June 23rd, 2016

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Short thoughts about the Hugo-finalist short fiction

I’ve read all the short fiction finalists for this year’s Hugo Awards, and I have opinions.


“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor
The protagonist just happens to be able to solve all the problems of the story – too often by coincidence rather than by her own effort. She just happens to have a special artifact, and her cosmetic just happens to ... well, no spoilers. A dire predicament is solved too easily. However, her anguish at both her danger and her otherness is vividly portrayed, and her home culture proves to hold depth and strength to help her through her crisis.

“The Builders” by Daniel Polansky
A fairy tale about personified animals – but not for children. The body count is far too high and vivid for children, as is the cold, murderous greed and revenge that motivates the story’s mice, rats, stoats, owls, rattlesnakes, badgers, cats.... Kids would enjoy the jokes and comic asides, though. It might not be my favorite, but it may well be yours.

“Penric’s Demon” by Lois McMaster Bujold
Told with a spare style, generous with humor, low on tension and surprises, and rich with world-building and believable detail. Satisfying, except that it felt more like the start of a novel than like a complete novella.

“Perfect State” by Brandon Sanderson
This Gary Stu is about a brain in a jar “living” in a fantasy world where he is all-powerful and beloved. Then he is ordered to reproduce with a female (also a brain in a jar), and, although this reproduction would be fantasy, for some pointless reason it must be enacted in real-life-like bodies. The story also involves stereotyped women and, of course, a chance for Gary Stu to be a hero.

“Slow Bullets” by Alastair Reynolds
The plot twists back and forth as the survivors of a war disaster discover that they have in fact survived even worse multiple disasters and face grave responsibilities. My only tiny quibble is that the final twist should have been better foreshadowed at the beginning – otherwise, superbly told.


“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander
A hyper-violent, grim, profanity-ridden love story crammed with more metaphors and similes than a classroom assignment executed by a first-year bipolar MFA student suffering a psychosis-level attack of mania. If I were the professor, I’d give it an A anyway: effective futuristic feel and setting, vivid characters, and compelling plot with a nice twist at the end.

“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai
This story serves as a scaffold for a chronological recital of hardware, especially weapons, employed during a space alien attack, with a predictable plot and characters who exist mostly to activate said hardware. An O’Reilly® reference text, despite other similarities, offers more human emotion and surprises.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
The setting turns out to be one big, scary metaphor about current social problems – one of the fine things that science fiction can do best. The style feels a bit odd compared to standard Western storytelling (an observation, not a complaint). In the course of the narration, the idea of folding an entire city, and the reason behind it, becomes believable. Hao’s story enriches this year’s Hugo ballot.

“Obits” by Stephen King
A burgeoning journalist discovers he has a unique skill with obituaries. Compared to Brooke Bolander’s story, “Obits” feels tame and bland, and the protagonist is a feckless coward, so the story is shallow: the potential consequences of the skill are avoided rather than explored.

“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke
The big surprise is obvious rather early on. One thing this story – and others like it – never explains is why aliens desperately want to conquer Earth’s solar system. What do we have that’s not easily available everywhere else without a fight? The writing is competent, but that isn’t enough to rank this story among the year’s best.


“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris
This is neither fiction nor a story – and an obvious insult unworthy of nomination or your time – but at least it is blessedly short.

“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon
This story goes on too long for its content even though it’s flash fiction: a one-joke monologue from an alien invader who doesn’t understand human biology and is incapable of learning.

“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer
It’s hard to be funny, but this story about a well-meaning, frustrated AI might make you laugh out loud. The story also examines human foibles and dissects our current obsessions, which is a noble use for science fiction. It was my choice for the Nebulas. If you haven’t read it, please do: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kritzer_01_15/

“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao
Part of the There Will Be War Volume X anthology, like some other nominees, this story’s war begins as the Chinese – the unredeemably eeeviiilll Chinese – without a second thought prepare to engage in the largest genocide in history. A tale told artlessly and unconvincingly.

“Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle
Not Hugo material, simply a gay erotic story with science fiction trappings. Lots of typos, too. This was nominated to demean the awards, but Mr. Tingle has handled the situation constructively, with grace and wit, and he deserves respect for that. And the story is not the worst of the nominees, not at all.

— Sue Burke