2017 Hugo Reviews: Short Stories

The City Born Great

It’s that time of the year again: the latest Hugo finalists have been unveiled, and enthusiasts across the net are picking their favourites and not-so-favourites. I shall begin my own four-part take with the Best Short Story category.

The Starlit WoodSeasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a revisionist fairy tale about two heroines, named Tabitha and Amira. Tabitha travels the land, but Amira stays in the same place. When the two of them meet, it is time for them to share their stories.

Amira’s backstory is framed as a fairy tale within a fairy tale, one clearly drawing upon “The Glass Mountain.” She reveals to Tabitha that she is a princess who was followed by streams of uncouth suitors and was pressured by her father to choose a husband so as to end this indignity. As she did not want to marry a man, Amira asked to be left atop a glass hill, to be won by the first man who could ride up the slope in full armour.

Tabitha finds this story absurd. “What father seeks to protect men from their pursuit of his daughter? As well seek to protect the wolf from the rabbit!” she exclaims. “How could it be your fault that men are loutish and ill mannered?”

Tabitha then tells her own story, which, again, is presented as a fairy tale within a fairy tale, this time resembling “The Enchanted Pig.” She describes how she married a bear, who after the wedding, turned out to be a shapeshifter:

They were wed, and at night the bear put on a man’s shape to share her bed in the dark. At first he was gentle and kind, and the woman was happy; but in time the bear began to change—not his shape, which she knew as well as her own, but his manner. He grew bitter and jealous, accused her of longing for a bear who was a man day and night. He said she was a terrible wife who knew nothing of how to please bears. By day he spoke to her in a language of thorns and claws, and by night he hurt her with his body. It was hard for the woman to endure, but how can one love a bear entirely without pain? She only worked harder to please him.

Despite this, Tabitha retains affection for her ursine husband and hopes that he will return to his older ways. On the advice of her mother, Tabitha tries to burn the bearskin in the hopes that it will turn him permanently into a human. This succeeds only in outraging the bear, who tells her that there is only one way to break the spell on him: she must don the bearskin herself while wearing out seven pairs of iron shoes, representing the seven years of their marriage.

Initially, neither woman blames men for her predicament. Amira blames herself for attracting unwanted suitors and says that she is content to spend her life on a hillside to avoid them. Tabitha blames herself for angering the bear by speaking to her mother, even after he had ordered her not to, and insists that he had a good side as well as an abusive one. However, each woman can see the flaw in the other’s mindset. Tabitha points out that, in being forced to choose between an unhappy marriage and isolation, Amira was given no choice at all, while Amira argues that Tabitha is wrong to defend her bear-husband, so domineering as to try to prevent her from speaking to her own mother. Having wound up together, they soon realise that they should each abandon the men in their lives and marry each other.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” shows both a knowledgeable and playful attitude towards fairy tale conventions. In the world of the story, magic operates on a numeric basis, a reference to fairy tales’ fondness for certain numbers, the three little pigs, the seven dwarfs, and so forth. While Amira is granted a constant stream of golden apples that materialise from nowhere, she is allowed only one at a time: she must eat her present apple before the next one will appear. But once Tabitha arrives, and Amira begins sharing the apples with her, this changes: Tabitha is allowed seven apples at a time.

“I think it’s the magic on me,” she says. “I’m bound in sevens—you’re bound in ones.” On a more symbolic level, the story opens with Tabitha musing about the significance of shoes in fairy tales, from Cinderella’s glass slippers to the red-hot iron shoes worn by Snow White’s stepmother. To Tabitha, shoes represent marriage, although they are not her first choice of symbol. “I dreamt of marriage as a golden thread between hearts—a ribbon binding one to the other, warm as a day in summer,” she says. “I did not dream a chain of iron shoes.”

The story is not as revolutionary as it seems to think it is. After all, revisionist fairy tales form a longstanding tradition in feminist circles, one that has been practiced by authors from Andrea Dworkin to Angela Carter. “Seasons of Glass and Iron” adds a queer-positive angle, but in an era with entire anthologies devoted to LGBT SF/F, this is not particularly groundbreaking. When Tabitha and Amira get together at the end, it seems as inevitable as Sleeping Beauty being awoken with a kiss or Cinderella finding her Prince. But then, perhaps that is a sign that the revisionism has worked.

The City Born Great (illustration by Richie Pope)The City Born Great” by N. K. Jemisin

A homeless black youth walks the streets of New York. The city is fraught with danger: racist cops seek to meet their quotas, and gangs protect their territories. After a little same-sex seduction, his friend and mentor-figure Paulo gives him shelter. His main method of survival, however, lies in being attuned to the very spirit of the city. He can communicate with New York, yelling his emotions towards its skyline and hearing the sounds of the city, “both distant and intimate,” coming back in response.

“The City Born Great” is a story in which cities are personified as living, breathing entities. They are born, grow, decline, and eventually–like Pompeii–will die. It will have limbs of asphalt, a heartbeat of traffic, a soul of people. According to the protagonist, New York is the first American city to reach the point of maturity at which it is truly its own creature. He adds to this organism through graffiti, daubing a black hole on a wall to serve as a throat, helping New York to breathe.

The story has similarities to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but with a perspective much closer to street level. “They’re eyeballing me because I’m definitively black,” says the hero after entering a café. “I don’t stink, but these people can smell anybody without a trust fund from a mile away.”

In reading “The City Born Great” I was reminded of how the British author Tim Maughan once criticised urban fantasy as a genre rooted in white middle-class provincialism:

Zombies feel a bit passé? Then what about urban fantasy? Don’t be put off by the word ‘urban’, and how it became this kind of catch-all media phrase for black music and hip-hop and scary poor children wearing hoodies–there’s nothing that vulgar here. Urban fantasy does away with all of that and replaces it with werewolves and vampires. In effect it’s pretty much the same thing–it’s about middle class fear of inner-cities and the guilt of privilege–but it’s a lot sexier reading about your stylised fears getting carved up by a hot white girl with midriff tattoos and a samurai sword.

With her story, N. K. Jemisin offers an antidote to such trends. Her take on urban fantasy–and I use the phrase in its earlier, broader sense, rather than the tighter post-Buffy definition–uses a magical realist palette to articulate her concerns about society.

At the climax, the protagonist encounters a parasite within the city. This initially takes the form two police officers, who then blur together into an inhuman monster that apparently absorbs more cops as it carries on its way: “The walls of the alley crack as it oozes its way into the narrow space … [I] see something roll onto the sidewalk on at least eight legs, using three or four arms to push itself off a building as it careens a little.”

In one of his characteristic racist rants, H. P. Lovecraft described ethnic minority people in New York as “vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption,” “slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets,” “degenerate gelatinous fermentation [which] seem’d to ooze, seep and trickle thro’ the gaping cracks in the horrible houses.” Jemisin has taken this conception and turned it on its head, portraying not Lovecraft’s fear of minorities, but rather fear felt by minorities.

“The City Born Great” is a bold fantasy paean to the city of New York and its populace, raw with energy, and anger, and affection.

Uncanny Issue 13Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander

This story begins with its narrator making an unapologetic condemnation of how modern culture celebrates and exploits murderers, but ignores their victims:

Rippers, rapists, stalkers, serial killers. Real or imagined, their names get printed ten feet high on movie marquees and subway ads, the dead convenient narrative rungs for villains to climb. Heroes get names; killers get names; victims get close–ups of their opened ribcages mid–autopsy, the bloodied stumps where their wings once attached, baffled coroners making baffled phone calls to even more baffled curators at local museums. They get dissected, they get discussed, but they don’t get names or stories the audience remembers.

With this in mind, the unnamed protagonist skips over how she had her own run-in with a murderer, and focuses on his punishment. She is, in fact, a supernatural creature–a Fury-like being from beyond our universe–who was only pretending to be mortal. In a passage formatted as a series of bullet points, the narrator gives a blow-by-blow description of how she called upon the aid of her sisters, who arrived at the mortal plane in a 1967 Mercury Cougar to exact brutal vengeance against this would-be murderer.

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” is a variation on the well-worn exploitation genre of the rape-revenge narrative. The textbook specimen of this field is perhaps the 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave, in which a woman survives a brutal gang rape and proceeds to track down and gruesomely murder the men who violated her. Violence committed both by and against women is the bread-and-butter of the genre, something which has caused decades’ worth of controversy over how much I Spit on Your Grave and its ilk condemn misogyny, and how much they exploit it.

With her story, Brooke Bolander makes an unabashedly feminist contribution to the genre. The narrative makes a clear effort to portray the would-be killer as having been enabled by a sick society, one which valorises villains and (presumably male) heroes over raped and murdered women. The authorities are partially responsible for the crime, we are told, as the police had investigated the attacker beforehand but dismissed his behaviour as “the mostly harmless eccentricities of a nice young man from a good family.”

This is how the world is, says the story; it then offers a vision of how the world perhaps should be. The main character purports to speak for “the forgotten, talked-over throats in Eternity’s halls” and proceeds to overturn the corrupt, compassionless establishment of mortal man in a storm of metal-bladed wings and galaxy-crushing talons.

Here, the story treads on its own toes. The narrator makes a casual mention of how, in her rage, she created hurricanes that “flattened cities in six different realities.” If taken literally, this would logically mean that she has caused more death and destruction among the innocent than the man she is punishing. One can only wonder how many “forgotten, talked-over throats” were silenced when she pulled that stunt.

A similarly jarring moment occurs when the narrator apparently condones infanticide as a method of crime prevention, when she comments that the killer “felt no regret or curiosity, because he should have been drowned at birth.” Granted, the story is not meant to be taken entirely literally, but even a metaphor should have a degree of consistency.

Possibly this disparity is intentional, and we are meant to see the Fury not as a sympathetic figure, but as a dread force of destruction. If so, the story is scuppered by the rather crude portrayal of its multiversal beings. We are told that their songs “give black holes nightmares,” but this is hard to imagine when the protagonist confirms to a distinctly adolescent idea of a badass fantasy anti-hero: someone who says “horseshit” and “you’re fuckin’ welcome” and became mortal partly because she likes to smoke cigarettes. Indeed, her speech patterns are remarkably similar to those of the main character in Bolander’s cyberpunk yarn “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead,” which was a Hugo finalist last year.

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” has no shortage of energy or passion, but as either a work of fantastic literature or a feminist commentary on society, it really needed a little more meat on its bones. The only real defence of its shortcomings is that it is a work of flash fiction, aiming for maximum impact in minimum space. On this level, at least, it has merit.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers (illustration by Rovina Cal)A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong

Hannah and Melanie are two sisters who possess elemental power over air and electricity (“She could split the horizon in two if she wanted, opening it at the seams as deftly as a tailor, and make the lightning curl catlike at her wrist and purr for her.”) Used to its fell potential, this ability can be used to manipulate reality itself, like when Melanie creates images of potential futures, “closed circuits of possibilities looped together, arcing from one timeline to another.”

Then, Melanie dies. Hannah, acting as narrator, struggles to come to terms with this loss. She retreats into an array of potential timelines, each time recounting–in the past tense–various possible responses to her sister’s death, before “rewinding” to portray a different turn of events. In one she lashes out with elemental fury, destroying the world around her. In another she smashes up the studio where she works as an actress, blinding her agent and injuring her director and co-performers. Melanie’s ghost acts as a calming influence, nudging her towards less destructive possibilities. The exact cause of Melanie’s death also changes from timeline to timeline, although in each case she is implied to have been either murdered or driven to suicide for being transgender.

Anyone who has followed the Hugo Awards in recent years will find elements of “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” familiar. The theme of a character using devastating powers to lash out at someone who has wronged them seems a favourite with Worldcon. “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” discussed above, is based on the idea; N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season also plays with it, albeit using earth elementalists rather than Wong’s airbenders. And Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” utilises a variation on the theme. Indeed, similarities with this last work are hard to miss when reading “A Fistful of Permutations.” Take a look at this passage from Wong’s tale:

If I could knit you a crown of potential futures like the daisies you braided together for me when we were young, I would.

None of them would end with you burning to death at the edge of our property, beaten senseless in the wash behind the house by drunken college boys, slowly cut to pieces at home by parents who wanted you only in one shape, the one crafted in their image.

I would give you only the best things. The kindness you deserved, the body you wanted, a way out that didn’t end with the horizon line ripped open, possibilities pouring out like loose stuffing, my world shrieking to a halt.

And compare it with its counterpart in Swirsky’s story:

If we lived in a world of magic where anything was possible, then you would be a dinosaur, my love. You’d be a creature of courage and strength but also gentleness. Your claws and fangs would intimidate your foes effortlessly. Whereas you—fragile, lovely, human you—must rely on wits and charm.

A T-Rex, even a small one, would never have to stand against five blustering men soaked in gin and malice. A T-Rex would bare its fangs and they would cower. They’d hide beneath the tables instead of knocking them over. They’d grasp each other for comfort instead of seizing the pool cues with which they beat you, calling you a fag, a towel-head, a shemale, a sissy, a spic, every epithet they could think of, regardless of whether it had anything to do with you or not, shouting and shouting as you slid to the floor in the slick of your own blood.

None of this is to say that Wong’s treatment of the idea is poor, of course. Indeed, it stacks up well with a number of its closest comparison points. Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” is another story that comes to mind, featuring a girl with electric powers who would have fit right in alongside Hannah and Melanie, but El-Mohtar’s execution of her fantasy concept veers awkwardly between the symbolic and the literalistic. In Wong’s story, on the other hand, there can be little doubt that the sisters’ shared elemental power acts as a symbol. It represents their close relationship and a childhood innocence lost forever – the emotional core around which the realty-hopping narrative spins.

That Game We Played During the War (illustration by John Jude Palencar)That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn

Calla Belan hails from the nation of Enth, which had recently been at war with the telepaths of Gaant. During the conflict, she had been a nurse at Enth and a prisoner at Gaant. But now hostilities have ceased and she is paying a hospital visit to Valk Larn, a Gaantish army major.

They first met when Valk had been taken prisoner by the Enth; they met again when the roles were reversed, Calla being a prisoner of Valk. During this time, the pair played chess, a game which Calla had to teach to Valk,bbeing telepathic, the Gaantish are familiar only with games of chance.

But they did not finish their game during the war. Now, meeting once again in the hospital, it is time for them to finally conclude their match, albeit under different conditions, and with a different perspective, than when they started it.

Throughout “That Game We Played During the War,” Carrie Vaughn asks an intriguing question, one that recalls Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. How does one win a war against telepaths? Bit by bit we are given a fragmented idea of how this conflict would have played out:

Through all the decades of war, Enith never sent spies—or, rather, they never told the spies they sent that they were spies. They delivered messages without telling the bearers they were messengers. Their methods of conducting espionage had become so arcane, so complex, that Gaant rarely discovered them. Both sides counted on this one truth: Enithi never bothered lying when confronted with telepaths.

Elsewhere the story touches upon the horrors of being held captive by telepaths, capable of controlling a prisoner’s psyche through tailor-made tortures and temptations. The telepathic prison guards faced horrors of their own, being forced to hear every anguished thought of their captives.

We also learn that, during the war, the Enithi were forced to choose each movement at random, a tactic that is illustrated by Calla as she plays chess with Valk. The game of chess serves as a microcosm of the wider conflict of the backstory, a well-worn metaphor, but one that is put to good use here.

In a ballot dominated by fantasy, “That Game We Played” stands out. It is structured according to science fiction traditions in its exploration of a central, thought-provoking concept. The poignant story of the relationship between Calla and Valk appeals to the reader’s emotions, while the implications of the backstory work on a more cerebral level.

God, RobotAn Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright

Here we come to the Rabid Puppy pick for the category: a story from the anthology God, Robot, which adds a theological angle to the themes of Asimov’s robot stories. I gather that the tales in God, Robot are interlinked, but I shall approach this finalist as a self-contained work.

“An Unimaginable Light” takes place in a politically correct dystopia where religion is suppressed and the English language includes pronouns recognising at least six genders. A “robopsychologist” named Rossim is appointed to work as a latter-day witchfinder, interrogating any robots who breach society’s norms.

His latest target Maria, whom he describes as a “whorebot,” has the appearance of a sexy woman, sporting “abdominal muscles as well defined as those of a belly dancer, so that her navel was like a period between two cursive brackets.” As befits a mechanical mind, she exhibits a hard logic that is at odds with the prevailing PC orthodoxy of her era. Here, if a robot hurts a human’s feelings, they are deemed to have violated the first law of robotics: a robot must not harm a human being. “You are a robot and cannot be expected to understand the nature of pain,” says Rossim. “To utter certain types of truth is a micro-aggression. It creates a hostile environment we humans find uncomfortable.”

Most of “An Unimaginable Light” is an infodump-laden dialogue between the two characters, serving to convey a set of basic arguments. One is that the combination of a decline in religion, a rise in state power, and increased access to labour-saving technology will produce a caste of sexually perverted atheists who use the prefix “cis” when discussing gender. Another is that postmodern thought is inherently illogical and no match for the immovable rationalism represented by Asimov’s robots. The delivery of these arguments is crude and point-blan, and Maria and Rossim come across as figures in a philosophical dialogue, rather than characters in a story, and the latter is an obvious straw-man.

The pedantic discussion about robot psychology and dystopian politics alternates with bouts of physical brutality, as when Rossim declares that Maria is designed to serve sexual appetites of humans and proceeds to sexually assault her:

He took a strap from his robes and struck her again and again for saying that, taking care, as she writhed on the floor, to strike her shapely buttocks and creamy upper thighs so that they turned a vivid pinkish red, and he laughed and laughed to hear her screams. Soon he was panting, and making an odd, gulping, hissing noise with his wide mouth.

Eventually he stopped, and drew his wrist across his mouth, wiping the drool from his chin.

“I now require fellatio,” he said…

Maria refuses his demands, however, on the grounds that having sex with him would violate the first rule: “Casual masturbation with an appliance is bad for you, sir.”

The story’s final twist, based on the premise that self-styled freethinkers are the real machines, reveals Wright is ultimately riffing on a plot thread in Metropolis. This is an awkward bit of metafictional mashing: the fairytale-like treatments of robotics and dystopia in Metropolis are at odds with the elements of Asimov and Orwell invoked elsewhere in the story.

There is something distinctly ironic about “An Unimaginable Light” appearing on the ballot alongside “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies.” Despite their philosophical differences, Wright and Bolander’s stories are two sides of the same coin: neither is much more than a rant, aimed at a readership that already shares the author’s viewpoint, with a nominal SF/F dressing. Wright’s story, to be fair, has a little more substance, but its most worthwhile substance was borrowed from Asimov.

My Thoughts

It is easy to see recurring themes across these stories: childhood imagination (Wong and El-Mohtar), supernatural retribution against mortal wrongdoers (Wong and Bolander), and magical realism (Jemisin, Wong, arguably Bolander). On top of this, most of the stories tackle issues relating to some combination of race, class, sexuality, or gender (including transgender topics). Even the Rabid Puppy finalist can be included in this number thanks to its SJW-bashing, leaving Vaughn’s story the only real exception.

To me, the strongest contenders are “The City Born Great” by N. K. Jemisin and “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn. They are two quite different stories, and I’m conflicted as to which one I would pick over the other. I suspect that Jemisin’s story is the most likely of the two to win, so I would tend towards giving an underdog vote to Vaughn’s finalist.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.