Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Hugo Ballot 2022: Novelettes and Short Stories

Uncanny Magazine: Source of half the nominees in this post!

Now that I've posted about my picks for novels and novellas for this year's Hugo awards, here are my picks for Best Novelette and Best Short Story. I did manage to read all of these (except for one I couldn't get into), but I usually do well with the short fiction in that regard. Hopefully I'll get to some of the other categories soon. I even listened to some of the podcast nominees this year--a personal best! The voting deadline is Aug. 11, so I'd better get to it.

Best Novelette

I read all of the novelettes this year. Oddly, although I loved or at least enjoyed all of the novels and novellas, I had trouble getting into most of the novelettes. I didn't think any of them were bad. Most of them were pretty good, actually. Maybe I was just a bit burnt out from rushing to finish so many different stories in a couple days. I don't know. Anyway, here's what I thought.

1. “Bots of the Lost Ark”, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, Jun 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "For some reason I didn't realize until after I read this story that it's a sequel to Palmer's 2017 story "Secret Life of Bots" (which I greatly enjoyed). In this one we once again meet Bot 9 who once again has a fun adventure in the ship. This time some rogue robots have amalgamated to form sort of hives of bots that will replace the human crew, even taking their names (i.e., LOPEZ will replace Lopez). I think this idea is pretty cool in itself, but it was never clear to my why the bots would do this (malfunction? commentary on hyper-competitiveness?). But whatever. It makes for a fun story as Bot 9 has to work with the Ship to save the human crew from being replaced by the rogue robo-agglomerations."

2. “O2 Arena”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (Galaxy’s Edge, Nov 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "I love the setting in future climate-devastated Nigeria and the central concept that oxygen has become a commodity. The core of the story is surprisingly tender and then heart-breaking, which is what makes this better than your average dystopian fare."

3. “Colors of the Immortal Palette”, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Uncanny Magazine, Mar/Apr 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "As emotionally rich as Yoachim's work usually is, this story of an immortal artist in Paris during the time of the Impressionists continues (via color-named chapters) through her immortal life into the far future. Thoughts on art, mortality (or the lack thereof), identity, and the meaning of it all ensue. It leaves me with a weird, but not unpleasant, melancholy that makes me want to get to work on my next creative endeavor, lacking as I do the promise of immortality."

4. “That Story Isn’t the Story”, by John Wiswell (Uncanny Magazine, Nov/Dec 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "I absolutely loved Wiswell's "Open House on Haunted Hill," but this one is a whole different thing: a serious story of vampires' familiars trying to escape the vampires that traumatized them. It's well done and gets into some deep themes about trauma, scapegoating, and even gentrification. In the end, it's not as much my thing as "Open House...", but I appreciate what the author was trying to do, especially when it comes to giving characters as maligned and ignored as vampiric familiars a real point of view."

5. “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.”, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, May/Jun 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "The idea of a magical and not entirely trustworthy dressmaking shop is cool, but I kinda feel like I'm missing something about this story that makes others love it enough to make it a Hugo finalist this year. Maybe I will find whatever that is in a mysterious previously unoccupied storefront..."

6. L’Esprit de L’Escalier, by Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom)
  • From Goodreads: "I've never been big on Greek mythology and I'm not always a fan of retellings (I'm a terrible person, I know), so I'm definitely not the target audience here. Still, I always appreciate Valente even (especially?) when I don't quite get it. Her retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as something like Sid and Nancy in hell was an interesting enough idea. And for me (at least as a philosophical fan of Camus's use of another myth) it was worth it to imagine Sisyphus as a give-no-shit punk rocker. Still, this is probably more fun for other readers than it was for me."

Best Short Story

I finished all but one of the short stories (see what happened below). I really liked all the short stories (well, except that one), and ranking them is really difficult. I was changing my rankings as I was writing this post. And I may have voted differently if I waited until tomorrow. I wouldn't be surprised if "Mr. Death" wins, which would be fine with me, and I really loved "Proof by Induction," but in the end I think I'm going to rank the experimental stories higher, especially as they are experimental both in form and content. And I've been a fan of Pinsker's stories for a few years. She never disappoints. And lastly a shoutout to Uncanny Magazine for racking up a whole bunch of novelette and short story nominations this year! Something to remember if/when I get to the Semiprozine category.

1. “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”, by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine, Mar/Apr 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "It's fun to read odd formats, and Pinsker is creative here. She uses a format of a "lyricsplainer" website (sort of crowd-sourced semi-academic literary criticism) to tell a creepy folk horror tale based on an old English folk ballad. The horror works well because it builds slowly (I didn't completely get it until I had thought about the story for a while). The only thing for me personally is that this website format is a bit hard to parse and maybe doesn't translate super well to a publication in a fiction magazine. But that's on me, not so much the author (although making this into an actual website might be fun!). It sounds weird to say for such a strangely formatted little story, but this could be adapted into a cool folk horror film."

2. “Unknown Number”, by Blue Neustifter (Twitter, Jul 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "I really loved this one, at least in this universe. I'll be checking my texts for alternate universe me's opinion, I suppose. But seriously, telling a story in a series of texts is a fun experiment (I'm sure it's been done before, but it works really well here). And the idea of getting texts from an alternative version of yourself from a different universe to illustrate how making a big choice can change your life... that's just a great use of the concept of the multiverse to tell a story about life and the choices we make along the way. There's also some surprisingly deep and touching stuff about gender dysphoria, physics, and mental health in there. I imagine that this one will be pretty high on my list for the 2022 Hugo awards in this universe."

3. “Proof by Induction”, by José Pablo Iriarte (Uncanny Magazine, May/Jun 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "A neat science fictional premise of the Coda (a computer program that simulates a person right before their death) sets the stage for this tale of mathematical discovery, grief, and family relationships. You don't have to follow the math (which is mostly imaginary, anyway), but the depiction of what it's like to do mathematics comes through clearly (I think, anyway, I'm not a mathematician, but as a philosopher I appreciate the implied mathematical Platonism/realism of the process of discovery of existing mathematical objects/structures). The experience of grief, loss, and the melancholy of it all, especially when the deceased and the bereaved had a complicated relationship, comes across most clearly of all, and gives this story its emotional weight. As a recently tenured academic, I'm not sure how accurate the tenure stuff is (you wouldn't usually be assessed on ongoing unfinished work at the Dean level after the department has already approved, especially when that work isn't in your tenure file), although maybe that depends on the institution and definitely it doesn't really matter, because it's in the service of the story. This one will probably rank pretty high on my Hugo ballot for its emotional tone, but even more for the cool idea of using the Coda technology to finish a mathematical proof."

4. “Mr. Death”, by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, Feb 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "Stories about the afterlife as bureaucracy are always amusing, but this one is also touching even if I don't entirely understand the metaphysics of it. But I suppose that's not the point. I'm still not sure what the point is: a sort of heroic denial of death in the face of absurdity (à la Camus) or a quiet acceptance of one's own death in light of compassion toward others' chance at life? Maybe something else? Maybe neither? Maybe the point is to leave this as an exercise for the reader, which is the best kind of short story, after all."

5. “The Sin of America”, by Catherynne M. Valente (Uncanny Magazine, Mar/Apr 2021)
  • From Goodreads: "This highly allegorical story is an allegory for... well, what, exactly? It's hard to say. Some might say it's hard to read (a wee bit of the old ultra violence, for sure, especially disturbingly relevant as being depicted as lurking just behind the facade of regular people). I recommend listening to the interview with the author on the Uncanny podcast. I was unfamiliar with the concept of a sin eater before this (they don't really explain it in the interview, but you can look it up). In a sort of David Lynch small town diner, a character eats (i.e., pays for?) the sins of America. What are those sins? How does this work? Is this an allegory for some of the scapegoats America employs regularly (the poor, immigrants, women, the "unAmerican," etc.)? I suppose the fact that Valente gives the reader so much to think about is the strength of the story, although I imagine some readers will say "huh, that was weird," and move on. Might be a fun one to discuss with others!"

Left off my ballot: “Tangles”, by Seanan McGuire (Magicthegathering.com: Magic Story, Sep 2021)
  • I don't have anything against McGuire, I swear. But I couldn't get into this at all. From Goodreads "I used to play Magic: The Gathering a little bit a very long time ago, but I'm not up on the lore, nor was I ever particularly interested in it, so I just couldn't get into this one. As ridiculous as I feel for not finishing a 14-page story, I just can't. And I will add to the chorus: how did this get nominated for a Hugo? (My suspicion is that McGuire just has a LOT of hardcore fans, and more power to her, honestly. But this one is not for me.)"

And there you have it, gentlebeings! I'm hoping to at least take a look at the Related Works, Fan Writer, and a few other categories (like the TV and movies and maybe for the first time ever: the podcasts). Stay tuned!

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