HUGO REVIEW: Short Story Finalists

written by David Steffen

Science fiction award season is here again, and the Hugo final ballot was announced for WorldCon 76 in San Jose.

On to the short story category, my favorite category of all the Hugo categories, covering stories less than 7500 words.  This review covers all six finalists.


1. “Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

In a clockwork world, each person only gets as many turns as the Maker gives them each day, but never more than their mainspring can handle.  Every action you take winds down your spring and that will be all you get to do until the Maker winds you again the next day.  Zee is lucky enough to have an extra capable mainspring, so she has the ability on an especially good day to see more and do more.  Her parents always tell her to do her work first so she has turns left to play.  One day a carnival train comes nearby the closet where their town is located, and Zee decides to sneak off to see it, and everything changes.

This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story with so many powerful moments and themes, but especially in terms of the effort of being a caretaker, and also in terms of how we choose to spend our time.  I take the view that time is the most universal currency, we spend our time no matter what we do but what we spend our time doing defines us and our connection to those around us, the turns of clockwork people was a great metaphor for that.  This was my top nomination pick for this year of the hundreds of stories that I read, and I am absolutely delighted to see it on the final ballot for both the Nebula and Hugo.

2.  “The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (, July 19, 2017)

Susannah lives in what seem to be the waning days of human civilization, a time when the consequences of generations of short-sighted decisions come to their consequences for the survival of humanity.  An attempted Mars colony has failed catastrophically, so humanity’s only attempt to find somewhere else didn’t fare any better.  But instead of dwelling on the gloom and doom of the dismal future, she is determined to remotely build an obelisk on Mars that will serve as a monument to humanity that will survive for thousands of years, long after she expects humanity to be dead and gone.  AI-driven equipment constructs tiles from local materials and use them to construct an impressive tower for any future visitors to our solar system to find.  But when a transport is spotted approaching the obelisk, she has to decide how to direct her AIs, and then wait for the significant communication delay in both directions to find out how it turned out.  Did someone survive the failed colony?  Is the transpot being driven by AI?  Is this a petty attempt to sabotage the obelisk project?

I really enjoyed this story both for the interesting and novel construction project which was ambitious in the face of apparently certain doom of humanity, something that would stand the test of time when Earth has scoured its surface of evidence of human existence.  The arrival of the transport tests Susannah’s resolve–is the monument the only goal she has left, or is there still something else to strive for?

3.  “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

Allpa inherits a magical sword from his dying grandmother that carries three warrior spirits in it named Sun, Moon, and Dust.  The sword is the inheritance of a hero, and the spirits want Allpa to go out and do heroic things, but there is no war to fight and Allpa has his potatoes to grow.

I tend to enjoy the Chosen One trope, and never more so when it’s turned on its head.  Allpa is arguably the Chosen One here, but he is lucky enough to live in a generation where nothing more is needed of him than to grow crops to feed people.  This subverted Chosen One story is fun and enjoyable.

4.  “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

Jesse Turnblatt works for Sedona Sweats with other Native Americans providing virtual Authentic Indian Experiences, virtual reality tours of the general public’s stereotypes of Indians.  His girlfriend thinks the job is demeaning, but Jesse doesn’t think it’s too bad.  Most of the tourists just want the same thing, a vision quest, usually having to do with a wolf, and they’re happy as anything.  But a man comes in who’s different, who asks thoughtful questions and doesn’t seem impressed by Jesse’s usual theatrics.  The two become friends, and things take a darker turn.

This story was solid, based around the incredibly creepy commoditization of an oppressed culture for marketing purposes that was all the more cringeworthy knowing that it is just the logical science fiction extension of how it actually works.  Despite the irony in the title with the trademark in it and everything, it felt real.  I’m not sure I understood what was intended by the ending, or maybe it was meant to be ambiguous?

5.  “Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

Computron is decades old, the only known sentient robot, a fluke experiment no one else has been able to reproduce.  It resides in the Simak Robotics Museum where it hosts Q&A sessions with the general public.  One day, a teenager  asks about an anime show titled Hyperdimension Warp Record which has a robotic character that she suggests Computron might relate to.  Before the next session, Computron watches episodes of the show and discovers fandom, begins contributing to fanfiction on online forums dedicated to the show.

This was cute, sort of a love note to fandom from a sentient robot.

6.  “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)

This is an sideshow of dark and curious things.  There’s something odd about the host of the tour, but curiosity wins out over caution, as it must.

This is quite a short one, so it’s hard to give it in-depth discussion without spoiling it.  I’m afraid I don’t think I understood this one.  I think it’s an analogy for medical facilities?  I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, it had a dark and haunting lyrical quality to it, I’m just not sure I understood it.

Review: Nebula Short Story Nominees

written by David Steffen

You can find a full list of the 2013 Nebula nominees here. This is a review of the short stories nominated this year for the Nebulas, which are chosen by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

1. ‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,” Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)
The story of an interplanetary colonist from Earth who traveled with her husband with the expectation that they would be able to return in ten years, but a pathogen keeps them from returning. Their daughter, born on the colony, has never seen Earth and has grown up with her mother’s stories of the old world. This story has roots in the experience of immigrants here on Earth, but is all the more heartfelt for the differences rendered by SFnal treatment.

Top notch. Not much else to say, just go read it. This is easily my pick for the category.


2. ‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth,” Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
Old Earth isn’t worth preserving anymore, most people say. It should be broken down into its component materials for the further development of New Earth. But not everyone wants to evacuate the planet. For people who have spent their whole lives there, raised their families there, that’s a difficult and painful transition to make.

Not a bad story. I felt for the character, but it was a bit maudlin for my tastes. There is conflict, certainly, but nothing that the character can do anything about so the story just kind of happens around him. Not bad, but just not my cup of tea, I guess.


3. ‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,” Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
This is told as though it were one of those audio tours you can sometimes get at museums to walk you through the exhibits in some meaningful order. It steps through an artist’s works from the beginning of her career to her death, examining how her technique changed with events in her life, in particular in the representation of loved ones who had died.

I found the technique for this one served to only increase the distance between me and the character so that she’s a historical figure of little importance to me rather than really immersing me in the story. It was very faithful to its medium–I would enjoy listening to this in headphones as I walked around an art exhibit looking at each of the works as it’s described. But on its own, without the actual art having been created and shown to me in parallel, it reads pretty much like I’d expect a museum tour to read without being able to be there or look at anything–kind of interesting but very prolonged and all of the most interesting stuff is not onstage. I found some of the discussion questions after each painting rather annoying because so many seem to be based around the writer of the audio tour not really paying attention to the quote the author herself gave about why some figures are drawn differently than others. If Mr. Schneyer hired an artist to make the paintings that go along with this story and presented them together, I’d happily buy the ebook for that.


4. ‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
This story starts out with the whimsical hypothetical in the title, as spoken by a woman to a friend she loves dearly, and continues on to give real life reasons why she is pondering this whimsy.

The characters read as real once the story got to the story, but I found all the hypotheticals more irritating than entertaining or illuminating. If A, then B. If B, then C. If C, then D. A story this short shouldn’t feel too long, but to me it does. Eventually the story gets to the actual story behind the hypotheticals, but by that time I was just impatient for it to be over.


5. ‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
A girl’s mother leaves her family behind. The girl thinks the circumstances imply that her mother is a selkie (a mythical shapeshifting creature that could turn into a seal by pulling on her sealskin, but would be trapped in human form if that skin was stolen).

Most of the body of the story is the girl criticizing the tropes of selkie stories, which I wasn’t very interested in, partly because I haven’t seen enough selkie stories to really say whether her tropes are actually accurate or not. While some of the circumstances of her mother leaving match a selkie story, I didn’t see any really strong evidence that that was the case, so it just seemed to be a story about a neurotic fixation caused by family trauma. The family trauma, perhaps I should’ve felt moved by, but it happened before the story started, and rather than confront the real situation she spends all of her time obsessing about selkie stories.

Not my thing, I guess.

Review: Hugo Semiprozine Nominees 2013

written by David Steffen

Semiprozine is one of those Hugo categories that’s a little hard to understand. They can’t be professional magazines, where professional means that either the magazine provides more than 1/4 the income of any person or is owned/published by an entity that provides more than 1/4 the income to any one person. And it has to pay its contributors or staff in something other than copies of the magazine, or is only available for paid purchase.

As it happens, all five of the semiprozine nominees are magazines that I’ve read before. Here are my rankings of them.

1. Beneath Ceaseless Skies
I am so excited to see BCS get a well-deserved Hugo nomination. They are a great magazine focusing on secondary world fiction. If you like worldbuilding, BCS is a great place. The stories are free to read, and they do audio podcasts of about half of their stories, which is where I get most of their fiction. I’ve submitted to and read BCS from their inception. They’re the newcomer to this batch of markets, but they’ve kept consistent quality throughout their run.

They published one of my favorite stories I’ve heard in years, titled “The Three Feats of Agani” by Christie Yant. I was very disappointed not to see that story on the nomination list.

2. Clarkesworld
Clarkesworld seems to be the award season favorite, and there’s no mystery why. My reaction to Clarkesworld stories tends to be a little bi-polar. The stories that I like I absolutely love, but the stories that I dislike I really really dislike. They’re publishing three stories a month these days, and have plans for a reprint section, and possibly a 4th original story as well. Things are going well and they are ever expanding. They podcast every story which makes it easy for me to keep up. “All the Painted Stars” by Gwendolyn Clare was one of my favorite stories of the year.

3. Lightspeed
One of John Joseph Adams editorial efforts, Lightspeed puts out two fantasy and two science fiction stories every month. They’ve consistently drawn some award nominations in the few years since they launched. I listen to every story on the Lightspeed podcast. They have some really good offerings. Check out “Monster, Finder, Shifter” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

4. Apex
I have trouble keeping up with Apex’s offerings, because they don’t podcast their stories. But I’ve never been disappointed.

5. Strange Horizons
I hear that Strange Horizons is getting a fiction podcast. I’ll let them build up a few episodes, and then I intend to be a steady listener.

Dark Muse Within: Jeremy C. Shipp

jeremyphotoJeremy C. Shipp is a writer of all kinds of disturbing stories that have been seen, or will be seen at Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Harlan County Horrors, Apex Magazine, and Pseudopod. His books include Vacation, Sheep and Wolves, and Cursed.

I first came across his writing in audio form on Pseudopod, a weekly horror podcast. The story is titled “Camp” and it tells the the story of a boy trying to fit in at a not-so-ordinary kind of summer camp. It’s creepy as hell, and very original. If you’re looking for something that keeps you up at night, and leaves you wanting more, you’ve got to check it out.

Check out his website for a complete bibliography, a list of his stories that you can read for free, and opportunities to purchase signed books.

David: Why did you decide to become a writer?

Jeremy: Even before I knew how to write, I enjoyed storytelling and using my imagination. My brothers and I would play pretend and create strange worlds and characters. Super-powered robots, friendly mummies, Neanderthal side-kicks, the grim reaper. Then, in 4th grade, I wrote my first short story, and I loved the experience. So on the one hand, I’m a writer because I love writing. On the other hand, I want to do what I can to affect people positively. And I might as well have a good time doing that.

David: Why horror?

Jeremy: I never set out to write a story that will be classified as horror or Bizarro or dark fantasy or magic realism. I give my muse freedom to speak her mind, and these are the stories she needs to tell. I suppose my stories are often horrific, because the world is often horrific. When reality affects me deeply, the compassion and horror I feel affects my writing. I hope that by shining a light on darker subjects, my stories can help change the world, even in the smallest of ways.

David: What would you say is the defining moment in your writing career to date?

Jeremy: Getting Vacation published was a big thing for me. But in truth, every day of my life is filled with monumental moments. For instance, I received an email today from a reader who told me that Cursed touched her deeply.

David: Do you keep specific goals for your writing success? If so, can you share some of them?

Jeremy: There are times when I hold specific goals close to my heart. For instance, I always wanted to get a story accepted by Cemetery Dance. But in general, my goals are to write the best stories I can and to share these stories with people who will connect with them.

David: Have you ever noticed a perceptible shift in how people react to you after they read your stories? For instance, if someone met you in person and thought you were a nice guy, but after they read one of your stories they suddenly start acting extra nice to you, just in case you go the way of Norman Bates.

Jeremy: Here’s a conversation I’ve experienced on more than 5 occassions:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Wow! What do you write?”

“Most people classify my stories as Bizarro, horror, dark fantasy.”


And I’ve heard this quite often:

“Why do you write stories like that? You seem like such a nice guyâ€.”

I’ve also heard:

“Why don’t you write Christian romance novels instead?”

David: I’m always interested in hearing where the idea for different stories came about. What was the idea that sparked the creation of “Camp” in your mind? (If you tell me you went to that camp as a kid, I’m going to be really freaked out)

Jeremy: I did go to that camp as a kid, and I write in order to atone for the horrors I caused. Nah, I’m kidding. Or am I? Yeah, I am. Anyway, with Camp, I wanted to write a story about social pressure and about the exploitation of new generations. Children are often willing to sacrifice their souls in order to please their parents. As for the camp system itself, the idea just sort of hit me, like a baseball bat in the skull.

David: As a horror writer, you’re well acquainted with your ability to draw out fear in others through your words. What is your own greatest fear?

Jeremy: The loss of loved ones is definitely my greatest fear. As a kid and as a young adult, I was an extremely fearful person. I worried about everything. And I reacted to these feelings in unhealthy ways. These days, however, I’m much more laid back and fun to be around. I try to reserve my states of fearfulness for when I really need them, such as when I’m being chased by giant man-eating babies. They can crawl faster than you’d imagine.

David: What fictional story, other than your own, has done the best job of scaring the hell out of you?

Jeremy: Movies scare me. Audition, Eraserhead, The Ring. But somehow, I feel much less vulnerable when reading a story. Still, there are many books that have disturbed me deeply. American Psycho, Let the Right One In, Pressure.

David: If you could meet one fictional character (not from your writing) who would it be?

Jeremy: I’m a total Harry Potter nerd, and I’d love to meet Hagrid. He seems like a nice guy.

David: If you could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Jeremy: Write from your heart, and share your stories with the world as best you can, and don’t give up.

David: What was the last book you read?

Jeremy: Recently, I’ve been reaidng a bunch of graphic novels and manga. American Born Chinese, Kare Kano, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The last novel I read was Gossamer by Lois Lowry.

David: Your favorite book?

Jeremy: The God of Small Things. Or 1984.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Jeremy: Arundhati Roy, perhaps. I also love Piers Anthony, Kurt Vonnegut, Brett Easton Ellis, Barbara Kingsolver, Neil Gaiman, Franny Billingsley, Amy Hempel, Aimee Bender, George Orwell, Haruki Murakami, Chuck Palahniuk, Anthony Burgess, CS Lewis, Douglas Adams, Francesca Lia Block, Roald Dahl.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Jeremy: Totoro. I love Totoro.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Jeremy: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Or Princess Mononoke. Or Oldboy.

David: Your novel, Cursed, is now available. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Why should we buy this book over all the other ones on the shelf?

Jeremy: Cursed is the story of Nick, Cicely, and their friends. They’re all cursed, so they create an informal support group, of sorts. Together, they try to figure out who cursed them, why, and what the heck they can do about it. But more important than all that, Cursed is about weird, complex people with weird, complex lives. You shouldn’t buy this book over all the others on the shelf, unless you connect with my writing. So here are some free stories of mine, in case you’d like to check out my work.

David: I see on your website that readers can sign up for subscriptions. Can you tell us about that? Are these previously unpublished stories?

Jeremy: For $12, my Bizarro Bytes subscribers receive 12 new, previously unpublished stories. You get one story a month, delivered to your email account in e-book format (PDF, Mobi, or ePub). Higher level subscriptions are available to those readers who’d like their name in one of my stories and other such bonuses. You can learn more here.

David: Can you tell us about your works in progress?

Jeremy: The novel I’m working on now is called Bridge. Bridge is a very strong, very fragile young woman with a lot of passion locked in her heart. She’s lost, and there are forces in the world that want to use her. Claim her. Hopefully, she’ll be able to discover her own path. I’m also working on a story collection, a comic series, and a short film. And I have stories forthcoming in Cemetery Dance, 10 Nails on a Screaming Chalkboard, and other publications. In addition to all this, I’m hoping to boost my abilities in gnomic magick so that I can transform the moon into a giant vegan cookie.

David: Thanks, Jeremy, for taking the time for this interview. I’m looking forward to checking out your new book.

Jeremy: Thank you kindly, David!

Cursed is the story of Nick, Cicely, and their friends. They’re all cursed, so they create an informal support group, of sorts. Together, they try to figure out who cursed them, why, and what the heck they can do about it. But more important than all that, Cursed is about weird, complex people with weird, complex lives. You shouldn’t buy this book over all the others on the shelf, unless you connect with my writing. So here are some free stories of mine, in case you’d like to check out my work: