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Hugo Awards 2012 - Best Short Story

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hugo Awards 2012 - Best Short Story

After my weekend piece on the Hugo Short Lists, I decide to jump right into a category I'm not as well versed in -- Best Short Story. I read shorts from time to time, but rarely is it part of my weekly reading. This year's list for best short story includes: stalwart Mike Resnick with The Homecoming, short fiction superstar Ken Liu with The Paper Menagerie, former Jim Baen's Universe editor Nancy Fulda with Movement, and Princeton student E. Lily Yu with The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees.

I only mention four stories because, despite John Scalzi's popularity with the Hugo voters, I can't take his story, Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue,  seriously. It's occasionally clever, but doesn't really possess a narrative thread. Even Scalzi calls it a fake-prologue to a fake-novel about a fake-dragon who isn't as fake as everyone thought it was replete with run on sentences and incoherent names that riff on the time honored tradition of fantasy that does the same without ever actually making a new observation that hasn't been made a hundred times before. (If that sentence offends you, go read the first two paragraphs of Scalzi's short). Ok, Scalzi didn't really say that. Either way, I'm disqualifying it from consideration on my ballot. This spot should have gone to Maureen McHugh's After the Apocalypse and that's not a position I'm budging from.

The other four stories are all worthy to varying degrees and criticizing them is an exercise in nitpicking. I'll start with Resnick's story, which is the only one of the four not likewise nominated for the Nebula. The Homecoming looks at the oft mined relationship between parent and child. Jordan and Julia have a son named Phillip, who left years ago to pursue his dreams in space. Phillip, coming home to visit his dying mother, finds his relationship with his father seemingly strained beyond repair.

Told in the first person, from the father's perspective, Resnick left me with a slight emotional disconnect. Perhaps because my own daughter is so young, I found myself far more invested in the son's emotions at losing his mother and the guilt from leaving his parents to pursue his own dreams. The result is a psychic distance that didn't lend itself to my full investment. I suspect mileage will greatly vary depending on the reader. Given the reputation of an advanced average age for Hugo voters, The Homecoming's appearance on the short list doesn't surprise me.

From a science fictional perspective, Resnick's story confronts the fallout of human modification, the strains it might place on the structures of family, and the gains and losses of living life beyond the boundaries of Earth. In that way, it is the most successful of all the nominated stories in connecting with the themes and issues that make a Hugo story. Interestingly, I don't find any of the other three stories to be exceptionally science fictional (or fantasical). Each contains some genre elements (or they wouldn't be in the magazines they were in), but by and large only The Homecoming fully embraces their discussion.

Continuing, Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie tells the story of a half-Chinese boy raised by his American father and his Chinese-mail-order-bride mother. His mother folds paper animals and imbues them with life, a menagerie of origami. Liu, a writer of Chinese descent, describes experiences that I imagine come at least somewhat from his childhood, or at the very least the childhoods of people within his community. Ideas like the abandonment of cultural identity, the pressure to become Americanized, the feelings of belonging, are all resonant. Echoing Resnick, Liu spends quite a bit of time on the pressures and expectations of the relationship between parent and child and the deep sense of loss and sometimes betrayal when those expectations fall short. It's an emotional story, but not one that challenges the reader, nor does it feel like Liu stretching himself as a writer.

E. Lily Yu's The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees is quite the opposite. Using a distant dry voice that reads more like a scientific text than a narrative, Yu leaves the reader with a unique texture so unlike the more traditional stories on this list. It feels worked, as though Yu is pushing the reader toward something. Unfortunately, the result is a story that lacks character, literally and figuratively. Starting with a boy knocking down a wasps nest only to find it becomes a beautiful map when dried out, the story becomes the migration of the last wasp nest to an island ruled by bees. Yu describes the world they live in and how they move through it; the living and dying of several generations over an all too short ten pages leaves no room for characters (literally). While the prose is well formed and the narrative well constructed, Yu's overview style precludes heart, leaving me impressed, but unmoved.

That said, "impressed" will be enough for many voters and I expect the Hugo to end up in Yu's hands. My vote, however, will go to Nancy Fulda's Movement. It evokes a perfect combination of genre themes, emotional investment, and progressive storytelling. Hannah is autistic child whose parents are considering a procedure to "cure" her. The future has brought about many changes, not the least of which is a non-invasive procedure that can rewire Hannah's neurons, making her like everyone else. Told from inside her head, Fulda captures Hannah's disconnect from the world her parents inhabit. She describes the nature of Hannah's communication with world outside her skull, a unique focus on the dance she uses to find peace, and her eventual unrelenting desire to be who she is.

Unlike Liu and Yu's stories, Fulda's is more a fiction of ideas. She discusses autism as an evolutionary tool, as well as compares the advent of technology and the gap it creates in generational communication to the one between Hannah's autism and the world. Fulda melds these notions with a little girl trying to make her parents understand who she is -- her dreams for the future. It's executed flawlessly and the Hugo voters should be commended for recognizing Movement's brilliance.

As I read these stories what struck me most was the ubiquitous application of parents pregnant with expectations for their progeny. It's an indeleble theme that connects with any reader -- everyone is someone's child. How a culture relates to its previous generation, and the one to come, is most revealing. I wonder what it says about the Hugo voters that such pervasive sentimentality is reflected within this list. To those who read me often, especially my Hugo commentary, I have been known to use the term 'old boys club' when referring to the elder statespeople (women can be old boys too!) of fandom.

Perhaps this is a case where that's not such a bad thing. Only parents with an inherent fear of failure when it comes to our children and aging children with older parents relying on the support no child is ever ready to give, would connect so consistently to these themes. Either way, John Joseph Adams or Gardner Dozois might want to pay attention to the power of these stories, a mother/father's day anthology could do a lot worse than starting with these four.

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At April 12, 2012 at 2:31 AM , Anonymous Martin said...

Thanks for doing this, it is really interesting to read people's thoughts on each shortlist as a whole. Your remarks about prevasive sentimentality are depressing but not surprising. However, I've not read any of them yet. I'm hoping Locus will do their short story club again this year which I will definitely take part in.

At April 12, 2012 at 6:28 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I plan to write-up all the short lists. At least the ones that are written fiction based.


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