Review of “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Zee has a silver key in her back that the maker uses to wind her up every day. She has a strong mainspring and so a lot of energy. She lives in Closet City with her Papa, who never has any turns left over for adventure because he works so hard to help Granny and Gramps. When the carnival comes to town, Zee meets a carny boy named Vale. On her 200th day, she gets adult limbs and new paint on her face, and soon afterward Granny and Gramps wind down for the last time and are recycled. Since her Papa has only himself to take care of now, she leaves with Vale on carnival train 9 to make a life for herself as a carny. The two of them build a child they name Mattan, but the boy has a weak mainspring. Vale refuses to accept the child’s disability, so Zee takes Mattan back to her Papa in Closet City. Can she find a way to support her special needs child?

Good points: This is a very creative idea. I’m visualizing a toymaker somewhere with a whole village of windup dolls and model trains. The story, of course, takes us into the life of the dolls, limited as it is by the number of turns their mainsprings will hold. It has an inspiring message, as Zee gives up her dreams to care for her disabled child.

Not so good points: The world building here is limited, and I don’t end up with much of an idea of what the setting looks like. I gather there are carnivals on at least nine trains, houses for the dolls and recycling centers. Because of the limited background, the characters also tend to be flat. Mattan, especially has little personality because of his disability. Winding down is fairly matter-of-fact, and there’s not much investigation of the emotional issues behind the characters’ actions. True, these are dolls, but I’d like to understand their motivations, regardless.

Three and a half stars.

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Rocket Stack Rank Site Predicts the 2018 Hugo Winners

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For anyone who’s somehow not noticed, Rocket Stack Rank is a fairly new short fiction review site established by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong. The site posts short reviews and rankings of long and short fiction from major pro magazines and anthologies (no novels) during the year, and also compilations of how other reviewers rated the stories. The wrap-up at the end of the year shows three clear leaders for the Hugo Award, based on this system:

Best Novella – Nexus by Michael Flynn from Analog
Best Novelette – “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad from Clarkesworld
Best Short Story – “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata from Tor.com

In comparison, here’s what the Nebula Reading List predicts, based on the number of recommendations from SFWA members:

Best Novella – And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker from Uncanny Magazine
Best Novelette – “Small Changes over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara from Uncanny Magazine
Best Short Story (tie) – “Carnival Nine” by Caroline Yoachim from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” by Rebecca Roanhorse from Apex Magazine

Interestingly, Nexus rated right at the bottom of the Nebula Reading List, and “A Series of Steaks” rated fourth in its category. I don’t see “The Martian Obelisk” on the Nebula list at all. Does this suggest a bias toward hard SF among reviewers? A bias toward fantasy among SFWA members?

The Locus poll results will be available soon, so I’ll have a look at those when they come out. A quick skim of the ballot right now shows no sign of Nexus or “Small Changes over Long periods of Time.” I wouldn’t expect they’d rate as write-ins.

Comments on the Nebula Reading List top five short stories

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It takes 10 nominations to make a story a Nebula finalist, so these five stories I’ve just reviewed look to be the ones with the best likelihood to make it.

Since I’m reading down the list, there are a few trends sticking out. As far as I know, only SFWA members can make recommendations. Because the listing has been recommended by professionals in the genre, I’d expect to get good quality on the list. These stories I’ve just reviewed have recommendations in the double digits, but I’m just not finding a lot of what I’d call substance in the content. I’m thinking all those people are clicking the “recommend” button because they want to affirm the message. If I’m looking for quality stories to nominate, does that mean I can put any confidence in the number of recommendations the stories have gotten at all? Hm. Maybe not. Does this mean the trend to sentimental stories has shifted and this year message fiction is the in thing? Hm. Maybe so. Hopefully there’s more substance further down the list.

Next, I’m seeing a lot of repetition in the names. Caroline Yoachim, for example, has 5 stories on the list; A. Merc Rustad has three; José Pablo Iriarte has three, etc. I’m not sure what to make of this, except that these people must be very consistently high quality writers.

Third, I don’t see any real, serious hard SF in the top five. I commented on this trend a couple of years back after the awards cycle, the fact that hard SF is in trouble, being replaced (this year) with somewhat humorous message fiction dressed up in a thin veneer of SF or fantasy. I have to agree that the stories are entertaining and fun and that the messages are progressive, but there are no fully developed short stories in this group of five with, for example, strong character development, great world building, vivid imagery, thoughtful themes and universal questions about the human condition. What’s happened? Is this the influence of “Cat Pictures Please,” last year’s Hugo winner? Or has pressure from the Puppies encouraged the SFWA to promote progressive political messages at the expense of well-developed, serious science fiction and fantasy stories?

One last observation is that just a few magazines seem to be dominating the list. For example, Lightspeed has 20 entries in the current list, Daily Science Fiction has 12, Clarkesworld has 10, F&SF has 10 and Strange Horizons has 10. Glancing at the titles, I don’t think hard SF is the reigning paradigm. This isn’t a new trend, either. Analog did make a better showing this year than it sometimes does, with 5 entries. Where should I look for stronger substance? Is Asimov’s still the indicator there?

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