Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos, 2019 Edition! Today we are talking a look at the six finalists in the Short Story category.

Three of the stories here were on my nominating ballot (the Pinsker, Clark, and Gailey) and all of the writers here were familiar to me with the exception of Alix E. Harrow. Harrow was a revelation and now I'll be looking for more of her stories and for her debut novel later this year.

I'll mention this again later, but this is an absolutely stacked category. Wonderful stories. Let's take a look at them, shall we?

The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society: This is an absolutely delightful and charming story of a group of supernatural males (selkies. faerie, pooka, etc) getting together for their annual meeting to discuss and pine for one Rose MacGregor, a human woman who was supposed to fall for their charms and instead left each of them heartbroken in turn. Stories from T. Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon are consistently excellent and this is no different. Lined up next to the other stories on this ballot, though, "The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society" is comparatively slight.

The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters: One gets the sense that this is a story which could only be written by Brooke Bolander. Fierce, smart, and driven, "The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat" is a strong story and Bolander captures as much as could be captured about getting into a raptor's perspective.

The Court Magician: Only in a category as stacked as Short Story is this year would it be possible for a Sarah Pinsker story to be this far down my ballot, but this an incredibly strong category filled with stories which could conceivably be a winner in any other year. It is a story of a desire to understand how magic works overpowering wisdom and like every story I've read from Pinsker it is impeccably written.

The Secret Lives of Nine Negro Teeth: I've long heard of George Washington's wooden teeth and for almost as long I've heard that that particular story might not be true. What I didn't learn about was that George Washington had purchased nine teeth from a dentist who took them from enslaved people. There is no evidence whether Washington wore the teeth in his own dentures or if they were used by someone else in his family, but Clark offers up nine stories of where those teeth originally came from.

There is power and pain in "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington" that is inherent in the story being told and P Djeli Clark leans into that, bringing aspects of the fantastic into what is, at its core, a brutal subject. There's no softening here, nor should there be. Simply excellent.

A Witch's Guide to Escape: In a different year, a year that didn't have "STET", "A Witch's Guide to Escape" would be my pick for the best short story of the year. I also think it is a story that might hold up better in ten to twenty years than "STET", but the question here is what story is the best of 2018 and that is a nearly impossible conversation to have, except that we have it every year and try to figure it out.

"A Witch's Guide to Escape" reminds me a bit of Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series in that it features a boy who desperately doesn't belong and so desperately needs to escape somehow. Except the story here is of a librarian who works to get kids the books they need, but except in those most extreme cases, perhaps not the book they really need.

I've never been the child in desperate need of escape. My life was never that hard. But I'm drawn to those stories because, like so many readers, I can identify with the edges of that child and it's what gives the story that extra bit of punch to really get the heart.

STET: I'm not as much of a historian of the Hugo Award as I think I'd like to be, but I'm not sure there has ever been a finalist on the ballot quite like "STET", one where the form of the story is as much a part of the conversation as the content of the story. Technically, this is a technical document with footnotes, but the story is in the footnotes and the back and forth further comments between the writer and the editor. "STET" is simmering with emotion and bubbling over rage and grief.

The format could be viewed as a gimmick, but there is so much (broken) heart here and while "STET" would likely work as a more conventional narrative, it is so much more vital because of the format. "STET" would be a different story without the format and it is stronger because of how Gailey chose to tell this story. It works. It is wrenching. It is the best thing I read last year.

My Vote
2. A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
3. The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington
4. The Court Magician
5. The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters
6. The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society

Our Previous Coverage

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