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Short stories can be read in one sitting. Often they slip from the brain as quickly as they slipped in. The greatest ones, though, can stick with a reader for a lifetime.
The short stories nominated this year are:
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim–Clockwork doll people.
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde–An entity of some sort takes your coin and may or may not let you into a weird sort-of funhouse place.
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min–The first sentient robot discovers fandom.
“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata–a monument on Mars created by an architect on a dying Earth.
“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon–A grandmother gives a magic sword to a grandson.
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse–Native Americans hire digital version of themselves out to tourists.
When I began this post, I had only read two of the stories. I have since read the other three.
Once again, we have a range, from literary to heroic fantasy to hard SF to AI to social commentary to fable. I note all of the short stories come from online zines: Tor, Uncanny, Apex, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, to be exact. All of them can be read, for free, by anyone. That has to be significant when it comes to Hugo nominations. Only the more dedicated fan, able to spend a little, will have read stories from F&SF, Asimov’s, or Analog, in time for Hugo nominations.
As much as I enjoy reading and voting, a part of me really doesn’t like awards. There is no “best” story, not even a “best” six stories. Any one of us can think of favorite authors and great stories that don’t make the cut. And the field of speculative fiction is the broadest of genres. To compare a high-quality hard SF story to a high-quality heroic fantasy is like comparing a robot to an animated doll. They have speculation in common, but are less similar than they appear.
That said, congrats to all finalists, including those in categories I haven’t discussed here.
A novelette is defined as a work of prose between 7,500 and 17,500 words in length. In contrast to the novella, I have never been drawn to the novelette as a form. It seems to fall into a kind of nowhere-land between the read-in-one-sitting short story, and the deeper dive of the novella. That’s not to say I can’t like a novelette, just that I don’t seek them out. So, surprise surprise, I have read none of the following nominees.
“Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard–This is in the world of de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen. The novelette falls chronologically between the first and second novels, and involves magic infiltrating powerful houses in Paris. Whether or not this can be read as a stand-alone depends on which reviewer you read. I will give it a try.
“Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee–this is described as a distant future space opera, with an undercover agent uncovering a traitor, and finding a lost ship. Reading online reviews of this one gives me no idea, really, whether or not the story will be my cup of tea. I guess I’ll just have to read it.
“The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer–the protagonist/bot is an outdated model tasked with destroying a rather nasty-sounding pest. Self-aware, narrator AI seem to be a trend, but I’m not tired of it yet. Good thing, because I’m writing a story with one.
“A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad–a 3D printer with which our protagonist prints fake steaks. Food. Stories about food are good.
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K. M. Szpara–Vampire horror. A vampire who is illegal because he is gay. I don’t claim to be a horror fan, but this one sounds promising.
“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker–a serious-looking generation ship story about lost records, lost history, and music. Another one where I can’t gauge my reaction from the reviews.
What pops into my mind as I look these over is how different each seems from the others. In the category, we see several different subgenera of the field, namely space opera, sentient AI, effects of new technology, vampire horror, and generation ship drama.
I am in a race to finish all the writing nominees, and it’s going to be close!
Novellas are a favorite of mine. Usually under two hundred pages, they don’t take forever to read. You don’t get bogged down. You do have time to get involved, though. It’s not in-and-out, like a short story. Novellas can be found in print and online periodicals, but increasingly can be bought as e-books. Because novellas are a favorite, I’m not as far behind as I am with Hugo-nominated novels.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells–I have read this one, and I recommend it. It is one of several recent works about self-aware AI. This particular entity calls itself Murderbot. It does have a murderous past, because that was the purpose it was designed for. That is not what it wants to be. “Murderbot” is also the subtitle of the novella. The full title is All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1). So it’s a series!
“And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker–This one, I haven’t read. Love the title, though. And, it’s a murder mystery! The title is tough to Google…it keeps wanting to route me to the Agatha Christie novel. I hate all forms of auto-correct.
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor–I read the first Binti at Worldcon in Kansas City a couple years ago, because it was being discussed at a panel. Binti is a heroic young woman of great intelligence, the sort of person who is held back and is underestimated. I look forward to reading this installment.
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang–I haven’t read this one. It is described as “silkpunk fantasy.” This novella was released simultaneously with another, The Red Threads of Fortune, as a twin introduction to the Tensorate Series. According to the author, you can read these first two in either order. A third installment comes out this July. Silkpunk fantasy sounds like a fine idea to me.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire–A second installment of yet another novella series. I’ve read both installments. I’m intrigued by this series, because it’s different in concept from anything I’ve read, while seeming utterly familiar. It concerns a home parents can send their children to, specifically children who refuse–or can’t–live in the so-called real world, but who occasionally escape to other, more fantastic worlds. I’m tempted to say the premise sounds like the biography of the average science fiction or fantasy fan–hence its familiarity.
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey–I haven’t read this one. It is billed as an alternate history about feral hippos overrunning Louisiana bayous around the turn of the twentieth century. That sounds like a very good idea for a story, and I do like alternate histories.
So…four of the six novella finalists are part of a series. Novella series seem to be a thing these days, a thing I like. The effect of a novella series is different from that of a serialized novel, or a novel series. The individual novellas in these series tend to be kind of free-standing. You never pick up right where you left off, even if the story does have an over-arching plot. Sometimes the individual installments are in the same universe, but feature different characters or different locales. It all provides a rich, deep sojourn in the worlds these authors create.
In recent years I have become more aware than ever before how important it is to vote. I’m not talking about the election of public officials–the importance of that has always been obvious to me. But the Hugos, nominating and final voting…well, it has been so easy to make excuses.
My “To Be Read” pile is a chronic feature that has endured in my life from childhood onward. When it comes time to nominate for the Hugos, I have often read hardly anything from the eligible year. In recent years, I have made an effort to nominate something, because I want to do my part to prevent future Sad/Rabid Puppy outbreaks.
Then comes the final ballot. Publishers and artists have been wonderful in recent years about making stories and novels available for Worldcon members to read free of charge, but the texts only become available a few months prior to the voting deadline. It’s a lot, but I’m determined to read as much as I can.
Here’s where I’m at right now.
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. Scalzi is always an easy read, so I am confident I will get to this one.
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been meaning to read this. I will.
Provenance, by Ann Leckie. This one is tougher. The book is in he same universe as her Ancillary universe, but is not a sequel to the trilogy, from what I can see. I read Ancillary Justice. I think I admired it more than I liked it. I haven’t gotten to the other two. Can I read this one as a stand-alone, without reading the other two? I’ll give it a try.
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee. This one is clearly number two in a series, and I have not read the first. Sadly, its being second in a series makes it far less likely I’ll get to it.
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. It’s a science fiction mystery. OMG! I love mysteries. I must read it!
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin. I read the first in the series, The Fifth Season, and I enjoyed that one tremendously. This is the third in the series. I have not read the second. Oh dear. I’ll do it if I can.
Conclusion: I think I’m in trouble with the novel category, because I haven’t read a single one. And it’s the third week of May.
Next post: novellas, novelettes, and short stories.
We are about a year behind on episodes of The Americans. Our being behind is not a reflection on the series; it’s just that there’s so much good stuff to watch. But as the series goes on, I find myself more and more impressed with the writers’ ability to project the opposed mind-sets of the Soviet spies versus the American FBI. I like the way the two sides sometimes try to communicate, and I like the way they get things wrong. I like the way both sides misunderstand both enemies and allies.
The Americans aims for a dispassionate view. FBI Agent Stan Beeman, his boss, Frank Gadd, and Gadd’s secretary, Martha Hinson, all want to do the right thing, even though they sometimes get things terribly wrong. The Russians are also trying to do the right thing–the right thing in their eyes anyway–even as they commit havoc, mayhem, and sometimes, murder.
Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings were born, raised, and indoctrinated in Mother Russia, but have been living in the U.S., speaking English, raising two children, and pretending to run a travel agency for the last couple decades. To a greater (Phillip) or lesser (Elizabeth) extent, they have gone a bit native. We meet other Russians–handlers, and embassy personnel, each with their own view of themselves, of home, and the U.S. Some are true believers in their system; others are ambitious, seeing the U.S. posting as a tremendous opportunity. Everyone is looking through a different pair of glasses.
Elizabeth and Phillip don’t see themselves as others do. They often don’t want other people to see them; they wear a multitude of disguises to fool the subjects of their missions. But out of disguise, they are unable to convince their daughter of their integrity. The power to play roles, take on identities, has distorted what can be seen of them.
Both as individuals and as a nation, we tend to see our own power as benign. Sure, we make mistakes, but our heart is in the right place, right? When someone sees threat in our actions, he seeks to thwart us. This happens between neighbors and between countries. Everyone feels misunderstood and put-upon. Everyone knows exactly what is wrong with everyone else.
Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are enmeshed in our own, flawed view of ourselves. We look in the mirror, and left is right, and right is left. Our emotions magnify some of our ugly, while blinding us to other sorts of ugly. We put on makeup to enhance and to hide ourselves.
The passage of time can further change what we see. Elizabeth and Phillip are decades removed from their training. They do what they do for their country, but we wonder if they even know what their country is at this point. We the viewers know they are only a few years away from the collapse of the Soviet system. In earlier seasons, I felt kind of sorry for them, for that. Since the 2016 election, I see the situation differently.
The show makes a point of not naming top government officials. When Frank Gadd goes to “see the director,” he doesn’t call him by name. The show open shows a series of American and Soviet leaders in quick succession, emphasizing neither the current Soviet Premier not the current American President. The show absolutely wants to be about individuals trying to function in the system (more than one system, actually) while trying to see through the wrong side of one-way glass.
They come in various categories. Like, In an Unpleasant Place. Or, A Fascinating Person. Also, Based on a True Story, It Was All a Dream, Someone Says Something, and finally, Travel Tedium.
All of the above are triggers for stories. Unlike some writers, I don’t mind at all the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I think it’s fun to think about. Getting an idea–an idea that will work–is one of the great highs of writing. (Then comes the hard part, which is actually making it work.)
Travel Tedium is one of most reliable. Air travel, long car trips, plane trips, taxi rides–all provide a space when there is nothing to do but woolgather. Our ubiquitous digital devices have cut into this space a bit, but the space is still there. I recall a car trip home from Albuquerque with my husband and infant daughter. On the way, I noted the turnoff for Phoenix, and had a road-not-taken moment. What if we went to Phoenix? What might happen? Those questions turned into a time travel story in which the protagonists try to right a wrong, with unintended consequences. (Love those unintended consequences.)
Sometimes, Someone Says Something. In this case, someone said he was guest-editing the December issue of a magazine, and was looking for Christmas stories. “I don’t do Christmas stories,” I said. An hour later, I was riding back to my hotel, and in spite of the chattiness of the taxi driver, I started making up a Christmas story.
Another favorite is Based on a True Story, one of my favorite trailer lines for movies. A crack in the house’s concrete slab became a sentient miasma. A broken watch found in a restaurant became the means for career rejuvenation. A house, under construction, possibly never to be finished, became a window to the future for a young girl.
It Was All a Dream is the most difficult story trigger to work with. Dreams are long on emotion and short on linear logic. The lack of linear logic isn’t necessarily a problem, but the lack of story logic can be. Dreams–however they might knock us for a loop emotionally–tend to fall apart once examined for story logic. My success rate for It Was All a Dream (success meaning being able to craft the story into something with a point to it) is probably less than fifty percent.
Fascinating People, are always attractive as centers for a story. By “center,” I mean focus. Sometimes, this is the protagonist or narrator, but often not. Often not, because then the plot can center on the protagonist’s interactions with this Fascinating Person, who are often difficult to deal with. My favorite fascinating person-who-became-a-character was David, a local homeless person. I’ve also used a terrible pair of parents, a crazy old woman, and my dad (although I transformed him into an heroic alien). I’ve used Jesus no fewer than three times.
Finally, there’s the conflict-on-a-plate one is gifted with when one is In An Unpleasant Place. Undergoing medical treatment, or moving, or faced with a difficult task, or encountering an unpleasant person. I may hate every moment of it, but damn it, I’m going to get a story out of it!
Once upon a time, I looked at genre–the process of sorting storytelling into type–as a necessary evil of use primarily for marketing, and for organizing large bookstores, and for slapping rocket ship or detective logos on the spines of library books. I didn’t need genre labels. My taste was sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and omnivorous. I bragged I would read anything. I didn’t need genre labels. If it was good, then I wanted to read it
I’ve changed. I no longer view choosing-by-genre designations as narrow-minded and provincial. I remain open-minded in my tastes, but the older I get, the more I feel the need to match what I read or watch to my mood.
This turning point came a couple years ago during a vacation. By the time we’d made it from the airport to the hotel, had dinner and settled into our room, I was tired, physically and mentally. Didn’t feel like reading. Nothing on the hotel TV. My husband was looking at his iPad, so I looked at mine.
I stumbled upon a cozy mystery, Death in Paradise.
It hit the spot. Episodic TV mysteries like this one tickle the brain, but don’t tax it too much. We are given a beautiful locale and clever writing. Relationships between the regulars–the detectives and their allies–lean more toward humor than angst. We understand the murder victim to be a short-timer; we don’t get attached.
Unlike life, the people in mysteries live by the rules. Our detectives may be flawed characters, they may make mistakes, but they will do their job to the best of their ability. We can trust them.
I meander through genres, stopping to visit as I wish. Each offers something. When I’m hungry for new ideas, new ways about thinking about humanity and the future, science fiction is the go-to. It could be the fanciful solar system of Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, or the less fanciful but still stunning one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. I love certain kinds of fantasy, but sometimes Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is too active for me, and I want something more sedate. In a sense, every author is sui generis, and I like that too.
When I finish something, I am thrown into a bit of emotional crisis. What to read next? What to watch next? I scroll through my digital and paper libraries, sometimes spending as much time picking something as I would choosing a new sofa. Sometimes I pick the wrong thing, and have to abandon it. Sometimes I pick just right, and match my mood perfectly.