I always feel like the Short Story category should be more fun. It could kinda be like speed-dating authors to find the ones you like. I suppose it does still fulfill that function, only I rarely like any of the stories that are nominated. In the past four years of reading Hugo short story finalists, I’ve really liked approximately two of the stories, and neither of those enough to investigate an author’s work further (some more are certainly well written, but rarely are they my thing). I have no real explanation for this, though I have my suspicions. For instance, this is the category with the lowest barrier to entry in that it doesn’t take a lot of time to read a bunch of short stories, but there are also a lot of stories to choose from, so the votes get spread far and wide, thus yielding niche stories that don’t appeal to a wide audience (or maybe just me). This is merely speculation though (still there is evidence for some of this – in a world before slates, the category rarely filled up because most of the winning nominees couldn’t muster 5% of the overall vote, which used to be a requirement). This year, at least, features one story that I did enjoy, so let’s get to it:
- That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn – A human woman visits an alien man in a military hospital so that they can play chess. Technically enemies, each has spent time as the other’s prisoner, but the experience brought them closer together rather than drawing them apart. The war is technically over now, and so she can visit her friend. The wrinkle is that his race is telepathic, so when they play chess, she needs to figure out a way to account for his knowing her every move ahead of time. There’s some interesting character work here, the telepathy is explored fairly well for such a short story (though there’s plenty more to explore), and the use of chess offers some thematic heft. A well balanced, interesting, and entertaining read. It’s not a perfect story, but it is my favorite of the past four years of the award, so there is that!
- Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander – Despite protestations to the contrary, this is a story about a woman who is murdered, but she’s not actually a woman. Rather, she’s some sort of interdimensional birdlike spirit who can take on mortal forms. When she is killed, she simply regenerates and then takes sweet revenge on the man who killed her. A simple tale, one that spends more time whining about how often stories revolve around a man killing a woman (which is definitely true and worth subverting), but one that also seems beholden to that trope and unable to subvert it without resorting to didactic proclamations. Fortunately, there’s lots of cursing, so it doesn’t entirely feel like a lecture. It’s at least got a plot, and the broad strokes of the narrative are attractive too, so it ends up pretty high on the list, though it might stumble down because of:
- Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar – A sort of retelling, mashup, and subversion of two fairy tales, this one also seems to rely a lot on didactic proclamations to make its point, but again, there’s at least some sense of a narrative and a sort of hope in the end that is usually missing from such stories (and a lot of ye olde storytelling is pretty didactic, so this is true to form). This is one that has grown in my estimation since I have read it, and it may ascend to #2 if this continues…
- The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin – New York City is alive, and is being reborn with the help of a homeless man chosen for the task and being trained in the ways of city birthing. There’s also an enemy that could prevent the city from evolving. Will our homeless hero defeat the evil? After two novels and this short story, I’m beginning to think that something about Jemisin’s style just doesn’t jive with me. There’s a nugget of an interesting idea here, but it seems lost in a cloud of style. Again, probably just my personal hangup here.
- An Unimaginable Light by John C. Wright – And Wright is another author I tend to just bounce off of. This one is better than the others I’ve endured, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear and I think a big part of it was that it was at least mercifully short. It’s a story about a man and a robot debating Asimov’s three laws. I mean, not exactly, but anything that is interesting at all in the story is derived from Asimov, not Wright. There’s a twist at the end that is almost laughable and forces scrutiny that the story cannot bear on its own. Damn, I wish I was rereading one of Asimov’s robot stories. Wright is probably a better prose stylist (again, not a high bar to clear, sorry Isaac), but Asimov is a much better storyteller.
- A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong – It’s only been about an hour or maybe two since I finished this story, and yet, I can’t seem to remember any pertinent details. Something about two women. Immolation. Worlds ending. I want to say it’s more like a tone poem than a narrative, but I’m not sure I can say that because I don’t remember anything about it. It sorta just washed over me, but then, it did leave me feeling vaguely annoyed. If only I could remember why.
Oof. I’m almost tempted to nuke everything after That Game We Played During the War with a No Award, but that’s not really fair, so I’ll probably just leave well enough be. At this point, the prospect of reading 5 Novellas isn’t so attractive, especially since I’ve got The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. sitting right here, calling to me.