Tuesday, July 29, 2014

2014 Hugo Voting - Best Short Story

I am a supporting member of Loncon 3, which is the location of this year's World Science Fiction Convention. Because of this, I was eligible to vote in this year's Hugo Awards. The nominees in the Best Short Story category were all good, and in my estimation, any one of them would be a worthy winner. That said, on my ballot, they appeared in this order:

1. If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky (actual finish 3rd) is a brilliantly silly story that is full of sorrow. The story opens in a rather humorous manner, as the narrator imagines what life would be like if their lover was a dinosaur - specifically a human sized Tyrannosaurus Rex with sharp, menacing teeth and pointy claws. The story continues in a somewhat silly vein with the narrator imagining the creation of a second human-sized Tyrannosaur to be her love's mate, which then slowly moves into the bittersweet sadness of seeing someone you love but cannot have for your own be happy. And then the story hits you with the twist, and you realize that this isn't a silly or funny story at all, but is rather the narrator's desperate attempt to deal with grief and loss. It is this juxtaposition of the surreal and whimsical of imagination with the brutal harshness of reality that provides this story with its devastating and heart wrenching emotional punch, and does it with a stark simplicity that places it at the top of my ballot.

2. The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu (actual finish 1st) is a story that was only just barely edged out of first place by a hair's breadth. In it Chu imagines a world in which lying causes water to fall upon the speaker apparently in proportion to the magnitude of the lie. Someone who told a little white lie or stretched the truth a little might only make the air become somewhat noticeably humid, while someone who told a whopper would get drenched by bucketfuls of water. Conversely, telling the truth seems to dry out the surroundings. The main character living in this world is Matt, a gay Asian man with a serious fitness-trainer boyfriend named Gus. After trying to avoid letting Gus know of the intensity of his feelings for him, Matt is forced to come clean and Gus suggests marriage. This proves problematic as Matt has not told his rather traditional family that he is gay, but ends up deciding that his relationship with Gus is worth the pain of coming out to his parents. This difficult task is made more difficult by Matt's somewhat abusive sister Michele, who forbids him to come out to his parents and spends all of her time interposing herself between them and Matt. This stressful brother and sister dance continues until Michele overreaches and gets drenched, leading to his sister throwing him out of her house. While packing, Matt discovers that throughout the visit his parents have told Gus to call them using Chinese terms meaning "husband's father" and "husband's mother". Matt ends the story alone, but realizing that he is loved more than he realized. The story uses the inability of the characters to lie as a means at shearing away the lies, half-truths, and evasions think they need to use to hold a family together and rather optimistically suggests that unvarnished truth might work better, or at least make us happier. Wrapped inside the somewhat odd package of water drenching liars is the idea that people can be better than we think they are, and being forced to tell the truth can even surprise the speaker. As a side note, there are several untranslated Chinese characters interspersed throughout the story. At least I assume from context that they are Chinese characters, but as I don't speak Chinese, I can't be sure. In any event, the story gives no explicit guidance as to what they mean, but for the most part one can figure them out fairly easily from the context in which they are used.

3. Selkie Stories Are for Losers by Sofia Samatar (actual finish 2nd) comes in third in my balloting, not because it isn't an excellent story - in some years this would have been a strong contender for the award - but because the first two entries are just so very very good. The central character is an unnamed young woman (although the way the story is written, it could be a young man) whose mother vanished years before - putting on a coat found in the attic, getting into the car, and driving away, abandoning her husband and child for another life without them. Now, the narrator works with her best friend Mona (who she is secretly in love with) as a waitress at local restaurant and dreams of moving to Colorado, because it is a land-locked state. Laced throughout the story are the narrator's recollection of other stories that feature selkies, each one recounting how someone fell in love with one of the creatures, managed to steal its seal coat to trap it for a time and hold on to it until the selkie recovered its coat and returned to the sea. In all of the stories the selkie simply doesn't care how much those it left behind ached for it, the sea called, and it returned. The story balances the fairy tale visions of women with seal coats with the adolescent narrator's pain and anger at being abandoned, drawing the obvious parallel, and inverting the usual selkie story's empathy for the trapped fae creature and instead highlighting the loss and rage of those left behind.

4. I am placing The Ink Readers of Doi Saket by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (actual finish 4th) in the fourth slot on my ballot. This should not be taken as a denigration of the story, because it is quite good. In fact, in my opinion there is very little separating the first story in this category from the last. But someone has to be in fourth place, and this story gets the dubious distinction of being the worst story in an excellent field. The story is set in the small village of Doi Saket in Thailand on the banks of the Mae Ping River, the site of annual ritual in which people from upstream send their wishes floating down in paper boats called krathongs to be collected and, they hope, granted. The wishes, written on the krathongs are often smeared by their passage through the water, and monks would swim through the river divining from the inky streaks flowing through it what wishes were intended. The story has numerous character, but the central one is a young man named Tangmoo whose daily tasks include shoring up a listing tree that poses a danger to his parents' home. He becomes curious about where the wishes sent by air, in floating paper lanterns called khom loi, go when they head off to the west and follows them until he meets a Buddhist monk with whom he unknowingly trades some philosophical musings. Tangmoo then returns to his village and unwittingly finds out the greedy secret of the local priests - they steal the valuables sent with the krathongs - and they promptly drown him in the river. But his drowning sets off a chain of events that result in all of the previously named villagers getting their wishes granted after a fashion. The story is interesting, but it is so short and has so many characters that none of them other than Tangmoo are developed much beyond a single personality trait and their wish, which somewhat diminishes the impact of the final story developments. Even so, the way that the interrelationships between the various individuals weave together to fulfill their wishes is humorous, although in many cases darkly so.

2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Mono no Aware by Ken Liu
2015 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: No Award
2016 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer (reviewed in Clarkesworld: Issue 100 (January 2015), 2016 Hugo Voting - Best Short Story, and 2016 WSFA Small Press Award Voting)

2013 Nebula Award Winner for Best Short Story: Immersion by Aliette de Bodard
2015 Nebula Award Winner for Best Short Story: Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon (reviewed in 2015 WSFA Small Press Award Voting)

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story
List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Short Story

2014 Nebula Award Nominees

2014 Hugo Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home

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