Review: 2002 Hugo-Nominated Short Stories, by Lee Battersby

Review: 2002 Hugo-Nominated Short Stories, by Lee Battersby

Okay, so this was one of those logistical nightmare months where the book I was supposed to review came in too late to get it done in time, so the editor says “Look, why don’t you review the Hugo short stories instead?” Hey, a few short stories this month, and I can save the 800,000 words of China Miéville’s newie The Scar to read on the umpteen hours of my flight to the States next month! Which should at least draw my attention away from watching the in-flight movie and wanting to kill myself. Easy enough I think to myself. It’s only five stories: have a quick read, pick a winner, done by lunchtime.

Heh. Yeah. First up, of course, is my complete inability to find a copy of Ursula Le Guin’s “Bones of The Earth”. It’s an Earthsea story. I could be lax and say “Ach, it’s Earthsea. Whaddya expect? It’s not like you don’t know what you’re getting.” But of course it’s Le Guin so it’s probably the greatest thing ever written and I’ll have missed it. Promise I’ll try and find it and write a few words at the end of next month’s column.

This leaves me four stories to comment on: “The Dog Said Bow Wow” by Michael Swanwick, “Spaceships” by Michael A. Burstein, Stephen Baxter’s “The Ghost Pit,” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” by Mike Resnick.

Michael Swanwick is, in my opinion, a major talent. I am so rarely disappointed when I read his work that I always relish seeing his name on the contents page of a collection or the spine of a book. Which is why “The Dog Said Bow Wow” disappointed me. Don’t get me wrong. The story contains everything an award-winning story should contain: soaring invention, unique and memorable characters (particularly the 36-brained Queen of England. I kid thee not.), and speculation on our current cultural obsessions and the path in which they’re taking us that is both familiar and excitingly unusual. But there’s something missing. To me the story felt like a bitser — bits and pieces thrown together without the central coherency that would make the story rise out from amongst the raft of stories that rely on a retro-future angle for their thrust. It feels like James Blaylock at his early best. No bad thing, buuuut….

If Swanwick’s story perhaps sacrifices a human element for the sake of wild invention then “Spaceships,” Michael A. Burstein’s entry on the shortlist, is almost exactly the opposite. It is concerned by the idea of what it means to be human, consumed by it to the point that the central characters of the piece (humans so amazingly advanced into a far future that they are energy beings without form or, it seems, limitations) are little more than motiveless mouthpieces without complexity or sense of being. That beings so unbelievably advanced would still prove to be little more than gaseous versions of 21st century stereotypes (the conniving woman, the innocent recluse) was a disappointment. Whilst conceptually grand, this story is the weakest of the nominees in terms of its execution. While its tableau is grand, the characters who inhabit it are too easily defined in one dimension, and the story suffers for it.

“The Ghost Pit” is a better story, although again I was struck by how limited the investigation into human nature was in what essentially another character examination set against a Space Operatic background. Baxter is another excellent writer, and while there is nothing wrong with this story, there is very little here that hasn’t been seen before. Whilst the interplay between the two main characters is believable and their motivations solid, Baxter portrays two people approaching points in their lives where they must literally adapt psychologically or die. In the end, the speed with which the decision is made is so abrupt that it is unsatisfying — the spiritual process is fleeting in comparison to the physical exhaustion that the characters reach. “The Ghost Pit” is a very good story, no doubt. But of the four that I read there is one that stands out as easily the most complete.

Mike Resnick’s “Old MacDonald Had A Farm,” despite the title, is my vote to win the short story Hugo (unless, of course, Le Guin’s story is even better). His characters have a solidity and believability about them that surpass those in the other tales. Resnick gives us cynical journalists, a smooth PR man — there’s even a millionaire recluse. Yet despite the ease with which they could have become raging stereotypes, Resnick imbues each character with a humanity that draws them away from caricatures and turns them into real people. The story has both interior and exterior moral dimensions that lift it above the ordinary. It deals with overpopulation and the needs of a starving third world in the ‘macro’ piece, whilst balancing that is the individual conundrum facing the characters; your job is to sell the world on a new food source, but what do you do if the meat can talk back? It is this extra dimension, the doubling paradox of personal decision and greater need that lift a story above the ordinary (think Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equation”) and Resnick is the only one of the four nominees whose story provides it.

So there it is, Battersby’s footy-tipping for stories. And like all football tipsters worth their weight in goals I’ve balanced the stats, examined the field, and looked at the personal histories…and will undoubtedly be completely wrong when the game is finished.

Oh, and two things before I go:

  1. I don’t get a vote on the ballot, and none of the named writers owe me any money except for Swanwick who borrowed 50 denarii off me in a previous life and has forgotten about it; and
  2. If you’re bugged because I haven’t told you what any of the stories are about, hey! That’s your job! Go read!

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