“The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City” John Scalzi

May 23, 2012 at 12:48 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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This is the second of five short stories nominated for this year’s Hugo award. This one was published by Tor.com and is freely available online.

Hot on the heels of “Homecoming”‘s moral daring comes an even more risky story, in which Jon Scalzi enrages the fan community by…writing something funny. At least, that’s how he frames the situation in his post celebrating his nomination. The fan community is diverse enough that I’m sure he’s right, and that there are Very Serious Fans who will despise this story for daring to take the genre at anything less than face value, but then again I doubt there are very many. This is, after all, the same genre that venerates Terry Pratchett and which will still be celebrating Douglas Adams after we’re all dead even though Adams’ career involved the uneven distribution of about a novel’s worth of material across a dozen novels, screenplays, and radio scripts. Then again, Terry Pratchett has never won or, from what I can tell, even been nominated for a Hugo or Nebula (I had to double-check this astounding fact). Perhaps people just leave funny books off their ballot when it comes time to vote for awards even if they liked them better than what they’re actually voting for?

Scalzi’s story shouldn’t be penalized for being funny, but it probably should be penalized for not being funny enough. Published on April 1st, it was obviously intended to be a trifle working in a very long tradition of Bulwer-Lytton pastiches. It’s certainly amusing in places, but although short, it’s still quite a bit longer than the amount of humor justifies. Instead of going completely over the top, Scalzi tries to make some sort of point about the political uses of superstition, but there’s no room in such a short story for this to go anywhere.

I don’t read enough short fiction to know if this is the funniest genre short story published in 2011. So few humorous stories are published that I’m afraid it’s possible, but that’s a very low bar. That Scalzi got a nomination for a story that I’m sure he would admit is just a shadow of even Pratchett’s lesser work doesn’t, as he seems to think, undermine the oh-so-serious Hugo awards (I seem to remember any seriousness being fatally undermined by a certain nominee involving Ray Bradbury last year) or act as validation for genre humor. We all know what it really represents is validation of Scalzi’s popularity as a blogger. People often complain about this (especially after the 2009 Hugo nominations for Best Novel) but I don’t begrudge Scalzi his success. It’s extremely difficult to write a good blog (personally I can vouch for it even being difficult to write a bad one!). Writing good genre fiction that’s also humorous is, based on its rarity, something even more difficult, but I’d like to see more authors do it. Even though I’ll be ranking “No Award” higher than this story, I hope to see Scalzi write something along these lines that’s more substantial in the future.

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  1. [...] Unfortunately, Scalzi’s ambition rather exceeds his execution. I’m reminded of his Hugo-nominated short story, which started out as a serviceable parody but needlessly lurched into trying to Say [...]


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