I always find it interesting to learn what people actively hate about about a book or story. Here are two reviews of two award-nominated stories that illustrate the vast divide in the SF/F community today. First, Scooter reviews “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love”:
There comes a point in the evolution of any intelligent species where it develops the ability to destroy itself. Mankind arrived at this danger point in 1945 with the invention of the atomic bomb. The science-fiction and fantasy community has now reached the same apocalyptic milestone with Rachel Swirsky’s invention of the dino-porn revenge fantasy tale. While nukes can merely bomb mankind back to the stone age, “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” threatens to blast the credibility of the fantasy genre all the way back to the Cretaceous.
The story itself, however, never takes us to a place so exotic. Instead, the narrator of this 966-word Hugo-nominated flash fiction story has an extended monologue imagining her husband as a five foot ten T-Rex who becomes a Broadway singer and hangs out in pool halls. From this description, and the ridiculous title, one might expect the piece to be a parody of the inter-species romance trope found primarily in fan-fic. In a way, that’s exactly what we get. In overwrought pseudo-poetic prose, the narrator envisions feeding her lizard-lover a live-goat, serenading him with lullabies, and jealousy presiding at his wedding to a genetically engineered dino. At one point the narrator even inexplicably transforms into a flower.
Underlying all the silliness is an attempt at profundity so inept that Swisky manages to unintentionally exploit the silliness of the premise and deliver on the chuckles. The titular therapod of the story turns out to be a paleontologist who was beaten into a coma by a bunch of generic bigots shouting generic epithets for generic reasons. The narrator is reimagining her weak hubbie as an alpha dinosaur with the carnivorous capability to enact revenge against his attackers.
“If you were a dinosaur, my love, I’d teach you the scents of those men. I’d lead you to them quietly, oh so quietly. Still, they would see you. They’d run. Your nostrils would flare as you inhaled the night and then, with the suddenness of a predator, you’d strike. I’d watch as you decanted their lives—the flood of red; the spill of glistening, coiled things—and I’d laugh, laugh, laugh.”
The power of short fiction hinges primarily on a strong ending: a good punchline, a sudden reversal, or anything that packs an emotional wallop. In that respect, Swirsky does not disappoint. Her climax finally answers the two questions the reader has been asking since the beginning: how in the hell is this considered a fantasy story, and why has it been nominated for a Hugo? The answer is that Swirsky has redefined the entire fantasy genre. Fantasy does not need to have internal consistency; the only requirement is that it be set in “a world of magic where anything [is] possible”. In other words, it doesn’t have to make a lick of sense.
Forget world-building. Forget character development. Forget that limitations make a story more interesting. Now a Hugo-nominated fantasy story can just be someone’s weird daydream – about anything whatsoever – so long as it contains clichés that fit into the culturally approved narrative. To her credit, the bestiality in the story is – if not impossible – at least dimly recognized as unideal. But it’s her new insight – that details are not important to storytelling – which promises to be the pink sci-fi/fantasy equivalent of the atomic bomb. Perhaps Swirsky will one day look upon the devastation wrought upon the genre’s readership, and like Oppenheimer, misquote the Baghavad Gita: “I am become Dinosaur Porn, Destroyer of Fantasy Worlds.”
On the other hand, Justin A. Bacon thinks just as poorly of “Opera Vita Aeterna”:
Easily one of the worst pieces of fiction I’ve read lately. The “world-building” consists of thinly veiling the Catholic Church by inconsistently swapping out the names and terminology and then slapping in some magic-wielding elves. (You might think that magic-wielding elves would have some sort of meaningful impact on the beliefs or teachings of the Church, but they don’t.) The “plot” would be stretched thin on a very short story, but it takes a truly prodigious amount of “talent” to stretch it over the length of a novelette: An elf shows up at a not-Catholic monastery and says, “I killed your missionary. Now I’d like to stay here and study your God.” He decides to stay for several decades while he single-handedly illuminates an entire copy of the not-Bible by himself. This is interrupted by a single scene in which he asks the head of the monastery a question about his religious faith, prompting the head of the monastery to respond by literally cribbing Thomas Aquinas at interminable length. No one in the monastery has their faith or their lives remotely affected by the elf. The elf leaves for a bit and everyone in the monastery is brutally killed by some other elves. Then the elf yells at a statue of not-Jesus Christ.
It’s not so much a story as it is a train wreck of bad writing, bad plotting, bad world-building, and bad characterization.
Both reviewers have clearly read the stories they are reviewing; these are not fake reviews. But what is interesting is that both of them think so poorly of stories that others think very well of. Are the differences purely ideological or is there more to it? I tend to suspect the latter; it might be informative to know what Mr. Bacon thinks of “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” and what Scooter thinks of “Opera Vita Aeterna”.
NB: I don’t think it is fair to criticize Bacon’s lack of awareness of the impact of the magic-wielding elves on the beliefs of the Church since he clearly hasn’t read Summa Elvetica and what is actually there in “Opera” is pretty subtle. On the other hand, it is fair to observe that if he thinks everyone in the monastery was killed by “some other elves”, he was not reading very closely.