Hugo Blogging: Best Novelette

So the Hugo Packet arrived today (yesterday when you’re reading this — I am cleverly scheduling a couple of posts for while I’m away), and so I’m going to continue looking at this year’s finalists.

As with the short stories, there’s one item on here that I’m not going to dignify with treating as a proper Hugo finalist — it was gamed on here by fascists — but as there are six finalists rather than the five that were previously the norm, it’s easy enough to stick fascist crap below “No Award” and treat the rest as the proper finalists. So that’s what I’ll do. There may be spoilers ahead…

My thoughts ranked from best to worst:

Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman is absolutely stunning. Like much Hugo-nominated short fiction of recent years, it’s essentially a character piece, but this story, about a woman driving an alien and its human “translator” around America, deals with a lot of themes that SF can deal with better than any other genre — the nature of humanity, the impossibility of communication, the necessity of empathy — while also having a really unique SFnal idea. The alien in this story is revealed, as the story progresses, to be intelligent but non-sentient — it has no self-awareness or consciousness as we understand them, even though it’s far more intelligent than humans. But the means by which it communicates with its human translator allows it to experience self-awareness vicariously, at the eventual cost of its own life.

It reminded me very much of some of Greg Egan’s better short fiction, and I’m very eager to read more by Gilman, who I was shamefully unaware of before (she has a long history of publishing credits, but I’d somehow missed out on hearing of her).

The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon is another very strong story, and while Gilman’s is more to my personal taste I think that Vernon’s story may be the better story. A sequel to her earlier story Jackalope Wives (which was kept from the 2015 Hugo ballot by the fascists), like that story it features the character of Grandma Harken.

Harken is, to all intents and purposes, Granny Weatherwax under another name (though hints are dropped here that in future stories more may be revealed about her), and this is very, very, reminiscent of some of Pratchett’s witches stories, notably the Tiffany Aching books and Lords and Ladies. While it’s not played even slightly for comedy, Harken’s character and behaviour are so similar to Weatherwax’s that I have to assume she’s intended at least in part as a tribute to the earlier character.

However, while Pratchett’s stories are set in a fantasy version of rural England, Vernon’s is set in an equally fantastic American West, a desert populated by jackrabbits and coyotes, and where the gods are gods of the railway. An almost hallucinatory heat haze hangs over everything, and for me at least adds to a sense of unfamiliarity and the uncanny (I’d be interested in what readers from Texas or Arizona think of the relative effects of this and Pratchett’s work).

Vernon’s plot is a simple enough one, built up almost entirely out of folk tale motifs, but her writing is so strong that that really doesn’t matter. This is all about voice, character, and atmosphere, and on that level it works better than anything else here.

The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allen is a pleasant enough story of a woman searching for her birth father while coping with her mother’s dementia. It’s a very well written character piece, but fundamentally doesn’t do much for me. The big revelation isn’t set up well enough for it to really be effective, and there’s not enough in it really to hold my attention.

You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay by Alyssa Wong is one I might have enjoyed more had I not read it directly after Vernon’s story. While the two stories are very different in plot and theme, both are set in fantasy Old West deserts, and all the coyotes, mockingbirds, mesas, and yucca trees seemed like a rehash to me. Not Wong’s fault, just the luck of which order I read the stories in.
That said, even had I read them in reverse order, I would still place Wong’s story below Vernon’s. It does what it does very well indeed, but what it does is less interesting to me. And I’d knock points off for it being written in second person. While I would not ever argue that second person should be avoided in all cases, I do think it needs a reason, and I don’t really see one here. Others may, of course, disagree, but to me at least this story could have been written in close third without any major changes, and when that’s the case it just feels like someone showing off their own cleverness, but without it actually being a particularly clever thing to do.
It’s a decent enough story, but much like Wong’s entry in the short story category, it’s not for me.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde I’m afraid I found utterly unreadable. I won’t be placing it under No Award, because it’s not that it’s doing what it does badly, it’s just that what it does is completely uninteresting to me. It’s marketed as “an epic fantasy in miniature”, and I’m not a fan of epic fantasy at the best of times. It’s the kind of thing where people talk about “worldbuilding” and the “magic system”, and those are the main appeal of the story. Those things do nothing for me, and so I gave up on the story about thirty pages in.
I’m sure that people who like this kind of thing will find it the kind of thing they like, and I’m not going to stick a story below No Award just because I’m not a fan of the genre, but this isn’t the sort of thing that I, personally, read SFF for.

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