April 28th, 2011


2011 Hugo Award for Best Short Story

This year's Hugo shortlist for the Best Short Story category is rather easy to digest - there are only four nominees (presumably there was a multiple tie for fifth place among the nominations), all of them are already available online, and one of them is very short indeed; to further simplify matters I had already read one which had been nominated for the BSFA award. Since I'm spending a few days horizontal and unable to concentrate on anything of great length, I have formulated my views as follows:

4) "Amaryllis", by Carrie Vaughn. Nice enough writing style, but the plot is simply that the bloke in charge of weighing the fishing catch is cheating, against the background of a society where fertility has been restricted; I didn't spot any connection between plot and setting (perhaps there is one and I'm not alert enough to notice it right now) and didn't think the setting, which is the more interesting bit, was sufficiently developed. Not a bad story per se but three out of four BSFA nominees (and three our of four Hugo nominees) are much better.

3) "Ponies", by Kij Johnson. A brilliant, but horrible, very short story about little girls mutilating their familiar spirits as a rite of passage. On a literary level it may well be the best of the nominees (edited to add: and won the Nebula), but I somehow wasn't in the frame of mind to appreciate tales of bits being cut off defenceless creatures.

2) "The Things", by Peter Watts. I put this top of my BSFA ballot, but forgot about it when it came to Hugo nominations. It's a re-telling of John Carpenter's film The Thing from the point of view of the Thing itself, and convincingly conveys the alien entity's disgust with humanity, and its own efforts to work out what is actually going on make an effective counterpoint to the efforts of the humans to defeat it.

1) "For Want of a Nail", by Mary Robinette Kowal. A memorable story about a rogue AI which goes rogue for the best of motives, protecting its closest human friend from the ruthless euthanasia laws of his society, told from the point of view of the young relative who exposes them. I normally hate cute robots - and the fact that this one is called Cordelia did not help - but I found this a strong contrast with, say, "Amaryllis" in that plot and setting are intertwined and explored in the best sfnal tradition.

I'll be happy enough as long as "Amaryllis" doesn't win, but my vote goes to Kowal.

(Previous Hugo category write-up: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.)
train, tintin, leuven

April Books 29) Kuifje in Amerika / Tintin in America

This is one of the three pre-war Tintin books which are not in general circulation in English, and for fairly good reason; it's not all that good. Tintin goes to America in 1931, briefly captures Al Capone (who was still just about at liberty in real life at that stage), is himself captured by the Blackfoot tribe, and then has a series of unlikely and disjointed adventures ending with him rolling up the entire Chicago Syndicate of Gansters and sent back to Belgium as a hero. The only African-Americans in the book (at least in the current version) are lynched off-screen (apparently even this is omitted in the English translation), and the Blackfoot are kicked off their land because Tintin discovers oil on it; Hergé is at least offering a critique of racism, though not a very elegant one. It's interesting as a fore-runner of the much better stuff to come. It's a very long time since I last read Cigars of the Pharaoh, the next album in sequence, but my memory is that it is a massive upshift in quality and coherence compared with this.

Doctor Who Experience

If you are in or near London tomorrow and wanting to avoid the television for any reason, I can heartily recommend the Doctor Who Experience at Kensington Olympia, who are offering "a limited number of tickets" at the knockdown rate of £4.29 per person. There's an excellent multimedia show which lasts for about half an hour, then a decent exhibition covering both Old and New Who (including the authentic Tardis exterior and console from the 1980s). It's worth the standard £20, just about. (I can't see how to book the cheap tickets on the website; probably you'd have to phone them.)
train, tintin, leuven

April Books 30) Tintin and Alph-Art

Another lesser-known Tintin book, this time from the exact opposite end of Hergé's career: this is the story he was working on when he died in 1983. It is a strange and convoluted tale - Captain Haddock wakes from a nightmare, goes shopping and almost accidentally buys a giant plastic letter H, a piece of a new sculpture style called 'Alph-Art' (hence the title of the book); mysteriously dead art experts and a new age cult which may be led by Rastapopoulos in disguise bring Tintin and Captain Haddock to an island near Naples, where Tintin is captured by the bad guys and told that he will be drowned in liquid plastic and put on display as a sculpture by the (fictional) artist César. He tries to send a message to Captain Haddock via Snowy, but then the guards come for him:

"Come on, it's time to turn you into a 'César'."

And that's the end of the Adventures of Tintin; he faces the dreadful fate of being transformed into an icon for the ages.

It's fairly obvious what would have happened if Hergé had lived to finish the story - our hero will escape thanks to his friends, and it's also clear that the bad guys are planning a reunion of a lot of incidental characters from previous books, some from a very long time ago. The book already features Bianca Castafiore, Professor Calculus, Jolyon Wagg, Thomson and Thompson and the Emir of Khedad and his horrible little son Abdullah. It's also fairly clear that the book would have needed a good bit of revision - there's an inconsistency in the plot between whether the art gallery is bugged with a reel-to-reel tape recorder (which would already have been old-fashioned at the time of writing) or via a high-tech microphone hidden in Mrs Vandezande's jewel. (By coincidence, a Mr Vandezande has been the mayor of our village since the last local government reform in 1976.) but the germ of a good if not great Tintin story is already there.

We also get some of Hergé's rough drafts for ways the story might have gone: drugs conspiracies based in Amsterdam, Captain Haddock's change of personality, various options for bringing back some fairly obscure names from the past. Hergé clearly saw this as a final volume, and perhaps it's better to have it preserved in mid-thought, rather than some slightly synthetic confection of a final product; Edwin Drood and Sunset at Blandings are not bad precedents.