Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos: 2018 Edition! Today we're going to take a look at the six stories up for Best Short Story!

Even though the skill it takes to write an excellent short story does not necessarily translate exactly for the skill it takes to write an excellent novel, and short stories are by no means training grounds for novel writing, the short story category here is absolutely building a reading list of authors I want to read more from.

I'm already well familiar with Linda Nagata's recent near future military science fiction novels (The Red Trilogy, The Last Good Man), but this might be the first of her shorter works I encountered. Rebecca Roanhorse has received all the nominations for this story, but I'm also excited for her debut novel Trail of Lightning (really). I should really read more Ursula Vernon. You get the picture.

Rather than more babble, let's look at the stories.

Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)
Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)
The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (, July 19, 2017)
Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand": For some reason, I have bounced off Fran Wilde's Hugo finalist stories. Last year was "The Jewel and Her Lapidary", which took two reads to even appreciate. This year "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" is the story I struggled with most. It is a more of an art exhibit than it is a straight up story. You, the reader, are being led through a museum of atrocities but that perhaps the real atrocity is you, the reader.

"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" becomes increasingly horrifying as the story goes on, and Wilde is very effective in delivering a disturbing experience for the reader. I appreciate what she is doing, but at the same time, it's not something I really appreciate in fiction, either.

Carnival Nine: More of a straight forward story than "Clearly Lettered", "Carnival Nine" is a story of family and sentient clockwork automatons whose lives are determined by the number of "turns" remaining in their main spring. It's a touching story of the sacrifices parents can make of their dreams for their children and how meaningful those sacrifices can become. Thinking about my own children, it isn't that my dreams are truly sacrificed, it's that my priorities have changed and so have some of my dreams. That's ultimately the story of "Carnival Nine", which is what the last line gets at. "My life had been different from the adventures I imagined as a child, but I made the most of the turns I was given, and that's all any of us can do."

I like what "Carnival Nine" is about, and I certainly appreciated it as a story more than "Clearly Lettered", but it still was not a favorite or something I expect to revisit any time soon.

"Fandom for Robots": So, the original sentient AI discovers fan fiction and gets involved in the fandom for the anime Hyperdimension Warp Record. On its surface, "Fandom for Robots" is exactly what it seems to be - an AI learning about fandom, about shipping characters, about writing fan fiction and commenting on other stories. But, I wonder, is there a point here where Prasad is also talking about how fanfiction gives a greater opportunity to marginalized people to see themselves in stories where they are otherwise excluded? Is Prasad telling a story about how fanfiction can build community and inclusion?

"Fandom for Robots" was a lot of fun to read, but it's a better story when I'm reading a bit deeper into what message may be baked into an otherwise basic story of an AI discovering fanfiction.

“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” is a complicated story that seems, on its surface, fairly simplistic. Jesse works for a virtual reality company that sells “authentic Indian experiences” for (generally white) tourists looking for their idea of “authentic Indian” rather than anything that might resemble the real thing, as if there were a singular real experience to be had anyway. So, the experiences are more cinematic and theatrical and pop cultural and anything that smacks too heavily of realism tends not to sell well to the public.

There is an interesting resignation to Jesse’s character. Some of his peers are angry and disgusted (while still accepting this is the job they need to do), but Jesse goes along fairly passively. I suspect there are multiple layers to this story that I’m unlikely to grasp, being a white male on the cusp of middle age, but from what I’m able to see the idea of cultural identity is being addressed in fairly original and important ways. Jesse’s identity seems tied up in the popular tropes of what an Indian is, while his wife recognizes that he is an Indian because he is, in fact, an Indian. Then, there’s the white man who may have some distant heritage seeming to come in and take everything away from Jesse, perhaps for not being “Indian enough”. I’m not sure if that’s a right reading of the story. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” gets a bit weird the deeper it goes and Roanhorse examines the difference between Jesse and “White Wolf”.

The story is told in second person perspective, which puts me (if not the generic “reader”) in the position of wondering if maybe we’re also getting Jesse’s “Authentic Indian Experience” as much as we’re being told the story on the surface. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” is an excellent story as also is the kind that puts the reader on notice that Rebecca Roanhorse is an author to watch out for.

"Sun, Moon, Dust": I am reminded how much I enjoy Ursula Vernon's short fiction. I should really make a point to reading more of it. "Sun, Moon, Dust" features a farmer given a magical / possessed sword by his warrior grandmother on her deathbed. The story I expected is that the farmer would take up the sword, embark on some quest, learn to be a warrior and standard fantasy tropes. That just seemed to be the set up Vernon was giving us, except everything about "Sun, Moon, Dust" is a subversion of that standard epic fantasy.

Sometimes a farmer just wants to be a farmer. Allpa, the farmer, knows who he is. He's not seduced by the sword's ideas of fame and valor and violence. Rather, it is his gentle humanity that gives a lesson to the spirits bound to the sword about who and what they may want to be. "Sun, Moon, Dust" is an absolute delight.

“The Martian Obelisk” is a bleak, bleak story that is ultimately about and laced with hope. This is what happens after the slow apocalypse, after the climate change and the rising seas and the wars and the viruses without cure. There are small pockets of humanity on Earth living in relative civilization because of proximity to particular cities that came through okay, but the inference is that most everyone else is not. There’s nothing left to do for the people who remain on Earth and the attempted colonies on Mars have all failed. Susannah has spent the last sixteen years of her life gradually (and remotely) building a monument on Mars, the titular obelisk.

What I most appreciate about "The Martian Obelisk" is that the story begins as a massive futile gesture of defiance into the void, but it ends with ultimately the smallest but most important of gestures of hope and kindness. It ends with the reaching out to help another, even at the cost of Susannah's dream of tilting at windmill with her obelisk. Nagata's story is powerful and moving.

My Vote:
1. The Martian Obelisk
2. Sun, Moon, Dust
3. Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience
4. Fandom for Robots
5. Carnival Nine
6. Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand

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POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.