How I’m Voting in the Best Novella Category

All five of the 2014 Best Novella Nominees rank above No Award on my Hugo ballot, which is saying something this year. Nearly all of them succeed on their own terms and it’s easy to see why each story has its fans.

(5) “Equoid” by Charles Stross (, 09-2013)

This is the first of the Bob Howard “Laundry” adventures I’ve ever read. Stross has written many stories in this series, including several novels, and it’s quite popular. So why would a yarn with that pedigree land fifth on my ballot? Because I don’t vote Hugos to stories that make me want to throw up.

In the middle of this Lovecraftian parody/espionage tale there’s a confrontation with a monster that details a hideously graphic sexual violation.

Ordinarily I would have clocked out of the story at that point. I abandoned Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl when a scene struck me as outside the bounds of entertainment, and it was far less offensive. Yet I couldn’t shake off the fanzine fan ethic that says – don’t review stuff you haven’t read. So I finished “Equoid.”

Even apart from that dealbreaker, Stross’ sustained cleverness is almost overwhelming. It’s like being on a panel with David Brin, a constant flow of truly inventive ideas that nevertheless focus attention on the author more than the subject. However, there was one thing I truly enjoyed — the parallels drawn between bureaucratic infighting and action in the field. That definitely qualified as a “truth said in jest.”

(4) “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)

The science fiction field tends to be hostile to religious faith, so it’s rare to find a good exploration of that topic in the genre. Torgersen’s characters begin at several different points on the topography of belief. He draws each one to a resolution that feels genuine, which is not easy to do. Otherwise, this is a linear, action-driven space opera that would have fit comfortably in Astounding (and evidently still fits in Analog today). Only fourth place for this effort because the writing style is rather basic.

(3) The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (Privateer Press)

Dan Wells’ story has an even higher body count than “Equoid” but confines itself to regular barroom and battlefield morbidity. The protagonist has a technology-related superpower that leads to a great military career though with many a pitfall. His life story is told out of chronological order, something Wells carries off very well – and the choice for the last segment is completely satisfying. A professionally impressive work, though one that isn’t much fun because the protagonist is psychotic.

(2) Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)

The other day I read an editor promising her readers “gorgeous prose,” and Valente is an author who supplies that in abundance. In this novella she reweaves the traditional Snow White fairy tale as the life story of a child of a wealthy miner and a Crow woman, told in frontier diction — perhaps not the same as Charles Portis’ True Grit, though it came to mind, and absolutely without a trace of humor. The protagonist is an abused child inevitably trapped by a desire to please her parents. Throughout her life she copes with all the racism and sexism the 19th century has to offer. The historical realism (indeed, some of these details come from the Hearst family) makes the story feel like a duty to read.

The story is essentially a series of episodes that hold together because the reader knows the fairy tale. Otherwise the experience would be comparable to reading Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.” But that’s a short story. When I reached the point in Six-Gun Snow White of asking “Will this be over soon?” there were 80 more pages to go.

(1) “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (, 10-2013)

“Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages is by far the most entertaining and slickest written story nominated in this category. The cleverness, use of dialect and diction, and the awareness of social issues noted in the competition are all present here but remain in balance with storytelling and characterization.

There is one drawback. It’s not science fiction, and it’s only fantasy in a very general sense. Now when I was a lad I might have felt obligated to defend the purity of the Hugo Award against incursions of popular mainstream fiction. But this year, when so many games were played to get things on the final ballot, I refuse to be stopped from voting for what I regard as the best story in the category.

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8 thoughts on “How I’m Voting in the Best Novella Category

  1. I have that problem with most of Stross’s work – I generally am dropped out of the story at points because he’s showing off how clever he is rather than staying within the story

  2. Giving a Hugo to a non-SF, non-Fantasy is a significant category error. If the award is simply for “best story written this year,” then “best novella” could just as easily go to Wheel of Time. Sure, it isn’t a novella, but boy…stamina.

    At this rate, War and Peace is a shoo-in for Retro Hugo 1869.

    I’m going to pretend that Wakulla is disqualified on category grounds (I agree it is well-written), but that leaves your recommendation for Six Gun Snow White as baffling. You were dismayed that you had 80 pages left in the story? That’s damning with faint criticism. What makes it second? The fact that Wells wasn’t any fun? The fact that Torgersen was fun and unique but…condemned to using basic grammar?

    If I were to order your recommendations just based on what you wrote and not on what you ranked, my sense is that you didn’t enjoy Stross or Snow White much at all, that Wells had too high a body count, that Torgersen was the best of the Science Fiction entries, and Wakulla was the best story even though it isn’t a typical Hugo candidate.

    Can you clarify what I am missing?

  3. xdpaul: Welcome back. It’s always illuminating to see ourselves as others see us.

    Perhaps I can do a better job at explaining how I came to rate Six-Gun Snow White second (or the competition lower, as the case may be).

    If I had phrased a bit differently, more positively, the same points I made about the Valente story my attitude might have been clearer. I really did admire her rich, poetic prose. Whether Valente would agree it’s a compliment to be compared with Harlan Ellison I can’t say, however, that’s why Ellison’s short story popped into my mind — they both draw on a diverse vocabulary, and they both exhibit an unerring craftsmanship in selecting the right word for the moment. Those similarities are a good thing. I did get fatigued with Snow White in a novella length because the character was just too sad, though it did let Valente assign her some motives that made psychological sense. Valente also worked in a lot of Old West research I recognized from nonfiction reading. Just one example – traveling museums that displayed the mummified corpses of outlaws.

    I alluded to the body count in the Wells story since it had that in common with “Equoid” though it didn’t disgust me. It wasn’t fun because the “hero” was a militarily-useful psycho. Your mileage may vary.

    Torgersen’s story is effective in the areas I praised. Just the same, it is a lightweight tale that uses shooting, running and details of field survival skills to pace an easily digestible conversion experience. If somebody is going to win a Hugo for a discussion of faith, the subject should be explored in some depth, as in the Perelandra novels.

    As for Wakulla Springs — I’m not buying your attempted reductio ad absurdum/ C’mon, if a talking monkey isn’t fantasy, what is?

  4. Frankly, Mike, going by your reviews the vote should be:

    1.) “Wakulla Springs”

    2.) “The Chaplain’s Legacy”

    3.) No Award

    YMMV and all that, of course.

  5. > C’mon, if a talking monkey isn’t fantasy, what is?

    If the story was about a talking monkey, you’d have a point. But the talking monkey occupies about one paragraph, and if I remember correctly, it’s strongly implied that the character speaking with the monkey had fallen asleep and was dreaming (i.e. it didn’t actually happen). In any scenario, that was not anywhere near the thrust of the story. It was pretty clearly slice-of-life historical, literary fiction, not SF or F (nor, really, mainstream or popular, as far as I can tell).

  6. If I was trying to make a point it wouldn’t have started with the loudly question-begging “C’mon.” I already agreed with your conclusion in my original review. What I said is that I’m not obligated to defend the purity of the Hugo if it keeps me from voting for the best story in this otherwise highly politicized year.

    Hugo administrator Dave McCarty is in charge of enforcing the rule that says “Hugo Awards are given for work in the field of science fiction or fantasy.” Once he puts something on the ballot I’m free to deal with it as I please.

  7. I was curious whether Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the Tor senior editor credited on with acquiring “Wakulla Springs”, had an opinion about its identity as a genre story. I sent an e-email, and Patrick obliged me with this response:

    To answer your question directly, my acquiring “Wakulla Springs” didn’t mean I’m taking a position on whether it’s formally “within the bounds of the genre.”’s masthead slogan is “Science Fiction, Fantasy, The Universe, and Related Subjects,” so we feel entirely fine about publishing fiction that we think many SF and fantasy readers will enjoy even if it’s marginal to one or more of the many contending definitions of what SF and/or fantasy are or aren’t. We’ve published other stories like this in the past, and will do so again in the future — in fact, an upcoming one is “Headache” by Julio Cortázar, which will be the first-ever English-language appearance of this fantasy-tinged tale by the late eminent Argentine novelist.

    In general, I tend to agree with Chip Delany’s observation that the trouble with definitional arguments is that by their nature they wind up focussing on edge cases (Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith!) instead of doing the much more interesting work of discussing what SF and fantasy _are_.

    I’m glad you liked “Wakulla Springs,” though. It’s certainly one of my favorite things ever to have appeared on the site.

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