My votes for the Hugo novelette nominees

What a fine choice! This year all the Hugo nominees in all the categories seem pretty strong. This includes the novelettes.

The Hugos, of course, are the awards presented at Worldcon — this year in San Jose on Sunday evening, August 19. I’ll be at Worldcon, ready to cheer the winner.

Many of the Hugo nominations were also Nebula nominations, so I’ve repeated what I had to say about them. In order from sixth to first place, these are my votes. If my comments sometimes seem harsh, remember that I’m looking for reasons not to rank them all as number one, and I’m ranking them all above “No Award.” That means that whoever wins, I’ll be satisfied.

6. “Extracurricular Activities,” Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, 2/15/17)
A special ops agent gets sent on a secret mission to rescue a fellow agent. Our agent is supremely confident, and the story tries to be both tense and humorous. It felt like a caper, and obviously some people liked it more than I did. Apparently it’s part of a larger series, and it might have helped to know that setting. Still, to me the jokes seemed tired and the violence was not funny. I also don’t see what’s cute about sexual harassment just because it’s between two men. #MeToo

5. “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)
A man in the process of transitioning from female to male gets turned into a vampire. The difficulties of his human-to-vampire transition become more complex due to his gender transition, and he struggles. There are hot sex scenes. Beyond the transitional complications, which echo the transition from human to vampire, though, there’s not much of a new take on vampirism in this story.

4. “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, 9/17)
A brave little robot, Bot 9, must exterminate a sort of rat through the bowels of a spaceship. As it happens, the future of humanity depends on the success of Bot 9, which in turn needs the help of other robots to catch the ratbug, and a few protocols are broken in the making of that improvised rescue. This story is very cute. I’m not a big fan of cute, but I will give recognition to a job well done. If you like cute, read this story. You’ll be glad you did.

3. “Children of Thorns,” Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny 7-8/17)
In disguise, a pair of spies from the dragon kingdom under the Seine try to infiltrate the House of the Fallen Angels. The setting is a magically dystopic Paris, and the House is about to have its own magical crisis. It meets Bodard’s usual standards of tight writing, characterization, and plotting, with wonderful details slipped in. My only problem is that it feels like an opening chapter to a novel — a fine opening chapter, but there should be more. For me, that diminishes what is in every other way an excellent work.

2. “Wind Will Rove,” Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
On a multi-generational ship, the older generations cling to what they recall from Earth or have learned about it. For the narrator, this means music. Younger generations grow rebellious, eager to create their own music and arts or to forget Earth’s culture and history altogether. These children know they will grow up in a static society on a voyage that seemed romantic to their elders but is confining to them. Despite the skill in storytelling, the focus seemed a bit off to me. I learned a lot about the narrator’s family and music, especially one particular song, but not as much about what is going on in the ship. The need to change and adapt became symbolized by that song, but the story got stuck on the symbol rather than a resolution of the on-board problems.

1. “A Series of Steaks,” Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
This was one of five finalists for Clarkesworld magazine’s Reader’s Poll. My story “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” was also a finalist. As soon as I read “A Series of Steaks,” I knew I was likely to lose. A woman in China agrees to make counterfeit beefsteaks for a client, then the deal starts to go sour. Three things impressed me: the quiet desperation of the main character, the philosophical musings about the art of forgery, and the thoroughly satisfying ending.

Hugo Awards 2018: my votes for the short stories

It’s Hugo Award voting time, and I’ve read and weighed the short stories. This year there are no incursions from Puppies of any kind, and while for aesthetic reasons I’m not fond of every nominee, they all deserve to be considered the year’s best. In fact, many of the Hugo short story nominations were also Nebula nominations.

In order from sixth to first place (the Hugo uses a ranked ballot), these are my votes for the short stories, but reasonable people might vote otherwise.

6. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
A visitor is led through an exhibition of what might have once cruelly been called a freak show. Beautifully written, the story effectively evokes the bitter anger of those on display, and perhaps it’s meant as horror reflecting the way society treats those who are different, but I don’t think it quite fulfills the noble goals of horror. Horror stories are modern tragedies, and a tragedy requires the protagonists to suffer for some fault within themselves. The visitor is tortured apparently to avenge the general cruelty of society, but the visitor’s participation in this cruelty is never established. As Aristotle argued in Poetics, unmerited misfortune merely shocks us: it isn’t tragedy. I see this story as torture for torture’s sake, and there’s no merit in sadism. The quality of the writing, though, deserves to be ranked above “No Vote.”

5. “Carnival Nine,” Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)
A wind-up toy robot mother makes great sacrifices to care for her robot son who has mechanical problems. The tale is obviously a analogy to what happens in real life to families with children with disabilities — a bit too obvious an analogy, perhaps, almost a parable, and the story never explains who does the winding up or why some toys live in a closet. Heart-strings are tugged, but logic is stretched, and that weakened the overall effect for me. Also a Locus Award nominee.

4. “Moon, Sun, Dust,” by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny 5-6/17)
A farmer is bequeathed a magic sword by his grandmother on her deathbed. He has no use for a sword, magic or otherwise, however, and is quite content to go on growing potatoes. His humble candor carries the story, which is gently and delightfully charming. I rank it fourth only due to stiff competition. It’s well worth reading.

3. “The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (Tor.com 7/19/17)
As Earth is dying from a long series of natural and human-made disasters, an old woman is directing robots on Mars to create a monument to outlast humanity. It may be a futile gesture, but there’s not much else to do — then something seems to be stirring on Mars. This quiet story depends on largely unstated emotions to carry it, and those emotions lurk like leviathans: sorrow, defeat, anger, pain, despair … and defiance. Despite its brevity, it made a long journey across my heart to do battle with dystopia. It won the 2018 Locus Award for Short Story.

2. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
An Indian guide for cyberspace tourists offers Native American “Vision Quests” that are as authentically Indian as the Lucky Charms leprechaun is authentically Irish, but white people seem fine with that. Then a customer wants too much. Unrelenting cynicism about commercialization and stereotypes underlies this story’s muted fury. It’s already won an Apex Reader’s Choice Award, a Locus Award nomination, and this year’s Nebula Award. Well deserved.

1. “Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
A sentient robot discovers an anime series about another sentient robot, Hyperwarp, and becomes a “hyper-big fan.” Then it discovers fanfiction and makes friends. This is as funny as it sounds but also touching as the robot, which has no emotions, responds in a pseudo-emotional way and becomes accepted as a human on the internet. Both fandom and technology are efficiently dissected with a loving, razor-sharp knife. It was a Locus Award nominee and got my vote for the Nebula Award.

Good luck and congratulations to all the authors!

— Sue Burke

The Clarion T-shirt: cold, cruel critiques

In 1996, when I was at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop, each class traditionally made a commemorative T-shirt. (This may still be the case. I hope so.)

Ours featured a design on the front evoking a video game. The boy manikin in the illustration had certain sentimental significance.

The back, in keeping with tradition, listed remarks taken out of context from critiques. Critiquing stories was a main activity at the workshop, and we tried to be kind and helpful, but context is everything. One of these remarks was mine, by the way, and I’m not going to own up to it. One of them was about a story I wrote, and it was actually good advice.

• I would really like to say something nice about your story.

• You should use a lighter shade of foreshadowing.

• The story was dances with wolves, bears, deer, and thunderclouds.

• Spirals down into madness and incompetence in a lighthearted sort of way.

• This story is about Emily Dickinson’s pivotal role in the space program.

• What do we want? THE PRESENT! When do we want it? NOW!

• You have everything you need; it all just needs to be changed.

• I also like gratuitous incineration.

• This story is Waiting for Godot, but without all the action.

• I’m not sure that this story needs to have exactly what you want to say in there.

• What we need are some Zombie rules.

GameOverCloseup.jpg• This story is so well-written I bet you’ve written something I’d like.

— Sue Burke

How I sort of ate lunch with the FIFA World Cup trophy

In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup soccer (football) competition, and before the games, the World Cup trophy went on tour across the country to try to whip up enthusiasm for the sport.

I was living in Milwaukee at the time, and a friend and I happened to go to a shopping mall where it was on display, so we paused to look at it. We weren’t big soccer fans, but how often would we get to see something that famous?

So we stood there admiring it on a stand near the central garden. A man in a suit who was obviously a security guard observed us impassively. I felt a little disappointed that we were the only shoppers who seemed interested. So much for whipping up enthusiasm. If it were on display in much of the world, a long line would be waiting just to get close. But back then Milwaukee wasn’t a big soccer town. Things might be different now.

The trophy itself is a big chunk of solid gold with a pair of green malachite rings around the bottom. I didn’t like the design much, which seemed a little knobby to me, but it was big and shiny – about 36 cm/14 inches tall, weighing 5 kilos/11 pounds. That much gold is worth around US$200,000.

To help with perspective, here’s a detail of a photo that shows the trophy being presented by then Vice President Al Gore to the Brazilian team, which won the 1994 World Cup. That’s what $200,000 looks like, to say nothing of the cost of everything else surrounding the tournament, which would be a number with a metric shit-load of zeros.

After we had stood enraptured for long enough, we went on to buy whatever it was that had brought us to the mall, and later stopped for lunch at a fast food restaurant. As we sat down, the trophy’s guard came in with a trophy-sized briefcase handcuffed to one of his wrists, and we guessed what was inside. He bought lunch and sat at a nearby table.

My friend and I speculated about the security. There couldn’t be just one guy protecting that much gold, right? Without a doubt, we decided, someone was guarding the guard, but we couldn’t figure out who.

And that’s as close as I’ll ever get to the World Cup trophy. I sort of ate lunch with it once.

— Sue Burke

Dad’s three rules for success

DadMany decades ago on a summer Friday evening when the fish didn’t seem to be biting, Dad decided we could spend our time better having a beer. We gathered up our fishing tackle and went to the little tavern in Green Lake Terrace, Wisconsin, where we had a summer home.

From the comfort of a bar stool, he told me three secrets to business success — and he’d had a variety of experience.

1. Always stay as polite as you can for as long as you can. If you start out mad, where can you go from there? Besides, if you’re polite, calm, and rational, the person you’re dealing with will feel obliged to act that way, too, and this is more likely to get you what you want.

My dad added that this can require calculated self-control, and the point might come when politeness doesn’t work. He earned the nickname “the bastard” at work for his ability to be impolitely assertive in a self-controlled, calculated way when he had to. For example, once a machine was delivered that didn’t work right, and in heavy manufacturing, operating errors can kill people. The supplier refused to fix the machine. Finally, my dad talked to the supplier and explained in simple Anglo-Saxon words why they had to fix their machine, or else — and they finally understood what would happen if they didn’t.

My father didn’t teach me how to swear, but he taught me when to swear.

2. Always remember that the people who work for you have it in their power to determine whether you’re a success or not. Treat them as well as you can. If your employees hate you, they have no incentive to work harder than they need to. In fact, they might even make things fail out of spite — this has actually happened.

If your employees know you’re trying your best to get them what they need, fighting on their behalf with the powers that be, and respecting them, they’ll go the extra mile. Experienced workers treasure a good boss. For some reason, my dad said, good bosses are rare.

This secret to success extends to all kinds of people who don’t work for you but who have a working relationship with you. If you appreciate them, they’ll return the favor in their area of expertise. Be on good terms with janitors, for example. They know more about the building than you ever will, and they can make things happen. Everyone is powerful in their own right.

3. Always tip bartenders. Bartenders remember regular customers who tip, and that means you’ll have a friend in the room.

For example, when my dad entertained clients, he could pre-arrange for his friendly bartender to quietly slip him non-alcoholic drinks while the others were getting what they ordered. It helped to be clandestinely sober during business discussions.

And if for some reason you have a problem, and women sometimes do, you’ll have a friend in the room who is important to that room.

In short: treat people not just fairly, treat them as well as you can and with respect. That’s the secret to success at work. Thanks, Dad. I wish you were still here.