We decided to write up our thoughts on each of the short stories nominated for the 2022 Hugo awards. Of course, here be spoilers, spoilers galore. If you don’t want these stories spoiled, go read them, and then come back here.
This is the same concept as Jimmy’s review of the 2021 nominees, and so we shall adapt the explanation from that post:
As an exercise, we read each of these stories and told each other what we thought the themes were, and I reference that throughout these reflections. Themes, as we define them, are thematic statements: the point the story is trying to make. Themes are distinct from thematic concepts, in that they are complete sentences rather than just nouns. They are distinct from premises, in that they are the take-away for the real-world, not a statement about the world of the story. And, to be clear, there can be more than one completely valid answer. Both of us would posit what we thought the theme was, answering independently without consulting each other, and then we would discuss the story in greater detail.
What follows are the tangible results of those discussions: reflections about each story, somewhere between review and analysis. Each header is also a link, because all of these stories are available to read online. They are reviewed in descending ranked order according to Jimmy’s ranking, and some overall discussion of ranking is reserved for the conclusions.
A trick ending, indeed. A relatively common trope, but unexpected here, at least for us: In order to pass a test of morality, you have to refuse an order, to not only do the right thing but do it in spite of what you think will be horrible consequences to you. Can your conscience survive dishonesty and manipulation?
It’s terrifying to see this trick done at the “salvation/damnation” scale. It reminds Jimmy of this SMBC. It sort of calls into question the whole premise of “eternal damnation” and “eternal punishment,” especially if the operators of these mechanisms have values that disagree with ours, or are simply a result of arbitrary but impersonal rules.
Given the twist at the end, it’s unclear what the rules of this story are. How much wasn’t this reaper told? We understand why he was lied to for the test, but now will he be given a more complete picture with a new boss? Is he going to get more and more shocking revelations every couple of eons? Unclear!
On the other hand, this story is a resounding endorsement of the theory that you should always avoid doing something horrible, even if orders compel you to do the horrible thing, even if it goes against the theory you’ve been taught. We agreed that this was the theme. As Doug put it, when the rules compel you to violate your conscience, violate the rules. A good person’s conscience is usually the better guide than a good rule book.
With life-or-death stakes such as these, this theme makes sense. There is a balance, however. “Follow your conscience in all circumstances” is bad advice when consciences are fallible, and sometimes the person giving you the order is simply someone who knows more than you about the situation. Who cannot say they held onto a stubborn but incorrect rebellion against an authority as a kindergartner? Who truly has never done it as an adult? Humility is actually a virtue. But Doug thinks that this story’s power is that it has more faith in humanity’s ability to intuit morality. In effect, the story is taking a powerful stand in favor of act consequentialism versus rule consequentialism. Doug is more inclined to support act consequentialism than Jimmy is.
This particular story could’ve gone a different way, Perhaps, by violating the cosmic rule, all of time could have unravelled, or there could have been a butterfly effect where someone else had to die as a result of the protagonist’s decision. Such a story would have been written by a different author who had less faith in humanity’s ability to intuit morality and was a stronger proponent of a rule-based ethical system. In such a story, the blame for the negative consequence would’ve (in Jimmy’s eyes) definitely fallen on Raz for not explaining the stakes and what would happen if the death was avoided. (Doug disagrees and thinks that, in a truly rule-based system, the blame would still have been on the protagonist. Raz would definitely be part of the causal chain, though, and it would have behooved Raz to give a little more information.) In the story as written, the narrator kept on asserting that you cannot cheat death, without giving any evidence or specific reason. At the time, this felt like there just wasn’t enough time to go into it for the story, and it counted against the story. Now, it feels like foreshadowing, and it is a strength of the story.
For Jimmy, while this story made him emotionally believe in the theme, and while he greatly enjoyed this story and its subversion of the normal trope of “don’t mess with forces greater than you, even to save a life, because it could have even greater consequences,” he finds himself intellectually not as convinced as he wants to be. As he thinks deeper about it, he finds the questions brought up, and this story, somewhat unsettling.
Doug thinks that this is the story’s greatest strength, though. This story forces the reader to confront a difficult moral question and examine the consequences. Whenever a short story succeeds in making the reader question an inherent moral belief, it deserves major kudos. Go read this story.
We both agreed that this was the best story, and so here it comes ranked first, for interesting thought-provocation and quality of writing with a twist at the end.
Jimmy (very much not Doug) had a lot of fun with this one! A satire of Internet communities, where everyone jockeys to maintain their karma and online reputations and fails to engage properly with the actual realities of the situation at hand, where if they were paying more attention they would realize that their more serious colleague was finding out how truly important the thing actually was.
Themes include “People on the Internet are idiots more concerned with their own reputation than the things they’re actually interested in,” and also “there’s more to folklore than meets the eye” and “we can never truly know the past.”
Because of its unusual structure, it was important for us to discuss the plot so that we were on the same page about what happened; namely, that a bunch of argumentative nerds are too busy trying to get Internet points from each other to realize that the song being discussed is all-too-real and another serious scholar is going to get his heart taken out.
The juxtaposition of old folklore, scholarly academic discussion of folklore, Internet arguing, and horror weaves a tight mesh that Jimmy enjoyed greatly, as a fan of basically all those things. This won the Nebula and, in Jimmy’s eyes, well deserved it; it’s a very close second to Mr. Death in his mind. The form must have been incredibly difficult to write: the opposite of lazy writing.
Doug, on the other hand, was a harsh critic of the story. It was actually Doug’s least favorite story of the lot, and there were several Doug really disliked this year. Doug’s biggest problem with the story was that it seemed like it was just a Reddit conversation, with no character development and a well-trodden plot (specifically, the bit about an old folktale actually being real and youth not realizing it while someone befalls a ghastly fate). Sure, the way in which the story was told was super unique, but that artifice could not cover up the tired plot in his eyes.
This is a new retelling of “The Lottery”, but with different themes for a different America. That is to say, both pieces are satires of American culture, but in the years that have passed, American culture has changed a lot. This author seemed to think an updated version was called for, and given the new story, Jimmy is convinced.
The Wikipedia article on “The Lottery” mentions two themes in it (or did at the time of this writing):
This seemed off to Jimmy, and so he went and reread “The Lottery,” and found his suspicions confirmed: There’s next to nothing in there about scapegoating; perhaps that’s how this tradition originated, but it now seems to be a thin memory. And even when there is some elements of mob mentality, it’s not a mob of anger, but a mob of raw traditionalist energy. It’s really all about the second theme, which isn’t surprising, as a short story normally only can support one theme. (Doug thinks that the Wikipedia article isn’t wholly off base, but will stay mum here while Jimmy makes his point!)
Jimmy would characterize the original “The Lottery” as if the author wanted to say this: “Wow, America is obsessed with tradition. Do you even know why you do the things you do? Do you know how much you’ve actually changed the tradition, from previous countries, from the past? Do you know how silly this all is? If tradition told you to jump off a bridge, would you? If it told you to murder your friends, would you? Actually, yes, I think you would. Here, let me write what it would look like. Doesn’t that seem just like you?”
Jimmy remembers “The Lottery” both resonating with him and not. He grew up in a town and a church with enough old-fashioned American traditionalism left that he recognizes the particular flavor of traditionalism that it’s satirizing, but he also thinks a lot of America, after “The Lottery,” became too suburbanized and too detached from a sense of community to have the same type of traditionalism, that community continuity has become so shattered and so obsolete as a value that if anything we need more of what “The Lottery” satirizes right now, not less of it. But that’s “tradition,” and “The Lottery” satirizes “blind tradition,” which is generally bad. He also thinks that tradition should be maintained thoughtfully.
But that’s a discussion for “The Lottery” itself, not this spin-off. (Hear hear! says Doug) This spin-off, unlike “The Lottery,” is clearly actually about scapegoating, the ancient Biblical practice of putting the sins of the community onto a goat which was then sent away or forced to “[e]scape”:
But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
- Leviticus 16:10 (King James Version)
The continued repetition of the word “sins” – this is a much more flowery piece than “The Lottery” – makes abundantly clear the religious element, and reminds us of Jesus, the Christian scapegoat, who dies for everyone’s sins in a manner whose mechanism is somewhat unclear, with many theories.
The oddest theory we’ve seen for why Jesus had to die was not that he was a ransom or bait for Satan or that punishment must be carried out to fulfill a divine requirement for justice, but instead that punishment had to be carried out to fulfill a human requirement for justice. This theory is naturally repulsive to most – basically, the theory was that humans need someone to blame, and God signs up for the role – and this seemed way too pessimistic an outlook on human nature – and way less cosmic an event than we understand the crucifixion to be.
But however heterodox such a theory might be, that theory, applied to a randomly selected human instead of to an incarnation of God, is the logic, we think, behind the sacrifice in this short story. Humanity needs someone to blame. America, specifically, needs someone to blame.
Well, yes, we kind of do. We’ve been developing a “great villain” culture for a while now. Jimmy says, every President is set up to be vilified by the other party, and it’s been escalating: Bush feels tame for liberals now compared to how liberals feel about Trump, and conservatives are now basically cussing at Joe Biden with the “Let’s Go Brandon” line. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk make all kinds of negative press for their stunts as rich people.
Within the story, all of the news that was blamed, at first on the previous lottery “winner” and then on our protagonist, is reflective of recent news. They threaten to turn it off, but then they don’t, because in this America, rather than focusing on our day-to-day problems – and the characters in the story had many, many problems – we feel instead like it’s more appropriate to blame the figures in the national news.
And this is because, according to the author, we as Americans feel hopeless. Why try to get a better job? The ultra-rich and their government cronies will prevent it anyway. Why try to buy a house? Capitalism has prevented millennials from succeeding. If we’re not able to succeed in our personal lives, then why not find somewhere else to focus our attention and our passions? This story is just a vivid depiction of what we’re already doing.
Doug found this story to be a bit heavy-handed, but it was a coherent story with a clear point. It is very much The Lottery, updated to be told by a liberal who has come to see America as more of a nation of problems than the land of the free and the home of the brave. Doug worries that this story reflects a belief by some in our country that America is no longer a place worth saving. It is, and the hopelessness and anger felt at our country by this story’s author portends something awful for this country. Doug hopes the author is in a minority and that people in this country can find a renewed sense of pride and optimism, finding solutions to America’s many problems instead of giving up hope.
This story starts with an assertion:
The Coda cannot change in the way that a person can, however; it cannot learn or grow. Your father’s soul is not in there. Your father has moved on.
It is put in the mouth of a Presbyterian minister, and so Jimmy’s immediate instinct was to question it. (Doug barely noticed this part of the story until after Jimmy brought it up as a focal point.) The chaplain is obviously biased, trying to uphold her religious views, trying to defend her traditional notion of an afterlife against an upstart competitor. Jimmy hopes that perhaps this story will balance her perspective against a different perspective and take sides.
Later, when we find out that the simulation restarts upon every entrance, we found ourselves wondering if it’s perhaps been programmed to do so to prevent people from taking it to seriously, as we see no particular reason why it should work like that. Perhaps our protagonist can change the programming, as it is clear to us that, in the real world, this would be a programming choice and not a fundamental design constraint of the Coda. (Of course, this is not the real world…)
As the protagonist tries to repair his emotional connection with his father, we wondered if out of frustration he might hack the darn thing to remove the restriction and receive some closure. It does seem like he’s making some progress partway through the story, but it’s erased by the plot contrivance.
Whatever this story is trying to say, it is held back by this contrivance. Is it trying to say that immortality is impossible and anything that pretends to it is a simulacrum? If so, then the weird unexplained technical limitation gets in the way of that point. Is it trying to say that even an afterlife wouldn’t help you fix your relationship with your parent? That might be true, but again, the contrivance makes us (Jimmy especially) feel like our protagonist hasn’t been given a fair shot.
Most of what Jimmy gets out of this story is “it would suck if someone created a very realistic afterlife technology and put an arbitrary limitation on it, because people would find it very frustrating.”
But also, why is the Presbyterian minister allowed to just proclaim things about this unquestioned, that might as well have come from the narrator? Why is anyone who isn’t extremely religious taking her approach? Why isn’t everyone debating whether these Codas have rights? Why aren’t they protesting in the streets? Why is the only person to consider the intellectual implications a random-ass mathematician rather than the writer of a think-piece from when it’s still in development? Is this some sort of totalitarian Presbyterian dictatorship?
Science Fiction is supposed to propose hypotheticals and then explore the consequences, or at least it’s supposed to come across that way from the reader. The theme must flow from the premise logically. This seems more like an attempt to make a point, and then contrive a hypothetical to prove it, and it is so contrived that I’m having a hard time discerning what the point even is.
But we recognize that’s not how this story works. This premise was tailor-made to demonstrate that sometimes, no matter how much we think we’re making progress with another person, they’ll just revert to their old ways the next time we see them. It’s as if the author was talking about their actual parent, and saying that from their behavior, they might as well be in a form of death, where the memory is lost each time they see them and progress is impossible. This can be taken as a portrait of that frustration, but due to the unbelievability of the premise, it was difficult for Jimmy to take it that way.
In Doug’s eyes, the theme of this story was: “People won’t change just because you want them to. Value people for who they are.” Doug was not as harsh as Jimmy was on this story, but he thinks that is because he generally tends to “softer” sci-fi that cares less about the reality of the underlying science or the technical elements. Unlike most of the other stories in this lot, this story involved some real character development, and a family relationship that felt super real. Indeed, that’s why we mentioned that it felt like the author was working through the author’s own family issues. In Doug’s eyes, this was a strength of the story.
Due to the extreme unbelievability of the premise, Jimmy ranks this lower than he otherwise would have. Doug ranks it much higher, but Jimmy simply refuses to accept that society would create an invention so powerful just to use it mostly for finding documents and quick good-byes, and he thinks the resets-every-time thing is a contrivance.
First, a caveat: we are not trans and probably have gaps in our knowledge about what it’s like to be trans. We are trying really hard to discuss this story accurately, but are not entirely sure of my choice of terminology or perspective. Please, send corrections if warranted! We would like to learn more.
The premise would fit as a specific example of the many lives that are touched by inter-universe communication in Ted Chiang’s Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, one of Jimmy’s favorite science fiction novellas, and also a Hugo nominee for Best Novella in 2020 (Doug hasn’t read it… Don’t get mad). Unlike that novella, which was a rather realist take on “what would alternate-universe technology do in a real way to society,” this story gives the alternate-universe communication technology to exactly one person, so they can talk specifically about gender.
This serves as a window into what it’s like to be trans. Being trans often involves a huge decision: Whether to transition, and whether to change your public gender identity, your pronouns, etc. It is a high risk/high reward decision, and so the alternate universe model is very fitting for it. We both regularly imagine the alternate universes created by alternate answers to our big decisions in life, and we wish we could talk to those alternate versions of ourselves and see how that had gone. So we imagine if we had gender dysphoria, we’d like to talk to the alternate universes where we did or did not transition.
Well, in this story, only the version who didn’t transition reached out. This means that transitioning worked and fixed the problem, which is, we think, the theme, specific to the trans experience: If you are trans, you should come out/transition. You won’t regret it.
And more generally: Big decisions are hard, and they do have an impact on your life, but to be a coward is a decision in and of itself. Be bold.
We agreed that the text message format wasn’t that interesting, and simply got the author out of having to write more detailed description. Jimmy wouldn’t say it was lazy (Doug probably wouldn’t either), but we do think the effort was put in to get a particular point across, not to develop a rich world and story. Similarly, the characters, both versions of the same person, are somewhat bare-bones, and the story itself gets a little repetitive. We think it’s really good for a Twitter post trying to convey a point about the trans experience and major life decisions in general, but not rich or well-developed enough for this list.
This is Magic: The Gathering fanfic, and we mutually know basically nothing about Magic: The Gathering, so we will simply discuss this as outsiders – which we literally are.
As an outsider, we found it very difficult to read. We both procrastinated reading it (Jimmy for almost two weeks, much to Doug’s chagrin). The aesthetic and the world here does little for us, and we can’t tell what is novel to the story and what is a reference that fans will get excited about, which is disorienting and makes it difficult to enjoy.
The specific concept of a dryad needing a tree to survive just feels like a metaphor for a toxic way of thinking about relationships, which is immediately off-putting, so the premise immediately bothers us.
The plot, at its base, strikes us as somewhat better: Two people (using an expansive definition of “people”) meet, both in their own life-or-death level crisis. By cooperating and making “peace” between them (is the word “peace” repeated so much for thematic or world-building reasons?), they both manage to solve some of their problems, which they would have been unable to solve separately. The theme, then, is “work together even in emergencies,” which is a good moral lesson that many people need to hear.
This seems written primarily for people who will be inordinately excited by the concepts of dryads and by having a story set in a Magic: The Gathering world, and we are very much so not that person. We also found it tedious to read, and none of the characters felt like characters, so Jimmy leaves it last, and Doug next to last.
Final Ranking Comparison#
- Mr. Death
- Where Oaken Hearts
- Sin of America
- Proof by Induction
- Unknown Number (Twitter)
- Tangles (MTG)
- Mr. Death
- (after a huge dropoff) Proof by Induction
- Sin of America
- Unknown Number (Twitter)
- Tangles (MTG)
- Where Oaken Hearts (but I had a lot of trouble ranking this last one)
Conclusion: A Note on 2022 vs 2021#
Given that we previously reviewed the 2021 stories, let’s compare these as a set.
Overall, we both believed the 2022 nominees were all around weaker than the 2021 nominees. Last year’s set had several strong stories (“Metal Like Blood in the Dark”, “Little Free Mermaid”, and “Open House on Haunted Hill”, all spring to mind). We could see how even the stories we personally weren’t as crazy about in 2021 had strong merits and would appeal to particular folks.
In comparison, the 2022 stories felt like a bit of a letdown. In Doug’s eyes, “Mr. Death” is really the only story worth reading in this whole lot, and while Doug likes “Mr. Death” more than any story in last year’s set, that by itself can’t carry the day. Doug is also concerned that the inclusion of some of the more atypical stories in this year’s set (“Tangles” and “Unknown Number”) signals that the nominators are too green and fanfic-y. And “Sin of America” (much like “Badass Moms” from last year) seems included mostly because it appeals to a particular political mentality.
Notably, the Nebula Award nominees did not include any of these three stories this year (although they did nominate “Badass Moms” last year). The three stories that were cross-nominated for the Hugo and Nebula were Mr. Death, Where Oaken Hearts, and Proof by Induction, all of which do seem like deserved nominees (even though Doug really disliked Where Oaken Hearts and Jimmy really disliked Proof by Induction, we both recognize that these respective stories were good, just designed for people who care about different things in their stories). Here’s hoping for a better lot for our next post!