I’ve been reading the short fiction nominees, and here are my thoughts on the novelette category. Let me add that last year, none of my choices in the three short fiction categories won, and the year before that I was one for three. That shows what I know. Or it shows how high the quality is.
“Dirty Old Town,” Richard Bowes (Fantasy & Science Fiction 5-6/17)
Boys who were rivals in grade school become close in adulthood and retain a magical bond. That’s it — not much plot to this rambling story. Yet it remains captivating to the end as the two men continue to struggle with mutual antagonism and affection while their bonds deepen.
“Weaponized Math,” Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
This is military SF, a noble subgenre. A sniper is on assignment, protecting a meeting in a war zone, and an attack comes. The site of the fighting and the reasons behind it aren’t clear, but the professional determination of the United Federation Marines shines through. The story’s tension never flags. Outside of some highly technological weapons, however, there’s not much science fiction, but this is from a larger series that I know provides more SFnal context.
“Wind Will Rove,” Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
On a multi-generational ship, the older generations cling to what they recall from Earth or have learned about it. For the narrator, this means music. Younger generations grow rebellious, eager to create their own music and arts or to forget Earth’s culture and history altogether. These children know they will grow up in a static society on a voyage that seemed romantic to their elders but is confining to them. Despite the skill in storytelling, the focus seemed a bit off to me. I learned a lot about the narrator’s family and music, especially one particular song, but not as much about what is going on in the ship. The need to change and adapt became symbolized by that song, but the story got stuck on the symbol rather than a resolution of the on-board problems.
“A Series of Steaks,” Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
This was one of five finalists for Clarkesworld magazine’s Reader’s Poll. My story “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” was also a finalist. As soon as I read “A Series of Steaks,” I knew I was likely to lose. A woman in China agrees to make counterfeit beefsteaks for a client, then the deal starts to go sour. Three things impressed me: the quiet desperation of the main character, the philosophical musings about the art of forgeries, and the thoroughly satisfying ending.
“A Human Stain,” Kelly Robson (Tor.com 1/4/17)
A woman takes a job as a governess of sorts at an isolated old manor house/castle, where the staff is strange, her young charge is stranger, and the man who employed her flees from the place on a business errand as fast as he can. I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but you can easily guess that there’s a horrible secret, and things are going to end badly. I felt like I’d read this horror story before.
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)
A man in the process of transitioning from female to male gets turned into a vampire. The difficulties of his human-to-vampire transition become more complex due to his gender transition, and he struggles. There are hot sex scenes. Beyond the transitional complication, though, there’s not much of a new take on vampirism in this story.
Every story here is expertly written and worth reading, and each one got on the ballot for good reason. Still, as you can tell from my comments, I think some have flaws in their development or originality. For that reason, I’m voting for “A Series of Steaks” because I think it pushes the genre into the newest territory. Second on my list is “Dirty Old Town” for its deep characterization. After that, I’m neutral — but to reiterate, if any of these stories appeals to you for some reason, don’t hesitate to read it.
— Sue Burke