Hugo Award Short Story Finalists 2017

Short Stories 2017

I Finally read all the short stories for this years Hugo Award. All but one of these stories can be read free online, and I would recommend all but one of the stories on this list. Only That Game we Played During the War was on my nomination ballot, but that isn’t going to make my vote out of these finalists any easier. We have five amazing short stories this year, and they are…,

 

The City Born Great – N.K. Jemisin

Read it here

It seems everywhere I look nowadays, I end up seeing New York. I read this while also reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, so I felt more connected to the setting here than I think I otherwise would have been. In other words, I know just enough about New York to appreciate how much someone who has been there would love some of the shout-outs to different areas this story makes.

For those who aren’t entirely in love with New York, there is still a lot to love about this story. It’s the story of cities coming to life in a reality-warping, eldritch way. The narrator is a homeless black man, who must now avoid unspeakable horrors as well as dealing with the everyday problems of getting food and shelter and avoiding the attention of the NYPD. The portrayal of police here may rub some readers the wrong way, but considering the way homeless people -especially homeless people of colour – are often harassed by police, I think the protagonist’s concerns are justified. There was a really intense chase scene here that I loved.

 

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers – Alyssa Wong

Read it here

That first paragraph was super tight;

“There was nothing phoenix-like in my sister’s immolation. Just the scent of charred skin, unbearable heat, the inharmonious sound of her last, grief-raw scream as she evaporated, leaving glass footprints seared into the desert sand.”

All the language in this story is beautiful and emotionally charged. Though one thing it doesn’t do is state clearly what it is happening. This is the type of story where you have to decipher what’s going on a bit, but I feel it was worth it. Once I got to the end I re-read the start and suddenly everything was clear.

In this story, Hannah and Melanie are two sisters that have power over both the weather and it seems over time. When Melanie uses her powers to commit suicide, Hannah attempts to alter the timeline to save her sister. This goes on more times than she can count, and comes with a heavy emotional toll.

I’ll re-read this story again before I actually cast my vote. It’s powerful, but I found it very esoteric first time around. Despite being short, this story tackles love and grief and rejection well, though I feel the writing style may be a bit too out there for some. I feel like it’s the sort of story that’ll get better with every re-read.

 

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies – Brooke Bolander

Read it here

A super short fantasy/horror story; barely a thousand words long in fact. I’m finding it hard to comment on this story, as it’s so short I feel that mentioning anything about it here will away from the reading experience. I’ll say one thing; most of the story was told through a list of dot points. In a longer story, I would have found such a list a big no-no, but for something this length I feel it works really well. It’s a story of revenge, which contrasts the way rapists and killers often get fame of some kind to the way victims often face further degradation. But that’s not what’s going to happen this time, let’s just leave it at that.

 

Seasons of Glass and Iron – Amal El-Mohtar

Read it here

A beautiful, modern fairy tale. It takes elements from two separate stories (The Enchanted Pig and The Princess on the Glass Mountain) and combines them into a tale of two women learning to free themselves from the unfair expectations and abuses of men. It subverts of a lot of the misogynist themes in fairy tales, while still keeping the magic.

The heroines of the story are Tabitha; a woman who is cursed to wear out seven pairs of iron shoes, and Amira, a princess who must sit atop a glass mountain and wait for a man to ride up to her in full armour. They meet and talk about their curses and geese, and become really close. It is possible to interpret their relationship as romantic, but it is just as plausible (and rewarding) to see them as friends.

 

That Game We Played During the War – Carrie Vaughn

Read it here

This is one of the most fascinating depictions of telepathy I have ever seen. There is a war going on between two countries, one where everyone is telepathic and another of non-telepaths. The question on how to safely keep prisoners of war in this situation was very interesting. Likewise, we also see how easy it is for misconceptions about the enemy to terrify us during times of war. This story actually takes place after the war, with a non-telepathic nurse who both treated POWs and was herself a POW going into former enemy territory to visit her prisoner-turned-captor, and finish a game of chess they had started during the war. It is a really powerful story of reconciliation and peace.

 

An Unimaginable Light – John C. Wright

Originally appeared in the anthology God, Robot

A theological discussion between a robot and a human, that tries to examine free will and what it means to be human, and to prove a creationism. It doesn’t do this well, and what could have been a shocking reveal at the end just seemed silly. Shame, I think the plot and the reveal at the end could have been interesting if it was done by someone who wanted to tell a story, rather than spew bullshit.

The main female character is described with the words ‘pulchritudinous’, ‘callipygous’ and ‘leggy’ at the start, and later it is revealed that she has ‘creamy upper thighs’. Overall, the descriptions were bad, and the dialog was just terrible.

Then we get what I’m assuming are jabs at ‘lefties’. At one point a character replaces the phrase ‘his or her’ with the phrase ‘his or her or cis-his or cis-her or his-her or non-his or non-her’. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be satire, or if Wright really doesn’t know about gender neutral pronouns. You know, like ‘they’.

Best part about this story was when the male protagonist ended a debate about whether robots feel pain or are just mimicking it with a bitchslap and the line “I now require fellatio.”

In summery, this story is boring, hard to read, badly written, and overall stupid. Thank you Rabid Puppies.

 

The short stories this year were as a whole much more enjoyable than last year. I’m still tossing up on how to vote, but whichever one of these stories comes out on top would be a worthy winner.

~ Lauren

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三体 by Liu Cixin and Wayfarers by Becky Chambers

20170529_092321I know it’s unfair to lump two great series together for one review, but after reading both series back to back for the Hugo Awards, I was struck by how utterly different they were to each other. These two series are total polar opposites, and I thought it would fun to compare the different views of the universe and alien life they have.

A word of warning. If you want to read both of these series back to back, start with Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Death’s End went to some really dark places, and I feel that reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet straight after was the best possible pick-me-up.

Okay, let’s talk a bit about the two series. You may remember Remembrance of Earth’s Past from when I reviewed the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem, earlier this year. I tried not to go into too much detail about the plot on that review, since I think it’s a more fun read the less you know beforehand. I’ll try not to be too spoilery here, but I’ll have to reveal some information about the plot in order to discuss the whole series.

This series, (which I’m going to just refer to as 三体 from here on to save typing. The title is the Chinese title of The Three-Body Problem, and is often used to refer to the whole series) is hard science fiction. As in, no faster-than-light travel and detailed explanations for all the futuristic technologies we encounter. It is a story set in space and featuring aliens, but it is definitely not space opera.

The characters are scientists and military personal who over the course of many centuries try to defend Earth against alien invaders. I never really connected with any of the characters, but viewing the story as a long reaching future history nullified a lot of the characterisation problems. Of course, there were characterisation problems. Hard SF in general isn’t known for producing the most realistic, depth-filled characters, and this series in particular struggled at times.

Whilst I wasn’t that interested in any individual Humans in the story, I found myself deeply engaged and interested in the behaviour of humanity as a whole. Since there is no FTL travel in this universe, the human race has about 400 years of knowing that an alien invasion is on its way, and that we will never have the technology to defend ourselves. The reactions the general population has to each different development, and the out-of-the-box plans humanity has to come up with to try to protect itself, made for a fascinating, hard-to-put-down read.

The two books of the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers were also hard to put down, but for different reasons. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit are space opera. Space opera with it’s easy FTL travel, journeys to different worlds, and numerous alien races. The technologies are not explained in great detail and at times the alien races feel a bit too human, but the characterisation more than makes up for it. In Angry Planet, we follow the crew of a hyperspace tunnelling ship.

They don’t get involved in any grand adventures, they don’t have to save the galaxy, nothing so exciting. They just have to go to this remote part of space and punch a hole in the fabric of space and time. On the way, they make stops to resupply and take shore-leave, and that’s about it. Occasionally something more serious does happen, but for the most part, they’re safe. Despite the lack of action, there is tons of character growth. Watching the crew grow, and watching how their relationships change as they learn more about each other was perfect.

A Closed and Common Orbit features a smaller cast of characters, and most of the action takes place on one planet, but it was still amazing. We watch Sidra the A.I. who is illegally downloaded into a synthetic body try to adjust to her new life, while also learning about Pepper, who was created to be a slave in a scrap heap on a restricted planet of enhanced humans, but escaped with the help of a friendly A.I. A beautiful character study, with what seemed to me a realistic depiction of an A.I’s struggles.

There are a lot of differences between these two series, but the one I’m most interested in is the two different views on alien life. In Wayfarers, humans are part of a galactic community. The Wayfarer itself is a multispecies crew, and Sidra goes out dancing with aliens. It’s not a perfect galaxy; there are wars, and prejudice, and not everyone likes humans, but it is a relatively safe and peaceful interstellar civilisation we get to enjoy. In 三体,this is not a possibility. Even if FTL travel was a thing, the universe is just too hostile and scary to support a multispecies civilisation. I can’t really go into details about why this is without giving out big spoilers, but Liu gives a very compelling reason for why we can’t all get along and go out clubbing together.

In 2010, Stephen Hawking warned that first contact with aliens could be a disaster for humanity. He compared Earth meeting aliens to Columbus landing in the New World, but with the destruction the Native Americans faced being repeated across the planet.

He does have a point. If aliens can reach Earth, then they probably have the technological superiority needed to destroy us. A counter-argument though would be that they would have no reason to do so. Any resources they could extract from the planet could be more easily obtained in space, and if they wanted a new home, then surely there would be plenty of uninhabited worlds out there for them to take. After all, Earth has been human-free but habitable for most of its life, so statistically, shouldn’t most habitable worlds be uninhabited? Slaves? If you can build a fleet of space ships, you can build a robot workforce. Ideology? Maybe, but if they’re the type to keep stirring up wars, they might not have the time or resources needed to explore the universe.

All things considered, if we make contact with aliens, we’d all be friendly, right? Technological restraints might prevent us from having the type of space opera universe we see in Wayfarers, but it’s not hard to picture some sort of community where we have peaceful relations with alien civilisations. Yet in 三体, Liu not only justifies why the trisolarian aliens are out to get us, but also paints a realistic picture of a universe where every alien race is hostile. I can’t say why, because that would spoil The Dark Forest, but if you really want to know without reading the books, google ‘dark forest theory’; the logic behind the 三体 universe should be easy enough to find from there.

三体 is a cynical and logical response to the optimism found in space operas like Star Wars, Star Trek, and other works like Wayfarers. Not only that, but the focus on technology and the realism the series employs make this hostile view of the universe seem not just possible, but highly likely.

It was a bit depressing seeing the usual tropes of an interstellar civilisation so drastically reversed. And yet it was also fascinating and thought-provoking. 三体 did dent my excitement at the prospect of meeting aliens and made the universe seem like a darker place, but I still enjoyed the series. Having your view of the universe changed is a big thing, and the 三体 books did it in a very enjoyable way. But I feel like I really needed a more optimistic space opera afterwards, and the two Wayfarers books were perfect for that. I loved both series, and both Death’s End and A Closed and Common Orbit deserve their places as finalists for the Hugo Award.

 

~ Lauren

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – The Source

The Source

By Ayreon

Released 28th April 2017 (Mascot Label Group)

Starring:

James LaBrie, Simone Simons, Floor Jansen, Hansi Kürsch, Tobias Sammet, Tommy Karevik, Michael Mills, Russel Allen, Tommy Rogers and Zaher Zorgati

Score: 9/10

 

I’m not going to make a habit of reviewing music. After all, just because readers are interested in the same books as me, doesn’t mean you’ll like the same music. But I have to talk about Ayreon at some point, especially now that there’s a new Ayreon album out and damn it sounds good.

Ayreon is the musical project of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, a Dutch singer, songwriter, musician and record producer. Ayreon albums are rock operas, with each one telling a complex story featuring multiple characters, each represented by a different vocalist. Describing the genre of Ayreon is tricky; the most apt label is prog, or progressive rock, but elements of power metal, folk, classical, and electronica music are also heavily featured. Each album tells a separate story, but all bar two of the albums are set in the same universe.

And this wider Ayreon universe is why I’m reviewing this album. The Ayreon albums tell a story of an alien race called the Forevers, who are kept alive by machines and no longer feel emotion. To help them regain these lost emotions, they seed Earth, thus creating Humanity (01011001). They run a number of tests on Humans (Into the Electric Castle and The Human Equation) but in the end we destroy ourselves (The Universal Migrator and again 01011001). We do attempt to prevent our destruction by sending a warning message back in time (The Final Experiment), but this isn’t so successful. It’s a great science fiction saga, which leans a bit on the fantasy side at times, but is a lot more complex than you’d think given the media.

The Source is a prequel to this saga, detailing how the original humans on planet Alpha became the Forevers. It details how the Alphans reliance on technology led to the destruction of their world and most of their population. The main characters are amongst the few survivors, who escape their dying world on a spaceship and relocate to an ocean world. To live on such a planet, they must undergo certain changes to their biology. They also aim to make other improvements using machinery, while also trying not to make the same mistakes as before.

I’ll admit, as a stand-alone story it isn’t the best Arjen has done, but as a prequel to the rest of the Ayreon story it works well. It is an emotional ride, and I loved hearing all the references to the wider story arc. Musically, it is a masterpiece. All the vocalists were great, and I especially loved Floor Jansen, Michael Mills, and Hansi Kürsch. But really all the performances were perfect. I’ve been listening to this album a lot since it came out. I’ve listened to the whole thing in its entirety, both with my full attention and in the background while driving. I’ve listened to individual songs (cannot get enough of Run! Apocalypse! Run! at the moment) but I don’t think I could pick a favourite one. Most of the tracks are good in very different ways; compare the heavy Everybody Dies with slower tracks like The Source Will Flow and All That Was. Arjen has unleashed another masterpiece on the world. He has been called a genius many times, and I feel that that label is well earned.

If you enjoy metal, or rock operas, or science fiction stories that kinda brush up against the fantasy border, then go check out Ayreon’s music. I find Youtube a good place to listen to music, but I think that makes me a bit of a weirdo when there are so many actual music streaming places out there. Check out Arjen’s official channel to listen to all the songs from The Source and see lyric music videos.

Reviewing music is much harder than reviewing books. I find it hard to articulate what I like about music; it’s a much more instinctual thing than books. But I can say that Ayreon is a truly epic, and unique experience. The Source is one of the best concept albums I have heard in a long time.

~ Lauren