By focusing on the Hugo Awards I may have given the impression that the problems with fashionable science fiction and fantasy are a “Hugo” problem. The Hugos have become a bit of a battlefield and an arena for various trollish antics (the only interesting thing about the Hugo Awards, if you ask me,) so that’s a reasonable misunderstanding. But it’s not a Hugo-only problem because the same symptoms can be seen in the other two big SFF Awards: Nebula and World Fantasy Award. And when I say the same I mean it because this year’s Nebula and Hugo short story nominees are almost the same:
*Typo: I highlighted A City Born Great, but that’s a Hugo-only finalist.
This convergence could be an isolated coincidence, but I think it’s a trend, and when this year’s WFA finalists are announced, more odd synchronicities will appear. I should also mention that I don’t believe the highlighted short stories are the best finalists (something that could justify these coincidences.) And this only concerns the stories, not the authors (some names, even though their quality is questionable, reappear a lot.) In fact, the 2017 finalists are especially ridiculous because two of them, Our Talons can Crush Galaxies and Seasons of Glass and Iron, appeared not only in the same magazine (Uncanny,) but in the exact same issue.
Anyway, after finishing the Hugo finalists, I decided to read the Nebula nominees. Although my first Nebula short story, Sabbath Wine gave me a short-lived glimmer of hope, the next one, Things with Beards, is so atrocious I was at first unable to finish it. I wish I hadn’t managed to finish it, though, because the further I read, the worse it got.
Things with Bears could work as the poster boy of what many people despise about contemporary message fiction, which seems to be the only sort of fiction that gets nominated nowadays. The story is fundamentally artistic rape.
The author appropriates someone else’s work (John Carpenter’s The Thing,) and then changes the protagonists so they become characters in a piece of progressive fan fiction. You know those stories where someone rewrites Harry Potter and his friends or Luke Skywalker and Han Solo as gay lovers? Well, that’s basically what this story is about, and on top of that, you need to add a layer of Black Power and “Fight the Man!” revolutionary posturing, and then cry when you realize that the Thing’s monster has been transformed into some bizarre metaphor for AIDS.
Things with Beards is supposed to be a “sequel” to the movie The Thing, but here the protagonists don’t know they have become infected and still retain their personalities and (some) of their memories. Anyway, that movie was based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, which means that not only Sam J. Miller has managed to rape a movie classic but a literary classic too. How bad is it? Well, judge for yourselves:
“Heard you died, man,” comes a sweet rough voice, and MacReady [the Thing‘s protagonist] stands up to submit to the fierce hug that never fails to make him almost cry from how safe it makes him feel. […]
“You don’t look so hot yourself,” he says, and they sit, and Hugh takes the coffee that has been waiting for him.
“Past few weeks I haven’t felt well,” Hugh says,[…]
Their hands clasp under the table.
“You’re still fine as hell,” MacReady whispers.
“You stop,” Hugh said. “I know you had a piece down there.”
MacReady remembers Childs [another character from The Thing,] the mechanic’s strong hands still greasy from the Ski-dozer, leaving prints on his back and hips. His teeth on the back of MacReady’s neck.
Yeah… this is the MacReady he is talking about:
Does he look like someone who is ready to cry of happiness every time some dude hugs him? “Ohhh. How safe you make me feel! *blushes*” Or someone who clasps hands under a table? What the hell I’m even talking about anyway? After all, was there any hint in the movie that MacReady was gay or that he was having torrid antarctic gay sex with that black dude from the movie?! And by the way, isn’t that stealing? Shouldn’t the Nebula nominees be original works, with original characters and original ideas?
And it gets worse. You see, MacReady has forgotten everything about what happened in the Antarctic base. Well, everything except his homosexual encounters and musings, apparently, like his suspicion that many of those bearded men in the scientific station were gay like him:
So many of the men at McMurdo wore beards. Winter, he thought, at first—for keeping our faces warm in Antarctica’s forever winter. But warmth at McMurdo was rarely an issue.[…]
They all had their reasons, for choosing McMurdo. For choosing a life where there were no women. Supper time MacReady would look from face to bearded face and wonder how many were like him, under the all-man exterior they projected, but too afraid, like him, to let their true self show.
The author also preemptively deflects critics of this ham-fisted and terrible appropriation by claiming the tough-guy behavior of The Thing‘s characters was a facade, and act to hide the real, hand-clasping and extremely gay self:
He shivered. Remembering. The tough-guy act, the cowboy he became in uncertain situations. Same way in juvie; in lock-up. Same way in Vietnam. Hard, mean, masculine. Hard drinking; woman hating. Queer? Psssh. He hid so many things, buried them deep, because if men knew what he really was, he’d be in danger. When they learned he wasn’t one of them, they would want to destroy him.
Oh, but it gets even WORSE. MacReady is now apparently a Black Power rebel
“Meeting in two weeks. Not afraid to mess with the Man? Because what we’ve got planned . . . they ain’t gonna like it. And they’re gonna hit back, hard.”
MacReady nods. He smiles. He is home; he is needed. He is a rebel. “Let’s go back to your place.”
The meeting is over. Coffee is sipped; cigarettes are lit. No one is in a hurry to go back outside. An affinity group, mostly Black Panthers who somehow survived a couple decades of attempts by the FBI to exterminate every last one of them, […]
And he also has blackouts so he doesn’t know where he goes or what he does. He’s probably just giving oral sex to strangers and doing “something terrible” (protip: it’s AIDS) to them, though:
And then: lost time. He comes to on his knees, in the cool midnight dirt behind a bar.
“Thanks, man,” says the sturdy bearded trucker type standing over him, pulling back on a shirt. Puzzled by how it suddenly sports a spray of holes, each fringed with what look like chemical burns. “I needed that.”
He strides off. MacReady settles back into a squat. Leans against the building.
What did I do to him? He seems unharmed. But I’ve done something. Something terrible.
Ahh, yes, that’s what every fan of The Thing wants to know, how the hero of the movie, after surviving an extraterrestrial shape-shifting horror (or not, it may be just a symbolic monster,) ends up suffering memory blackouts and having sex with total strangers, and probably spreading the HIV virus in the process. Yes, that’s part of the story, because there is a nonsensical plot about HIV, but I still don’t really know if The Thing‘s monster is here supposed to be a real creature or a metaphor for AIDS or the dark side of the homosexual life or… something? And, to be honest, I don’t care in the least.
And what about the main plot? Who knows. Or cares, really. Something about blowing up all NYPD precincts with the help of aging Black Panthers (keep in mind, it’s supposed to be the 80s) because… that’s what a rebel should do… I guess? And then the story ends with yet another pretentious cliché about how the monsters are really inside of us and so on and so forth. The story is so bad, it’s hard to believe it’s serious and not a parody or an attempt to portray homosexuals in the worst possible light.
This is probably one of the worst things I have ever read, and it makes the other, already horrible (Hugo) finalists look good in comparison. What’s more, there isn’t even a hint of science fiction or fantasy, with the exception of what the author stole from the movie The Thing, but I still don’t know if those elements are literal, metaphorical, or some postmodernist meta-nonsense bollocks that becomes one thing or the other depending on who is asking. How did this thing get nominated for a Nebula, I don’t know and I don’t really want to know.
I apologize for having wasted your time and, probably, ruined your lunch or dinner. I’m sure you were happier and healthier before knowing that this story existed, so here’s a brilliant Pingu’s The Thing —approved by John Carpenter— to make up for it.
You can read Things with Beards at Clarkesworld