More Hugo Award reviews. This time I’m looking at the most awkward of story lengths, the Novelette. Let’s get right into it. I’m in between a few projects at the moment, so I apologise for both the delay and my brevity regarding this post.
Two Truths and a Lie
By Sarah Pinsker
Published at Tor.com
I love Sarah Pinsker’s short fiction. I first discovered her from these Hugo reviews back in 2018, when her novella And Then There Were (N-One) and her novelette Wind Will Rove were both on the ballot, and since then I get excited every time I see her name on a story.
Damn, saying that makes me want to go back and re-read And Then There Were (N-One). No wonder it took me so long to write these reviews; I am very easily distracted lately.
This is a short, creepy story about Stella helping her childhood friend Marco clean out his hoarder brother Denny’s house after the latter’s death. Whilst cleaning Stella asks Marco if he remembers a creepy kids show that was broadcast locally when they were little. She doesn’t expect him to say yes – she has issues with making shit up, and the creepy show was another fabrication – but turns out he does. Everyone does except Stella. Also, Stella was on that show once. The more she investigates this missing memory, and the more she finds out about the show and the fate of the children on it, the creepier this story gets. I’m still trying to get my head around that ending, but overall I loved this one.
By Isabel Fall
Published Clarkesworld Jan 2020
There is a history behind this one. The short version is that this story was originally published with the title “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, and because there was little information out there about Isabel Fall, people started getting paranoid about the intention behind the story. Trolls took the transphobic title at face value, and basically there was a whole thing that exploded on Twitter and got so out of hand that Fall ended up in hospital. The longer story about this story was recently told on Vox, and can be found here.
I’m glad I went into this knowing the backstory and the author’s intent. I found Helicopter Story to be a really interesting exploration on gender, and a good critique of the military. The basic premise is that the military can give you a gender that makes you a piece of killer machinery. It’s clever, it’s thought provoking, and it is really well written. There is some interesting worldbuilding; we get to see a post-climate disaster USA using gender as a weapon in a war against the A.I. controlled Pear Mesa Budget Committee. I liked it as a thought experiment and discussion about gender.
I didn’t like it as a story. There isn’t a lot happening and it is mostly Barb’s inner thought on gender. Hard to say what I would have preferred, since the point of this story is Barb’s thoughts on gender, and the language used seems really good at conveying a trans experience. I guess I just wanted a bit more plot.
Overall, I am glad to see this story on the ballot and I wish Isabel Fall all the best. I can’t imagine writing something so personal, expressing all these ideas while starting to transition, and then just having such a negative reaction.
Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super
by A.T. Greenblatt
Published Uncanny May/June 2020
This isn’t your average superhero story. It did bring to mind the X-men, as the supers in this story are feared and ostracized due to their powers, and making a super team is a way to change their public image. What sets this apart is that our protagonist Sam isn’t going out to kick the asses of reality-destroying villains. Instead, he’s the team’s accountant. Even from his vantage point on the sidelines, he sees a lot of really freaky stuff, and has a hard time.
In the end, this isn’t a superhero story about someone raising up to fight the baddies and save the world. It’s about a guy whose life was ruined by one instance of spontaneous human combustion and the viral video that came from it. Sam Wells doesn’t need to save the world; he just needs to learn to accept himself for who he is. It made for a superhero story that felt different, and was still fun to read.
The Inaccessibility of Heaven
By Aliette de Bodard
Published Uncanny Jul/Aug 2020
This story is set in an alternative universe version of de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series. Which in itself is an alternative history where a war in heaven spills into Paris and devastates the city. By that I mean this story is set in Paris and there are fallen angels and witches and stuff everywhere due to the war in heaven, but things are going pretty well in the city. Business as normal rather than everything destroyed. I haven’t read the Dominion of the Fallen novels, so I’m basing that assumption on incomplete knowledge.
I have read a shorter Dominion of the Fallen story before. Children of Thorns, Children of Water is a novelette set in the actual Dominion of the Fallen world that was nominated for a Hugo a few years back. Remembering that it is now very obvious that this story is not set in the same universe, even though it has the same premise and setting. I found this much lighter fallen angel setting more enjoyable than the darker, post-apocalyptic feel of Children of Thorns (though I admit, I was missing a lot of context needed to get that story.) Angels in a modern world is pretty fun, and the lore behind this story is interesting. The basic plot is about Samantha trying to track down a monster that is murdering high ranking angels. Doing this raises questions about her lover, the angel Calariel. It’s a fun supernatural murder mystery. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really blow me away.
By Naomi Kritzer
Published Clarkesworld Jan 2020
I started reading this story once I got it in the Hugo packet, and two paragraphs in I realised that I’d read it before, but had no recollection of the plot. Not the best second impression. I remember I enjoyed it the first time around, but trying to review it without a re-read was just impossible.
Going through the opening paragraphs again reminded me why I had liked it, even if it didn’t trigger anything about the plot. Kritzer starts off explaining all the mundane, quirky aspects issues an American travelling to rural China would have; watching the sniffer dog at the airport, dealing with an only moderately helpful translator app, but then she casually drops that the main character wants to know if there have been any dead bodies around. It is a really powerful hook. We follow Cecily as she tracks down her old childhood friend Andrew, who is wanted by the FBI for unethical experiments. It takes a while to figure that out as Kritzer spends a while building up the two characters. She does it really well, with the current day scenes in China and the flashbacks to Cecily’s high school days working well together. The eventual confrontation between the two former friends was awesome.
I also really related to Cecily. We both suck at sport, have trouble finding clothes that are comfortable, and were both told to ‘just ignore it’ when bullied at school. I really liked this story and the character in it, and have no idea how I so completely forgot it.
By Meg Elison
Published at Big Girl (PM Press)
This is a story that is going to stay with me for a while. Got some very Black Mirror vibes, and really enjoyed Elison’s writing. This story is about a cure for obesity; and the horrific cost that comes with it. Our Protagonist (who is referred to as Munchkin at times, but whose real name I don’t think is mentioned. A bit of 1st Person Perspective fun), has been overweight her whole life, as has her family. Her mother signs up to tests every new experimental weight loss treatment, until one day, one of them works. Works ridiculously well; I mean like, a few days of shitting out the fat and be thin forever. Not just thin, but with a perfect body. The same perfect body for everyone. Oh, but there is a 1 in 10 chance of death from taking the pill.
a 1 in 10 fatality rate. The pill still gets approved for commercial use, becomes popular, almost mandatory. It seems like an unrealistic concept, but the way Elison presents it, and the way she shows you how much society hates fatness, it starts to feel a lot more plausible. Watching how this pill and the quest for an ‘acceptable’ body hurts the protagonist and her family is heartbreaking. I mostly enjoyed this story, though I am still processing the ending. My first instinctual reaction to it was negative, but after thinking about it more, and coming to terms with the fact that this isn’t the type of story that leads to an unambiguously happy ending, I am starting to appreciate it.
I didn’t enjoy this year’s novelettes as much as I enjoyed the short stories. In saying that though, this is still a competitive ballot. Two Truths and a Lie won this year’s Nebula Award and The Pill won this year’s Locus Award. Both of them are deserving winners, but I wouldn’t count out the rest of the contenders just yet. Bring on the award ceremony this December.