There is no character building, plot arc, anything, because there can’t be! It’s one chapter out of a novel. This is like nominating a movie trailer for Best Short Film. This is a clear example that either the Puppies didn’t bother to read their slate before they voted on it, or that they have no idea what these awards are supposed to be recognizing. It took a Novelette nomination away from an actual novelette, which is a damned shame. That alone puts this below No Award. The awful quality is just the kicker.
“The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator
A gorgeously written surrealist piece, with extremely evocative prose. While reading it I actually experienced vertigo, and felt like I was somehow reading upside-down, even though the words were still right-side up. The premise was fascinating, and the survivors’ struggle to simply exist without flying into the stratosphere was fantastic. I absolutely loved most of it.
But I hated the protagonist. He is an extremely creepy stalker, who spends the entire story hunting down the girlfriend who broke up with him because he refuses to accept her breakup. When he finally finds her at the end of the story, trapped with a broken leg in her house, he again confesses his undying love and complete stalker-tude. To her credit, she reiterates that they broke up and it’s over, even in her position! He refuses to accept her breakup (again!), then goes into her bedroom and discovers that she is totally over him and started dating someone else. So he goes into a slut-shaming tirade and leaves her to die.
I generally like damaged characters. And I love villains! Villain stories are among my favorites. But I really despise entitled misogynistic assholes who we’re supposed to sympathize with and consider the heroes. That is not a villain story. So this piece didn’t leave me with the delicious sense of evil and tragedy that a good villain story leaves you with, it just left me feeling slimy and gross. Ugh. I’m kinda torn on this work, as the wordcraft and world is so evocative. But ultimately I just can’t like a piece that reads like it’s glorifying something this ugly.
Puppy Note: The only non-Puppy work on this ballot!
“The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn
A very welcome surprise! This is a fantastic piece! The prose is superb and the voice is extremely strong! You cannot read this without immediately knowing just what the protagonist is going through, and feeling every single bit of it right along with him. And smiling the whole time. :) I especially love the banter between Teo (the protagonist) and Sammi (his travelling companion). Teo is a very old-school “honor and glory” type. He does what he does because it is awesome, and he is awesome, and he wants to be remembered down the ages and sung about, because we’re all going to die and that is true immortality, etc. It’s inspiring and exciting and swells the chest with pride. Sammi is a barbarian who speaks in broken English, but is obviously the smarter of the pair. He’s got a razor wit, always ready with a snarky quip, and always does the practical, smart thing in any situation, even if that would be seen as “cowardly” by the bards. He doesn’t give a crap about someone singing about how heroically he charged into the mouth of a dragon, he’d rather sneak up on the dragon, poison its food, and live to tell about it. Sammi is also incredibly admirable in this regard, and I would honestly consider him a Rationalist character. The interplay between the two of them really makes the story, and it was fantastic to read! Plus the storyline was pretty engaging too!
Oh! And did I mention the budding romance between Teo and the guy who’s been hunting him down? It is adorable, especially because it seems that right now Sammi is the only one who realizes what’s happening between the two of them… those two still think they hate each other! /squee!! It’s masterfully done, and I tip my hat to Mr. Flynn.
It is interesting to note that this appears to be an entry in a serial story (a previous story in the same storyline having been published in 2012, and the main storyline obviously not even close to resolution at the end of this novelette). However this isn’t just an excerpt, it really is a full story in the serial style – it has a beginning, middle, and end, and leaves you feeling satisfied. It’s much like a single episode in a season of Buffy – advancing the main arc of the season while still being a good self-contained narrative on its own. I’m happy to see serial works coming back in print form, I had assumed they were dead outside of cyberspace.
Puppy Note: Michael Flynn is an old hand in the Hugos, having six previous nominations. It’s a good thing the Puppies came along to right the injustice of him being shunned by the SJW circles and Hugo elitist conspirators, who had kept him from getting his due recognition…
Also, I get the feeling that the Puppies aren’t great at reading subtext, because I suspect that many of them would not have nominated a story with an budding gay romance. Either that or they didn’t bother to read their slate before nominating it *cough cough*.
“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra
This started out strong, and I thought I was going to like it just as much as The Journeyman. The prose is good, and it’s written in that clever modern style that’s so fun to read. You know the one, you see it in most urban fantasy and some steampunk, very Whedon-esque. I was cruising along, having a good time, when we got to The Puzzle. I really like puzzles in my fiction! Some of my favorite works are basically very elaborate puzzles for the reader to figure out, with narrative and character, so I was excited. And this puzzle was introduced as something that a team of scientists had been working on for 30 years! And if they failed at it, they lost their home planet and had to move back to Earth! Wow, this is gonna be awesome. I am looking forward to some intense Insight Porn, because that’s half of what Rationalist Fiction is about, right?
While he’s describing the puzzle, halfway through the second paragraph the solution is obvious. He’s not even done setting it up yet and already I can tell what the answer is. Seriously a team of highly motivated scientists couldn’t figure that out after 30 years???? It’s not even a good puzzle!!! In fact it’s almost insulting to my intelligence how simple it is! I thought maybe I’d just been spoiled by the Insight Porn that is LessWrong and Cracked and SSC, until I got to the solution the author wrote…
Which was even stupider than I could have imagined, because I graduated middle school. I’m gonna spoil it for you, but don’t worry, you aren’t missing anything. The cows on their world, that have spent 30 years eating, reproducing, and doing nothing else, but are all wearing Apple Smart Watches? The Smart Watches were actually made by the symbiotes living on the cows, who have spent 30 years eating, reproducing, and doing nothing else. Oh, and did I mention this is a pre-industrialized world? Let me take that back… this is a pre-agricultural world.
That’s right. The symbiotes created those Smart Watches (using stone tools??) on a world without any industrial development at all. No factories, no refineries, nothing. I’m not the world’s smartest person. But I am aware that to build a Smart Phone/Watch takes literally centuries of industrial development, as we bootstrap up the tech ladder to produce the high-precision machinery needed to make such things. You don’t chisel one out of stone. It would take a society of hundreds of thousands of people (at least) all in extremely specialized careers to have the infrastructure needed to make this. That sort of society is impossible to hide, especially for thirty years! And it would collapse is suddenly everyone within it stopped acting like a modern society and instead hung out with cows, eating and reproducing and NOT GOING TO THEIR DAY JOBS IN THE FACTORY FOR 30 YEARS!!
I was personally insulted by this story’s lack of respect for my intelligence. It assumes I am a drooling idiot, and I’m willing to read whatever this author will shovel out on a whim without bothering for one second to think through the implications of the world he’s created. I actually hate this story. >:(
Puppy Note: Again, it seems the Puppies can’t be bothered to think through any of the implications of their world, or spend even two thoughts on world-building. Also, how did this get published in what is supposedly a Hard SF magazine? Doesn’t the “Hard” in “Hard SF/Hard Fantasy” mean “took time to think about what is being proposed so that it makes some damn sense”?? This story is not SF, because for the cow-parasites to have “made” the Smart Watches basically means they magic’ed them out of thin air. It is a fantasty story with conjuration magic, that is dressed up with techno-babble. Really? Adding techno-babble to your fantasy story is all it takes to be considered SF for Analog’s purposes? That is a low bar.
Book Club Note: As I do every year, I strongly encourage all book clubs to do something similar to this once a year. Reading shorts is a nice change of pace. Also, it provides immense reading-time-to-discussion value! Reading all the Hugo nominated Short Stories and Novelettes took half the time (or less) of reading a single novel, and with ten shorts there is SOOOO MUCH to talk about! We went significantly over time. A very favorable ratio, even compared to the best books.
Short Stories tomorrow!