One of the most interesting things about participating in this process was reading so much short fiction. I almost never read short fiction (excepting fanfic, of course), so immersing myself in that world was a real change for me. During the nomination phase, I got pretty overwhelmed -- there is so much short fiction published in SF/F, both in print and online, and besides Strange Horizons I really had no idea where to even start. So I browsed the SH archives, and dug up as many recommendation lists as I could, and bought a couple of anthologies, and I feel like I got a reasonable sampling of works, although of everything I read across all three short fiction categories, only one story I nominated, and one story that I read and decided not to nominate, made the final ballot. (One of my novel nominees also made the ballot. No points for guessing which one!)
I enjoyed many of the stories that I read, and it was a challenge to narrow the shorts down to only five, but the exercise solidified my sense that, in general, I prefer novels. Unless the short story is written in an established fictional universe, or the speculative aspects are pretty firmly grounded in our own world, I have a hard time getting invested enough in the story to care. I'm just as character-driven a reader as I am a writer, so if a story is spending half its word count setting up a fictional universe or a fantastic premise, rather than teaching me who the characters are and why I should find them interesting, it's going to lose me. I also found that I didn't have much patience for the more flowery and/or experimental and/or literary stories. Even more than with a novel, I want a short story to tell me a story first; wowing me with the beauty or cleverness of its language comes second, if at all.
Probably my favorite of all the short fiction I read was "The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere" by John Chu. Chu did a beautiful job of taking a sci-fi premise (every time someone tells a lie, they are drenched by water that appears out of thin air) and exploring what the implications of that would be for real people in real situations. This, I think, is what sci-fi is for, at its best: it's about ideas, but it's also about people, and most importantly the intersection between ideas and people. And this was the perfect idea to explore in a short story -- it didn't need a whole novel. Other times, I would read a story, get to the end, and wonder where the rest of it was. Others were stretched way too long, like the author had been paid for a specific wordcount.
The other interesting exercise was reading for the Campbell award, given to the best new writer. I punted on the Campbell during the nomination phase -- I knew I wouldn't have time to read enough stories by enough people to feel remotely well-informed -- and I thought about skipping the category entirely. But I decided in early July that I should at least give it a shot. In the best of all worlds, these people represent the future of the genre; shouldn't I weigh in on what I want that future to be? So I read the first few chapters of all the novels, and one short story by the author who didn't submit a novel to the packet. All of the novels were interesting enough that I would probably have kept reading them if I hadn't had a time crunch, and I might get back to a couple of them eventually -- and once my sampling project was over I happily picked up Max Gladstone's "Three Parts Dead" and finished it, and now the rest of the trilogy is quite high on my list. But even the stories I didn't like so much that I had to finish immediately, even the one that I found too deeply mired in the "sad sack guy gets superpowers and saves the world" trope to continue reading, were more interesting and thought provoking to me than any of the books nominated for Best Novel -- excepting Ancillary Justice, of course. (If you haven't read Ancillary Justice, I HIGHLY recommend it.) Which I find simultaneously encouraging (yay, future of the genre!) and discouraging (boo, Hugo voters mired in political arguments and rewarding the familiar standbys rather than going out and looking for something new!). It's really the best argument I could have seen for getting more people involved in the process.
I liked Parasite better than I expected to, so it's not like best novel was a total bust for me, but when I consider some of the books I'd been hearing buzz about last year that I'd hoped to read as nominees, it was a fairly disappointing list. I do recognize that, between the Wheel of Time business (I am firmly in the "apples and oranges" camp, and voted accordingly) and various other political upheavals (which I am totally not getting into here; if you're not familiar with the brouhaha it should be easy enough to find write-ups), this was a weird year for the Hugo nominees, particularly best novel. But even still, I'm glad I participated, and I plan to do it again next year, and I would invite anyone to join me.
In conclusion, read Ancillary Justice. ;)
Soon it will be time to start scoping out the landscape for 2014. I spent the last two months reading nothing that wasn't nominated for a Hugo or Campbell, and two months at the beginning of the year reading nothing that wasn't eligible for nomination, so I think I'll be able to better balance it all if I start earlier. Here's hoping, anyway.
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