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 (Tor.com, 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.