Voting for this year’s Hugo’s have closed and on the 18th August we’ll know this year’s winners. Or the 19th if you’re in my time zone. I have binged the short stories and novelettes recently, and decided now would be a good time to finally talk about the shorter fiction.
First I’m going to touch on the novellas briefly. Very briefly, since I have talked about all of them at some point before. I just want to give Tor.com a really big shoutout. They publish a lot of good fiction, and they are good at getting novellas the attention they deserve. Five out of this year’s six nominees are from Tor.com, and already I’ve found some great 2019 Tor.com novellas.
Whilst I was familiar with most of the novellas on this year’s ballot, I was less familiar with the short stories and novelettes. But I’ve caught up now, and I am so glad I did, because there are some real gems on the list.
Most of the short story nominees this year were new to me. The only one I’d read previously was Brooke Bolander’s The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince who was Made of Meat, which was published in Uncanny’s Dinosaur issue. It is an absolutely ridiculous fairy tale and I loved it. The other nominees were more serious, and all very enjoyable in different ways.
The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington made me fall even more in love with P. Djѐlí Clark’s writing. I’ve previously read The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and I loved the blend of fantasy and alternate history in these novellas. The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington contains the same magical and historical elements, told through nine little stories about nine slaves. It’s brutal, confronting, and with only a few words we see a rich, magical world. The other big stand out for me was STET by Sarah Gailey. I’m not sure I’m that captured by the actual story, but I was fascinated by the experimental story structure. The ‘story’ seems to be a paragraph on programming AI in self-driving cars, but the footnotes and margins tell a story about what happens when the cars make wrong decisions. Both STET and The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington were published in Fireside Magazine.
The other nominees were The Court Magician, by Sarah Pinsker, an unsettling tale of a magician who makes great sacrifices to fix the Regent’s problems (Lightspeed). A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E, which tells a tale of a magic librarian longing to help the children who browse her shelves (Apex Magazine). And finally, The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T. Kingfisher, that introduces us to a group of fey men pinning away for a woman who wouldn’t play along with their bullshit (Uncanny Magazine).
I was also unfamiliar with most of this year’s novelettes. The only one I’d previously read was Daryl Gregory’s Nine Last Days on Planet Earth (another Tor.com treasure) which I remember enjoying a lot when I read it, but now I’ve found I’ve forgotten a lot of the story. I know it follows the life of LT as he grows, starts a family, has grandchildren, and learns about the strange plant-based alien invasion that began when he was young. LT’s life story is very moving, and it’s nice to see such a family oriented sage featuring a same-sex couple.
Zen Cho’s If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again (From Barns and Nobel’s Fantasy Blog) also features a heart-warming queer relationship, but this time fused with Korean mythology. Byam is an imugi, or proto-dragon, who has been trying for thousands of years to become a dragon. After a human interrupts one of these attempts, Byam goes to confront the troublesome human, but things don’t go as expected.
Naomi Kritzer’s The Thing About Ghost Stories is a sweet story about a mother and daughter and a lost ring. Except the mother is dead after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and her daughter, whilst writing a book on ghost stories, is sceptical about the existence of ghosts. Very sweet and moving story published in Uncanny magazine.
Simone Heller’s When We Were Starless (Clarkesworld) tells a moving story set in a post-apocalyptic Earth inhabited by tribes of lizards struggling to survive. Mink, the shaman/scout of the tribe, is tasked with cleansing the era of holographic ‘ghosts’. After one disaster, she meets a ghost that offers her and her tribe a glimpse into a wider universe beyond their wildest dreams. Loved the worldbuilding, and I really liked Mink as a character.
Another Tor.com novelette that I loved was Tina Conolly’s The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections. Here we have a tyrannical duke who has taken over the kingdom, and Saffron is forced to taste-test magical sweets that invoke memories. The pastry chef who makes these temporal confections is Saffron’s husband Danny, who has been imprisoned by the Duke and can only communicate with Saffron via the memories he makes the sweets invoke. The story itself follows one of the Duke’s banquets, with the confections Saffron eats providing both the backstory and advancing the plot. This is such a unique idea that worked well, gave us a chance to get to know Saffron very well, and pulled off a rather clever ending.
Finally, we have Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing, from Tor.com. Here we have two events from American history – the execution of Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls scandal – that Bolander has merged together in a new alternate history. Bolander has also given the elephants in her story a history, culture and lore that I found fascinating. There is a lot packed into this novelette, and after reading Only Harmless Great Thing and Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, I’ve decided that I have to stay on the lookout for more Brook Bolander stories.
I didn’t encounter a single story amongst these nominees that I disliked. Once again, I’m glad I chose this award to follow, because the nominees have once again provided me with a wonderful reading list. Now with the rest of 2019 I have to catch up with this year’s short fiction. Who knows what other gems I am missing out on.