The season of the Hugo Awards is upon us once again, and Worldcon’s membership has selected another batch of science fiction and fantasy stories to vie for the coveted trophy.
To start off Bookmarked’s coverage of the awards, I am taking a look at the two categories for shorter fiction: Best Short Story and Best Novelette.
Best Short Story
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim
Zee lives in a world of clockwork people. Each of the inhabitants has only a limited number of turns per day in which to move; as Zee has an unusually strong mainspring, she has more turns than most of her kind. Although these clockwork folk have an unseen maker who winds them up every night, they can only be wound up so many times; after a point, their lives will be over.
The plot of “Carnival Nine” follows the mechanised life of Zee from her childhood onwards. She starts out as an energetic young thing, eager to escape from the humdrum world and experience the sights and sounds of the various carnivals, which are operated by clockwork carnies with outlandish combinations of human and animal body parts.
As she grows up—a process that involves her father taking her to town and swapping her body parts for adult-sized replacements—Zee sees the tiny world around her changing. Her grandparents, each having wound and unwound for over nine hundred days, wind down for one last time and are sent off by her father for recycling.
She also falls in love, with a boy named Endivale whom she met at Carnival Nine. The two head off together, and Zee starts a new life as a carnival worker. The young couple later decide to have a child together—but their new son turns out to have a weak mainspring, granting him only a few turns per day.
“Carnival Nine” opens the reader’s mouth and pops two highly-concentrated doses—one of whimsy, one of melancholy—right down their gullet. The Blytonesque sweetness of the little clockwork people and their toytown world is offset by the inescapable fact that their lives are, in real-world terms, extremely brief.
Right from the start, it is apparent that “Carnival Nine” will be a story of entropy. Following Zee on her short life, the reader is treated to her disappointing encounter with her estranged mother; her childhood wonderment at the excitement of the carnival giving way to the banalities of actually working there; her love for Endivale descending into marital strife; her aspirations for the future disrupted by the arrival of her high-maintenance son.
Throughout all of this, Zee comes to accept the limitations of the life that has been given to her and appreciates the time that she has with her family members, whatever their faults. Out of the doll’s house setting comes a universal theme
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
While an artificially intelligent robot named Cimputron is performing a question and answer session, a teenage girl asks if he is familiar with an anime series called Hyperdimension Warp Record. Instead of dismissing this banal question, Computron decides to conduct research in order to answer any related queries that may occur in the future.
Hyperdimension Warp Record, it turns out, is the story of a hero named Ellison (one of multiple shout-outs to classic SF authors in the story) and his robot companion Cyro. Despite being incapable of emotion, Computron finds the anime sufficiently engaging to keep on watching—and even take part in its online fan community.
“Fandom for Robots” is a comedic bit of metafiction that derives much of its humour from pitting the logical brain of a robot against the idiosyncratic world of online fandom. The conflict is summed up when Computron tries writing a fanfic:
His soft human body pressed against the hard lines of Cyro’s proprietary alloy, In a manner which would have generated wear and tear had Cyro’s body not been of superior make. Fluids leaked from Ellison’s eyes. No fluids leaked from Cyro’s ocular units …
Responses to Computron’s story range from bewilderment, to praise for how convincingly he conveys Cyro’s mechanical mind. The first fanfic that Computron comes across humanises Cyro to the extent that the robot character is given a nose and a tongue, rather than the cubic metal head of the anime, so that he can better engage in romantic tenderness with Ellison; but Computron’s portrayal of Cyro represents a very different type of robot—as, on a meta level, does the character of Computron himself. The online fans come to regard Computron’s robotic mind more relatable than the humanised and romanticised androids of fiction.
The story ends in something of an anti-climax, the punchline being deployed rather too early, but “Fandom for Robots” is great fun while it lasts.
“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata
In a future Earth ravaged by war, sickness and ecological devastation, eighty-year-old Susannah Li-Langford has spent nearly two decades overseeing a long-distance project: an obelisk being constructed on Mars, to stand as a final monument following humanity’s extinction. As Mars is unpopulated, the Obelisk is being built by AI equipment left over from a failed attempt at colonisation.
The project is financed by Susannah’s fellow octogenarian Nathaniel Sanchez. Susannah’s architectural masterpieces have been destroyed in Earth’s natural disasters, while Nathaniel has struggled to get any of his previous projects off the ground; the Martian Obelisk is the one chance for immortality they have left between them.
But their plans are disrupted when Susannah receives a message from her Mars-based AI reporting that a vehicle has arrived at the construction site. The vehicle identifies itself as hailing from Red Oasis, the last of the Martian colonies, which had died out nine months earlier following an outbreak of disease.
If the vehicle is controlled by an AI, then who sent it—and how did it survive the long trek from the site of the old colony to the vicinity of the obelisk? Is it possible that there is still at least one human living up there on the dead red planet?
“The Martian Obelisk” depicts a world haunted by the ghosts of failed futures. The space age is well and truly over, with Martian colonisation a failure and any further expeditions to the planet off the table for the simple reason that nobody has the finances to arrange such a mission. The apocalypse is impending, but at this point, not even a dignified end for Earth is conceivable:
It was not supposed to happen like this. As a child she’d been promised a swift conclusion: duck and cover and nuclear annihilation. And if not annihilation, at least the nihilistic romance of a gun-toting, leather-clad, fight-to-the-death anarchy.
That hadn’t happened either.
And so, Humanity’s only remaining vision of things to come is a gigantic tombstone.
This bleak picture of a world—two worlds, in fact—that have simply given up receives a new detail with the arrival of the mysterious vehicle. Susannah and Nate fear that the vehicle might be part of a sabotage attempt by one aggrieved party or another—but on the other hand, it could also be driven by a surviving colonist.
This ambiguity is sustained for much of the story and is used to drive the narrative as the two characters await either the destruction of their final achievement or one last ray of hope.
The history of science fiction is, on one level, a history of failed futures, and it is doubtful that anyone could take a long look at the development of the genre without feeling at least a twinge of melancholy at all the dreams that never came to pass. “The Martian Obelisk” taps into this feeling, building a world from abandoned futures and current anxieties—and then adding the possibility that, maybe, not all is lost.
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde
In this second-person narrative (which begins with the sentence “There’s a ticket booth on my tongue”) the narrator guides the unnamed protagonist—the reader?—on a journey. Through a passageway hid behind nymph-adorned panels leading to a series of rooms where collections are housed.
Collections of objects—matches, fishhooks. Collections of animals – butterflies, worms in jars, beetles that taste of solder and liquorice. Collections of x-ray photographs, taken of visitors.
As the story progresses, the collections grow stranger and the narrator becomes more hands-on with the protagonist. The boundaries between object and person become blurred, making it ambiguous as to whether the story is describing a doll collection or a freak show. Then comes the Hall of Criminals and Saints, where wrongdoers and do-gooders alike are put on display. Finally, it is time for the protagonist to end the tour—somewhat changed by the experience.
The tour guide is the reader’s sole companion; it is through this eccentric character that we see the various collections and all of their oddities. What we are seeing is often open to interpretation, this passage being typical:
Maybe take this chair. I’ll push you around. The wheels squeak on the wood floor, and the chair is really more of a bin. Don’t mind the parts in there with you, the arms bent at angles, some screws missing; the legs, still braced, the leather straps, the metal bits and the plastic … remember, plastic’s newer and we don’t really respect anyone who’s turned on by that. Comfy?
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” is a freak show, and by its end, it gives the reader the feeling of having been put on display as the latest freak in the show.
“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon
A farmer named Allpa receives a magic sword from his dying grandmother; a sword containing three warrior spirits. Emerging like genies from a lamp, these spirits—slender Sun, imposing Moon and stocky Dust— have a rather different outlook on life. The spirits expect him to become a warrior, to go forth and conquer; but Allpa is reluctant to become a warrior for the logical reason that there are no wars being fought—and besides, he has potatoes to grow.
The three spirits react in different ways to the realisation that their latest champion is a pacifist. Dust, the most warlike of the three, is irate, while Sun is more tolerant. The third, Moon, becomes captivated by the farming life, and comes to feel that Allpa is on to something.
“Sun, Moon, Dust”, while pleasant in tone and vivid in characters, has the feel of a set-up to a narrative that never really gets started. On one level it is a clear subversion of fantasy conventions: the crotchety attitude of the departing grandmother makes a mockery of deathbed scenes, while the story’s positioning of farm life as preferable to armed adventure has a satirical edge. But as subversions go this is all rather obvious, and considerably less sophisticated than Ursula Vernon’s spins on fairy tales in stories such as “Jackalope Wives”.
Still, the story remains readable and engaging despite the slightness of its plot, which is a credit to Vernon’s prose stylings.
“Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse
Native American Jesse Turnblatt works at an attraction that uses virtual reality to offer purportedly authentic vision quests to tourists; his co-worker DarAnne finds all of this demeaning and exploitative, but Jesse goes with the flow. He obligingly provides virtual peyote visions (based on his personal memories of smoking weed at college), adopts the surname Trueblood (to his wife’s annoyance), memorises Johnny Depp’s lines in The Lone Ranger and hides the fact that he is a practicing Catholic. Hey presto: a meticulously authentic recreation of Hollywood Indian culture, which is all the tourists are asking for at the end of the day.
But not all of Jesse’s customers are taken in by the act. One man realises how painfully inauthentic it all is, and decides to depart. While pleading for him to stay, Jesse gives the man the pseudo-spiritual name of White Wolf. The two later meet outside of VR, and despite their awkward first encounter, they become friends. Over the following days, bit by bit, White Wolf inserts himself into Jesse’s life, and it turns out that this Caucasian can do a better job of playing Indian—at which point Jesse finds himself sidelined.
Its satire as precise as a scalpel, “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™” deconstructs the commodification of Native American cultures, New Age appropriation and the “pretendian” phenomenon of white people insisting that they have Cherokee grandmothers. Seemingly every other paragraph has an observation on the topic, as when Jesse’s recreation of Custer’s Last Stand is a commercial failure: “Tourists don’t come to Sedona Sweats to live out a goddamn battle,” declares his boss, “especially if the white guy loses”.
The story also touches upon how these cultural issues intersect with gender politics. When the boss insists on pulling in more customers through sex appeal instead DarAnne is disgusted at the idea of having herself turned into a sexualised Indian maiden—but Jesse agrees to be converted from a paunchy middle-aged man to a VR hunk.
As a final irony to wrap the whole thing up, the story is narrated in second person—giving the reader an Authentic Indian Experience by placing them into the shoes of Jesse Turnblatt as his culture and his way of life are gradually depleted.
“Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker
A generational starship heads steadily to its destination planet. It houses a genetic bank so that it can populate the new world, but it is sorely lacking in another resource: knowledge. Decades ago, a virus wiped out the information stored in the ship’s databanks, leaving those on board with no more than memories of life back on Earth. The main character, Rosie Clay, is a schoolteacher tasked with passing what knowledge remains onto the next generation.
Rosie is caught between two generations: on the one hand are her memories of her parents and grandmother, on the other is her sometimes uncooperative class. Nelson, one of her pupils, argues that humanity’s history is best forgotten, and that education should focus on knowledge and skills that will come in useful when the ship arrives at the new planet. He does not know if he was named after Horatio Nelson, Nelson Mandela or some other Nelson—as far as he is concerned, those figures and the conflicts they represent are best left back on Earth.
Sarah Pinsker, herself a singer-songwriter, uses music as the main vehicle for her meditation on the role of collective memory in culture. The title of the story refers to a tune played by Rosie’s grandmother, who has gone on to become a semi-legendary figure. The backstory establishes that the tune dates back to the 1970s, and was based on a composer’s imperfect memory of a traditional piece called Windy Grove. Rosie knows the tune, but it has been forever severed from its roots—even the subject matter is obscure to the people on board the ship, as wind is no more than an abstract concept to them. Should Rosie be preserving the songs of the old world, or should she be helping to create new music inspired by the void of space and the opportunities of the destination planet?
In light of the recent SF/F culture war—with its reappraisals of the established canon, and heated debates over what current work deserves celebration—“Wind Will Rove” has a definite resonance right now. But then, every generation is in one way or another faced with the question of which aspects of culture should be kept and which should be allowed to die. Pinsker’s story is about a loss of history, but the themes she has touched upon are paradoxically timeless.
“Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard
In this urban fantasy story, Paris has been devastated by a magical war between fallen angels and dragons. The Fallen succeeded in dominating the city, and now operate various Houses that take in citizens to train as servants or live as dependants. Citizens who remain Houseless end up at the bottom of the social scale, forced to survive on the streets.
The main characters are Thuan and Kim Cuc, a pair of dragons who have successfully disguised themselves as Houseless humans. They aim to be accepted in House Hawthorn, run by the fallen angel Asmodeus, so that they can act as spies on behalf of a dragon kingdom that lies beneath the Seine; accompanying them is Leila, a genuinely Houseless girl.
Shortly after they arrive the House is hit by magical disturbances, which include sightings of strange beings that resemble children made from hawthorn and are visible to only certain House members. In the confusion Kim Cuc goes missing, and Thuan reluctantly aligns himself with the fallen angel Sare, head of Hawthorn’s alchemical laboratory, to find out what is going on.
“Children of Thorns, Children of Water” is a tightly-paced story; no sooner has it laid out the basics of its fantasy world than it plunges into a mystery narrative. But this is not to say that the world of the story lacks vividness.
De Bodard’s magical Paris is decidedly grotty. The air is corroded by magical pollution, which causes strange fungi to grow inside people’s bodies, and even the opulent trappings of House Hawthorne (Chinese statuary, Louis XV tables and so forth) turn out, on close inspection, to be cracked and tarnished. But the overriding concern of the story is social inequality.
The city is an authoritarian regime where inhabitants are given a choice between homelessness and submission to the fallen angels, and those who choose the latter path appear to have the deck stacked against them. As a test of their loyalty and capability, Thuan and his two cohorts are forced to work as cooks in the kitchen of House Hawthorne—even though the Houseless live in such poverty that they know little of decent food (they are only saved because Thuan previously flirted with a cook in the dragon kingdom, and picked up a few recipes). The dragons, the opponents of the Fallen, are not above such elitist thinking. Thuan is sent on the mission because, dangling as he is from a minor branch of the royal family tree, he is expendable.
The story is not one of a straightforward good-versus-evil conflict. It avoids pointing fingers; we never learn exactly what the dragons and fallen angels were warring over, for example, or if either side was justified in taking part in the conflict. The oppressors are humanised: Asmodeus, the House’s demonic lord, turns out to be in a state of grief following a bereavement, and is also willing to protect the children of the House.
The social issues present in the story are too complex to be wrapped up within the space of a single novelette. But Thuan at least manages to get close to the root of the problem when, during the climax, he encounters a personification of House Hawthorne itself and learns exactly what has been going on.
A winning combination of ripping yarn, imaginative worldbuilding and thoughtful subtext.
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K. M. Szpara
Finley, a transgender man, gets attacked in a bar by a vampire. He wakes up to find himself lying in bed; the vampire, Andreas, is now deeply remorseful and tends to him. Finley is dying, and his only option is to allow Andreas to turn him into a vampire.
The usage of vampires as analogues for LGBT experience is nothing new, but “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” stands out in how closely it engages with the issues that arise from being transgender, and how successfully it ties these to the theme of vampirism. K. M. Szpara draws a direct line between the two changes that Finley has undergone in his life, which each achieve similar bittersweet qualities. When he transitioned to male, he lost the singing voice that he once had; when he becomes a vampire, he could never again see a sunset.
The story approaches vampirism as a medical procedure: it depicts a world where the undead are an accepted fact of life, and the medical establishment is sufficiently familiar with them to have built up an entire bureaucracy, with prospective vampires being forced to jump through a number of hoops. Much like people who decide to medically transition, in fact.
Prejudice is also a problem faced by vampires and trans people alike. Finley considers outing Andreas for biting him non-consensually, but he knows all too well what happens to vampires who are placed on the Blood Offenders Registry: they end up at the mercy of “corrupt cops and stake-wielding bigots”, and are only one further violation away from euthanasia. When the two end up bonding it is because, even before Finely became a vampire, they had a large amount of shared experience.
In the story, transgender people are barred from legally becoming vampires on the grounds that the effects of the change on a transgender body are not fully understood. It turns out that the process of vampirism causes Finley’s current attributes—both male and female—to become exaggerated. His muscles thicken and his beard becomes bushier, but his periods resume and his breasts grow back. Andreas tries to rectify matters by giving him blood spiked with testosterone.
Written by a trans author, “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” approaches the transgender experience with empathy and knowledge and captures the emotional hardships faced by trans people. But it does so with a good helping of humour, as well. The story has a thick vein of observational comedy relating to Finley’s experiences as a trans man; running alongside this is the parodic humour arising from its treatment of the vampire genre.
Speaking of which, “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” finds time to work in all the elements that fans of vampire fiction will have come to expect. It has lashings of fang-based eroticism; moments of horror, as when Finley is forced to sleep in the earth for the first time—an experience rather too close to being buried alive; and an intelligently playful approach to the various conventions and tropes that come with the coffin-crowd.
“Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee
Jedao, a spacefleet commander is up for promotion. His general sends him on a mission to investigate a distress call sent by one of the fleet’s spy ships – the captain of which, Meng, was a fellow cadet at Jedao’s old academy. Alongside his cohorts Teshet and Haval, Jedao heads into hostile Gwa territory disguised as a merchant.
“Extracurricular Activities” is an unapologetic space opera romp in which Yoon Ha Lee manages to get an enjoyably twisty-turny plot to a relatively concise length. For example, the middle of the novelette includes an extended flashback sequence to Jedao and Meng’s time at the academy; this is the first time that Meng appears on-stage as a character, and the sequence also serves to further establish Jedao by showing us an earlier point of his development as a trainee spy.
The narrative then returns to the present, and after a deadly battle with apparent space pirates, the intrigue reaches its height when Jedao finally confronts Meng to pick the truth apart from the cover-stories.
“Extracurricular Activities” employs has a heavy dash of comedy. This is apparent at the very beginning, when Jedao opens a suspicious package that turns out to be a tub of goosefat sent by his thoughtful mother; and it comes into play towards the climax, when a cross-dressing Jedao suffers a number of farcical embarrassments while trying to infiltrate the enemy stronghold.
The novelette takes place in the same universe as Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, and makes good use of established worldbuilding while still working as a self-contained story. A variety of cultural concepts—including language, religion and even sex work—have parts to play in the narrative, and add a considerable amount of texture.
“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer
While humanity fights a losing battle against aliens, a deteriorating spacecraft—which has survived so far purely because it had already been abandoned for scrap prior to the conflict—is faced with an infestation by an unidentified parasite. Its on-board computer dispatches a maintenance bot to tackle the matter, while the crew members do their best to hold things together.
The narrative of “The Secret Life of Bots” alternates between the perspective of the humans and that of the bot. The former is a fairly standard military SF affair as Captain Baraye and crew deal with the stress of flying a ramshackle spacecraft as part of a losing battle and try to come up with a last-ditch plan for victory. The latter narrative strand, meanwhile, starts out as something of a detective story: the bot communicates with various AIs on the ship, from the main computer to other maintenance bots, and examines its surroundings in an effort to work out exactly what the parasite is. Then the bots overhear the plans of the humans, and their attention is drawn to the larger issues at hand.
As the title indicates, the bots’ side of the story is the ultimate focal point. Suzanne Palmer does a convincing job of portraying the world of the bots, and uses some good tricks to convey their programmed minds, such as their repeated usage of “mantras”. The story begins with the protagonist bot reciting the vaguely Asimovian Mantra Upon Waking: “I have been activated, therefore I have a purpose; I have a purpose, therefore I serve.” Later on, it recites the Mantra of Shapechanging to integrate new hardware and the Mantra of Action to prepare itself for conflict against the parasite, amongst other mantras.
The two plot threads play off each other well, creating a humorous contrast between the stressed-out crew members and the politely dutiful natures of the bots. The overall effect is rather sweet, like watching R2D2 and K-9 crash a somewhat dour Star Trek episode to save the hapless crewmembers.
“A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Helena Li Yuanhui is a specialist in a peculiar field: the forgery of beef. In an era where 3D printers can now handle cloned organic tissue, Helena runs a small company that prints out beef, which she delicately crafts into convincing facsimiles of genuine cow slices. These end up consumed by customers who go away satisfied, none the wiser that their meal was a mere imitation.
Legally, this is a grey area, but Helena was in trouble before she got involved. Previously involved in the cloning of human organs, she was unjustly named as the culprit of a fatality arising from a defective heart. This led to her expulsion from university, but the family of the deceased hope for a harsher punishment. She is presently in hiding under a pseudonym; beef forgery is a career to tide her over until her statute of limitations passes, at which point she can legally change her name and start a new life overseas.
When Helena gets an order for two hundred T-bone steaks, she is unsure as to whether she can pull off such an ambitious scheme. She has no choice but to accept, however: the client knows all about her history, and blackmails her into pushing forwards. Helena sets to work with the aid of a talented assistant named Lily (who turns out to have a somewhat shady past of her own) and together, the two try to find out a way of escaping from their predicament.
In terms of plot “A Series of Steaks” is very much a crime story, with unjust prosecutions, false identities, sinister phone callers sending heavies to rough up their targets, and a climax where the protagonists finally dig up the dirt on the gangsters manipulating them. It uses its central science fiction element partly for the quirky appeal of printing bespoke steaks, and partly to allow ruminations about art. The story captures the theory, the craft, the passion and even the embarrassments that drive an artist—whether the art is painting pictures or forging steaks.
Each of the six short stories has merit, but to me, the brevity of “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, the abrupt ending of “Fandom for Robots” and the flat plot of “Sun, Moon, Dust” prevent them from being the standouts in the selection.
The remaining three, interestingly, each tackle the theme of entropy: the poignant winding-down of a clockwork world in “Carnival Nine”, the destruction of indigenous culture through crass exploitation in “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™” and the impending apocalypse—with the potential of a new beginning—in “The Martian Obelisk”. The last of these would be my personal pick of the bunch, although the satirical “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™” is a very close second.
The novelettes are a stronger batch. Including romps against a military SF background (“Extracurricular Activities” and “The Secret Life of Bots”), a quirky crime story (“A Series of Steaks”), a humorous transgender spin on vampire fiction (“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”), an urban fantasy adventure (“Children of Thorns, Children of Water”) and another narrative of entropy and new beginnings (“Wind Will Rove”).
Of these, it was “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” that spoke to me the most. But I would pick the “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” as a second favourite, and I suspect that it will prove to have wider appeal when the votes are counted.