Our talons can Crush Galaxies is one of the six finalists for the Best Short Story award of the 2017 Hugo Awards.
Gods, Godlings, Infernal Powers, and Outside Entities. There may be beings out there whose dancing can set entire planets on fire, and their talons crush galaxies. Well, good for them, because my Critic Rage also knows no bounds, and even the gods themselves —at least if they are as silly as the ones from this short story— must suffer my critical wrath.
The protagonist, if you can call that a protagonist, is a Goddess who was raped and murdered when in her mortal form, and then returns with her divine sisters to exact a cruel revenge. This story, not that there is a lot of that, could be compared to a tale of a human scientist who, using some form of magistick, high-technology contraption, becomes an insect for a while, and during her arthropod adventures, an especially violent bug rips her open to fill her eggs, killing her in the process, as some insect species are wont to do. Then, angry from such a desecration, she and her fellow scientists (in their real, human form) torture the insect and doom it to a life of eternal damnation, and while at it, they kill a few billion more insects. Or at least that would have been an apt comparison if the gravitas and presence of having a goddess as a narrator didn’t dissolve when you see how she talks and behaves (like a human, and not an interesting one.)
This short story is bad, and I’m pretty sure there had to be a better Hugo finalist in the same issue of Uncanny where it first appeared. In fact, this story manages to make a rape & murder-revenge story —a very easy-to-sell genre and a staple of action movies— unpalatable. I’m really surprised by this, but the story achieves what I would have considered impossible: to make me feel indifferent towards the victim or even to think that she is a shitty person who doesn’t deserve revenge (especially if her revenge requires killing untold innocent people.) It’s a bit like following the revenge fantasies of a resurrected Pol Pot after he got R & M; it’s not that you wanted him raped & murdered, but you simply can’t empathize with him if he goes full Khmer Rouge on everyone’s ass.
In short, this a juvenile revenge power fantasy written in an equally silly style, starting with the first sentence, which is an attempt at criticizing the morbid fascination of contemporary media with the victims of horrible crimes (as if a multidimensional goddess would care about that): “This is not the story of how he killed me, thank fuck.”
What’s more, “fuck” and its many variations appear five times in this short, three-pages story. Keep in mind that this is, theoretically, written from the point of view of an immortal and all-powerful goddess who, nonetheless, talks like a foul-mouthed teenager seething with impotent rage and serious emotional issues. In fact, if this had been written by a male and from the point of view of a young man, I’d assume it was about a mass shooter in the making.
This story shares a problem with the previous Hugo-nominated short story that I reviewed, they are about an apparently all-powerful being who, somehow, manages to get murdered by mere men (I mean MEN, not “humans”.) But if in A First of Permutations the main emotion was one of despair and hopelessness, this time it’s sadistic revenge and narcissistic fantasies of unlimited power.
Not only is the story undermined by its supernatural elements (like the others, it would have worked better by not trying to make it a fantasy story,) the main body of the text is written using bullet points.
Yes, a Hugo-nominated story is written like a Power Point presentation. And there isn’t even a coherent theme among them, or a clear a reason why that information should be conveyed using bullet points instead of plain narration. This is not The Demolished Man (the first novel to win the Hugo prize, in 1952) which occasionally uses creative formatting to represent telepath’s thought processes. Here I see no reason why this should be written in that odd manner.
Finally, some points even contradict (or, at least, undermine) each other. For example, this is the first bullet point:
“He did not know what I was until after [he raped me? I guess]. He felt no regret or curiosity, because he should have been drowned at birth. I was nothing but a commodity to him before, and nothing but an anomaly to him after.“
And these are the tenth and eleventh:
“Did he cry? Oh yeah. Like a fuckin’ baby.”
“I didn’t know what you were, he said. I didn’t know. I just wanted to get your attention, and you wouldn’t even look at me. I tried everything.”
So, what is it? Is he a cold killer who showed no curiosity, regret, or emotions, who even after realizing her divine origin merely looked at her like an anomaly, or is he a baby crying and begging for mercy? I guess one doesn’t invalidate the other, but what could have been an interesting story about the spine-shattering fear and trepidation of a man who realizes there is a god out there coming for him becomes… boring. Yes, it actually manages to make a revenge story with gods boring.
To add salt to the literary insult, her return as a goddess apparently caused all sort of cataclysmic accidents:
“I hatched anew. I flapped my wings and hurricanes flattened cities in six different realities. I was a tee–ninsy bit motherfuckin’ pissed, maybe.”
Again, this could have been an interesting thing if the story had been written from the perspective of a group of mortals whose goal is to placate the wrath of a goddess gone mad with pain; but written in that way, using that language, and in this specific story? It actually made me despise the narrator.
It could be argued that the next bullet point
I may have cried. You don’t get to know that either, though.
is a reference to that accidental genocide, but how the hell should I know? What is this supposed to be, the literary equivalent of abstract expressionist mixed with Pop Art collages? I’m not even sure if those points are in chronological order. You know that thing about “show, don’t tell?” Well, this does neither.
Ironically, this story ends with a cosmic clamor for the forgotten, which I guess doesn’t include all those dead people from “six realities”:
“My sisters and I will sing it—all at once, all together, a sound like a righteous scream from all the forgotten, talked–over throats in Eternity’s halls—and it will be the last story in all of Creation before the lights finally blink out and the shutters go bang.”
Oh, and why was the goddess walking as a mortal in the first place? What important role did she perform during her earthly sojourn?
“I was playing at being mortal this century because I love cigarettes and shawarma, and it’s easier to order shawarma if your piercing shriek doesn’t drive the delivery boy mad. Mortality is fun in small doses. It’s very authentic, very down–in–the–dirt nitty–gritty. There are lullabies and lily pads and summer rainstorms and hardly anyone ever tries to cut your head off out of some moronic heroic obligation to the gods. If you want to sit on your ass and read a book, nobody judges you. Also, shawarma.”
How… hip. And completely unnecessary. Not to mention that this attempt at… humor? undermines the rest of the story. If not even the Goddess takes her mortal manifestations seriously, (lol shawarma, and I said it twice! Isn’t that random and ironic or something?) why should we care about her world-destroying “revenge,” which becomes increasingly bizarre the more you think about it?
Seriously, if you just want to write a revenge power-fantasy about a woman who got raped when she was buying some tacos or something, just do it. All this superpower, divine retribution nonsense only makes the story worse.
You can read this story at UncannyMagazine.com
12 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos: Our Talons can Crush Galaxies, by Brook Bolander.”
I admire your bravery in reading these terrible works.
You took a goddess-bullet for the team. Just wow. This almost sounds worse than, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.”
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Everybody keeps mentioning that one. I’ll have to check it out.
:looks at this story’s Goodreads page:
I weep for Mankind.
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Haha, yeah, the Goodreads pages for all these stories are… interesting.
Now I’m kicking myself – I should have said I’d read the short stories instead of the novelettes. At least the pain is relatively brief with short stories.
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And more diverse!
Maybe the impossibility of satirizing current year SFF is the frame being used to critique promote and award it.
I am full stopped right now. Stunned.
I mean “revenge power-fantasy about a woman who got raped when she was buying some tacos” is damn good, but it’s not an exaggeration, it is a softening of it.
You had to blunt it to expose it. The story itself is its own worst hyperbole!!!
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TIL what shawarma is!
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