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2014 Hugos: Best Novella - Bela Lugosi's Dead, Jim
July 6th, 2014
07:18 pm
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2014 Hugos: Best Novella

General notes:

  • Major spoilers for everything on the ballot!
  • Reviews in order of reading/watching.

My current ranking is:

  1. Six-Gun Snow White
  2. Wakulla Springs
  3. Equoid
  4. No award.
  5. The Butcher of Khardov
  6. The Chaplain’s Legacy

Wakulla Springs (Andy Duncan, Ellen Klages)

Three generations of a mixed-race American family react to racism, poverty, superstition and the film industry.

There’s a lot of struggle in here, but very little actual conflict: the tensest scene, in which a black soldier returning from the Korean war challenges the racism of the local hotel, is defused by a surprise alligator before it can really get nasty.

The fantastical content is for the most part implied rather than stated, though toward the end it becomes a little more overt. As such I can see why a lot of the popular reaction to this nomination has been negative, which is a shame because it’s a well-written and moving piece.

The Butcher of Khardov (Dan Wells)

It’s got a map, a glossary, a bloody-sounding title, it’s the second in a series of Warhammer books … the initial signs are really not promising.

The butcher of the title is one Orsus Zoktavir, and his story is told quite thoroughly out of order. As a child his family are killed by raiding monsters; despite being only 10 years old and seriously injured he manages to kill one in revenge. After growing up he joins the local lumber operation, a criminal organization which has him chopping down trees by day and the equally amoral competition by night. The love of a woman offers hope of redemption but she becomes a casualty of the continuing gang warfare. After wandering around in the woods for an extended period in a state of deep confusion and guilt he joins the local army where he is initially brutally effective but eventually goes right off the rails and massacres a village.

Most of the personal names and many of the place names have a Russian flavor to them (at least to my untutored eye), though looking at the map not all the toponymy is consistent with this.

Technology-wise we have guns and cavalry, but also enormous axes with some kind of magical property and mind-controlled magical/mechanical robots. (Orsus is one of the unusual individuals capable of effectively controlling these machines.) Where or indeed whether there is any heavy industry producing these things, is never made clear.

The strongest parts of this story are when Orsus gets to talk to someone; the views we get inside his head when angry or depressed are to my mind somewhat overcooked. The nonlinearity doesn’t really work either; it’s pretty clear from early on what has left Orsus so badly damaged, and the reveal of the details toward the final pages doesn’t really add anything. (See Use Of Weapons for a much better example.)

It must be said that fridging Orsus’s love to motivate him is - at best - less than original, and didn’t even seem particularly rational on the part of the killers, in context: while one individual is out for extra-cold revenge, the rest have other fish to fry and enraging Orsus but leaving him alive to retaliate is not very sensible.

It’s a better read, all being said and done, than I’d suspected it might be from the initial signs, but (despite so far only having read two of the novellas) I have trouble seeing it near the top of my list.

The Chaplain’s Legacy (Brad Torgersen)

A genocidal insectoid alien species halts its war against a technologically humanity after some of its intellectuals become interested in religion, a concept that is completely alien to them. The story begins with this hiatus in the war drawing to a close, with the aliens preparing to attack and the humans (with upgraded technology) hoping to put up a better fight than the first round.

The viewpoint character, Harrison Barlow, is the chaplain’s assistant who played an instrumental part in introducing the aliens to religious ideas, and the military bring him along to the conference with the aliens in the hope he can repeat the trick. As it happens neither side is really present in good faith and the war begins then and there. Barlow and an intelligence officer called Adanaho are forced to abandon ship along with the injured alien supreme leader and the Professor, the alien they’ve been previously communicating with and who serves as a translator.

Marooned on a barren but nevertheless just about habitable planet, their rather unpromising plan is to attempt to keep the alien leader alive and be rescued by the aliens rather than the humans, the theory being that this will set a useful example (while the humans would just treat the capture as an intelligence coup). There is a lot of discussion as they wander through the wilderness, and the alien leader starts to take an interest in religion when she sees Adanaho praying.

Ultimately Adanaho and the Professor are killed in fighting toward the end of the story, but the job is done: the alien leader is persuaded and brings the war to an end.

It all seems a bit easy, really. Apparently a leader dead set on mass murder is persuadable by a few days getting to know their intended victims a bit better and seeing a human take a stand in their defense. In the end I wasn’t really convinced.

Equoid (Charles Stross)

An employee of the British Government’s occult security service researches, tracks down and destroys a Lovecraftian monstrosity, with the aid of Lovecraft’s letters detailing his own encounter with a previous outbreak of same.

It’s quite a fun story, but doesn’t contain much that is surprising: the monster is monstrous, it’s mostly pretty clear who’s going to turn out to be under its control, etc. It’s a bit longer than it really deserves; Lovecraft’s imagined letters are quoted at turgid length.

Six-Gun Snow White (Catherynne M. Valente)

A loose retelling of the Snow White story, relocated to the wild west. Snow White’s father is a successful prospector; her mother a Native American woman that he forces into marriage. The hunter is a bounty hunter and he the reason he takes back a deer’s heart has little to do with kindness and a lot to do with Snow White being a better shot. Her stepmother remains a witch with a mirror, though.

A lot of people are very unpleasant to each other in this story, usually in ways aligned with systematic oppression (though Snow White often gives as good as she gets), and you couldn’t say it has a fairy tale “happily ever after”, though it does end on a subdued but positive note.

The writing style is quite mannered - if it’s meant to put the reader in mind of a voiceover in a western then it succeeded - and I really enjoyed it.

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