Hugo Awards: Short Stories

I have never been a huge fan of short stories. I think the biggest part of that is that I tend to read them in collections of short fiction, which tend to be, by their very nature, uneven. Like anthology films, it’s hard for me to take in a bunch of short stories at once, and I usually find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. There are some exceptions, I guess. I’ve always been a fan of I, Robot, but those stories have a consistent style and throughline that is usually missing in short fiction. I have a fondness for Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series of horrific short stories and they are some of the most imaginative writing around, but even those tend to be very uneven (and I suspect many would more readily be classified as a Novelette or Novella). Of course most short fiction is published in magazines (or websites these days) first, and are never meant to be collected together, but I still tend to struggle with them.

I have read occasional short stories here and there on the interwebs, but I’ve rarely strayed from known authors… which is odd, because you’d think that short stories would be a good way to experiment and try new things without making too much of a commitment to any one story. And while I’ve struggled with short stories in the past, I’ve also been getting a little tired of stories that are much longer than they need to be, so maybe it’s time for a sea change. So it’s a good thing there are a bunch of short fiction categories in the Hugo awards, eh? Well, if the Short Story slate is any indication… I’m not going to get back into short stories after all. This is not a statement of quality, just of my personal taste – these are all well written stories, they’re just depressing as all get out, none seem to have much of a plot, and none of them really scratch my speculative fiction itch (indeed, most of them would probably fit more under Fantasy than SF, but even amongst Fantasy, these are a challenging bunch). That being said, I read them all, and will rank them as best I can. There are only 4 nominees (the Hugo rules say that a work cannot be nominated unless it has at least 5% of the votes, and the short story ballot tends to be the most contentious – last year there were only 3 nominees!) and they are all available for free online, but like I said, these weren’t really my cup of tea.

  1. The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere, by John Chu –, Feb. 20, 2013 – The story starts with this: “The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure.” It’s a rather silly premise, but Chu has used it as the backdrop for a more traditional love story, where a gay man navigates the marriage question with his love and struggles to find a way to “come out” to his traditional Chinese family. Indeed, of the short stories, this is the only one that has something really resembling a plot, with a whole narrative arc and everything. And while the “coming out” story isn’t a particularly pleasant one, Chu doesn’t wallow in misery the way some of the other stories do (the mother’s reaction is actually really brilliant, and made me laugh out loud – she’s a clever one). Also, while the premise is kinda silly, Chu does engage with it in a speculative way, making this the most SF of the stories. For instance, because people can’t lie without water falling on them from nowhere, they’ve gotten really good at wording things like a weasel or phrasing declarations as a question, and so on. I am curious about this world’s water-drying technology, or perhaps their mold-fighting capabilities (neither of which get much play), but that’s just because I’m a nerd. Naturally, that doesn’t really matter much when placed against the emotional elements of the story, and I will say that I enjoyed this one the most.
  2. Selkie Stories Are for Losers, by Sofia Samatar – Strange Horizons, Jan. 7, 2013 – So I had no idea what a Selkie was before reading this story, but now that I do, I agree with the narrator when she laments:

    I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.

    Alright, I will say that I didn’t hate this story, but seeing as though it plays out in a series of vignettes and relies on that sort of structure for its impact, I was a little unsatisfied at the end of the story. I like the obscure choice of folklore, though I can’t say as though I would like Selkie stories very much. That being said, I did enjoy reading this tale of resentment, beauty, love, and loss, and the structure works on me, but it just wasn’t as cohesive as Chu’s above story.

  3. The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt –, April 24, 2013 – This is the most evocative of all the stories… but also the least cohesive. I don’t think there is really much of a plot, but when you add in the fact that this is a story written in Dutch, translated into English, and set in Thailand, I think you can see why the story doesn’t quite flow so well. That said, the setting and fantastical elements of the story are wonderfully evocative. I just wish there was something more to hang that on, as I really have no idea what this story is actually about…
  4. If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, by Rachel Swirsky – Apex Magazine, March 5, 2013 – This is the shortest of the nominees, and yet it does accomplish a ton in that short time, even incorporating a dark twist that completely changes the tone about 3/4 of the way through the story. Perhaps because it is so short, I felt that the twist was more manipulative than anything else, like I could see Swirsky trying to pull the rug out from under me. I guess that’s a matter of debate, a lot of folks seem to think of it as being powerful and intense, and I can see that, even if it didn’t strike me that way. The other challenge with this story is that there’s nothing really SF or F about it. There’s an offhand reference to that hoary old Jurassic Park premise of cloning dinosaurs, but that’s really it. Given that we’re trying to judge the best SF/F stories, that doesn’t bode well here (and from what I can see, even those who love this story seem to acknowledge this). What’s more, this doesn’t feel like a story to me in any way. Indeed, with it’s almost formal cadence and repetitive sentence structure, it feels a whole lot more like Poetry than straight fiction. If there was a SF/F poetry category, I’d be a lot happier with this one. As it is, I was left a little underwhelmed.

Not having read much in the way of other short stories this year, I can’t say as though these are very representative or not, nor can I say that we should not give the award to any of these (I think I understand how the No Award vote works, but I should clarify that at some point), but I was not very happy with them. Man, I feel like a real miser with these short stories. I am the worst. Fortunately, I’m almost done the Novelettes and I’ll just say that I find myself much more enthusiastic about them than I am with these.

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