Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

Hugo-nominated short fiction: my thoughts

Voting for the Hugo Awards ends on Saturday, July 15, and the winners will be announced at Worldcon 75 on August 11 in Helsinki. Here are my thoughts on the short fiction finalists. Half of the 18 stories were also nominated for Nebulas, which I wrote about in earlier posts. On the whole, I think the nominees present a good overview of short speculative fiction, despite a couple of works that came from over the horizon and aren’t really appropriate for the Hugos.


“This Census-Taker,” by China Miéville
A young boy living in an eerie post-war small town believes his father killed his mother, but he can’t prove it. Miéville is one of my favorite writers, but I don’t think this is his best work. While the writing is beautiful at the sentence level, the plot moves slowly and ends with loose ends all over the place. Still, there are moments of slow, pure terror to savor.

“Penrick and the Shaman,” by Lois McMaster Bujold
If you like Bujold, you’ll like this. Penrick, a demon-ridden young man (this is nicer than it sounds), must help solve a murder, and things take a strange turn. It’s set in a medieval-like world of five gods who periodically meddle in human affairs. Much of the story explores the world and the people in it, and if it’s not always fascinating, it’s always fun. As you would expect from Bujold, it all unfolds masterfully. That said, I’m not a big Bujold fan, although many people are, and I can’t fault them. This story is just too gentle for my tastes, but I don’t regret the time I spent reading it. While it won’t rank high on my ballot, I will vote for it and won’t mind if it wins.

In fact, all the novella nominees deserve to win. Three were also on the Nebula ballot: “The Ballad of Black Tom,” by Victor LaValle; “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe,” by Kij Johnson; “Every Heart a Doorway,” by Seanan McGuire (which won the Nebula); and “A Taste of Honey,” by Kai Ashante Wilson, which won the Nebula. You can read my comments on those three here.


“Touring With the Alien,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
A newly arrived alien takes a secret bus tour of the United States. During the trip, the driver sorts through her own problems as she bonds with the alien’s caretaker and eventually the alien itself. It’s a quiet story exploring how people at the fringes of alien contact get caught up in the intrigue, and it reaches a satisfying conclusion, but perhaps not as big a twist as the author had hoped.

“Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex,” by Stix Hiscock
This is yet another Sad Puppy nomination meant to dishonor the Hugo Awards, although it reflects more on the Puppies than it does of the author. An alien with three boobs falls for a customer who is sort of a half-human half-Tyrannosaurus rex. They both have exceptionally long tongues and enjoy each other thoroughly. I won’t be voting for it, but it’s not the worst thing on the Hugo ballot.

“The Tomato Thief,” by Ursula Vernon
An old lady living in the desert catches the shapeshifter stealing her tomatoes and decides to help free the unfortunate young woman from a malevolent spirit. And that’s what happens, pretty much as you might expect. The worldbuilding is impressive, but I don’t think the story ever rises above a harmless young adult tale. By “harmless” I mean that it will not make the reader feel any doubt or unease about the world, fear for the safety or integrity of the protagonist, or wonder whether good and evil might be complicated and complex concepts.

“The Art of Space Travel,” by Nina Allan
A woman who works at a hotel copes with a very ill mother who has never said who her father is. Astronauts are coming to the hotel before a mission to Mars, and the woman starts to think about the mystery of her father again. Essentially, this is literary fiction from the future, a fine story that explores human relationships and how both successful and failed space exploration affects the people who never set foot in a rocket.

Other stories that had also been nominated for the Nebula are: “The Jewel and Her Lapidary,” by Fran Wilde, which I didn’t like; and “You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay Here,” by Alyssa Wong, which I did. I commented further on them here.

Short story

“The City Born Great,” by N. K. Jemisin
This surreal story tells about a city that must be born – New York City, to be precise. In this tale of magic, a young man is recruited to sing it through the birthing process. But the city has enemies. While the telling gets heavy-handed in its treatment of homelessness, race, sexual orientation, and the police, the story’s energy keeps building to the end.

“That Game We Played During The War,” by Carrie Vaughn
Two former enemies had bonded over chess. Now the long, exhausting war has given way to uneasy peace. But the people on one side of the war are telepaths, and the other is not. How can they even play a game together? The way they do that shows how peace will be possible. The story stands out for its careful characterizations and its thought into what telepathy does to telepaths and the people whose thoughts they read.

“An Unimaginable Light,” by John C. Wright
In this story, a robot and human have a debate: “I do not wish my thoughts to house any inappropriate content!” “Human emotion and passion must accord with reality; the self deceptions you claim are innate to all thought and must be eschewed. We robots are meant to serve man, not to destroy them.” (Sic.) This kind of debate continues for many pages. Apparently, it’s what the Sad Puppies consider fine writing. They soil themselves with dishonor yet again. The Stix Hiscock story is genuinely better in many respects.

Other short stories on the ballot are “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” by Alyssa Wong, which I love but don’t think is speculative fiction; “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” by Brooke Bolander, which I love and think definitely falls within the genre; and “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar, which I think tries too hard to set old fairy tales right – but it won the Nebula. I say a little more about these stories here.

-- Sue Burke


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