With all the extra time before the Hugo Awards, I decided to go a bit crazy with reviewing the short fiction. These last few days I have been reading all the nominees for the Hugo, Nebula, and the newly announced Locus Awards. (For more about the Locus Award Nominees, click here.) This is 15 short stories in total. The Locus Award has ten nominees, whilst the Hugo and Nebulas have six each. Two stories have been nominated for all three awards, whilst three appear on two ballots.
I have included links to all stories that are freely available online; which should be all of them. Most of the finalists were published in online publications and are easily accessible. The obvious exception is Jason Sanford’s The Eight-Thousanders, which was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. Fortunately for us, it has since been reprinted in Apex, which makes it’s stories freely available so I am able to link there. As of writing this, the only story I can’t find online is Aliette de Bodard’s In the Land of the Spill, since every link I’ve found to it is broken. With that in mind I’ll move that story to part 2 of this post and do some detective work. Now onto the first half of the reviews.
Open House on Haunted Hill
Diabolical Plots 6/15/20
Nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards.
This is the cutest, sweetest haunted house story I have ever read. 133 Poisonwood is a haunted house that is lonely and really wants a family to move in. It’s been mostly empty since the 80s, and so it is on it’s best behaviour during the open house. Whilst the realtor shows people around, a Daddy and daughter show up. Daddy hosts a skeptic podcast, and I love that irony. Meanwhile the little girl has a very special locket with a picture of her dead mother in it.
I’ve already said too much. This is a cute story with some strong emotions. I’m going to shut up about it, because I think meeting Daddy and Ava and getting to know them as 133 Poisonwood does is the best way to enjoy this story. I guess I like any story that personifies inanimate objects, so the very concept of a house wanting to find a family was always going to be a winner for me. Judging by how many awards this story has been nominated for, I’d say either I’m not the only one, or that everyone just loves this little family coming together. Or both. Both is very likely.
On a side note, this is the first time I’ve encountered Diabolical Plots. I had never heard of this site before, but now I am subscribed. I already got this month’s stories emailed to me, and I am really happy with them. This is definitely a publication to keep an eye on.
A Guide for Working Breeds
By Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, ed. Jonathan Strahan (Solaris)
Nominated for the Nebula and Hugo Awards
Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s 2017 story Fandom for Robots is one of my favourite short stories ever, so I was really excited to read this one. Fandom for Robots was really cute and made me laugh and straight away I skimmed through it to re-read some of my favourite parts.
And I just did it again. A Guide for Working Breeds made me laugh so much, and I scrolled straight back up the page to re-read some of my favourite lines.
This story is basically a chat-fic, with freelance robot “Constant Killer” talking to a newly embodied robot who has been randomly assigned to them as part of a compulsory mentor program. This robot has trouble figuring out how to change their display name at first, but they eventually settle on “Kleekai Greyhound”. Kleekai really likes dogs. They get a job in what they believe to be a dog and racoon maid café, but there are actually only racoons and their boss sucks. Constant Killer doesn’t really like talking about their work, so the two end up bonding over videos of cute dogs instead. Until one day Constant Killer agrees to meet Kleekai at the maid café, only for their work to cause some rather big problems.
This story is super cute, and crazy, and it’s really amazing how so much of the world and the characters is seamlessly constructed through these quick, sometimes silly conversations. There was one dramatic fight scene in the story, and I was impressed that instead of trying to tell it through snippets of the chat – which would make no sense – Prasad was brave enough to let the readers imagine the scene just from Kleekai and Constant Killer discussing the preparation (“Just checking, but what would raccoons do if, say, you flung them at someone?”) and then we just see Kleekai’s search history while the fight is going on (“– everything is on fire help????”) That is all I needed to let my imagination run wild.
Go read this one. If I say much more about the humor I’ll spoil it for you. also it’s a quick read, so just click the link and read it now.
The Mermaid Astronaut
Yoon Ha Lee
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 2/27/20
Nominated for the Locus and Hugo Awards
I like most things Yoon Ha Lee writes, and this story is no exception. The descriptions are really poetic and give tantalizing hints to an epic level of world-building. The concept involves fantasy creatures and magic in space; something Lee does very well. I loved the little mentions to whale-sages and anemone-councils, and the description of lanternfish lighting the way to the sea-witch’s dwelling. Lee’s prose charms you into his world.
This story is a Little Mermaid retelling with space travel. Strangely enough, I’ve recently read another Little Mermaid in Space story, Aimee Ogden’s Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, a Tor.com novella published this year. I feel that The Mermaid Astronaut is almost what I wanted Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters to be. They are very different stories; Sun-Daughters is very much on the science fiction side of things, whilst Mermaid Astronaut is a fantasy with straight up magic as well as a spaceship. In Mermaid Astronaut, I quickly became invested in Essarala’s longing for the stars, and the conflict between that dream and her family and live in the ocean. I felt guttered for Essarala and her sister when I figured out the unintended price of her bargain with the witch.
This story is basically everything I love about Yoon Ha Lee’s work. A magical, wonder-filled adventure that blends fantasy and science fiction and makes us care about the characters.
50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know
Nominated for the Locus Award
Cool fictional history of A.I, but at the end, I don’t think I really get it. Regardless, there were things I liked about this story. The concept is brilliant; it is an obituary for an A.I A.I-critic (meaning an A.I that has a lot of critical commentary on the A.I industry, not a typo) dubbed WHEEP-3. The idea of an AI being advanced enough to be “…delivering multiple barbs against the failings of this poorly regulated, would-be profession…” is interesting, and also fully plausible. The text of the obituary, as well as the advice list for other AI that is included at the end, make WHEEP-3 feel like a very non-human intelligence, even though it spent it’s life doing human stuff like write books on it’s industry and feuding with it’s creator. Figuring out what it’s last words actually wore also added a dark turn to the end of the obituary.
I reread this story for this review, and I enjoyed it more the second time. I guess I needed another go through to figure out what was happening on.
Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math
by Aimee Picchi
Daily Science Fiction
Nominated for the Nebula Award
Wow, it’s nice to see a flash fiction piece getting recognition alongside the longer short stories. Daily Science Fiction is a great site; every day a new tiny SFF story to make you smile. Joining their mailing list is a great way to get more reading done. I myself am always in awe when I come across a good flash fiction piece. Like, how can anyone pack so much story in under 1500 words?
Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math is full of story despite being so short. We get to see Penny go through a lifetime of putting up with sexist bullshit whilst longing for more from life. The framing device; that these events from Penny’s life are math problems in a test for students who can access portals to different worlds, is also really cool. I haven’t been this invested in a math test question since one of the Year 10 School Certificate exam questions started with “Mario is a plumber…”
I really hope the answer to the last question is C.
The Sycamore and the Sybil
Alix E. Harrow
Nominated for the Locus Award
Wow, this story was really dark, but really good. I usually find something cute about trees that are alive and thinking, but not this time. This time the situation was tragic. Worse; despite the magic, it felt too plausible.
The titular sycamore used to be a woman, but she used magic to turn herself into a tree rather than be raped. Similar to the myth of Daphne fleeing from Apollo’s advances. I’d say this is an intentional parallel, especially since the sycamore learned the spell from her aunt Daphne. When a young woman is assaulted next to the tree, our safe sycamore doesn’t share the secret of becoming a tree for protection. Instead, she tries to remember a spell that could work outward, instead of inward. A defense that won’t leave the young woman unable to live her life anymore.
Even without magic, this is a problem in our world. The focus is so much on women taking extreme measures to protect against sexual assault, rather than actively prevent or punish the perpetrators. It’s a story that has something to say about our world, and yet the message does not get in the way of the story. The message and the mythology it pulls from work so well together. Enjoyed is probably the wrong word for a story like this (in addition to the sexual coercion/assault, it also depicts suicidal ideation) but it is a good story.
by Jason Sanford
Nominated for the Nebula Award
Is it possible to be a moral vampire? If you need human blood to live, that means you need to kill humans right? In The Eight-Thousanders, we encounter Ferri, a vampire who has found a unique way to feed without murder. You see, hundreds of people die every year trying to climb Mt. Everest, and the conditions make retrieving the bodies nearly impossible. Ferri is able to take adventage of this situation. She spends a lot of time on the mountain, following doomed mountaineers like a vulture. Still morbid AF, and it lends to some creepy, but cool imagery of these climbers struggling in the blizzard while Ferri just walks behind them unfazed. Stalking them until they can’t go on.
Ferri is really creepy, but in a unique way. She says that being a vampire has dulled her emotions, and at times she seems just as interested in the emotions of our protagonist Keller as she does in eventually draining his blood. She also helped Keller and his boss Ronnie a bit, though there were other times where she made it very obvious that she was just going to watch them struggle. Watch them die. And of course, Ferri isn’t the only one whose emotions become numb, and whose only goal is to survive at any cost. This is primarily a wilderness survival story, but throwing a vampire in there just makes it hit so much harder.
This story also touches on the fact that Mt. Everest is a pretty disturbing place. There are so many people making the climb, and so many die there. I’d heard about some of the negative aspects of Everest tourism, but Rainbow Valley is new to me. That’s some pretty morbid stuff.
Come to this story for the weirdness of a vampire on Mt. Everest. Stay because that isn’t the most messed-up part of the story.
Whilst I find it hard to say a lot about short stories, there is no way I can put 15 of these reviews in one post. I’ll be back in a few days to share my thoughts on the rest of the nominees. Don’t miss it.