This year, the short story ballot was very strong. Unlike the last few years, the stories feel complete, gradually tapering off instead of an abrupt ending, and they all made actual sense to me. I found it quite difficult to rank them according to my preferences, as I felt that the top three were serious contenders for the Hugo award, and another two still showed very high quality. After overthinking the rankings a little, here is my take on the 2020 Hugo Short Story finalists.
As the Last I May Know (S. L. Huang)
This story features a beautiful premise. Weapons of mass destructions may be used only if the country’s leader personally butchers an innocent girl, in order to remove the launch codes from her heart. Nyma is currently this girl. She’s been chosen by the Order, established after the last time the weapons had been used, as a way to prevent their abuse in the future. The President may still have the weapons at his disposal, but there is a high personal cost to his conscience. Nyma has been trained to be as adorable and lovable as possible, and when she moves to the Presidential palace at the age of nine, she soon gets on the President’s good side, making the act of killing her even more unlikely. Unfortunately, the country is in the middle of a losing war, and after endless days of air raids against the capital, the President is beginning to crack. Nyma is waiting for her death.
I really liked this story. The premise of a child suffering for the greater good was popularized by Ursula K. Le Guin’s Those Who Walk Away from Omelas nearly half a century ago, but I thought that this story had a quite original spin on this. I could also appreciate the author’s very careful prose, never indicating even the least impropriety between the President and the girl. It would have been easy to go down the creepy route to strengthen the emotional bond between them, but Huang managed to avoid it. My only criticism is that on occasion I found the writing a little clunky and hard to understand. Sentences like “He glanced down at her, surprise writ clear on his expression” may work if the entire text is written in an archaic form, but thrown around haphazardly, they stand out like a sore thumb and detract from my immersion into the story.
And Now His Lordship Is Laughing (Shiv Ramdas)
This story is taking place in India, during Churchill’s famine. An old woman, Apa, practices the old art of doll making. Of the natives, only a young boy is still interested in this art. Unfortunately, the local English governor is even more interested: he keeps dispatching a soldier to demand a doll for his wife. Apa keeps refusing him until the famine hits and kills everyone, including the boy. Apa is rescued and fed back to life at the last moment, and she finally agrees to create the doll, under the condition that she presents it to the governor herself. Once she is done, the soldiers take her to the mansion where she exacts a particularly nasty revenge on the governor and his staff.
This is an emotionally wrenching horror story. Churchill’s genocide of the Indians was all too real, and the description of the little boy’s suffering hits close to home. The revenge is sweet even for the reader. It is a superb story, marred only by the beginning, where the author uses archaic and ornamental language, that made it a chore for me to read. The conclusion was also telegraphed a long time ahead, only the exact nature of the revenge remained obscured. If it was up to me, this story would have high chances to capture the Hugo award.
A Catalog of Storms (Fran Wilde)
An unnamed coastal town is buffeted by very strong, very strange storms. The storms range from regular bad weather with high winds and rain, to something that sounds like a pyroclastic cloud from a volcanic eruption. Some inhabitants of the town begin to understand the storms and gain the ability to name them and fight them, usually verbally. These people move to an abandoned house on a cliff, and from its windows they yell at storms until they go away. Gradually, these people lose their humanity and turn into weather patterns themselves. This is the account of a young woman whose sister has become one of such people, describing the situation around storms and the slow dissipation of the sister.
However, there’s not a real progression to the story. It’s one long exposure of the present state of things, without any explanation where the storms came from, or why they are attacking the town. While reading this piece, I had a slight feeling of the Broken Earth series by N. K. Jemisin, laced with a little of Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The story is wonderfully quirky, but not outright weird and incomprehensible like the author’s previous Hugo-nominated short story, Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand.
Do Not Look Back, My Lion (Alix E. Harrow)
On a different planet, an empire is gradually increasing its reach through conquest. Ever since the current empress, a war-hungry woman took over, there had been nearly constant war. All new children are dedicated to the goddess of death, while the temple of the goddess of life is empty. One of the very few followers of the life goddess is Eefa, a healer and husband to Talaan, the fiercest of the Emperor’s warriors. Talaan had given birth to several children, all of them warriors, and now that Eefa knows another child is coming, she is trying to run away from it all. Talaan brings her back with the promise that the new child would not be dedicated to war. Things change, though: Talaan and Eefa’s favorite son is killed in battle, and the new baby is dedicated to the death goddess. Talaan gives the girl to Eefa and instructs her to run away, while she goes to confront the empress in single combat.
The story, and especially the worldbuilding are very compelling. I had a strong sense of the Aztec empire while reading it, even though it clearly took place on a different planet. The social structure is intricate, and the story should serve as a good example of how to reveal much with little, as the occasional hints were enough to draw the full picture of a fantastical society. The author caught my attention last year, when she won the Hugo award with her short story. It was the closest I’ve ever come to voting for the eventual winner: I placed her story second. This is another superbly written story, but for me it didn’t reach the emotional depth of its predecessor.
Blood is Another Word for Hunger (Rivers Solomon)
This is a wonderfully bizarre story about a slave girl, Sully, who slaughters the entire family of her owners. This creates a crack to the afterlife, which is further thrown open by Sully’s lack of remorse and satisfaction over the murders. To keep things in balance, for each life Sully had taken, she gives birth to one person from the afterlife, at the age when they died. First to emerge is the teenage girl, Ziza, followed by four more, ranging from a boy to an older man. The newly born revenants don’t seem at all evil. If anything, they appreciate being alive again, and they are trying to establish themselves on the farm that Sully took over when she killed her owners. Sully, however, suspects that they are all in danger from her neighbors and the inhabitants of a nearby town, so she hatches a plan where her children abduct travelers and bring them to her to kill, so that she can give birth to more loyal followers. Eventually, she has enough to lure the local sheriff and his posse into a trap and defeat them, laying the town open for taking. Sully, however, has greater ambitions, and hopes to take over the entire world.
And that’s where the story ends. It was beautiful while it lasted but the end feels chopped off, as if the author was told that she needs to keep it to a certain word count. The story left me unsatisfied. As intriguing as the premise was, this ending won’t do the story any favors in such a strong field competing for the Hugos.
An island in the Andaman archipelago apparently has a tribe consisting mainly of women who practice cannibalism. And you can take a woman out of the island, but you can’t take the island out of the woman, as even one such girl, educated in an English university and accustomed to civilized lifestyle, returns back into cannibalism. Her descendants don’t seem to be much better. All this is presented as excerpts from fictionalized books and articles, as if at the end of a thesis paper.
I personally didn’t know what to think about this work. It has no plot, and the hints are so vague that even after re-reading the story I wasn’t sure if the women were serving pieces of themselves to others or killing and serving others, and what significance the entire custom held. Stories with unusual structure can be done very well. Sarah Gailey’s STET, for example, was a series of footnotes and notes scrawled on margins, and it was my top pick for the Hugo award last year. That short story had a deep and troubling backstory and revealed a lot about the protagonist and her mental state. Here, however, I could not detect any backstory, nor could I identify a single main character. It truly was only a series of out of context endnotes for me.
All in all, I was very pleased with the selection of the Hugo finalists this year. I’ve found the stories engaging and insightful. I’ve had a difficult time ranking them for my ballot, because so many of these stories were so good. The Hugo Awards validated my rankings, which differed only very slightly from the actual rankings.