Start End
Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

OMG, Hugo short stories! (2011 edition)

As I mentioned last month, I am voting in the Hugos and therefore reading as many of the Hugo-nominated works as I can before the July 31 deadline. So far I have read all of the short stories and novelettes and am going to embark upon the novellas this weekend. Here are my thoughts on the Hugo-nominated short stories.

"Amaryllis", by Carrie Vaughn

I'm ambivalent about "Amaryllis," because there's a nice concept here but that the actual story is too simple. as far as the tone goes, it is perfect. I got teary-eyed at the end as well, despite my inner critic going, "The resolution was too simple! There's not enough conflict! I want another cup of tea!" (That is how my inner critic stresses syllables, apparently.)

Vaughn very deftly avoids trying to do too much with her short story, which is a problem I often have when I try to write them myself. It's a very simple concept, and she doesn't attempt to go any further and tell us much more about the world than the main character's immediate surroundings. I like that, because it keeps the mood intimate.

The simplicity of the setting conceals a very deep story though. Again, Vaughn has the walk the line between telegraphing too much (and thereby making her story both non-subtle and overbearing) and too little (thereby making it inscrutable) about how the committee-based pregnancy panels work and the effects this has on society. I like the early tension that exists between Nina and the narrator, how the latter points out that Nina could probably find it easier to get pregnant if she joins a more auspicious house. Historically, our choice of mates have often been constrained by social status, but, thanks to our technological limitations, it has been difficult to prevent people from getting pregnant. Now the situation is reversed: Nina has a beau all lined up, clearly based on attraction and not any sort of status, but she needs the appropriate social status to be allowed to have a child.

I don't think the short story as it is could be easily expanded into a novel, but I agree the basic premise is intriguing. As with any suggestion that we restrict the growth of a population by awarding permission for pregnancy, the world Vaughn depicts in "Amaryllis" raises the spectre of eugenics and aristocratic privilege.

My only problem with the story was that I felt the conflict--or, more specifically, its resolution--was very simple. I realize, as a short story, that's usually a bonus. And it came out of left field: suddenly Nina suggests an audit. An audit?! I didn't know that was a possibility. No one foreshadowed that! But Vaughn handwaves this away because the narrator was just too intimidated to request one before. It's not as elegant as I would like to see, especially from a story that is elegant in every other way.

"For Want of a Nail", by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is my favourite of all the nominations, so unless I change my mind, I will probably vote for it. What can I say? I'm a sucker for stories about the deaths of artificial intelligences.

In "For Want of a Nail," Rava is the "wrangler" for her family's AI, Cordelia. One of several families aboard a generation ship, Rava's family uses Cordelia as a record of all the important events: births, deaths, marriages, diary entries, etc. So when Rava accidentally damages Cordelia and impairs her ability to serve in this capacity, she's desperate to conceal this from the rest of her family as she tries to repair Cordelia. She especially doesn't want her Uncle Georgo, Cordelia's retired wrangler, to learn of her screw-up. But eventually she resigns herself to appealing to Georgo to help, only to find out that he has dementia and has programmed Cordelia to cover this fact, lest he be found out and sent to be "recycled".

This is a very compelling story, and Kowal manages to pack a lot of ideas in here without losing the reader. The line between treating AIs as human yet having the ability to alter them in a way (as yet) unavailable to us when it comes to actual human beings

Rava winced at the title, at the way it stripped their relationship to human and machine. "I have to do a rollback."

It all comes down to a question of identity. These are fascinating questions about the philosophy of mind, and as our understanding of neuroscience increases, so too will our ability to manipulate our neurology at a fundamental level. At that point, we might well start thinking about doing "rollbacks" of human minds!

So I love stories that depict characters with cognitive faculties that make them, for all intents and purposes, as sentient as humans—yet we can stick our hands in their guts and reprogram them at will. That creates so many interesting moral dilemmas. Here, in particular, I love Kowal's juxtaposition of Cordelia's malfunction with Georgo's dementia, and how Fajra perceives their lack of usefulness to society as equivalent&38212;and deserving of the same fate, recycling.

"Ponies", by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson writes some weird stuff.

Her story "Spar" was nominated for a Hugo last year (and won the 2010 Nebula award for short story), and I absolutely hated it. I just didn't enjoy it at all, neither its cryptic style nor any subtext I managed to dredge from it.

"Ponies" is much better (and much less cryptic) but I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Now I can't get "My Little Pony" out of my head, particularly this parody trailer of a live-action "My Little Pony" movie. This story is kind of like "what if 'my little ponies' were real and you had to mutilate them to win social acceptance?" And that is so messed up yet compelling (whereas "Spar" was just messed up).

"The Things", by Peter Watts

I have not watched The Thing but still managed to enjoy this story, which actually makes it more impressive to me than if I had seen the movie. Mind you, I had enough general knowledge about the plot of The Thing that I understood the allusions within the first page or so. Yet if we existed in an alternative universe where the movie had never been made but this story was still published, I still feel it would be accessible.

It's simply a story told from the perspective of a shapeshifting consciousness that crashes in Antarctica and gets discovered by explorers. The consciousness is like a virus that infects life throughout the universe, assimilating it into its own distributed awareness. It has difficulty doing this with life on Earth, and that, coupled with its need to survive in such a weakened state, scares it and forces it to make bad decisions and try to adapt.

I enjoyed the exposure to this odd perspective, mostly because I like when authors challenge the idea that if there is life out there, it is probably going to be very similar to what we see on Earth. While it might be depressing to think that our evolution has produced a unique form of intelligence that, at least in Watts' depiction, is doomed to be at odds with the dominant form of intelligence throughout the universe, it's still a fascinating thought experiment.

That being said, I am disappointed by parts of the story, and in particular the ending. The last line being out of place: "I will have to rape it into them." Although I appreciate the tone that Watts was trying to convey—the alien is just going to soldier on and "save" us for our own good—his execution was rather abrupt and, yes, lazy.

I enjoyed the alien's initial bewilderment over how intelligence is situated in humans, but I feel the need to nitpick and ask why it didn't figure this out faster. I mean, humans are not the only species on this planet with brains; the alien inhabited and controlled a dog and should have noticed the similarities. I can offer some excuses: because dogs aren't sentient, perhaps the differences between a distributed and a centralized intelligence were less obvious; or maybe the injured, reduced nature of the alien was impairing its deductive reasoning. Nevertheless, this part bugs me a little.

I did like how he called our brains "thinking cancers." It's an apt way to remind us that our evolution did not direct us toward centralized intelligence and that intelligence is not the end goal of the process but merely another adaptation for survival.

Further Reflection

There are some interesting commonalities among the short stories this year. Both "For Want of a Nail" and "Amaryllis" have a ruling authority controlling people's lives, especially when it comes to conception, on the grounds of austerity and preserving resources. All of the short stories have to do, thematically, with "fitting in" and finding acceptance, in one way or another. One might argue this is true of most fiction, but I think it's particularly obvious here: the narrator of "Amaryllis" is discriminated against because she's different; Barbara in "Ponies" just wants to be one of the TheOtherGirls (creepy); the Thing has to conceal itself and hide among other humans; and Georgo compromises Cordelia's self-determination in order to fit in even after he develops dementia.

As I said above, "For Want of a Nail" is my choice for the award. All of the stories were good, but this is the only one that has really grabbed me and stuck with me. I tend not to read a lot of short stories, just because I really like the detail and scope of novel-length works, but "For Want of a Nail" was a pleasure to read and just the right length.