Blogging the Hugos: The Parliament of Beasts and Birds

“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”
John C. Wright
Category: Best Short Story

book_of_feastsJohn C. Wright returns in this, his most ponderous work yet (on the ballot at least, there’s probably worse out there). It’s intended to be something of a Christian fable, and to get that effect Wright uses a style filled with archaic language, pompous dialogue, and long, convoluted sentence structures. It works, if what he wanted was to make us feel like kids sitting in church wondering when the particularly dull Bible passage was going to be over.

We’ve discussed some of my literary pet peeves in this series already, and it’s time to introduce another one: talking animals. C.S. Lewis once wrote, regarding a proposed TV adaptation of the Narnia series, “Humanized beasts can’t be presented to the eye without at once becoming either hideous or ridiculous.” If only he’d followed this to its natural conclusion—talking animals look ridiculous in the mind’s eye as well. Unfortunately for me, this story is nothing but talking animals.

What happens here is that humans have mysteriously disappeared, and a bunch of animals (or one archetypal representative per species) get together to discuss it. Since this is a John C. Wright story, the reason all the humans are gone is that the apocalypse has happened and everyone has gone to either heaven or hell. Very late in the process the animals suddenly realize it’s unusual that they can talk. Now the story could have ended right here and it would have just been the most boring ever version of the Hobbin and Nobbin joke (look it up) but sadly there’s more. Turns out they are transforming into humans, and if they accept the change they will be saved and become the new masters of the earth; if not they’ll remain animals in the wild.

That’s right, accept Jesus humanity into your heart and you can become a real boy! Or don’t and be damned forever. But you only get one chance so choose quick and don’t ask questions! It’s a good thing John C. Wright’s sermonizing isn’t very persuasive, because if I believed in his angry, arbitrary, authoritarian god I’d join the other team.

Blogging the Hugos: On A Spiritual Plain

“On A Spiritual Plain”
Lou Antonelli
Category: Best Short Story

on-a-spiritual-plain_smallThis is a look at an alien planet where the dead of the local species leave an electromagnetic echo that has all the usual properties associated with ghosts. When the first human dies on the planet (due to poor OSHA compliance) it turns out that this happens to humans too. The narrator is the chaplain for the small human base here, and it turns out he’s who you’re gonna call in this situation. He learns that the locals go on pilgrimages to one of the planet’s magnetic poles, where the ghosts can dissipate. This he proceeds to do with no particular challenges or difficulty.

Unfortunately none of this was compelling enough to prevent me from being distracted by the blatant technical errors in this piece. I try to adjust for my own background and give writers a pass on the physics most of the time. But when you’re writing a story in which planetary magnetism has a central role, I do expect you to have a better understanding of magnets than the Insane Clown Posse. For that matter, if you’re going to base your story on a mysterious physical anomaly, you might try drawing from more current concepts. Magnetism has been well understood for over a hundred years, and unless you’re Jules Verne or H. G. Wells you shouldn’t be using it as the source of ghostly apparitions.

bats_arent_bugsAnd then there was the part where the author stated that the ratio 1:4:9 is the “Golden Mean”. If you don’t know what the golden ratio is, why would you make up a number instead of just looking it up on Wikipedia? It makes you seem like Calvin doing his report on bats with no research whatsoever.

If it seems like I’m just nitpicking rather than engaging with more significant elements of the story, it’s because I didn’t find much there. Neither the ideas nor the characters were particularly interesting, there wasn’t any discernible conflict, and the prose was fairly simplistic. There’s not much to say to this ghost story except “boo”.

Blogging the Hugos: The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale

“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”
Rajnar Vajra
Category: Best Novelette

Although it starts with a bar brawl, this is mostly a “smart people solve a scientific mystery” story. A trio of cadets in an interplanetary explorer corps get into trouble (the aforementioned fight), and are sent off to help clean up a research expedition that is being ended after failing to communicate with the local intelligent life forms. Instead of closing down the site, the team figures out what’s going on and manages to make contact themselves.

Team leader Emily Asari narrates with a natural, friendly voice that gives the reader a sense of her character. Her teammates are drawn in more broad strokes: there’s Priam the arrogant genius, and Micah the quiet guy with hidden depths. (For most of the story Emily assumes Micah is not very bright, which seems strange given that he somehow got into this elite program.) Emily has a habit of apologizing to the reader for expository digressions, but this only highlights their awkwardness, and I think many of them could have just been omitted. (The “Golden Age Tale” part of the title makes me think there’s extra worldbuilding with the intent of setting other stories here, although I couldn’t find any others.)

The central puzzle about the nature of the aliens under study is set up in a way that the reader can try to figure it out before the characters do. I usually like this kind of story, but here we are also asked to believe that a team of researchers worked for thirty years and didn’t figure it out. This is way outside the bounds of plausibility. It’s equally hard to believe that a non-specialist, even a particularly smart one, could solve a scientific problem in just a few days if the experts couldn’t solve it in decades. This is an instance of the unfortunate myth that science advances due to Men of Genius having Brilliant Insights.

This is not the only suspension-of-disbelief problem the story has. The trio is going to be kicked out of the explorer corps if they don’t solve the problem, basically just as a punishment for Priam’s cockiness. This is so extreme that it just seems like an artificial contrivance to raise the stakes. Surely these explorers are expensive to train (and their biotech enhancements are specifically mentioned as being higher quality than what the military gets); I doubt the organization can afford to expel people at a whim.

I’m focusing on what I didn’t like, but this wasn’t a bad read, and I like what it’s aiming for. I just felt like it fell a little short of the mark. With some fixes—make Emily’s team the first to visit the planet, cut some of the irrelevant technology details, improve some of the descriptive passages—I think it could be a solid entry. But as it is I don’t think it’s quite award-worthy.

Blogging the Hugos: The Zombie Nation Book #2

The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate
Carter Reid
Category: Best Graphic Story

zombie_nationI’ve long believed that the low barriers to entry in the realm of webcomics amplify Sturgeon’s Law: everything is crap to about five nines of precision. Even the good ones tend to undergo the same decay that newspaper comics do, only with a shorter half-life, peaking within a few years of inception and then sliding into creative bankruptcy or collapsing under the weight of their own lore.

The Zombie Nation is not one of the good ones. It is astonishingly bad, achieving levels of awfulness thought to be theoretically impossible. One could almost believe that it was supposed to be a parody of a bad webcomic, except that parodies are funny, and this is deeply, painfully unfunny. The weak stabs at humor are equal parts sexist stereotypes and—my favorite—pop culture references. The characterization is limited to broad archetypes like The Wacky One, The Straight Man, The Crazy Ex-Wife. Word balloons are placed confusingly, and frequent typos and homophone errors in the text lend the whole thing a half-assed quality. At least the author can draw competently; it’s too bad he uses his skills in service of such disastrous failed comedy.

The central premise here is that three barely distinguishable bros have been turned into zombies, and now run around doing bro stuff but as zombies. Hilarity does not ensue. It’s not clear what the zombie conceit even adds, since the characters talk and act like normal people—the mindlessness that actually characterizes zombies across their other incarnations is just absent. There are occasional references to the tropes of zombie movies, but references by themselves do not constitute jokes.

Some of the Hugo entries just aren’t to my taste, but I could see how others might enjoy them. The Zombie Nation is different: it’s hard to understand how anyone would think this is one of the best comics of last year. It’s especially damning that this was the only work the Puppies nominated for Best Graphic Story, a category otherwise brimming over with creative vitality. Nominating nothing would have just indicated disinterest; nominating this is a show of active contempt for the medium.

Blogging the Hugos: The Journeyman: In the Stone House

“The Journeyman: In the Stone House”
Michael F. Flynn
Category: Best Novelette

Here we have the story of a couple of tribesmen, Teodorq and Sammi (the author should probably have said that first name out loud before using it), who come from a fairly low-tech society and come across a more advanced (medieval level) people; there are hints of a far more high-tech civilization in the more distant past. This makes it sound superficially similar to “Flow”, but there are some major differences that made this one much more enjoyable.

For one thing, there’s actual characterization here: cocky Teodorq and deadpan Sammi make a great pairing, and the banter between the two made me laugh out loud more than once. They speak in an invented dialect that feels a lot more natural than the one in “Flow”, and although Sammi doesn’t have a strong command of the language (being from a different tribe) and speaks in fragments, his intelligence still comes through.

The story is also well-structured: the protagonists are captured early on, so not only is there action at the beginning to get the reader’s attention, but there’s subsequent tension through the rest of the story as our heroes try to talk their way out of their predicament. By the time they’ve managed that, there’s another tribesman with a personal vendetta against Teodorq to worry about.

This all culminates in a duel between the two, which was actually the weakest part of the novelette. The author clearly knows a thing or two about longsword fighting, and the scene turns into a bit of a lecture on the subject as a dizzying array of stances and maneuvers are named and described. I appreciated the realism but it was a little dull in comparison to the witty dialogue in the preceding sections.

But apart from the overly technical sword fight, this was the first of the short fiction entries that was actually a pleasure to read. This was a Puppy nominee, and while it’s clear at this point that actual quality was not a factor in their selections, that doesn’t mean good stories can’t get in (even if just by chance). That’s the whole reason to vote on the merits rather than automatically No-Awarding all the slate entries, so I’m glad to finally find a good story—it means all this reading hasn’t totally been in vain.

Blogging the Hugos: The Day the World Turned Upside Down

“The Day the World Turned Upside Down”
Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator
Category: Best Novelette

The premise here is that the world has literally turned upside down: the Earth’s gravity has reversed and everyone falls into the ceiling or just out into space. It’s handled in a magical-realism way where there’s no explanation or even coherent scientific story. (Definitely don’t try to think about the physics of this.) It’s a neat idea for a story that leads to some cool imagery and moments of both horror and beauty. You can see why it was nominated.

Unfortunately, the author takes this premise and wields it as an incredibly unsubtle metaphor for the protagonist’s breakup with his girlfriend. We start to get hit with this two pages in when he says, “It was the second time in two days that the world had come to an end,” and from then on we’re wallowing in his self-pity and anger.

It’s not even a bad metaphor! I’ve felt loss after a breakup that was like a yawning void that threatened to swallow me. To be out on a literal limb over the endless depths of the upside-down sky is a reasonable approximation. If the story had been more subtle about it, I think this could have worked really well. But here it’s over-the-top. Our hero describes his ex as the love of his life, but never mentions specific qualities he liked about her. His feelings are very possessive; he is consumed with jealousy even imagining other men with her. He suffers from major abandonment issues and somehow blames her for this.

To paraphrase Rupert Giles, the subtext in this story became the text. The main character is so fixated on the breakup that it takes center stage over the extinction-level catastrophe that is nominally the subject of the story. All the interesting ideas get drowned out by the guy’s moaning.

This was the one piece of short fiction not to come from one of the slates. Unfortunately, all this proves is that it’s not just the Puppies who nominate sub-par stories with misogynist overtones. I expect it from the Puppies, but I’d hoped for better from the rest of the Hugo voters.

Blogging the Hugos: Championship B’tok

“Championship B’tok”
Edward M. Lerner
Category: Best Novelette

As I read this story I began to wonder how the author was going to wrap up all the plot threads in novelette length. Sabotage, disappearances, two separate alien conspiracies—could they all connect at the end? And then, just when things were about to happen, it just stopped. Realization dawned as I looked up the author’s other work—there’s a novel out this year incorporating this material. It’s basically a Kindle sample chapter for the full-length version.

And what we get here is mostly exposition, delivered by long conversations between characters in which nothing else happens, or by fake future-Wikipedia entries. (Sourced from “Internetopedia”, which, come on.) This latter device is almost as bad as As You Know, Bob. It doesn’t have to be this way! Look at the first few chapters of Ancillary Justice for how to start a space opera without resorting to giant infodumps.

All the world-building and setup for a plot that never arrives doesn’t leave much room for characterization. When it does occur, the traits displayed by the characters sometimes directly contradict what we’re told about: one person described as a “flaming extrovert” speaks only a handful of monosyllabic words at a time; an alien spy who’s been in deep cover for centuries takes no cautionary measures once he appears in the story, and is almost immediately in danger of capture as a result.

The writing is competent, and I think I would have enjoyed the full novel better than, say, The Dark Between the Stars. But this is literally the minimum possible praise, and what we got here wasn’t even a full story, just a fragment of one. If it was really intriguing or brimming over with fresh ideas, I could see nominating it for a Hugo anyway. But it looks like a standard space opera, and since I’m not interested enough to seek out the rest of the story, it fails even as a teaser. Mainly I’m just annoyed by the cliffhanger ending. I guess I can always go read what happens on the Internetopedia.

Blogging the Hugos: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium

“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”
Gary Rinehart
Category: Best Novelette

I have just learned, from the fact that spell-check has not underlined the word in red, that alluvium is a real thing. It’s also the name of the planet where this story takes place. There is a human colony on Alluvium, which was conquered and subjugated by some lizard-like aliens. One of the humans is dying of cancer, and decides to be buried rather than cremated, going against the local human custom as well as the alien taboos. The main character is thus inspired to revive the human insurgency and try to drive the lizards off the planet by playing off their fears of being buried.

And… that’s pretty much it. After the grim march through the novellas, it was certainly nice to read a story that wasn’t misogynist or ham-handed Christian allegory. But I found this one unremarkable. It was competently written, but not particularly mind-expanding or emotionally affecting. There was nothing I hated about it, but I doubt I’ll remember it by the time I get to Worldcon, and I can’t imagine that it was the best novelette of 2014.

Blogging the Hugos: The Plural of Helen of Troy

“The Plural of Helen of Troy”
John C. Wright
Category: Best Novella

city_beyond_timeTime travel stories are a minefield of paradoxes and plot holes, and there are a couple of approaches successful ones use to keep the reader’s disbelief suspended. There’s the Primer style where some rules are established and strictly followed, and then there’s the Back to the Future style where there aren’t really any rules, but the artist, like a skilled magician hiding slights of hand, uses effective storytelling to keep the audience from looking too closely at the logical flaws. And if Robert Zemeckis is the flashy, crowd-pleasing Vegas stage magician, John C. Wright is the guy playing three-card monte on an overturned cardboard box while keeping one eye out for the police. The plot of this story is presented so confusingly that you get the feeling he’s trying to pull a fast one on you.

The story comes from a collection called City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, which sounds more like a parody of a fantasy novel title than something written with a straight face. (But John C. Wright is nothing if not serious.) In the titular city, Time Lords Wardens collect historical figures apparently for their own amusement, and seem especially fascinated by white American men. (Also, Queequeg from Moby Dick is here for some reason, despite being entirely fictional.) Stories where a bunch of historical figures hang out together is another for the list of Tropes that Annoy Me. As my girlfriend said when I described the story, “come up with your own characters!” And in this case, it doesn’t even add much: John F. Kennedy is a major player, but there’s nothing particularly Kennedyesque about him apart from his name and his accent.

The story itself is this deeply silly and convoluted scheme in which JFK is attempting to kill his future self. Marilyn Monroe is involved, mostly so that the main character can ogle her in a vulnerable state. (She’s also one of the Helens of Troy of the title, and not just in a metaphorical sense, for reasons that are too stupid to go into.) There’s a third act twist, but since it’s known to the narrator from the start the story is told in reverse for maximum reader confusion (while protesting all along that it makes more sense this way).

And yet, this was my favorite of the three John C. Wright novellas. Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome setting in, but this one didn’t sermonize, and had a fun action scene as the centerpiece. (Wright is, however, in the habit of derailing his momentum by stopping in the middle of the action for some exposition.) One could read this as Christian allegory (and given the author, probably should) but that doesn’t seem to be the point of the story. Granted, the point of the story seems to be to drool over Marilyn Monroe instead, which isn’t actually an improvement.

Winning “Best John C. Wright Novella,” however, doesn’t quite get you into Hugo territory. It’s just that one of them had to be best, and it was this one. It was still a relief to be done, and not to have to spend any more time with this guy until I get to the Short Stories category. His entry there has a huge advantage for best Wright work on the ballot: there’s less of it to read.

Blogging the Hugos: Pale Realms of Shade

“Pale Realms of Shade”
John C. Wright
Category: Best Novella

book_of_feastsIn addition to the Puppies commitment to diversity, which is why they nominated John C. Wright five times, they are definitely opposed to “message fic.” That’s why it’s strange that they’ve backed “Pale Realms of Shade”, which is pretty much a novella-length Chick Tract.

The story follows the afterlife of a Harry Dresden-esque psychic private detective, who was shot dead and is now a ghost haunting his widow and his partner. Eventually he is confronted by the devil, who offers him revenge in exchange for his soul, but he turns to Jesus instead and is saved. (There are also some potshots at Muslims along the way.)

Before he can be saved our hero must confess (unlike Jack Chick, Wright is Catholic) and his big sin turns out to be… “stealing” his partner’s girlfriend when he was believed to have died in World War II. The idea that the woman in question might have had some agency of her own here is not considered; she is treated like property throughout.

Other fun tidbits from this one: the narrator figures out that his partner has found Jesus and become a better person because: he now tips his hat to elderly women (“ugly old broads”) as well as young, attractive ones! I can’t remember if “Blessed are those who tip their hats to ugly old broads” was the first or the second item in the Beatitudes. In another passage, our poltergeist feels an otherworldly heat (spoiler alert: it’s the power of God) and comments, “It felt like male rather than female heat.” What is it with these Puppy writers and their need to assign gender to everything from military vehicles to thermodynamic concepts? It must get exhausting imagining genitalia on all this stuff.

Like One Bright Star to Guide Them, this was a tedious, humorless parable. I said some unkind things about Skin Game, but reading this I missed the real Harry Dresden, pop culture references and all, who at least knew how to have fun. “Pale Realms of Shade” on the other hand is exactly as grim and colorless as its title suggests.