I’m not entirely sure why I keep reading the Hugo finalists for the Best Short Story category. Actually, strike that, I know exactly why: they’re short and I can get through all of them quickly. And theoretically, they should be a really nice sampler pack of what’s going on in SF. In practice, I’ve really liked about 3-4 of the stories I’ve read over the past 6 or 7 years. A bunch of others are fine if unremarkable, but whatever the case, it’s not a good batting average. This year’s nominees illustrate a couple of my issues. One is that only two of the stories actual deign to tell a real story (they’re both decent, at least). Another is that they’re basically all fantasy stories, and the one that ostensibly has an SF idea doesn’t seem terribly interested by the idea (which, to be sure, is a decades-old idea and partial reality these days). I know the awards are for SF and F, but I tend towards SF. Likewise, some of this has to do with personal preference, and these stories just aren’t pressing my buttons. Perhaps some year they will?
- “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow – A librarian (who is also a witch) notices a troubled teen who is drawn to stories of escape. It doesn’t take long to see why and what this kid needs, but can our librarian friend find a way to help? Spoiler alert, yes she does, and I can’t help but feel charmed by this stories insistence that escapism can be a pretty decent thing, especially in our troubling times (like any good thing, its possible to overdo it, I guess, but this story does not go there, nor does it need to). Its also in its favor that this is an actual story with actual characters and a real (if short) arc. You’d be surprised how few Hugo finalists in the short story category can meet such a lofty goal.
- “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker – Chronicles a young street urchin who becomes obsessed with street magic (which are really just tricks), then jumps at the chance to learn “real” magic. Like any good consideration of actual magic, this one has a price. Another actual story with a beginning and an end, albeit a more bittersweet tale. That being said, this is quite good and well worth checking out.
- “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher – A group of fae sit around a campfire and reminisce about a puny mortal named Rose MacGregor who managed to trick all of them before settling down with her true love, a blacksmith. It’s a kinda charming structure, and the idea of the trickster fae getting the tables turned upon them is nice and all, but then, there’s not much meat on the bone here. It’s mostly told in flashback, and the story, such as it is, doesn’t have much of an arc. It’s still enjoyable for what it is, but it just doesn’t have enough oomph to make it higher than this ranking.
- “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander – A bumbling and idiotic prince makes his way into the dangerous hunting grounds of three raptor sisters, who are so dumbfounded by this fellow’s lack of fear that one of them figures it must be a trick and follows him back to his castle. She is promptly imprisoned, and the other two sisters seek to break her out, with the help of a witchly princess. The story relies heavily on a sorta fairy tale tone; everything is hightened and a little silly, but it ultimately ends up feeling rather slight. Again, there’s little in the way of story here, just vague tones and mild themes that are barely worth digging out. To be sure, it’s not exactly bad, and I had no problem reading it, but it didn’t particularly grab me, and I can feel its claws slipping, such that I’m pretty sure I won’t remember a thing about this in a few days.
- “STET” by Sarah Gailey – Ostensibly written in the form of some sort of academic publication, complete with footnotes that are longer than the text, editor’s notes/obelisms (the term “STET” is latin for “let it stand”, which is what an author uses to let the editor know that a note/correction should be ignored and the original text should remain in place). The subject matter concerns autonomous cars and the inevitable deaths that would result from decisions made by AI, etc… However, the “story” is much more concerned with the author processing through some sort of grief (obviously caused by an self-driving car killing a loved one). It’s an interesting, if slightly hard to follow, format, and the subject matter is worth exploration (and indeed, the many complications of self-driving cars has been explore elsewhere)… its just that I don’t feel like there’s enough story here, just a vague sense of grief and rage. This is the only finalist that even comes close to being actual Science Fiction, but it doesn’t do much on that front, preferring instead to focus on the aforementioned grief and rage. It reminded me of the infamous “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” (tiny hint of an SF idea, weird experimental format, wallowing in grief, etc…), but I could see something along these lines working quite a lot better… However, in its current form, it didn’t do a whole lot for me.
- “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark – George Washington is famous for having “Wooden Teeth”, but while he had multiple sets of dentures, none appear to have been made of wood. Some were made of ivory, some with various alloys and metals, and most morbidly, some were made of actual human teeth. Said human teeth were almost certainly from slaves, though some of the teeth may have come from desperately poor folk. This story takes this fact and describes the people the teeth came from. Each one has certain characteristics that are sorta imprinted on the tooth, and thus causes some sort of ironic consequence (i.e. a tooth from a slave that escaped often falls out of the denture). These are mundane at first, but get more fantastical as it progresses. He goes through nine teeth… and then the story just sorta ends. By which I mean that it’s not much of a story, per say. Well written and some of the teeth have interesting nuggets, but there’s not a whole lot here, and in fact, I found researching Washington’s actual teeth more interesting than the sorta fantastical stuff in the story.
So there you go. I don’t generally deploy the “No Award” designation in my voting, but I’m a little tempted to reverse my normal stance and only vote for the top 2, with No Award at 3. That seems somewhat silly though. We’ll see. I’m working my way through the fourth of six novels right now, and I’m not sure if I’ll get to all the Novellas/Novelettes this year (I will read at least a couple of the ones that interest me)…