written by David Steffen
Science fiction award season is here again, and the Hugo final ballot was announced for WorldCon 75 in Helsinki Finland. Lots of familiar names and publications on the list, and I’m looking forward to reading more of their work. Note that this year marks the instatement of some new rules by those who attended the WSFS meetings at the last two WorldCons, meant to counteract the voter collusion dominating the ballot in the last few years. First, although voters could still only nominate five things for each category, there are six finalists on the ballot instead of five. Second, there is a new nomination-counting procedure in place meant to weaken the effect of large groups of people voting for the exact same ballot, a rule called E Pluribus Hugo which I have researched and understood and then completely forgotten about several times since it was first proposed a couple years ago. And the rule changes do appear to have an effect–the ballot looks different than it has the last couple of years.
On to the short story category, my favorite category of all the Hugo categories, covering stories less than 7500 words. This review covers five of the six nominees.
1. “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
“This is not the story of how he killed me, thank fuck.” So goes the memorable opening line of this story, both a fantasy story about the vengeance of a demigoddess, as well as a metanarrative about the stories we tell about killers and not about the killed.
Short and to the point, Bolander never beats around the bush. She gets right to the point and gets her point across in an entertaining way and is done before you’ve had chance to really consider what just happened. This story refuses to bow to the convention of trying to humanize the abuser, and engages with that choice directly right in the first two paragraphs.
2. “That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016)
The war is almost over, in all but the most official of ways, and Calla is going into the heart of enemy territory to visit a friend from the other side as he lays in the hospital. Larn, who she is visiting, is a Gaant, who are telepathic. Calla is an Enith who are not. During her time in the war she had both a nurse watching over Larn and other prisoners of war, as well as a prisoner herself who was watched over by Larn. In their time together they forged a connection between them, based around her teaching him how to play chess. The Gaant as a rule don’t play games like chess because being able to read another person’s mind makes it hard to win games of strategy. But Calla is going to play one last game.
This is a solid story built around a simple premise, and I loved to see the friendship they formed even in the most hostile of environments and when everything in the world was stacked against that friendship. Friendship is a powerful thing.
3. “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
This is the story of two women who are the protagonists of different fairy tales meeting each other and what happens after. Tabitha is a woman cursed to wear seven pairs iron shoes of iron shoes, one after the other, and walk and walk and walk until they are all worn down to nothing. Amira is a woman cursed to sit in complete stillness on the top of a glass hill, a hill surrounded by her suitors who try again and again to climb the hill to reach her. Tabitha’s iron shoes grip the hill and so the women meet and become friends.
Another solid story about the power of friendship, this one about the sympathy we have for the bad situations of our friends even when we can’t seem to see our equally bad situations that we are in, and how having friends you can trust to lend you perspective on your life can mean everything in the world.
4. “The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)
When cities reach a certain age, a certain stage, then they are born from the dead collection of objects that they are into a living breathing thinking creature. This is a dangerous time because there are things that prey on newborn cities, killing them while they are drawing their first breath. Each city has a midwife, who can use their magical song to help their city through this fight. It is almost time for New York City to be born, and a young Black man is about to learn he is the midwife.
Action packed story with a really cool fantasy premise and striking imagery, Jemisin’s story is grounded in a sense of place, perfect for a story that is all about a place becoming a sort of gargantuan person. This is a standalone story, but this could easily be a series as different cities wake up.
5. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)
Melanie and Hannah are sisters, with the power over weather and time. When things got bad at home, Melanie chose to stay, and Hannah chose to leave. Hannah takes a flight home, the first time she’s come back in years, and the skies open for Melanie and Hannah witnesses her death by lightning. Determined to fix this, Hannah tries again, rolling time back and trying a different way to save her sister. Again and again she tries to get there in time to save Melanie.
A story of sisterly love and of coming to understand someone who you already thought you had known, of fighting against impossible odds to fix the world for someone you love. Solid, fast-paced, very well done.