The novelettes category for the 2019 Hugo Awards is amazingly well stacked. It will be the only one where I’d rank all the nominated works, and with a good reason: I liked all stories. Many of these works were deeply emotional, others provided me with sleepless evenings as I was thinking about their implications. I wouldn’t be unhappy to see any of the stories win the award, but the three I’ll be rooting for are When We Were Starless, The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections and The Thing about Ghost Stories. Here are my reviews of all the novelettes, ranked by my order of preference.
When We Were Starless (Simone Heller)
This is an absolutely wonderful post-apocalyptic story I immediately fell in love with. A tribe of nomads is traveling across poisonous and dangerous deserts, visiting ruins of a long gone civilization and scavenging them. This tribe has just run away from an especially dangerous nest of acidic insects, arrived at a large ruined complex, and broke camp to tend to their wounded. They know they can’t stay long, as extended exposure to the weather and their dwindling supplies will mean certain death.
A tribal scout serves a secondary purpose: he destroys ghosts. Ghosts are said to inhabit many old ruins, and getting exposed to them brings madness. Such a ghost is also in the ruins the tribe is about to scavenge, and the scout is brought forth to cleanse them. Here the story takes a turn, revealing that the people of the tribe are not really human, and the ghosts are still functioning electrical equipment from the long gone human era. The madness is simply an awakened curiosity and ambition. The tribe members are down to earth people, who are extremely suspicious of any new ideas, which is why it takes an external impulse to become curious. The scout meets a human hologram in the ruins, and the reader slowly realizes that the building houses a museum. The hologram, powered by artificial intelligence, is the museum guide. Naturally, he makes the scout curious, and through several critical moments in the story infects the entire tribe with curiosity. The tribe is now well on their way to actually improve and develop further.
The story is very well written. It is perfectly paced, and all developments feel natural. The author reveals just enough for the reader to fill any gaps, and does so slowly enough to twist people’s expectations. For example, it took me quite a while to realize the people in this story weren’t people, and I had to adjust how I imagined the world. I detected two similarities to other works: the hostility towards curiosity had the feeling of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, and the museum guide seemed to be taken straight out of a similar character in Guy Pearce’s movie version of the Time Machine, played by Orlando Jones. Neither harmed the story at all, though; they gave me something familiar to hold onto in this story.
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections (Tina Connolly)
A country is ruled by an evil regent. He is cruel by nature and not only stifles all potential opposition and revolt, but has people tortured, imprisoned or killed on a whim. He is also cruel to his noblemen. His banquet invitations are not to be ignored or refused, even though everyone knows that even the food will be used to torment them. The food is a type of pastry developed by a genius baker. The pastries, when eaten, can make people relive pleasant memories, but also sad or even painful ones. The regent uses the baker’s wife as a hostage and food taster, so that the baker does not get any ideas about poisoning him. However, as the wife eats the pastries, she begins to suspect that her husband managed to find a way to eliminate the regent without hurting her.
Normally, I’m careful around fantasy stories nominated for the Hugos. Even though the award is now open to fantasy as well, I’m still a science fiction creature. Here, however, I have to make an exception. The story is superbly written. In the span of two dozen pages, I managed to develop strong feelings about all the major characters, and could not stop reading until I reached the conclusion. It also helps that the writing is very easy flowing, and there’s hardly an unnecessary sentence.
In a sense, this is another take on Sarah Pinsker’s Court Magician, nominated for the best Hugo for a short story. It is also about a nobleman who makes people disappear, but instead of focusing on how they disappear, the story is full of tales of people who disappeared and the loved ones they left behind. Both texts have very unique takes on magic, but I found the pastries to be refreshingly new. In my opinion, this is a very strong contender for the Hugo award.
The Thing about Ghost Stories (Naomi Kritzer)
This is a story about an academic who collects ghost stories. She is a folklorist, and as such is more interested in the taxonomy of ghost stories in a given region. She travels around the country and talks to people about their ghost encounters, collects these stories and assembles them in a book.
This, however, is just a backdrop to the story of a mother-daughter relationship. The protagonist is the daughter, and she spends several years taking care of her mother as her previously keen mind deteriorates due to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a story about the daughter’s grief after her mother dies; a special, slow-burning grief of an empty house, mixed with the relief that her mother doesn’t suffer anymore. Ultimately, however, this novelette becomes a story about a ghost encounter experienced by the detached academic, who categorizes (and skeptically dismisses) ghost stories of others.
I could find common emotional ground here. A long time ago, I worked in a hospice with a person with Alzheimer’s. He usually didn’t remember his wife’s name, and when we were talking, he would repeat the conversation on a loop every half an hour. But he would beat me in Scrabble every single time. Here, the mother is also losing her mind, but is able to edit the protagonist’s book almost to the end. The author seems to have written from experience. This created an emotional bond between me and the characters of this story, and the final scene, the protagonist’s own ghost story, sent goose bumps up my arms. Ghost Stories is also very tightly written and flows well, and I believe it could easily win the award.
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again (Zen Cho)
A mystical worm studies diligently for a thousand years to become a dragon. It feels he’s more than ready when the time comes, to ascend to the heavens. Unfortunately, it pissed off a few humans, and they see him as he is: a worm, trying to fly. Its self-confidence shatters and it crashes down to earth. It studies for another thousand of years. By the time it is ready, there’s no avoiding the humans, so it tries to cheat a little. It creates a cloud that looks like a dragon and tries to hide inside. It is spotted, is recognized for a worm, and crashes again. Fast-forward for another thousand years. Humans have evolved technologically, and when it tries to ascend again, a young woman snaps its picture and calls it a worm on Instagram. It has had enough. It takes a few years to learn how to morph into human shape, does so and seeks out the woman to eat her. Instead, they get to talk and slowly develop a lifelong relationship.
This is a very touching story. It starts as funny, in an unusual way (at least for me, not knowing anything about the mythology surrounding these entities), but morphs into a story of love and family. The worm is essentially immortal, but has to learn to adjust to the short lifespan of its partner. When it finally understands that no learning is sufficient to ascend without experiencing love and companionship, it faces a dilemma: to finally ascend as a dragon, or return to the family it became part of and now loves. This part left a deep impression with me. Unfortunately, the story is so epic in scope that I believe that a mere novelette isn’t enough; some parts seemed rushed. Still, I felt the story had a soul, and I’m glad I got to experience it.
The Only Harmless Great Thing (Brooke Bolander)
In an alternate reality, humans learned how to communicate with elephants. They realized that elephants have basic intelligence to understand commands and perform simple tasks. In this world, elephants are replacing young girls in radium dial factories, where they paint clock dials with the radioactive paint. Elephants have a longer lifespan in these conditions than the girls (on a quick note, the radium dials and young girls having their jaws disintegrate and die is a historical fact). The girls that remain in the factories teach the elephants how to perform their jobs.
Reagan, a dying radium girl, befriends one of the elephants, which had been sold to the factory by a circus. That particular elephant is known as a troublemaker, and when a supervisor provokes her, she brutally kills him. For this, she is about to be electrocuted in a public spectacle. Reagan finds her and slips the elephant a vial of poison, which has the potential to kill everyone in the audience.
Fast-forward into the future where a young researcher came with the idea of using glowing elephants as wardens of a radioactive dump. The story of the killer elephant got Disneyfied over the century, and now most people adore elephants, but also associate them with radiation poisoning. The idea is to negotiate with elephants (who prove to have human-level intelligence) to make them bio-luminescent and give them land around a radioactive dump, where they’d warn people away from the site. The researcher is dismayed to find out that the government has no intention to keep their end of their bargain even as the negotiations take place, and contemplates leaving the project.
Intertwined between these two storylines is a story about an ancient elephant mother, and the beginning of oral history for elephants, which survived into the recent days. The entire story is very intriguing. The past builds itself on real events, such as the radium girls and public electrocutions of elephants. The ancient elephant story and the future negotiations feel like the distant past and colonial period of Native Americans. And the Disney story about a tragic but heroic elephant, which ties the past and future together, feels delightfully cynical. The novelette is very well written and polished. However, I felt like it’s been cut short. Both strands end before their major conclusion. I don’t mind when stories end with open questions; in fact, I’m a big fan of such approach when executed well. Here, though, both stories end too abruptly, too soon. Both end without setting up the stakes for the reader, making him care about their potential outcome. Will the elephant poison the audience or not? Will the researcher abandon the project or not? Ultimately, I didn’t care about the answers. In this regard, it felt unfinished. This novelette still has the potential to grab the award, but it won’t be my first choice.
Nine Last Days on Planet Earth (Daryl Gregory)
A meteor shower in the 1970s hits the earth. Much to the surprise of people, the meteors actually contain seed pods, and over the next few decades strange new alien plants take over the Earth’s ecosystem. This is the story of a boy who witnesses the meteor shower and later becomes a botanist, studying these plants. Each chapter is a vignette of his life at a certain crucial junction: when he moved to school, when he fell in love, when he adopted a daughter, up to the point where as an old man he expects to die soon. All this, in a backdrop of the plants, the ecological catastrophe they are causing, and the challenges they pose to agriculture. For most of his life he believes that the seeds were sent by aliens to transform Earth to their liking, and only at the very end he fully realizes that the plants may not be plants at all.
I liked the story. On a superficial level, it reminded me of Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, but only because of the very obvious elements of a meteor shower and moving plants. On a deeper level, it was more like The War Against the Chtorr by David Gerrold, only without the gritty action. The final twist was well done: strongly hinted at in the first half of the text, but few people would have caught on until the end. This made me think about the story quite a lot, how well the author managed to fool me while giving me all the necessary information. However, I felt unfulfilled by the story. It has a distinct beginning and conflict, but it lacks a resolution. In this sense it’s like another nominated novelette, The Only Harmless Great Thing. I don’t like this kind of non-endings, so I won’t be ranking this story too high. Still, I see no reason why others couldn’t award it the Hugo.
All the stories presented here deserve recognition, but only one will take home the Hugo Award. Novelettes have usually featured a strong field of contenders, but I feel that this year it’s even better than in other recent years. All stories are well worth reading, and I urge everyone to take the time to look at them, whether they’d be voting or not.