Reading the Hugo nominees for Best Novella really revealed to me why people are so upset about the block voting of the Sad/Rabid Puppies. It's not just about politics and keeping "untraditional" sci-fi/fantasy writers and fans out of the club. It's about turning the Hugo into a joke of an award in the process. Because these novellas were bad. Unbelievably, awfully bad.
I really tried to find the merit in them, to enjoy them, even. I was determined to evaluate the stories without any bias in mind. I was expecting them to be not to my taste, perhaps, but still decently written stories.
But the novellas that followed were an exercise in "how bad can a published sci-fi novella be?" Really bad, it turns out. Really, really bad.
Big Boys Don't Cry by Tom Kratman
The first problem with this novel is its prose. It's the sort of thing that makes you think, "Hey, if this can get nominated for a Hugo, anyone can!"
Here's the first paragraph:
"I can hear my leader, Leo, arguing with the human general who commands us. The human doesn't seem to be listening. They rarely do; they don't know us any more. Neither do the care about us. Eventually the general uses the command required to shut Leo up. We were halted, but after the general's command Leo gives directions, in brief, focused bursts of encrypted and compressed data. We begin again to glide off, a few feet above the ground, held up by our anti-gravity."
It's incredibly clunky stuff, to the point of being barely readable. It somehow manages to be both extremely obvious and hard to follow -- no easy feat, I'm sure. I was skimming by page 2.
The second problem was that this short story somehow manages to be sexist while writing about war machines. Our narrator is a "she," Maggie, so of course we're informed that she "used to love cooking" for her soldiers, and that she "still weeps, inside, for her brave dead boys." (We're told that the soldiers were changed from humans to drones because "I don't bleed inside when I lose a drown." "Oh my effing god," I wrote in my Kindle notes).
But really, the biggest problem was the prose. It was so confusing that I could barely tell what was happening. It reads like a terrible first draft where the author keeps changing their mind on how exactly they want to write the book. What's it about? I don't really know. I gave up less than 10% of the way in. Maybe it gets better. But I wasn't going to force myself to find out.
One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright
This is first of three nominated novellas by John C. Wright. And it's an interesting concept -- the story of character who saved a Narnia-like magical realm as children, and are now grown up and needed again.
I wasn't a fan of the prose, but it was better than the story above. It felt clunky, but it was usually possible to tell what was going on. Unfortunately, it was also pretty emotionally detached, with characters dropping huge info-bombs in conversation so that it was really hard to actually engage with the story. One example --
"Richard came back with the sword. Sally had the shard of the shattered magic glass. Penny, God rest her soul, brought back Myrrdin's book. I was the key bearer. I lost it years ago."
The interesting ideas in the story -- like him not being able to go on an adventure because he has a job and rent to pay -- are stated so bluntly that they don't have any power. It's as though the author had a checklist of points he wanted to make and just stuck them into a vague story form. No one speaks like human beings have an actual conversation, and anything interesting seems to happen off the page. In chapter two, for example, we learn that our protagonist has been having many magical adventures -- but we see none of them, jumping back into the story to see him having another exposition-laden conversation in an office instead.
Then the weird sexism appears. First, it's mentioned that a guy got a girl "in trouble" in what was referred as a "neopagan fertility ritual" -- it involves "dancing and screaming and cutting yourself with knives," and rape, although that's not explicitly stated. The girl was just "found naked in an abandoned church."
But does our protagonist have any emotional reaction to this exactly? Nope. He is, as he says, "more concerned with what emerged from that sixteen year old girl you used." Then this exchange ensues:
"The National Health Service paid for an abortion."
"You killed your own child?" Tommy stood too, his face white with horror.
Because yes, ladies and gentleman, that is the horrifying part of this story. This is then referred to as a murder that the guy performed to sell his own soul, and I closed the story. So who knows what happened after that?
Pale Realms of Shade by John C. Wright
This second nomination for John C. Wright is about a paranormal crime investigator who's been murdered and has become a poltergeist. It's a strange tale, with a highly religious turn (which, of course, poses the question of why the puppies nominated this, if they don't want "agendas" in their sci-fi?).
There's more creepy stuff with female characters, of course. First, the protagonist is talking to his still-alive wife, prompting this description:
"She stamped her foot in anger, which sent a vibration jiggling up through her curves."
Ignoring the total weirdness of that description, who stamps their feet in anger when speaking to the ghost of their dead husband? This is followed by the following delightful musings:
"I wondered how she could still have this hold over me. Can a ghost suffer from testosterone poisoning? Even dead, were men still saps for dames? She must have thought so."
His wife's great crime is wanting to know who murdered him, so she can get the insurance money instead of living in poverty because people think he committed suicide. This, according to the protagonist, means she only cares about money and is a horrible person. When he asks her if she wants to collect the insurance money:
"She pouted and shrugged and looked coy."
Because that's how people react when their dead husbands won't tell them who killed them and get angry because they want money.
Meanwhile, the dialogue is really unnatural and emotionally detached. Eventually, the scenes with the protagonist's living friends and family are dropped, and he ends up first talking to a priest in a confession booth, and then being taunted/tempted by the literal devil... and things get so weird that I couldn't put up with it any more.
The Plural of Helen of Troy by John C. Wright
By this point, I'd given up all hope, so to be fair, this book didn't get a very patient reading. There are some grammatical errors in the text, and it was hard to follow what was going on, but then, I wasn't really trying that hard. Reading these stories back-to-back was a mistake.
But even in the small section I read, we see women solely as sexual objection:
"Perfect outline of her figure was cast against the window... sure I could have blinked or politely looked away, but I had never seen any dame like this. Nobody has. .... I let out a long, low wolf-whistle. And it wasn't just her face I was looking at. Don't worry. She didn't hear me."
Reader, I quit. I was done with John C. Wright.
Flow by Arlan Andrews
And finally, the light at the end of the tunnel. I was already relieved that Flow was by a new author, and then I found another major plus: Arlan Andrews can actually write! Within a sentence, I was more engaged with this character and his story than I was with any of the previous novellas. It flows well, it's enjoyable to read, and the protagonist immediately has personality and desires.
Flow is a travelogue-type novella about a young man named Rist from an icy land that sells glaciers downriver to the "Warm Lands" -- how they can steer glaciers is unclear, but apparently they do. Rist decides he wishes to travel downstream with the glacier merchants to see these mysterious Warm Lands for himself.
The worldbuilding here is very detailed. But unfortunately, almost the entire novella is worldbuilding. Rist sees things, and he records them, and he sees things, and he records them. The description is rich, but nothing actually happens on the adventure until about 70% of the way through.
And, after all that build-up, it ends pretty quickly. Not unenjoyably, but a lot of time was spent to establish the plot and not a lot of time spent actually moving it along. (I, unlike a lot of people seemingly, actually liked the way it ended without resolution, as a kind of on-going adventure that we wouldn't get to see... but perhaps it needed more beforehand to be truly satisfying)
A much bigger problem was the novel's depiction of women, or "wen," as they're called. They're not named beings or characters in their own right. They're depicted as 100% sexual, almost 100% prostitutes, with the novel obsessing over the differences between those in Rist's world and those in the Warm Lands.
"Later he was successful in finding the same tall, copper-haired wen for a very satisfying evening. Now this is one Warm Lands discovery I'd really like to take back home! he thought, though every flat, skinny wen in the Tharn's Lands would be jealous of her hair, her height and her, her -- chest."
Compared to the other novellas in the packet, Flow is gold. It's readable, it's easy to follow, I managed to finish it, and I even got a decent impression of character and plot. But surely the lack of structure (and more than hint a misogyny) means it wasn't the best in sci-fi/fantasy novella over the past year.
So, overall, this is definitely a "No Award" category for me. I tried every story in this category in good faith, and honestly, I regret putting in the effort.
Here's hoping the novelette nominees will be better.