Hugo novelettes tend to be long short stories (7500-17500 words).1 The little bit of extra space gives more flexibility and can lead to greatness (last year’s Wind Will Rove, or two years ago’s Tomato Thief spring to mind), but far to often they fall into the uncanny valley where the length makes them flabby without gaining the depth of a longer work.
Note: I’ll point out every time there will be varying degrees of spoilers, so feel free to jump to the ballot at the end if you want.
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly
A tasting menu of memories challenges a tyrant
I don’t know why this one didn’t connect for me. It is well written, with magical pastries that stimulate memories providing diegetic flashbacks, and well plotted, with a story built on spouses trying to coordinate a coup together without discussing it. I suspect it’s just because it felt like an assemblage of familiar pieces into a familiar shape;2 after the rhythm of the story was set by the first course, the major story beats were fairly predictable.
A well executed fantasy story about the power of memory that felt just a little too familiar.
Nine Last Days on Planet Earth by Daryl Gregory
Nine days of surviving panspermic invasion
Can a title elevate the structure of a story? The title is not “The Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, but is close enough to create the expectation of an imminent disaster. Simply by subverting our expectations, the title improves the fairly common structure of taking a few key moments spread over our protagonists life. This also fits the nature of the disaster, where we have an invasion not with force of arms, but simply by throwing a huge range of invasive plants at the planet and dealing with the consequences over decades.
In the end though, “Nine Days” is more about LT’s life than the apocalypse: exploring his sexuality, making peace with his flawed parents, and building a family himself. Even the title bears this out; the ending of the story suggests that the disaster is not an extinction event, and in fact the only last applies to LT himself. And this, to me, is the ultimate undoing of the story, as the whole feels less than the sum of its parts as the SciFi and Slice of Life vie for attention and importance, rather than working together. The point of the story may well be that life doesn’t stop in a disaster, but it may have been better if it had.
A good story about panspermia and a good story about going through life make an average story over all.
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
Glowing elephants, nuclear waste storage, radium watch painters, topsy, mammoth ancestral memories, OH MY.
I never thought I would be down on a story with genetically engineered glowing elephants, yet here we are. There is just too much thrown against the wall here to work in the amount of space available.3 Bolander does put a coherent through line through all of these stories, but it just drowns under a cacophony of ideas. This is a perfect example of how a novellete can go wrong: I can’t help but wish that she either made some hard choices and trimmed down the narratives, or wrote a much longer work.
Too many scattered thoughts to be of interest unless you are desperate for more elephants in your life.
The Thing About Ghost Stories by Naomi Kritzer
A folklorist collects ghost stories while grappling with the death of her mum.
I’m a sucker for a parody or deconstruction of a genre that is also a good example of that genre. The best compliment I can pay Kritzer is that I assumed the she was actually a folklorist turned writer, as the descriptions of her experiences of the road collecting ghost stories and writing her dissertation felt so authentic. To then interweave these experiences with discourses on the meaning of the stories she encounters, and also her experiences with her dementia affected mother before and after her passing elevates this into something special.
A great ghost story about ghost stories.
When We Were Starless by Simone Heller
The successor species to man discover a museum about the stars.
This years slate seems to have weirdly converged, as we have our second story about sentient raptors, 4 and our second story about non-humans living in the aftermath of the human apocalypse.5 Fortunately however, When We Were Starless tilts more towards the former than the later. What really impressed me about this story is how it doesn’t rush to its destination, but actually puts the yards into world building. First we establish our nomadic tribe surviving the horrors of the wastes, guided by our ghost-hunting scout.6 Only once we have a feel for the present, do we get the museum and the real thrust of the story becomes clear, a reminder of the past passing on humanity’s reach for the stars. For a story set after humanity has wiped themselves out, I found it surprisingly uplifting.
An inspiring story about the transcendent nature of our desire for the stars.
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho
An imugi tries very hard to become a dragon.
Byam is an Imugi, a worm that, with enough practice and a bit of help from the universe, can become a dragon. Unfortunately, it’s really hard for the universe to give you help when humans keep reminding it what you are. Obviously this is about perseverance, though its not about the trite perseverance which leads to success, but that when we have to live with having failed. Indeed the whole story is like that, every time I thought I knew where it was going, it changed direction. Topping it off is the tone, just a little too sardonic for the inspiration poster sentiment of the title. As someone who didn’t become a dragon, and is still finding my way through life afterwards, this gave me hope.
A windy tail that takes a platitude, and finds something meaningful and fun in it.
- The Thing About Ghost Stories
- If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again
- When We Were Starless
- The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
- Nine Last Days on Planet Earth
- The Only Harmless Great Thing
This was a fairly easy category to rank, with The Thing About Ghost Stories being genuinely great and Cho’s entry being a little behind it, but still worthy of recognition. Rounding out the top was When We Were Starless, which is a perfect example of a not my favourite, but glad in was nominated quality story. From there, we have a steep dive into well written but unsatisfying with The Last Banquet and Nine Days, before hitting Only Harmless. The only real question is whether I rank The Only Harmless Great Thing, or not bother, as it is a complete mess that I would be shocked to see win, but not bad enough to merit a no award ranking.
- Yes I know that I’ve taken this text from last year, but while last year the slate was great, this year, these comments are bit more prescient.
- Magic, character, and plot.
- I didn’t even include elephant sign language or the post apocalyptic elephant future
- The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
- The only Harmless Great Thing
- And it’s never answered, but I really want to know what a ghost actually is in this world.