Sunday, April 15, 2012

Blogging the Hugos 2012: Best Short Story

I've been remiss in my reading for the past two years, but the short story (and its ilk, the novelette and novella) is where I feel a lot of interesting material is being written. So here it is, Best Short Story:
Best Short Story (593 ballots)
"The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld, April 2011)
"The Homecoming" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's, April/May 2011)
"Movement" by Nancy Fulda (Asimov's, March 2011)
"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2011)
"Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" by John Scalzi (
The Category

After Best Novel, the category that garnered the most votes was Best Short Story (beating Best Dramatic Presentation by a single vote). Who ever claimed that the short story is dead?

The Nominees

In terms of quality, I'm actually impressed with the quality of the nominees.

There's lots to discuss actually with this year's nominees. Three out of the five are from print magazines (as opposed to online fiction or anthologies). As for the a trend, "The Homecoming," "Movement," and "The Paper Menagerie" tend to be go for emotional  manipulation. There's an even split between science fiction and fantasy, if we are to talk about genre boundaries (with "The Cartographer of Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" best left to reader interpretation). And then there is the inevitable comparison to The Nebula Awards, with half of the nominees having an overlap. Personally, it's these overlapping stories that I'd vote for.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

"The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld, April 2011)

During my initial reading, the story didn't grab me: the third-person perspective and clinical tone left me distant from the narrative. But upon closer inspection, there's a lot to unpack. Perhaps what's striking is that E. Lily Yu delves into a possible, mundane phenomenon, and imbues it with drama. There's also a level of implicitness that reveals restraint and gives space for reader interpretation. That, after all, is the appeal of the ending. This isn't a story that hits all the writing buttons such as character or tone, but it doesn't have to be. It excels in plot and the science and the drama, and the way the story is presented is uncommon in the field.

This is a good story. I'm just more attached to other stories on the ballot.

"The Homecoming" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's, April/May 2011)

"The Homecoming" works on a simple premise: a son who leaves the planet and undergoes a "transformation" comes back but his father resents him for it. It's a conflict that's ripe for mining and that's exactly what Mike Resnick takes advantage of. A lot of the story revolves around dialogue and Resnick successfully conveys each one's side and their inability to understand the other person's plight. Where the story falters—or rather, fails to take it to the next level—is how this conflict is resolved. First, the ailing mother asking for a parable is transparent. Second, the father's change of heart seemed so sudden and needed more goading. Resnick was already seeding steps in that direction but as it is, it wasn't convincing.

At first, I was skeptical of Resnick but reading the story, he won me over and I really wanted to like this story, specially when you consider this could be a metaphor for a lot of scenarios: transgenders, the expatriates, or even someone who undergoes extensive surgery. But if we apply a critical lens to how Resnick resolves the story, it's lacking complexity and depth, and is only one step away from a magical handwave—considering the resistance he's established in the story's beginning.

"Movement" by Nancy Fulda (Asimov's, March 2011)

Subdued is how I'd describe "Movement." What's fascinating is how Nancy Fulda uses metaphor to convey what her characters are feeling. There are also details which re-state what's previously established, without seeming heavy-handed, such as the propensity of the father to carry a laser to swat flies, while the mother eschews such technology.

If you don't read between the lines, you could miss the nuances of the story. But because Fulda employs restraint, this is a much richer story for it. This is terrific, and has that emotional weight to it. It's a close second to "The Paper Menagerie."

"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2011)

Every time I read this story, I cry. Ken Liu breaks the rule of "show, don't tell," but that's because he knows how to employ it: because the story is narrated through the lens of the prodigal son, emotion, insight, and exposition become part of characterization. The gem though is how Liu conveys the immigrant story—something we might have heard before—into something compelling, believable, and personal.

I think most readers will find two powerful scenes in this story. The first is the protagonist playing with his paper menagerie and evokes the same sense of wonder as the scene in The Once and Future King where Arthur transforms into many different animals. The second, which gives the first scene much weight, is the mother's letter. There are points where the letter could have faltered, but Liu goes all the way, and this is what leaves you in tears.

While not as restrained as "Movement," this is the story that's most powerful in terms of emotion. And my definite pick.

"Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" by John Scalzi (

At first glance, I thought this was an actual novel; I'd have bought it. I was going to make a post at how some short stories get expanded into novels, and how chapters in novels could make great short stories, but that this was neither—when I realized my error. Oh, this is that kind of story.

"Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" isn't quite the "Internet Puppy" vote, and there's a lot of deliberation put into this. Even horrible sentences like "others said it was very similar to the unforgettable Pounding of Skalandarharia, in which hailstones the size of melons destroyed the city’s melon harvest" work, due to the intentional parody. Perhaps a clincher for me would have been the ending, or the lack of a satisfying resolution, but that too ties into the metafictional nature of this piece.

So, should an April Fools win a Hugo? As much as I appreciate the humor, I was looking for something that had depth as well—as Terry Pratchett's later works prove to be possible. Good, fun, but give me something more and I'll take the plunge.

Other Recommendations:

While not up-to-date on my short fiction reading as I should be, here's some possible contenders:

"Mulberry Boys" by Margo Lanagan (Blood and Other Cravings): Margo Lanagan usurps the tropes of vampire fiction and creates this fascinating dystopia that's both rich and complicated—all in the span of a few thousand words.

"Story Kit" by Kij Johnson (Eclipse Four): Kij Johnson successfully juggles the metafictional elements of her narrative while still delivering a character-centric, heartfelt story.

"Say Zucchini, and Mean It" by Peter M. Ball (Daily Science Fiction, May 2011): A story that hits the heart, there are nuances in characterization if you dig deep into this piece, and tackles a common-enough condition.

"Younger Women" by Karen Joy Fowler (Subterranean, Summer 2011): Aside from a possible commentary on the creepiness of the Twilight franchise, the mother's characterization is convincing and the details in this story are to be treasured.

1 comment:

Paul Weimer said...

I've only read the Scalzi out of this set, and so am definitely looking forward to the Hugo packet to judge them for myself...