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: Hugo Novelette Finalists

written by David Steffen

Another category in the Hugo Award review series for this year, this is for the novelette category which covers fiction between 7500 words and 17,500 words.

As mentioned before, this year marked several rule changes–including that there will be six nominees in every category, and the nomination tallying rules are different to discourage voting collusion that had been dominant in the couple years prior.  This (and perhaps other factors) seems to have had the intended effect.

1. “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde ( Publishing, May 2016)
The gems that live beneath in the kingdom in the Valley can talk, and they can exert a powerful influence on those who can hear them.  In centuries past the great deaf king found that he could bind the dangerous jewels mined from the earth so that they could be bent to the people’s will, and since then the country has been protected and ruled by a combination of Jewels and Lapidaries.  Jewels are the ruling class, those most influenced by the gems.  Lapidaries are their faithful servants, able to talk the jewels into speaking echoes of their own intent, though the gems will only obey those who are faithful to their oaths, the more powerful the oaths the more the gems may obey them.  The country is now in shambles, betrayed by the King’s Lapidary, and it is up to the one remaining Jewel (Lin) and the one remaining Lapidary (Sima) to thwart this hostile takeover.

Powerful story with very interesting and novel magical system.  I’m not entirely sure I understood all the details of the magic system by the end of the story, and so was never entirely sure what a Lapidary was capable of until it happened.  The switching points of view between the two main characters probably didn’t help because I didn’t always seem to notice when the point of view switches and took some time to realize and re-orient.  But I think this was only my own failure as a reader and not a problem with the story as such, and the story was very well done.

2. “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)

Grandma Harken lives outside of town, partly because she is a witch, but mostly because she just wants to be left alone most of the time.  When someone steals her prize tomatoes just before she has a chance to pick them for herself, Grandma Harken sets out to find the thief and show them the error of their ways.  No mundane gardener, neither is her tomato thief a mundane animal.

Grandma Harken reminds me (in a good way) of one of my favorite characters in fantasy stories–Granny Weatherwax of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.  No-nonsense, grouchy but compassionate and unwilling to admit that last bit.  Vernon is very good at writing this sort of character (her “Pocosin” of the previous year is another great example), and I very much enjoyed this and the imaginative turns it took with its practical no-nonsense protagonist and this twisted desert mythology.

3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016)

In this Weird West tale, Ellis is a young man in a small town trying to come to a handle on his necromantic powers.  Strangers come to town looking to make use of his uncanny abilities.

Alyssa Wong is one of those authors whose work I always look forward to.  Her stories are amazingly imaginative, with powerful and relatable characters and she seems to have a particular knack for writing very dark characters that are nonetheless very easy to root for.  This is another excellent one from an author who consistently hits them out of the park.

4. “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)

Because Avery has a security clearance, she gets recruited for a top secret job showing an alien and its human liaison around the USA in a tour bus.  At least, she’s told there’s an alien… is it in one of the crates?  Left only with the alien-raised human, who is strange enough.

This has the feel of a classic SF story with an inexplicable alien and the exploration of what it means to be human and how a lifeform that did not come from the same evolutionary environment as us–thought-provoking and interesting.

5. “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan (, July 2016)

Thirty years after the first manned Mars mission, a second mission is preparing to launch. Emily works as a housekeeper at a hotel that will be housing some of the astronauts before the launch and so she is kept plenty busy with her preparations for the highly publicized visit to come.  Her mother, Moolie, mentions something that suggests that Moolie may have known some of the original crew, and may have been more than just acquaintances.  But Moolie’s mind is slipping–is she just confused, or is she talking about something that really happened?

I’m afraid I found this one quite hard to get into.  I didn’t find the Moolie’s vague claims all that compelling, and they did just seem to me like flights of fancy and it didn’t seem like there was enough substance to drive the whole thing to me.  Your mileage may vary, as ever.

6. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock (self-published)

The story is exactly what it says on the tin.  The protagonist is a three-breasted green alien who shoots lasers out of her nipples when highly aroused.  When she meets a dinosaur who seems so different from the rest of her clientele… well, it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title, right?

Yes, this one is conspicuous on the ballot for its title, the author name, the cover art, and for being erotica.  Like Chuck Tingle’s story last year, there is a reason that you can find out if you dig into it.  Like last year it didn’t seem to be the author’s doing, so I wanted to give it a shot.

I’m afraid that speculative erotica might just not be my kind of thing.  It seemed like it was trying to be erotic and also trying to be funny, and for me it failed to inspire either response.  I think the cover art could use some serious work, and the quality of writing was not impressive, and the entire premise was pretty much contained in the title.