Having covered the Hugo Awards’ Best Short Story finalists in my previous post, I shall now take a look at the five stories that are contending for the title of Best Novelette.
And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead by Brooke Bolander
Rhye, a cyborg pitfighter, is on the hunt for a genius computer hacker. Together with her partner Rack, she must explore the seedy underbelly of their futuristic hometown, even if it takes the pair of them into the heart of the criminal underworld.
And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead has the distinction of being the only nominee in the category that was not nominated on the back of Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies campaign. Brooke Bolander offers a cyberpunk story that is reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell and Neuromancer—rather too reminiscent, it must be said.
Simply put, the story struggles to offer anything that has not been seen before. It tries for a twist ending, but this turns out to be merely a minor spin on something that had already been done in Ghost in the Shell. The sequence in which Rhye battles a clone of her younger, even more desperate self has a good concept, but it does not live up to its potential; the doppelganger theme is reduced to mere beat-em-up action.
Old ideas can be given new life by an accomplished stylist, but And You Shall Know Her does not satisfy on formalistic grounds. Here is a typical paragraph:
“Aw, come the fuck on, man!” she crows. “You can’t fuckin’ tell me the thought of actually going up against somebody who can give you a fair fight isn’t gettin’ you all tingly in your grandma-bloomers! Why the hell else would you come here? For him? Fuck’s sake, I’m you, aren’t I? You live for sweat running under your tits and blood splattering your face, not some soft-hearted fuckhead can’t tell which way a magazine loads.”
All of the characters, along with the third-person narrative voice, talk in the exact same way: seemingly every other simile involves either rectums or semen, like a forum post by a rude adolescent. This kind of prose gets stultifying after a while, even in a piece of short fiction.
Rhye is characterised in entirely obvious terms. She is portrayed as a cold-blooded killer (“She does it because killing is the only thing she’s good at, and quite frankly she enjoys it”) whose entire philosophy of life appears to be built around gun fetishism (“there’s no such thing as their fucking God … The only things you can rely on are these babies,” she says as she pats her firearms). In other words, she is no more than the default protagonist in stories of this kind.
A more sophisticated treatment of the same premise would have found time to probe the workings of the dystopian world and the nihilistic philosophies of its inhabitants; failing that, it would at least have made the occasional ironic wink at the reader. Instead, And You Shall Know Her simply uses its hell-on-earth setting as a playground, rather like a twelve-year-old who has just booted up Grand Theft Auto for the first time.
For readers who simply desire a quick trip through familiar genre territory, And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead may hit the mark. But a Hugo nominee should really have a little more meat on its bones.
Flashpoint: Titan by Cheah Kai Wai
Commander Hoshi Tenzen of the Japanese space-navy notices suspicious behaviour from what are purportedly merchant craft. He orders to open fire on the ships, and the altercation ends with the suspect vessels self-destructing. These were no mere pirates: rather, they appear to have been terrorists…
Hoshi blames the attempted terrorist attack on China, but lacks the solid proof needed to launch a direct retaliation. In an attempt to bring the conflict to a quick and decisive end, Hoshi decides to deliberately provoke a Chinese attack.
Flashpoint: Titan is an unabashed slice of hard SF, one that makes a concerted and rigorous attempt to portray the warfare of a space-faring future. Here is author Cheah Kai Wai’s insight into his world-building process:
In the story universe, helium-3 is the fusion fuel of choice; fusing one molecule of deuterium with one molecule of helium-3 yields one helium-4 molecule, one proton and 18.3 MeV of released energy. To put things in perspective, you could drive a car for twenty years with one gram of D-He3 fuel. Even better, the reaction is mostly aneutronic, so there would be far reduced radiation hazard than other fusion reactions (there would still be neutrons from stray D-D reactions). Rockets would find this extremely useful, as the fusion byproducts can be directed as thrust using a magnetic field. Being a gas giant with a high density of He-3, Saturn is a target for He-3 mining missions. Titan would be a natural base of operations, and with oceans of hydrocarbons the moon is itself a prime resource mining candidate.
Cheah’s efforts pay off: the story’s physical grounding affects not only the battle scenes, but also the entire political backdrop. “Flashpoint: Titan” portrays a convincing fight over resources, one that leaves the entire future of space travel at stake.
As is so often the case with hard SF, the story is not strong on characterisation. One single personality trait dominates the protagonist, Hoshi: his steadfast nationalistic sympathies.
Hoshi shook his head. This was not a time to hesitate. For the third time in history, Japan had been attacked by a nuclear power. But this time, Japan could strike back. This time, Japan would strike back!
“Everything about Hoshi should scream bushido,” says Cheah on his blog, “and in a sense, he is a modern day samurai.”
Hoshi’s love for his native Japan colours the climax to the story, as does his contempt for the Chinese (he uses the derogatory term chankoro). At the story’s end Cheah depicts the Chinese routed, not merely by Japanese technology, but by the very spirit of Japan: “It was as though an oni hard carved her up with a serrated knife” says the narrative voice, when describing a destroyed Chinese spacecraft. The ship, incidentally, bears the connotative name of Nanjing.
In the far-flung future of Flashpoint: Titan, nationalism—with all the pride and prejudice that comes alongside it—remains a force as unbreakable as the very laws of physics.
Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang
Folding Beijing takes place in a futuristic China where the titular capital quite literally folds and unfolds, allowing different areas to occupy the same space on alternate days:
Outside, the world was waking up.
As soon as the yellow glow of the streetlights seeped into the seam under the lifting gate, he squatted and crawled out of the widening opening. The streets were empty; lights came on in the tall buildings, story by story; fixtures extruded from the sides of buildings, unfolding and extending, segment by segment; porches emerged from the walls; the eaves rotated and gradually dropped down into position; stairs extended and descended to the street. On both sides of the road, one black cube after another broke apart and opened, revealing the racks and shelves inside. Signboards emerged from the tops of the cubes and connected together while plastic awnings extended from both sides of the lane to meet in the middle, forming a corridor of shops.
One half of the folding city comprises First Space, while the other consists of Second and Third Space. The three areas are rigidly divided by social class, recalling Metropolis and its vision of a city inhabited by an affluent elite above and a downtrodden workforce below.
The main character in Folding Beijing is Lao Dao, a Third Space waste worker in urgent need of cash for his daughter’s tuition fees. In an attempt to earn money, he accepts a risky proposition: to illegally enter First Space so that he can deliver another person’s love-letter to its recipient. In the process, he learns just how little the denizens of Third Space mean to those who inhabit First Space.
On its surface, Hao Jingfang’s story has something of the fairy tale about it. Its central image of the transforming city is almost Hogwartsian, while the main plot involves the Cinderella-like contrast between a tattily-dressed protagonist and the immaculate world of an artificially beautiful upper class.
But while it may be structured as a fairy story, Folding Beijing is grounded in something altogether more tangible. The characters engage in discussions about the place of the worker within a changing society and the human cost of technological development, thereby ensuring that Hao’s exploration of economic class has a solid basis.
Similarly, the story’s depictions of human relationships are psychologically plausible. When Lao Dao meets Yi Yan, the recipient of the love-letter, he finds that she is already married: Qin Tian, the message’s author and Lao Dao’s benefactor, is involved in a love triangle. As well as travelling between social classes, Lao Dao finds himself wedged between two romantic relationships.
In an interview with Uncanny Magazine, Hao describes how parts of the story were derived from her personal experiences:
For professional reasons and out of my own interest, I attended multiple economic conferences: Some of them were closed–door small sessions; others were large forums related to integrated policies. At these conferences and forums, I witnessed scenes similar to the one in my story, and one of the strongest impressions they left me is a sense that the bright, glowing figures shaping policy live in a completely different world from those toiling at the base of the pyramid. The policy–makers know of the existence of the lowly, but they can’t see them. For those with the power to shift the course of the country, the little people are just numbers in a spreadsheet.
Hao has taken her concerns about society and spun them into tightly-plotted story, rich in imagery and connotation. Folding Beijing is a worthy contender.
Obits by Stephen King
Michael Anderson, an up-and-coming journalist, gets a job at an internet tabloid called Neon Circus. He soon finds a niche writing caustic obituaries for recently-departed celebrities.
He goes on to develop a dislike of his editor, and for personal gratification, writes a mock obituary describing her choking to death on her own bile. The next day, he learns that she has passed away … having choked to death.
Michael’s co-worker, Katie, learns of his terrifying ability. Herself a rape victim, she realises that his power can be used to assassinate rapists who escaped justice or who received a sentence that she considers too lenient. Taking on the role of Lady Macbeth, she encourages the initially reluctant Michael to commit murder at her behest.
Obits may take place against a thoroughly modern backdrop of clickbait journalism, with a protagonist so up-to-date that he describes his girlfriend’s attire as “NSFW,” but the story is cut from some very old cloth. With its motif of mysterious supernatural vengeance against mortal wrongdoers, along with a twist revelation that this power does not operate quite as expected, Obits has a good deal in common with the 1950s EC horror comics that were a formative influence upon the adolescent Stephen King.
In particular, the story utilises a theme that holds a venerable place within horror fiction, while not quite having become a cliché, one that can be found in works as diverse as W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” Ramsey Campbell’s Obsession, and the manga series Death Note. This is the theme that you should be careful what you wish for—if not for your own sake, then for the sake of any poor devil who gets caught up in your machinations
King can get away with using well-worn concepts, of course, because of his knack at telling a story. In Obits, it is thunderingly obvious that Michael’s mock obituary about his editor will bring about her real demise; and yet, from there, the story keeps us guessing as to how it will develop.
During the course of the narrative, Michael imagines what his deadly wishes will ultimately lead to: will he end up running a “Death Vote” feature, where readers nominate celebrities for him to kill? Or perhaps he will fall into the hands of the U.S. government, who will use his deadly gift to assassinate political undesirables? By encouraging us to consider these potential outcomes, King helps to keep the final plot twist a surprise, even when it flows logically from the basic concepts of the story.
The true horror of Obits derives not from the death-by-journalism plot device, which is obviously the stuff of fantasy, but from the callousness of its characters. This is a trait that King portrays with bleak credibility.
Michael struggles with the moral implications of his power, but repeatedly gives in to temptation, comparing himself to a drug addict in the process. He is motivated ultimately by his physical attraction to Katie, whom he views primarily as a sex object. As the story progresses, Michael feels unease that Katie is becoming too much like the deceased editor—showing too much personal agency, perhaps. The entire Neon Circus bullpen appears to consist of people trapped at dead ends, now capable of nothing beyond destroying the lives of others.
Perhaps surprisingly, Obits is the first story by Stephen King to be nominated for a Hugo. King’s only prior nomination was for his non-fiction book Danse Macabre; beyond this, his recognition at the awards appears to be limited to Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller’s critical work Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King and Brain de Palma’s film version of Carrie.
It is ironic that a trolling campaign was apparently necessary for such a juggernaut of contemporary fantasy to have a piece of his fiction represented at the Hugos. Perhaps this can be attributed to the ghettoisation effect, with horror fiction—even horror fiction with clearly supernatural elements—being seen as something separate from SF/F.
What Price Humanity? by David VanDyke
Vango, a fighter in a battle between Earth and invading aliens, awakes to find himself reunited with his former comrades—including his dead girlfriend. The characters deduce that they have been placed into a virtual reality world, and must complete a series of tasks before they can go back to their lives.
What Price Humanity? is structured around a twist ending, as There Will Be War editor Jerry Pournelle indicates in his introduction: “Here is a tale of future space war that seems as if it’s going to follow a familiar pattern. Be warned. It doesn’t.”
The O. Henry approach to storytelling tends to fit awkwardly with speculative fiction. For a twist ending to have full impact, the reader is discouraged from thinking too deeply about the narrative, in case they predict the outcome. David VanDyke’s story is based around a potentially fascinating premise, but by saving the full revelation of the idea until the very end, the narrative is unable to explore its central concept beyond a few tentative steps.
Certain plot points could have been developed to provide more human interest—in particular, the seeming resurrection of the hero’s deceased girlfriend. But as the protagonists never really extend beyond stereotypes (the black character is even nicknamed “Token”) the story does not work as a character-driven piece.
So, in the end, What Price Humanity? remains a sting-in-the-tail narrative, with all other aspects pared down to ensure the maximum impact of the conclusion. On this level, David VanDyke has done a commendable job: the ending packs a punch and leaves a few lingering questions for the reader to consider. But nonetheless, a story that was actually constructed around those questions would look very different.
As with Best Short Story, the one Best Novelette nominee that is not a Rabid Puppy pick—and thus, the nominee most likely to win—is not particularly remarkable. Still, the category as a whole is stronger this time around, not least due to the absence of stories chosen primarily to mock Rachel Swirsky.
I found the strongest contenders to be Folding Beijing and Obits. Choosing between the two is tricky, given that they truly are apples-and-oranges stories. But while the horror fan in me was tempted to pick Stephen King’s finely-crafted tale, I would ultimately choose Hao Jingfang’s nominee: it is by a considerable margin the more ambitious of the two.
I hope that you will join me for the next post in this series, where I shall take a stroll through Best Novella.