By ancient tradition, our book club reads the online-available Short Stories and Novelettes that have been nominated for the Hugo Award every year. Here’s my reviews.
Best Short Story Category
The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker
A fantastic tale about our quest for knowledge, and the price we’re willing to pay to understand. This is perhaps a tragedy, or borderline horror? Which means it’s perfect for me. :) But in the end, after the narrator asserts that the protagonist has given up, in the very last line we learn that the protagonist is still asking “How?” He still wants to know how the magic works, and I am willing to bet he could still cast the Spell if he wanted to. Which fills me with hope and happiness. Much like us, his desire to know is too deep. Even when he thinks he’s given up and moved on, it’s still there, prodding him and shaping his life. :) I liked this one.
The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T. Kingfisher
Oh man. There’s this tension in awards, or at least, in the Hugos, between “This should be a great work of merit that will be remembered for decades” and “This was so much fun it’s my favorite yaassssss!” For an award as prestigious as the Hugos, I think the works SHOULD have great SF/F merit. OTOH, it’s hard not to cheer for something that you love just cuz it’s a ton of fun.
I bring this up because this story is pure fluff. It’s literally a wish-fulfillment sex-comedy. And the thing is, I love it. I love Rose, I had a huge amount of fun reading this. I still brings a smile to my face. But, like, really, this is not award-worthy material. It’s pure candy. One member of our book club was actually angry, because its nomination took away a spot that an actual deserving work could have been in. I wasn’t angry, because I enjoyed this story so much, but I agree. This should not have been nominated. So, Recommended, but wtf Hugo voters? What happened to standards?
The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djèlí Clark
This is not a story. This is nine vignettes that are probably world-building exercises for a novel that will be great. I say this because the world-building is absolutely fantastic. Revolutionary America with wearwolves and voodoo magic and all sorts of amazing mythological/magical forces that have their own vested interests in this war and it’s outcome. I’m super excited to read a story set in this world! I’m kinda sad that we don’t have one yet. There are no characters in this world-building exercises. There is no plot. It’s just setting a foundation.
I immediately compared this to The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, because famously, it is another story without any characters or any plot, it’s simply a description of a world. And it’s one of the most well-regarded short stories in SF history. But there’s a major difference. Omelas has something to say. It takes utilitarianism, and it asks the reader “Do you really believe this, in your soul? Are you OK with this?” It is a critique of a moral philosophy, disguised as a story. And it’s only a few paragraphs long. Nine Teeth goes on forever without saying anything of substance. Maybe “slavery sucks”? But that’s not really interesting, and we all already know that. It’s certainly on the same level as “A major school of current ethical thought has this consequence, can you live with it?”
STET by Sarah Gailey
I admire this story for its ambition. It tried to do something amazing, to tell a story through implication, wrapped in the footnotes of a dry tech analysis. It’s demands work from the reader. Doing this sort of thing is hard, and so it’s not huge strike against it that the story fails. What should land as a gut-punch is instead a glancing blow. The revelations are interesting, but lack the eye-opening character. A good effort, but it didn’t quite work for me.
I guess I’m reaching an age were I can compare new things to older things now, which is kinda weird. But this story immediately brought to my mind Kenneth: A Users Manual, which tries the same trick, but gets it RIGHT. Kenneth is gut-wrenching and beautiful, and tells a story in the addendum and footnotes of a “user manual.” I would recommend that story instead, it’s everything this one wanted to be, and still makes my blood sing.
Another one of those stories that are fun but don’t have any substance. It’s basically a straight-up adventure with some jokes thrown in. Less pure-campy fun than Rose MacGregor, this story is completely forgettable. I actually forgot it already, and I had just read it like 10 days ago. Pass.
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow
The most beautiful and heart-wrenching of all the shorts this year. Holy crap guys. Remember that tragic and soul-searching essay by Rainbow Rowell, “Learn To Read, Kid, But Don’t Fall In Love“? This story is basically an exploration of that, but taking the opposite stance. Escapism is important, and for some people, absolutely vital. There is only so much real-life that some people can take when their lives are absolute shit. And SF/F provides an escape world that is so much better than most other options of escapism. It’s heartwarming in parts. It’s wrenching in others. When you learn what these kids are going through, and you learn how the protagonist failed them before, it’s just… man. It’s hard. You feel the feels.
In the end I was left wondering, though. Is that escape REALLY a good thing. The kid that our protagonist helped… is he better off? And is this story dangerous, a memetic hazard, for those of us in the real world that DON’T have magic? It made me feel, and it made me think. It’s so good. It deserves all the awards, Strongly Recommended!
Best Novelette Category
At first it seems this will be a story of the value of perseverance, which we’re not exactly lacking, ya know? But then it turns into a story of failure. The story of how to continue on with your life once its clear you never will achieve your goals, you have failed in your ambition in life, and you will never be good enough to fulfill your dreams. Basically what 99.9% of the population goes through when it reaches middle-age. This is not a story we have in abundance, at least not in the SF/F genre, and it was a refreshing change to read. What do you do after failing at life? It’s not like you’re going to kill yourself. You just have to keep on keeping on, and find joy in other things. Like relationships, and family. And, again, the despair makes it the sort of story I enjoy.
But then in the end it returns to “Actually, it’s never too late to achieve your dreams, just keep on trying and you’ll get there!” Which I guess makes for a feel-good ending, but felt cliche. Overall, I thought this one is OK.
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly
A revenge story, with beautiful, mouth-watering descriptions of food. The protagonist doesn’t actually do anything, which is unusual. She basically just tells the reader about how her husband exacts revenge on the bloodthirsty tyrant via clever trickery, and describes the poisoned treats he passes on. It’s strange to have such a passive protag, but overall a pretty good story.
Nine Last Days on Planet Earth by Daryl Gregory
Frankly, I didn’t understand this story at all. It’s nine vignettes, describing nine days in the protagonists life, starting in his childhood and ending in late senescence, when he’s in his 90s. But like… there’s no story? And no theme? And we see how the character evolves over the years, but since each vignette is so brief we don’t really feel any life-changing moment. Smarter readers in my book club said that it’s basically a story about the human race adapting to circumstances beyond our control, fitting ourselves into the changing shape of an unfathomable world. Looking back over the story, I agree that there’s a theme of slow, gradual change and adaptation in the character arc. But overall, this felt like a literary story without much meat to it. All style and mood, without any point. I didn’t like it.
The Thing About Ghost Stories by Naomi Kritzer
Meh. The protag cares for her mother as she slowly dies of Alzheimer’s, putting the rest of her life on hold. Afterwards she feels empty and doesn’t deal with the grief, since what was her mom died slowly over many years, and by the time the body passed her mother had long ago faded away. The ghost of her mom leaves the protagonist a sign that she’s OK, and she’s proud of her daughter, and there is a sense of closure. This basically reads like MFA Lit Fic, with a ghost thrown in. I disliked it. Interestingly, I was alone in this, everyone else in my book club loved it. Maybe I’m just jaded and grumpy.
When We Were Starless by Simone Heller
Now this — THIS was fantastic! For starters, the author makes the reader do some *work*. You aren’t spoon-fed anything, and the world in this story is drastically different from our own. As the people within it are used to the world, the reader has to slowly piece together from clues and descriptions what’s actually happening in our terms. It’s a delightful puzzle, and it’s not so hard that anyone can’t do it with a bit of perseverance. I don’t want to spoil the puzzle by giving away anything, but rationalists will find this world right up our alley.
More importantly, the story sparks within the reader a joy of learning, and the wonder of scientific advancement. You know that feeling you got when Harry shows Draco the photograph of astronauts on the moon, the feeling of “This is what we can do at our best!” that just gives you shivers? Yeah, that feeling. This story fills you with that just shortly after you resolve the puzzle.
Then soon after you realize that this is a crapsack, only-survival-matters world, where people who expend energy on anything other than survival will be wiped out. And you despair for the protagonist, who has discovered science but now can never use it. It is a goddamn tragedy. Except… maybe it’s not. Because the way that Heller resolves this tension is beautiful, and leaves one with hope and triumph in our souls, afterall.
This is an absolutely fantastic story, I loved every bit of it. Highly recommended.
Final Notes: Our book club is a liberal bunch. There’s only one person in our group that falls right of center, everyone else is leftist to various degrees. And yet, even we couldn’t help but notice that this year’s choices were nearly all, to quote a fellow member “very woke.” It’s obvious, and by the time you come to your 8th woke story it’s a bit of a distraction. Like, I hate to say it, but it does make one think “is it really the case that every work of SF merit this year happened to be woke?” Maybe. The world of everyone-who’s-not-a-Trumpist has been strongly affected by the rise of Trump, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this sort of thing is a constant weight on the minds of authors, and reflected in their work. And readers are likely to be drawn to things that speak to their current fears as well, thus resulting in the ballot we have this year. But man, there were a couple places it felt forced, and when it’s in nearly every work it starts to feel like a subconscious/unspoken requirement. Hopefully as the world reverts to sanity this sort of thing will occur less.
Book Club Reviews: As always, I highly recommend doing this once per year. You’re exposed to a lot of disparate things at once, and you get to learn a lot about the tastes of your fellow book clubbers. The reading goes fast, as there’s much less word count than a novel. And basically everyone will find something they like. It’s fun, quick, and a nice change of pace.