Saturday, May 23, 2015

Novelettes, Novellas, and Fan Writers

The Hugo "Novelette" category is an example of one of my least favorite phenomena in the superstructure of science fiction and fantasy as genres, the tendency to invent arbitrary classifications and in-speak nomenclature to refer to them. Despite being married to a librarian with a BA and MA in English literature, as well as having (briefly) attended a graduate program in literature myself, I never encountered the word "novelette" until I started to follow contemporary science fiction. Definitionally, it refers to pieces of fiction between 7500 and 15,000 words. Practically, therefore, in terms of narrative structure, it embraces two distinct types of story: long-ish (sometimes that means bloated, but not always) short stories, and spare (sometimes meaning under-realized) novellas. It is as if biologists, studying the family Felidae, subdivided it into genera not according to lineage and structure, but by size, with everything larger than a house cat but smaller than a leopard being dubbed a "medium-sized cat".

To turn our attention from cats to dogs, on this year's Hugo Award ballot, this was one of the categories that was swept by puppies of various sorts, sad and rabid, until the determination was made that one of the nominees was ineligible. That allowed "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt on. Despite this, while I did not elect to vote a strict NO AWARD in the category, it was not for Heuvelt's sake.

Of the four remaining canine novelettes, three had first appeared in Analog. I like Analog. I subscribe to it. I have submitted stories to it, thus far to no avail, though I have two pending consideration at present. In any given issue, on average I read and enjoy half the pieces, and snort derisively and skip the other half after encountering some absurd barbarism. Of these three nominees, two--"Championship B'tok" and "The Journeyman: In the Stone House"--fell into the latter category.

I can pinpoint the moment I set aside "The Journeyman," because I mocked it on Twitter. One of the characters is introduced as "Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand". This name alone encompasses several of the linguistic absurdities one often finds in "hard" SF--gratuitous "q" (or apostrophe), check, inconsistent phonetic simplification to signify future degeneration ("sunna" but not "da"), check, borrowing of non-Anglo words or names in ways that do not fit with the world described, check. The appeal of Analog for me is the opportunity to read science fiction stories written by people who actually understand science. But linguistics is no less a science than physics, and when a writer shows no understanding of that, I find the results to be as irksome as standard sword-and-sorcery fantasy.

I don't recall "B'tok"'s sins, other than the cardinal sin of fiction--simply being boring. I set it aside after only 4 pages.

Of the Analog stories, that leaves Rajnar Vajra's story with the deceptively stupid title "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale". The title is clearly meant to pander to nostalgia for this-boy's-life-in-space military SF stories of the so-called "Golden Age," and insofar as it was selected by both sets of puppies for their slates, it succeeded. The title, however, bears little resemblance to the story itself, which can be read as subverting the tropes in which it superficially seems to glory. There is a valid argument to be had about whether subversion-of-tropes has not itself become a trope in contemporary SF, and a redundant one. I sympathize with that argument, but Vajra's story is at least a better-than-average exemplar of the type, which held by interest start to finish and left me with a smile on my face. I encourage Hugo voters to read it with an open mind, and those who are not WorldCon members to seek it out.

That leaves Heuvelt's story and Gray Rinehart's "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium". At least with both of these I was able to read them through to the end. Of the two, I slightly preferred the Rinehart. It had an interesting underlying idea and depicts a struggle against oppression. Unfortunately, the idea is revealed through page after page of clumsy expository dialogue. This is an example of a "novelette" that could and should have been of standard short story length. Heuvelt's was even more bloated, with a conceit that was obvious from the start. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it as a piece of flash fiction.

Novelette Ballot:

  1. "The Triple Sun"

If the Novelette category showed that there is space for aesthetic judgment beyond the simple canine/non-canine dichotomy, the Novella category shows how SF's revanchist right wing suffers for its sincere embrace of philistinism. I could not finish a single one of these pieces. Page 7 of Tom Kratman's Big Boys Don't Cry features a Monty Python reference and a mass lynching; I'm not sure which is worse. "Flow" by Arlan Andrews, Sr. at least gave me a line that I will use from now on as a synecdoche for bad genre writing--“Welcome to the Warm Lands, bird-rider!” And then there are the three (!) contributions by John C. Wright. "One Bright Star to Guide Them" put me in mind of Ray Bradbury in a particularly schmaltzy mood, during a bad drunk. "The Plural of Helen of Troy" read like an attempt at illustrating an undergraduate misunderstanding of atemporality. Having already TAed undergraduate philosophy classes--an experience that put me off any career path involving college teaching--I was not keen to relive it. And I have heard it said that Wright is actually capable of halfway decent writing, but this sentence from "Pale Realms of Shade" makes me doubt it: "Her wild mass of gold-red hair was like a waterfall of bright fire tumbling past her shoulders to the small of her back." How many metaphors can we mix at once.

Novella Ballot: 1. NO AWARD.

Like "novelette," the phrase "fan writer" is a particularly atrocious bit of in-speak. It seems to be the result of an attempt to avoid the negative-sounding but much more readily understandable word "critic". I suppose a "fan writer" gives voice to his or her enthusiasms, whereas a critic actually exercises aesthetic judgment, at times with praise but often with blame.

As such, the name of this category fits the sorry roster of nominees. In addition to 4 canine nominees, there is Laura J. Mixon, who appears to have made it through on the strength of George R. R. Martin's praise for her hit-piece against Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

This is a particular travesty, since Sriduangkaew is one of the best writers working in the genre-space now. Her crime, in the eyes of the likes of GRRM and Mixon, is to have formerly been the writer of the critical blog Requires Only That You Hate. In the latter capacity, she excoriated science fiction and fantasy writers for their exoticizing portrayals of non-European cultures, their blindspots for gender oppression, and for just plain bad writing. Often intemperate, and unwilling to give credit to an otherwise clumsy text for its author's identity, politics, or network of friendships, Requires Hate offended middle-class, middle American notions of propriety. Even if I did not always agree with its judgments, I loved it.

And I think it is best of all that Sriduangkaew, rather than resting content with criticism, took the chance on attempting to write stories that embodied her own implicit aesthetic. I can attest that, if you are a reader with high standards, the hardest thing about turning one's hand to writing is to create stories that are not utterly embarrassing. More than most, she succeeded. It is not surprising, given the relative power of those whom she had made into enemies through Requires Hate that she attempted to cover her tracks and hide the links between her writerly identity and the former blog. I think that was a tactical mistake, given its inevitable failure.

With Mixon spearheading the assault, 2014 saw a hate-campaign against her that overshadowed all her literary accomplishments. Despite widespread critical praise, her debut novella Scale Bright was not nominated in that now-blighted category. I suspect also that her presence in the table of contents of Phantasm Japan may have resulted in "collateral damage" to two excellent translated Japanese pieces in that collection, Dempow Torishima's "Sisyphean" (novella) and "From the Nothing, With Love" (novelette) by the late, great Project Itoh. We have to wait until the release of full nomination statistics to see if there is enough data to support the hypothesis.

The fact that Mixon is on the ballot while Sriduangkaew is not shows that the puppy campaigns were not the only problem with this year's Hugo vote. We will see, when the awards are announced in August, whether the pups are anomalous, or if science fiction gets the authors and "fan writers" it deserves.

Fan Writer Ballot: 1. NO AWARD


  1. As good as a writer as she may be, Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a sociopath asshole and her personality is even more toxic than Vox Day. There's no reason why anyone should vote for her and if her writing is really good, then it will stand up to scrutiny long after her "poor widdle me, I'm the real victim here" grandstanding dies off.

    Until then, Mixon's article is an important takedown of one of the biggest assholes in fandom.

    1. Even if I grant your premise, that BS is "a sociopath asshole" who is "even more toxic" than a literal Nazi--which I don't, for reasons I've made amply clear in this post and in other threads--then let's review the list of assholes who have been awarded the Hugo on the basis of their work, or at least on the basis of other people's weak critical judgment of their work:
      - Isaac Asimov
      - Robert Heinlein
      - John W. Campbell
      - Philip K. Dick... (I could go on, but let's not beat a dead, putrescent horse.)
      Somehow it only becomes a problem when the asshole in question is a non-American woman of color. Which I'm sure has nothing to do with racism, sexism, or national chauvinism. Or you having gotten your own little fee-fees hurt.