Noodling the 2014 Hugo Award Novella Nominees


Science Fiction Museum

Science Fiction Museum (Photo credit: Sebastian Bergmann)

I decided to buy my membership to Worldcon this year after seeing the flap about some authors using their power to get some works on the Hugo award list based solely on the politics of their creators. Now, y’all know I’m a political animal. I can spend hours a day in discussions on a wide range of advocacies. However, art is art, and while politics clearly influences art, because in the end we are all political animals, politics should not trump art.

So I read the five Hugo Award Novella candidates with the idea that I was going to simply try to enjoy them as story, and I was going to examine them as political vehicles as well. I read them in alphabetical order as they were presented on the Hugo nominees list. As you’ll probably be able to tell, my own feminist, civil rights and LGBT and poverty rights activist political leanings influenced my enjoyment of the stories, as did my years and years (three decades) of reading science fiction and finding far too few books that made me feel like I was a part of that world.

“The Butcher of Khardov” by Dan Wells was an interesting story about a creepy genocidal dude and his motivations, made SFF by set dressing in which magic and machinery played an important role, but one that could easily have been written as conventional war fiction. The main character was almost a Larry Stu, but if so, I shudder to think of the author’s inner life. It was well written, but frankly, I’ve seen this shit before and don’t need to be reminded that creepy genocidal dudes almost always have a motivation and it almost always involves blaming a woman in some way.

“The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen was a paeon to faith wrapped in a war story that again had science fiction trappings, but again could be easily re-written as a straight war story with the aliens (and their culture) re-written as an unknown human culture. It is the story of an assistant chaplain caught behind enemy lines who has lost his personal faith but whose actions in support of his mission cause the aliens to rethink their culture and theology. It has an uncomfortable lean toward “Rah! Rah!” but again was pretty well written. He had a human woman in the plot with actual lines and an actual agenda that didn’t involve her relationship to a man, which was an improvement on the first story

“Equoid” by Charles Stross was the first of these stories that I read in which the fantasy is front and center. Unicorns are not the delightful horsey friends of virgins in his dark tale, but something (literally) out of the realm of H.P. Lovecraft. It was in one sense a police procedural, and in another in part an epistolary novel as the main character who works for the Laundry (a secret British agency) reads letters of H.P. Lovecraft in order to get ahead of the looming doom. I really enjoyed this, even though yet again male characters are centered and female characters play supporting (and villainous) roles.

“Six-Gun Snow White” by Catherynne Valente was the first story to center a female character in the bunch. The voice of the story was unique and well done, and the story itself read like a fairy tale straight out of the 19th century American West, as the title might give the hint. I dove into this storyand wrapped myself up in it like a comfy, tattered blanket, even though it was dark and not particularly comforting, much more Grimm than Disney. Central to the story also were the experiences of women and people of color in relation to the power of white men of that era, so central that acceptance of and transcendence from that oppression was the theme. I loved this story, and will read it again and again, just because sometimes I need it.

“Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages was a masterpiece of mood and voice. I fell into the world of the title town as Johnny Wiessmuller and the rest of the cast and crew of Tarzan invaded to film, while the local Black community watched in awe and gobbled up the rare opportunity for well paid work. The story covers several generations, and the main character is a family rather than an individual, or possibly the whole community. I can’t express enough how beautifully written this was, how finely crafted the characters were, and how different they were from what I usually see. If I have a complaint, it’s this: This is a fairy tale style, set in “our world but not”, but the supernatural elements are so subtle that I kept expecting, every page, that at long last there would be an outbreak of magic, only to find that it was there in the background all along.

In the end, my vote will probably go to “Six-Gun Snow White”, simply because “Wakulla Springs” wasn’t actually (quite) science fiction or fantasy. No Award will place ahead of “The Butcher of Khardov” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy” and even (sadly) “Wakulla Springs”, because none of these were (Hugo) award worthy, although “Wakulla Springs” is definitely worthy of some award.

This is only the first step in my Hugo award reading. I’ve already started on the novelettes and novels, and then I’ll work my way down the rest of the list. If I were to force rank the novellas I just read, from best to worst, they would be as follows:

  1. “Wakulla Springs”. It truly is a masterpiece.
  2. “Six Gun Snow White”.
  3. “Equoid”
  4. “The Butcher of Khardov” Good story, hated the theme.
  5. “The Chaplain’s Legacy”. Honestly, I read more than a dozen better stories this last year than this one. It frankly doesn’t belong on the list.

As you can see, my force ranking of the quality of the story does not quite match my vote, for the reasons stated above. Someone squinted really, really hard to make Wakulla Springs eligible because it was just that good, but it isn’t really science fiction or fantasy. And the “Sad Puppy Slate” stories were just new rehashes of old tropes, not particularly outstanding in any way.

So now you know my opinion. What’s yours?


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About Maureen O'Danu

Maureen O'Danu is the webmistress of Am I the Only One Dancing? where there is a new discussion every day on any one of dozens of topics and ideas, as well as reviews, geekery, family, fun, and enough politics to season the pot.
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4 Comments

  1. My own ranking would be: 1_Six Gun Snow White_, 2_Equoid_ 3_Wakkulla Springs_ 4 No Award 5_Chaplain’s Legacy_ 6_Butcher of Kardov_. I agree that WS is reallyk really well written, but it’s not SF/F (why it’s not first), but I would not be upset if it won (why it’s not below No Award.) I don’t like horror, so for me BoK ends up below CL. Not to mention that BoK is written about an existing world, so there’s a lot of the interesting stuff in there that Wells himself did not actually come up with.
    Charles Stross’s horror has enough funny bits that I tolerate it a lot better (combat epsitimologist FTW) but I didn’t feel like this one was one of his best in that regard. CL had some good bits but “our only salvation is faith even if we don’t actually believe” is… kind of obtrusive. Plus, they can’t make it all about the politics to get their fans moving and then complain when the politics they dragged in keep shoving into my head as I try to read the story. Or rather they *can* because there will always be hypocrites, but I am not going worry about what hypocrites think.

    • Your ranking is a fair one. BoK was for me a far too familiar trope, and yeah, the political message in CL was very clumsily done and was almost a non-sequitor “faith is important because… I have none and stopped a war anyhow?” (buh?). I think perhaps I’ll bump WS above No Award and oherwise leave the rankings the same when I vote.

  2. I find it a sad commentary on the future of SF/F that you would rank a story you call a masterpiece (and I agree) below “no award,” because it doesn’t fit into your tight definition of what the genre is. Keep SF a ghetto, and don’t let anything brilliant in if it doesn’t conform?

    I did not have to squint to find this story fantastic. It builds on classic SFnal tropes — Tarzan, monster movies — and uses them to explore the differences between the imaginary and reality. That’s one of the reasons I read SF/F in the first place, to give me a new perspective, to begin to think about the world in new and unexpected ways, to open myself to worlds I have never visited.

    Wakulla Springs does that, and then some. It is, indeed, beautifully written, it transported me to another time and place, and it has stuck with me months after first reading it.

    I think that SF/F needs more of that kind of stories, and I think WS is something to celebrate, not denigrate.

    By ranking it below “no award,” you’re saying that you think the future of SF/F *ought* to be cookie-cutter space captain characters and over-used plots. Nothing new, nothing daring. Nothing “literary.” Just same-old, same-old.

    And I think that’s sad.

    • I have been going back and forth and back and forth on Wakulla Springs. It was an amazing story. You made a really good point. I hadn’t actually considered the Tarzan story as part of SFF aspect. And come to think of it, it really doesn’t make it clear if it is Tarzan or Johnny Weissmuller that is the boy’s father, if you see what I mean. Certainly if it was Johnny, that was some serious method acting.

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