2015 Hugo Awards Best Short Story: Reviewing Single Samurai

[Note: I am traveling with an unfamiliar laptop. Neither my thoughts nor my writing are as cohesive as I’d like. My opinions are just fine.]

“A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books)

It’s fairly obvious that Diamond had a vivid image of this story in his head, the problem is that at the end I did not. I think some of this is related to the fact that Diamond so utterly identified with the character he was writing that he did not see the foibles of the character’s personality.

There is no sense of the character’s age, one moment sounding pompous and the next juvenile so I’m going to guess between 16 and 22. When his father died he was 15 but showed the maturity of an 8 year old or Luke Skywalker. There’s no depth to his relationship with his father nor sense of his having known anyone else. No talk of his training just an obsession with how his sword was forged but no backstory on when in his life this happened or what got him in the position to receive “sacred weapons” that are “more than just status symbols.” No mention of how he got to where he is beyond flashbacks to rather scripted conversations with his father.

Some of my issues are with the editing. Writers love to say “coppery smell of blood” (see pre-Hemingway) but most of the time a good editor will reply “can’t we just say the “smell of blood” or the “stench” or “the sharp tang of blood in the air” – coppery is so overused.”

Or maybe provide feedback on how the character talks about both not bragging and not boasting (because more words yay!) but then proceeds to tell the whole story with a sort of swagger that is nearly laughable. A good author will do things to make it obvious that the character either acts according to what he believes about himself or does not and subtly highlights those self-lies. Lies about self are some of the most interesting character traits.

Diamond shows the samurai dwelling on pain and fear but saying he isn’t ruled by either. Yet he continues to bring it up in the story. If I was “so over” pain and fear and telling my biggest story I be briefer and say something more along the lines of “I paused, considering the danger of the situation but know better than to let fear take control. I control it, it does not control me.”

It says something about how well I like the premise of this story that I keep rewriting it in my head. I wish Diamond had rewritten it a few more times. “…and felt the spray of liquid–blood?–cover me.” Or just had a better editor, one who would say, “Come on, you just sliced something open and were sprayed with a liquid. In the middle of the fight are you going to call it a liquid or go straight to blood? I means sure it could be a pus monster but I’d hope you’d have mentioned that by now.”

Actually I should say I like the idea of a mountainous kaiju tromping across land while being climbed by a lone warrior bent on stopping it. The details range from insipid to gross with lots of confusion tossed in for good measure.

Insipid is when a first person story speaks to a point of view that is outside of any reality the first person would know. Why does he keep explaining away luck or pain? He should just grunt and move on, state what to him is obvious and not have silly conversations with the gaijin in his head.

Gross can be summed up with this one sentence: “I felt it as the bit of my soul in the blade eradicated the soul in the creature.” Ew. Really? Touching monster souls with your soul which is destroying souls? I don’t like any idea of destroying souls even if it is a creature. Plus what sort of monster are you if you kill other souls with your soul? Yet the question of the main character’s monsterhood is never brought up. Now that would have been interesting.

Also, can we just agree that “days” is a really long time to climb a mountain. Mt Fuji tours take two days and admittedly while the trails are more well known if the samurai was hanging out on this mountain when it got up and started walking then I assume he was already at least 1/4 of the way up. Then there’s the rate of progress towards an urban area and the ubiquitous “screams of children.” Both just felt like “things that should be said to place the kaiju and why to kill it” rather than things the main character would necessarily even be able to note given the size and potential locations on the monster-mountain. That’s the thing though, it’s never really clear.

There was a moment at the end of the story where I thought Diamond was going to twist things up a little, do something different and interesting not just exciting. The samurai’s blade is in the kaiju’s brain and a connection between them has been forged. We find out the kaiju has less character definition than my neighbor’s dog or my sad office plant, it’s apathetic and doesn’t care and is simply taking a morning ramble with nothing, not food nor mating nor a desire to migrate, on its mind. Then there’s a “flood of thought and emotion” and a single italicized line: “Learn from me.” So cool! The kaiju is trying to teach the samurai something, trying to give some wisdom, maybe something about apathy, but no, it’s an echo of his father telling him to disembowel himself killing both himself and the soul he’s connected to.

When reading stories that don’t please me I often add my own subtext and rearrange details. If you read this story as being about a sixteen year old orphan dealing with his sense of betrayal over his father’s honor-suicide it makes it a lot more palatable.

Speaking of palates, the perfect palate cleanser for this one is The Paladin by CJ Cherryh which does an excellent job of approaching questions of honor and vengeance in a much more realistic Asiatic landscape with delightfully three dimensional characters who learn and develop as people through the course of the story. Or if you want something about magic swords written from an extremely macho point of view Jennifer Robison’s Tiger and Del books are awesome and start with Sword-Dancer.

Single Samurai? Not worthy of a Hugo Award. Which is really what “No Award” means, that I’d rather give no award than one to this story.

3 thoughts on “2015 Hugo Awards Best Short Story: Reviewing Single Samurai”

  1. The age thing becomes glaring when he mentions that he’s killed hundreds of demons and Oni, unless he’s doing so by the hour at least. Another brag for the non-bragging samurai. As someone who likes samurai stuff what he kept saying was samurai was nothing like what samurais are which bugged me the most. I read it after the Novellas in the packet though and after that I was much more forgiving.

    1. I found it really difficult also and have not yet read the Novellas. To me samurai excel at tactics but all this guy did was run up a mountain, avoid falling rocks, and mow down some mountain lions with his magic sword. Maybe it was actually a story about a teenager in modern Japan having a bad acid trip on Mt Fuji. That would be… interesting?

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