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: “I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter”, Isabel Fall; “A Guide for Working Breeds”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad; “Little Free Library”, Naomi Kritzer
Best Novelette Nominees
“Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”, A.T. Greenblatt
This novelette committed one of the cardnial sins of fiction — it was boring. Sam Wells is an accountant with a lame super power, and most of the story consists of him moping about how he can’t be a real super hero, but he still gets discriminated against by anti-superhero-bigots. Then in the end he decides being an accountant is plenty cool, and he doesn’t care what anyone else says. If The Incredibles were written by an aggreived middle-aged English professor, it would be this story.
“I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter”, Isabel Fall
This story is notable outside of literary concerns because it was successfully censored by The Wokes. The title refers to an old line often used to dismiss trans concerns as unimportant or fake. The crazy part is that the story was censored specifically just for the title reference, because Attack Helicopter itself is a very thoughtful exploration of what gender is, how it shapes who we are, and uses the SF-angle of how the military would weaponize human gender-identity if they could. There’s nothing anti-trans about it, and it’s not like fiction doesn’t have a long history of name-dropping the thing it is criticizing in the title. But it was so cancelled that the Hugos won’t even refer to it by name, instead calling it “Helicopter Story” in all their media. You can google for the kerfuffle details if you’re interested, it actually made the general news in some places.
Within literary concerns, Attach Helicopter is notable for being a darned good story. It makes us aware both of how keyed-in humans are to sex/gender, and how this is a unique and powerful brain adaptation, by demonstrating the power that could be harnessed by rewiring that for other purposes. Things like target-acquisition, for example. It does so while narrating a high-speed escape from a hostile aircraft, interspersed with flashbacks, set in an American civil-war/uprising during which our protag is possibly on the Wrong Side. And all while their copilot is having a breakdown in the cockpit. This makes it sound a bit better than it is, because the execution is a little off… but overall it manages to pull off what it’s aiming for. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever read, but it is good, and IMO it is the best of the nominated novelettes this year. I’m really curious how the voting will turn out.
“The Inaccessibility of Heaven”, Aliette de Bodard
This started out really good. It’s a gritty modern-noir focussed on fallen angels and the society they create for themselves in American cities. It’s got the grime of old school cyberpunk. It’s got the jaded supernaturalsim of The Crow, or The Prophecy. It is absolutely everything I adore in an aesthetic. I love this setting, and I could eat it up with a spoon for days.
The plot itself is simple, the characters are kinda meh. I get the impression that this is a short story de Bodard wrote to promote a full novel or series, meant to showcase the world rather than actually put forth a strong narrative. Which is fine, we all gotta make a living, and lord knows that publishers don’t advertise for crap nowadays, so you write promo stories like this to help your main work along. But I bet de Bodard was as surprised as anyone when it made the Hugo short list. Enthusiastic fans are a godsend. :) I was an outlier in our book club because I didn’t care that it was mediocre, I was happy just to read it for the fantastic aesthetic and setting… until I got to the end.
In the end all the fallen angels singe the praises of Jahweh and bemoan how stupid they were for ever going against his goodness and correctness, and reiterate their undying devotion to him and their desire to get back into Heaven. It was naked, unabashed Simping For Jahweh. Say what you want about John C Wright, at least he can write decent Christian Fic. For a gritty fallen angel story to turn into Fellating Our Lord almost made me vomit. It was like a youth pastor trying to convince me that Christian Rock is super cool! Hard Pass.
“Monster”, Naomi Kritzer
This story was the opposite of Heaven, in that it started off really slow but got good at the end. And by “started off” I mean that when I was about 70% of the way through I was seriously beginning to question why this was nominated for an SF award. It was Lit Fic, and I was incensed that someone had snuck Lit Fic into my Sci Fi again! But then it took an SF twist, and my hackles dropped quickly.
It is well written. And it presents an interesting moral conundrum. I think the story is implying that the protagonist is the true monster, since she betrayed her truest friend so completely. Objectively, I disagree. I think if your friend is a murderer, it is important to turn them in, and anyone doing so is doing the right thing. But since this IS a well-written story, it really presents the case for “maybe this was a bad thing” very well, and it makes you ponder. I liked the ending quite a lot. My only complaint is that the story was so long and slow leading up to that point. Maybe that was necessary to build up to the betrayal at the end. I dunno, I think the “this feels like Lit Fic!” thing got to me, since I have prejudices on that front. A good story overall.
“The Pill”, Meg Elison — Not Available Online
Not Available Online, so we didn’t read it.
“Two Truths and a Lie”, Sarah Pinsker
This was a really good creeping-horror story. A creepypasta, in today’s parlance. I adored it. The growing sense of disturbing, Twillight-Zone horror ratchets up at just the right pace. Then it kinda fell flat at the end. It wasn’t an insulting ending like Heaven’s, it’s just that the story was building toward something epic, and then when it got to the end it kinda fizzled. The ending could have been fine, if the story had felt it was building to a body-take-over sort of thing. It didn’t, though. Giving our protagonist the magician’s ending felt like an awkward substitution at the end, rather than something that had been hinted at along the way. Again, a good story, but just missed a beat at the end there, and due to the stupid Peak-End Rule, this has an outsized effect on the whole experience.
Best Short Story
“Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse”, Rae Carson
Ugh. I hate to start both sections with a negative review, but this was just bad. It relied on the same thing most zombie fiction relies on — it doesn’t work unless all the humans involved are absolutely brain-dead idiots. Before they get infected. Very little in the story makes any sense, nothing like this would remotely happen in a zombie apocalypse. The labor scene is stupid, and the ending is cliche. All of it is cliche, actually. I think that this is a story where people decided how they felt about it upon reading the title, and then didn’t bother reading the actual text. (Much like Attack Helicopter, in that regard.) Le Sigh.
“A Guide for Working Breeds”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Oh. My. God. This story is absolutley PERFECT!!!!!! It’s told as a series of emails/DMs/whatever between two androids in a post-meatsuit future. The younger one is a Zoomer kid just entering the workforce and laboring through typical entry-level shit jobs, and the older one is a jaded Gen Xer assassin forced into compulsory mentoring. The Zoomer is pretty damn adorable, and they form a bond over time, despite the assassin’s stand-offish-ness. Gen Xer has a crunchy exterior, but a warm gooey core! Anyway, the Zoomer saves the assassin’s life, there is a gruding respect built, the Zoomer sorta has a coming-of-age leveling up, and then the Zoomer goes forth to become a mentor of her own to the next generation. The whole thing is incredibly fun to read, very heartwarming, fantastically written, often hilarious, and just the best thing ever. My pick for best Short Story of the bunch. Definitely read this one!
“Little Free Library”, Naomi Kritzer (Tor.com)
A cute, short story about what you do when you have an accidental portal to another world that only accepts books and small trinkets. There’s not much to say about it besides that it’s very good. It’s by Kritzer, so of course it’s well written. The discovery process is fun, the escalating new revelations are intruiging, and the ending is bittersweet and very memorable. Another good read!
“The Mermaid Astronaut”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2020)
A lot of world-building concerning a mermaid society. They meet aliens, and one of the mermaids goes with them to tour the galaxy. Then she comes back. If you like a lot of world building, this is a great story for you. But there is only the thinest veneer of a plot, and not much in the way of characters. Some people love worldbuilding and will like this sort of story. I was bored. Soft pass.
“Metal Like Blood in the Dark”, T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020)
A sort of Innocents Lost story, where two extremely naive and likable robots are taken advantage of, until one of them discovers that lying is a thing that exists, and uses her new-found powers to predict the actions of an untrustworthy agent, and eventually lie to him in order to gain freedom. It’s written in a style that feels almost child-like and folktale-sy, which is very appropriate for the charecters. There’s some great moments in here (like when the protag is briefly terrified that she altered the universe by lying about it), and there’s nothing wrong with the story. It just isn’t really a thing that tickles my fancy. I first read it almost three months ago and couldn’t remember anything about it from seeing the title again, I had to go back and skim it to remind myself what happened. It would probably be great for others with different tastes. /shrug
“Open House on Haunted Hill”, John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots – 2020, ed. David Steffen)
Another heart-warming story. All the short stories this year were optimistic stories, which makes me think people really needed something to lighten their lives amidst all the COVID. It’s unusual for them all to be positive, usually award-nominated stories hit you in the Sads. Which, to be clear, is great, I love being hit in the Sads, and it’s one of the reasons I read short stories. :)
Anyway, Open House is about a young haunted house that’s doing it’s darnedest to be the best haunted house it can be! It is tempted to kill people for power, but it helps them instead, and the people are good-hearted folk that have hit hard times and really could use a break. And the house wants a family inside it, so they meet each others needs. It’s a wholesome story with some meloncholy moments that makes you happy you read it, so worth reading. Not “powerful” in the traditional sense, but ain’t nothing wrong with that. I prefer Guide For Working Breeds (above) because that one deals with relationships closer to what I’ve experienced, and the culture of the characters is closer to my own, and it’s damned funny in a lot of moments where Open House doesn’t really go for the laughs. But again, that’s a taste thing. Others will prefer Open House and that’s OK. :)
As always, I think it’s great to break up book clubs with a meeting dedicated just to short stories once a year, and I continue to recommend it. Regardless of how you choose what stories to read, it’s a refreshingly different experience, and great fun!