In this series on the Sad Puppies controversy, I have been comparing the works picked for the 2015 Sad and Rabid Puppies slates with the stories that were nominated for the Hugo in 2014. Were the previous nominees truly overwhelmed with preachy “message fiction”? What kinds of stories had the Sad Puppies chosen to promote in response?
Having taken a look at the Best Short Story and Best Novelette categories, I shall now cover the Hugo Awards’ final short fiction category: Best Novella, the section for stories of between 17,500 and 40,000 words in length. Let us see how the two sets of stories compare…
Best Novella: 2014 Hugo Nominees
“Equoid,” by Charles Soross (winner)
Here we have a story that fits into Charles Stross’ series about “the Laundry,” a top-secret government agency tasked with defending Britain from supernatural threats. The protagonist of the series is the nerdy and seemingly unflappable Bob Howard, a man who has come to see eldritch occurrences as just another day at the office.
Although past Laundry stories have seen Bob slipping into one genre after the other—James Bond adventures, fantasy MMORPGs, Nazis-won-the-war alt-Earth stories—it is the Cthulhu Mythos that forms the series’ background noise. “Equoid” works in references to Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, the children’s animation Camberwick Green, and the sketch comedy Not the Nine O’Clock News, but it greatly emphasises the H. P. Lovecraft connection—even using the Providence author himself as a character in its backstory.
I read the first two Laundry novels and their accompanying novellas before starting this article, and I must say that I struggled to get into them. Stross works in the tradition of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Kim Newman, taking elements from various fantasy stories and placing them alongside mundane English society for comical effect. I have nothing against this approach, but I found that Stross never achieved an entirely successful balance between humour and horror. A neutered Cthulhu is only funny for so long.
“Equoid,” for its first half, is a different matter. The A-plot, which involves Bob Howard investigating the usage of mutant unicorns by local police in rural England, is interspersed with a B-plot narrated by Lovecraft. Stross succeeds in emulating Lovecraft’s authorial voice in this latter strand, which—unlike the main plot—is largely played straight.
It has often been noted that Lovecraft’s stories, with their obsessive descriptions of slimy tentacles, betrays a fear of sex on the part of the author. Stross taps into this idea with his portrayal of the “true” story behind the Cthulhu mythos, building to a climax that out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft: the man himself would never have portrayed supernatural sexual violence in such point-blank terms, and yet Stross’ conception is entirely true to Lovecraft’s themes and imagery.
In this way, Stross manages to avoid the pervasive innocuousness found in the other Laundry stories that I read. As long as “Equoid” chops-and-changes between the two narratives, then no matter how whimsical Bob’s adventures may seem, we are constantly reminded that something hideous is lurking in the background—something getting closer, and closer…
However, the Lovecraft pastiche comes to a close halfway through “Equoid”. From then on, Stross-being-Lovecraft is replaced by Stross-being-Stross, and the story appears to have settled into being a harmless horror spoof:
The air in the woodshed tastes damp and smells of mold. I take a deep breath, then sneeze as my sinuses swell closed. Oh great, I think: I’m mildly allergic to elder gods. (Only it’s not a god. It’s just an adult unicorn in the sessile, spawning phase of the life cycle. A very naughty unicorn indeed.)
Bear in mind that the above passage comes after a description of a 13-year-old girl being sexually violated by a tentacled monstrosity. This seems, to put it mildly, something of a misjudgement in tone.
Granted, horror writers often give their stories light-hearted sections to throw the horrific elements into harsher relief. I imagine that this is what Stross was going for; the gloomy conclusion to “Equoid” suggests that it was meant to be a full-blooded horror story, rather than a parody. But the trouble is the Shaun of the Shoggoth routine is allowed to go on for too long: the silliness overwhelms the horror.
Trim down the Bob Howard plot thread, and “Equoid” could have been a fine Lovecraft update. Ramp up the humour and tone down the tentacle rape, and it could have worked as a spoof. As it is, the story ends up lodged between the two stools.
“Equoid” won the Hugo, but I personally found it to be the weakest of the non-Puppy novellas nominated in 2014.
“Wakulla Springs,” by Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan
This is a story that spans three decades, following the lives of various characters who live around oworida’s Wakulla Springs. In 1941, a fifteen-year-old black girl named Mayola takes a transgressive swim in the whites-only waters. In 1954, her eleven-year-old son Levi shows a similar fondness for taking a dip and a similar tendency to thumb his nose at Jim Crow. In 1969, a college student meets an adult Levi while researching for her Ethnic Studies thesis.
Two main elements form a background to all of this. One theme is racism: the principal characters are all either African-American or Cuban-American, and each must deal with the race issues of their respective eras. The other element is fantasy.
The Wakulla Springs area is depicted as a place of magic. Mayola’s family follows various superstitions; film crews shoot the exploits of Tarzan and the Creature from the Black Lagoon there; and a mysterious beast known as the Florida Skunk Ape is said to stalk the undergrowth.
Fantasy and day-to-day life mingle together, although not without the occasional conflict. When Mayola breaks the racial segregation laws by swimming in the springs, it is at the behest of Tarzan himself—actor Johnny Weissmuller:
“Not in Mr. Ball’s springs, sir.”
Mayola watched his face twitch in puzzlement, then remembered he wasn’t from around here.
“Colored people ain’t allowed.”
He stared at her for a long minute, with an odd expression, like that was a brand-new idea coming into his brain. Then he looked away, out over the water, and when he looked back, he held the suit out again, his face all a-grin.
“Tarzan not care for white man’s law.”
Mayola sighed. If only it was that easy. Because she wanted to, as much as anything she’d ever pined over in the Sears Christmas wishbook. Wanted to dive into that clear water and swim just like the lady in the movie.
But lest we think the imaginary hero has trumped real-world prejudice, the next chapter sobers up somewhat. Mayola, now an adult, is bitter and resentful towards the two-faced ways of Hollywood people. We learn that she conceived her son Levi after having sex with a wealthy man in exchange for a hundred dollars—and this man is hinted to have been Weismuller, who forgot about her as he moved on with his career. But this does not stop Levi from being swept away by the excitement of Tinsel Town, as he helps out in the shooting of The Creature from the Black Lagoon…
A heavily intertextual work, “Wakulla Springs” instantly calls to mind a number of parallels. With its nostalgic tone—invoking childhood innocence as well as a bygone age of pop culture—the story recalls Ray Bradbury at his more sentimental. It is also reminiscent of Geoff Ryan’s Was, which likewise mixed a well-known work of fantasy fiction with more realistic narrative strands set across American history. Meanwhile, the dream sequence involving a talking chimp is so similar in concept to James Lever’s Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood that it was almost certainly meant as homage.
In the midst of all these warm recollections of an idyllic past, “Wakulla Springs” fails to give any real bite to its portrayal of racism. The story begins in an era of “colored-only” drinking fountains and ends in a world where a Cuban-American college student can write a thesis entitled “An Examination of Reel vs. Real Post-Colonialism: Tarzan Movies and Imaginary Geography,” but seldom are the characters shown making any real struggle against the unjust system in which they live—note that Mayola violates segregation only at the encouragement of a well-off white man. Jim Crow is depicted as little more than an annoying background detail in the lives of the black characters, one that is destined to naturally crumble away with little fuss.
As a nostalgic experiment in rural psychogeography, “Wakulla Springs” is a warm, inviting and rich story. As a narrative about racism, however, it plays things safe.
Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M. Valente
In the old American West, a white man identified only as Mr. H marries a Crow woman. His wife dies giving birth to a daughter, and Mr. H goes on to marry another woman. The new Mrs. H comes to resent having a mixed-race girl as a stepdaughter, and calls the dark-skinned child by a cruel nickname: Snow White.
The title of Six-Gun Snow White may suggest one of those frivolous genre mash-ups that followed in the wake of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but Catherynne M. Valente offers a sophisticated treatment of her source material. She lifts the iconography and some choice archetypes from the fairy tale and (to a lesser extent) the Western, but her focus is very much on symbolic depth.
Some of Valente’s alterations to the traditional version of the story are a straightforward matter of transplanting the tale to the old West, such as replacing the seven dwarfs with seven female outlaws. Others are more specific: the stepmother disguises herself not as a crone, but as Snow White’s dead mother. Meanwhile, the prince is conflated with the deer whose heart is sacrificed to save Snow White’s life. In each case the changes serve to tighten the connections between the fairy-tale narrative and Snow White’s emotional development as a character.
Fundamentally, Six-Gun Snow White is a coming-of-age story. It begins with the protagonist as a child, surrounded by jewels, dresses and playthings, with a father willing to dote on her. As she grows up, magic begins to leave her life drip-by-drip until the novella closes on a deeply mundane note, the romanticised worlds of the fairy tale and the Western both having died away.
More specifically, it is an essentially feminine coming-of-age story:
So here’s the truth of it: there was blood and some of it came from between my legs and some of it came from my face where Mrs. H struck me over and over, because I was bad, because I looked like my mother, because I smelled like an animal, because I did not show her any human feeling or sweetness and that made me wicked. It is my understanding that when you start bleeding you are a woman so I guess that’s what I was.
But while abusive, the stepmother is not the wicked witch from more familiar versions of the story. Valente humanises the antagonist, depicting her as a victim of oppression: she is revealed to have spent her younger days being forced to toil in a basement like Cinderella. Her salvation came not at the hands of a fairy godmother, but from a devilish Mephistopheles figure. As the stepmother says to Snow White, “Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless once everyone else has eaten their fill.”
The novella does not preach, and it does not demonise. It uses a rich symbolic lexicon to add a new layer of depth to a familiar narrative. Six-Gun Snow White is a feminist story, and it is a feminist story done right.
“The Chaplain’s Legacy,” by Brad R. Torgersen (Sad Puppies 2)
“The Chaplain’s Legacy” was one of two novellas picked out by Larry Correia for the 2014 Sad Puppies campaign. A sequel to Torgersen’s earlier work “The Chaplain’s Assistant,” it takes place in a war between humanity and a race of mantis-like aliens—a stock backdrop familiar from the likes of Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game. But while those novels revolved around the soldiers in the conflict, Torgersen instead tells the story of a diplomat who seeks to bring about peace.
This is an idea that could make a good story. Indeed, “The Chaplain’s Legacy” includes a number of ideas that could have made good stories. The titular chaplain turns out to be, paradoxically, an agnostic. His foil, and later love interest, is revealed to be a member of a minority faith: Coptic Christianity, which is established to have been all but wiped out by terrestrial conflict. The aliens have no concept of religion, and yet come to adopt a Christ figure.
Meanwhile, away from the interplanetary war, humanity faces a serious social problem in the form of virtual reality addiction: children are entering VR worlds and not leaving until they reach adulthood.
But despite the potential offered by all of these concepts, Torgersen’s narrative never rises above the level of a middling adventure story.
The key weakness of “The Chaplain’s Legacy” is Torgersen’s failure to develop his aliens. He comes up with three noteworthy traits that distinguish the mantes from humanity, and uses them to parallel the character arcs of the main characters: their aforementioned lack of religion ties with the chaplain’s agnosticism; their reliance on cybernetic vehicles is echoed in the talk of addictive VR machines; and a discussion of mantis mating habits follows a sexual encounter between the two leads.
Beyond these token gestures, however, Torgersen simply does not describe the mantis way of life. He does not even take the time to give convincingly alien voices to the two mantes with speaking roles—unless we count the Davros-like dialogue given to the mantis queen in her first appearance.
You could argue that this is the whole point of the story, which ends with the narrator explicitly stating that the mantes are essentially human. But the human race encompasses many different cultures, and a defined culture is something that Torgersen fails to give his mantes. As a result, the story’s reconciliation between the two races rings entirely hollow.
Torgersen subsequently reworked “The Chaplian’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy” into his novel The Chaplain’s War, which I shall cover in a later article.
The Warcaster Chronicles Book Two: The Butcher of Khardov, by Dan Wells (Sad Puppies 2)
The Butcher of Khardov takes place in the world of the Warmachine gaming franchise, and follows the development of a warrior named Orsus. The story is written in a non-linear structure that lends a modest degree of intrigue to an otherwise routine orc-hacking yarn.
We see Orsus as both an honest (if brawny) youth and as the village-massacring Butcher of Khardov, raising the question of what turned the former into the latter. But Wells ends up answering that question in the most obvious way imaginable: Orsus becomes the latest in a long, long line of protagonists to have lost a romantic partner to murderers. The story proceeds to hit all of the macho-angst beats that we have seen in innumerable action movies, gritty superhero comics and cowboy flicks.
Another problem with The Butcher of Khardov, when viewed in the context of the Hugos, is that it does not work as a fantasy story. It makes repeated references to steam-powered robots called Jacks, but these have no bearing on the narrative beyond adding some extra bulk to the fights. The bestial, orc-like Tharns may just as well have been human marauders. A ghost appears towards the end, but in an ambiguous manner—the phenomenon can be interpreted as occurring inside Orsus’ head. In short, the entire story could easily be rewritten as a Western with only superficial changes.
Thanks to Wells’ sinuous prose, The Butcher of Khardov is more polished than some of the works covered in this article. However, out of all the Hugo-nominated novellas of 2014 and 2015, it is the least ambitious—and consequently the least remarkable.
The Butcher of Khardov was another novella nominated on the back of Sad Puppies 2, although its author has mixed feelings about this: his blog post on the matter is well worth reading. I suspect that Larry Correia chose to back this book so as to get a media tie-in story on the Hugo ballot , thereby striking a blow in the perceived struggle between pulp and pretentiousness. While I see no reason why Warmachine’s world of Jacks and Tharns could not have inspired a worthy piece of prose fantasy, Dan Wells’ story reminds me of a comment made by Philip Pullman: “My quarrel with much (not all) fantasy is it has this marvellous toolbox and does nothing with it except construct shoot-em-up games.”
Best Novella: 2015 Sad and Rabid Puppies
“Flow,” by Arlan Andrews, Sr (Sad and Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
In his 2013 story “Thaw,” Arlan Andrews introduced us to a distant, presumably post-apocalyptic future in which the present day lingers as a mythological memory. The story’s main characters are an Arctic people who live an Iron Age-like existence, dimly aware that the world was once populated by “gods” with incredible tools at their disposal.
With “Flow,” Andrews returns to his Cold Lands protagonists, sending Rist on a journey through the strange new environment of the Warm Lands. Life here may be more complicated than the simple ways of the Cold Landers, but this is not necessarily a good thing. Rist is bewildered by the arbitrary structures of organised religion, and appalled when he witnesses a criminal being burnt at the stake.
“Flow” offers a straightforward treatment of the Noble Savage theme. Andrews hit upon some interesting cultural ideas in “Thaw”—such as the fact that the Cold Landers use a touch-based language similar to braille, and find the idea of sight-based text to be absurd, even dangerous. However, such invention is in short supply with “Flow,” which instead takes place in a more generic quasi-medieval environment. Andrews misses the opportunity to explore his far-future and instead offers a story that often feels like a retread of Bilbo Baggins’ adventures amongst the elves.
As thin as the plot may be, “Flow” is saved by Andrews’s sumptuous prose style. His writing is rich and tactile, creating a thick atmosphere and bustling background that keeps the story readable. The end of the novella teases a third installment in the saga, and I would definitely be up for reading more of the Cold Landers and their exploits.
I can readily imagine “Flow” someday forming part of a Hugo-worthy novel. But as a novella, I found that it simply did not have quite enough meat on its bones.
Big Boys Don’t Cry, by Tom Kratman (Sad and Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
Like Steve Rzasa’s “Turncoat,” one of the Rabid Puppy short stories, Big Boys Don’t Cry is about a sapient war machine—this time a tank-like vehicle with a synthetic human brain, called a Ratha. Throughout the story Kratman switches between three narrative voices: a third-person narrator; the first-person voice of Magnolia, the Ratha protagonist; and excerpts from a history book of the future, providing insights into the wider world of the story.
Magnolia is used in a number of military conflicts against various extraterrestrial opponents. The aliens initially appear to be little more than Space Invaders-like shoot-em-up targets, but the story soon develops an ironic element. The true villains of the novella are the brutally imperialistic Earthlings, who are described by the third-person narrator using rhetoric worthy of Ming the Merciless:
Foolish Quang, to match their pitiful efforts against mankind! The warships made short work of these mindless fanatics.
Space secure at last from the local Quang menace, the ships began to fire their scheduled preparation of the landing zones for the Tenth Regiment. Villages, towns and entire cities disappeared lest the enemy hide within them some new treachery to use on human kind or their Ratha partners.
The title of the story refers to a scene in which a human soldier steals Magnolia’s medal:
‘I know a scrap metal dealer that follows the fleet that will give top credit for refined iridium. Big boy here won’t cry over it. It’s just a machine. What does it care? Besides,’ he said, holding up a small ocular device with loose, thin wires dangling from it like so many nerve endings, ‘I have this here camera for a souvenir.’
‘Big boy here won’t cry.’ Two lies in a single sentence. I am not a boy. And I will cry….
This last line brings us to gender, a prominent theme in Big Boys Don’t Cry. Magnolia is named after the cross-dressing Chinese heroine Mulan, whose name is the Mandarin word for the magnolia flower—lest anyone think this a coincidence, Magnolia’s serial number begins with “MLN”.
Magnolia’s poor handling by the military evokes the ongoing controversy over the treatment of combat veterans in society. The subtext has other associations, however: Magnolia compares her treatment to rape as she is forced to take part in war crimes.
The gender angle is a good twist on what is otherwise a concoction of Full Metal Jacket, Keith Laumer’s Bolo stories, and rape-revenge exploitation. Big Boys Don’t Cry is a generally solid story, but I have a few reservations about its status as a Hugo-worthy work.
Kratman actually shows a degree of craft in writing his hardware-fixated action scenes—which is more than can be said of Steve Rzasa, at least—but his prose is often cumbersome. Look at this sentence, for example:
The nervous major glanced briefly at the assembly of sashed government functionaries and sumptuously-dressed merchants crowding the deck of the communications room of the transport ‘Temeraire.’
Partly because of this, and partly because of sheer quantity, the action sequences eventually become tedious. The time spent on alien-blasting would have been better spent on the world-building, which has noticeable weaknesses.
Kratman portrays the background events of his world with a soft focus, even as they directly impact the main plot. The Earthling empire goes up against a loose assembly of opponents: first Slugs, then Quang, then an unidentified species, then aliens who fall victim to an Earthling land-grab, and then a religious minority that is offended when a caricatured feminist villain forces its women to remove their veils. This vagueness, a seeming reluctance to pick one idea and stick with it, lowers the stakes of the narrative.
I still give Big Boys Don’t Cry a passing grade, and would argue that its good points outweigh its negatives. But as with other publications from Vox Day’s Castalia House, I think that it would have benefited from a better editor.
One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright (Sad and Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
John C. Wright was nominated three times in this category, but One Bright Star to Guide Them has the distinction of the only one of his stories to appear on the Sad Puppies slate; Wright’s over-representation elsewhere is largely down to the Rabid Puppies.
The story revolves around four childhood friends (obviously stand-ins for the Pevensie siblings from C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia) who once spent their summers in a magical land of adventure. Decades down the line one of them is dead, one avoids discussing their childhood exploits and one has sided with the evil Winter King—a character who recalls Lewis’ White Witch, with elements from a few other children’s fantasy antagonists. Only one of the four retains loyalty to the Aslan-like figure of the black cat Tybalt.
One Bright Star has a thematic overlap with Wright’s novelette “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” which I discussed in the previous article. That story proposed a divine truth behind the figure of Santa Claus, and this novella does the same with Narnia. I rather suspect that it was intended as a response to the criticism made by Philip Pullman and others that the Narnia books, particularly The Last Battle, push an infantilised worldview by equating the afterlife with childhood make-believe. In Wright’s interpretation, stories such as Narnia actually reflect an eternal, Platonic ideal in a manner that can be appreciated by children.
However, while “Yes, Virginia” focuses on goodness, One Bright Star explores evil. The malevolent forces of the Winter King are abroad in the adult world, and maintain hold over the government: the main villain is a demonically possessed cabinet minister named Lord Wodenhouse.
Wright’s allegory is, at times, awfully specific. Having become a neopagan, the Edmund character kills Mr. Tumnus and ritually impregnates his girlfriend before getting her an abortion on the NHS as a human sacrifice. Elsewhere, the friend-of-Aslan protagonist says that the enemy had previously taken him “to the East, where their powers are stronger, and where they have countries whose evil rulers worship the Darkness almost openly.”
One Bright Star to Guide Them is an easy story to snigger at. The hero often seems more like Richard Shaver than Peter Pevensie:
The doctors diagnosed me as an epileptic, and their medicines cured me. But some of the police are agents of the enemy and they found my name out while I was there.
That said, it is worth noting that Wright was an atheist when he wrote the original, shorter version of the story, published in 2009. With that in mind, One Bright Star can be seen not as a case of an author preaching, but of an author grappling with his own personal doubts. The result may be unsubtle in pushing a certain worldview, but in this way it is entirely consistent with The Last Battle. It is, perhaps, a trifle unfair to fault a book for being faithful to its source material.
On a more formalistic level, the book is a largely solid Lewis-with-a-bit-of-Tolkien pastiche. The main flaw in its writing is one that turns up repeatedly in Wright’s work, both fiction and non-fiction: his tendency to rattle off lists of fantasy concepts for the sake of rattling of lists of fantasy concepts. Here is a passage from the second chapter:
Tommy said eagerly, ‘You followed the clues and found the Shining Sword trapped in the roots of the Cursed Black Oak in the middle of Gloomshadow Forest, where none of the Fair Folk could go. The wolf boy helped you. None of the servants of the Winter King could draw it; it burned their hands. That’s how we learned that the old woman was an ice maiden in disguise.’
Now, this is fair enough, as Wright is simply establishing the kinds of adventures that the children had. But he keeps on doing this. Here is a passage from nearly halfway through the book:
She continued: ‘I remember the feast on the fields of Caer Linden, and how the tree-women came out of the forests to dance, while the faerie-folk danced in the air overhead, held up by the joy of their singing alone. The tables were laid with white linens, and groaned under the baskets of fruits and fair foods which all the country people brought to give thanks for the return of their Prince. The coronation was all splendour; Prince Hal crowned with the Garland Crown and all the flowers bloomed. The Elf King, Finbarra, he danced with me, do you see?’
This carries on throughout the story. The climactic fight with Lord Wodenhouse is more restrained; it namechecks Phobos, Adam, King Arthur and Jesus Christ, but in a way that is appropriate to the themes of the story. Alas, by that point the fantasy’s-greatest-hits approach has become exhausting.
With some judicious trimming, this could have been a good contender for the Best Novelette category. As a novella-length work, One Bright Star to Guide Them is a fine example of just how uneven a writer John C. Wright can be.
“Pale Realms of Shade” by John C. Wright (Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
A murdered private eye returns as a ghost. His first aim is to find out who killed him; later on, however, he faces a bigger question: when his spirit passes on, where will it end up? The ghostly protagonist becomes unstuck from both time and space and eventually reaches a hellish pawn shop, where he confronts a mobster-like Devil.
John C. Wright tends to employ a lot of whimsy in his fiction, and his potentially cloying approach makes a strong contrast with the hard-nosed tropes of detective noir. Consider the scene in which the ghost attempts to conjure up an accessory that no pulp private eye could be without:
‘There is another gun in the top draw,’ I said, trying to light another imaginary cigarette. I could get the glow of the match reflecting off my cupped fingers correctly, but the light was pearly white rather than red, and the taste was off.
The story itself is a robust narrative of temptation, sin, confession, and salvation, and Wright often creates some striking imagery when adapting these themes to an urban fantasy milieu. However, “Pale Realms of Shade” once again shows Wright’s habit of listing fantasy concepts for no apparent reason. This passage is typical:
But this was something much worse than merely a clever Warlock running a crime ring, or some ambitious were-seal from Atlantis. Even the heavy hitters in the Big League, figures of strong and ancient dread like Baba Yaga and the Headless Horseman and the Wolf of the Mist and Gaberlunzie the King’s Beggar, all of them were small potatoes compared to this.
This kind of thing might be acceptable once or twice, but all too often “Pale Realms of Shade” looks like nothing so much as a shopping list of the imagination. Wright’s tendency to descend into ranting is also evident: “There were no steeples in that future, no church bells, just thin, wailing cries from thin, ugly minarets.”
Wright’s biggest misjudgement is to establish that the private eye had supernatural dealings even before becoming a ghost, having encountered elves, vampires, Atlanteans and what-not on his past cases. The protagonist, presumably intended as an everyman figure, instead comes across as an Angel/Constantine/Dresden knock-off—and Wright’s Bunyanesque parable gets weighed down by pulp.
“The Plural of Helen of Troy”, by John C. Wright (Rabid Puppies, Hugo-nominated)
One of a series of stories by Wright that take place in Metachronopolis, the city beyond time: a place in which Helen of Troy competes with Cleopatra in a beauty contest judged by Casanova and Don Juan. The main character is Jacob Frontino, a Depression-era detective who is hired by President Kennedy to save Marilyn Monroe from a rapist with a robot bodyguard.
The chapters of the novella are presented in reverse-chronological order, adding an element of puzzle to the story. While this kind of playfulness does not require a great deal of effort on the part of the author, it does at least show that Wright is putting some kind of thought into structuring his story: the novella largely avoids the narrative diarrhoea suffered by “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” and “Pale Realms of Shade.” Only the very end, in which Kennedy goes off on a speech about “Masters of Eternity” and “Emerald Towers,” does Wright lose the plot.
Wright clearly takes delight in playing around with temporal anomalies. He shows a fondness for crafting convoluted dialogue and comically halts the climactic battle between Jacob and the headhunting robot to provide necessary infodumps.
A number of areas of the story are left underdeveloped along the way. The usage of historical characters is largely ornamental, although Wright manages to spin a redemption-by-sacrifice theme by combining time travel with the Kennedy assassination. The character of Marilyn Monroe is particularly underwritten, her potential rape serving as no more than a plot device in the arcs of the male characters. Wright makes clear in his Best Related Work nominee Transhuman and Subhuman that he is a staunch defender of the damsel in distress trope, but he could at least have given Marilyn a little psychological depth.
One notable thematic thread is also left hanging. Jacob is full of vulgar chauvinism (“Just watching her sway in silhouette across the window was enough to launch a mortar in a man’s knickers”) but also possesses a strong sense of chivalry. He believes that the place of men is to defend women; at one point he states that he would ordinarily avoid killing someone in cold blood, but if he sees a guy attacking a girl, he will gladly stab the cad in the eye. Given that Jacob shares a city with Robin Hood, King Arthur, Homer and Walter Scott, the story implies a continuity between the heroic paragons of legend and the world-weary protagonists of noir, but never explores this potentially rewarding slice of metafiction.
The shortcomings of the story can perhaps be excused if we view “The Plural of Helen of Troy” as an exercise in narrative acrobatics. Wright tries to keep his balance in the name of entertaining the audience; he may wobble a few times, but he manages to make it to the end of the tightrope.
Alongside Best Novelette, Best Novella was the most successful category for the 2014 Sad Puppies campaign; in each case, Larry Correia managed to get both of his chosen titles nominated. By contrast, the 2015 Sad Puppies showed much less interest in this category, picking only three nominees. This left space for Vox Day and his Rabid Puppies to fill the remaining slots with John C. Wright. As one of the stated aims of the Sad Puppies campaign was to bring more variety to the Hugos, this state of affairs would logically be one in which the Sad and Rabid camps are directly opposed.
All five of the Puppy picks were nominated, and the voters responded with a resounding No Award. Dispiriting all around.
I will have to say that the strongest of the above novellas are Six-Gun Snow White and “Wakulla Springs,” both of which were non-Puppy picks from 2014. But while none of the 2015 Puppy novellas struck me as particularly inspiring, and all were flawed, I thought that—“Pale Realms of Shade” aside—they all had merit. “Flow” was definitely the strongest, and deservedly received the most votes. Arlan Andrews, Sr. may not have won a Hugo, but he was presented with a Jovian Award for his efforts.
Having now wrapped up the short fiction categories, I am at a loss to identify the “SJW message fiction” that allegedly plagues the Hugos. Six-Gun Snow White and “Wakulla Springs” are obviously themed around gender and race, but I would not say that either was preachy or didactic—indeed, my main objection to the latter was that it was too mild in its treatment of racism.
Let us take a look through some of the previously-discussed categories. Aside from Vox Day’s story, only one of the 2014 Best Novelette nominees can be read as “message fiction”: Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars,” which has an anti-colonial theme. I have also heard the accusation of propaganda directed at John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, a story about a gay couple. But once again, I see nothing clumsy or poorly-handled about de Bodard’s exploration of colonialism or Chu’s portrayal of a same-sex couple. So far, the accusation of preachiness appears to be based largely Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”, which has the straightforward message that hate begets hate.
None of these stories push a specific message as strongly or as directly as John C. Wright’s One Bright Star to Guide Them. This raises an obvious question: exactly which group is rewarding message fiction here…?
My next post in this series will take a look at the Best Related Work category. After that, I will wrap things up by covering Best Novel.