Dramatic Presentation with a chat about the six Short Story finalists.
I have an admission, which there’s a reasonable chance that I’ve admitted before. I’m a fairly basic, simple person. I like most things and I’m not always as fully critical as I can be. It’s like as I get older I get a little crankier about some things in my personal life (not that I don’t have a history of being salty) but when it comes to fiction, especially short fiction, it’s like they are all my grandchildren. “Oh, you’re all such nice stories, would you like a cookie?” (said in my creakiest voice). Of course, there are stories that really hit and that I love passionately, but most stories are nice stories and they all deserve cookies.
That’s how I feel about most of the stories in the Short Story category this year.
It’s not a secret around these parts that I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire’s fiction. Her longer form series work like October Daye and Incryptid have been perennial finalists for the Best Series Hugo and are what the category is tailor made for, though they (sadly) have not yet won. Someday. Anyway, I love her novels and I generally like her stories an awful lot. I’ve come to truly appreciate McGuire’s patreon because of the monthly original story - and what many of those stories are doing are filling in the gaps of the October Daye and Incryptid series.
McGuire’s “Tangles” is, I believe, the first media tie-in story (or novel, for that matter) to be nominated for a Hugo Award.
Adri: I'm so pleased that you're here to be chill about this category, because - surprise surprise -I'm here to be an absolute misery about the whole thing. Not that I dislike everything here! Far from it, two of these were on or near my ballot, and two more were up there for me. But as a whole, this is the category that makes me wonder what on earth I can do to get the average Hugo voter reading more powerful, boundary pushing stuff. And, I'll say it: I think the vast majority of that boundary pushing work is being done by authors of colour right now, and the whiteness of this ballot is the first clue about how safe and unchallenging it is.
And, if we're starting off with Tangles, I'm going to veer from normal crankiness into being really, really blunt, because this is apparently the year of me not liking anything Seanan McGuire has had nominated. You have been warned, dear reader.
So, yeah, Tangles is a Magic: The Gathering story. It's inoffensive and readable, and yes I am intentionally damning with faint praise here. It might be the first thing I've read in a Hugo category that truly made me feel like everyone voting for it needed to get out and read more eligible work, because I cannot fathom how anyone who read a significant amount of last year's short fiction picks this one out of the bunch. If you like this sort of thing, you can subscribe to Beneath Ceaseless Skies and find dozens of stories that do this vibe better. You can also sign up to Seanan McGuire's monthly short story Patreon and you'd probably find 5 2021 stories by her that are better than this. I desperately wish I had something nice to say about this story, because dunking on it makes me feel like I'm being a snob, but I love the idea of tie ins in theory! This is just, in my opinion, a really poor ambassador for the concept.
Joe: I don’t actually disagree with you, it’s just that all the stories are perfectly fine and I’ve had years where I actively dislike some of the stories and I’m not just talking about the Puppy Interregnum.
But - as someone who has a copy of the new October Daye novel and is both incredibly excited to read it and completely afraid of what betrayal is coming - let me say this. The Hugo Awards have an interesting relationship with Seanan McGuire. She has a passionate group of fans (raises hand) and she’s been on the ballot a whole lot. If the Science Fiction Awards Database has its count right, 27 times. But she’s only won three times, twice for fancast and once for the sublime Every Heart a Doorway. She had an early run as Mira Grant on the ballot, and otherwise most of the rest of the nominations have been in Series and Novella for the Wayward Children series (which is up for Best Series this year, which we can talk about its inclusion there when we get to our Series conversation).
So - she seems ever present, but it is often in tight narrow lanes. Middlegame was an exception, as is “Tangles”. I think we can respect tight narrow lanes given that we’re a tight narrow lane type of fanzine category ourselves and it’s hard to break out of those lanes (see my failure to get any of our special projects on the ballot in Related Work). But some of the success of “Tangles”, I think, is tied to just how diffuse the short story category is. There’s eleventy thousand short stories out and McGuire has the popularity to break though if conditions are just right even though this isn’t her typical lane. There is also a wider point to be made about repeat authors and visibility that extends far beyond Seanan McGuire. We discussed Martha Wells a bit in a previous conversation. But, that’s endemic to the Hugo Awards themselves and rather straying from the original point we’re talking about. It’s certainly not meant to be a polemic on one of my favorite writers.
I think “Tangles” hit a perfect intersection of how this category can work at the nomination stage. “Tangles” isn’t a remarkable story. As someone who wasn’t quite cool enough to play Magic when I was younger, it’s something that I’m aware of as a thing that exists. It’s super cool that McGuire got to write a story in that universe and I have absolutely no context for a single thing in the story. Hey, I liked it. It was a good story. I’m glad some tie-in fiction made the ballot. I’m also just not sure it really represents that nebulous image of the best of the year, whatever that is.
Adri: Ok. Now that I've got most of my misery guts performance out of the way, let's talk about another first, and one that I enjoyed much, much more. Unknown Number by Blue Neustifter is a story told in messenger screenshots, between a trans woman and a mysterious stranger who seems to know rather too much about her. It hits on a lot of notes around gender exploration and trans self-discovery, the cost of being closeted, and the fear of coming out, and while it's literally a story about two (well, sort of two) people having a chat and doing some self discovery, it manages to cover a lot of emotional ground while keeping to its "text-epistolary" voice throughout.
Joe: I absolutely loved “Unknown Number”! It was unexpected and ripped through my heart - which is the sort of story I respond to. Stories that make me think are fine, but give me a story that makes me *feel* and that’s “Unknown Number”.
The first time I read “Unknown Number” I didn’t think about the Hugo Awards. I suppose most people didn’t, at first, but I think about the Hugo Awards far more often than a normal person. The format and the forum of “Unknown Number” was part of the shock of it all. There have been plenty of epistolary stories published, and text messages have been used as a device in any number of stories and novels - but seeing it as fiction published on twitter that looks like the screen grabs of a text exchange - it felt fresh. It felt immediate. I just didn’t think of it as a Short Story because of where and how it was published. But it was and it was amazing.
Adri: I agree, and I'm glad the author mentioned her eligibility otherwise I also might have overlooked it. If Tangles is an example of a story picking up the steam to get it on a ballot by virtue of its author, then Unknown Number is an example of how a social media reaction to a specific story, created in a highly accessible format, can also build the buzz needed to get it onto the category.
Joe: Different ways of breaking through the noise.
Adri: And, you know, that's also a method that rewards a certain type of storytelling, and Unknown Number is a very accessible story for all its emotional power and implications, and its experimental form. That's not to say I love it less, but its presence here doesn't negate my broader gripes about the category.
Joe: Since I legitimately don’t know which stories you feel salty about on the ballot (except one, which we’ll get to later and I think you mentioned once offline) let’s talk about the other story that didn’t work for me as well as I had hoped, which is Catherynne Valente’s “The Sin of America”. This is going to sound weird as a criticism, but “The Sin of America” reads to me like one of Stephen King’s short stories except written far more beautifully. It’s a weird criticism because I like Stephen King’s short stories - they’re easy to get into and pack a punch. I’m just not sure how many of them I’d actually consider for a Hugo Award.
“The Sin of America” is a fairly poetic story as it increases the tension. There’s the repetition of “and she’s eating the sin of America” and far be it for me to suggest that a story needs to make sense from the go - but it took me longer to understand what Valente was doing with “The Sin of America” with one person (per day, per month, per year?) who sort of takes in all of the evil in the United States and becomes a sacrifice for the release where she can then be beaten to death / used as a scapegoat for all that ails this country so that everyone else can feel better when that “sin” is released.
As a glimpse inside the box, these conversations tend to take us a number of days to complete pending our schedules and ability to actually be online at the same time - so this isn’t when we started but I’m writing this the day after the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Roe vs Wade and eliminated federal protections for abortion and reproductive health. “The Sin of America” resonates a little bit more than I’d like today, but I’m thinking about evil and hate and repression and restriction and how easy it can be in my country to find scapegoats to put all the focus of the news media onto to distract so that when we “got the bad guy” we’re clear to feel good for a moment - but I don’t see a way to scapegoat out of this anger, not that the opposition won’t try.
But as much as “The Sin of America” has extra resonance for me today, and as much truth there is in the story, if I think to my initial response to the story it’s just not there for me. I read through it a second time today and, honestly, it’s still not quite there for me. It’s more of an concept that hits when I’m angry (and sometimes like Bruce Banner, I’m always angry).
Adri: Yeah, I'm not a fan of this story. I certainly see what it's trying to do, and while it's got a lot of US aesthetic trappings - and I understand your rage coming at this after the Roe reversal - the core concept makes perfect sense to me as a British person too. There is an enormous collective shame in being the kind of country which would deport vulnerable refugees to Rwanda without recourse, even as that shame is not at all felt by the people directly responsible for the decision. You could make a big meal of that sin too, if you swapped out the themed roadside diner for a Wetherspoons in Bedford or something.
My problem with this story is that it is all about this aesthetic which seeks to create a sort of horror of spectacle and gluttony, but which really just invites us to gawk at some unfulfilled, poor rural white folks, and that feels like an immensely cheap and shallow way to represent a concept as complex as "the sin of America". Is it supposed to work because the people in the story have small, marginal lives and that makes it absurd that they'd represent something so big? Or because these people's lives are too small to comprehend the complexity of their own country and that makes it absurd that they'd try to represent something so big? I don't know if the distinction between those two even makes sense, but what I do know is that The Sin of America didn't convey anything to me about the state of the USA and its sins that I thought was insightful or well thought through. It feels mean and voyeuristic and centred on whiteness in a very limiting way.
Let's go on to talk about the other story you might be expecting salt about, which is Mr. Death by Alix E. Harrow. I like this story! It's a sweet piece of writing and I liked its worldbuilding around the afterlife, how its protagonist thinks he is breaking the rules set out for him, and how it turns out this world has provisions for those before and after him who choose to be kind and save others even when they think they shouldn't be doing so - because that's something people will always do.
But, you know, I keep saying this but I do also think this is quite a shallow story - not one that wound me up with its shallowness like A Spindle Splintered, but one which gets away with not doing very much in order to tug on the heartstrings. Aside from the pleasant surprise at the end, it doesn't do anything tremendously interesting or thoughtful. It's just… nice. Nice is fine, but it's not a Hugo criteria for me.
Then again, now I'm looking at the ballot and being reminded that this was published by Apex, which usually doesn't go in for nice. So maybe I am alone in feeling this doesn't go beyond that! Apex is the only magazine here aside from Uncanny - which once again dominates both here and in novelette - and I'm pleased one of their stories made it, because Apex has come back really strong from their hiatus and are doing great stuff.
Joe: You’re absolutely right, I thought “Mr Death” was one of the stories you were salty about. I do agree, it is relatively shallow but because it falls in the category of stories that make me feel something - I liked it!
I do think, besides being rather nice, “Mr Death” is a story getting by on the ballot somewhat because it was written by Alix Harrow - which is something we see over a several year period - the repeat finalists. The biggest question is how long her window will remain open in terms of Hugo Awards. I do know that Harrow’s name on a story of whatever length is generally a sign that I’m going to enjoy it.
I also appreciate this being an Apex story. I’m not a regular reader of their short fiction at the moment, but I was back in their early days (I became a huge fan of Jennifer Pelland’s work, which never quite broke all the way through) and when they have a story make an awards ballot, it’s generally a hit.
Another story that I rather liked is “Proof by Induction”, by Jose Pablo Iriarte. At its heart, this is a story of a man attempting, again and again, to connect with his father. As it happens, the man’s father is dead but was a brilliant mathematician and there is a technology called a Coda that takes a snapshot of a person’s consciousness and that snapshot can be visited.
Adri: Yeah, I loved this story. I found its science fictional elements very satisfying, and there's a powerful emotional depiction of a parent-child relationship where sharing a passion and building one-way understanding can't stand in for deeper connection. Compared to my other favourites (Unknown Number and Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather), it's a very straightforward story in its form and delivery, but it absolutely works for the kind of story it is, and there's a lot of subtlety in its emotions and images which works really well for the subject matter: two adult men, one emotionally undemonstrative to the point of causing his son pain, and how that son lets go of the grief that this causes.
Joe: It’s such a simple story, but it hits so hard - and I agree, it’s a really great science fiction idea.
Our last story is probably the most complex, which is Sarah Pinsker’s “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”. I know I haven’t read everything Pinsker has written, but I also don’t think I’ve read anything of hers that hasn’t been absolutely top tier fiction. Sarah Pinsker has earned every inch of acclaim she has received and probably deserves more. She’s one of the best damn writers working today, bar none.
“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” is ambitious in its format. It’s a reddit / genius / message board thread of folks detailing the lines of a folk song, investigating the origins of the song and various versions, and trying to dig into whether there is a true story behind it all.
Adri: Sarah Pinsker won a Hugo last year for "Two Truths and a Lie", in the novelette category, and she is probably the only repeat nominee who I have never felt cranky about, because I have also never read a story by her that was less than excellent.
Even by that standard, I felt Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather knocks it out of the park. There are basically two parts to the story: the song itself, and the commenters, who have various perspectives and squabbles that play out between almost every verse.
The emotional one-two punch comes through a commenter who goes to directly investigate the source of the song, and Pinsker uses an out-of-chronology comment midway through the song to set up far more immediate emotional stakes for its climax and the fate of our commenter. I love everything about it: the horror, the depiction of a niche internet community and the people it attracts, the way it releases information and builds tension, and the fact it's about folk music and Pinsker always writes so well about music. It's my top choice this year, though Unknown Number and Proof by Induction are also right up there.
Joe: That’s the top of my ballot as well and in that order, I think. Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather, Unknown Number, Proof by Induction.
That’s a wrap on Short Story. Next up is either Novel or Novelette. Come back next time, dear readers, for more Hugo reading!
Adri (she/her), Nerds of a Feather
co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the
UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to
gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her
on Twitter at @adrijjy