Hugo Ballot Thoughts, Short Fiction, 2019
Here’s a look at the Hugo Ballot for the short fiction categories. I’ve read all the novelettes and short stories, but not the novels, alas. I don’t have much to say about the other categories – though I will say, I don’t think Archive of Our Own should have been nominated in the Best Related Work category because to me it doesn’t really fit that category. And the argument “What category does it fit?” doesn’t hold water, because there’s no law that says there has be a Hugo for everything, even if it seems like that sometimes. Indeed, I think this is a case where a committee-decided Special Award would have been quite appropriate.
I am behind on my novella reading, so I’ll just give a quicky summary. Here’s the list:
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)
Of these only Artificial Condition was on my nomination ballot, but I didn’t get to The Black God’s Drums until later, and it would have been on my ballot. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach struck me as impressively ambitious – probably the most ambitious of the nominees – but I think the ending is a mess. Still a story worth reading. The Tea Master and the Detective is nice work, not quite brilliant. And, I say with guilt, I haven’t read Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I suspect will be very fine work.
Then there’s Binti: The Night Masquerade, which I couldn’t finish. Partly this was simply deadline pressure – I was bored, and I had other stuff I HAD to read, so I gave it up. But, well, Binti was not without interest, but ultimately kind of a mess; and Binti: Home was downright awful, so my expectations were not high. Honestly, I am at a nearly complete loss as to why these stories have been Hugo nominees. But, let's be fair -- I didn't finish the story, so it might have gotten a lot better by the end. (Though some Hugo Ballot reviews I trust suggest otherwise.)
I’ll try to get to Beneath the Sugar Sky, but pending that, The Black God’s Drums probably gets my top vote, and Artificial Condition second. And I won’t think it a bad award if anything but Binti: The Night Masquerade wins. And, seriously, how could people ignore Time Was, by Ian McDonald?
The novelette list:
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com, 11 July 2018)
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)
None of these were on my nomination ballot, but they are all worthwhile stories. I still think my ballot is better: Dale Bailey’s “The Donner Party”, James Patrick Kelly’s “Grace’s Family”, Alex Jeffers’ “The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death”, Kelly Robson’s “Intervention”, Karen Russell’s “Orange World”, and James Sallis’ “Dayenu”. Most of these are understandable non-nominees – “Orange World” (The New Yorker), “Dayenu” (LCRW), and “The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death” (Giganotosaurus) all come from venues that just don’t get enough notice from the nominating community. And for that matter, so does “The Donner Party” (F&SF) – the current nominating constituency (taken as a whole) simply won’t consider stories from print magazines, which is a disgrace, quite frankly. Of these, “Dayenu” in particular is remarkable, and it’s a shame no one saw it.
That said, the two Tor.com website stories, “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” and “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, are very very good, and could have fit on my ballot easily. Connolly’s story tells of Saffron, the Confection Taster, and her husband Danny, the Pastry Chef, who are forced to serve the “Traitor King”. The title banquet features a series of dishes, all of which are arranged to recall past events – and by this means the back story of the Traitor King’s ascension is revealed. The ending is perhaps a bit predictable, but the journey to it is very effective. Gregory’s story tells of a sort of environmental apocalypse, but not any of those we have faced or are now facing. Instead, in a ‘50s movie sort of way, alien spores seed the Earth in 1975, and the story follows LT from boyhood to senescence, as he and his family battle to understand the new ecology, and perhaps to find a way to adapt. The story combines an elegiac feel with optimism in powerful fashion.
“The Thing About Ghost Stories” is really good as well, about a folklorist who specialized in ghost stories, and her relationship with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s. The relationship (naturally for this particular story), continues after her mother’s death. Very fine, emotionally true and affecting.
The Only Harmless Great Thing has generated the most buzz of any of these novelettes, and has already copped the Nebula. I admire Brook Bolander’s writing – and this novelette is well-written – but it just didn’t work for me. Sometimes I see a piece get an award nomination and I think “What were they thinking?”. On other occasions – certainly in this case – I think I understand the nomination – this is an impassioned story, a well-written one, it’s about something important. But it doesn’t hold together, it doesn’t seem essentially true to me. It tells of an alternate history in which the Radium Girls (who were poisoned by working on watch dials without protection) end up training intelligent elephants to replace them (there’s a specific nod to Topsy, an elephant electrocuted by Thomas Edison); and also tells of a future in which elephants appear to rule, and a woman and and the elephants communicate about nuclear waste. (It occurs to me that I have had terrible luck with SF stories about elephants (or elephant-like beings) – these include dreadful novels like Fletcher Pratt’s Invaders from Rigel, Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall, and Stephen Baxter’s Silverhair; plus a dreadful short story in Mike Resnick’s “The Elephants on Neptune”. (The only good example I can think of is Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth.))
Zen Cho’s “If at First you Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” is, I think, best described as pleasant fun, about an imugi that wants to become a dragon. It tries every millennium or so, and its initial failures are amusing. Then it blames a depressed Ph. D. student on its failure, goes to try to eat her, and becomes entranced – spends a lifetime with the human. It’s not a surprise what happens to the imugi after she dies. I mean, this is a nice story, a fun read. But, I just don’t see Hugo winner.
Simone Heller’s “When We Were Starless” has a fairly familiar setup – a struggling tribe trying to survive in a tough world, with some help from what seems perhaps a crashed spaceship – complete with an ancient hologram that’s regarded as a dangerous ghost. Heller works some nice changes on this – the tribe is aliens, though the tech (and the ghost) seem human; and much of the interest inheres to the well described narrator … Again, this is nice work, and again, I didn’t quite seem what separates it from a raft of fine, well done stories that aren’t on the Hugo ballot.
The first three stories I mentioned (by Connolly, Gregory, and Kritzer) will be at the top of my ballot – in an order yet to be determined. Then the other three, with the position of the Bolander story depending on how many points it gets for ambition (clearly it's more ambitious than the Heller or Cho stories) versus success.
The nominees are:
“The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
Of these, Alix E. Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” and Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician” are the two that appear in my Best of the Year volume, which is a good clue that they’re the stories at the top of my ballot. The fact is, the rest of these stories are all pretty good, so in no way does this list shame the Hugo nomination process. That said, there are several short stories I thought superior to the others that made the final ballot – and, hey, that’s the way it goes! If we all liked the same things, it would be a dreary world. That said, these stories deserve more notice: “The Buried Giant”, by Lavie Tidhar; “Kindred”, by Peter Watts; “A Portrait of Salai”, by Hannu Rajaniemi; “The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish”, by Octavia Cade; “The Hydraulic Emperor”, by Arkady Martine; “The Heart of Owl Abbas”, by Kathleen Jennings; and “Carouseling”, by Rich Larson.
So, anyway, my Hugo ballot, with comments. Note first that places 3 through 5 might easily be shuffled before submission.
1. “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” – This one is pretty special. It’s told by a librarian (“There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches” – no prizes for guessing which category our narrator fits), as she encounters a teenaged boy who becomes obsessed with a particular pretty bad fantasy novel. The boy is obviously in a difficult family situation – and perhaps escape is what he needs. And witches know ways to escape … but that’s against the rules, and librarians are rule followers. The story is at the same time a bit cute, almost arch, and yet grounded and quite moving.
2. “The Court Magician” – This tells of the career of a young boy selected to learn magic. And so he does, over time, mastering sleight-of-hand, always wanting more, until he is finally offered real magic. Which must be in service of the Regent of his land, and which comes at a cost – a terrible cost to himself, and, he eventually realizes, possibly to others as well. It is in a way another variant on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (a story Pinsker riffed on even more explicitly last year with “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going”). Strong and morally effective.
3. “STET”, by Sarah Gailey – A strong story, intriguingly structured, best suited, perhaps, for online reading, though it certainly can be read on paper – it consists of an abstract, several citations, and editorial comments with rejoinders by the author. I sort of don’t want to discuss it more, as that might blunt its impact. It’s in a sense a trolley problem story, dealing with autonomous cars.
4. “The Secret Lives of Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” – another differently structured story, detailing the imagined lives of nine people whose teeth ended up in George Washington’s mouth. It’s strong stuff, very worth reading, necessary reading indeed, engaging powerfully with our nation’s “original sin” and the often underacknowledged culpability of our Founding Fathers with that sin. Listed lower relative to other stories because, well, I like “story”, and I didn’t think this had enough of that. But it didn’t mean to have any more “story” than it did, for good and sufficient reasons. So – not an auctorial failing – but still a reason it’s not higher on my ballot.
5. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” – This is a wise and funny story which tells of the seduction of the title woman by a series of creatures of Faerie – an elf, a selkie, a pooka – and their mutual disappointment as she enjoys their company but fails to pine when they desert her – indeed, she marries the blacksmith.
6. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” – this is about what it says, pretty much. The Prince, who is (all too predictably) remarkably dumb and cruel, hunts the sisters, and captures and imprisons one – with easy to guess eventual results. As I say, it’s quite predictable in general shape, but that’s a bit unfair to it, because it’s a cleverly told and quite funny story. It fits with a few stories I’ve mentioned – a good story, one I’m glad I read, that doesn’t quite seem to me to be Hugo material.