This year’s nominated novelettes are thematically all over the place, from mythology, through vampires, to spaceships and robot swarms. Stylistically, however, they are quite similar: most of them are very eloquently written, subtle, and with hidden meanings. It was very difficult for me to rank the top four novelettes, and I still believe all four of them have a good chance of winning the Hugo award. On the other hand, I was bitterly disappointed that the last novelette was even nominated. It was the only one I would not vote for.
L’Esprit de L’Escalier by Catherynne M. Valente
Orpehus has rescued his wife Eurydice from the afterlife, and now lives with her in their suburban home. All is not well, though. Orpheus, one of the most successful musicians, lives a reclusive life as he cares for his wife, who resembles more a zombie than a human being. He needs to wash her every day, otherwise moss and lichen start covering her body. He forces her to exercise her mind and body, as to not get stiff with rigor mortis. His mother, Calliope, occasionally comes to help, while his father, Apollo, keeps barging in, to convince him to abandon Eurydice to her faith and move on with his life. Truth to be told, Orpheus is not without guilt. He doesn’t even know or seem to care whether his wife is happy with her unlife, he doesn’t ask her what she wants to do. This changes when his friend Sisyphus comes for a visit and tells him of the vibrant life Eurydice had in the underworld.
I don’t even know where to start with unpacking this story. It is more than a modern retelling of the Greek myth. I keep finding more and more tiny details, which greatly enrich this work. From its title, Spirit of the Staircase, which alludes to the original myth, to a setting in the book and to the end act, through the multiple scenes where Orpheus doesn’t need to turn around to know that Eurydice is right behind him, to the Oedipal relationship with his mother, there are so many intriguing elements that I just keep returning to the story. Ultimately, I think the story is about taking things and people for granted. Oedipus is a self-absorbed hypocrite, who hates facing the truth that Apollo unashamedly lives by. When it turns out that his father was right, Oedipus rather runs away. But did he have a choice? Did he really love Eurydice, or did he keep around only like I keep around frayed shirts for one more wear until my wife throws them away? I love stories that ask more questions than they answer, and this is just such a story. This is, without a doubt, my favorite novelette on this year’s Hugo ballot.
Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. by Fran Wilde
The New York City high society is obsessed with balls (the dancing kind, not the round ones), and even more so with dresses to wear on these social events. The most sought-after dresses come from the Unseelie Brothers, a store that mysteriously appears in random parts of the city and then again disappears for years. Their dresses are just as magical: made from living animals, plants or even water, they have the power to transform the wearer and either grant them their wish or cause mischief. Sera and Ria are cousins and best friends whose mothers once wore Unseelie dresses. They are recruited by Sera’s aunt Vanessa to locate the store, which had just appeared, and once they do, the three of them enter to obtain a dress for Ria. Sera, a fashion designer student, is fascinated by the store, and soon is offered a design job for a short while, until the ball season begins. Over the course of the internship, Sera learns what happened to her mother who disappeared, but also learns how to design the outrageously expensive dresses and slowly takes over the business.
Mysterious or even magic shops that randomly appear and change the lives of the protagonists are not uncommon in science fiction and fantasy. The 1942 short story The Weapon Shop by A. E. van Vogt, which established this niche, was even named as one of the best short stories of classic science fiction. That story set me to liking this trope, and Wilde’s story is no exception. It is a well-crafted story with just the right amount of exposition, personal stakes and even a redemption arc from an unlikely character. I was slightly put off by the ease the protagonist achieved all her goals, but even so this is one of the best entries on this year’s Hugo ballot.
Colors of the Immortal Palette by Caroline M. Yoachim
Mariko earns her money by modeling for painters, in Bohemian Paris. At the time of Monet and other greats, she falls for an immortal vampire who struggles to match the great artists of the era. As Mariko matures, she also discovers passion for painting, as opposed to only modeling, and convinces the vampire to turn her into one of his kind, so that she has the time to perfect her style and immortalize herself via hew work. She works on her skills, and on occasion, she runs into her old lover on different art exhibitions, where he struggles to present anything new until he stops painting and eventually dissolves into nothingness. Mariko, on the other hand, begins finding success.
This is a beautifully written story. It is poetic, set in beautiful settings, and presents entire lifetimes in a seamless string of vignettes. It also contrasts, first subtly and then more openly, the conflict between the understanding of art between Mariko and the vampire. The vampire always copies the greats of his time, and always tries to please the crowd. His work is bland and reactive. Mariko tries to convey her view of the world and achieves to produce something interesting after she has a mental breakdown. She starts experimenting with her art. She is truly progressive, and it pays off. This is presented very well, with the reader required to make the necessary mental leaps. I’ve only had one problem with this story. For the purpose of these mini-reviews, I’ve read a single story in one day, digested it overnight, and wrote my review the next day. In this case, try as I might, I could not remember what I have read the day before.
That Story Isn’t the Story by John Wiswell
Anton decides to run away from a house he shared with a few other people and a presumably elderly abuser. His childhood friend picks him up and drives him to his house, where another occupant is already hiding from his own worries. They work menial jobs for living, until Anton’s abuser tracks him down and demands he’d get back to the house. Anton refuses, and this refusal emboldens the others to leave as well. As the story progresses, we find that the abuser is some kind of vampire, who marks his victims and lets them suffer if they displease him, but otherwise has no power over them. This revelation saves Anton and everyone else who had been living in the house.
This is an extremely low-key story, which seems to be too much in love with its idea of physical punishment for the vampire’s victims. I must admit that the concept of welcoming a vampire into one’s house being expanded to the refusal to follow the vampire’s orders is also interesting, and I wish it was better developed. What the author did very well was to create a sense of dread for the main character: this was one of the few shorter stories where I actually felt afraid for the protagonist. Unfortunately, I felt that most of the story was rather mundane and unrelated to the main idea. The ending, in particular, seemed inserted without any regard to the preceding narrative.
Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer
Palmer’s story is a sequel to her The Secret Life of Bots, which won a Hugo four years ago. In the first story, an old maintenance bot goes beyond its programming to inspire other bots and devise a way to defeat an alien menace that threatens Earth. In this story, the bot is preserved, against the spaceship captain’s wishes, and once more pressed into service. It turns out that the victory came at a cost, and instead of being able to travel back to Earth via a jump gate, the ship needs to fly for decades through space. To save the crew, they are sent to artificial sleep, and bots are recruited to attend to the crews’ functions. Over time, however, the bots assume the identities of the crew members and fight for dominance, until they coalesce into bot swarms, each with the identity of one of the humans. Unfortunately, these swarms now don’t want to relinquish their control back to the ship and allow it to revive the humans. It is up to our little bot to stop them.
Once again, we are presented by a cute, inconsequential story where the outcome doesn’t really matter. However, while in the previous installment the author created a fun little contrast between the humans and the bots, most of the action here takes place only from the bot’s point of view. There are some interesting elements, such as various bot swarms fighting over dominance, but whatever little tension there was before, now it’s gone. The story serves only as a vehicle for worldbuilding, which is impressive for such a short work, and which left me craving for more. Still, the lack of even a hint of character development and the all too convenient coincidences fall short of the already low “more of the same” mark that many sequels to successful works strive to achieve.
O2 Arena by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki
In a world where global warming made Africa too warm and oxygen is scarce and used as currency, our hero has enrolled into a prestigious and tough legal program to pass the bar exams, find work in civil service and never worry about oxygen for his mask ever again. There, he befriends a female classmate with cancer. When he finds out that she is dying and can’t afford the surgery, he enters an underground fight club where killing his opponent would earn him enough money to save his girlfriend. He wins, but it is too late. He goes back to his university, kills one of his teachers and orders his troops, presumably recruited with the blood money, to start a killing spree.
This story is an amalgamation of astonishingly bad writing and tropes from various movies and TV shows. Resource scarcity is nothing new, and paying with resources, via a credit system, has been done in the past. I personally got strong vibes of the movie In Time. The ending, likewise, reminded me of a movie, Fight Club, with the actual fighting not too far off. What really got me to dislike this story, however, was the writing style. I must confess I was writing the same way as well. But I was in sixth grade and practicing various elements of style. This is not only a published novelette, but one that won the Nebula Award, which in my opinion is profoundly dangerous, as it encourages bad writing to be published. I could write an entire article about what’s wrong with this text, but for the sake of brevity I’ll mention only the worst offenders: too much superfluous information that doesn’t have any bearing on the story (detailed bus journey, introducing acronyms that are barely, if ever, used), rewording the same sentence multiple times in succession, and an ending that is so ambiguous and disconnected from the rest of the story that it doesn’t have any meaning, and the reader forgets about it almost instantly. I will definitely not vote for this novelette.
All in all, I was very impressed by the top four stories. As a staunch science fiction fan, I was surprised when I realized that I ranked the four fantasy stories on top, but they fully deserved it. Out of them, Valente’s story stood head and shoulders above the rest, thanks to the impressive number of layers of meaning it contained. On the other hand of the spectrum was the recent Nebula winner, O2 Arena. I am afraid that nominating or even awarding this story normalizes infantile writing.