Review: 2017 Hugo Award Finalists – The Short Stories

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Review: 2017 Hugo Award Finalists – The Short Stories

Okay, it’s time to buckle down and start trying to see how many of this year’s Hugo Nominees we can review before the awards are given on August 11. Everyone who reads this column probably knows by now that I’m really fond of short stories, so let’s start with those. Click the jump for a short (naturally, right?) review of each of the finalists for Best Short Stories.

If I could knit you a crown of potential futures like the daisies you braided together for me when we were young, I would.

Alyssa Wong has received two nominations for a Hugo this year. Her dreamlike story “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” is a tale of loss, and loss, and loss. It’s worth reading through a second time – for the sake of the beautiful language of course – but also because what you think is going on changes after the first few paragraphs. The toxin from cruel attitudes and meaningless expectations doesn’t just poison one victim; regret spirals out like ripples or hurricanes. The death of an entire universe is less painful than being told by the universe over and over that some things just are. 

“That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn takes a familiar trope – a race of people who are mind-readers versus a race of people who aren’t – and looks at what that would actually be like. How do you strategize when the other side can read the mind of every soldier they come across? Do telepaths run into problems when they find someone who doesn’t automatically see what they’re thinking? Are there any games that a race of mind-readers wouldn’t play, and could a telepathic soldier play one with a non-telepath? Exactly how would that work, and what would their friendship be like? The overarching theme is about two races having to adjust to peace, but it’s also a sweetly moving story of an improbable game of chess.

John C. Wright was nominated for the unsettling story “An Unimaginable Light”, about a future where humans have created an army of robots to take care of everything: hard labor, administration, companionship, leadership, religion. The story lampoons concepts like micro-agressions and relative morality, and offers a stern warning about what a nanny-state will do to humanity’s soul.

The shortest story nominated, and by far the most deliciously angry, is Brooke Bolander’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”.

I was playing at being mortal this century because I love cigarettes and shawarma, and it’s easier to order shawarma if your piercing shriek doesn’t drive the delivery boy mad. 

Someone has managed to tick off the worst imaginable person, and getting revenge isn’t just limited to something so simple as pain, oh no. In so many cases it’s only the villains and heroes who get names and stories, while the victims get autopsy reports and maybe a little “oh woe” from the heroes, and our narrator is just done with that. In two pages, or maybe as many as three, in bullet points and swearing, she claws back the story for herself. And she’ll be damned if she dignifies the one responsible for this mess with a name. Or a backstory. Or a merciful death.

Spellcast shoes and an unclimbable mountain take center stage in “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal Eh-Mohtar. This is another instance of a story being reclaimed by the ones who usually get a supporting role, or worse, exist only as the MacGuffin for the hero to chase after. There’s a singsong quality to the prose, and an improbable romance mixed with images of icy mornings and geese in flight. The message of the story might come across a little heavy, but it’s a message I agree with. Plus, I do so love a good re-told fairytale, and this is two fairytales, told exceptionally well.

It’s going to be tough to pick a winner among this year’s nominees, but if I had to choose I’d say the one to get the Hugo will be “The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin (also up for two awards this year), a story of a city that’s almost old enough to be born.

“The gestation can take twenty years or two hundred or two thousand, but eventually the time will come. The cord is cut and the city becomes a thing of its own, able to stand on wobbly legs and do . . . well, whatever the fuck a living, thinking entity shaped like a big-ass city wants to do.”

The story is the liveliest of all the finalists, and the grittiest, with an almost stream-of-consciousness ranting quality going on with the hapless, homeless narrator who finds himself responsible for guiding the city of New York through its birth. The main character has all the anger and resignation of someone who knows firsthand what being young, black, and homeless will get you, but he also has a love for and a strange joy in his city. His first person account is fierce and defiant and occasionally hilarious (like the nail-biting account of having to dive through what he calls the “six lanes of utter batshittery and potholes that is FDR Drive”). The images of the horror he’s having to fight are surprisingly Lovecraftian, and there are sections that show what a living city in mid-battle would look like that I imagine will make many New Yorkers stand up and cheer.