Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

Welcome back for another edition of Reading the Hugos, 2019 Edition. Today we're going to take a look at the six finalists for Best Novelette.

Novelette is inherently a weird category. There's not really a substantial difference between a short story and a novelette, except that a novelette is just a little bit longer (but not as long as a novella, which really is a different form).

I would mention that only one work from my nominating ballot made the final ballot, but I only had one work on my nominating ballot - that being The Only Harmless Great Thing, a novelette I admired for how accomplished it was even if I wasn't fully passionate about it.

Last year's ballot had two stories connected to recent novels, but each of this year's stories stands fully alone. Shall we take a look at the stories on the ballot and see how they stand together?

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (, 11 July 2018)
Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander ( Publishing)
The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November- December 2018)
When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)

When We Were Starless: This is a somewhat peculiar story, mostly in the set up of a tribe of scavengers on a desolate planet haunted by ghosts. I found that set up far less interesting than the idea of the tribe (eventually) being brave enough to adapt and overcome their superstitions. I also appreciated the touches of gradually revealing this is a post humanity world (whether it is Mars or Earth or something else is unclear) which leads to the reader picking up on what the ghosts are long before Mink (the protagonist) does.

The more I think about "When We Were Starless", the more I appreciate the work Simone Heller does here - I wanted to put the story down very early and move on to something else, but I'm glad I held on.

The Thing About Ghost Stories: I get the feeling that I should read more stories from Naomi Kritzer because every one I have read has been absolutely wonderful. The title here tells the story, "The Thing About Ghost Stories" is a story about ghost stories, but it is also a story about being told ghost stories and about memory and loss. Kritzer builds and builds and by the end, "The Thing About Ghost Stories" is all heart.

This is a lovely story, though I'm not sure its richness really holds up in comparison to the other stories on this ballot.

The Only Harmless Great Thing: I find myself in the minority regarding my lack of appreciation for The Only Harmless Great Thing. There was no question that this was going to one of the year's biggest and most notable stories and which would likely be in contention for all of the awards, but my first reading of the story left me flat. Not that my connection is essential for a story's success, but I didn't get what Bolander was doing with The Only Harmless Great Thing.

It took a second reading, after the announcement of the Hugo Award finalists, for me to engage more with the story Bolander was telling even if I still couldn't love it as much as its more full throated supporters.. For what it is worth, when Shana DuBois reviewed The Only Harmless Great Thing she said "there is not a single wasted word in this treatise of perfection" and that "Bolander's prose is some of the best I've ever read. Period. It is artful and sharp as a razor's edge." The Only Harmless Great Thing won the Nebula Award this year for Best Novelette.  (Shana's review)

If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again: I like to consider myself fairly well informed with the state of the science fiction and fantasy field, but I somehow missed that the Barnes and Nobles blog was also publishing short fiction - though if my math (and their tagging system) is correct, Zen Cho's story is only the fifth they've published and one of only two in 2018.

"If At First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again" features an imugi (a giant serpent) trying and failing over thousands of years to turn itself into a full fledged dragon. It is a delightful and charming story about perseverance, love, and self belief with an absolutely perfect ending. If this is the sort of story the B&N SFF Blog publishes, I'd like to see more from them.

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections: What a beautifully constructed story. Much of "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections" is, in fact, told across one meal - but the temporal part of the title is important, because each course brings with it the transportation of memory, allowing Connolly to work flashbacks and a slight episodic format within what is otherwise a traditional narrative flow.

If not for "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth", this would be my clear favorite of the novelette finalists. The blending of food, memory, and vengeance is satisfying and excellent. I have somehow missed Tina Connolly's career up to this point, but I fully intend to catch up with her work.

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth: Told in nine episodes spread across some eighty seven years, Daryl Gregory's "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" is not the story of a different sort of an alien invasion, though it is also that. Initially, it seems to be dealing more with a boy growing up, but the passage of time means that "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" is more about life, of loss, of grief, of heartbreak, of change, and really of humanity. And yes, with alien plants invading and gradually taking over the planet with the speed of plants.

"Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" is a beautiful, moving story. Absolutely lovely. More of this, please.

My Vote
1. Nine Last Days of Planet Earth
2. The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
3. If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again
4. The Only Harmless Great Thing
5. The Thing About Ghost Stories
6. When We Were Starless

Our Previous Coverage

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.