Thursday, April 15, 2021

reading the Hugo Short Story finalists

The Hugo Award finalists were announced a few days ago, and as usual these days many of them are available for free online. I decided to read the 6 Short Story nominees, because they're all there and they're all short.

I did this last year too. On that occasion, I was so disappointed I felt like abandoning the field. Two of the stories I thought not very good, two were positively offensive, and two I couldn't even follow. But this year couldn't have been more different.

This time I liked all six stories, and consider most of them obviously worth the nomination. Only one, “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, I wasn't entirely sure I understood what was going on, but on a moment-by-moment level it was pretty clear, and it was captivatingly written.

The theme was artificial intelligences trying to be human-like, which is pretty much an inherently charming story idea. “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher has the same theme, and it has the same charm, expressed through a pair of really sympathetic mechanical characters, even though it's a highly serious, dramatic story. Making the reader identify with the mechanical Sister in her strange desperation is a virtuoso achievement.

Of course it would be possible to take that same theme and make it nasty, but here for a counter-example of that process is “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, which - I don't think it spoils the story to reveal this, because there's no misdirection in this warm-hearted tale - is about a friendly haunted house which wants people to come live in it and be happy.

Also fundamentally warmhearted, with a bittersweet ending, is “The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee. I think this is the most awesomely-crafted of all the tales, because it's a rewrite of "The Little Mermaid" in which the mermaid's dream is not of the land but - like a red-blooded science-fiction reader - to seek the stars. And she achieves it. She joins an interstellar trading spaceship crew and has a wonderful life. And then, her dream fulfilled, she returns home, and that's when the story turns bittersweet ... you'll have to read it.

“Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson also has a bittersweet happy ending, though it's a highly different kind of story: tougher and grittier than T. Kingfisher's, its characters are all, as the title suggests, badass moms (even the ones not technically mothers). But in the crunch they support each other, and that's what keeps this gripping story from being just another zombie apocalypse horror.

But my favorite story has to remain the one I'd read before, “Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer. Where the others are science fiction, this and Wiswell's are fantasy. Like "The Mermaid Astronaut" and "Badass Moms" it has a bittersweet ending, but of a different kind: instead of happiness mixed with sadness, it's a tragedy mixed with hope - but a tragedy viewed from a distance, because the viewpoint character has only a partial and removed view of what else is going on. Which gives Kritzer the angle to make this unusual telling absolutely captivating.

Which one is the best? "Little Free"? "Mermaid Astronaut"? "Metal Like Blood"? I couldn't say, and since I don't have a vote for the Hugos, I don't have to. I positively enjoyed reading all of them.

I have but one criticism. Two of these stories, "Metal Like Blood" and "The Mermaid Astronaut," have characters referred to by the pronoun "they." I've seen that often enough now that I've come to the conclusion that I don't like it when it's used for a specific known person. I can't prevent writers from using it, or live persons from preferring it, but I can dislike it. It's confusing. For a robotic being, as in the Kingfisher, "it" would have been better. The problem with "they" is that it's not always clear whether it's the singular neuter or the ordinary plural. If not used carefully, and it's not being used carefully, it trips the reader up, and writers shouldn't trip the reader up, especially fiction writers who have control over who the characters are and what they do. At one point, Kingfisher writes, "They did not think to question if they might be lying." The first "they" is plural, the second is singular neuter. Readers should not have to pause, even briefly, to figure that out.

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