My feelings on short stories are decidedly mixed, because most of the short fiction I read is from collections that are, by their very nature, uneven. As with Anthology Films, I generally find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. Also, as someone who tends to gravitate towards actual storytelling rather than character sketches or tone poems (or similar exercises in style), a short story can be quite difficult to execute. A lot must be accomplished in a short time, and a certain economy of language is needed to make it all work. There are some people who are great at this sort of thing, but I find them few and far between, so collections of short stories tend to fall short even if they include stories I love. In my experience, the exceptions tend to be collections from a single author, like Asimov’s I, Robot or Barker’s Books of Blood. That being said, I’ve been reading significantly more short fiction lately, primarily because of my participation in the Hugo Awards. I found myself quite disappointed with last year’s nominated slate, so I actually went the extra mile this year and read a bunch of stuff so that I could participate in the nomination portion of the process. Of course, none of my nominees actually made the final ballot. Such is the way of the short story award (with so many options, the votes tend to be pretty widely spread out, hence all the consternation about the Puppy slates which probably gave their recommendations undue influence this year). But is the ballot any better this year? Only one way to find out, and here are the results, in handy voting order:
- Totaled by Kary English – Told from the perspective of a brain that has been separated from its body (courtesy of a car accident) and subsequently preserved in a device that presumably resembles that which was used to preserve Walt Disney’s head or something. In the story, this is new technology, so the process is imperfect and while the brain can be kept alive for a significant amount of time, it still only amounts to around 6 months or so. Fortunately, the disembodied brain in question was the woman leading the project, so she’s able to quickly set up a rudimentary communication scheme with her lab partner. Interfaces for sound and visuals are ginned up and successful, but by that point the brain’s deterioration has begun. This could have been one of those pointless tone poems I mentioned earlier, but English keeps things approachable, taking things step by step. The portrayal of a brain separated from the majority of its inputs (and outputs, for that matter), and slowly regaining some measure of them as time goes on, is well done and seems realistic enough. One could view some of the things portrayed here as pessimistic, but I didn’t really read it that way. When the brain deteriorates, she eventually asks to be disconnected before she loses all sense of lucidity (the end of the story starts to lilt into an Algernon-like devolution of language into simplistic quasi-stream of consciousness prose). I suppose this is a form of suicide, but it was inevitable at that point, and the experimental brain-in-a-jar technology allowed for a closure (both in terms of completing some of her research and even seeing her kids again) that would have otherwise been impossible. I found that touching and effective enough that this was a clear winner in the category.
- Turncoat by Steve Rzasa – This was the only nominated story that I’d actually read before the slate was announced, and it nearly made my ballot, though it was knocked off as I read other stories. This tale of an AI that inhabits a ship is certainly covering well tread ground, with stories like The Ship Who Sang or last year’s Hugo Award winning novel Ancillary Justice going deeper into the subject. However, the thing that’s really stuck with me in this story is the role and actions of the “uploaded” humans. I’d love to believe that such a thing would be possible in the long run, but how would we ever know the exact relationship between an uploaded human and its original, biological brain? What is lost and gained in the transition, and this story gets at some of the more troubling aspects of such suppositions. This is all world-building, of course, as the story itself is a fairly effective military campaign where an AI, disturbed by its uploaded masters, defects to the opposing side to try and save biological humans. I can see why this approach would rankle folks not into MilSF, but that’s a sub-genre that generally works for me, so here we are.
- On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli – A spiritual and heartfelt tale of humans discovering that the soul is actually a real, quantifiable thing, thanks to an alien planet’s strange magnetic fields. There is less of a story here, though there are some similarities to Totaled, where someone dies but is given a temporary reprieve so that they can glean some sense of closure. That closure is less effectively portrayed here, perhaps because this story is not told from the ghost’s perspective, but it is certainly implied. This actually reminded me of Timothy Zahn’s Conquerors trilogy, though Antonelli seems much more taken with the more spiritual implications than Zahn (who used a similar device for a more story driven purpose). There are some oddities about this that left me scratching my head, though I guess it makes sense from a more thematic perspective. Still, this is supposed to be SF, and I would have expected less of a rush to allow the ghost to pass on… In the end, it’s a decent story and I enjoyed it well enough, not too far behind Turncoat, but clearly inferior to Totaled.
- A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond – The tale of a single samurai taking on a mountain-sized Kaiju monster, this has stuck with me surprisingly well, even if there are a bunch of things that don’t quite jive with me. There are, for instance, a bunch of stylistic affectations that don’t really work for me at all. The story being told is effective enough though, and is what lets me enjoy it for what it is. There’s a decent sense of scale, and our protagonist is a man of honor who, while not perfect, manages to figure out how to defeat the monster. Could perhaps swap places with On a Spiritual Plain, though those stylistic affectations bother me for some reason (note: that usually doesn’t stop me if I think the story in question is interesting enough, which I guess isn’t enough in this case).
- The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright – Yeah, I don’t really get it. I guess there’s some interesting stuff in here somewhere (“the poopflinger has a point”), but there’s little story here. If the stylistic affectations of A Single Samurai bothered me, the affectations here downright bored me. It’s about a bunch of animals talking to each other in the wake of the Twilight of Man, trying to decide who will lead, or something like that. There are lots of Bibilical intonations, but the whole thing feels more poetic than story-like, and I did not particularly care for that. As part of the Puppy coterie complaining about the lack of good ol’ fashioned storytelling (a sentiment I admit that I have sympathy for), I have to wonder what’s up with this piece. As much of the Puppy slate has been derided, I have enjoyed a fair amount of it for its back-to-basics approach, but this does not fit there, and feels more like last year’s slate (albeit with a more Religious slant than last year’s stories). It’s fine for what it is, but it is pretty emphatically not my thing.
I definitely found this list an improvement over last year’s slate, which again, I did not particularly enjoy. With the possible exception of Totaled, I generally prefer the stuff I nominated to the finalists above, but then, I would think that, wouldn’t I? I don’t see the need to deploy No Award in this category, though I would not be surprised to see Wright’s story fall below that threshold (and we’ll see how I feel when the time comes to actually finalize my ballot, I guess).