Hugo and I Go: Meandering Thoughts on a Few That Made the List, and Some That Didn’t

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Several years ago, I was proud to have seen enough of the films nominated for the Academy Awards to make an intelligent commentary on the merits of each. That has never happened again. And this year, as I perused the list of Hugo nominees, I sighed deeply and bemoaned the fact that there are so many things to read, and so little time. Tangent has reviewed all of the short fiction nominees, and no negative reflection on any of the works omitted from this discussion are intended.

My article that discusses James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillip’s stellar biography nominated for best related book, was posted on Tangent earlier this month. What follows are my thoughts, as a reader, not a reviewer, on some of the nominees and what might have allowed them to rise above the huge volume of compelling short fiction published in 2006.

Not surprisingly, two Hugo nominees came from Asimov’s (July 2006) which gets my vote for the best magazine of the year. The binding of my copy is broken and the pages dog-eared, as I have read and re-read every story in that issue at least twice. I recommend it as the best illustration of the wide range of speculative fiction available, showcasing the true literary talent of the speculative genres. And close behind is Fantasy & Science Fiction (Oct/Nov 2006) which boasts one Hugo nominee plus an interesting spectrum of other works, two of which I mention below.

"The Djinn’s Wife," by Ian MacDonald (Asimov’s, July 2006) is a sumptuous novelette: an ethereal paranormal romantic tale of obsession and possession.   It incorporates all elements of the subgenre, as defined by Cynthia Ward in her sub-genre spotlight, "Paranormal Romance: Here, There, and Everywhere With the New Science Fiction," published in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Fall 2006. This tale, set in India, is steeped in the religious, cultural, and socio-political climate of the country.

“iKlawa” by Donald Mead (F&SF, April 2006) a sensual and magnificent tale set in Africa during the days of British colonization, didn’t make the list.  But African genocide is happening now, but just like the all mass slaughters the world has been powerless to stop in the past, cultural and political influences, as well as the baser aspects of human nature, seem insurmountable.

Distance might help, and I speculate that Geoff Ryman’s intimate knowledge of and his exquisite weave of culture and history, brought his tale “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” (F&SF, October/November 2006) to life and to the Hugo list.

Is murder, torture, and genocide more poignant to someone (like myself) who has worked with Cambodian refugees, hearing the tales of children butchered in front of their parents, with the only difference between death and life a stray bullet or machete strike? No, I was haunted as much by the torture and murder of an African child, sacrificed so his soul could battle the spirits in “iKlawa.”  And the fate that awaits many of the native peoples in Zulu territory, despite their sacrifices to the spirit world to ward off the invaders is no fantasy, just like the fate that innocent Cambodians met in The Killing Fields.  The denial of Pol Pot’s daughter, as she sat ensconced in her palace amidst her wealth, watching the Cambodian people recover, embracing Western ideals of materialism and capitalism, seemed to be a metaphor for everyone’s need to forget.

Ian Macdonald’s character, Esha, in “The Djinn’s Wife” is a somewhat willing participant in her subjugation, and there is no overarching hint of genocide, just the backdrop of poverty and other hardships that face India.  Ryman keeps reminding readers that his work is fantasy, accentuating that the ugly head of mass extermination could easily poke out in any country in turmoil, to eat it alive. My own experiences with the women with long dark hair and eyes as black as coal, who smile and bow deferentially at every suggestion, seal my vote for “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter.” Their eyes cloud over, but shed no tears, as they lapse into their post-traumatic stress disordered denial, sometimes seen as psychosis by those who do not understand that the voices they hear are really the screams of their dead, clamoring for justice.
The other nominees in the novelette category include “Yellow Card Man, by Paolo Bacigalupi, set in Thailand (Asimov’s, December 2006), “Dawn, and Sunset, and all the Colours of the Earth,” by Michael F. Flynn (Asimov’s, Oct/Nov 2006), and “All the Things You Are” by Mike Resnick (Baen’s Universe, #3, October 2006). All nominees focus on multicultural themes or loss and devastation on a grand scale.

The neverending battle of the sexes goes on.  Even many years after Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray, and That’s Not What I Meant! by Deborah Tannen, the mysteries of attraction, seduction, and expectations still collide in most unusual ways. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, occasionally wondering what planet the opposite sex dropped in from and what language, physical or verbal, they speak. And others remain polarized, thinking that one is superior to the other and that control and domination will solve the problems. Relationships: good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, take your pick.

Listen to the lyrics of popular songs such as “Daughters” by John Mayer, and myriad other tender ballads by men such as James Blunt’s “Beautiful,” and “Goodbye My Lover,” that epitomize the mysteries of relationships, sexual attraction, and the mating dances between the female and male human.  And who hasn’t heard Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” without a smile of understanding, or of trepidation (depending upon their gender), coming to their lips?

Neil Gaiman captured the troubling realities in his fantasy “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (Fragile Things: Short Fiction and Wonders and F&SF, January 2007) which brought him to the Hugo list.  I must admit, though I was disturbed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s novelette, “Pop Squad,” (F&SF, October/November 2006), its terrible images of a world where reproductive choices are controlled by the government and there is no Right to Life movement to protect even the children who have been born, stirred me up more. Or perhaps since Bacigalupi’s “Yellow Card Man” was nominated for best novelette, Gaiman won out in the short story category.

And in the same issue of F&SF, Carol Emshwiller’s short story, “Killers,” didn’t make the cut either. Like the guys who look sideways and quietly cover their crotches when listening to Carrie Underwood, perhaps that one was a bit too scary for the males of the species.

In “Pop Squad,” the slovenly, mother figure sacrifices her life and her body for her biological drive to reproduce, and yet, she is more arousing to the protagonist than the perfect, youthful vision of womanhood, assured by the compulsory “rejoo.” And in “Killers” there is a modicum of sadness that the world deteriorated to the state it’s in, even if the men and their warring ways caused it. Perhaps the subject matter was too politically charged, and even as fantasies, the images too frightening for Hugo nominations. Gaiman ends his more slipstream story with less vivid, but more haunting, images of a woman who turned the tables on her seducer.

Another story not nominated, so compelling I return to it often, was “thirteen o’clock” by David Gerrold. (F&SF, February 2006).  Buried deep in this raw, pornographic tale of the misadventures and exploits of a gay, disabled veteran, are messages of love and connectedness. Written in all lower case letters, with little punctuation, Gerrold captures the confusion, desperation, and vestigial hope of a person on the fringes of society, dealing with love and loss in a violent, homophobic society: Ours.  

“Impossible Dreams” by Tim Pratt (Asimov’s, July 2006), also nominated for best short story, is at the opposite end of the spectrum: a gentle, happily-ever-after, parallel world tale.  I have a hard time deciding between Gaiman and Pratt, the two Hugo nominees for short stories, because I’m an incurable romantic, despite my paying job which often lands me in the middle of true life situations awful enough to compete with even the most troubling fantasies.

Other nominees in the short story category include: “Kin” by Bruce McAllister (Asimov’s, February 2006), “Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s, June 2006), and “The House Beyond Your Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum (Strange Horizons, 4 September 2006). Summarizing the reviews, McAllister deals with issues of forced reproductive choice, Reed with the strange and unusual in the media, and Rosenbaum with family violence and faith.

I use many of the same themes in my own writing, seeking, as most of us do, the middle ground. And my speculation is that the centrist focus of those that made the Hugo list did so because of the sympathetic characters and the truths they came to understand, sometimes too late.