Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

Welcome to another edition of Reading the Hugos! Today we are going to take a look at the Short Story on this year's ballot. Astute readers of Nerds of a Feather will note that two of the stories I nominated are on the final ballot: "The City Born Great" and "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies". I was unfamiliar with the rest, and I note that John C. Wright's story on the ballot is the annual Rabid Puppies pick that comes across so completely out of sync with the rest of the ballot that once again I am reminded they don't care at all about finding the best stories but instead care about getting their own people on the ballot for no better reason than to a) follow the whims of the slate leader and b) to mess with those who care about the Hugo Awards (we'll talk more about this when we get to the novelette category). I don't doubt at all there are lots of readers who truly love Wright's fiction and this story in particular, but given that the nominations come in lock step with a particular slate, I can't say that I have any faith that the quality of fiction is a driving motivator for the nomination.

I'm also more than annoyed that I have to address this each year when writing about the Hugo Awards, but at least this year it is one work per category and not all categories.

Enough. On to the stories!

The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin (, September 2016)
A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong (, March 2016)
Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn (, March 2016)
“An Unimaginable Light”, by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)

An Unimaginable Light: Imagine a thought experiment dealing with the nature of being human by  playing with the nature of robots and mix in some casual sexism and some standard right wing talking points. Then, imagine the story is even more didactic and poorly written than it sounds and you have the beginning of what John C. Wright's awful "An Unimaginable Light" is. The reality is so much worse. Rich Horton notes that much of the context for the story is tied to Wright's collection God, Robot and perhaps it would read very differently in that context, but coming into the story as a discrete piece of fiction I can only say that it is bad. It is not worthy of being considered for the Hugo Award.

No Award: As a general rule, I use No Award in a very surgical manner. I understand that not every work is to my personal taste and that simply because I do not like something does not mean that it is inherently bad or unworthy of a Hugo Award. I may prefer that something else would win and that a particular work was not on the ballot, but again, that does make the work bad. Unfortunately, there are also instances where my subjective view is that the work is so bad that it is also objectively bad and unworthy of receiving (or being considered for) an award. There may also be examples of a work being so bad it comes out the other side and is somehow entertaining.  In both of these instances No Award will be used.

The City Born Great:We've all heard cities described as a living, vibrant place - one where anything is possible and where the city itself has a personality beyond just the people who live there. That the people take on some of the attributes of the city. Well, what if some cities really are alive? What if people had to fight to keep their city alive, to help usher in the full flame of life to make a city truly great while other entities are fighting to destroy it? "The City Born Great" feels like a love letter to New York City and even though I haven't lived there since I was twelve and the older I get the happier I am to be away from cities, that love letter resonates. While I think "The City Born Great" could work if it was set in Chicago or maybe even Minneapolis, there is a greater importance to the story because it is New York.

Seasons of Glass and Iron: Winner of the Nebula Award. Take a few fairy tales, blend together with love and a dash of women rescuing each other and serve warm. Amal El-Mohtar's "Seasons of Glass and Iron" is a charming fable of two women from very different stories finding each other and discovering how their stories might intersect, intertwine, and move on together. It doesn't quite stand up as strong as the three stories higher on my ballot, but it is a delightful story I'm glad I had the opportunity to read.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers. This is a wrenching story of family and loss, of tragedy and the inability to cope. It's told through the perspective of Hannah and it can be read either as a straight up retelling of what happened through the use of a supernatural ability that Hannah and her sister Melanie had, or it can be read as Hannah working out her grief over and over and over in her head trying and failing to come to grips with her sister's murder. The actual story may be somewhere in between, but the truth in the fiction is in the repetition of trying to come up with a way that Melanie can come out of this alive and in the painful reveals of Melanie's life. "You can't fix this. It was never yours to control". It's beautiful and stabs you right in the heart.

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies: Brooke Bolander has a story about stories. Her narrator has this to say late in the story, "The important thing is always the stories—which ones get told, which ones get co–opted, which ones get left in a ditch, overlooked and neglected. This is my story, not his. It belongs to me and is mine alone." This is a hard, angry story - but an important one because it is quite bluntly not about an attacker or even so much about the attack. It's about the victim and who she really is and what the consequences were. "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" is a punch in the face, possibly in the balls. It is reminiscent, in a way, of Rachel Swirsky's excellent "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" in its brevity melded with righteous anger rising against unrighteous violence. The stories are told with very different tone, but hit similar marks. Like Swirsky's story, "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" is a standout piece of short fiction. 

That Game We Played During the War: It can be said there are no new stories under the sun, and stories of the price of war paid by soldiers and how soldiers on opposite sides of the war can find common ground and even friendship certainly are frequent subjects for fiction. What matters, then, is how well the story is told. Carrie Vaughn's story is well told, indeed. The war isn't what is importance, the story here is a medic from one side traveling to what was once enemy territory to visit an officer who may well be a friend. The story is primarily told from the perspective of Calla, the medic, and we are given glimpses of how the two met and interacted during the war and we see what years of war has cost Calla. It is beautifully told, moving, and is continually necessary as a reminder that while war may be waged by nations, it is fought by people. It is conducted on the ground level by those who may not be all that different from those they are fighting against.

My Ballot
1. That Game We Played During the War
2. Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies
3. A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers
4. Seasons of Glass and Iron
5. The City Born Great
6. No Award

Please feel free to look at our previous coverage:
Graphic Story

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan.