Hugo Blogging: Best Short Story

So, the Hugo Packet isn’t out yet (and may, as always, not include everything), but happily all the nominees for Best Short Story are available free online, so I’ve been able to read through them all and rank them.

By “all”, here, I mean all five of the real nominees. I have no interest in reading a short story by a loghorreic tenth-rate C.S. Lewis tribute act but with added fascism, nominated as a result of eighty or so Nazi griefers who all paid money so they could say “checkmate, liberals!” after their nominations are once again ranked below “no award”. John C Wright is, according to some people whose opinions I trust, someone who was once upon a time a competent hack novelist. He is now an incompetent Nazi propagandist, and I’ll be ranking his “work”, unread, below No Award.

As for the real nominees, ranked best to worst…

Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El–Mohtar, is quite lovely but may be triggering to some of my friends. The writing style early on, before the two protagonists meet, is the kind of thing that makes my eyes glaze over somewhat — a very stylised, description-heavy, type of prose with a lot of emphasis of sensory elements, especially the visual. For me, that’s deadening, for reasons I’ve written about before in a slightly different context. Note that I’m talking about *for me* here — I know a lot of fantasy people, in particular, really love that sort of thing.
I was just about to give up on the story and stick it below “no award” but above Wright, when I hit a few sentences that intrigued me, and showed me that the story, once I got into it, would be *about* something.
And it is. It uses fairytale motifs to tell what is at essence a simple story of two women falling in love and escaping from abusive men — one a father, another a husband — who they didn’t even realise were abusers until they talked to each other and could each see what was happening to the other.
It was uncomfortable reading even for me, and I suspect it would be much more so for anyone who had been in such a situation, but it’s *very* good. It’s the kind of thing that I could imagine Neil Gaiman reading and thinking “bugger, I wish I’d written that”.

The City Born Great, by N.K. Jemisin, is very much my sort of thing in many ways — but that almost means I don’t know how fairly I’m judging it. The story of a young black man (a sex worker who is either gay or bi) being initiated into a role as avatar of the city of New York. It reminded me *very* much of the story of Dane in The Invisibles — while both are put together from Hero’s Journey student/mentor cliches, both use them in very similar ways, and both have a very similar sense of place, though here that’s added to an almost psychogeographic theme.
I can name about twenty things I really like that do many of the same things as this, and I don’t know if that means I’m overrating this (because it’s aimed at my particular tastes) or underrating it (because I’ve seen it before). What Jemisin brings though is her own use of language. The narratorial voice (the story’s told in first person) is very strong — although I read the first few paragraphs as being in a woman’s voice, and had to mentally recalibrate when it got to the coffee-shop scene and I realised the protagonist was male. I’m not sure why that is, or whether it’s something in my own preconceptions or in the story.
I was particularly amused at one line, from the narrator to a Lovecraftian monster made of policemen: “don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here”. Reading this the day after reading Jemisin’s annoyance at the World Fantasy Awards continuing to use the image of Lovecraft on their nominee badges gave that line a little extra resonance.

That Game We Played During The War, by Carrie Vaughn, is a very nice character piece, about war, and how much you can know someone else, and negotiation, and depression, and telepathy, and chess. To go into details about the plot would be rather to miss the point, although it is based on an SFnal premise. This is one that has rather more resonance in an age where we have a US President who dumps his unfiltered id onto the Internet for everyone to see than it will have had when first published…

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, by Brooke Bolander, is a nice little short-short about (in the plot sense) the Furies taking revenge on an arsehole who deserved it, and about (in the thematic sense) who we identify with and who we don’t in stories (both real and fictional) involving violence against women (or other marginalised groups). There’s a great use of voice here, and this is the one I found most enjoyable by a long way, but enjoyable isn’t the same as good — this *is* good, but the ones listed above are better.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers, by Alyssa Wong, is a story about blaming oneself for the death of a sibling, about suicide, and about transphobic violence and abusive parents — I mention this partly because they are the main themes of the story, but also because again I know people for whom those would be specific triggers.
The story is clearly very well written, but it’s not a story that does much for me personally — it seems, frankly, a bit writing-exercisey to me, relying on the emotional resonances of the heavy themes rather than on the content of the story itself. But I suspect that the themes may resonate more with people who are less privileged than I, and it’s not *badly* written.
I did, however, come close to sticking it under No Award purely because of the ableist use of the word “blind” to mean “ignorant”, twice. I wouldn’t normally be so harsh, but a story about the untimely death of a sibling made me think about my wife’s reactions (she lost her brother when he was far, far too young), and Holly is legally blind and gets very upset at this misuse of the word.
In the end I’m ranking it above “No Award”, but I’d expect less ableism from a story that’s largely about sensitivity towards trans people.

None of these stories are the kind of thing I seek out, especially — they’re mostly on the fantasy rather than the SF side of things, and they’re generally more about emotion rather than big ideas, while I’m a high-concept SF kind of person (Permutation City is one of my most-read books, to give you some idea) — so I’m not at all sure of my own qualifications for ranking them. The only ones I thought really *excellent* were the stories by El-Mohtar and Jemisin, but all of them were at least pretty good — and that’s still a far better hit rate than any other Hugo awards year since I started participating (I think that was 2010 — long before the Puppies, anyway).

All of these stories are engaged with the world — almost all address real issues, and do so intelligently. The fact that none of the authors are men, and that three are BAME, shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given the way the awards have been so dominated by cishet white men it’s very pleasing to see. I think El-Mohtar or Jemisin should win (and Jemisin almost certainly will, I think), but while some of these are a little lightweight or not to my taste, there’s nothing in the five real finalists (not counting the special extra participation-award finalist place added to be somewhere to put the Nazi) that I wouldn’t be happy to see win this.

Abigail Nussbaum has said (speaking of all the short fiction categories, not just Short Story):

There’s a lot to praise about this year’s ballot, including the continued shift towards a more diverse slate of nominees, but in the short fiction categories in particular, the Hugo has once again thrown up a fairly middle-of-the-road selection. Most of these stories aren’t bad, but quite a few of them are meh, and it would be nice to once again be able to have a proper discussion of that. Instead, we’re all still in bunker mode, still cheering the fact that publishable fiction was nominated for the genre’s most prestigious award, which increasingly seems like a low bar to clear.

I can’t entirely disagree with that when I’m in an ungenerous mood, and I do think that now the Nazi problem has been more or less solved (and if three-stage voting is ratified this year that should be the final nail in that particular coffin) we need to start having a more rigorous discussion about the merits and otherwise of short fiction nominees. I’m in a generous mood right now though, and all I can say is that a shortlist containing two excellent stories, two that I enjoyed but which were a bit lightweight, and one which wasn’t to my taste and I had problems with but which was still a good story, is a VAST improvement on the last few years. The bar needs to be raised, but this is fundamentally the kind of stuff we should be seeing.

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1 Response to Hugo Blogging: Best Short Story

  1. Holly says:

    Just for the record, I wouldn’t say I get upset at the metaphorical uses of “blind,” just wary and disappointed. And I was horrified when Andrew told me he nearly ranked a story he otherwise really liked below No Award solely for that reason.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that somebody being “good” about one kind of bigotry is no guarantee they’ll be as clued-up or sensitive to another. Or even to a quite-different example of the first kind.

    I think this is especially why you can’t expect someone to get everything rigjt when it comes to my bugbear about “blind” used to mean ignorance or apathy, because a lot of people don’t even think that is ableism. Which is really why I go on about it so much.

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