Someone (naming no names) was pestering me to review this year’s Hugo short story nominations before the (inevitable?) winner is selected (at the end of this month), but I kept distracting myself from it, even after someone else (naming Sue Burke) did a rather good job of reviewing them too (only with somewhat divergent opinions of the contenders), so now (to cut a potentially even longer sentence short) I’m finally getting around to doing it too.
Conveniently, all six finalists this year were published in forums that are free to read online, so I’ve included links — even for the ones I didn’t like! For my take on the so-called top six stories of 2017, I’m including a 25-word-or-less summary of each before I dive in with my blunt opinions…
- Carnival Nine, by Caroline M. Yoachim (in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
25 Words: In a run-down culture of clockwork hearts with only so many wind-ups to them, one citizen leads a life of kindness, hardship and small rewards.
My Reaction: I thought this was quite nice, and there’s certainly a style to the writing, evoking a kind of Depression-era dust bowl world. However, the metaphor struck me as a bit laboured. Maybe it’s more suited to an animated treatment, ideally a wordless short, because once the central concept is established the rest is really just a life-lived story… a decent one, sure, but that hook gets hammered so often it ends up straight as a nail.
- Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand, by Fran Wilde (in Uncanny, September 2017)
25 Words: A confiding narrator welcomes us into a hall of more-than-Gothic wonders, leading us ever deeper amidst the grotesque — but their intent is insidious…
My Reaction: “Not very special” is my nutshell review, though I suspect with this story, perhaps more than any of the others, the tastes of the reader will loom large. The very first line smacked of making too much effort to stand out (I’m not a fan of the “first line must hook” philosophy of publishing, but that’s just me (and all my stories, hence my lack of global renown, sob)) while the predatory/torture element felt poorly justified, much as I like a good horror tale. The writing is good, but the results didn’t do it for me at all.
- Fandom for Robots, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (in Uncanny, September/October 2017)
25 Words: A clunky artificial intelligence contracts the Anime bug, but when it delves into the realms of fan-fiction it learns about self-expression and… love [Read Error].
My Reaction: I liked this a lot, but (for those not deeply into the scifi scene) it arrives fairly hot on the heels of Cat Pictures Please, another AI-narrative-for-the-warm-and-fuzzy-win short story which kicked all kinds of ass last time around, so there’s at least the possibility of someone crying “Derivative!” Well I liked CPP, but I think FfR is better: the protagonist’s flat, distant voice excellently conveys what it (“he” in the story) is, but also grounds our knowing perspective onto the not-quite-emotions at play. Very good.
- The Martian Obelisk, by Linda Nagata (in Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
25 Words: An ageing architect on a materially exhausted, dying earth strives to remotely finish her greatest work, a forlorn monument on Mars–but an impediment approaches…
My Reaction: This one generated a gigantic eye-roll from me. Before reading I jokingly said to my Nameless Provocateur, “This had better not be The Martian with an obelisk in it, ha ha ha” — turns out, that’s exactly what it was. Well, maybe not exactly, but… (9_9)
- Sun, Moon, Dust, by Ursula Vernon, (in Uncanny, May/June 2017)
25 Words: A quiet, salt-of-the-earth farmer discovers he has been bequeathed a weapon of great power, along with the very spirited expectations to put it to use.
My Reaction: There is surely a label for stories like this, anti-fantasy or meta-fantasy or something like that — the point being, that within what is objectively a Fantasy World we are given a story that is resolutely Not Having Any Of All That, Thank You Very Much. In this case (and what is probably the sub-genre’s key trope), a traditional Call To Adventure is stoically turned down, and the danger is that it will be With Hilarious (or at least Twee) Consequences. However, I found it done rather well here: the story was mildly amusing, and I particularly appreciated how a theme of sexual orientation was passingly introduced — sometimes Important Social Issues In Fiction feel like intrusive exercises in box-ticking, but not this time. A fun story.
- Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™, by Rebecca Roanhorse (in Apex, August 2017)
25 Words: An unremarkable Native American employee of a Wild West-themed Virtual Holiday service finds himself being marginalised by a tall, dusky, dark-haired co-worker…
My Reaction: And the big gun is drawn last: WtyAIE™ has been lauded up and down the internet, and not without reason, but I have to admit that my first impression was that it may have been dressed by the Emperor’s New Stylist. So I’m going to read it again now…
…and I’m afraid I still feel that way, basically. It is written in the 2nd Person (You do this, you do that) instead of the more conventional 1st (I) or 3rd (She/He/They/etc), and I find this very hard to enjoy unless there’s a special reason for it. And here there is a reason, I guess — the story is about the usurpation of Native American identity, and the reader is effectively thrust into the persona of a Native American, so you see — but I don’t find its use a necessity. It’s literary cleverness in a skilfully written piece, but I wasn’t satisfied.
Wrapping things up, then, let’s ask and answer the question:
Which story do I think–or at least hope–will be the winner?
My kingly pronouncement would be to give the nod to Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s Fandom for Robots, but I fear that the proximity of Cat Pictures Please will bias the disgusting democratic process which the Hugos so foolishly cleave to. Of the others my favourite is Sun, Moon, Dust, but I don’t think it’s strong enough to win (comedies never do, do they?).
Therefore, as a stylish and inventive sf tale with a strong social message, something that never hurts come award season, my prediction is that Roanhorse’s Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™ will take the Oscar for short story. Not my favourite, but a justifiable winner.
But don’t take my word for it: you’ve got the links, lets me know what you thinks!