Friday, May 27, 2005

Hugos -- Short Story

So I've now read the five short stories nominated for the Hugo this year. They are:

My Travels with Cats
A Princess of Earth
Decisions
Shed Skin
The Best Christmas Ever

I have to say I think short stories -- especially short stories in the genre -- are at a real structural disadvantage. The requirements of building a full world (with alien cultures, rules of magic, etc.), well-rounded characters, and a satisfying plot make anything under 7500 words a real trick. I really memorable short story is a rare and wonderful thing. Novelettes and novellas are easier.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Travels With My Cats the story of a visitation/romance between a living reader and the (dead) author of his favorite book. The narrator is a profoundly isolated man whose profound lonliness calls forth the spirit of a pretty, young adventuress. They have a series of conversations in which she points out that he's terribly lonley, and then she is lost when the book (a very rare limited edition) is destroyed. The story fell a little flat for me. The dialog on which the story relied didn't begin until late in the story (the beginning being taken up by a summary of the narrator's acquisition of the book, descriptions of the book's contents, and the narrator's entire adult life to the point at which the visitations began), and then took over the story.

A Princess of Earth (also by Mike Resnick) is a very similar story. In it, the narrator is a profoundly lonely man (recently widowed) who is visited by a figure from a book he read in childhood -- this time John Carter of Mars. They have a very long conversation, after which John Carter's body dies (transporting his spirit to Mars and his true love if he's authentic, just killing him if he's a nut job who only thinks he's John Carter), and the narrator is left to choose his own suicide or possibly flight to Mars.

It's intereresting to read what is essentially the same story twice. Even the structure -- summary, encounter, conversation, parting -- is the same. Neither story was as complex or compelling for me as some of Resnick's other work (Kirinyaga must, of course, spring to mind).

Decisions is a story I wanted very much to like. The initial conceit -- an astronaut returns to the earth six months before he is scheduled to leave -- hooked me. But then when that turns out to have been a misdirection by aliens set to decide whether we are ready to join the galactic community, I was let down. The writing on the story was fine, but the trope on which it relies -- humanity judged by aliens to determine whether we are worthy -- has been done and done well so many times (and poorly so many more times) I needed to see something startlingly new done with it. Instead, the story reminded me pleasantly of being young, and watching the original Star Trek. To the degree that the story is an homage to that tradition, it's fine. I just wouldn't put it on par with Jeffty is Five, The Very Pulse of the Machine, or A Study in Emerald.

Shed Skin also reminded me of Star Trek -- it is another treatment of the Transporter Problem: If you have two copies of one consciousness, which one is Real (tm). This is an issue that has been addressed in Star Trek episodes and in other stories (Think Like a Dinosaur especially springs to mind). But I confess this particular consideration lost me in its mundane details. I was lucky enough to know a SWAT team negotiator when I was in college, and I'm afraid the inaccuracies of the hostage situation made me start thinking about the real-world background too much. And once I began to question, the tissue of the story fell apart.

The "original" character can't stand being restricted to the pleasure colony created for "shed skins". So instead he chooses to take a woman hostage and threaten her life? Does this not seem likely to lead to a much less pleasant confinement? The "original" demands to talk to the copy on the theory that he will be able to talk his duplicate into suicide. This also seems unlikely. And (the thin edge of the wedge for me) a hostage negotiator aceeds to the demand of the abductor without trying to lower his expectations of success or walking through the consequences of his actions? While the sentence-by-sentence writing was good, there were too many logical flaws in a story that relies upon the worldbuilding to give the situation emotional presence.

Which leaves me with The Best Christmas Ever. Which I thought was very well done. There is very little summary, and what there is gets broken up enough to not intrude on the flow of the story. There's also an emotional complexity that comes from the girlfriend-bot's surprise decision to provide the main character with the means to kill himself or else her. I was a little confused by the flags that marked the beginning and end of the narrator's interactions with the main character. And the main character's reaction to being given responsibility and choice is an emotionally complex, surprising, and believable one that I found very satisfying.

16 Comments:

Blogger Nicholas said...

I mostly agree with this, and found it useful in framing my thoughts for my own survey of the Hugo nominees, here or here. Looking forward to seeing your take on the other categories.

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Blogger Safe Light said...

The real world's intruded a little, but I'm still intendin' to crank those out.

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