Should ‘The Past is Red’ win a Hugo?

No? Yes? I think I’ll need to work out my opinion as we go.

In general, I think my reaction to this story is a bit contrary to many of the reviews I’ve been seeing online, and I suppose even contrary to the fact that this novella was nominated for a Hugo in the first place.

One review calls The Past is Red poignant and optimistic and its publisher — Tor — writes of “Finding Hope in Garbagetown”.

A post-apocalyptic Pollyanna is perhaps closer to the mark, but I view the term Pollyanna with a more negative connotation than it seems to be used here, given the general enthusiasm of the review.

Essentially, this book actually left me feeling more depressed and sad than when I began it.

I suppose I’ll start with the things I enjoyed about the book (which were many) before explaining the parts that I didn’t like.

The Cool Stuff:

The most dazzling and immediate element of this piece is undoubtedly Valente’s prose. What she chooses to have Tetley say is at times bold, while at others shy. It’s clever and poetic and will ring more than a few wry smiles from its reader as they ponder familiar words which seem to have taken on a new meaning.

Before reading TPiR, if someone had told me I was a “bright” boy I might have felt some small pride at the compliment to my intelligence, but generally it would not have been anything much to get worked up about. Now I won’t be able to hear those two words as anything other than “Bright Boy” which would probably cause me some level of disgust (at being compared to those who would put on such a gaudy and tactless display of wealth), while also some level of . . . I don’t know, something that would make your cheeks go red in a good way.

Needless to say, if Valente was ” . . . putting the calligraphy away . . . ” during her 2017 roast of superhero stories in The Refrigerator Monologues, it was back in full for TPiR.

The posts I linked to earlier describe the premise and world building, so I won’t rehash that here except to say that this is another place where TPiR shines as brightly as Electric City and Candle Hole combined. Valente is somehow able to recycle the remains of the life we know, and build it up into something wholly new.

The Not as Cool Stuff

But this novella isn’t all clever wit and intriguing landscape. In terms of messaging, there is a lot of heavy material to consider, and ultimately I felt TPiR began to crumble under so much weight.

Without spoiling too much, there were a few places in which I thought the story undermined its own credibility, and actually made itself weaker by including certain techniques. The technique that jumps to mind immediately, is that of an unreliable narrator. TPiR‘s main character, Tetley Abednego, is generally a pretty straightforward, no-nonsense story teller. However, she goes back on her story in a few places, describing some amazingly heartfelt sequence or interesting event, and then saying something like, “but that’s not how it happened” or “maybe it did happen like that, maybe it didn’t, but it doesn’t matter”.

This took me out of the story in so many critical moments that it was hard not to get annoyed. I felt it also made her point of view (that the world can’t change back to the way it was but the garbage world is still beautiful), and some key actions she took because of that POV, so much harder for me to reconcile.

Her loosening grip on reality felt warranted given the trauma she experienced, and generally I enjoy stories with unreliable narrators, but I also think that if you’re gonna have this kind of plot, it’s big enough to take up the whole plot, and not just something that is sprinkled in. In TPiR, it felt sprinkled in.

Finally, there’s the ending sequence, which again I won’t spoil, but needless to say, I did not feel any hope at the resolution of this novel. To me it felt like giving up. It felt like why try?

And while I can understand that sentiment in some instances, and have certainly felt that sentiment throughout the course of my life, it isn’t what I want from the books I read. Especially from something so critically acclaimed as to be nominated for a Hugo Award.


Obviously, the Hugo awards are decided by a lot of people (and factors), but if the decision were solely mine, this would not be my pick for the award (even without considering the other nominees). In general, I enjoyed Valente’s beautiful and clever writing, and was intrigued by the depth of the world she was able to create, but the second guessing of Tetly’s sanity at key points in the story did not further the novella’s themes or even coherency, and I was unable to draw any kind of hope from the novella’s ending as so many others seem to be able to.

I’ll admit that despite all the ways this story tried to convince me otherwise, I still did want to see some glimmer that things were getting back on their feet and I just didn’t feel that way at the end. Who knows, maybe I’m just a (Saint) Oscar the Grouch, and raining on everyone’s joyous parade. Or maybe I’m just still thinking like a Fuckwit.

How’d you all feel about this one? Award winner? Let me know in the comments!!


2 thoughts on “Should ‘The Past is Red’ win a Hugo?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s