The common thread of this year’s short story nominees is the lack of a twist or ambiguous ending. The stories are expertly written, but they seem to lack deeper meaning that one could discuss later, or contain something of a shock value that would wake the reader up from these pleasantly sounding stories. All stories, with a single exception, fall into this category, which is why it was easy for me to pick the outlier as my number one choice, but the rest is truly a toss-up.
Mr. Death by Alix E. Harrow
Afterlife is real and ruled by a bureaucratic apparatus that employs suitable deceased people who act as Reapers: guides for the recently dead souls to cross over. Sam Grayson is a relatively new Reaper, with only over two hundred souls under his belt, when he comes across someone he can’t accept dying. He’ll do anything to save him, despite the grievous consequences for himself.
I started reading this story in the evening, when I put my baby boys to sleep, and the house grew quiet. I finished the story through wet eyes. It hit me very hard. Now, a few days later, I can think of it with a clearer head, and I still see a very emotional, but also very uplifting story. The worldbuilding is shabby even for a short story, but the final twist elevates it to a higher level. The writing is intimate, inspirational, and more than a little patronizing, but in an understandable way. I think the story is excellent, and my number one choice for the Hugo award, but I acknowledge that I’m heavily biased in its favor for personal reasons.
The Sin of America by Catherynne M. Valente
Ruby-Rose is sitting in a restaurant, eating her last meal. She had been chosen by a lottery to assume all “sins” of American people, and after she finishes her meal, she’ll be ritually disposed of, to cleanse Americans of all blame for anything they’ve done.
I’ve adored Valente’s Space Opera, and I ranked it very high on my Hugo ballot. Here, Valente once again showcases her undisputable writing talent. She digs deep into the background of various characters, and in fact spends most of her time discussing irreverent facts about the various protagonists and bit players, at the expense of a more fleshed out story. I didn’t mind at all. If I were to describe the writing style, I’d say it’s an exploration of what if Ray Bradbury wrote Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Unfortunately, this is missing the mark on both sides. The story’s ending is properly macabre to suit Bradbury, but the spine-tingling foreshadowing simply isn’t there. In hindsight, there seems to be some kind of forewarning, but I didn’t expect the ending when I was reading the story for the first time. Regarding the similarity to Le Guin’s work, Valente’s felt too much on the nose and not ambiguous enough. Omelas can be interpreted in myriad ways, but The Sin is too much a criticism of the current culture of shifting blame that it can hardly be seen in a different way. Still, I really enjoyed the segues into other people’s lives the story offered.
Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker
There is an old folk song, which has been appropriated by many artists, who changed its meaning. A group of lyrics enthusiasts have an online discussion where they try to understand the meaning of the original lyrics. One of them is a researcher who travels to the old English village where the song supposedly takes place and tries to understand the song within the context of its setting.
Pinsker is always masterful in her writing technique. It’s efficient, clean, and always easy to understand. Even such an experimental style as a transcript of an online discussion was easy for someone like me to follow. Unfortunately, the author often focuses too much on technical brilliance at the expense of the story. In this case, the outcome is so transparent that I knew its rough outlines even before the titular song was displayed. From then on, only the details of the outcome were revealed, and even those offered so much information that halfway through the song I knew where it was leading. The rest was essentially just confirming my assumptions. I usually get annoyed when a story shows potential, but doesn’t deliver, and this is one such case. This could have been a story of personal tragedy I’d care about, but instead I got a pleasant story where the deaths and disappearances barely registered with me. Maybe it’s the format of the story, because even though Pinsker tried to inject some banter between the characters, I could never care for any of them. On the other side, the antagonist remains faceless, with no clear motives, so I can’t care for her actions, either. This latest element is becoming somewhat of a trend of Pinsker’s nominated stories, and I believe the weak antagonists are always detracting from the stories’ full potential.
Proof by Induction by Jose Pablo Iriarte
Paulie’s father had just died. Paulie didn’t arrive in the hospital in time, but fortunately he still has access to a simulation of his father’s mind, at the time of death. The simulated father retains all his memories and knowledge from the time of his snapshot but is unable to remember anything beyond his death or change his personality. Normally, the simulation is used to receive last-minute instructions from the deceased, such as details of their life insurance policy, but Paulie, a professor of mathematics works with his father’s simulation, also a brilliant mathematician, on proving an exceedingly difficult mathematical theorem.
This short story is two-faceted. On the surface, it deals with the technical limitations of the afterlife simulation, which is reset every time Paulie leaves. Getting his father up to speed at where they left off takes more and more time, and the time for doing actual work grows shorter. Deeper, it’s a story about the indifferent relationship between the father and son. Iriarte actually takes advantage of the short story format where character development is not expected and keeps resetting Paulie’s father every time. Even though it bothers Paulie, he is too focused on his work to try to change the situation. This is what bothered me about the story. The author took away any chance for redemption or reconciliation, and so the protagonist doesn’t even attempt to do so. The only attempt at character development happens towards the end, when Paulie interacts with his daughter, but even this outcome is so ambivalent that I was left wanting…something…anything. I didn’t get it.
Tangles by Seanan McGuire
A dryad honors her tree’s wish to retire from walking around, and she leaves it, so that it can put down roots in a forest clearing. Without a tree, she is fading and desperately needs to find a new host. A wizard hears about this mysterious dryad, finds her, and in an attempt to protect her from evil casts a spell that misfires. They are stuck in a time loop, and they need to work together to get out and save the dryad.
I personally believe that it was a mistake to nominate this story for the final ballot. Not because of the writer: I love McGuire’s writing, and I usually consume her works very quickly. However, this story takes place in a shared universe that I’m so unfamiliar with, that until I read this story, I didn’t even realize that it existed. This universe revolves around the better-known Magic: The Gathering card game. The main issue with shared universes is that they often rely on elements that casual readers may not be familiar with. Here, I didn’t understand the allusions to interdimensional travel and how they pertained to the story. The magic system didn’t appear to follow even the most rudimentary rules, which were probably explained in different, earlier stories by other authors. As a result, the entire story felt like a small vignette in a much larger universe, but without understanding that universe, I didn’t understand any significance of the story.
Unknown Number by Blue Neustifter
This short story has been written as a Twitter thread, and later republished on the author’s Facebook case. In both cases, in order to read the full story, I was required to create an account on the respective platform. I could not find a version of the story elsewhere, so I made the decision to skip it. I will not include it in my Hugo ballot.
Looking back, a full half of the stories was experimental. In two cases, the authors tried a novel format, and in one the author attempted to combine a certain writing style with a well-known classic story. The experimental nature of these stories is by no means detracting from their quality, as most of the authors are industry veterans who are eminently skilled in writing. However, I felt that the authors focused on format at the expense of a compelling story, and ultimately my clear winner was one of the most traditionally written works, Mr. Death.