Hugo short stories can be surprisingly long (7500 words or less). I tend to prefer the vignette, but regardless of length, I want a self contained story that hits its mark.
Note: it’s hard to discuss a short story without spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, skip to my rankings and general comments.
Carnival Nine by Caroline Yoachim
In a world of wind up dolls, a mother’s love is measured in turns of her spring.
There is a long history of using metaphors to comment on real world issues, and some metaphors are universal enough that over time, the issue they speak to changes.1 Carnival nine takes the opposite tack, focusing like a laser on the sacrifices involved in caring for a disabled child through its central conceit. With such a delicate subject, Yoachim avoids making the story feel emotionally manipulative though an aggressively dispassionate tone, and manages to establish the premise without getting bogged down in exposition or unnecessary explanation. Ultimately though, while I found the story moving, the total lack of subtext ultimately limited its appeal.
A solid and moving story in a well realised world that is just a little too on the nose.
Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde
Those who enter this museum of oddities may not feel the same when they leave…
While initially feeling like a weirdness for weirdness’ sake experience, Clearly Lettered has metaphorical fish to fry. Unfortunately it satisfied neither master; not weird enough to feel truly striking, nor providing any new perspective on its core conceit. Last year I thought Wilde’s novelette entry was fantasy comfort food that was just a bit better than it needed to be, and while the skill in writing is still there, this one just didn’t find its mark with me.
A carnival of the odd that isn’t odd enough.
Fandom for Robots by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
A robot discovers the joys of anime slashfic.
My description of this story is completely accurate, and depressingly reductive. Tales of robots discovering some aspect of human interaction that gives them meaning is some of the most well trod ground in science fiction. To move the needle, the execution needs to be exceptional, and here it is. If Fandom for Robots had nothing more to offer than a Lost in Space/Forbidden Planet style robot two finger typing emails by holding two styluses I would have loved it. Instead this is a story of the transformative power of engaging in fandom and the importance of including different voices within it, albeit one with an inadvertently humorous protagonist.
Don’t let the subject matter prevent you from reading this gem.
The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata
If it’s the end of the world, you may as well build a giant martian obelisk…
The shorter the work, the more you have to trust your audience. The Martian Obelisk opens with an expository dump and finishes with a statement of the themes and moral of the story, and this lack of respect from the author completely sapped the goodwill I would otherwise have had for the story. 2
A worn trope depressed further by a lack of respect for the audience.
Sun, Moon, Dust by Ursula Vernon
A farmer inherits a magic sword that leads him to his destiny.
From Arthur to Link, many of the great fantasy adventures start with a hero finding their sword. Vernon therefore addresses the most important question in the genre; what happens to the hero that is happy with no obvious enemies to fight? Obviously this is a subversion of the genre, but what makes it work is how straight it is played, and how natural the dialogue feels between a farmer and the barbarian spirits inhabiting his magic sword.3 Just a delight.
Strong subversion of a common fantasy trope.
Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse
A real American Indian gives fake American Indian experiences in VR.
This is a short story that felt long, and for the first third of its length I was reasonably sure it would be my least favourite of the offerings, as I felt it was just a little too didactic. But there is a method to this story, and as the “Authentic Indian Experience” transforms into the Authentic Indian Experience, the end more than redeemed the beginning. I just wish it had been a little tighter.
Worth toughing out a rough start to get to the Authentic Experience.
- Fandom for Robots
- Sun, Moon, Dust
- Carnival Nine
- Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience
- Clearly Lettered in a Most Steady Hand
- The Martian Obelisk
To be honest, I’m a little disappointed in this year’s short story entrants. Having said that, either of the first two stories would make great winners, the next pair were good but flawed, and the final two were not bad so much as mediocre.