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.

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Review of “The Kraken Sea” by E. Catherine Tobler

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This is a dark fantasy novella published by Apex Publications. It currently has 3 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List. Normally I start at the top of the list, but it happens I’ve already read this one.

In 1893 Sister Grace takes a 15-year-old orphan boy named Jackson to a place called Macquarie’s in Chicago, where he is adopted by a woman named Cressida. Jackson isn’t a normal boy. When he’s upset, scales and tentacles appear that he struggles to suppress. Cressida assures him that he’s safe at Macquarie’s and doesn’t have to hide what he is any longer. Macquarie’s is a dark place, where the bronze lions at the door come alive and the rooms mysteriously rearrange. Jackson discovers there are rents in reality, and a kracken rises from the sea below the house to devour things. He becomes involved with a freak show, meets a lion-tamer named Mae, and tries to deal with various alliances in the transition to adulthood.

On the pro side, I really loved the atmospheric style of this one. It has a dark, stream of consciousness flow that carries the reader through the various occurrences and shifts in reality. It’s well-written, with strong characters and good imagery. On the con side, nothing much happens. There are a lot of threats and some of the characters meet horrific ends, but it’s hard to make out any kind of plot. I gather the freak show is significant and the themes are “coming-of-age” and “dealing with the monster within,” but it’s all a bit too murky and symbolic to produce a meaningful story.

Best read if you enjoy Tobler’s writing style. Two and a half stars.

Why are all these potential Nebula nominees so sappy?

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There’s one more story with between five and ten recommendations on the Nebula Reading List. This is “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” by James Van Pelt, published in Analog. I gather from other reviews that this is an entertaining read, but it’s not available online so I’ll have to defer comments. That’s means I’m done with this set of reviews and ready to sum up some thoughts.

As I expected, the message fiction thinly disguised as SFF dropped off as I got deeper into the list, to be replaced with the usual highly sentimental stuff that all the pro magazines publish these days. There’s heavy emotional content in every one of these stories. Limited themes. Four of the eight are about abused children, and one more is about elderly dementia. That suggests the Nebula is a competition to see who can provide the biggest emotional whallop.

Other than that, science fiction in general is clearly in trouble here. The two stories that might be SF only use that as a framework to present the story—it’s not at all necessary to the plot. There are no serious questions or ideas offered up, no real predictions of where we might be going in the future. I have to conclude that science fiction, what Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas” is dying. Instead, people want to cry about something.

So why is this happening? Some of it is social trends, of course. People may be just less interested in questions and ideas these days and more interested in emotional chills. But there’s something else, too, which is that this is how people are now taught to write. Last year I meant to comment on this, and I located this quote about teaching methods for children: “…an emphasis on emotions and feelings and ‘expressing’ them. This pressures children to produce work that is cathartic and trite—a very bad combination—and puts the teacher, to say nothing of the classmates, in the position of acting as an untrained, ersatz therapist…”

Unfortunately the link I have for this now seems to be bad, meaning it may have been taken down. More fortunately, there are other sources available. For example, Advanced Writing: Fiction and Film by Wells Earl Draughon offers advice on how to get started on a successful story. Draughon suggests that opening with a character is dull and boring unless some kind of suffering is also attached. This hook attracts the reader and produced sympathy for the character that will lead into the story. By definition, this emotional hook has to be trite or “stock” in order for the reader to quickly understand it. Everyone now expects this. So, in order to get your story published, you have to sift through all the trite trigger situations out there and try to find a creative way to incorporate some overused theme, i.e. child abuse, into your story. If you’re really good at it, then you can be a star writer.

But where does this leave SFF as a genre? As a potential reader, I end up with a choice of the same stock situations used repeatedly as themes because they’ve got great emotional hooks. As a writer, I’m limited in what I can present because I have to stick to these strict requirements to capture an editor’s attention. Add to this the apparent trend to progressive message fiction in the pro magazines that the top of the Nebula list indicates, and you’ve got content that’s restricted to emotional, hot-button issues with no new ideas, and heaven forbid that there be any actual science in there. It’s too cold and clinical for a story to actually ask questions about space travel or the future of the human race.

Is there any hope for change on this?

Review of “The Right Sort of Monsters” by Kelly Sandoval

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This story was published in Strange Horizons. It currently has nine recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Anabeth has bought back a son with crocodile teeth from the Godswalk. Her sister Viette wants a child, too. She has suffered a succession of miscarriages, and her marriage is failing as a result. The Godswalk is a beautiful oasis that appeared suddenly in the marshland after bright stars appeared in the night sky. Since then, the villagers have grown barren. Anabeth advises Viette not to go to the blood trees and ask for a child, because there are costs. Regardless, Viette sets off. She meets a monster child in the Godswalk, and finds that the trees not only want blood, but produce a crop of children that are mostly monsters. She is pleased with all the children she gets in return for her blood.

This might be slipstream, as I’m not sure whether to take it as science fiction or fantasy. It’s another story that plays on emotions, a mother’s desire for children. There’s a little social commentary, maybe, about how mothers are willing to accept the flaws in their children, and about how all children are monsters. I’m not sure this is intended.

Viette is expecting to cause trouble by accepting all her crop of monster children, but I’m not sure this revolutionary theme is justified. Is she expecting the villagers will attack her for bringing all her children home? That the children will be bullied? Everyone who has these children knows the truth about their birth, after all. This is a fully developed story, including imagery, character development and world building. Slight horrific undercurrent. Very sentimental, but no political messages that I can identify.

Four stars.

Potential nominee.

Review of “Natural Skin” by Alyssa Wong

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This story was published by Lightspeed. It currently has six recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Liin is slipping out the window of the family apartment, but her younger sister Xuemei wakes, asks if she’s going to see a surgeon again. Liin tells her to go back to sleep, tucks her in. Their father has recently arranged for Xuemei to go to school in Ottawa, but expects Liin to stay and help with the family business. She walks through Chinatown, finds the surgeon and flesh broker, a hard woman in a burnished mask. Liin offers to sell, and she and the surgeon negotiate, come to a deal. Then they go back to the family’s apartment to conclude the bargain. Will Liin go through with it?

This is the first story I’ve read from the list that I’d qualify as science fiction, as it takes place in a possible future Toronto. It’s got the feel of Cyberpunk with the sprawling, busy city and the brokers of flesh and other casual enhancements. As is usual with Wong’s work, it’s strongly emotional and has an undercurrent of horror. It’s written in first person, so it’s fairly personal and up close. Good imagery, character development and world building, but not especially thought provoking. Very polished. Wong has a very evocative writing style.

Four stars.

Strong potential nominee.

Review of “Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This story was published in Strange Horizons. It currently has nine recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Sergio is a maintenance worker (in New York City?) with a work order to remove a graffiti mosaic from the wall of the Westchester Building. However, when he touches the mosaic, he has a vision, as if experiencing the scene where police evict a boy’s parents and shoot his father. It’s like an electrical shock. Not sure what happened, he goes home to his wife Carolina, who suffers from dementia. The next week, he avoids destroying the mural. On the way home on the bus, he sees another one on the side of an auto repair shop. He gets off the bus, climbs the fence and touches the mosaic, experiences a girl having a traffic accident. He’s nearly arrested by security, gets home late. The next day he calls in sick to work and rides the bus around town, locating more of the murals. In the evening, he’s approached by three people who seem to be the artists. He asks them to make a mural for him. The woman agrees, and puts together the bits of Carolina’s life into a mural that makes her remember–at least for a while.

Okay, I’m sort of charmed by this one. It’s another of the sentimental works that’s so de rigueur lately, but I like Sergio and his devotion to Carolina. It’s an interesting idea to put together the bits of her life into a magical image that will make her remember. There’s also a philosophical statement, that life is about loss, and a political one, that we should remember the ones lost and name the ones responsible. These messages are fairly subtle, pretty much obscured by the main theme about Carolina. The ending seems to be a bit abrupt.

Three and a half stars.

Potential nominee.

Review of “Laws of Night and Silk” by Seth Dickinson

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This short story was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It currently has six recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Kavian is a sorcerer of the Cteri, the people of the dams, making war against the Efficate that wants the water they have captured in their reservoirs. The Efficate have wizards, too, but they are weak in comparison to the weapons of the Cteri. These weapons are abused children called abnarch who have been kept in dark, solitary confinement for their whole lifetimes. Kavain is given the abnarch girl, Irasht, to use as a weapon in the war. Her own abnarch daughter, Heurian, is given to another sorcerer, Fereyd Japur. The two use the girls to destroy the Efficate armies. Heurian dies, but Irasht is saved when the Efficate break off the war. Kavian then revolts against the system, challenging the female warlord Absu to release the imprisoned children.

This is a fully developed story, very personal and written in the present tense. Because it’s about abused children meant to be used as vessels, it’s very emotionally charged for our society that protects children so heavily. Absu is very pragmatic, without any apparent feelings clouding her decisions. However, both Kavian and Japur are plagued with guilt and get attached to their charges. By the end of the story Kavian has taught Irasht to talk and think, and uses her to press the revolt.

This is a very competent work meant to be emotional manipulation. I’m impressed at Dickinson’s skill at putting it together–he hits on a lot of current memes, strong females and disadvantaged men, etc. However, I’m a little hard to manipulate emotionally, so this just comes across as offensive because of the child abuse. There are also some other issues: First with the Cteri, who seem to be hogging all the water in the region and then abusing the children as a means of defending their civilization—there’s no mention that maybe they should just share. Next, I doubt very much that sorcerers who have grown up within this system would wallow in guilt or even question how it works—that’s imposed from our culture. Last, children who have been kept in the dark this way will likely be insane and not loving or trainable in any way. It’s also likely they will be blind.

I’ll give it some extra credit for the quality of the writing. Excellent imagery, character development and world building.

Four stars.

I think this one is a potential nominee.

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