More Worldcon homework, this time the Hugo nominees for best short story. Like Chad (some spoilers), I was pretty unimpressed. My tentative ranking, with one-line comments, follows; more detailed discussion, with inevitable spoilers, is behind the cut. (This is only tentative, as we’re not voting for almost a month and I may well revisit the stories; so feel free to comment and perhaps you’ll convince me.)
- Robert Reed, “Eight Episodes” (online at Asimov’s): peculiar but interesting, and the winner by default.
- Bruce McAllister, “Kin” (online at Asimov’s): I like the understated portrayal of the principal relationship.
- Tim Pratt, “Impossible Dreams” (online at Asimov’s): utterly shameless wish-fulfillment which would have benefited from some shame.
- Neil Gaiman, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (online at the author’s site): deeply annoying narrator.
- Benjamin Rosenbaum, “The House Beyond Your Sky” (online at Strange Horizons): it took me a great deal of effort to understand what was going on, and then I wished I hadn’t bothered.
To take them in reverse order:
Rosenbaum’s “The House Beyond Your Sky”: I found the prose in this extremely opaque. The narrator is telling a story for which humans lack frames of reference, so keeps interjecting to tell the reader what to think of something-or-other as, which I found both intrusive and unhelpful:
We imagine you—you, the ones we long for—as if you came from our own turbulent and fragile youth: embodied, inefficient, mortal. Human, say. So picture our priest Matthias as human: an old neuter, bird-thin, clear-eyed and resolute, with silky white hair and lucent purple skin.
Compared to the vast palaces of being we inhabit, the house of the priest is tiny—think of a clay hut, perched on the side of a forbidding mountain. Yet even in so small a house, there is room for a library of historical simulations—universes like Sophie’s—each teeming with intelligent life.
The simulations, while good, are not impenetrable even to their own inhabitants. Scientists teaching baboons to sort blocks may notice that all other baboons become instantly better at block-sorting, revealing a high-level caching mechanism. Or engineers building their own virtual worlds may find they cannot use certain tricks of optimization and compression—for Matthias has already used them. Only when the jig is up does Matthias reveal himself, asking each simulated soul: what now? Most accept Matthias’s offer to graduate beyond the confines of their simulation, and join the general society of Matthias’s house.
You may regard them as bright parakeets, living in wicker cages with open doors. The cages are hung from the ceiling of the priest’s clay hut. The parakeets flutter about the ceiling, visit each other, steal bread from the table, and comment on Matthias’s doings.
If that doesn’t make you cross your eyes, either you’re smarter or more flexible than I am.
Anyway, Matthias’s house is under threat. In one of his historical simulations, a little girl named Sophie is being abused. If I could get past the prose enough to care, I’d be appalled at the sentimentality of where this goes.
Gaiman, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”: the girls at this party are aliens. Not only does the first-person narrator fail to notice this during the party, he’s never realized in the thirty years since.
I’m willing to give this story the benefit of the doubt, and interpret as saying that if only the narrator would have paid attention, he would have realized what’s really alien (hint: not members of his own species). But even still, the narrator is so astonishingly oblivious that I can’t enjoy it.
(I’d uncharitably suspect this story of having been nominated by teenager boys just like the narrator, but I doubt there are that many of them paying to be Worldcon members.)
Pratt, “Impossible Dreams”: a passionate film fan finds a video store from another world, which only appears in his world for decreasing amounts of time at night.
This is an utter and blatant wish-fulfillment story:
The shelves yielded miracle after miracle. Here was The Death of Superman, directed by Tim Burton, starring Nicolas Cage; in Pete’s universe, Burton and Cage had both dropped the project early on. Here was Total Recall, but directed and written by David Cronenberg, not Paul Verhoeven. . . . In this world, Kubrick had lived long enough to complete Artificial Intelligence on his own, and Pete had to see that, without Steven Spielberg’s sentimental touch turning the movie into Pinocchio.
I did like the details of the story, like the difficulties faced by someone trying to check out and watch movies from a different universe. And a sympathetic portrayal of fannish passion can’t help but please me, even as I know my buttons are being pushed.
But the video store has a clerk. An attractive female clerk. And at the end of the story, she abandons her own world to come be with the main character—and at that moment, becomes more wish fulfillment. Gack.
(Chad said that he thought the ending was going to be that the main character would realize that he has no life—which he pretty much doesn’t—and go to her world. I would have been okay with that, or with a bittersweet ending. Also, I wanted to tell the main character that passionate, in-depth conversation about mutual obsessions is what the Internet is for, and why doesn’t he go online, find some fellow fans to talk to, and go to whatever the movie equivalent of Worldcon is to meet them in person?)
The alien and the boy, who was twelve, sat in the windowless room high above the city that afternoon. The boy talked and the alien listened.
The boy was ordinary—the genes of three continents in his features, his clothes cut in the style of all boys in the vast housing project called LAX. The alien was something else, awful to behold; and though the boy knew it was rude, he did not look up as he talked.
He wanted the alien to kill a man, he said. It was that simple.
There’s something about the spare prose of this story, and the relationship between the boy and the alien it implies, that I found—not precisely appealing, but memorable.
Like Chad, I wondered if this was a covert political story, but unlike him, I found more in it than that possibility. And since I’m not sure, I can’t consider that a detriment.
Reed, “Eight Episodes”: this is in the form of a non-fiction article about a mysterious Web drama from 2016. I find myself reluctant to spoil this one, because I liked it, so I’ll just say that it’s not a story for those who must have their mysteries solved above all else. But it has a couple of layers of neat ideas, and nothing about it actually annoyed me, and so it gets my vote.