Hugo Blogging: Best Short Story

As always, I’m going to try to write blog posts about all the shortlisted works for the Hugo Awards and Retro-Hugos this year. As always, I will almost certainly not manage that. In particular, unless I somehow get stranded on a desert island, with only the nominated books for entertainment, and with a time machine that allows me to get back in time for voting, I won’t even be attempting the Best Series nominees (a category I don’t believe should exist at all, frankly, for a variety of reasons). It is, of course, extraordinarily generous that, for example, all of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books are included in the Hugo Packet, but I have a low tolerance for epic fantasy anyway, and faced with three 2500-ish page (according to Calibre, the ereader software I use) novels, one of which starts with a prelude, then “4500 years later”, and then a prologue before getting to the first chapter proper… well, I’d *like* to judge the category properly, but I’m afraid I have some important literally anything else in the world to be getting on with.

(No slight intended to Sanderson, who seems from the Writing Excuses podcast to be a very nice man. But my own view is that around two hundred and fifty pages is the optimum length for a novel, and I’m immune to the charms of epics generally, preferring books to be about ideas first and foremost rather than about character arcs or immersion in a world).

The short stories, on the other hand, are far more in my wheelhouse. I’ll be ranking these best to worst, mimicking my ranking on the eventual ballot. To avoid too much tension. I’ll say straight away that for the first time in a long time there is nothing here that should go below “No Award”. There’s work that’s not to my taste, but with all of it I can see why it would be to someone else’s. It’s all at least competently written, and it’s all actual science fiction or fantasy. None of it is outright propaganda for fascism, and none of it appears to have been gamed onto the ballot by Gamergate-wannabes.

These should not be exceptional criteria for an award, but after a couple of years where none of those were true (and last year where the quality was back up again thanks to the rule changes but there were still a handful of fascist shitsmears on the ballot), it’s a relief to be able to say those things.

It’s still not the case — and hadn’t been for a couple of years before the fascists tried their takeover bid — that this list contains only exemplary material, and there has always (since long before the Puppies) been a lot of work on the short fiction ballots that I’m unimpressd by. But partly that’s a fashion thing, I suspect — what impresses fandom at the moment is different from what impresses me, and the pendulum will undoubtedly swing again (and may already have done so had the fascists not tried to pull the pendulum off altogether). What we have here is a selection of well-reviewed, well-liked stories that are the consensus choice of fandom as the best stories published last year, and I’m not going to put “No Award” over anything that meets those criteria.

So, going from best to worst:

Fandom For Robots by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is an absolutely joyous little vignette about fandom, in which an obsolete robot from the 1950s (in a world in which robots exist but have made basically no difference to the culture) discovers online anime fandom and becomes a regular participant in fanfic groups — and in doing so helps build up appreciation for the obsolete aesthetics of 1950s robots generally.

I might not have liked this *quite* so much if I didn’t read it in the same week that Doctor Who on Twitch was causing much squeeing and injokes among tens of thousands of people, many of whom were discovering Hartnell-era Doctor Who for the first time — it’s not particularly strongly plotted and contains no revelatory ideas. But it’s celebratory, and funny, and it pings a *lot* of my buttons on all sorts of issues — the way online communities allow spaces for people who don’t fit in with conventional society, ways that accommodations can be made between authenticity-police style fans and the younger, more female, online fandoms around Tumblr and AO3, the way my personal favourite museum (the Media Museum in Bradford, now sadly the “Science and Media Museum”) is focusing less and less on the things that make it special, the idea that “outdated” aesthetics still have value, and the appreciation of nonstandard forms of physical beauty.

These are things that *really* resonate hard with me, and Prasad’s writing is clear and witty. It also includes copious exchanges from the message board conversations the robot takes part in, and I’m a sucker for found-document and epistolary stuff in my fiction. Basically, this is a story that seems designed to hit *all* of my buttons, so much so that I’m completely willing to forgive its comparatively slight plot. Just lovely. Far and away my favourite thing on the ballot.

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience TM by Rebecca Roanhorse is a really strong piece, written in second person, about portrayal of native experience for colonialist tourists, about cultural appropriation, the idea of “authenticity”, about colonialism more generally, and about betrayal. It only peripherally involves the SFnal aspects of the story — it could very easily be rewritten as a piece of straight contemporary fiction — but it would be a *very good* piece of straight contemporary fiction. It’s probably a better piece than the one I’m putting in first place, but I’m ranking it second partly because it’s less SFnal and partly because it has less to say to me personally. No doubt anyone who isn’t a white man who’s lived all his life in a country where he is the default would find this speaks more to them, and I certainly won’t be at all surprised or disappointed if it wins.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde is much more impressive than the previous work of Wilde’s I’d read, last year’s “The Jewel and Her Lapidary”. This is an atmospheric piece about freak shows, and eugenics, and medicalisation, told in the form of a tour guide taking you through an exhibition of curiosities. It’s genuinely creepy and disturbing, but like much of what gets nominated for the Hugos at present is a little too dependent on description and prose style for my tastes (one thing about being aphantasic is that it makes reading long descriptions of environments a little difficult and unrewarding). However, it makes good use of these things, and has some *really* disturbing passages — “Open the drawers of Items We’ve Let Touch Us Because Someone Just Like You Said It Would Make Us Well. The hooks and saws, the foul tastes and that stuff that made us gag and didn’t make us any better. You all wrote neat words down about each experiment anyway and that made you better.”

The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata I could very easily have put third, and possibly even second — while my top choice was an easy one, the other three bunch together very closely for me. The most conventional SF story of the bunch, this is something that I could easily see Galaxy having published in the 50s, both in writing style and in subject matter. An elderly woman living in a world beset by environmental disaster, where everyone is agreed that the world is going to end sooner rather than later, and that the best thing to do is to just let entropy win quietly, and to just accept that everything is going to disintegrate.

She’s working on building an obelisk on Mars, by remote-controlling from Earth a set of machinery left there by a previous failed colony attempt, as a final marker that yes, humanity did exist and were capable of art, when something happens to change everything.

It’s a very well written story, definitely worth reading, and probably the story that most fits my idea of what a science fiction story “should” be — but for that reason possibly a little too conservative, hence me ending up ranking it fourth. But all the top four stories are ones I genuinely like. The next two I don’t.

Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim does some very interesting things with its worldbuilding, but uses it, much like Roanhorse’s story, to tell a story which could have pretty much the exact same emotional effect without the worldbuilding. Which is not to say that the worldbuilding has no effect on the story as a whole — it’s intriguing, and leaves us asking a lot of questions, and it adds to the story — just that most of it works as a straight analogue (or nearly) for things in the real world, and stories which have one to one correspondences like that are less interesting to me.

(I’m really not expressing this very well. This is *not* a story where you could remove the SFnal elements and still have the same story, but it *is* a story where you could write a story set in the real world which had exactly the same emotional beats, beat-for-beat).

The story, about clockwork people who only have a certain number of spring turns a day, seems inspired by the “spoon theory of disability” — a clockwork woman who has a stronger spring than almost anyone, and who was abandoned by her mother (who didn’t want to waste turns on anyone but herself) and brought up by her father, has a clockwork child whose spring doesn’t work properly, and who she has to take care of. This leads to the breakup of her marriage, and so on, (although she later reconciles with her husband).

The reason I’m ranking it so low is… well, it’s a story that focuses on how hard it is to look after a disabled child, and on what looking after a disabled child does to the mother. The child is barely characterised, and the focus is all on the abled mother’s feelings and on her relationships with other characters.

Now, it doesn’t present the child as a burden in the metaphorical sense — she obviously loves the child — but it does in the literal sense, in that she has to carry the child everywhere because he’s too weak to walk.

Now, I don’t think it was the author’s intent by any means to reinforce harmful tropes about disability — in fact I suspect it was the opposite. Certainly the central conceit of the story suggests familiarity with disabled and chronic illness sufferers’ discourse around “spoons”. But whether it intends to or not, I think the story *does* reinforce ableist tropes, and so I can’t in good conscience rank it any higher than this, despite the imagination that’s gone into the worldbuilding and the emotional power of the story itself.

And finally Sun, Moon, Dust by Ursula Vernon is a short piece about a farmer who gets given a magic sword. It hits a lot of Vernon’s familiar themes — gardening, grumpy elderly women who have secret magical knowledge — but while I usually like her work, this does little for me. Like many of the stories this year, it works largely on description of a space and on subtle implications and things left unsaid, but when a story in that style doesn’t work for you, it can feel very bland even if (as this one is) it’s well written.

I have problems with all of these stories (even the one I’m ranking at the top), but at the same time there are four stories here I genuinely like, and two more which are certainly not bad. And while I think Vernon’s one is a little bit of a misfire, she’s a good enough author that I’m entirely willing to accept that the problem is with me, and that I’ve missed something that makes it exceptional.

It’s lovely to finally have a Hugo shortlist which, even if it doesn’t match my taste, is completely free of anything that’s actively awful or actively evil. It’s also good to see that the shortlist is made up of all female-named people (I word it that way because I know little about these authors, and one or more may be nonbinary or genderqueer, and I wouldn’t want to presume), and with a fair few non-Anglo names in there.

Because part of the reason not all of these stories feel like they’re for me is that the target audience for SF is no longer just fat white English-speaking men with glasses and beards who have a STEM background. Other people have stories they want to hear, or want to tell, and those stories are just as valid as the ones for me. And sometimes, as in “Fandom For Robots”, I’ll find out that those stories are also stories that are for me as well.

This is what the Puppies never understood, but what “Fandom For Robots” says really well. When someone different from you shares an interest, the community around that interest will change. But that only means you’re unwelcome if you’re unwelcoming. None of these stories were aimed at me, some of them worked for me anyway, others didn’t. But none of them made me feel excluded in any way, while the Puppies, writing stuff that was targeted with an almost laser focus at allocishet white men like me, made me feel horribly excluded.

Here’s to many, many, more years of stuff on the Hugo ballot that isn’t all my kind of thing.

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