Similar to previous years, the 2021 novelette ballot is very strong. I’ve found all six stories interesting, and really enjoyed four of them, all of which I consider Hugo contenders. All six stories feature superb writing, and it’s mainly the premise and the richness of the imaginary worlds that determined my final rating.
Two Truths and a Lie (Sarah Pinsker)
Denny had been a weird child and an even weirder adult. He was a loner and a hoarder. So, when he died, only a handful of people came to his funeral. There, his brother Marco meets his high school classmate, Stella, after thirty years of being apart. He asks her for help cleaning Denny’s house, and Stella agrees. There, among other items, they find old VHS tapes of the children show “The Uncle Bob Show”. It was taped at the local public broadcast studio, and in some early episodes, Denny was in the audience. They watch an episode, and it creeps them out. Stella can’t remember the show at all, but later her mother tells her she used to be an audience member. Watching various old episodes in the TV studio’s archives, Stella begins to suspect that Uncle Bob may have interfered in the lives of the children more than anyone would have suspected.
This story is a strange, yet surprisingly effective amalgamation of Internet creepy stories, Ray Bradbury and my own nostalgia. I found it disturbing, and yet I could not stop reading. The Internet is full of invented scary stories, which permeated the mainstream. While the most notable is that of the Slender Man, a fairly well-known subset revolves around imaginary public access TV shows, preferably from obscure TV stations that nobody ever heard of and thus could not check the facts. This story is written in a similar vein. It also borrows heavily from Ray Bradbury and his Illustrated Man stories, with somewhat obscured terror that slowly creeps in, letting readers to unravel the entire mystery along with the protagonist, and ending on a somewhat ambiguous note, which lets the readers draw their own conclusions. Finally, this novelette also played on my nostalgia. I could easily imagine the house I lived in as filled with garbage and memorabilia, and the local access TV station broadcasting something sinister. The setting was very vivid and very real for me, and I was completely absorbed by it. Pinsker’s story is a definite contender for the Hugo award.
Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super (A. T. Greenblatt)
Sam has gained a superpower. He can generate flames on his body. They will burn off his clothes and hair, but otherwise will leave him unscathed. The only problem is, he can’t control the flames very well. After his initial outburst (sorry), he spent a month trying to control the flames a little, until he became confident enough to audition for a superhero team. He passes the audition and becomes the team’s accountant. It turns out that superhero teams need back office work just as much as other organizations, so there is always place for people whose real-world skills outweigh their “super” skills. Supers are not well received by the general population, and there are no real global menaces to fight. So, the teams focus on community outreach and the occasional rescue from natural or man-made disasters, and the rare times when interdimensional holes open in the city. Sam once helps with crowd control during such an event, but an accidental casualty convinces him he’d rather stay with the accounting. His self-worth, however, is suffering to the extent where he plans on leaving the town for self-imposed exile, until circumstances force him to act as a hero. He stops measuring himself according to what others think of him, and for the first time since he got his powers, he becomes content with himself.
Superheroes with singular, limited powers, have become an established niche in the recent decades. I first came across them in Straczynski’s Rising Stars. I could find lots of parallels between that comic series and this novelette, down to calling the powered people “Specials” (“Supers” in this story). Later, writers in this niche discovered that the protagonists’ limits would force them to form large teams, to cover for all eventualities. This required back office support staff. And suddenly you have comics like Kirkman’s Invincible, which was recently popularized as animated series. Throw in a little of Wildcards for the squalid conditions most Supers live in, and you have the story of Sam. That is not to say I don’t like this story; quite on the contrary. Sam is a wonderfully entertaining story, which borrows the best from its genre and constructs a wonderful character arc of self-discovery. The structure allowed for a surprising amount of character development over a rather long period of time. If this niche wasn’t so crammed with other works, I would have placed this story on top of my voting ballot, but even so I will be quite happy if it ends up winning.
Helicopter Story (Isabel Fall)
In a future where climate change altered the American landscape, the US government is fighting a splinter country, ruled by artificial intelligence. Barb and her partner Axis are drafted into the army, and through gender reassignment surgery are integrated into an attack helicopter. After they blow up a municipal school, they have to dodge a fighter jet that is trying to hunt them down. All the while, Barb is concerned that Axis suffers from gender dysphoria, as he hesitates in executing her commands.
On surface, this is a very simple action story, which is even further simplified by the heavy exposition and history lessons. About half of the novelette is further taken by the author, to explain gender theory in ways that I found fascinating. I’m first to admit that I know next to nothing about gender theory, never having been exposed to anyone who wasn’t super straight. What struck me as most interesting here was that the author declared there were gender-specific actions. Men may subconsciously flex when they see an attractive woman, and women can apply makeup almost instinctively. This was the basis why the future military was changing people’s genders into military machines. Flying and fighting thus became instinctive, with a much better reaction time and much less pushback. That’s also why Barb suspected gender dysphoria in Axis, when he did not act naturally by hesitating before blowing up a school. I am oversimplifying here, mainly because of my poor understanding of the topic, but even so, the gender theory and action somehow managed mesh together into a highly entertaining, action-packed story. I could not put it down until I finished it.
Note: Let me address the elephant in the room here. I am aware of the controversy surrounding this story. After it was published, the author got such a severe backlash from people, including an acclaimed author who won multiple Hugo awards, that she asked for the story to be withdrawn from publication, and its name changed if it is nominated for any awards. She also said that she would not be writing any science fiction anymore. Even though the story is easy to be found on-line, I’m not linking to it due to the author’s wishes. I am also fairly adept at divorcing authors from their works. I don’t follow authors’ private lives, nor am I active on social media, so it is easy for me to judge works on their own merits. I am understandably upset that a Hugo award winning author acts as a gatekeeper for the industry, but I think I will be able to judge that author’s nominated novel fairly, and vote on it according to its own quality.
The Pill (Meg Ellison)
In the future, a pill is invented that lets anyone have the prefect body, without exercise or dieting. The pill works fast: people are able to shed dozens of pounds of fat every day, and the pill even takes care of excess skin. There are only two downsides. First, everyone looks the same, and second, one in ten people who take the pill will die. The narrator is a teenage girl from a family of fat people. Her mother is the first to take the pill and becomes beautiful in a very short time span. Her father, jealous that his wife is now getting attention from other men, is the next to take the pill and promptly dies. Then is the narrator’s brother turn. He also becomes thin, but he is so used to being ostracized because of his weight that he reverts to his own loner ways. The narrator is the only one who refuses to take the pill, partially because of fear for her life, and partially because she sees how the thin bodies change people’s mentality. As time progresses, the pill becomes so ubiquitous that fat people are all but outlawed, and the narrator finds herself living in secret, in a hidden complex where the last vestiges of fat population serve as erotic models or prostitutes for thin people wanting to try something grotesque.
This is a very well written story, with an inventive premise. Its greatest strength and also source of greatest frustration is the narrator. I wouldn’t go as far as to label her an unreliable, but we see the world only through her eyes, so the scope of the worldbuilding is severely limited. We know what a teenaged girl would like to know, and not the big picture. So, more far-reaching implications of using the pill, be it sexual attraction in the world where everyone looks the same, or the pill’s effect on pregnancy and breastfeeding, remain unknown to the reader. This, however, prevents the story from spiraling out of control, and it also leaves the readers with an ambiguity they can resolve for themselves if they want to. The author’s self-discipline in confining this story to its limited scope is truly commendable, and I think this may help her with Hugo voters.
The Inaccessibility of Heaven (Aliette de Bodard)
Sam lives in a dystopian city, Starhollow, where humans mix with fallen angels and other magic beings. She, along with the fallen angel Cal, runs a shelter for the Fallen who fell on hard times (sorry again). She is protecting them from thugs and corpse harvesters. One of them is Arvedai, another angel who built an entire criminal empire from body harvesting operations. It is him who ropes Sam into investigating a series of murders of other angels. Cal soon arrives and takes over from Sam, dismissing her as too weak and vulnerable to conduct this investigation, so Sam teams up with O’Connor, Arvedai’s human henchman, to conduct their own investigation. Soon, the four of them converge on a witch and a dying angel who are trying to open a portal to Heaven, but instead open one to an alternate reality full of monsters. With God’s direct intervention, they manage to close the portal.
I’m gradually becoming a great admirer of de Bodard’s work. I love her environmental descriptions, her characters and the entire urban fantasy motive she is spinning, which usually revolves around mythical beings openly living alongside humans. She is not the first author I’ve read who has fallen angels waging war on each other in human cities, but she has the ability to paint very compelling pictures of the environment and characters. This story is no exception. It has elements of dystopia, film noir, religion, and magic, all mixed together to create a very lively world. Unfortunately, I felt that this story was not her best. It didn’t hold my attention like her previous stories, including Children of Thorns, Children of Water, which was also nominated for Hugo award, and thematically is somewhat comparable. In addition, I felt like the ending fizzled out a little, and I always view a higher power intervention, be it divine or coming from a superpowered AI, to be something of a cop-out. Still, the story is well worth reading, just not an award contender for me.
Monster (Naomi Kritzer)
Cecily, the narrator, is traveling to a remote part of China in search of Andrew, her old boyfriend from high school. That had been twenty years ago, as she reminisces on her childhood throughout half of the story. Back then, they both belonged among the nerds, outcasts in the school. Cecily had been a star student, ending up in a prestigious research university, while Andrew, being a slacker, was only able to enter the community college. That was then. Now, Cecily is one of the top genetic scientists, and Andrew disappeared after he used Cecily’s research to murder a number of people for his experiments. Cecily tracks him down to China and confronts him about the murders.
The saving grace of this story is the rather unexpected ending, out of character for the narrator. Unfortunately, the rest is rather mundane. The structure, with alternating parts in the present and in the past, doesn’t work all that well, because the past does not foreshadow the big reveal in any way. This has also an effect on the overall story. The first three quarters feel somewhat unnecessary. It’s interesting to learn about a portion of rural China (I don’t even know whether it’s real or not), but it’s not advancing the story in any way. The writing is superb, but I found the entire narrative uninspired and forgettable. I’m afraid that my brain doesn’t work on the same wavelength as the author’s; this is not her first story that I found too ordinary to consider for a speculative fiction award.