Subject to Interpretation: the 2013 Hugo Nominated Short Stories

August 1, 2013 at 3:17 am | Posted in Science Fiction, Short Stories | 8 Comments
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It’s mere hours from the Hugo voting deadline, but I didn’t want to let this year pass without writing something about the Hugo awards. The short story ballot proved an irresistible topic, since for procedural reasons that need not detain us, only three short stories were nominated. Despite much hand-wringing over the years about narrow Hugo voter pool, the short story ballot often has a surprising variety to it. In one sense that’s not the case this year, as all three stories feel very modern (there’s no Analog-style story, for example) and they all represent what might be called the sociological strand of science fiction. But despite their surface similarities the stories provide a remarkable contrast in a specific quality, interpretive freedom, that I’ve been thinking about lately.

The best place to start is probably the story in the middle of the spectrum, Aliette de Bodard’s story “Immersion”. Published in Clarkesworld, it’s been nominated for nearly every relevant award and won the Locus and the Nebula. Each new success for the story has been the occasion of some soul-searching on my part, because every time I read this story (and I’ve gone back to it three times now) I really don’t like it. Oh, it’s well-enough written, sure, but as the title implies, the speculative key to the story is the immerser concept, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. Quy spends the story showing us that immersers enforce conformity in an foreign culture. Yet Longevity Station seems to be something of a tourist trap. Galactic tourists are there to see the local culture, and they wear immersers that will allow them to understand native idiom, customs, gestures, and so forth. Why would a man running a restaurant that sells native food to tourists want to look Galactic? Basically, I can understand if immersers force the Galactic culture on non-Galactics who feel obligated to use them because because Galactic culture is perceived as higher status than native culture. And I can understand if Galactics use immersers to, you know, immerse in an “exotic” culture without having to actually understand it. But I don’t understand how these two seemingly contradictory things are said to be happening at the same time, in the same place, in the story.

It’s not that there’s no way to rationalize this. The restaurant could be intentionally inauthentic, or alternatively might present an exaggerated, stereotyped conception of native culture. But the story doesn’t seem to acknowledge this issue at all. Instead, it announces that you can’t take “a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms”, an uncontroversial stance but one that seems to undercut what happens to Agnes. If culture is not an algorithm, why is the immerser capable of completely destroying her mind? Or maybe Galactic culture (but not the rich, authentic native culture) is reducible to an algorithm? But then why doesn’t the immerser make Agnes a fully functional Galactic-cultured person? The implication is that turning your back on your authentic identity destroys your very soul, leaving you an empty husk. That’s certainly alarming and even poignant, but it’s not, you know, true. Maybe people immersed in an foreign culture sometimes feel like they’re losing their soul, but whatever it is that actually happens is something far more subtle. It would be good to read a story about that, and it even turns out there’s one on the ballot, but this is not that story.

To judge from the Internet, I am in the minority on all this, to put it mildly. Now maybe I should dismiss this with the usual handwaving about how there’s just no accounting for taste, but while reading other reviews I noticed an interesting difference in concerns. As an example of the story’s enthusiasts, here’s Jonathan McCalmont’s endorsement of the story for the Hugo in its entirety:

“Immersion” is a perfect example of what 21st Century science fiction should be doing. Set on an alien world where the natives use technology to make their perceptions and reactions more hospitable to tourists, the story uses a science fictional conceit to explore the psychological legacy of Western colonialism. Elegant, concise and imbued with slow-burning rage, “Immersion” articulates what it is like to grow up in a culture that has internalised the racial prejudices of its colonial oppressors to the point where people hate not only their own skin but their own culture too.

For someone who feels similar to me, here’s an excerpt from Martin Petto’s sharply negative review of the story:

It is a complacent and overly familiar treatment of technology and one that is reflected in the glibness of the plot. Agnes is saved from mental incarceration simply by Quy saying “you have to take it off”. Doctors have been unable to do anything for Agnes but have not had Quy’s internal self-knowledge and personal connection. So spiritualism is prioritised over science and all sorts of bullshit short, sharp shock theories of the treatment of addiction are validated.

What’s interesting about these two quotes is that if we leave aside Jonathan’s prescriptive first sentence, I don’t think they disagree. I can’t speak for Martin, but certainly I can’t find a lot to disagree with in Jonathan’s summary of the story’s positives. He’s praising the story for what it is saying. Elsewhere Martin mentions he is fine with what the story is saying, but he doesn’t like the way it says it. Jonathan is of course not writing an expansive review, but his entire treatment of technology in the story is an offhand reference to it as a “conceit”. Martin’s review is like my own comments above in that it’s centered on the function of technology within the story.

At the risk of overanalyzing this, I’ll go farther and say that Jonathan appears to be praising the story for its ability to allow its (frequently, though not exclusively) privileged readers to empathize with the position of a minority culture. The business about space stations and immersers is just a means to producing a psychological effect. Martin acknowledges the psychological effect but complains that the story uses shallow and unnecessarily technophobic means to achieve it. My own concerns amount to the objection that the story’s speculative details don’t actually add up to the picture it’s painting, likely because the author was more interested in the psychological effect Jonathan praises than the way she was getting there.

At this point, it would be traditional for me to argue that my own reading of the story is the right one. Science fiction should be about science, why introduce immersers as a technology if you don’t work out what they would really mean, just write a fantasy story if the only role genre plays is filing the serial numbers off Earth cultures to get people to drop their preconceptions, etc. I’m sure you’ve heard those arguments before. But I don’t actually think Jonathan and the people who like this story are wrong, they’re just interested in different things than I am. Or really, they are most interested in different things, since I still care about what the story says and they still care about how it says it. The point is, even though there’s only one story, there’s (at least) two valid readings of it.

That’s not an uncommon observation, but usually having made it, people stop. Every reader is different, every reading is valid, and isn’t that wonderful? But this year’s Hugo ballot is instructive, I think. Stories aren’t a completely blank slate for the reader and they do not support an unlimited number of valid readings. Some stories are more open to interpretation than others, and this is mostly due to the artistic choices of the author.

“Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu originally appeared in the anthology The Future is Japanese but has been reprinted by Lightspeed magazine. Liu is best known for his award-winning “Paper Menagerie”, a story that I found impressively manipulative. “Mono No Aware” is not quite as extreme in this respect, but again Liu demonstrates very strong control over the reader’s reactions. In terms of plot, there’s nothing much new here. Asteroid catastrophes are well-trodden ground at this point, and the starship’s crisis ends up being yet another rehash of “The Cold Equations”. “Paper Menagerie” was criticized in some quarters for not being sufficiently speculative to be considered for speculative fiction awards. As if in answer to these criticisms, “Mono No Aware” has loads of speculative content…but it’s the same tropes we’ve all seen a thousand times, so once again the story stands or falls on the main character’s emotional journey as a mostly assimilated Asian immigrant. And stand it does, because Liu has a deft and nuanced touch with his main character. Compared to the shrill and enraged “Immersion”, “Mono No Aware” is thoughtful and melancholy. If Hiroto loses contact with his Japanese origins he won’t become a soulless zombie, “Mono No Aware” admits, but it would be a sad thing. And it’s not blind to the possibility he already has largely lost contact with his heritage, given how young he was when he was put on board an American spaceship. His memories of Japan, the real Japan, are just a child’s. Teaching American kids Go and reminiscing with his girlfriend about manga aren’t much of a substitute.

It probably hasn’t escaped you that my reaction to “Mono No Aware” sounds suspiciously similar to Jonathan McCalmont’s reaction to “Immersion”. Why, if I was more interested in the technology than the psychology of “Immersion”, can I turn around and praise “Mono No Aware” despite its boring and unoriginal speculative content? I think that Liu’s choice (conscious or not) to make his setting drab and familiar lets it fade into the background. By itself, the asteroid and starship material don’t help the story in any way, but they don’t hurt it either. Bodard’s comparatively more ambitious efforts focused my attention on immersers and away from the characters and how they felt. I wouldn’t go so far as saying there’s only one reading of “Mono No Aware” (with any science fiction story there is always someone, somewhere, who is mad about the science) but I think Liu leaves his readers much less room to maneuver. He wants us to think about a few ideas and experience a certain mental state (mono no aware, actually), and he doesn’t want us distracted by anything else.

If “Mono No Aware” allows the reader less interpretive freedom than “Immersion”, Kij Johnson’s “Mantis Wives” (also published by Clarkesworld) goes way, way in the opposite direction. “This is an interesting idea, but it isn’t actually a story,” was how Nicholas Whyte dismissed it, and he probably speaks for a lot of people. I had to go to the dictionary on this one. “An account of incidents or events,” is how Merriam-Webster defines the word “story”. It’s still not cut and dry but I think “The Mantis Wives” is, just barely, an account of incidents.

What we can say for sure is that whatever it is, “The Mantis Wives” takes place almost entirely in the reader’s mind. The text presents its framing concept and then runs through a set of very short vignettes, balancing the alienating elements of mantis biology with words that are only appropriate to human relationships (chiefly “wife” and “husband”, but also “man” and “woman”). It is left to the reader’s mind to perform the allegorical gymnastics required to get any meaning out of the story at all. It would be an overstatement to say that no two readers will end up with the same reading, but this story comes as close as possible at this length to realizing that cliché.

Reading the preceding paragraph without having read the story, one might conclude “The Mantis Wives” is diffuse, but in fact it’s the most tightly focused story on the ballot. Where “Mono No Aware” employed a bland, over-familiar setting and plot to keep attention on its narrator, “The Mantis Wives” excises setting and plot altogether. As readers we get the exact words, and only those words, that Johnson wants us to think about. But that’s as far as she goes. No matter what we might say about the death of the author, everyone reading “Immersion” and “Mono No Aware” will understand what the authors wanted to say, whether or not they agree with what they said or how they said it. Without employing supplementary information from outside the text, I don’t think it’s possible to reconstruct an authorial message from “The Mantis Wives”, and maybe not even then. Perhaps that’s the result of a miscalculation on Johnson’s part; that often happens when writers afraid of being preachy try to present what they think is the minimum information necessary to force readers to a conclusion. I think it’s more likely that she considers the story a success if it the reader thinks about its material, whatever their conclusions.

Despite having only two stories to choose from after ruling out “Immersion”, I had a tough time deciding what to put at the top of my ballot. I’m certainly sympathetic to the “not a story” complaint about “Mantis Wives”. Many times on this blog I’ve complained that supposedly award-worthy stories are too insubstantial to be worth reading at all. “Mood piece” has probably been my favorite insult. I understand, I would say proudly, that other readers think reading a few thousand words just to feel a hint of some emotion is worthwhile, but I want stories with characters, plot, and ideas!

Applying that criteria again seems like it would to put me with Nicholas and rank “Mantis Wives”, which everyone will agree had no characters or plot, under even “Immersion”. Yet…yet…it does strike a mood, sure, but more importantly, the ideas are there. Not developed all that far, certainly, but that’s inevitable at the story’s very short length. But the precision of the language impressed me, and the fact it ended up being more thought-provoking than many novels. “Mono No Aware”, by contrast, has characters, plot, and ideas…but for all that it’s really a mood piece. And I liked it anyway! All I can say to explain it is that Liu’s evocation of the mixed feelings of assimilated immigrants, both here and in “Paper Menagerie”, is a lot more interesting to me (and therefore satisfying) than your run-of-the-mill mood piece award nominee.

In the end, I decided to rank “Mantis Wives” first, on the probably silly grounds that it feels like more of a step forward for its author. “Mono No Aware” seems similar to, and perhaps a little weaker than, “Paper Menagerie”, whereas “Mantis Wives” seems like a distillation of Johnson’s previous experimental allegories like “Ponies” and “Spar” into the bare essentials. It’s not as gut-wrenching as those earlier efforts, but what it loses in shock value it makes up in elegance and subtlety. I call my reasoning silly, incidentally, not just because it involves factors outside of the stories themselves, but also because I haven’t read enough of either author’s work to be all that authoritative. At the very least, I’ll take a note to get Kij Johnson’s collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees closer to the top of my virtual to-read pile.

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  1. I read the first of the short stories in response to your post. I’ll try to get to the other two eventually as well.

    It’s hard to completely dismiss the idea that your critique shaped my views as I read the story, but it helps that my criticisms differ.

    Frankly the tone of the piece was very off putting. Take the very black and white culturalism. The Galactics are all rich tourists while the people on Longevity Station are poor family members. Strip away the very thin masking, and you clearly see that the whites are naive outsiders who get all the breaks. It’s the asians who are truly integrated (together and to the setting) who are forced to serve in order to survive. Does this sophomoric representation of race make you uncomfortable as you read it? It certainly took me out of the story.

    There is also a fair amount of anger here. It’s only the brainwashed wife who thinks “you can be made perfect… someone pale-skinned and tall and beautiful.” The two pure minded characters who eschew the immersers realize that their counterparts look “horrible… like (they) died or something.” Neither side is correct, of course, but the binary way in which this is all presented drags me out of the story. It’s hard to immerse yourself into something that’s only two layers deep.

    Was it really necessary to hammer on the idea that white people find Asians unattractive and their food unpalatable? Not only is the casual racism weird (arguing for a distinct culture while homogenizing another) but the passages trying to demonstrate Longevity Station’s culture felt sickeningly shallow (weird food! silly eyes! ancestors!). Had this been coming from the point of view of a naive tourist then it could have been powerful. But when it’s written into the backdrop as the reason why Longevity needs to be free it feels trite and offensive.

    I really liked the idea of a technological asymmetry where both groups have access to the same device but one becomes more reliant on it then the other. I’m just not sure that it applies here. On the most basic level, the inhabitants of Longevity Station use the devices to become more appealing to others. If there was a technology that enabled you to appear attractive and know contextually what to say in any given situation, well let’s be honest, I know plenty of white people who’d want to get a hold of it as well. The people who feel pressure to conform are not easily separated as this story puts forth.

    Overall not a fan. As you said, it puts forth a very agreeable idea (stripping away culture is bad guys) and then strums the basic chords.

  2. PG: You’re right that the story oversimplifies race and culture, and uses some pretty crude methods to establish its world. To a degree I think that’s inevitable when a short story tackles such a complex topic, which I guess raises the question whether a short story is really the right medium to discuss something as culture clashes and appropriation.

    I actually think the point you make about the attractiveness of immersers even in culturally homogenous situations is better than any of mine. It seems likely the author began with an intention–write a short story about, as you put it, how stripping away culture is bad guys–and then shaped the story around that intention. The orthodox way to write science fiction is to shape the story around a technology, in this case the immerser. Given this technology, what would people do with it? Your answer is fairly obvious but the author didn’t think of it (nor did I, for that matter!), so she probably didn’t ask the question to begin with. Nor do many readers, given the success of the story.

  3. Hi Matt. Interesting article, as usual. Cheers.

    I must admit to some cognitive dissonance every time Mantis Wives was referred to as a story! It is not a story, and should have not been included in any list of short-story awards for that reason alone. I would have no problem if it was part of a Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Prose Award. Or better A Short Prose and Poetry award.

    I certainly enjoyed reading it, but it is probably better considered a prose poem. I’ve read many poems just like it, line-ended or otherwise. As such it isn’t as ground-breaking a piece of writing as some might imagine. Indeed, entered into a competition where the judges were used to such compositions, such judges may have marked it down for the lack of tightness in the writing – the opening two paragraphs indulge in elements repeated in later sections.

    I think it takes a great deal more effort and skill to manipulate a conceit as Johnson has done and weave it into a narrative that involves particular events and characters. Interestingly, the other two stories contain elements which Johnson could have employed in order to achieve this, and in doing so allow for the short story form to bring out greater riches and depth from her conceit, through the interplay and dialogue between the statically poetic and symbolic vignettes and the accumulative momentum of events and motivations we find in a story.

    Although I wasn’t much of a fan of Bodard’s story, one of the more successful aspects for me was the interweaving and juxtapostion of Agne’s point of view with Quy’s story. A similar structure could have been employed by Johnson: the vignettes breaking up a sequence of events which follow a character or characters, no matter how tangential, fantastical or mundane – and this needn’t involve any overt connection at all between the two strands.

    Another method, as employed conventionally and to great emotional depth by Liu, could have seen these vignette’s as excerpts of writing within the world of the story itself. Imagine,for example, a pubescent young girl or boy,or a more more mature individual in some context (fantastical or mundane) where sexual relationships have become modified, suppressed, estranged etc, and the vignette’s provide an oblique or direct part in the character’s understanding of sexual relations, identity and its deeper connections to notions of nature/unnaturalness. The character could have written these or be a reader of them. Again the relationship between the vignette’s and the character(s) events of the narrative would not need to be made obvious.

    Both of my suggestions above, I believe, could have been achieved in such a way that the impact of what Johnson has written would remain with all its suggestiveness, yet actually use the forms that make a prose story a story on the page and heightening both the narrative and poetic aspects. In this way the story would function much like a narrative poem does – just inside out.

    I’m all for pushing the conventional boundaries. But certain boundaries are not just arbitrary designations. After all, many paintings suggest themselves into narratives constructed in the reader’s mind. I’m not a fusty old conservative for clinging to the antiquated notion that a story be composed of words!

    It’s one thing to expect the reader to piece together implied elements of a story from those which the writer gives, and for the events and characters, however fragmented, to suggest a multiplicity of possible causes, motives, outcomes and thus meanings. It’s quite another thing to expect the reader to be the story-teller.

    Writing poems takes practice effort and skill, and so does telling a story. And It seems to me that what goes for quite a conventionally poetic endeavour (from the point of view of having read much contemporary poetry) being accepted into the SciFi/Fantasy short story category marks yet another example of how the literati and those wishing to play up to its long-standing, high-minded derogation of modern myth-making are squeezing out and colonising a genre with its own rather passe conventions.

    Where are the potential Gene Wolfes and Robin Hobbes of short story writing? Perhaps they took a look a this and last years’ nominees and decided on a crime story with a splash of magic realism instead.

    Pah!

    Keep the articles coming. Much appreciated.

    Andrew

  4. I did put para spaces in there!

  5. Andrew: I know where you’re coming from. Certainly when I review novels I am rarely inclined to give a pass for a bad (or non-existent!) story no matter how great the writing, the setting, etc. I think I was willing to credit “Mantis Wives” not despite that, but because of it. My expectations for the actual story part of a short story (in the narrow, SFWA definition that doesn’t include longer forms like the novella or “novelette”) are so low at this point that I wasn’t let down, and actually the lack of any half-hearted attempt at storification was refreshing.

    To put it another way, I agree that Johnson could have achieved similar, and in fact amplified, effects by telling a story, but I’m not convinced she could do it without telling a much longer story. I think that, for me, “Immersion” would have been improved by yanking out the story so that its relative mediocrity wouldn’t distract me (it also might well have been improved if it had been longer, so that Bodard had more time for nuance).

    Maybe what I’m really trying to say here is that while I take your point about a story vs. a prose poem, I see prose poetry as already having encroached quite a ways into SF’s short story award ballots. “The Mantis Wives” is unusual only in that it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.

    In terms of great short story writers, as long as the genre has Ted Chiang and Kelly Link it can’t be doing too badly. I think the extremely unrewarding nature of the short story market, both in terms of money and reputation, is more responsible for the lack of quality.

    Finally, I rescued your paragraph spaces from the devouring monster that is my WordPress theme. Sorry about that.

  6. Hi Matt,

    After reading your response – especially your point that Immersion could be stripped of its story – it occurred to me that Bodard’s story still remained a story of sorts when everything is extracted but Agnes’ point of view, and that this could provide the story structure for Mantis Wives.

    It didn’t take long to splice the two together, but I was surprised by the results (sent attached word doc your gmail). I wonder if the easing of the definition of short story, due to the lack of general quality, might end up doing both readers (potential writers incl.) and writers, as well as the genre a disservice.

  7. That’s an interesting experiment. It feels similar to the ancient practice of starting novel chapters with excerpts from other works, fictional or otherwise. Even though the ratio of “Mantis Wives” to “Immersion” content is much higher than that of quotes to a chapter, it still feels like a form that subordinates the “Mantis Wives” material to a role of commenting on the “Immersion” story. That’s fine, but the result is a very different reading. On its own, I am forced to accept “Mantis Wives” as a commentary on the real world as I understand it. Combined with something else reduces it to only commenting on the other strand. Maybe if the material it was paired with was stronger it wouldn’t feel like such a dilution, but that’s my immediate reaction.

  8. If the work was my own and not an illustrative toying with other folks’ efforts, I would have woven the two strands in differently.

    My main point was to show that it could be done, and I do wonder even still, what the result would be for a reasonably literate reader given my splicing first to read, and then told about the other two stories after.

    I found that there was also, even given the nominal sense of MW being subordinated to a commentary, a pleasing asymmetry in the dialogue between the two strands, with the MW strand subverting, as well as amplifying, certain aspects of content and convention (to do with this kind commentary). And, I think this kind of effect is what can be aimed for, if a writer has such a strong pull towards the poetic. In a story.

    The splicing may not fully work as a piece, but I think it shows that the poetic raw material of MW could have been woven into an actual story and one not so lengthy. And I reiterate that as a prose poem, MW suffers from repetition and dilution in itself. But it was a pleasant enough place to hang around in.

    You wrote that, “and actually the lack of any half-hearted attempt at storification was refreshing.” Refreshingly novel MW might be, but what about the next time? And surely the point of criticism and reviews of anything under the label Short Story is to expose the short-falls in the quality of storification, including half-hearted appropriations, rather than applauding an example of someone having put a bullet through its head – and for what is, in effect, surely the extreme end of this half-heartedness.

    I imagine we will remain with differing leanings on the matter. I just think it’s odd to find so few voices even lightly concerned at what it says about a form with long-standing value, for respected publications and awards to play so fast and loose with it, and with seemingly so few blinking an eye.

    (BTW, are you intending to review the rest of Erikson’s Malazan series. I’ve enjoyed reading your reviews after each book. But now I’m on Toll The Hounds…!)


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