Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reading Notes: Hugo Award short story nominees

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September. 

I've read the three Hugo short story nominees now: Aliette de Bodard's Immersion, Kij Johnson's Mantis Wives and Mono no Aware by Ken Liu. Having only the three to get through made this a light evening's reading, as I'd expected. I'm still a little puzzled as to why there are only three - seriously? there were no other sci fi shorts worthy of a nod this year? but having read them, I can't argue with the appropriateness of them being shortlisted. These are three very different stories but all of them are excellent.

I started with Aliette de Bodard's Immersion, purely because I've recently read, reviewed and loved her novella, On a Red Station, Drifting (which is also nominated for a Hugo in the novella category). Immersion is set within the same universe / master plot established in On a Red Station, Drifting, and deals with the same sort of humanity / addiction / technology interface issues.

de Bodard's frame is a spacegoing, space-dwelling advanced human population that has developed from a Vietnamese base, with some influences from Chinese culture (the Dai Viet Empire). As I remarked in my review of On a Red Station, Drifting, it's immensely enjoyable to see a beautifully realised future world that is not remotely Anglo-Celtic / American in its ideology, culture or frame of reference. There is no reason why the future will be a technologically-hyped version of 21st century America; in fact, there are many reasons to suppose it won't be at all. de Bodard is able, in both novella and short story, to deliver a universe founded on cultural assumptions, norms and behaviours that are not grown from the usual triumphalist US seed, and that in itself is awesome.

Immersion takes on the story of a woman trapped by a technology designed to assist, but with the strangling potential to subsume the personality; and the curious, mould-breaking hope represented by a pair of sisters who don't want to conform and embrace the tech. It's not a completely easy story to get around, switching as it does between the second-person narration of the trapped woman, Agnes, and the buoyant third-person view of the two sisters. Once the penny drops as to the relationship between the two narratives, though, it's an incredibly poignant little story, underlining in thick black ink the dangers of any tech (or, it's implied, any practice) that works by suppressing the soul.

Kij Johnson's Mantis Wives is the shortest of these stories, and manages to be both the most creepy and the most "alien" in its brief journey across the page. The premise is extremely simple - Johnson is imagining a culture that either is praying mantises or is extremely like them (not clear which, and it doesn't matter anyway). She's then unpicking what it means for the way that society operates that the females kill and consume their mates.

The story is creepy insomuch as it's entirely about death, killing and cannibalism, but is also chillingly insightful, and quite beautiful, in its delicate treatment of what such killing might mean for both the females and the males. Johnson is able to construct a web of artifice and ceremony around the culture of death that is at once mesmerising and repulsive. While I wouldn't go so far as to accuse her of outright equivalence, I caught a hint a few times of a gesture towards war and violence in human culture (the reification of death, the sense of ultimate purpose that is really nothing but a shade over the reality of lots of dead bodies).

As for the ending of the story, I won't spoil it for you, but if you read it (and you should), and if you are a sci fi fan, tell me if you agree that it has strong resonances of Ursula Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

My favourite story of the three, though, is Ken Liu's Mono no Aware. It is, in many ways, the most "straight" of the three - a recognisable earth-destruction small-group-of--spacegoing-survivors plot, that has been explored many times by many different writers. But Liu, in his protagonist, delivers a character who is both relatable and incredibly affecting. The plot is not twisty or tricky, running in a straight line to its (anticipatable) end. I think it's all the stronger for this lack of artifice; it amplifies the strong sense of sadness and sacrifice that permeates the plot and raises the ending to the level of true pathos. I had tears in my eyes as I finished this one, which is a high compliment as I am often a bit cynical about weepy stories generally.

So if I was the judge, I'd give it to Mono no Aware, but really none of the three would be a disappointing winner; they are all great stories, and all well worth your time.

The three stories can all be read for free online. This post from Worlds Without End provides links to find the free copies.

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