By long tradition, we read the Hugo nominated shorts in our book club. Spoilers for all stories below. I’d encourage people to read all of them, they’re short, but if you’d like to know which ones I think are the best so you can read just those before getting spoilers, they are: “For He Can Creep”; “As the Last I May Know”; “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”; Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (not available online)
“The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim
A story about loss and longing. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but this may be because I have a cold, dead heart. ;) Several people in our book club really loved it, and found it bittersweet and poingnant. I honestly can’t even remember much of it after less than two weeks since I read it. It wasn’t bad, just nothing here for me.
“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey
A pretty good werewolf story. It deals with disability and chronic pain in a way that I really wanted to connect with, as someone who is now a sufferer of daily chronic pain and kinda-sorta-techincally-mildly-disabled-I-guess. But for some reason it just didn’t click. It feels unfair to say that, because I can’t point to anything in specific. It just… didn’t connect for me. This was a feeling shared by everyone in my book club, so I don’t think it’s just me, and we all really wanted it to work. I don’t know what the secret sauce is, and it feels shitty to say that something is missing it. :( But, well, there we go. It ended with a nice message of acceptance and community togetherness which was pleasant enough. Just no fireworks.
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, by Sarah Pinsker
There’s nothing to this story. It’s a bit of cozy mystery fluff with an SF twist at the end. I want to make it perfectly clear that there’s nothing wrong with that. God knows I love a lot of fun, fluffy stuff that’s just pure enjoyment without heft to it. But I was surprised to find this on the Hugo short list. On a craft level, it’s great. Pinsker is an acomplished writer of astounding skill, and kept me reading the whole time. It’s entirely enjoyable too. But I get the feeling she was just having fun here, and I imagine she was as surprised as I was to find it as a nominee. Awards tend to favor works that will be viewed as “influential” on the broader art form by future generations, and it seems unlikely to me that a light bit of mystery fun fits that.
Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin
This is a fantastic satire of terrible message fiction. I laughed several times, which is unusual when reading, for me. It’s not as full-on absurdist comedy as the other Hugo-nominated parody of my time, “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons”, but to make up for that it has an actual plot, with a full storyline and character arc that is more-or-less fulfilling. Being able to pull that off in a parody piece is really impressive. They tend not to lend themselves to that.
There was quite a bit of disagreement between me and the rest of my book club on this story, several people didn’t realize it was a comedy. Tomorrow I’ll be writing up a significantly longer treatment on this, because c’mon, that’s just crazy, one can’t let that go unexamined!
“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll
Oh my god, this is the most perfect feel-good story and I love everyting about it. It’s about a cat that fights Satan in an insane asylum! And it’s even better than you’re already thinking! I checks just about every single box for things I like in feel-good ficiton. Adorable protagonists with snoots and whiskers and swishing tails, that don’t take crap from demons. The titular character has Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres levels of self-assurance and lack of patience for fools, and doesn’t try to pretend he isn’t awesome. His priorities are all screwed up, but perfect for a cat, and it’s a joy to watch him saunter right into disaster. And the story centers on a madman! AND THE DEVIL! They literally fight freakin’ Satan. Also there is a work of art so intense it can shatter the world. The prose is straight-up gorgeous; it’s lyrical throughout, with some flamboyant flourishes. The plot is engaging and very satisfying, and I literally want to read a dozen spin-off stories based on these charecters, but only if Carroll is the one to write them. If she doesn’t win this year’s Hugo then all love of art has fled from the world, because this is Art.
A thing of note – both “Blur in the Corner of your Eye” and “Away with the Wolves” are also feel-good stories. But “Wolves” lacks the joyful energy, and the intensly lovable characters. Neither “Wolves” nor “Blur” innovate, and don’t have have beautiful, lyrical prose or experimental style. I believe this is what seperates a Hugo-contender from a “pretty good story.” “For He Can Creep” is impressive and memorable in addition to being a fantastic read.
“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang
A return to old-school Chiang, where he examines what the world would look like if a belief people claim to hold was actually true. In this case, young earth creationism. I didn’t find it as engaging and pround as some of his other examinations, though. Maybe because this was never a belief I’d held? Perhaps the Chiang stories people most enjoy are the ones that tackle subjects most dear to their own upbringings/beliefs. However it is expertly executed, as all his stories are, and obviously there are enough people with a background of young earth creationism that it had the numbers to make it as a nominee. Mad props to Mr Chiang, as always.
Best Short Story
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, by Shiv Ramdas
A great revenge story set in colonial-era India. An atrocity is visited upon our heroine, and when she recovers enough to exact revenge, it is graphic and brutal. Some of our book club didn’t particularly enjoy that. I loved it, because I like bloody revenge stories. There is a part of me that wants to see such horrors avenged, to see their perpetrators die screaming, and everyone around them who was complicit can die screaming too. Giving such feelings a safe outlet is what fiction is for. If you like the bloody-revenge part of Tarantino movies, you’ll probably like this. I sure did.
“As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang
Oh damn! Someone took the Roger Fisher proposal that the nuclear launch codes be kept inside an aide so the president would have to cut them out (thus killing a man with his own hands) before starting armageddon, and made a story out of it, and it’s soooo good. It’s set in a different world, so national sympathies don’t get in the way of telling the story. Instead we simply live with the child(!) chosen to be the bearer of the code, as her nation falls closer and closer to nuclear war and the president who’s come to love her has to decide if he can kill her to save his entire nation. Not only is it a great take on a great thought experiment, it’s really brought home by the defection of the girl’s adoptive father/mentor at the end. Despite being a pacifist priest, in the end he breaks, and tries to provide the nuclear codes to the president WITHOUT requiring the sacrafice of the child, because he can’t live with the death of the daughter, but he can’t live with the destruction and slaughter of his country either. It’s brutal.
And the fact that it ends without us knowing if the girl is going to live or die is perfect. The reader is left trying to figure out which ending would I prefer? and thus has to answer for themselves which situation is worse? Is this worth the cost in my own opinion? Is this justice?
While most of my bookclub thought this was an anti-nuclear-weapons story, I pointed out that it seems very much like a Tragedy of Good Intentions. The purpose of the policy is to prevent nuclear armageddon unless it is absolutely vital. But the country that invades our protagonist’s country doesn’t have nukes themselves. They ravage the interior, thousands are killed in the fighting on both sides, and tens of thousands of civilians are killed in bombings, many times more displaced and starved, and cities ruined. Because the invading country figured our president wouldn’t kill this child to launch nukes. The intention behind the policy was good and pure, but there wouldn’t have been an invasion at all if the nukes didn’t require a child sacrafice. Because the invaders would have worried that if they invaded, nukes would have been launched in retaliation and the aggressor nation devestated. Without a war there would have been thousands of soldiers lives saved on both sides, and possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians. As a cautionary tale, the message is obvious — don’t give anyone a reason to think you won’t use the nukes, and you end up preventing wars and saving many lives.
Except, of course, without some deterant on their use, it’s much easier to get world wide armageddon. And shouldn’t someone willing to kill millions of people have to kill at least one person first? If you can’t kill one person, how can you kill so many, so indiscrimently?
And in the end, the nukes might get launched anyway. Damn, man. Really, a very good story.
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, by Rivers Solomon
Another revenge story. This one is more elaborate, and grows to encompass an entire society. As in “everyone in this society supported this atrocity by their acceptance of slavery, burn it all down.” Again, I like revenge stories, so I liked this. It focuses less on the revenge itself, and far more on how getting your revenge isn’t enough, because afterwards the world is still broken and you are still empty. The protagonist grows over the course of the story, learning to find acceptance and belonging with her friends/surrogate family. In the end revenge stops being the goal, and instead becomes the means towards the true goal, which is family and togetherness. It’s actually a really positive message among all the slaughter. :)
“A Catalog of Storms”, by Fran Wilde
I gotta admit, I didn’t particularly get this story. It’s written in a surreal, dreamlike way, never fully explaining what’s happening, but giving you enough to figure out the broad strokes. Yet, despite figuring out more or less what’s happening, I never really felt a connection. It all felt too unmoored in anything. I dunno… it’s been a while and it still bugs me. I think I’m missing something, and if I reread it a few times perhaps whatever I’m missing will click and I’ll have a revelatory moment. I was hoping someone in my book club would have insights on this, but they all felt basically the same way, which makes me suspect maybe it’s not us, it’s the story. Googling has found only people that say basically the same thing — a cool mood piece, but there’s not much that happens to anyone. I guess all I can say is it wasn’t to my taste. Good imagery, though.
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow
A very strong piece about being an outsider in your own society. A woman of peace is tolerated in a warrior culture because her wife is the best warrior in the land, but everyone else shuns her, even her own children. The one child that takes after her is pressed into the military anyway, and as more and more of everything she loves is taken from her and forced into the war machine, she rebels. Unlike the other stories this year, this rebellion isn’t a bloody revenge. She flees, and prevails upon the love of her wife to protect her. The two both do what is right in their own way, despite their methods being antithetical at a first glance. It’s a love story of the type you don’t see often – one about the love of a dedicated relationship after many years together, rather than the passion of new love in youth. I really liked this.
Also of note, since I’m on a world-building kick — absolutely stellar worldbuilding. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and good worldbuilding is basically The BCS Thing, and it’s nice to see they are still holding strong to that. :)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, by Nibedita Sen
This was a bit of a nothing-burger for me. An infant is taken by the British from an island of cannibal women and raised in a boarding school. She makes a friend who develops a crush on her. The friend then cuts off pieces of herself and secretly feeds them to their mutual friends over dinner. Everyone is very disturbed by this. That could make a good story, but what I just told you is basically the entirety of what you get. It’s told in ten snippets from news or scholarly articles about the event, so you get the story in pieces and have to put it together yourself. I really like this sort of structure play, my Favorite Book Ever does the same thing. Except Vellum has an amazing story with God and angels and alternate universes and fantastic character development. When I put together the pieces of “Ten Excerpts” there wasn’t anything there. Just… hey, here’s a thing that happened, kinda gross right? Cool structure play on it’s own isn’t enough, you still need a good story at the heart of it. For a fantastic example of structure play, I generally refer people to this owner’s manual which is secretly about superstimulus, the crushing power of beauty, and loneliness.
OTOH, one member of our book club REALLY loved it. The story does give you a lot of pieces, and if they really strike your fancy you can certainly arrange them into a larger structure.
Recommended: “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow; Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin