The finalists for this year’s short story Hugo Award were a pleasant surprise. A full half of them were actually science fiction, but I enjoyed the rest just as much. The quality of the writing was consistently high, which caused some difficulties in ranking my ballot. This year, I will be voting for all six stories, in the order presented below.
Metal Like Blood in the Dark (T. Kingfisher)
Brother and Sister are two artificial intelligences, capable of building and changing their bodies thanks to a swarm of nanobots attached to them. They were created by a human whom they call Father, on a planet that was abandoned after it was stripped of its natural resources. They enjoy their carefree life, with their only limitation being the scarcity of metals, which they need to improve and repair their bodies. Over time, they settle on shapes and functions best suited to find the metals. Brother becomes a flying machine, scouting out potential metal deposits, and Sister becomes a mining drone. Eventually, Father must leave for medical treatment and instructs them to mine the nearby asteroid belt for more metal. While doing so, they are captured by a third drone who enslaves them and forces them to build large wings, capable of supporting its body inside the star system’s gas giant. Initially incapable of deception, Sister develops the ability to lie and sabotages the wings, so that the third drone crashes when it enters the gas giant to rejoin its brethren that had previously exiled it.
This wonderful short story is both entertaining and insightful. It parallels the creation of man, where Father takes the role of God, and the two drones are Adam and Eve. Halfway through the story, this is referenced, somewhat superfluously highlighting the key difference between the two stories, that Brother and Sister did not have any forbidden fruit to eat. Father did not give them any restrictions, and so the Devil couldn’t tempt them. Instead, the Third Drone, an obvious analogue for the Devil (cast away, having its wings stripped), must use brute force against Brother and Sister, and must teach them by example how to lie. The Third Drone’s success costs it its life, not as a sacrifice, but as its punishment. I was happy with that outcome. It neatly wraps up the story, while leaving behind a world that the author could return to for more stories.
Open house on Haunted Hill (John Wiswell)
Haunted houses exist. They are sentient and self-serving, they can slightly rearrange themselves, and they need human presence to replenish their lifeforce. There are evil haunted houses, which kill their occupants to gain more power, and good ones where a person died on their own, giving to the house just enough energy to haunt. One such house had been sitting empty for a long time, but today is the day when the realtor shows it off to potential buyers. The house tries its best to look neat, and must pull out all the tricks in its arsenal to entice a single father with a young daughter to buy it and move in.
This is both a heart-warming and tragic story. On one hand, you have a house that acts like a nervous teenager before the first date. It tries to look neat, straighten all the creases, desperately trying not to make any mistakes and precisely because of this, failing. But recovering just in time to come across as suitable for the relevant person. On the other hand, you have the hints of a personal family tragedy and ways of coping with it. As a father to two young kids, I’m currently very attuned to such story elements, and I couldn’t think of a gentler way of handling them as in this story. Open House is very well written, compact, and powerful. It left me feeling good at the end, and to me that’s what matters.
A Guide for Working Breeds (Vine Jie-Min Prasad)
K.g1 is a new robot in a new robotic body, who is assigned a mentor, robot C.k2. Mentorship is compulsory, so even though CK is a loner, it has no choice but to remotely train its new charge, who proves to be an overly enthusiastic and naïve youngling. KG finds a job in a café, where it is being exploited, and it has to endure its mistreatment for the length of the contract, or until it saves up enough to repay its shiny new body and become independent. CK is a contract killer, one of the best in the world. That proves to be a disadvantage, though, when an open season for the top ten killers is announced, and CK is forced to seek out KG for help. In the ensuing melee, the café is destroyed, but CK is grateful enough to buy KG out from its contract. CK also has a change of mind: it abandons its job as a killer and instead opens a café for dogs with KG.
The entire story is written as a chat log between the two robots. They have very distinct personalities, which are surprisingly well developed for such a short story, and they keep evolving. Exposition is kept at a tantalizing minimum, revealing just enough of a compellingly weird world. The author did miracles with the two distinct voices of the two robots. I found the story delightful, intriguing and at times very funny. It certainly deserves recognition and I’ll be happy if it wins the award.
The Mermaid Astronaut (Yoon Ha Lee)
A mermaid dreams about flying to the stars. This is not a mermaid from a terrestrial fairy tale, but an inhabitant of a mermaid-occupied planet. Her dream of becoming an astronaut becomes possible when a trading spaceship visits the planet. At the urging of her sister, she visits the local witch, to find out whether there’s a way for her to live outside water. After some misgivings about the price for the advice, which would be named in the future, the mermaid follows the witch’s instructions and approaches the ship’s captain about joining his crew. The captain agrees, and the mermaid spends the next few years training on the ship, visiting planets and space stations, and meeting various species. She then realizes the true price of her decision: her few years of travel at relativistic speeds are decades on her home planet. She convinces the captain to return her home where she finds her sister aged and close to death. She visits the witch about her payment and is told that with her new knowledge and experience, she is suited to become the new witch when the old one dies.
This is a delightful, feel-good little story that plays against the reader’s preconceptions about mermaid stories. The protagonist’s desire too breathe air and her visit to the witch force the reader to expect a tragedy where the mermaid would be forced to give up one of her aspects, suffer and be presented with a choice to kill or die at the end. Instead, the story reads like straight from the Wayfarers universe by Becky Chambers. I don’t mind if anyone else writes this well within the universe; it fit in very well and I enjoyed it.
Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse (Rae Carson)
Brit is living in a fortified compound in a world full of zombies. She is also heavily pregnant. Zombies have been around for a few years, and they act like predatory herd animals, mindless but driven by scent to the last remains of humanity. On the other hand, humans learned to survive: to avoid the zombies, scavenge and build shelters. Zombies are attracted to the scent of childbirth, and so Brid and her wife Marisol prepared a temporary shelter away from the compound, where they retreat when Brid goes into labor. Zombies, attracted by the scent, manage to break in, but the two women are able to fight them off. Unfortunately, zombies don’t shamble away a few days after the child is born, as they used to do in the past, but instead keep up with the siege. Driven to desperation out of hunger and dehydration, the two women try to break out and are nearly caught, but then others from the compound show up and dispose of the zombies.
This is a standard zombie fare, with the slight nuance that zombies don’t deteriorate over years and act like pack animals. One side character even calls a pack of zombies a “murder”, as if they were crows. What elevates this story above other zombie fare is the writing. The narrative is in present tense, giving it a sense of urgency, and the set pieces are very vivid. The reader can really picture the trap the women are in, as well as the final fight. Personally, I’m feeling rather indifferent to zombie settings, but even I could appreciate the suspense.
Little Free Library (Naomi Kritzer)
The protagonist builds a small bookshelf in her front yard, which she stacks with books to trade. People are free to take a book and leave another in return. However, this doesn’t work out the way she expected. Instead of books, a mysterious book lover leaves nonsensical objects, such as small statuettes or rings. Then this being starts to communicate via messages and requests more fantasy books at first, and then books on siege warfare. The protagonist obliges and starts receiving solid gold coins with unknown designs in exchange. Via more messages, the being indicates that it requires knowledge to wage war and save its queen. The final message is not very uplifting: the being lost its war, but it hopes to keep the queen’s child safe from the enemy. An egg with scales is included with the letter.
I enjoyed Kritzer’s ghost story, which was nominated for Hugos two years ago. This has the same mysterious vibe, even though it lacks the emotional depth, but it’s quite understandable given how short this story is. I spent a nice quarter of an hour reading Library, and the ending sparked my imagination, but I’m afraid it’s not something that will stay in my mind for too long.
Overall, the 2021 field is fairly consistent, and it’s a toss-up on which story will prevail. I have not read enough short stories to make up my mind whether the best ones were selected, but I could sense a definite uptick in quality from previous years. I am also pleased by the variety of outlets that published these stories. Given the extra time the voters have been given this year, I expect a very close final count. None of the authors should complain if they don’t win, and none should take their Hugo for granted.