I really look forward to the short story category – it’s a good chance to find new authors, and often has the biggest return on my reading time. This year I was particularly enthusiastic as I don’t think I’ve read anything from any of the authors.
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.
D.I.Y. by John Wiswell
A wizard and his friend go viral to save the world.
It’s a mess, but a mess held together anger and hope. It has strengths: the slightly tongue in cheek, incredibly on the nose take on geek social media culture in a world of magic is both amusing and drives the plot in interesting ways, and the ending, the embodiment of community action, is a genuinely unexpected and moving moment. My first issue is that the narrator just feels a little too self aware, like they are trying a little too hard (which may be intentional and is probably appropriate), which I found mildly grating. The big issue however is that the anger at the core of the story doesn’t land: there is a critique of capitalism, treatment of people who are different, the internet and social media, and much more, but given the short space it feels too diffuse to be effective. 1 I wish it had been a little more focused and surgical, or a little less serious.
Solid, but unfocused take on acting locally to fight globally.
On the Razor’s Edge by Jiang Bo
Chinese taikonauts frantically try to rescue astronauts of the International Space Station.
I’m usually a sucker for these stories, a daring space rescue that feels like an excerpt from a novel or movie, however I think this one is held back by the fact that it didn’t feel particularly innovative (it’s basically the climax of the Martian), and the translation felt fairly workman like.
Fun but derivative.
Rabbit Test by Samantha Mills
A girl tries to get some help spoofing her automated pregnancy test.
And here it is, righteous anger sharpened to a point and stabbed over and over again. Part history, part sci-fi, all polemic, the story plays with real past and hypothetical future to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. If it has a weakness, it’s that it gets off to a slow start,2 but it deliberately builds into something interesting and powerful.
A powerful why we fight.
Resurrection by Ren Qing 3
A resurrected corpse is sent to its mother to help her say goodbye.
Moody, weird, and delightfully off kilter, it starts as a farce, becomes a tragedy, and ends as something else. An extremely deft story that grounds a meditation on consciousness into the emotions of family. This is exactly the sort of new experience I’m looking for in a short story nominee – recommended for those looking for something different or novel.
Moody, weird, and delightfully off kilter.
The White Cliff by Lu Ban
A discussion between two people at the end of the world.
A story that relies a little too hard on a twist that is not quite enough – it’s interesting and well structured, but not earth-shattering or new.
OK story that would be spoiled if over described.
Zhurong on Mars by Regina Kanyu Wang
An AI city carries on after its inhabitants leave.
Drawing on Chinese Mythology (thankfully with extensive translation notes), this is again a fairly solid, if derivative what it means to be alive story.
Solid story of intelligence striving to find meaning.
- Rabbit Test
- On the Razor’s Edge
- The White Cliff
- Zhurong on Mars
I make a big deal about the short fiction category every year, and this year it did not pan out. None of the stories are terrible, but only Rabbit Test and Resurrection really stood out, and even then, they are both very good, rather than exceptional works. I prevaricated on the top nominee, but eventually gave it to Rabbit Test as having slightly more heft, and doing slightly more with the form, though on another day I might have given it to Resurrection for being more novel and interesting.
Looking at the rest of the pack, I suspect DIY might achieve a cult status and will speak to some people, but while I recognise its qualities, it just didn’t do it for me. The next three were all solid but felt derivative, however I enjoyed Razor’s Edge the most and thought White Cliff was the most interesting of the three, leaving Zhurong to round out the list.4
Disclaimer – Titles were provided to Hugo voters (including me) for their consideration.
- Contrast with “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” from a few years ago for example.
- Stick with it!
- Translated by Blake Stone-Banks
- The Hugo ballot in the image is my Hugo ballot, but to make it fit horizontally and still be readable, I cut the middle out of the image.