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 Catagory
“Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
Well written, with a fantastical world-of-toys setting. I loved the creation of children from spare parts, the daily winding-up of the springs, etc. Visually, it reads very much like a Tim Burton movie, ala Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. The metaphor of a toy that gets very few turns per day being analogous to disability (what we often call spoons nowadays) was very well done. But ultimately, this felt like an overly-smaltzy Hollywood tear-jerker. Like the SF lit version of Oscar Bait. You’re supposed to feel very sad but uplifted, sorta bittersweet. And you do. But it’s not authentic, it feels like you’ve been guided through a maximally-sympathy-inducing construct. For example, the mother indulges her child in getting him significantly heavier arms than he should have, because it would make him happy. This is an extra strain upon his spring, and further adds to the mother’s burden of care-giving, but it’s soooo worth it because it makes her disabled kid smile and she has the heart and determination to give him the best life, etc. Yeesh.
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)
My favorite Short Story of this year. Absolutely gorgeous prose, to the point of being poetry. I fell in love almost immediately. Moreover, it expects some work from the reader. You have to think as you’re reading, and interpret what’s being presented to uncover the story below the surface. At first I thought maybe this was a metaphor for a sexual relationship. I was wrong. This is about the anger of society’s misfits at being maltreated. The autistic, the disabled, the ugly. The “freaks”. The title refers to the stomach-churning disgust of seeing a dispassionate researcher calmly lettering notes about their anatomy’s after doing things to them that hurt, hurt deep, he should be shaking from the atrocities he’s just committed in the process of dissecting his subjects, unable to write a word, but instead he simply labels them as if they aren’t even feeling beings. The story is beautiful and grotesque and brings you directly into experiencing this emotion in a powerful way. This is the sort of story that awards were created for.
“Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)
A delightful piece about an obsolete robot finding a place in the world by writing fanfiction. This is very much a love letter to fanfic readers/writers, with lots of jargon and in-jokes. And it’s an absolute pleasure to read. The portrayal of the robot as a non-neurotypical person slowly making sense of all the bizarre human creatures around it, and coming to connect with them, fills me with warmth. And it was hilarious. :) I want to write some fanfic of this story now. The one downside to this story that that it doesn’t have a strong arc, and thus it just kinda peters out at the end, instead of actually Ending. Kinda disappointing, but since this is such a light/fun story anyway, its easy to overlook that. My 2nd favorite of this year.
“The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
Technically well written, but boring. The portrayal of a world that’s coming to an end because humanity has collectively gotten too frustrated to continue and decided just to give up on living made me roll my eyes. The possible moral dilemma was no dilemma at all, and the ending feels like it was written by committee. Meh.
“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
The concept of a Chosen One getting a magic sword and deciding “No, I really don’t like adventuring, I’m going to stay and farm instead,” sounds great on paper. What happens when the Hobbit stays home? But despite being somewhat charming, there’s not really anything here. It felt like a filler episode in an animated series.
“Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)
There comes a point about halfway through this story where you realize just how literal the title of this story is. This is a dark supernatural story, verging on horror, that takes you through the historical experience of the entire Native American peoples through the personal events of a couple months of the protagonist’s life. When you come to that realization you say “Oh shit. This is gonna suck.” You read on, because it’s a compelling plot and moves quickly and you want to see the story play out. As a parable, it works.
As a story, there is something lacking, and I can’t quite put my finger on what. The writing is good. And yet, I find myself not being hit very hard by it. I should be much more affected, and I don’t know why the story didn’t quite land. I’m still thinking about it, on an intellectual level, and I admire the strength and skilling of the story-weaving itself. The emotion just isn’t quite realized, though.
Strongly Recommended – “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”
Recommended – “Fandom For Robots,” “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™”
Best Novelette Catagory
“Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)
“Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)
Putting these two together, because I have the exact same comments about both.
I understand authors writing short works in the universe of their current novel series. It’s a treat for their fans, who are very important for authors. It keeps the universe fresh between novel releases. And maybe it’ll get some new people interested in the novels if they find the stories interesting.
What I take great umbrage with is the fans nominating these interstitial stories just because they love the series so much. Neither of these stories are good. They’re barely even stories. They’re just a thing that happened in the author’s given universe. Neither of these should’ve been anywhere near the Hugo Awards. They’re good for what they are, but what they aren’t is award-worthy works. Anyone who nominated either of these should be embarrassed of themselves.
“The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)
The most adorable thing I’ve read all year. The tiny, ugly-duckling-style robot goes to battle against a rat-bug thing that’s eating his ship’s insulation, and winds up saving the human race. Everything about this story made my heart happy. I love the characters, I love the tiny little bots and their whisper network, I love their non-neurotypical thought processes, and I love their overly-literal humor. Life-affirming and extremely enjoyable. I expected to cry at the ending, and I cheered instead, and honestly I’m more of a tragedy guy so I think I would’ve preferred to cry? But that’s not what Palmer was doing for this story, and that’s fine too, this also works. :) My favorite of the Novelettes, though Small Changes is really close.
“A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)
I read this just a few days ago, and honestly, I’ve already almost forgotten it. Not bad, but nothing here that interests or sticks with me.
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
O_O INTENSE. Gritty, angry, powerful, sexy. It does amazing things using an act of vampirism as an analog for both actual rape and rape fantasy, and then follows its aftermath. Using the vampiric transition as a reflection both on mortality and gender transition, the death of the old identity and the loss that comes with it. And then the vampiric bloodlust as an analog for the intense hormonal urges and desires of first-time testosterone use. It explores how quickly power can change you, how easy it is to go from prey to predator, and how good that feels. By the time the protagonist’s sire tells us ‘Don’t forget what you felt yesterday, when you were human’ we’ve already forgotten it, and it honestly feels hard, as a reader, to conjure up those intense emotions from just a couple pages before. Because that’s how fucking talented Szpara is. This story is amazing. And then, on top of all that, it snatches everything away again with the horror of realizing our body is turning against us, and we are going to be trapped forever in a fucking nightmare.
And then in the last third all that evaporates. The protagonist’s problems are quickly and neatly solved (in a manner that felt, emotionally, like a deus ex machina), the growth arc is aborted, and instead we get a cliché power-fantasy wish-fulfillment ending. This was extremely disappointing. The story was sooooo good up until that point. It feels like Szpara lost faith in his ability to tell this story, or realized how much longer it would be and flinched away from all that work. So he just snapped to quick resolution and cut it short. I understand that fear. This should be at least a novella, and could easily be a full novel. Which is a fuck-ton of work. At least a year of life for someone holding down a regular job as well, all for something that may turn out to be not worth the effort. That maybe no one will ever see, and no one will care about. I wish I could tell Szpara to revisit this, and take it to completion. That it would absolutely be worth all the work to me, and probably for thousands of readers like me. Because this was so utterly amazing right up until the fail point. I hope that the Hugo nom (and maybe win?) will demonstrate this, and re-energize him. Because – wow.
I’m very torn on my vote. I don’t know if I should vote for Small Changes first, or Secret Life of Bots. They do such different things, it’s impossible to compare them. Normally I’d go for the wrenching, angry, powerful tale. But with the disappointing ending, man, I’m really torn. In either case, this is also very good.
“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)
A meditation on cultural history, and what it means to have yours wiped away. On how much we build on the past, and the dangers of letting reverence for it become overly stifling, and strangling future creativity and growth. But while acknowledging how much we depend on it for who we are. As well as a few things about responsibility to future generations and how are choices are taken away from us by the past. A slow-paced, but ultimately well-done and thoughtful piece. While this isn’t my favorite type of story (see previous, I enjoy the ones that scream at you), this is definitely award-caliber writing. This is the sort of thing I’m happy to read, and fully get behind its nomination.
Strongly Recommended – “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” and “The Secret Life of Bots”
Recommended – “Wind Will Rove”
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 and even (sometimes) values 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 was interesting to see how we differed on several of these.