- "The Chaplain's Legacy" by Brad Torgerson (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013) - I did not realize when I started this that there was a previous story in this series ("The Chaplain's Assistent"), but fortunately, it does not seem necessary to have read the preceding work. The backstory here is that humanity was attacked by a technologically superior insectoid race of aliens called Mantes. Complete annihilation at the hands of the Mantes was forstalled almost by accident, as the Chaplain's Assistent befriended a mantis scholar who subsequently became intrigued with the human practice of religion and convinced his superiors that humanity should be spared so that they could study this curiosity (there is some hinting that the Mantes' biology is not very conducive to religion). As this story opens, a few years have passed and the Mantes are starting to get antsy again. It seems like the peace is about to collapse, so the Chaplain's Assistant is called on again to help preserve the peace. Hijinks ensue. Ranking this at #1 might be a bit on the controversial side, and I can pretty much guarantee that it won't win, but it is the story that I connected with the most. This is one of the works nominated via Larry Correia's "Sad Puppy" slate, which is apparently strike 1 for a large portion of readers. It's military SF (strike 2) and Torgerson's style tends to lean towards the functional, prosaic prose of yore (strike 3). Of course, given where I'm ranking this, you will realize that these issues either don't matter too much to me. Of Torgerson's two nominated stories (the other being "The Exchange Officers" on the Novelette ballot), this is clearly superior, both in terms of basic prose style and in terms of SFnal ideas. That being said, the story is a bit on the talky side (at least, in the middle, when things aren't explodey) and I can see why some would chafe at the way some of these ideas are presented. That being said, it has some interesting things to say about faith, about disbelievers, and about over-reliance on technology. Ironically, many of the core themes (which are admittedly stated a little too baldly in the text) are about tolerance or openness, such as:
Just because I don't necessarily believe in any of it doesn't mean I have to doubt or deride its value for other people.Or:
Disbelieving and being openly scornful of belief are not the same thing.Now, there are many who will read that, and jump down Torgerson's throat because he's on the Sad Puppy slate and that somehow means he's a privileged, bigoted maniac, but as a general idea, it's something worth taking to heart. I get that there are many who have suffered at the hands of religion and I might not portray this type of story exactly the way he did, but then, why would I? He made me think about those ideas, whether I agree with him on some of the specifics or not. I enjoyed this story and found it more thought provoking than the others. However, I can see why other stories would hold more value to the portion of fandom that got these other stories nominated. But then, I would say that, given the above!
- "Equoid" by Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013) - This is part of Stross' Laundry series of stories, though again, it appears to be mostly stand-alone. The series seems to be a humorous, bureaucratic take on the Lovecraft mythos. The "Laundry" is the codename(?) of a governmental secret agency that deals with Lovcraftean horrors, and in this case, our hapless paperwork jockey hero Bob Howard is tasked with investigating a potential Unicorn outbreak. Oh, and unicorns are not the fluffy, majestic beings you might be thinking of, but rather disgusting and gross and potentially cataclysmic. I have been aware of this series for a while and always wanted to check them out, but Stross has always been hit or miss for me, so I'm glad I started with a shorter tale before going all-in on the novels. For the most part, I enjoyed this story, even if Stross' dark humor doesn't quite jive with me all the time. He does a nice Lovecraft impression when needed (portions of this novella consist of a letter supposedly penned by Lovecraft himself, which gives Stross the task of aping Lovecraft), and the goofy bureaucracy that combats all this stuff is well realized. The reversal of expectations surrounding unicorns is a lot of fun, and while I'm sure Stross veers a bit too far into gross-out territory for some, horror dorks like myself are desensitized to such shenanigans (though the comic tone helps). I can't say as though I'm inspired to seek out the rest of the stories, which I guess says something, but I'm glad I did manage to dip my toes into this universe.
- Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press) - Here we have a retelling of the Snow White story, this time set (as the title suggests) in the old American West. Valente apparently looked at the original Grimm tale and decided that it was not nearly dark enough. Considering that the original story ends with the wicked stepmother being forced to dance herself to death while wearing glowing-hot iron shoes, that's saying something. Snow White is abused rather heavily throughout the story, first through a neglectful father, then through the wicked stepmother. She eventually runs away (a key difference from the original story), and seeks some semblance of peace with Valente's version of the 7 dwarfs (which are really just 7 other spurned and abused women who had banded together in the woods...) Some of these updates work well: Making Snow White a badass gunfighter is fantastic, and I like the take on the huntsman (their encounter is very different from the original story, and the highlight of this novella for me, as after this encounter, I feel like the story sorta falls apart). Other changes are perhaps less successful, and the pacing, especially in the middle of the novella, can be challenging. The ending does manage to go to an unexpected place, but I found that the story had basically lost me by that point. It is perhaps unfair to judge this based on the original work, but like all remakes, it begs that question. It also made me want to go back and read Neil Gaiman's short story Snow, Glass, Apples, which I found to be a much more interesting and successful subversion of the original tale. That being said, I fully expect this to win the award.
- The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (Privateer Press) - Media tie-in fiction holds a weird place in fandom. On the one hand, I feel like most readers cut their teeth on stuff like this (for me, it was Zahn's Thrawn trilogy), and they seem to sell like hotcakes, but they never seem to garner any real respect. This is another "Sad Puppy" nomination, so I'm afraid it won't change that trend. Also, it's not that great. Wells does his best, and I can see talent here, but some of the basics just don't work for me here. The quasi-steampunk setting is one that holds little interest to me, and this is clearly aimed at folks who are fans of Warhammer. I wasn't super confused or anything, so it kinda worked as a stand-alone, but it really felt like it was providing a backstory to an existing character. That might be fine, but this character seemed like a villain, and his motivation (quasi-avenging his murdered love) is a pretty overplayed trope. I don't know if Wells was handcuffed by that or if he had the freedom to come up with what he wanted and chose this anyway, but in either case, it wasn't something that worked that well for me. Wells tried his best to make it interesting, with a complicated non-linear narrative and plenty of action, but it all fell rather flat for me. I would be very curious to see if a media tie-in work could ever be nominated and win, but this is clearly not the story to break that ground.
- "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013) - Here's the thing: this isn't science fiction. It's not even fantasy (except insofar as all fiction is fantasy). We could quibble about a few things. It has references to Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but those are barely even window-dressing. There are two sentences close to the end of the story, but neither are very important. What we really have here is a series of slice-of-life vignettes told in a literary historical fiction style. As those things go, it's good, maybe even fantastic, but it's baffling to me that this has been nominated for a Hugo. I read the whole thing, but it's pretty emphatically not what I'm looking for out of SF/F. I get that there are some folks who think this is pushing boundaries and growing the genre or something, but I don't see it at all. I don't mind reading outside my comfort zone, and I'm glad I read this, but I have a really hard time trying to consider this a genre story. I've always said that genres are blurry around the edges, but there needs to be some semblance of the core of a genre, and this one is so far from the outskirts that calling it SF/F would be to call most any story SF/F.
Hugo Awards: Novellas
Another category that is dedicated to stories that are not long enough to be considered a "Novel", nor short enough to be a "Short Story" (or, as we must apparently consider in SF, a "Novelette"). As such, these tend to be quick reads, somewhere on the order of 2 hours each (give or take). This year's slate is an odd one. I find myself waffling on how I should rank my votes. This is also a category that makes me wish I submitted a nomination ballot, as I'd really love to be voting for Ian Sales' excellent novella The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, which would be near the top (if not the top) of my ballot. Alas, it was not to be. Here's where I'm at right now, though some of the middle votes may swap around a bit.