July 8th, 2015

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My take on the Hugo-nominated short stories

I think there’s a point when a writer is more-or-less good but not great, which can lead to misjudgement. A writer who isn’t winning awards may conclude something must be wrong with the awards rather than suspecting he or she simply isn’t great.

While all awards are subjective, I think literary quality is a real thing: a well-structured plot, controlled prose, originality, emotional depth, vivid scenes, and effective dialogue, for example. As a Hugo voter, I believe my job is to pick the year’s best. My vote means I can recommend that work to others. In some years, in some categories, consistent high quality has made the choice difficult. Not this year in short stories.

“Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa
    Not bad but not great. The premise isn’t horribly original: an artificial intelligence decides to switch sides and become as human as possible during a post-human/machine vs. human war. An old idea can be made new by excellent execution, but in this case the storytelling lacks polish and doesn’t achieve the emotional depth it seeks. Too many numbers clutter the text and hide more important concerns than the exact count of each specific type of missile. Some references need anchoring, like “Benedict” – in such a far future, will everyone still know about a minor incident in US history? That detail needed to be set up first for it to work. And the title is a spoiler. This just isn’t one of the year’s best SF short stories, and I don’t believe it made it to the ballot on its own strength.

“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright
    Man (sic) has disappeared, and after a long discussion between the animals and then the appearance of two angels, some of the animals take his place. It’s a Christian allegory, and leaving aside the poor quality of the story-telling, is this story science fiction or fantasy? The Puppies have argued that “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky wasn’t SFF (and although I loved the story, I’ll agree on that) so her story shouldn’t even have been on last year’s ballot. The same applies here – unless you want to argue that Christianity is a fantasy, and I’m not going there. It shouldn’t be on the ballot. So it gets no vote, not even below “No Award.”

“Totalled” by Kary English
    A woman dies in an accident, and her brain is used in an experiment. Not a bad story, but weak. The plot is distracted by side issues like an arrogant research director, who is a mere stereotype and supplies false conflict, while the real conflict – life and death – receives little attention. The story fails to reach the emotional height it could for lack of focus. Not bad, but not one of the year’s best, and not worthy of a vote.

“On a Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli
    On a planet where ghosts are real, a human dies, and a human pastor must conduct that ghost to its rest in keeping with the traditions of the native sentient life form. The story idea isn’t bad, but the storytelling style tells so much rather than shows that it reads at times like a chatty outline for a story rather than a story. This is another story that fails to reach its potential. Not one of the year’s best, and not worthy of a vote.

“A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond
    The idea is awesome: a monster the size of a mountain must be stopped, and a lone samurai has to take it on. The execution, though, fails to dramatize the idea. Instead we get a lot of back story, a lot of not especially philosophical inner dialogue, and little action or gripping descriptions of this amazing monster. A promising idea goes unfulfilled: not one of the year’s top five best short stories, not by a long shot.

— Sue Burke