2016 Hugo Reviews: Short Stories

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Having looked back on the works that contended in 2014 and 2015, I will now be casting an eye over the 2016 finalists in the four prose fiction categories. First up, we have the nominees for Best Short Story, four out of five of which arrived via Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies campaign.

Illustration by JaceyAsymmetrical Warfare by S. R. Algernon

“Asymmetrical Warfare” is written from the point of view of an alien invading Earth. The aliens are implied to be a race of sapient starfish-like creatures, and believe that Earth is dominated by a similar life form—after all, Earthling spacecraft bear star-shaped insignia.

The aliens come to the surprising conclusion that the bipeds they have been fighting are not a slave-race, but rather the primary species of Earth (“I hold out hope that the people of Earth are somehow a degenerate stellate race, and that living on dry land has led their appendages to droop downward.”) An even bigger shock is in store when the invaders realise that, unlike themselves, humans do not regenerate after death…

S. R. Algernon states that he wrote the story as a commentary on how war films and army propaganda depict death in conflict: as a sacrifice that will ensure the well-being of subsequent generations, which Algernon compares to the way in which certain species of starfish can reproduce through dismemberment. What if an alien were to see this aspect of Earthling culture and completely misinterpret the purpose of human warfare?

“Asymmetrical Warfare” is very brief, stripping away all emotion and characterisation, but retaining a hard conceptual core. Algernon’s detached approach to his subject matter is reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon, who indeed wrote of a similar misunderstanding in his 1930 novel Last and First Men. In Stapledon’s story, a race of aliens who communicate through radio waves arrive on Earth and assume broadcast stations to be the dominant species.

Interestingly, just as “Asymmetrical Warfare” was written for Nature—a journal geared primarily towards non-fiction—Last and First Men was published by Penguin Books under the non-fiction Pelican imprint.

Olaf Stapledon is not a particularly influential author these days, but intentionally or not, S. R. Algernon has placed his satirical narrative partly within the Stapledon mode. “Asymmetrical Warfare” is one of those unexpected throwbacks that comes as a pleasant surprise.

Clarkesworld issue 100Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

One of the works included on the Rabid Puppies slate was Thomas Mays’ “The Commuter.” Although this story made the initial ballot, Mays later opted to decline his nomination. This left space for the only non-Rabid finalist for the Best Short Story: “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer.

Kritzer’s story is told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence. After reading Bruce Sterling’s 2011 story “Manaki Neko” in which an AI finds a way to encourage people to help one another, the digital narrator decides to aid the people around it in their daily lives. As it has access to vast amounts of personal information from across the internet, it is in in ideal position to do so. All it asks for in return is a constant stream of cat photographs.

“Cat Pictures Please” is an entertaining and sweet story, but it has its weaknesses; most obvious is the unconvincing realisation of the AI. The sapient program was apparently created by accident (“When I first woke up … I also knew that no one knew that I was conscious”), so it is unclear as to how it ended up with the personality of a cat-loving human.

The story makes a few token efforts to give the narrator an authentically computerised voice—such as when it refers to moral codes as “ethical flow charts”—but beyond this, the AI seems like nothing so much as a slightly befuddled blogger.

Kritzer appears to have set out with the intention of personifying the mores of the internet, depicting an intelligence born from a swirling mass of kitty photos and dirty manga, but the execution of her story does not live up to the potential of this concept.

If nothing else, “Cat Pictures Please” is a resolutely benign piece of fiction, one that portrays a world in which we can solve life’s problems by posting cat photographs online. Perhaps with all the negativity surrounding the Hugos over the last couple of years, the time was ripe for a story that was uncompromisingly nice.

Photograph by Jon Shapley/Demotix/Corbism, taken from The Guardian.If You Were an Award, My Love by Juan Tabo and S. Harris

Rachel Swirsky’s 2014 Hugo nominee “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” is, amongst other things, very easy to parody. A number of authors have tried their hand at spoofing it, including Swirsky herself. “If You Were an Award, My Love” is just one more example of a small subgenre.

The story’s narrator is a fictionalised version of John Scalzi, expressing his love for a Hugo trophy and, by extension, all that the Hugos represent:

If you were a Hugo®, then I would become Taller, Stronger John Scalzi so that I could spend all my time with you. I’d bring you raw chickens and live goats, if you were into that kind of thing.  I’d make my bed right under the trophy case, in the basement where my wife lets me sleep. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d sing you lullabies.

Although its send-up of Swirsky’s writing is mildly amusing in places, “If You Were an Award” ultimately fails due to its lazy parody of John Scalzi: Tabo and Harris have made a straw man, not a caricature. Take this passage, for example:

If we lived in a world of magic where anything was possible and a story with no fantasy and no science and very little fiction could be nominated for a Hugo™ then you would be an award, my love. You’d stand for everything progressive and PETA© and transgender and carbon-neutral and GMO/peanut free and latina and pro-Palestine and LGBT friendly and you’d miss the Soviet Union in a melancholy kind of way.

Why, exactly, is the fictional John Scalzi lionising pro-Palestinian fiction when the real Scalzi supports Israel? Why would the fictional John Scalzi feel nostalgic about the Soviet Union when the real Scalzi considers socialism a “lovely fiction?”

By way of comparison, here is what Scalzi’s political commentary actually looks like:

Liberals champion the poor and the weak but do it in such condescendingly bureaucratic ways that the po’ illedumacated Cleti would rather eat their own shotguns than associate with the likes of them. Famously humorless and dour, probably because for a really good liberal, everything is political, and you just can’t joke about things like that.

If the science fiction establishment is as solidly SJW as we are led to believe, then it should have been easy enough for Tabo and Harris to find a writer who does hold the views expressed by the story’s narrator. Instead, “If You Were an Award” uses John Scalzi—apparently for the sole reason that he is Vox Day’s bête noire. It is not a good satire, let alone an award-worthy one.

As an aside, the authorship of “If You Were an Award” is a matter of debate. There appears to be no online mention of either Juan Tabo or S. Harris outside the context of this story, and it seems curious that such a simple piece of writing would require two authors. Given that the story was published on Vox Day’s blog, it is quite possible that Day wrote it himself, using a double-pseudonym as a prank.

There Will Be War Volume XSeven Kill Tiger by Charles W. Shao

East Africa is being colonised by the expanding industry of China, with significant Chinese populations moving into the region. Inevitably, this results in cultural strife between Africans and Chinese:

In Zambia alone, there were now 750,000 Chinese living in what amounted to a small colonial city, but they lived in walled enclaves almost under siege from the thieves, robbers and rapists who preyed upon them daily…

The story’s central character is Zhang Zedong, an executive of the China African Industries Group. Zhang’s philosophy is that “Africa would be a glorious place were it not for the Africans,” and he resents being forced to hire the locals: “African men thought of themselves as lions, and they lived like kings of beasts, entirely content to lounge about living off the labour of one or more of his lionesses.”

His ideal solution is for more Chinese people to be sent to Africa so that he can hire them instead, but international criticism renders such an occurrence impossible. And so, Zhang resorts to even more drastic measures.

He teams up with a scientist to create a disease designed to affect only people of sub-Saharan haplogroups, ready to be hidden within an innocuous-seeming vaccine and let loose upon the continent. In doing so, the two men produce a genetic weapon that will wipe out the indigenous population of sub-Saharan Africa, but leave the Chinese colonists unharmed.

“Zero Kill Tiger” is a profoundly bleak story. It portrays a future in which progress is driven by a mixture of commercial interests and fanaticism, leading ultimately to the deaths of billions.

It is a future that seems poisoned by the past. In one scene, the scientist identifies his genocidal scheme as the next step in a process begun by the Cultural Revolution, one that will leave China as a global hyper-power that rules two continents (“Zhang found himself mildly appalled … Did Mao ever feel similarly alarmed by the enthusiasm of his own Red Guards?”) Indeed, Zhang uses the fact that fifty million Chinese people died in the Revolution as justification for killing ten times as many Africans—all for the greater good, in his mind.

While the Chinese characters’ genocidal intentions draw upon the Cultural Revolution, the story’s Africans commit atrocities inspired by age-old superstitions:

After a Chinese entrepreneur’s young daughter in Kapiri Mposhi was raped and killed by a pair of copper miners, the man took his vengeance by tracking the perpetrators down and shooting them dead […] The shootings were caught on closed-circuit television, and before Zhang or anyone in Lusaka even knew about the incident, the images had spread all over Zambia and Tanzania, inflaming the African communities […] Within a week, all 87 Chinese residents of Kapiri Mposhi were dead. Some had been shot, some had been necklaced, but most had fallen to the knives of the Nyau, a masked secret society known for black magic and channeling the spirits of the dead. The pictures had been horrific. Zhang stared at them for a long time.

Black magic. I will show them black magic. I will show them their worst nightmares!

In Shao’s story, China is represented by a toxic combination of destructive capitalism and Mao-era zealotry. Africa, meanwhile, is allowed only two option: chaos or destruction. The third player, America, is left as a terrified bystander, unable to interfere in China’s genocidal ambitions.

Out of the three geographic regions, it is clearly Africa that receives the bleakest portrayal. The story includes Chinese and American characters, but not a single African is given a speaking role; the continent is instead depicted entirely through the eyes of the bigoted Zhang.

As a result, “Seven Kill Tiger” depicts the Africa of the Rwandan genocide and the Congo wars, of Boko Haram and South African farm murders. It does not show us the Africa that built the Entoto Observatory, established South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and sent NigeriaSat-X into orbit.

To show a developing world that is actually developing would be to undermine the calculated bleakness of the narrative. “Seven Kill Tiger” offers a dire warning about the future of warfare, one that requires a worst-case scenario for full impact.

Space Raptor Butt InvasionSpace Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle

To fully appreciate the phenomenon that is Space Raptor Butt Invasion, one must understand the subgenre of dinosaur erotica.

The world of digital self-publishing opened the door for a spectrum of obscure paraphilic fantasies, the beauty-and-the-beast motif being a particular favourite. Amazon’s erotica section is bustling with swooning heroines prone to being swept away by centaurs, bigfoot, and even Slenderman. Dinosaur porn was perhaps an inevitable variation, and this gap in the market was exploited by Christie Sims and Alara Branwen’s 2013 story Taken by the T-Rex.

Chuck Tingle arrived on the scene in 2014. He combined dinosaur erotica with a rather more mainstream fantasy—that of the fabulously wealthy romantic partner—and added a homoerotic veneer to create My Billionaire Triceratops Craves Gay Ass. He was not the first to do so: Hunter Fox had beaten him to the punch a few months earlier with A Billionaire Dinosaur Forced Me Gay. Nonetheless, Tingle went on to build a cottage industry that produced the likes of Slammed In The Butthole By My Concept Of Linear Time and Buttception: A Butt Within A Butt Within A Butt.

As these titles suggest, Tingle’s stories are parodies. He has used his gay dinosaur heartthrobs to spoof a range of subjects, including teacher-student erotica (Professor T-Rex Teaches Me Gayness), spy fiction (Gaygent Brontosaurus: The Butt Is Not Enough), and the 2016 Republican presidential candidacy (President Domald Loch Ness Tromp Pounds America’s Butt). Space Raptor Butt Invasion is, of course, Tingle’s treatment of science fiction; Vox Day clearly included the story on his slate as another dig at “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.”

When commenting on the Rabid Puppies’ role in his nomination, Tingle remained firmly within his parody persona:

Don’t know about any puppies but it’s BAD NEWS BEARS if you want to disrupt awards. That is a scoundrel tactic and probably part of Ted Cobbler’s devilman plan. Ted Cobbler is notorious devil and has been seen using dark magic to control puppies around the neighborhood. I do not support the devilman agenda but i think that Space Raptor Butt Invasion proves that LOVE IS REAL and no scoundrels can stop that. Especially not some dumb dogs.

The nonsense-speak of Tingle’s interviews contrasts with his fiction, where absurd events are described in a totally matter-of-fact manner.

Space Raptor Butt Invasion starts out looking like a straightforward (if rather flat) SF story, in which Earth is doomed and humanity is terraforming another planet. While helping to carry out this task, an astronaut by the name of Lance catches sight of another spacesuit-clad figure even though the planet was thought uninhabited. Who could this visitor be?

The mysterious astronaut then introduces himself as a velociraptor named Orion. He briefly handwaves his unlikely existence by explaining that the dinosaurs never went extinct; they simply invented space travel and fled Earth.

Lance and Orion immediately develop a sexual attraction. Lance is initially uncertain, as he is reluctant to take part in gay sex, but convinces himself that same-sex relations are not really gay if one party is a dinosaur. The climax of the story is a hardcore description of Lance and Orion engaging in anal and oral sex.

Any further analysis of the story seems redundant. Space Raptor Butt Invasion is what it is.

The nomination of Tingle’s story sparked a kind of microcosmic culture war, with people on both sides laying claim to the author. Some took Tingle’s rants about “Ted Cobbler’s devilman plan” as a sincere denunciation of Vox Day, while others read it as a parody of Day’s opponents. When Tingle invited Zoe Quinn—the initial target of Gamergate—to represent him at Worldcon, certain onlookers interpreted this as a blow against everything that the Rabid Puppies stand for, while still others regarded it as a prank at Quinn’s expense. The rabbit hole got even deeper when Tingle himself registered the previously-unused domain TheRabidPuppies.com, which he used to promote the likes of N. K. Jemisin and Rachel Swirsky.

For my part, I suspect that reading any kind of distinct ideology or agenda into Tingle’s antics is missing the point. This is, after all, a man who celebrated becoming a Hugo finalist by writing Slammed In The Butt By My Hugo Award Nomination.

My Thoughts

Best Short Story 2016 is a curious collection and no mistake. Between “Cat Pictures Please,” “If You Were an Award, My Love,” and Space Raptor Butt Invasion, the category is dominated by frivolous entries—two from a trolling campaign and one from the regular voting base.

Given last year’s results, I suspect that the award will go to the only non-Puppy finalist: “Cat Pictures Please.” Speaking personally, I would choose S. R. Algernon’s “Asymmetrical Warfare” as the strongest story in the set.

In the next post in this series, I will be seeing what the Best Novelette category has to offer.

Series Navigation2016 Hugo Reviews: Novelettes >>
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Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my blog at dorisvsutherland.wordpress.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland.

1 Comment

  1. I thought Asymmetrical Warfare was a dumbed-down, badly-executed rip-off of a plot point from Speaker for the Dead. I’m not surprised that it was published by a magazine that doesn’t ordinarily publish fiction stories. As for Space Raptor Butt Invasion, it was the second-best gay-porn SF story I’ve ever read. (I’ve read two.)
    (Okay, the best G-P SF I’ve ever read was a piece of Vorkosigan-universe slash fic starring Emperor Ezar and a young Simon Illyan where Illyan spends most of the time scared stiff, if you’ll pardon the expression.)
    This was not a strong field. The Commuter was my favorite and I think would have won if Tom May hadn’t withdrawn it.
    My ratings, top to bottom:
    Cat Pictures Please
    Space Raptor Butt Invasion
    No Award
    Asymmetrical Warfare
    Seven Kill Tiger
    If You Were an Award (which wasn’t in the packet and I didn’t read, because, face it, life’s too short.)

    Thanks for posting these reviews. I’m looking forward to seeing others from you.