Hugos 2019 – Short Stories

This year’s short stories nominations for Hugos were a disappointment for me.  I’ve read three of the six nominated stories last year, and my records indicate that none of the three were in my top twenty short stories.  What’s more, I can’t, even by the greatest stretch of imagination, call two of the six stories science fiction or fantasy.  The top story on the list is good: had I read it before, I would have probably nominated it.  It also so happens that it’s the only science fiction story of the lot.  So let’s take a closer look at the short stories nominated for the 2019 Hugo Awards, ranked from best to worst, according to my tastes.

STET (Sarah Gailey)

This is a heart-wrenching story of a grieving mother, as she slowly falls apart.  Her daughter had been killed by an autonomous car, which had to make a decision to kill the child or an endangered bird.  The mother is trying to learn who was responsible for the decision making software, and all the while she’s getting more and more angry at the entire world.  The story has an unusual format: it consists of a single paragraph on autonomous cars, with a large number of footnotes.  The reader pieces the story together in the footnotes, which are further heavily annotated by the editor and the mother.  “STET” refers to a term used by authors overruling the editors’ changes to their text.  Here, the mother is rejecting her editor’s attempts to keep her on track for a neutral scientific article.  I found the story plausible and scary, oozing strong emotions from the mother and the editor.  STET will stay with me for a long time.


A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies (Alix E. Harrow)

First of a number of short stories with impossibly long names, the author tells a tale of a boy who seeks escape from his troubles in a library.  In this universe, many librarians are witches, who know what their customers really need, but will not give them the enchanted books, even though they may be needed to solve their problems.  The narrator, one of such witches, decides to break the rules and helps the boy to literally escape this world.  When I first read this story, I dismissed it completely, not even listing it in my rankings of over 40 short stories.  Upon a more careful re-read I found its qualities in the nostalgia it evoked in me, when I spent hours in the local library to find another book to read.  In this story, the librarian knows exactly what her customers need and makes sure they spot the right book.  I wish I had such a librarian.  The story is somewhat inventive, but I prefer STET by a very wide margin.


The Tale of Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat (Brooke Bolander)

This is an infantile fairy tale, and it’s due to its childish quality that I found it endearing.  It tells the story of three raptors: fast, carnivorous dinosaurs.  Not the Jurassic Park variety, but more realistic, with feathers.  They come across a prince so dumb that he can’t even think of running away.  This confuses them so much that one of the raptors agrees to captivity at the royal court.  There, the prince’s wife turns out to be a witch who speaks the raptor language, rescues the raptor, and together with the raptor’s sisters eat the prince and escape to the forest.  In the past, I’ve written a few fairy tales.  There is much leeway in this kind of stories, but they should still follow some internal logic.  This story had none.  That placed it on the level of such children tales as The Tiger Who Came to Tea.  These stories are endearing, especially to a father of a young boy who reads them to his son.  I may read this story to him when he is three and still too young to question the leaps of logic.


The Court Magician (Sarah Pinsker)

I like Ms. Pinsker’s prose.  It is always very polished, and often very inventive.  In this case, however, the prose is not enough as I find no point to this story.  It tells the tale of a boy who likes magic tricks so much that he becomes obsessed with them.  As he learns more difficult tricks, he catches the eye of the narrator who is on a lookout for very specific people who could serve the local prince.  It turns out that there is real magic.  It can be invoked by uttering a certain word, but the cost of each spell is usually a body part or the magician’s most loved possession.  The prince doesn’t require the magic often, only to remove inconveniences from his life.  It takes a number of years until the magician loses his fingers, then arms, eyes and more.  He leaves the palace a cripple and joins a crowd of his predecessors.  When I read and reread the story, I had an overwhelming feeling that I was reading a new take on The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin.  In this Hugo award winning short story, a little child is being kept in utter misery, and that somehow allows the rest of the city to prosper.  Here, the court magician is being miserable, and through his magic making everyone else’s life miserable, so that a single person would prosper.  This was Omelas turned on its head.  And because I compared the two short stories in my head, I realized that Ms. Pinsker’s polished prose is still not good enough to be compared to Ms. Le Guin’s work.  In addition, I found the story inconsequential.  The author obscured all relevant characters so much that I just couldn’t care about them.  The magician ultimately did everything of his own free will, so I couldn’t feel sorry for him.  I didn’t care about the prince, nor the identity of the narrator who seems to be the only one to possess real magic and actually manipulate everyone.


The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington (P. Djeli Clark)

This short story, which won the 2019 Nebula Award, posits that George Washington had nine false teeth, extracted from African slaves.  Each of these people had a weird, often mystical background, and this has magically infused the tooth, so that when George Washington wore it he could feel its effects.  I’ve read this story twice, and I just can’t understand how is could be considered close enough to science fiction or fantasy to be even considered for a Hugo or Nebula Award.  A few of the back stories evoke the Hugo-winning American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and one story in particular seems to be heavily influenced by the Hugo-nominated Dresden Files, and the Hugo-nominated but withdrawn Monster Hunter.  Unfortunately, these works influence such a minor part of the story that I don’t see how they could help securing a nomination, much less a win.  I also didn’t appreciate the writing style.  I found it dry, almost academic, lacking any protagonists.


The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society (T. Kingfisher)

In this story, a group of fairies and other mythological beings reminisce on how they met a sexually insatiable human woman, and how they later left her.  That’s it.  There’s a subtle irony in the fairies pining after a human and not the other way round, but even that doesn’t elevate the narrative to anything more than a random conversation you can overhear in a pub.  I understand that the author managed to do much more than me: actually publish a story and have it nominated for a Hugo Award, but as a reader I found it so mundane that I won’t remember it a week from now.


Last year, I’ve only read the nominated short stories.  This year I participated in the nomination process and read a large number of works.  This made me realize that five of the six nominations are a far cry from what I consider good science fiction literature.  Here are my original nominations, starting with my favorite.


Beek by Tom Ligon

Most of the story is a simple conversation between a beekeeper and the President of the United States.  The POTUS seems genuinely interested in the life, biology and social structure of bees, and the beekeeper is happy to oblige.  I actually found the conversation very enlightening.  Then the author hits us with a twist that is barely signaled a paragraph ahead of time, and suddenly I’m furiously thinking about the entire world of this story and how the narrative might continue.  This is what I consider a good story: something that makes me think about the wider picture, only hinted at in the text.


Music for the Underworld by E. Lily Yu

This is a truly terrifying vision of a future dystopia, where people can be randomly arrested and taken away to secret facilities.  What really scared me, though, was the A.I. that could mimic the missing persons, so that their friends and family could still communicate with the artificial persona via smart phones.  This reminded me strongly on a current meme called “NPC”, where people pretend to be others with a strongly defined social and political agenda, and spam social media with these fake but very convincing facsimiles.  This is ultimately a tragic story, but it was the worldbuilding that kept me awake for a night.


The Camel’s Tail by Tom Jolly

Imagine a world where going to space is very cheap, nearly everything on Earth has been discovered, and intellectual property lawyers rule the world.  You’ll get a setting where small companies send rockets into space to try to discover new compounds or conduct experiments, and quickly try to patent anything new, in hopes that a patent would prove to be commercially exploitable.  Through sheer luck, the protagonist happens to be in the right place when an alien probe blasts through the solar system, and captures a small sample of the alien material.  The family-run business he works for manages to secure invaluable patents from the sample and becomes incredibly wealthy.  There is very little drama here, but the rich worldbuilding screams for the story to be extended to a full novel.


An Incident on Ishtar by Brian Trent

This short story evokes the feeling of 1950’s pulp science fiction. It takes place on a floating city on Venus, which loses one of its modules in a storm.  The protagonist manages to find it, and in the process not only recovers it but also prevents an interplanetary war.  The ending hints at the possibility that the story would be extended in the future.  While reading it, I could easily envision the golden era science fiction book covers or movies, and got instantly nostalgic.


And Yet by A. T. Greenblatt

This is a haunted house story with a refreshing perspective.  A researcher, who was traumatized by his experience in a haunted, abandoned house as a child, realizes that such houses serve as portals into parallel universes.  He enters the same house as he did twenty years prior, in order to find a universe where he could save his little brother from a deadly accident.  He manages to do that, and the story ends on a cliffhanger on whether he stays with him in the past or tries to take him to his present time.  I found the concept of the story very novel.  The writing and the premise also made me quite emotional.  This is yet another story I’ll be thinking about for a long time.


As my reviews and the list of my nominations show, my taste in science fiction is very different from the current mainstream.  I think I favor more traditional science fiction, especially when it fills me with emotions and questions about the wider setting.  As a result, I’ve had a very difficult time voting for more than one short story this year.  I still hope, though, that the pendulum will eventually swing back to works comparable to classic sci-fi.

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