I wasn’t sure if this year I would bother writing these analyses of the Hugo short story finalists. Although my experience has usually been that close to 90% of them are bad, at least they are bad in an interesting way. This year they are mostly bad and boring. Besides, to be honest, I don’t care that much about writing anymore. But these reviews of mine are sort of a blog tradition, so here they are once more. I think, however, that this may be the last year I do these. It’s neither worth it nor funny.
If you have stumbled upon this without knowing what I’m talking about: The Hugo Awards is one of the most prestigious literary awards in science fiction and fantasy. Also, they nominate a lot of crap, but it’s from that fact that the hilarity ensues.
To be fair to the winners in saner categories, I only review the Short Story finalists because that’s where you go if you want to see the undiluted madness of the current cultural zeitgeist. Hugo Finalists in the short story category are the student film version of the Oscar-bait films… if that comparison makes any sense. 3/4 of the chosen stories are crafted following the advice of very specific writing workshops just to become finalists, not to be enjoyable stories for their own sake. There is a very concrete set of criteria one has to check off to be eligible for a Hugo Short Story Award, but it all can be summarized in two broad categories: Extreme Wokeness and Lit-Fic Posturing. And, boy, there is a lot of both this year.
The first contender this year is Do Not Look Back, My Lion by Alix E. Harrow. This story is what happens when a writer has an average-to-good idea for a story, writes it, but then realizes she’s not going to get any of that sweet literary attention with just a well-written piece—so she just switches the gender of all the characters of the story. Yeah, just like that. This is the first sentence:
Eefa has been a good husband, she knows, but now she is running.
And that’s how you get a Hugo nomination.
Yes, the protagonist is a woman (referred as she) who is also a husband, and her wife is also a woman, but she is masculine and a warrior, but she is referred as she too, and a wife. All clear? Good.
So she, the woman, not to be confused with the other she who is also a woman but is not a husband, is tired of seeing her daughters (who are women but may or may not become husbands or wives, I guess) dying as soldiers in neverending wars. Now, wait a moment, you may be thinking, if both are women, where do the daughters come from? Ah, this is the science fiction or fantasy element of the story, right? Are they a society of post-apocalyptic female amazons?
No, of course not, that would be interesting. No, men do exist, she (the husband) is just a literal cuckold. While she (the wife) is fighting away, she (the wife) tends to get intimate with pretty male camp followers and gets pregnant.
And this leads me to the status of men in this story… it’s not entirely clear. It seems that they have a subservient role, similar to that of women in traditional societies, but it’s not clear and, besides, there are female husbands (that is, the more traditionally-oriented women) and wives (aggressive warrior women) so there should be both male husbands and male wives, too. That is not mentioned, though, or if it is, my brain just blanked out. Sorry, but it’s hard to keep track of what is going on when there are four women in a scene, they are all referred as “she”, but some may be bodybuilder-shaped wives while others are effeminate husbands.
So anyway, this woman (the husband) can’t keep seeing more of “”her”” children dying in wars, so she first tries to flee the city but fails, not so much because of any objective, physical threat, but lack of will. Later, she tries to make her she-hulk of a wife to promise that she will to not let their next daughter to be marked as a future warrior because she (the daughter) may die. Long story short, the promise is not upheld, and one of their sons (a pure, innocent boy) dies in the war. Finally, even the wife sees the futility of the constant slaughter, and her adulation for the warmonger emperor/empress turns to hate. The story ends with the she-husband fleeing, this time successfully and with the baby, and the city burning behind her. It’s implied the wife has killed the empress.
Here’s the thing: without all this gender-swapping nonsense, this could have been an OK story, as it would have followed the old trope of the wife who doesn’t want to see more of her family die in futile wars. The gender BS adds nothing (and it’s not as if it makes the fictional world a better-run place) and only makes things confusing, yet it’s probably why it was selected as a finalist. In fact, I’m sure the writer first thought, or even wrote, this story with standard genders and pronouns, then, seeing that this would have little chance of being noticed or even published, did the stunning and brave thing of switching all gender roles.
But even without that nonsense, the story is noticeable boring, as most award-worthy stories are since it’s an unspoken rule of the literary world that anything even moderately exciting is plebeian and patricians only read stories where nothing happens or where the protagonists do absolutely nothing. My short write-up of the plot above may have made you think that there is some action in there or character development, but there really isn’t much. Keep in mind that the protagonist is the “husband”, who does virtually nothing. She fails her first attempt at fleeing because she lacks the will to do so, she fails to convince her wife, she fails to stop the empress from marking “her” daughter, and when her wife does see the light, it has little or nothing to do with her actions. Finally, the only potentially cool scene, the wife storming the castle and killing the empress in a duel… isn’t even shown, just told (if at all.) The protagonist, the husband, has done mostly nothing through the entire story.
Stylistically, the story suffers from the same crippling tics many of the other finalists also show. The writing tries to imitate a more literary, flourishing style, while, at the same time, being obnoxiously modern, which is why you can find attempts at almost Dunsany-style prose instantly followed by the f-bomb:
She’s prayed each dawn and dusk at the twin temples of Ukhel and Idral, serene and pious as a dove. She’s sent her wife off to war a thousand fucking times
This is grating, or, should I say, grating as FUCK.
This story also flagellates the reader by following and abusing a very specific set of stylistic errors (because, honestly, some are just grammatical errors) that have become mandatory to signal lit-fic pretensions. I’ll mention them here in this post, but I don’t want to imply that this only happens in this short story. All the others do the same.
1.Conjunction? What are those?
She smells the sweat and hide of Talaan’s horse now, feels the animal warmth of it.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to add that it’s written in the present tense because of course it is.
Anyway. Recently, it has become a trendy thing to write like that. I don’t know what writer’s workshop is teaching this, but I wish they’d stop. Nobody used conjunctions anymore. “She smells the sweat… and feels the animal”? Nah, man, that’s, like, how normal people express themselves. True artists just stack sentence fragments one after the other. Because that’s how people think. Or something. It’s deep, OK?
Also, who the hell writes “feels the animal warmth of it” rather than “feels its warmth”?
2.It’s all fucking horsehit.
Yes, just that. Read this and try not to cringe (ignore the unnecessary semicolon):
Thus is their endless war made holy, their victory assured; Eefa sees it shining in their eyes.
It’s all horseshit.
At least it’s not “It’s all fucking horseshit.” Or this:
“A soldier does not ask for a good Life, only for a good Death,” Talaan intones. Another fucking quote
She lies in bed, tasting bile in her throat, thinking all her tired thoughts about the fucking Emperor and her fucking endless war
I don’t know why, but it has become an article of faith among the literati that one of the best ways to signal that one writes lit-fic is to make many, many references to how things smell (and throw a little synesthesia in there if you can too).
She smells the sweat and hide of…
Eefa smells cloves and the lingering warmth of their bed…
Eefa works endless shifts and returns home smelling of bured herbs and blood…
She smells of myrrh and blood…
It’s the smell she notices first…
The smell is unpleasant…
By the second morning they are in the high pass over the mountains, and they can smell smoke [note: that comma there is not needed]
4. Dramatic short sentences
Eefa is running from the city of Xot, from the Emperor and her ceaseless war-making, from her own sacred duties as a healer and a husband, from her near-daughters and near-son. From her wife.
Talaan is bed-tousled and [thirty words later]. Her feet are bare.
The Emperor waits with raised chin for the litany to end. Eefa watches her.
Ulat and Ud are already at the front, and now Urv joins them. So does Tuvo.
At least, this is what Eefa is told later. She wasn’t there.
And so on and on and on. And on. Short, sudden sentences are deep and emotional, m’kay?
All in all, the story is somewhat dull but competently written and dragged down by the unnecessary layers of nonsense one has to produce to be elegible for a Hugo Award.
Edit: By the way, if you are wondering what elements in there makes this a SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY story that might be awarded a SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY award… yeah, well, you are not the only one. This however, might one of the most fantastical stories in the whole bunch. Imagine—it’s even set in an imaginary world! The others don’t even bother.