SF Short Story Review, Part 1

I was pretty disappointed by last year’s Hugo slate of short stories, so I wanted to make sure I read enough stories this year to nominate worthwhile stuff. Of course, the short fiction categories are infamously fickle and don’t enjoy quite as much in the way of convergence as the novels do (meaning that a very wide array of stories are nominated with little chance of any individual story standing out from the crowd – this is why there often isn’t a full ballot nominated, as many of the contenders never reach the 5% threshold needed to make the Hugo ballot). The good news here, though, is that I enjoyed almost all of the stories in this post a lot more than almost any of the stories nominated in short fiction categories last year. Go figure. That being said, I will probably only nominate a couple of these because there’s only so many slots…

  • Whaliens (aka How to Win a Hugo Award) by Lavie Tidhar (Short Story, ~4900 words) – This is a goofy little story about whale-like aliens (i.e. Whaliens) that visit Earth and demand to convert to Judaism. As the alternate title might indicate, it also involves a dismissive sub-plot about science fiction writers that feels rather petty and dismissive. It’s a fun, short read and worth checking out, but it’s not going to be on my ballot.
  • Toad Words by Ursula Vernon (Short Story, ~800 words) – This year’s “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love”, it is marginally more fantastical, but still pretty emphatically not my thing.
  • Tuesdays With Molakesh the Destroyer by Megan Grey (Short Story, ~4000 words) – Every once in a while, you hear about how someone infamous and/or super evil spends their spare time doing mundane things like watching Seinfeld or something, and that kinda tickles me. So this story about a fire demon ironically condemned to live out his retirement in exile in Minnesota (i.e. a very cold, snowy place) really clicked with me. Molakesh enjoys hot chocolate and chatting with his teenaged neighbor. There’s a moment when I was worried that this story would go off the rails, but it sticks the ending, and I found this the most enjoyable of the stories in this post. Will almost certainly make my ballot.
  • Passage of Earth by Michael Swanwick (Short Story, ~7400 words) – Interesting story about an autopsy performed on an alien that takes a hard turn about halfway through. It descends a bit into literary angst for a while, but it’s not undone by it and reasons its way to a natural conclusion. Strong contender for my ballot.
  • The Innocence of a Place by Margaret Ronald (Short Story, ~4100 words) – Haunting tale of a historian’s attempt to understand the disappearance of students from the Braxton Academy for Young Girls. There’s a beautifully ominous tone to the story and it is very effective… as horror. As the obvious explanations are thrown out, what is left is speculation on the fantastical, so I don’t know that this is quite as non-SF as, say, last year’s Wakulla Springs, but it’s borderline. I don’t think I’d nominate it, but I would not get worked up about it if it got nominated…
  • Brute by Rich Larson (Short story, ~4800 words) – Entirely predictable tale of two scavengers who run across a piece of technology that bonds to one of them and gives him super powers or something like that. It’s the sort of thing you’ve seen a million times, but it is a reasonably well executed version of the story. That being said, it’s not exactly award-worthy material.
  • Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta, by Helen Marshall – Seems like it would hit on that mundane life of infamous personages thing that I like so much, but this one is distinctly less effective to my mind. Well executed for what it is, but not really my thing.
  • Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss (Short Story, ~6800 words) – A bunch of anthropology students invent a country from scratch and are then surprised to learn that the country they made up actually exists. They go to visit and find that many of the small details they have invented for the culture have unintended consequences. This becomes particularly important when one of the anthropologists marries the princess. A dense, Borges-like story (Borges is explicitly referenced in the story, so this is an obvious referent) that I found appealing and interesting. A potential nominee…
  • The Bonedrake’s Penance by Yoon Ha Lee (Novelette, ~9800 words) – Notable for its elaborate but not overwhelming worldbuilding, this follows the story of a human girl raced by an alien war machine that had given up war. Perhaps more concerned with that central relationship than the detailed setting, it works better than I’d expect. Would love to read more from Yoon Ha Lee… Would be a contender for my ballot if I hadn’t actually done so:
  • The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars by Yoon Ha Lee (Short Story, ~5700 words) – So I did seek out more Yoon Ha Lee, and this one is even better than the last one. Interestingly, there are a lot of similarities. Both have an archive of sorts (games, in this one), a guardian (a warden, in this one), and both feature disgraced warriors of some kind. This one is about the warden of a collection of games and a warrior who intends to bargain for a game that will help her keep a promise. They play a game with high stakes and the byzantine worldbuilding implied by the games is quite impressive.

I may sneak in a few more stories before the deadline, but I’m planning on posting my updated ballot on Sunday, so stay tuned.

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