Hugo Awards Extravaganza 2023 – Novelette

Hugo novelettes tend to be long short stories (7500-17500 words).1  I used to bag on this category as slightly too long short stories, and that’s certainly true for the bulk of nominees, but for the last few rounds I’ve reviewed, the top stories have been really excellent; the best entries are super short stories that benefit from the extra space while still being compact and not overstaying their welcome.

The Difference Between Love and Time by Catherynne M. Valente

A relationships between a woman and space-time.

The premise sounds wacky, until you remember that it is also the inciting incident for Pratchett’s “Thief of Time”.2 This is a very well executed version of this as space-time manages to be a fairly good anthropomorphic personification3 in that it has both vividly human, and distinctly non-human tics.  It’s fascinating to see a protagonist work through relationship issues with a non-linear, infinite being, so that the most mundane issues become both achingly recongnisable and completely absurd.

Unfortunately the story just didn’t do it for me – I said it was a well executed version of this mundane issues with special characters, but it it was still a recognisable version of that thing.  This culminates with a thematically appropriate, but underwhelming ending that drained some of the good will I’d built up for the characterisation.

An exploration of long term relationships through an absurd lens.

A Dream of Electric Mothers by Wole Talabi

To decide if they’ll fight, a nation consults with their digital ancestors.

While the idea of a digital Akashic memory is hardly new, the framing of this story does a lot of good work here – making it a Cabinet decision demonstrates that consulting with the Electric Mothers is not a thing to be done lightly, while the less than selfless reasons for the Minister to push for the consultation give us an idea of the scope of the Mothers.  It backs this with a solid meditation on parents and children – can a parent make a child greater than themselves – that gets it point across without lingering or overdoing it, topped off with a strong Afro-futurism aesthetic.

Strong meditation on parents trying to assist their children to surpass them.

If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You by John Chu

What happens if your friend from the Gym might be a superhero?

Note – this is pretty difficult to review without spoiling it a little, but the spoiler is pretty obvious once you get a little into the book.

And now we get our second what if a normal(ish) person formed a relationship with something special – in this case what happens if you fall in love with a god who doesn’t quite know how to pass?  A fairly exciting premise,4 but one that I found frustrated however by the fairly heavy bit of social commentary that, while integrated into the story, feels peripheral to, rather than in alignment with the love story.  I would probably rate it lower, but it ends with a moment that feels “real” to the relationship and made me smile.

A romance and superhero story don’t entirely happily cohabit.

Murder By Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness by S.L. Huang

An investigative piece into a killer who might be a chatbot.

This is a triumph of form; it takes a simple idea, killer AI, and moves it into the realm of the possibleby framing it as an investigative journalism piece.5  It achieves something rare in hard sci-fi – producing a work that is equal measures fascinating and terrifying.

A successful experiment in form that is a herald of a nightmarish online future.

The Space-Time Painter by Hai Ya6

An illustration haunts the forbidden city, and a detective hunts down why.

Sometimes the explanation is the death of a good story.  Despite the somewhat troubled translation that I was working off of, the opening of “The Space-Time Painter” piqued my curiosity; the premise was both off beat and taken extremely seriously, giving a surreal quality that I found extremely effective.  Unfortunately there is a turn about half way through that puts the breaks on the story, and then fatally an explanation that kills the magic of the story.

An surreal mystery ruined by its solution.

We Built This City by Marie Vibbert

The city cleaners of Venus get embroiled in an industrial dispute.

Cleaning the dome of a Venusian cloud city sounds high concept, but this story is grounded in dystopian labour relations, and it’s really about, well you should read it to find out what it’s really about. It’s a tribute to how well written this is, that each layer from the premise to the personal feels cohesive and enhances the other aspects – the premise heightens the personal, and the personal makes the world feel real.  The other thing that makes this work is that it has a distinct voice, it feels personal to the author,7 and that made me feel the ending.

High concept sci-fi, labour relations, and family come together in an emotional package.

Hugo Ballot

  1. Murder By Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness
  2. We Built This City
  3. A Dream of Electric Mothers
  4. The Difference Between Love and Time
  5. If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You
  6. The Space-Time Painter (Note – winner)

This was pretty straight forward – Murder by Pixel and We Built this City were both great, but in the end I went for the formal experiment over the emotional punch (but either would make worthy winners).  A Dream of Electric Mothers was a good example of a well trod premise elevated by good choices, and then the next two were fine stories that didn’t quite land with me.  Rounding out the set was the Space-Time Painter, which if it had maintained the tone of the opening, probably would have been competing with Electric Mothers, but whose catastrophic ending dragged it down to OK for me.

Postscript – I’m writing this up after the winners are announced, and I’m honestly befuddled by The Space-Time Painter winning – perhaps a combination of it reading much better in its original language, and a lot of people liking the finale?

Disclaimer – Titles were provided to Hugo voters (including me) for their consideration.

  1. Yep – same text as the previous two rounds, but it’s true every time.
  2. With genders swapped of course.
  3. Again thank you Pratchett.
  4. Well, not entirely dissimilar to Lois and Superman, but still.
  5. With real references even!
  6. This didn’t come with a translation in the Hugo packet, so I ran it through Google translate which did a surprisingly good job.
  7. Though maybe it isn’t and they just made it feel this way, in which case that’s even more impressive.

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