This year, the selection of novelettes did not reach the quality of the previous years. Back in 2018 and 2019, I was hard-pressed to find my favorite story, and even to select the top three was difficult. In 2020, only one work was truly superb, and the second best stood high above the rest only due to its novel idea, not the quality of the writing. For the first time in several years, I had to stop voting before I reached the end of the list. Here are my views of all the nominated novelettes, ranked from my most favorite one.
Omphalos (Ted Chiang)
In an alternate universe, an archeologist is learning some disturbing facts, which may question her faith. She is fully convinced that God created the Earth a few thousand years ago. And so are all her colleagues and other scientists; there’s absolutely no question when God created Earth. See, this world doesn’t need to use carbon dating to estimate the age of various artifacts. Instead, they just count tree rings. With some diligent work, scientists can piece together a progression of tree rings for a few thousand years into the past, at which time the rings disappear, and the tree cores are smooth. Same with old shells. And the remains of the first humans, which don’t have belly buttons or other features that would imply a natural birth. All these clues point to an exact date when all things suddenly came into being. While pursuing the trail of stolen ancient artifacts, the archeologist comes across a soon to be published astronomical paper, which proves to be upsetting to everyone who reads it: even though it confirms that God created the universe, it also proves that the entire universe revolves around a planet. Which is not Earth. Humans are not God’s chosen people.
Once in a while I come across a story that I find very profound. It usually features a highly unlikely theoretical scenario. The story ends up asking a question that stays with me for a long time. One such work was David Brin’s The Crystal Spheres, which won the Hugo Award for the best short story 35 years ago, and which still feels very current. I am fully convinced that Omphalos will be just such a story. 35 years from now, I’ll still remember and occasionally think of it. The worldbuilding is very original and compelling. The characters may be quirky but set very well into this fictional world. I also liked the format: a series of prayers to God, which read like letters and diary entries from old-timey novels. The set-up is perfect. It is perfectly natural for everybody in the story to believe in God, so nobody even asks the follow up question, why are humans God’s chosen people. The revelation that they are not is absolutely devastating, and coming to grips with it is done masterfully by the author. This is by far my favorite novelette of this year’s Hugo season, and for me it’s absolutely obvious that Omphalos should have won. It placed second.
The Achronology of Love (Caroline Yoachim)
In a distant future, archeologists don’t have to dig out artifacts. Instead, they enter a Chronicle, something akin to a virtual simulation of the past, where they can observe a limited area at a limited time and gather information first-hand. The downside of this method is that whatever period is accessed, people and drones who observe that time and space, will erase it from the Chronicle. The protagonist is a researcher on a mission to find out why all humans on a planetary colony suddenly died. Her husband was among the dead. As she enters the Chronicle, she finds inconclusive data regarding the alien artifacts she assumes were responsible for the mass extinction, but later she realizes that her husband managed to use the Chronicle to enter the future. She follows him there, where he explains to her why and how everyone died.
The story itself is rather weak. The big reveal at the end is very mundane, and the continuity has more holes than the Chronicle after a pack of researchers. The characters feel a little forced at some points; the length of the work doesn’t allow for adequate character development, which the author is still attempting. However, the technology used in the story is really intriguing and well fleshed out. I’d be curious to read a longer work using the Chronicle, once the author writes a more coherent story. This novelette falls very short of the qualities of Omphalos, but I still liked it enough to have voted for it, unlike the rest below.
Emergency Skin (N. K. Jemisin)
An explorer from a different planet is sent to Earth. That explorer carries inside him the consciousness of several high-ranking people from his planet, who are supposed to help him to bring back samples from our planet. It turns out that the alien is actually an engineered human, and his overlords are people or descendants of people who left Earth when the planet was at the brink of an ecological collapse, which threatened to wipe out humanity. Upon arrival, the protagonist finds out that humans still live on the planet. And they seem happy and well balanced. Not only that: he discovers that he is not the first explorer, and in fact alien visitations are so routine at this point that the humans know what the explorers are after and have the required samples already prepared. As he sticks around, however, he discovers that he’s been lied to: his overlords are the remnants of the richest people from Earth, and on their new colonies they established dictatorial rule that exploits people like the narrator to gain access to resources that would prolong their lives. The protagonist grows an emergency skin (up to this point he is just a mix of bones and organs in a protective suit), mingles with the local population and decides to forget his orders.
The author spins yet another interesting world, with vocal social commentary. At certain points, this novelette reads like a rebuttal to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In essence, after the wealthiest people destroyed Earth’s environment and natural resources, they decided to withdraw to a place of their making, where they could lead better lives. They thought that this would be the final nail to humanity’s coffin, and without them mankind would gradually disappear. It backfired, though: without their interference, mankind was able to build at egalitarian society, and this harmony between people helped to repair the environment and improve everyone’s wellbeing. Still, I’ve had two issues with this work. First, I expect a story that takes place on a near-future Earth to be at least a little plausible, but this read more like a ham-fisted political allegory, with the author trying to hammer in her views at the expense of a coherent story. My second problem was with the narration style. The protagonist is voiceless, impossible to identify with. Everything is written as one-way conversation from the voices in his head, and they occasionally sound more like a comedic relief than the overlords that control the protagonist’s life. Hugo voters have seen this differently, though, and awarded the author the award.
The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye (Sarah Pinsker)
A writer travels with her assistant to a remote cottage to write a book. She does it twice per year. The assistant leaves her for the night, and in the morning the writer manages to blow the fuses in her cottage. She walks down to the resort manager to get a new fuse, only to find him dead. While waiting for the police, the assistant joins her and tells her not to get involved, since the writer is an author of detective mysteries and fancies herself a detective as well. When the police let them go back to the cabin, the author confronts her assistant, correctly deducing that she knew of the dead body before she arrived. The assistant reveals that the author has a creature living inside her, which occasionally leaves through the night to implant its eggs in unsuspecting victims. Most of the victims survive, but sometimes there are unfortunate accidents. Whenever this happens, the author is able to write her book, but leaves without any memory of her stay, and it’s up to the assistant to remain vigilant, destroy the creatures’ eggs and clean up after the author if a person dies.
This story felt like a very light version of a Dean Koontz story. Three quarters are nothing but environmental description and mundane troubles of the protagonist. The final reveal comes completely unexpectedly, without any hint in the previous story. The assistant’s narrative at the end highlights some minor occurrences in the earlier story, but even in hindsight these elements would not hint at the reveal. The story is mildly interesting, but not challenging my imagination in any way. I may have a difficult time remembering it a month from now.
Away with the Wolves (Sarah Gailey)
A woman can turn into a wolf at whim. She does it to escape her failing body, filled with various pains and ailments. However, there is price to pay. The villagers know about her affliction, and they tolerate it as long as she doesn’t do it too often and doesn’t do much damage to the village and livestock. As her health regresses, she is hard pressed to maintain her tenuous grip on humanity, until her best friend convinces her to change into a wolf on a near-permanent basis and act as a puppy in her village, to be of some use to the humans there.
The story is fleshed out with the musings on the nature and quality of pain, freedom, and how one should be free to choose to live with or without pain. Still, the story struck me as superficial. The idea of a werewolf being known to and tolerated by an entire village is somewhat novel, but not enough to keep me interested. It was a quaint little story, but not exciting enough for me to vote for it.
For He Can Creep (Siobhan Carroll)
A cat is living in an insane asylum and protecting a poet from the devil. Once, the devil shows up and tricks the poet into writing a poem from him. In order to save the poet, the cat and its feline friends must battle the devil.
This tiny story is technically very well written. However, it sounds so inconsequential (I probably missed all the metaphors the story contained) that it’s very forgettable. In fact, I’ve read the story previously, in the Some of the Best of Tor.com 2019 e-book, and I didn’t realize it until I was halfway through the work again. It is endearing, but no Hugo material.
Overall, I was a tad disappointed with this year’s selection of novelettes. This had been a very strong category over the past few years, and this year only two stories stood out. Omphalos was so dominant in quality that I couldn’t imagine it not winning, and the only other story I could vote for was The Achronology of Love. The rest was not Hugo material, by a long shot. Other voters ultimately overruled me, picking Emergency Skin as the winner, but that’s what voting is all about: a single opinion doesn’t matter as much as consensus.