I find many short stories more entertaining than novels. In my opinion, some of the best works of well-known authors, from Clarke, Bradbury and Asimov, to Brin and Gaiman, come in the form of short stories. Naturally, I was curious about this year’s crop of Hugo nominations in this category.
Short stories come in all kinds of shapes and forms. Most commonly, though, I’ve read stories that adhere one of three structures. The most common trope I encountered is a short story with a twist ending. This kind of story often serves as a set-up for a joke, or an anecdote that attempts to impart a certain lecture on the reader. Second, there are descriptive stories. They are more focused on the worldbuilding, and as they try to compact it, characters and their development plays a diminished role. And finally, we have my favorite kind of a short story: an episode set in a larger universe, which is not trying to describe the details of the world, or teach a lesson, and instead offers me the chance to exercise my imagination. The following stories all fell into one of the three categories. I ranked them in my order of preference, from the one I liked the most. Needless to say, spoilers will follow.
Sun, Moon, Dust (Ursula Vernon)
A farmer inherits a magic sword from his grandmother. The sword contains the spirits of three warriors, who are to teach him how to use the sword to defeat his enemies, but he’s only interested in planting his potatoes. This is a pure fantasy story, which I found very endearing and ended up thinking about for a long time after finishing it. It does not offer a deep insight, but it feels as if it was set in a vastly detailed world. The grandmother who dies in the first few paragraphs, has a very detailed background story, which is barely hinted at here. Each spirit has his own personality and back story, and the entire setting hints at different empires or kingdoms. I ended up building the entire world in my head and filling it with my own stories. That world turned into a Sword of Truth derivative, but I was entertained for much longer than it took to read the story.
Carnival Nine (Caroline M. Yoachim)
This story falls squarely into the worldbuilding category. It describes the world of wind-up toys, which live around a house, or travel on a circuit along rooms, as part of railway-based circuses. The story describes the life of a character, from her childhood, through “motherhood” where she and her partner build their child, to death. This piece is extremely well polished and fun to read, and at times it can get quite emotional. However, I could read something similar (albeit more grounded in reality) in an old National Geographic about a recently discovered tribe. Carnival Nine feels more like a clinical description of the life cycle of a species than a personal story. The questions it posed (who was the Maker and how to explain his actions) didn’t offer enough clues to make me think about them after I finished reading.
Fandom for Robots (Vina Jie-Min Prasad)
The only self-conscious robot discovers fan fiction and pairs with another obsessed fan over the internet to create his own stories. The two seem to be complementing each other very well: the robot has the technical knowledge and understands how real robots (the main protagonist in their fiction) behave. His partner adds enough emotion for the rest of the stories. This story was fun to read, but I feel that it will age very poorly, as it employs the current transcendent lingo of the Internet message boards. In addition, the story led quite nowhere. It was fairly self-contained and would fall into the larger universe category, but that universe was so like our current one that I didn’t spend any time thinking about it.
The Martian Obelisk (Linda Nagata)
The world is gradually dying due to ecological catastrophes, and two people decided to build a monument on Mars, which would outlast humanity. However, they are interrupted by a small family in distress, and abandon the project to allow the family to live out their lives on Mars. The story hints at a larger universe: the changed and always changing Earth, the failed colonization of Mars, and large companies owning interplanetary assets. The monument had been built from materials and with machines deposited at one such failed colony, which was sold at a fire sale to one of the protagonists. The family came from a different colony that had also failed. I’ve had several issues with this story. First, I got spoiled by the computer game A New Beginning, which describes Earth destroyed by ecological calamities. This created a setting for me, which the author couldn’t alter anymore. Second, the subject of the story – monument to humanity, with an ecological undertone – must be necessarily compared to other works, such as Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson, and here The Martian Obelisk falls short. And finally, the ending left me unsatisfied, without a closure. The project had been abandoned, in a very futile gesture. The protagonist never satisfactory explains to his partner, or to the reader, her reasons for this.
Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand (Fran Wilde)
This story is just weird. I believe it describes the journey of a bug, swallowed by a cat, traveling through the cat’s digestive system, until it’s expelled at the other end. But I may be completely wrong in this, and it may really be about a weird and freaky museum tour. I like my version better, though. Still, the entire story, further obfuscated by the less common writing style where the reader is addressed by the narrator throughout the journey and put into the position of the protagonist, was so incomprehensible to me that I couldn’t even decide whether this belonged to science fiction or fantasy, or whether I was just reading an allegory (not that there’s anything wrong with those).
Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™ (Rebecca Roanhorse)
A tour company offers a virtual-reality chat service where the company representative can change the environment and his appearance at will. This particular company caters to people who want to experience the Wild West from a Native American viewpoint. The main character is one such representative, who befriends one of his customers, sees his life falling apart and at the end, in a big reveal, finds that he’d been the customer all along. Among the nominees, this was the only story that employed the twist ending trope. The twist ending can be done to great effect, but this is not the case here. The author seems to have been trying to emulate Phillip K. Dick’s altered consciousness ideas, but slaps the reader in the face with the final reveal so hard that I couldn’t feel other than insulted. Which is sad, because the author set up the last line halfway through the story, and it might have worked as a memorable ending, if she didn’t spell out the twist to the protagonist and reader a few short paragraphs before the end.
There you have it. My personal takes from the stories and my rankings. My personal opinions, which aspire to be nothing more, as I wouldn’t be participating in this year’s Worldcon. I have been a bit out of touch recently, so I didn’t submit my own nominations for the awards, and can’t tell whether there have been better stories available.