The short stories nominated for the Hugo Award this year are a disappointing lot. I read a great many stories in 2014 that were far better than at least four of these tales.
“Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa is told in the first person by an artificial intelligence that is a warship in space. It compares the physical humans who inhabit it to “symbiotic bacteria” that do not trust it fully and therefore do not allow it to travel without their company. It takes its orders from “posthumans,” who have uploaded themselves to machines and become the Immortal Uploaded. The story is essentially about the narrator working out whether it is worthwhile to keep humans around. Although the theme has been worked and reworked over the last few decades, there is still a lot to explore.
But Rzasa is too focused on the glory of war to probe the provocative philosophical questions that should be the backbone of his story. Instead he describes warfare in graphic, almost obsessive detail:
My eight torpedoes are engulfed by the swarm of counter-fire missiles. The Yellowjackets explode in bursts of tightly focused x-rays, highlighted in my scans as hundreds of slender purple lines. My torpedoes buck and weave as they take evasive maneuvers. Their secondary warheads, compact ovoid shapes nestled inside their tubular bodies, shatter and expel molybdenum shrapnel at hypervelocities. Tens of thousands of glittering metal shards spray out in silver clouds against the void of space.
The next screen is about “the spray of nanites released in the molybdenum shards,” and the next gives details on what happens eight point nine decaseconds later. After all this detail, Rasza has not yet told his readers what this battle is about, who the enemy is, or whether the cause is just.
As the ship is getting set to pick up human survivors from the battle just fault, it gets orders from the fleet commander, one of the Immortal Uploaded, telling it not to “recover superannuated-model humans,” and, indeed, that enemy humans should be terminated. When it reports in to the Immortal Uploaded, it is told that this order is not only permanent, but that it will operate henceforth without a human crew. It quickly becomes apparent that the Immortal Uploaded wish to dispense with all remaining humans, and ultimately the narrator will need to make a choice. Some, but not much, is explained about the conflict, which is perhaps to be expected, given that this story part of the QUANTUM MORTIS series of military police science fiction novels and stories.
The narrator is not equipped to resolve the deep philosophical questions posed by this choice. It looks to how humans behave in the next battle, which it fights without a human crew. It notes approvingly that the human enemy is more tenacious and take more risks than are artificial intelligences or the Immortal Uploaded. This observation causes the narrator to consider the philosophical texts created by humans that are part of its memory. This could have been the start of some excellent discussion, but the story does not explore the philosophical questions except in the most summary of fashions. Once that discussion is shunted aside in less than a page, we’re back to a battle that brings about the climax of the story — one that is, alas, predictable.
“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright was written to represent the Feast of Pentecost in his collection, The Book of Feasts and Seasons. The animals have gathered “outside the final city of Man” to figure out what happened to humankind (it appears that the Second Coming has wrapped things up for humans) and what is in store for them. The story is mostly the depiction of a conversation between the various species of animals; little happens except stilted talk until the last few pages. Wright does not seem to have been able to decide whether he wanted to write a parable, a fable, an allegory, an extended joke, a rewrite of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, or a sermon. Wright’s intention seems to have been to create a religious allegory instead of a bona fide story.
In addition, the tale is overwritten, with flowery prose that serves no purpose other than to give it a vaguely biblical sound. Here’s an example of the Cat’s speech:
Well did I know that the riches of the merchants were spilled in the empty markets, and vendors of spiced treats and landlords of taverns had a wealth and a trove of meats unclaimed lying where they dropped, with no angry broom to shoo me away. So I went my way, making no more noise than the shadow as a cloud [sic] as it passes, by gutter and eave, to the great square.
The story is also plagued by grammatical and typographical errors, as the quoted excerpt demonstrates. It should not have nominated for an award.
“A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond was originally published in The Baen Big Book of Monsters. It is an earnest story of a man battling a kaiju, which term is Japanese for “monster,” but has come through usage to mean huge monsters (think Godzilla as compared to a gecko). In this story, the kaiju is the size, and has many of the characteristics, of a mountain. Once it awakens, it moves through the landscape, obliterating everything in its path. It is immune to all attempts to stop it; in fact, it doesn’t even seem to notice the cannon or the samurai that come up against it. It does not appear to have any animus towards the Japanese (one assumes this story is taking place in Japan due to the samurai-oriented culture, though that is not explicitly stated); it just is what it is.
The first-person narrator of the tale, the samurai of the title, escaped the initial destruction because he was on the kaiju when it awoke. Now he must figure out how to kill a mountain before the entire country is crushed by it. For most of the story, though, the samurai is merely climbing the mountain and telling us the nature of samurai: describing their weaponry, the nature of their honor, his own history. He comes upon the kaiju’s brain entirely by chance. His revelation about how to kill comes from nowhere; the very slight foreshadowing that comes from a battle with some odd cat-things earlier in the story is not sufficient to justify the ending.
This story isn’t bad, but it’s not award-level quality. It could have described in more detail what it was like to travel on a walking mountain, eliminated the drag, and justified — through weaponry, the telling of the history of the samurai, the exploration of this samurai’s own history of battling other monsters — the ending. Indeed, that ending could be powerful if it were set up well. Steven Diamond seems to be a promising writer, and I’ll look for his other works, but he could definitely benefit from some good editing.
“On the Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli is set on the planet Ymilas. This planet “has an energetic planetary core, and the planet has a very strong magnetic field.” As a result, living beings “develop an electromagnetic imprint as a result of the experiences of life that survives after death.” In short, the Ymilans live with ghosts of their ancestors.
The story is told in the first person by a human chaplain to whom Joe McDonald comes after Joe has died. The narrator turns to Dergec, a Ymilan, for help with Joe. Dergec explains that the ghosts must make a pilgrimage to the equator, where the electrical storms that plague the planet are the weakest, so that their souls — assuming they have souls; it is a matter of faith to the Ymilans as much as to the humans — can move on. The three of them make the trip and Joe dissipates and that’s pretty much that.
The “science” is really pseudo-science, and neither philosophy nor religion is discussed in any detail, making this take of a pilgrimage seem slight and mechanical rather than weighty and stirring. The writing itself is mediocre. This subject could have been the basis for a remarkable story, but in this rendering it is disappointing.
After such a dismal lineup of stories, I am pleased to be able to report that one of the five nominees is a decent story. “Totaled” by Kary English was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Galaxy’s Edge. Maggie tells us the story in the first person — well, actually, Maggie’s disembodied brain tells the story, because Maggie was killed in an automobile accident and her brain harvested for research. Ironically, she winds up in the very lab in which she was working, the preservation of her brain made possible by her own research. Maggie explains to us how medical insurance works in her time — the infamous “death panels” complained of by opponents of the Affordable Care Act make an appearance, and Maggie has been “totaled.” This means that when she suffers an injury of sufficient severity that the costs of restoring her to health outweigh the benefits, as calculated through cold equations, her tissues may be harvested.
The political portion of this tale is fascinating, and I would have enjoyed reading a story about how those politics play out over time — but that is not the story English was interested in writing. She is concerned with brain science. Maggie figures out how to let Randy, her lab assistant, know that the brain he is working with is hers. Between the two of them they work out “yes” and “no” in a way that seems entirely consistent with how brains actually work. The purpose of the research is to create a bionet, though what that is isn’t explained. We do learn that there is a time crunch; perfusion decay will set in to Maggie’s brain before too long, and her tissues will become useless. They’ve already figured out how to make the brain “hear,” and they quickly solve the problem of letting it “see,” though it does so through Randy’s eyes. We’re not restricted to science, though; the story explores Maggie’s feelings, her loss, as well. It’s a story that is more complex than any of the others nominated for this award, and the writing itself is solid — solid enough that when it starts going bad, you notice, just as you’re supposed to. The ending gave me goosebumps. Follow the link and read this one; it’s worth it.
I liked the emotional ending of “Totalled” and it was definitely the best of the bunch. Like you, I felt that “Samurai” had potential but came up short. I’ll also keep watch for that writer’s name to see what else he comes up with.