With the Hugo Nominees announced, I decided to dive right into the short stories. The finalists this year are a good batch, and are all free online. The first three stories in this list; Mr. Death, Proof by Induction, and Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather, are also finalists for the Nebula Award. Here’s what I thought of all six finalists.
Alix E. Harrow
As soon as I saw this was a story about a ‘grim reaper’, I knew there was going to be an emotional gut punch, and we got there pretty quick. This is a story about the reaper Sam, who has been working for the department of death as happily as one can in such a situation, getting assigned his first toddler. For added feels, Sam lost his own son at a young age.
There is no denying the tragedy in this scenario. Despite that, I really enjoyed the interactions between Sam and the doomed kid. Really heartwarming. There were times where Harrow overplays things; the “That they’ll keep working and worrying and the impossible alchemy of love will turn never enough into plenty” line definitely made me roll my eyes. On the most part though, I really appreciated this story. Despite how messed up the scenario is, I also appreciated Harrow’s portrayal of the afterlife. She presented a good ever after that didn’t diminish the love and beauty of the living world. In fact, it celebrates it.
Proof by Induction
José Pablo Iriarte
A powerful story about grief and closure involving an uploaded mind in a virtual world. Paulie’s father has just passed away, but his mind has been uploaded in a coda, so that loved ones can have a final visit. The drawback is that no new information is saved; when Paulie leaves the coda, his father will not remember anything from that visit next time. As explained by the hospital staff, Father can explain stuff about wills and insurance policies, but he can not change and grow.
Paulie uses this coda to get his father’s help solving a mathematical problem, whilst also trying to work out the issues in their relationship. The fact that his father is no longer able to form new memories or change complicates both endeavors. This is a very special type of science fiction story, where an interesting take on a speculative technology allows a really powerful character-driven story.
Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather
A story told as posts on a crowdsourced song lyric website discussing how to construct an article about a fictitious folk song. As they explore the history of the song, they find evidence that something creepy and mysterious happened long ago… and maybe might be happening again. I feel like the message board method of telling this story was clever, and gave a sense of plausibility to this scenario. These are everyday people just editing a webpage, and even here dark secrets can be reveled.
The downside of this format is that it requires the reader to pay a lot of attention to pick up what’s happening. Also, the ending came really abruptly. Possibly because I wasn’t giving the story enough attention, but it seemed to just end. Made sense, but I was just getting used to the story.
Overall this was a fun, creepy story that is told in an interesting way, but is far from my favourite Sarah Pinsker story.
The Sin of America
Catherynne M. Valente
As I started this story, I wasn’t sure if I was liking it. Once I realised what was happening, then I changed my mind. There was a big ‘oh shit’ moment as I realised the trope Valente was playing with, and just how fucked up everything was for our protagonist.
This is a story about a woman at a diner eating the Sin of America. Quite literally. At first I was worried that not being American I wouldn’t get. We start with a lot of vivid descriptions of the diner, and the lives of the people in it. I still got it though. We have a similar sin here in Australia, and have the same ‘we’re over all that, things are better now’ mentality that this story takes aim at. Despite how unsubtle The Sin of America is, it sure does pack a punch.
I need to preface this by saying that I don’t know a lot about Magic: The Gathering. I’ve never played the game, but I do know what a Planeswalker is. I don’t know if the main characters, Wrenn and Teferi are cannon characters with official lore, or if they are Seanan McGuire’s original characters. I am choosing to remain ignorant on that front so I can make a judgement on the story’s accessibility to those unfamiliar with the Magic franchise and judge it as a standalone.
This story is completely comprehensible and enjoyable without any deep knowledge of the Magic: The Gathering universe. The characters are engaging, the world makes sense, and the magic is explained enough to make the ending satisfying. I really liked Wrenn and the story’s take on Dryads, who need to bond with new walking trees periodically. This is a story about Wrenn finding a new tree, and receiving help from an unexpected friend. It is a fun fantasy adventure, but I didn’t feel like it was quite Hugo-worthy. I admit I thought at first that this story may have just gotten more hype because it was written by Seanan McGuire, but I think it is more likely that I am simply missing out on some context. Fans of Magic: The Gathering will probably get a lot more out of this story than I did.
This is a story told entirely in screenshots of text messages that was posted on Twitter. I love experimental stuff like this, and Unknown Number manages to pack a lot of emotion into what is essentially just one short conversation.
I’m not going to go into too much detail, because a story this short is very easy to spoil. I’ll just say that this story has resonated strongly with a lot of trans readers. This is an emotional, deeply personal conversation and I am glad it got enough attention to be nominated for a Hugo.
As I said, there are some good stories here. Also, it’s really cool that stories like Unknown Number and Tangles, which were not published traditionally, have received recognition. I’m not sure how I’m going to vote yet. At the moment Proof By Induction feels like my favourite, but all these stories are staying with me. We’ll see which ones stay in my head the longest and how I feel about them come nomination time. It’s going to be exciting seeing which one actually manages to get the prize.