2007 Hugo Award Nominees: Novelette

The last of my Worldcon homework, the Hugo Nominees for Best Novelette. This is a difficult category for me, because right now my categories are:

Somewhere near the top, but not enthusiastically:

  • Michael Flynn, “Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth” (online at Asimov’s): largely competent slices-of-life about a disaster.

Somewhere near the bottom:

  • Paolo Bacigalupi, “Yellow Card Man” (online at Asimov’s): caused me to want to scrub my brain out with a wire brush.
  • Ian McDonald, “The Djinn’s Wife” (online at Asimov’s): a story in which characters do stupid things that conform to gender stereotypes and that are apparently supposed to demonstrate some larger point.
  • Mike Resnick, “All the Things You Are” (online at Jim Baen’s Universe): another fucking male wish-fulfillment story.

Somewhere, I’m not sure where, because I need to think about this some more:

  • Geoff Ryman, “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” (online as PDF): if this were secondary-world fantasy, it would probably get my vote. But the way it approaches the real world makes me very uncomfortable.

More behind the cut. Lots of spoilers this time.

Bacigalupi’s “Yellow Card Man” is a lavishly detailed look at a future in which a boot is stomping on a human face forever, culminating in the protagonist’s deliberately choosing to do some of the stomping. Words are insufficient to express how unpleasant a reading experience this was.

McDonald’s “The Djinn’s Wife” reminded me of some of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights. Since I stopped reading a very nice gift edition because I couldn’t take the treatment of women any more, this is not a good thing, as I said above the cut. Two minor notes: I find it hard to believe that the narrator would know all the details being narrated; and if I’m correct in reading the very ending to imply a forthcoming romance, then yuck.

(I know very little about India and Indian literature, so I don’t know whether this story uses objectionable stereotypes or cliches. I did note that visions of Delhis past were deliberately contrasted with visions of Delhi in the story’s present, with the strong implication that the present is better.)

In Resnick’s “All the Things You Are”, there’s an alien who takes the form of whatever the men [*] who see it need: it heals wounds, shares favorite books, and provides sexual gratification (in amazingly flat prose):

It was amazing: she seemed to mirror my every thought, my every secret longing.

[ . . . ]

“I assure you that at this moment I am every bit as human as the Rebecca of your dreams. In fact, I am the Rebecca of your dreams.” She flashed me a smile. “I even want to do what that Rebecca wants to do.”

“Is it possible?” I asked curiously.

“Not while you have a broken leg,” she answered, “but yes, it’s not only possible, but natural.” I must have looked doubtful, because she added, “It would feel exactly the way you hope it would feel.”

Except that the alien is drawn to those that need it most, so it will never stay with one person. This causes the obsessed men, including the first-person narrator, to court death in hopes of seeing the alien again.

[*] Both men and woman are sent to its planet, but apparently all the women die before the alien can appear to them.

I finished this, spluttered for a moment, and then said to Chad, “Fucking male wish-fulfillment stories. *pause* With a side of woman as temptress-slash-destroyer.” Further commentary would be superfluous.

Flynn’s “Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth” is a kaleidoscopic tale of a ferry with a thousand people on board that vanishes in a science-fictional kind of way. I liked this better than Eifelheim because it was apparent from the beginning that it was going to jump from character to character and so I wasn’t expecting to form deep attachments. However, like Eifelheim, it has an intrusive use of language, namely the use of dialect, which all non-genius writers should avoid. It also cycles through a remarkable number of narrative types—first, second, and third person; traditional narrative, epistolary tale, script, and academic paper—which didn’t bother me, but I can see that some people might find it gimmicky. I liked it, but in a lukewarm way.

I’ve left Ryman’s “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” for last because it will take me a while to explain why I’m uncertain and uncomfortable about it.

The story opens with a short description of a Cambodian house owned by ghosts. That section closed,

This is a completely untrue story about someone who must exist.

The next section begins,

Pol Pot’s only child, a daughter, was born in 1986. Her name was Sith, and in 2004, she was eighteen years old.

My first problems arise from that juxtaposition, which I read as a statement that Pol Pot did not have a daughter, that she “must exist” in the sense that a true war story “must be true”—for purposes of the story only. This is incorrect: according to Wikipedia, Pol Pot did have a daughter born in 1986 named Sitha. According to a Frontline report, in 2002 she was learning English in a class among friends—something extremely different from her portrayal in the story. So I have two problems with this, first the misleading implication, and second the appropriation of the identity of someone who I would not consider a public figure.

Next, the setup. Sith in the story refuses to acknowledge the existence of history and has no friends, no life, and is “just a credit card.” In an aside, the narrator tells us,

Please remember that every word of this story is a lie. Pol Pot was no doubt a dedicated communist who made no money from ruling Cambodia. Nevertheless, a hefty allowance arrived for Sith every month from an account in Switzerland.

My knowledge of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is as shallow as a couple of web articles. However: (1) “no doubt” is a piece of rhetoric that I generally associate with sarcasm, in which case I want to ask the narrator to cite sources; and (2) if it’s not sarcasm, why this lie? I’ll come back to this.

For no reason that I can tell, Sith falls in love with a mobile phone salesman named Dara. When he asks her about her family, she lies, and the ghosts of her father’s victims start haunting her. Eventually, she realizes that the ghosts are those who have no-one left to mourn them, and that they want acknowledgment through Buddhist rites. She does so and the ghosts become benign. She then confesses to Dara that she is Pol Pot’s daughter. He thinks she’s lying as a way to break up with him and refuses to hear her.

The next day, Sith went back to Soriya with a box of the printed papers.

She dropped the box onto the blue plastic counter of Hello Phones.

“Because I am Pol Pot’s daughter,” she told Dara, holding out a sheaf of pictures toward him. “All the unmourned victims of my father are printing their pictures on my printer. Here. Look. These are the pictures of people who lost so many loved ones there is no one to remember them.”

[ . . . ]

He gathered up the sheaf of photocopying paper. “What will you do with these?”

Something made her say, “What will you do with them?”

His face was crossed with puzzlement.

“It’s your country too. What will you do with them? Oh, I know, you’re such a poor boy from a poor family, who could expect anything from you? Well, you have your whole family and many people have no one. And you can buy new shirts and some people only have one.”

Dara held out both hands and laughed. “Sith?” You, Sith are accusing me of being selfish?

“You own them too.” Sith pointed to the papers, to the faces. “You think the dead don’t try to talk to you, too?”

Their eyes latched. She told him what he could do. “I think you should make an exhibition. I think Hello Phones should sponsor it. You tell them that. You tell them Pol Pot’s daughter wishes to make amends and has chosen them. Tell them the dead speak to me on their mobile phones.”

She spun on her heel and walked out. She left the photographs with him.

Most of my problems with this story come down to this conversation. I’m okay with the idea that story-Sith needs acknowledge her father’s dead, as she is benefiting from her father’s crimes. (If there’d been no Swiss account, I’m not sure I would be. Sins of the fathers is not something I’m big on. Which brings me back to the question of why the Swiss account in the first place; if that’s the only reason, it seems rather forced.) But this conversation seems to me to be an assertion that Dara the unexceptional, and through him the entire country, isn’t acknowledging its dead and should be. Which seems like a really sweeping thing to say to me, and I am fundamentally uncomfortable with sweeping statements about entire countries.

Actually, it’s two assertions, the other of which is made by the story as a whole, not just this conversation: that all the dead want is acknowledgement. Which is equally sweeping and even more difficult for me, because I don’t know anything about Cambodia today, but I can imagine what those dead of genocide would want, and it’s neither so uniform nor so simple as acknowledgment.

If this had been a secondary-world fantasy, I would consider it a sweet little fable. But it’s not. It’s about real people, a real country, real history, real pain and terror and rage. And putting the two together—simple fable, difficult reality—gives me serious cognitive dissonance.

(For more takes on this, see Micole’s thoughtful comments in response to a rant, and Niall Harrison’s comments and links.)

Ritual disclaimer: I am not saying that no non-Cambodian can write about Cambodia. I admit that I am more uncomfortable with grand sweeping statements from outsiders than insiders, but I’m still uncomfortable no matter who makes them. I am saying that this story’s use of Cambodia strikes me as very problematic, for the reasons I’ve tried to make clear above.

Because my reaction to this story is complicated, I’m not sure what my ballot is going to look like. I’d be tempted to just vote “No Award” at the top and duck the question entirely, but then it would feel like I’d wasted quite a lot of time . . .

(I’ll probably post my ballot on Monday or Tuesday, to give time for discussion before the weekend, when I go Internet-less for a week.)

6 Comments

  1. And putting the two together

  2. Niall: if that was the author’s intent, I think it failed, because I don’t see any hint of that in the story’s happy, tranquil ending (or anywhere else, indeed).
    (Cross-referencing: question also asked here.)
    Also, over on my LJ, you said, FWIW, I do not think the ending of “The Djinn’s Wife” is meant to indicate that the daughter is going to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
    What do you read the ending as implying, then?

  3. I’d agree that if that was the intent then the story failed, too. It just makes sense to me as a possible intention. But I could be way off-base.
    On “The Djinn’s Wife”: I read the ending as more evidence of the narrator’s romanticism. She’s clearly not a reliable narrator, and has embellished and/or altered parts of her mother’s story (see, for instance, the numerous times she makes an appeal along the lines of “it had to be like this, because stories are like this, everyone knows”), but I don’t see any reason to disbelieve her statement that all the high-level aeais left this dimension, because that’s what happened in River of Gods. So I think “the warm sweet breath of djinns” in the last sentence is a return to the figurative djinns of pre-aeai India, and I think the whispers in her head are of her own imagining.

  4. Ah, you see, I read her comment, “it seems to emanate from everywhere and nowhere, from another world, another universe entirely”, as a reference to the AIs in their other world. But I haven’t read _River of Gods_.

  5. It’s an entirely plausible reading, it just undercuts RoG somewhat — the whole point of the aeais leaving is so that they can go somewhere humans can’t get at them. (IIRC, somewhere time runs in the opposite direction, no less.) So I hope it’s not what McDonald meant for reasons beyond the icky.

  6. Got it, thanks.