This is the second post in my series on the Sad Puppies controversy that rocked the Hugo awards in 2015. In the first, I took a look at the short stories on the campaign slate and compared them with the 2014 Hugo nominations in the same category. Now it is time to step up to the next bracket and look Best Novelette, the category for short fiction of between 7,500 and 15,500 words in length…
Best Novelette: 2014 Hugo Nominees
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” by Mary Robinette Kowal (winner)
Elma, a 63-year-old woman living in a Martian colony, looks back with fondness on her past as an astronaut. She even makes sure that her name remains in the NASA database, on the slim chance that she is someday called back into action.
That day finally comes, and Elma is offered a mission to an extrasolar planet. There is a severe catch, however: any astronaut taking the journey would run a significant risk of developing cancer from space radiation—hence why NASA picked an ageing subject for the mission. Furthermore, taking the assignment would mean that Elma could no longer look after her terminally ill husband.
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” has a retro-futuristic setting. Although humanity has colonised both Mars and Venus and is preparing to head outside the solar system, the 1950s are still in living memory and computers still run on punchcards. The story establishes a rough-and-ready explanation for its altered timeline: Washington, D.C. was destroyed by an asteroid at some point in the twentieth century, shocking the world’s governments into backing space travel.
However, Kowal is interested less in exploring an alternate history and more in creating a general air of old-timey Americana. This is clear from the very first paragraph, which introduces us to a Kansas girl named Dorothy—the niece of a farm-owning couple called Henry and Em…
Looking beyond the sentimentality and occasional whimsy, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” touches on some age-old themes. It is a story about duty and self-sacrifice, with Elma putting her emotional needs aside in the name of scientific progress—a mindset beloved of golden age American SF. But while Kowal keeps this general outlook, she opts to amplify the emotional side of the story. The result is a touching paean to a space age that should have been.
“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” by Ted Chiang
A new type of retinal implant allows the user to recall memories with literally photographic perfection. The story’s narrator, a man who has a strained relationship with his daughter, mulls over the implications of this technology.
Ted Chiang uses his premise to raise a number of thought-provoking questions: would we still be able to forgive, if we could no longer forget? Would we be poorer without the freedom to build up nostalgic memories over time, as opposed to seeing everything as it happened in the cold light of day? Or would the benefits of this new development outweigh the losses?
The narrator is a journalist, and Chiang succeeds in lending his story the flavour of a human interest opinion piece; the matter-of-fact tone makes the concept that much more believable. As opinion pieces often do, the story begins with a personal anecdote: the narrator describes how his daughter uses a different retinal implant that shows her the correct spellings of words. The downside of this is that she has lost the ability to spell without using this gadget—a neat way to introduce the themes of progress and loss that are the main concern of the story.
The primary narrative is intercut with a story set in colonial Cameroon. Here, a missionary introduces writing to a Tiv village; the locals debate the merits of this new concept, wondering if they are better off sticking to an entirely oral language. The parallels between the two threads are clear, and may at first seem too obvious, but Chiang weaves the narratives together with skill. By the end, the protagonist of each story has reached a different conclusion about technological progress.
Alongside all of this is the emotionally convincing story of a father patching things up with his grown-up daughter. SF stories sometimes struggle to balance inquiries into science and technology with the human sides of their narratives, generally emphasising one aspect over the other, but Chiang manages to explore both topics in equal measure.
“The Waiting Stars,” by Aliette de Bodard
A group of Dai Viet girls are being raised in an institution run by the Galactic Federation of United Planets, a body that took them from their own people—purportedly so that they could be raised in a superior civilisation. Catherine, one of the children, is dissatisfied with her situation and decides to go looking for answers. Elsewhere, Dai Viet cousins Lan Nhen and Cuc go looking for the psychic remnants of their great-aunt in the wreckage of a spacecraft; the conclusion to the story reveals the connection between the two plot threads.
Colonialism is a significant theme in “The Waiting Stars,” and the story’s premise has real-world parallels: consider the Stolen Generations of Australian Aboriginal children, or the World War One-era attempts to make Franco-Cambodian children “lose all their memories of Indochina.” The Galactic Federation is clearly coded as Western, giving its subjects names such as Catherine and Johanna, while the protagonists are of Vietnamese heritage—“Dai Viet” being a historical name for that country. The girls are portrayed as square pegs rammed forcefully into the proverbial round hole: even when they are free of the institution that looks over them, they will still face racism.
“The Waiting Stars” is also a coming of age story, one that touches upon a number of universal themes related to adolescence: disillusionment with authority, the search for identity, sexual awakening, prejudice, thoughts of suicide, and an overwhelming desire to escape from it all. The combination of straightforward narrative, accessible writing style and worthy subtext places the story within the conventions of contemporary young adult fiction.
Viewed as a story about colonialism, “The Waiting Stars” seems like an introduction to the subject rather than a full exploration. Still, de Bodard offers a well-constructed narrative that balances rousing space adventure with a humane element; that is an entirely commendable achievement.
“Opera Vita Aeterna,” by Vox Day
At this point it bears remembering that the Sad Puppies campaign was active in 2014, with Larry Correia successfully pushing for two nominees in the Best Novelette category; “Opera Vita Aeterna” was one of them.
I should also restate that my articles are concentrating on fiction, rather than surrounding ideological debates. I will be ignoring anything said by Vox Day outside of his stories; anybody expecting a discussion of his political views will have to look elsewhere.
“Opera Vita Aeterna” begins with a travelling elf arriving at an abbey, seeking to transcribe and illuminate Holy Scripture. The local abbot is surprised: elves are said to be without souls, and this one has a hardly spotless past. Still, the monks welcome the strange wayfarer into their number. The elf proceeds to set about his work, even as his former familiar spirit comes calling for him to return to his old ways.
The story is set in the same world as Vox Day’s novels Summa Elvetica and A Throne of Bones. While I have not read either of these, I read the two stories included alongside “Opera Vita Aeterna” in the anthology The Last Witchking. I was not impressed by either of them; their secondary world is yet another photocopy of Tolkien’s (complete with elves, dwarfs, orcs, and “hoblets”) while their narratives are trite. “Opera Vita Aeterna,” if nothing else, is the strongest of the three.
This time around Day’s usage of fantasy races is not simply an exercise in following post-Lord of the Rings genre conventions. The soulless but religiously-inclined elf is a symbolic figure: the story is ultimately about a man from an atheistic background discovering religion, with all the crises of faith that this conversion implies. The demon, meanwhile, represents the temptation to abandon religious duties. An obvious parable, certainly, but a workable one. Whatever criticisms can be directed at Vox Day, the premise of “Opera Vita Aeterna” is a reasonably competent example of Christian fantasy.
I am damning with faint praise, however. I would struggle to call “Opera Vita Aeterna” a particularly good story, and certainly not a deserving Hugo nominee. Thanks in part to his reams of purple prose (“The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark”), Day takes a considerable amount of time to convey a very simple message.
The story just does not use the fantasy toolbox to anywhere near its full potential, and the overall dryness of the narrative means that “Opera Vita Aeterna” lacks even the most basic of traits demanded by the Sad Puppies: entertainment value.
“The Exchange Officers,” by Brad R. Torgersen
China’s lunar programme has kick-started a new space race, which has since bled into armed conflict between China and the United States. The story follows an American exchange officer as he is sent on a space mission that provokes the ire of Chinese forces.
Another one of 2014’s Sad Puppy picks, this time written by the man who would take over the campaign in 2015: Brad R. Torgersen. I will have to admit that I was unable to get my hands on a text copy and had to make do with this not-particularly-good audio reading, which may have skewed my impression of the story.
“The Exchange Officers” is the kind of straight-ahead adventures-in-space yarn that the Sad Puppies have made a cause célèbre. Torgersen does not delve into the details of his militaristic space race, instead sketching it in as a token backstory. His characters, who are not exactly three-dimensional, only briefly touch upon the philosophy of warfare.
Towards the end the protagonist muses about how warfare now has a much smaller human cost, with remote-controlled robots doing most of the fighting: “I wondered what someone like Kipling might have thought of that, and decided that I wasn’t entirely sure.” This line neatly encapsulates how “The Exchange Officers” was never meant as an analytical story.
What interests Torgersen is the hardware used by his characters—and even then, primarily as a way of progressing his adventure story. With that in mind, “The Exchange Officers” strikes me as a perfectly serviceable slice of space action; but I have to say, it looks a little pale when shelved alongside the superior novelettes by Kowal, Chiang and de Bodard.
Best Novelette: 2015 Sad and Rabid Puppies
“Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale,” by Rajnar Vajra (Sad and Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
After being reprimanded for some low-gravity horseplay, a group of three space cadets are sent on an unpromising mission. They must investigate a race of seemingly intelligent cow-like creatures on an alien planet—even though this race has, for thirty years, ignored all attempts at human communication.
“Triple Sun” starts out looking like a typical schoolchild fantasy, with a pupil making an incredible discovery and getting one over on a stern and unsympathetic teacher. It then abruptly sobers up for a tense climax. But the plot, while satisfying, is not the point of Rajnar Vajra’s story.
Vajra’s eye is firmly upon two main settings of his story: a futuristic workplace and an alien world. The beginning has narrator Emily Asari explaining the nuts-and-bolts processes of living in a low-gravity environment; this attention to detail continues once she reaches the planet. “Some were dichroic or contained mineral-like inclusions,” she says while describing the local plant life.
Once scene involves Emily watching a documentary about the aliens; this is fitting, as “Triple Sun” itself has a documentary feeling about it. This explanatory approach to science fiction has strong pedigree, being utilised by Jules Verne in some of his novels, but has fallen out of favour in more recent years. As its subtitle suggests, “Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” makes a conscious effort to emulate a bygone age of SF writing, and does a convincing job of it. It is the only Sad Puppy novelette that I can endorse as a deserving Hugo nominee.
“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium,” by Gray Rinehart (Sad and Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
A human colony on the planet Alluvium is invaded and occupied by a race of aliens called Pershari. Phil Keller, one of the human subjects living under Peshari domination, is dying from cancer and goes about setting his affairs in order. His primary wish is to be buried, with a gravestone—but the Peshari rulers view burying the dead as a barbaric and sacrilegious practice. So deep-seated is this taboo amongst the Peshari that the species used Earthling burials to justify their conquest of supposedly inferior humans.
I found this to be a flat piece of writing. Strangely so, in fact; I am genuinely baffled by its overall slimness. The entire story appears to be assuming that the central dispute over funerary practices is more surprising and intriguing than it actually is, judging by the heavy emphasis that Gray Rinehart places upon the concept.
The looming demise of the rather underdeveloped protagonist Keller is not the main thrust of the narrative. Neither is the rebellion against Alluvium’s Peshari overlords, who are sketched in as default alien baddies—gruff, reptilian, warlike and religiously intolerant. The simple fact that Peshari dislike burials really is the whole point of the story.
We do not need to imagine extraterrestrial colonisation to find such a dispute. When the tenth-century traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan spent time amongst the Volga Vikings, he witnessed their practice of burning the dead. “You Arabs are fools,” said one of the Vikings. “You take the people who are most dear to you and whom you honour most and put them into the ground where insects and worms devour them. We burn him in a moment, so that he enters Paradise at once.”
This story could be compared to Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars,” which brings twentieth-century colonial practices into the realm of space opera. But the difference is that de Bodard builds a character-driven narrative around her analogy, while Rinehart does little more than summarise a historical dispute against a stock SF backdrop. This seems a poor way to go about writing speculative fiction.
“The Journeyman: In the Stone House,” by Michael F. Flynn (Sad and Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
This story is a sequel to an earlier piece by Michael F. Flynn, “The Journeyman: On the Short-Grass Prairie,” which I have not read as I was unable to find a copy. In addition, Flynn originally wrote this second installment as a longer work, with Analog splitting the latter half into a third “Journeyman” story. I have to admit, while reading the novelette I was nagged by the feeling that I was missing something.
The setting of the story is a far-future Earth that has regressed to a quasi-medieval technological level. The protagonists Teodaq and Sammi o’ th’ Eagles previously located the wreck of a space shuttle—I assume this occured in the first instalment—and encountered an artificial intelligence which they took to be either a ghost or a fairy. “In the Stone House” details how their discovery factors into the clan conflicts of their world.
Flynn’s vision of the future is a cultural mish-mash, with everything from Viking culture to Hinduism being evident in what remains of human society. Teodaq is characterised as a crude-talking John Wayne figure—Flynn opens the story with a quotation from Louis L’Amour, acknowledging the tale’s roots in the Western—while Sammi o’ th’ Eagles is given the questionable role of Tonto-like sidekick. The most readily apparent element of Flynn’s worldbuilding is his use of language; the characters speak a distinctive pidgin, giving a kind of Russell-Hoban-does-sword-and-sorcery air to the prose.
Viewed as a self-contained work, “In the Stone House” is as fragmentary as the post-apocalyptic society that it portrays. There are elements of ironic humour here, as when the characters worship a (to us) entirely mundane object, or when slang words such as “schmuck” and “babe” turn out to have taken on new meanings. The fact that the climactic battle is followed by a pedantic legal declaration can perhaps be read as a satire of how sword and sorcery stories tend to portray a world in which all problems can be solved by violence. But while bits of the story work, none of them cohere into something that is self-sufficient enough to warrant a Hugo nomination.
“Championship B’tok,” by Edward M. Lerner (Sad and Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
Or, to give it its full title, “InterstellarNet: Enigma Part Two: Championship B’Tok.” It is the second installment of Edward M. Lerner’s InterstellarNet: Enigma series, which is itself a follow-up to an earlier trilogy titled simply InterstellarNet.
I read the first part of InterstellarNet: Enigma and so had some of the necessary background for this story. As I read “Championship B’tok,” however, I had to wonder how a new reader to the series would find it. It is clearly written as a continuation of Enigma, right down to retaining the first book’s chapter numbering.
Lerner does introduce a set of new characters at the start of “B’tok,” making it at least partially suitable as a jumping-on point, but halfway through the story he proceeds to fold them into the series’ overarching narrative. I can easily imagine a new reader getting somewhat lost at this point.
The previous installment introduced the idea that an alien conspiracy was responsible for certain events on Earth, including the extinction of the dinosaurs and the authorship of Frankenstein—the latter as an attempt to manipulate humanity’s attitudes towards scientific development. Other intelligent civilisations, it turns out, underwent identical engineering processes. This intriguing notion is properly established in the first book, but its introduction in “Championship B’tok” will come across as awfully abrupt to anyone who has not read the previous volume.
The story soon settles into spy mode, with a taut narrative that involves moles, disguises, gadgets and a hunt for secret knowledge, before reaching an end that leaves almost all of its plot threads dangling.
Aside from the thin characterisation—a common enough weakness in hard SF—“Championship B’tok” is a fine story. That is, of course, if we take it for what it is: a few chapters from the middle of a larger book. I see no good reason to nominate it as an independent work, not with a collected edition presumably waiting in the wings.
“Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” by John C. Wright (Rabid Puppies, ruled ineligible)
A woman named Virginia loses her child to a fatal illness on Christmas Eve. Her anger at this bereavement finds a specific target: Santa Claus, a figure that she has come to associate with all that is artificial and deceiving. That is until she finds herself confronted by the real Saint Nicholas, who shows her how childish fantasy can sometimes reflect deeper truths.
John C. Wright gets off to a good start with “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” The overall narrative is predictable, but given the timelessness of the themes—loss of a loved one, crisis of faith—this can be forgiven. Wright also does a good job in fleshing out the simple story, giving the central character of Virginia a number of appealing personal characteristics. For one, she has the curious but believable habit of dividing the world’s population into “pink” and “grey”: pink people are charismatic but superficial, while grey people are outwardly dull but can always be relied upon.
Towards the end, however, Wright makes a mistake which I have noticed more than once his writing: he over-eggs it. In this case he has Saint Nicholas take Virginia on a vision-journey to see Leviathan and Christ; the result is essentially A Christmas Carol with bits of Revelation thrown in (Hans Christian Andersen’s “Death and the Mother” is another possible influence). Some of the imagery is strong, but the message is thoroughly didactic: the Christian symbolism from the first half of the story is replaced with mere preaching.
Had he restrained himself, Wright may well have had a worthy Hugo nominee on his hands. Instead, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” ends up as an interesting failure.
Breaking down the above ten works, we have two stories from the 2014 Sad Puppies slate, four from the 2015 Sad Puppies slate, one from the Rabid Puppies and three that were not Puppy picks. In terms of numbers, this is a strong showing from the Puppies. In terms of quality, well…
Before I go on, I should—in the interests of balance—remind my readers that I generally liked the Puppy choices for Best Short Story; some had their flaws, but I felt that the only out-and-out dud was the Rabid slate’s “Turncoat.” Looking at the Puppy novelettes, on the other hand, I find myself decidedly unimpressed.
“The Exchange Officers” is reasonable, but not great. “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” spreads its ideas too thinly to sustain its length. “The Journeyman: In the Stone House” and “Championship B’tok” are mid-serial works that do not stand as independent stories. “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” is didactic and disorganised. “Opera Vita Aeterna” could possibly have been knocked into shape with a few rewrites and the aid of a competent editor, but in its present form scarcely deserved publication. Only one of the Puppy tales—“Triple Sun”—was ever a serious contender.
This is particularly embarrassing when I look at the three non-Puppy nominees from 2014: all of these are, in their own separate ways, strong examples of science fiction.
To put all of this in context, take a look at how some of the Puppy campaigners have presented their slates. Here is a comment from John C. Wright:
“[W]e Sad Puppies were merely sick and tired of mindnumbingly dull novels about mind-swapping genderless AI’s in space rocketing straight to the highest echelons of science fiction’s critical acclaim, and that we wanted to rescue stories that were actually worth reading and have them rise from the ashes of brainmeltingly absurd uber-leftist ideological cliques and bask in the glory of the coveted Hugo Award.”
Thanks to statements such as these, the Puppies were obliged to put their money where their mouths were and pick stories that were genuinely superior to recent Hugo nominees. But to do so is easier said than done, as evidenced by the rather poor crop of novelettes chosen by the Puppies.
Obviously there is a degree of subjectivity in play here. Some readers will rate “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” above “The Waiting Stars,” as is their right. At the same time, however, they will have to accept that some people will prefer de Bodard’s story to Wright’s. We do not have to speculate about some kind of hidden political agenda to explain a matter of taste.
I should mention that “Yes Virginia” was disqualified due to having been originally published in 2013, and was replaced on the ballot by Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down;” this is the story that took the award. I have not read it or any of the other non-Puppy works that stood a chance of being nominated, but hope to do so for a later post. I will look forward to seeing whether or not the regular Worldcon voters did a better job than the Puppies.
I initially planned to cover the Best Novella category as well as Best Novelette in this post, but for reasons of space, I shall instead be leaving that for my next article.
Note: The header image is an illustration by John Allemand, accompanying Rajnar Vajra’s story “Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale.”