The finalists for the 2016 Hugo Awards were announced on 26 April, and what a sight they are.
The ballot is dominated almost entirely by Vox Day’s picks for his Rabid Puppies slate, and so honours the likes of “If You Were an Award, My Love,” Space Raptor Butt Invasion and the (NSFW) art of Kukuruyo. Meanwhile, the Sad Puppies campaign—which made a commendable effort to move away from block-voting—has had little discernible influence. Sad Puppies are dead this year; long live Rabid.
A few non-slated nominees crept through, but we will have to wait until the publication of the Hugo longlists after the awards ceremony in August before we can get a clear idea of how the 2016 ballot would have looked had Vox Day not screwed everything up.
Until then, perhaps we can make do by looking back at how the 2015 Hugos might have looked in a slateless world…
In the previous posts in this series, I compared the 2014 Hugo nominees with the works on the 2015 Sad and Rabid Puppies slates. I shall now be wrapping up the series by discussing the non-slated works that were in the running in 2015.
The full statistics for the 2015 awards, posted on the Hugo website, show the top fifteen choices (in addition to works that had their nominations withdrawn) for each category during the nomination process. By listing the works that nearly made the final ballot, they give an insight into the non-Puppy choices that people were voting for during the 2015 Hugos.
George R. R. Martin, a man responsible for some of the most even-handed and sensible writing on the entire Sad Puppy controversy, was amongst those who opposed the Puppy campaign but who also spoke out against the idea of voting “No Award.” After the Hugos were handed out, he staged his own impromptu ceremony in which he awarded “Alfies” to the highest-voted non-Puppy contestants in each category—minus those that had already succeeded in winning Hugos. Io9 reported on this story with the headline “This Is What The 2015 Hugo Ballot Should Have Been.”
The news was discussed in a Reddit thread at the entitled “Rumor confirmed: George R. R. Martin gave alternate awards to SocJus-approved writers who were meant to win the 2015 Hugos,” posted at the blame-everything-on-SJWS echo chamber that is KotakuInAction. The creator of the topic presented the odd notion that, rather than simply receiving a lot of votes during the nomination process, the works in question were on “a list of preselected winners” put together by SJWs:
The fact that the SJW crowd had a list of preselected winners, ready to go, and somehow knew that they weren’t going to win the Hugos (which is what Martin would need to have known, in order to get the alternate awards made at all) suggests corruption, a leak of some kind.
Other posters seemed to think that George R. R. Martin selected the winners himself, giving the awards not to people who received votes from Worldcon members but to “randoms:”
To disprove allegations of this being a cliquish, behind-closed-doors, undemocratic, politically-driven process, [Martin] had a private party where [he] controlled the guest list and just handed out awards to whoever [he] wanted, without all that voting shit.
In all fairness, if he wants to throw a party, invite randoms and give them little statuettes, that’s his prerogative. I got nothing to say about that, forcing SJW literature that gets prizes for existing into their own awards show is basically a winning condition for me.
Apparently confusing the reporter with the reportage, one commentator seemed to think that the near-nominees were decided by io9’s parent company, Gawker Media:
Lmao Gawker put Tropes vs Women on one of the shortlists. Ahahahaha
Some of the Redditors were so disappointed in Martin that they decided a boycott would be necessary:
How do I pirate a book? I don’t want to buy any more of GRRM’s books, even though I know it won’t matter.
I think I’m done with Mr. Martin. He always killed off my favorite characters anyhow.
And then, inevitably, we have the posts that rely entirely on the “SJW” stereotype:
All I would say is…be very careful who you get in bed with George, you are a cishet white guy who writes about a patriarchal world full of graphic rape. You will never truly be part of their in-crowd, and however many of these people you think are your friends, they will turn on you in a split second the moment someone accuses you of something ‘problematic’, many of them already have if you’ve been paying attention to last season of Thrones.
Indeed, some of the thread’s rhetoric is vaguely reminiscent of the conspiracy theories championed by the likes of David Icke. But instead of traditional targets such as Freemasons, Zionists or Reptilians, the Hugos are portrayed as being run by a cabal of blue-haired Tumblrinas armed with Male Tears mugs and #Killallmen hashtags. Points for originality, I suppose.
This misinformation is still floating around Twitter in the wake of the latest nomination announcement. So, let me restate that the works on these longlists are the works that received the highest number of votes during the Hugo nomination process without being on either the Sad Puppies or Rabid Puppies slates. I have seen no evidence to justify suspicion of any conspiracy or wrongdoing on the part of George R. R. Martin or anyone else involved.
That said, I also have to question the claim made by certain Sad Puppies opponents that these longlists show us exactly what the Hugo ballot would been had the Sad Puppies campaign never existed. This interpretation ignores the fact that some of the Puppy picks could quite conceivably have made the final ballot even without the aid of the campaign. Nevertheless, a look at the longlist will at least give us a good idea of how the ballot would have looked without Puppy slating—and an idea is all we can have.
Best Short Story
“Jackalope Wives,” by Ursula Vernon
One of the 2014 nominees in this category was Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers,” which riffed on the folkloric motif of the animal bride. Interestingly enough, one of the contenders for the 2015 award plays with the same theme—albeit with very different results.
Ursula Vernon constructs her pseudo-folkloric story from specifically American materials, lending it a folksy tall-tale feel. It takes place in a world where young men periodically go out and hunt for jackalopes—which, in Vernon’s conception, are more than just antlered bunnies. Once they remove their fur, they take on their true forms as beautiful, unearthly women. As per animal bride tradition, any prospective suitor must steal a jackalope’s fur before he can win her as a bride, and burn it to prevent her from changing back and escaping.
So far, so conventional. But while folktales of this type are often told from the point of view of the man, with the bride’s disappearance seen as a sad occurrence, Vernon sheds light on how rotten the scenario must be for the woman. The protagonist of “Jackalope Wives” learns the ugly truth behind the legend when he tries to burn a jackalope’s fur; her resulting screams of pain cause him to have second thoughts, inadvertently leaving the woman trapped halfway between human and animal. The manic pixie dream girl has had her wings cut off.
“Jackalope Wives” is true to its folkloric roots while simultaneously offering a contemporary spin on the age-old material. A deserving contender for Best Short Story.
“The Breath of War,” by Aliette de Bodard
The main character in “The Breath of War” is a pregnant woman named Rechan. Her task is to find her long-lost “breath-sibling”, a golem-like protector that will play a vital role in delivering her child.
The space opera and planetary romance subgenres often allow wildly contrasting technology levels to blur together—think of how A Princess of Mars, Flash Gordon and Star Wars all depict worlds that are both futuristic and reminiscent of pre-modern eras in history. “The Breath of War” fits into this tradition: Rechan’s village apparently lacks automobiles, instead relying on horses-and-carts, but yet has access to aircraft, holograms and ultrasound technology; elsewhere on the planet we find spacecraft. The incongruously advanced technology scattered about this otherwise pre-industrial society is attributed to vaguely-defined settlers.
Having created a world that belongs to no particular era, de Bodard foregrounds the essentially magical idea at the heart of her story: the stonemen/breath-siblings. Here, the story puts a twist on common wish-fulfilment fantasies, with the teenage girls of Rechan’s village crafting their stonemen in a way that suggests daydreams about future boyfriends. When Rechan is reunited with the stoneman that she created as a sixteen-year-old she finds him a warlike sort, full of the anger that she felt at the time.
I will have to pay “The Breath of War” the ultimate backhanded compliment that can be made to a short story: I wish that it had been longer. De Bodard has some interesting ideas on her plate, ones that are just crying out for a longer treatment. As it is, I found the story to be a little potted; too often the narrative falls back on the overfamiliar youngster-on-quest conventions of fantasy fiction, when a more original approach would have better served the intriguing ideas on offer.
“The Truth About Owls,” by Amal El-Mohtar
“The Truth About Owls” is reminiscent of “Selkie Stories are for Losers” and, to a lesser extent, “If You Were a Dinosaur, my Love,” from the 2014 ballot. Like those stories, it models itself around childhood fantasy but adds a darker touch.
The protagonist is Anisa, a young Palestine girl whose family immigrated to Britain. Already familiar with both war and prejudice, turns to the legends of the Mabinogion as a form of escapism, partly because it provides a bridge between her two cultures:
Anisa has started teaching herself Welsh, mostly because she wants to know how all the names in the Mabinogion are pronounced. She likes that there is a language that looks like English but sounds like Arabic; she likes that there is no one teaching it to her, or commenting on her accent, or asking her how to speak it for their amusement. She likes that a single “f” is pronounced “v”, that “w” is a vowel—likes that it’s an alphabet of secrets hidden in plain sight.
For much of the story, the only fantasy element is the discussion of the Mabinogion stories. Later on, Anisa develops the mysterious ability to give those around her minor electric shocks. This concept combines wish-fulfilment fantasy of a child being able to strike back at bullies through magical means (I am reminded of Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger) with a symbol for something many of us have felt during adolescence: that we somehow make everything worse just by touching it. Call it the Edward Scissorhands effect.
But while author Amal El-Mohtar has a good concept here, its usage in her story seems half-formed. “The Truth About Owls” has two strands—a troubled girl escaping into her imagination, and a troubled girl developing a magical power—which could have worked separately, but sit awkwardly together. Despite this conceptual weakness, the obviously heartfelt nature of the story ensures that it is still an effective piece of work.
“When it Ends, He Catches Her,” by Eugie Foster
Aisa, a ballet dancer, rehearses on an otherwise empty stage before an imaginary audience. Out of the darkness steps her old dancing partner, Balege. He wishes to dance with her—even though he has the death plague.
The death plague, Foster makes clear, is the condition suffered by post-Romero zombies:
“They say plague victims go mad… killing and eating their victims.” Unspoken between them, that the plague killed all of its victims, and then those damned unfortunates got up again–mindless, violent, and hungry.
The story attempts to kick new life into one of the most shop-worn subgenres of contemporary horror by making the zombie a thing of perverse loveliness, rather like vampires became in the hands of Anne Rice. Balege is a Phantom of the Opera-like figure, deathly but enticing; a welcoming Beast to Aisa’s graceful Beauty.
“When it Ends, He Catches Her” is a very short story, one that is written around a brief glimpse of a single, striking image. A romanticised zombie is a hard concept to pull off, but the story succeeds—largely through Foster’s positively sparkling prose:
The music swelled, inexorable, driving to its culmination, a flurry of athletic spins and intricate footwork, dizzying and exhilarating. Snowbird’s Lament concluded in a sprinting leap, with Aisa flinging herself into the air just above the audience–glorious and triumphant at the apex of thunderous bars of music. But she had to omit it. There was no way to even mark it, impossible to execute without Balege to catch her.
Many horror fans will say that both zombies and paranormal romance have outstayed their welcome, but Engie Foster’s dance of death shows that there is life in both subgenres.
“A Kiss With Teeth,” by Max Gladstone
The Sad Puppies slate included Megan Grey’s short story “Tuesdays With Molakesh the Destroyer,” so it is amusing to note that—had the campaign never taken place—the ballot would likely have included this story by Max Gladstone, which is strikingly similar to Grey’s tale of a suburban demon.
“A Kiss With Teeth” follows the grand tradition of The Munsters, Sesame Street and breakfast cereal adverts by featuring a domesticated Count Dracula. Vlad Bazarab has blunted his fangs and settled down to a quiet life with his mortal spouse Sarah and their young son Paul, but deep down he misses his past existence as a brutal predator.
The story portrays Vlad as a character who has let history pass him by. The changes of the modern world have left a mark on both him and his supernatural brethren (“in the sixties he met a travelling volcano god in Fiji, who’d given up sacrifices when he found virgins could be had more easily by learning to play guitar”). Marriage was the final nail in the coffin of his old self: like many a bachelor beforehand, he has found that matrimony brought with it a loss of individuality and an end to a lifestyle of ladykilling. At one point he contemplates suicide—once again, recalling “Molakesh the Destroyer.”
But while “Molakesh” was ultimately about a pair of very strange friends, the main emphasis of “A Kiss With Teeth” is upon family. Despite the deliberate silliness of its premise, the story is entirely convincing in its portrayal of Vlad’s sacrifices and self-improvement for the benefit of his overworked wife and underachieving son.
Perhaps I am being unfair by analysing “A Kiss With Teeth” primarily through comparison with a story that happened to be published at around the same time. But in writing about both for this series I found that the notable similarities—and the not inconsiderable differences—are hard to miss. The fact that they ended up on opposite sides of a culture war is strangely poignant.
“The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
During the course of a seemingly ordinary day, all gravity on Earth is inexplicably reversed. People indoors find themselves lying on the ceiling, while those outside who fail to grab hold of anything sufficiently sturdy are hurled to their deaths in space. All around the topsy-turvy world is mayhem, but the full extent of this situation appears not to have dawned upon the story’s protagonist, Toby, who is torn up about being dumped by his girlfriend earlier on.
“The Day the World Turned Upside Down” succeeded in fighting its way through the Puppy nominees and winning the 2015 Hugo for Best Novelette, but I have to say, I am not entirely convinced by it. The story is built upon obvious symbolism relating to Toby’s relationship with his girlfriend Sophie: his decision to shake things off and start again corresponds with the world shaking off its population, while his love for her is embodied by a pet goldfish that he carries through various hazards before finally allowing it to go free.
The trouble is that such broad emotional symbolism requires empathy with the main character—but it is hard to empathise with a protagonist as monumentally self-absorbed as Toby. He cares little for the apocalypse that surrounds him, and at one point lets a woman die because he is too busy saving his goldfish.
The story has a number of elements which, had they been better developed, could have saved it. The idea of the inverted world is not explored to a satisfying extent; I am reminded of “The Water that Fell from Nowhere,” which likewise consigned its fantasy concept primarily to the first few paragraphs. The story does not work as a wacky rom-com because the relationship between Toby and Sophie is too simplistic. At times, Heuvelt appears to be spoofing the “cosy catastrophe” school of disaster fiction, where the main characters (and, implicitly, the authors and intended readership) are oblivious to the full implications of the unfolding events, but the story as a whole can hardly be read as parody.
“The Day the World Turned Upside Down” is an amusing diversion, but it really needed to be more before it warranted a Hugo.
“Each to Each,” by Seanan McGuire
In the future, the US Navy has taken to using all-female submarine crews. As bio-engineering progresses, the crew members themselves become submarines: they are turned into hybrids between humans and various sea creatures, like real-life mermaids.
“Each to Each” is an overtly feminist story. It offers a revisionist take on the mermaid motif, repeatedly alluding to Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Little Mermaid—whose decision to sacrifice speech for a husband has often been criticised by feminists. It is also possible that author Seanan McGuire (who, under the pen-name Mira Grant, wrote the Best Novel nominee Parasite) is drawing upon the theory that humanity evolved as an “aquatic ape,” a fringe idea that was embraced by certain feminist commentators.
The story’s treatment of gender themes, while occasionally provocative, is not particularly rigorous. In McGuire’s future, submarine crews became all-female for the simple reason that women are better at the job:
We knew that women were better suited to be submariners by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Women dealt better with close quarters, tight spaces, and enforced contact with the same groups of people for long periods of time. We were more equipped to resolve our differences without resorting to violence—and there were differences. Women—even military women—had been socialized to fight with words and with social snubbing, and the early all-female submarines must have looked like a cross between a psychology textbook and the Hunger Games.
McGuire barely elaborates upon the full implications of this idea, which comes across as a plot contrivance to explain why the mer-people are all women. The protagonist briefly bemoans how transgender people are shafted under the naval regulations—but how does acceptance of trans people, and the inherent blurring of boundaries that they represent, square with the gender essentialism expressed by the story?
“Each to Each” is wedged awkwardly between nuts-and-bolts science fiction and a lighter, more symbolic kind of fantasy. McGuire plays with the intriguing notion that the women inherit the instincts of their animal halves: shark-women “fight like demons [and] have no room left in their narrow predators’ brains for morals,” while more placid animals such as goldfish can be used for civilian mermaids.
But once again, the story does not use this idea to anywhere near its full potential. McGuire instead seems more interested in the satirical aspects of her creation: we learn that the mermaids are designed in significant part to appeal to straight male fetishes, with certain beneficial attributes (such as the blubber found on marine mammals) being passed over to preserve sex appeal. There is a witty feminist parable somewhere here, but the story too often gets distracted and tries to do something different entirely.
“Each to Each” ends up as something of a hodge-podge, its science fiction too half-baked to satisfy and its feminist themes too underdeveloped to come across as anything other than preachy. That said, I think that McGuire is on to something with her premise.
I would be interested in reading a longer story of her mermaids; a graphic novel may be the best choice of format. “Each to Each” does rather resemble an Angela Carter rewrite of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, after all.
“The Devil in America,” by Kai Ashante Wilson
Easter is a twelve-year-old black girl living in the American South shortly after the end of the Civil War. Her family faces many hardships: indeed, she is the only surviving child in the household. As well as the all-too-tangible threat of violent racism, the family is surrounded by stories of spirits…
The first fantasy element to be introduced into the narrative is an African folktale involving a dog that can shapeshift into human form; we learn that Easter is descended from this character. “Old Africa magic” is regarded by the characters as the most potent form of sorcery, but as this is a story that deals with transposed populations, supernatural elements turn up in mixed forms.
When the Devil appears in the story, he turns up as a Confederate-uniformed man of uncertain ethnicity (“He was a white man tanned reddish from too much sun, or he could’ve had something in him maybe—been mixed up with colored or indian”). Accompanying him are devils, although to Easter, these take on the guise of alluring angels. While this recalls the Biblical claim that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, it also underscores the fact that the angels of the oppressors may well be the devils of the oppressed.
William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and its film adaptation inspired an entire subgenre of imitators, so it is refreshing to find a story of adolescent possession that owes little to Regan MacNeil’s head-spinning antics. While child-possession narratives generally cast the young victims as centres of concern amongst adult characters, Kai Ashante Wilson uses the character of Easter to give a child’s eye view of the supernatural world.
“The Devil in America” is very much a postmodern story. Its title comes from a quotation that is attributed to White Devils/Black Devils by Luisa Valéria da Silva y Rodríguez; although this is presented by the text as a real book, I can find no reference to either it or its author outside of the story. The tale is also interspersed with annotations credited simply to “Dad,” which pass judgment and make suggestions on the story that Wilson is telling us. These repeated reminders that “The Devil in America” is a work of fiction add a touch of world-weary cynicism: the first of the notes specifically mentions black victims of violence in real life—“In Miami a bunch of white cops beat to death a man named Arthur McDuffie… The cops banged up his motorcycle trying to make killing him look like a crash”—thereby ensuring that, no matter how much we are caught up in the story of Easter and the Devil, we do not lose sight of the truth behind the fiction.
In some ways, “The Devil in America” is reminiscent of Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages’ “Wakulla Springs,” one of the 2014 nominations for Best Novella: both explore racism faced by African Americans using metafictional fantasy. Of the two, Wilson’s story is the more convincing and the more affecting.
“The Litany of Earth,” by Ruthanna Emrys
Ruthanna Emrys offers a revisionist take on the Cthulhu mythos by speculating that H. P. Lovecraft was being entirely unfair to his subject matter. “The Litany of the Earth” portrays the fish-people of Innsmouth as an oppressed ethnic group, and the cult of Cthulhu as an entirely legitimate faith that has been given a bad name by a few fringe extremists. The central character is Aphra Marsh, a woman of Deep One descent who hopes for a future in which her people are no longer persecuted.
It is easy to see the logic behind this premise. Lovecraft was notoriously racist, and his bigotry towards people of other ethnicities often blurred into the fear of the outside world that he channelled into his horror stories.
But while Emrys’ idea has its appeal, its execution is not sophisticated. The biggest weakness in the story is how it repeatedly falls back on acts of historical racism—namely the Holocaust and wartime internment camps for Japanese-Americans—for purposes of analogy. The impression is that Emrys has struggled to picture the prejudice faced by her humanised Deep Ones, and so uses real-life atrocities as shorthand; I need not point out the uncomfortable implications of equating ethnic minorities with Lovecraftian monsters, even as an attempt to redeem the latter.
By way of comparison, consider how True Blood uses its vampires to explore societal prejudice, while making them clearly a new kind of minority: not quite a race, not quite a sexuality, not quite a religious minority. Emrys, meanwhile, envisions her Deep Ones specifically as an ethnic group.
More convincing is the story’s portrayal of the Deep Ones’ religion. Sweeping away Lovecraft’s hushed hints of unspeakable rites, Emrys takes the time to establish a more sympathetic faith that regards the Great Race of Yith as pantheon of ambiguous trickster-messiahs. There are the makings of a good follow-up here.
“The Magician and Laplace’s Demon,” by Tom Crosshill
Centuries in the future, artificial intelligence and interstellar travel co-exist with magic. But the reality of magic cannot be proven—indeed, in Tom Crosshill’s story, that is the defining trait of magic: it is restricted to operating in a manner that defies falsifiable proof. For example, the magician Ochoa once succeeded in predicting the following week’s winning lottery numbers, but she was unable to repeat this feat. To do so would be to create a pattern, and consequently to provide proof of her unprovable abilities.
“The Magician and Laplace’s Demon” is told from the point of view of an AI that has become obsessed with magic. It has already brought about world peace and annihilated disease and famine, achievements that it briefly mentions as throwaway matters of fact, but it cannot wrap its digital mind around magic. A phenomenon that specifically defies hard data is anathema to a being that comprehends nothing but hard data, and so the AI sets about destroying magic for good.
Tom Crosshill is working within one of the most redoubtable of science fiction modes. He takes a simple but thought-provoking question and constructs a scenario in which that question can play out to its logical conclusion. How could magic exist within a fictional world defined by science? Crosshill answers this not by coming up with a scientific explanation for seemingly supernatural phenomena, but by portraying resistance to analysis as an essential trait of magic. In this story, magic self-evidently exists, but cannot be proven—a fetching paradox.
The title of the story refers to a hypothetical intellect imagines by Pierre Simon Laplace, one that “at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed;” this role is taken by the AI. Like much hard SF, the characters in “The Magician and Laplace’s Demon” are flat—but this is entirely justifiable as we are seeing through the eyes of a computer. Compare Cornhill’s thoughtful execution of the idea to “Turncoat,” Steve Rzasa’s facile attempt at an AI-narrated story, and the difference is as clear as night and day. The fact that Cornhill’s story was not nominated while Rzasa’s made the ballot is an embarrassment, and another unfortunate outcome of the Puppy campaigns.
To be concluded…
In my next post, I will complete this series by looking at the novellas, novels and related works that were in the running for the 2015 Hugos.