Welcome to the second of our series examining the prose stories that are competing at this year’s Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy. The previous post covered the Best Short Story category. Now, let us raise the wordcount and enter Best Novelette, honouring stories of between 7,500 and 17,500 words in length…
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
In this story, Brooke Bolander imagines an alternate history where sapient elephants are able to communicate with people through sign language, and carry out manual labour within human society. One curious result of this co-existence is that – for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds – American culture has come to associate elephants with radiation. Elephants are used as mascots for nuclear power companies, and paintings of elephants decorated the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan.
The authorities need a way to mark certain areas as burial sites for radioactive waste, and hit on the idea of making the local animals glow. Cats are considered as a viable option, but at the end of the day, it is decided that only one species has sufficient cultural association with radiation: elephants. And so, a woman named Kat is given the task of persuading a group of elephants to be made to glow in the dark, in exchange for the dubious payment of the radiation-tainted lands becoming sovereign elephant territory.
Bolander’s alternate history traces the association between elephants and radiation to the 1920s, when elephants were given the job of handling paint containing radium powder – a job that, in real life, infamously fell to the so-called radium girls, who suffered deadly poisoning as a result. In this fictional world, once disease hit the radium girls, the lethal task was handed to elephants. One of the pachyderms assigned this job is Topsy – an elephant who, in real life, was put to death in 1903 after killing three handlers. Thomas Edison famously helped to arrange a public execution by electrocution for the ill-fated animal.
Parts of The Only Harmless Great Thing are written from the perspective of elephant-kind. These are framed as tales told by a mother elephant to her calves, recalling certain sequences from Bolander’s other Hugo finalist of the year, “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” – as with that story there is a distinct Kipling influence, complete with the occasional “best beloved”. Storytelling is important to elephants, we are told: “Without stories there is no past, no future, not We. There is Death. There is Nothing, a night without moon or stars.”
Contrasting with these sections are the parts of the story told from the perspective of humans, who view the elephants variously as exotic curiosities, as useful providers of hard labour, and as cute creatures to entertain children – but rarely as anything deserving of respect. Human stories of pachyderms have trumped the elephants’ stories of their own kind, something embodied by the popularity of a Disney cartoon about the life of Topsy, which gives her a happy end upholding the establishment.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is an exploration of oppression, although wisely, Bolander avoids letting the elephants become an analogy for any specific group. The plight of the sapient elephants can be taken as symbolising slavery, exploitation of the working class, and even the persecution of Native Americans (the talk of “sovereign elephant territory” suggests Native reservations). Sexism, too, comes up in the narrative, as the radium girls’ foreman is depicted as a misogynist who blames their illness on sexual licentiousness. And, of course, animal cruelty is a topic not far from the surface.
Permeating all of this is the theme of storytelling. The Only Harmless Great Thing shows an understanding of how narratives have power for both good and ill – how stories can distort and disfigure, but also build dignity and clarify truth, all depending on the storyteller. Hence how a story of glowing radioactive elephants, which seems outwardly absurd to the point of cartoonishness, can have some poignant things to say about history and humanity.
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory
Another alternate history, this time one in which alien plants arrived on Earth in the 1970s. The narrative takes the form of nine vignettes, starting from the initial seeding in 1975 and culminating in 2062; each one details a day in the life of a character named LT.
In the first chapter, LT is ten years old. His mother calls him out to see a meteor shower, but the beautiful event soon becomes potentially lethal as the meteorites start striking Earth and continue to do so for several days. It transpires that the objects are not mere stones, but capsules – alien seeds.
The years pass, and LT grows up in a world that is changing around him. Numerous alien plants have successfully grown on terrestrial soil, and LT is fascinated by them. He even adopts a fern-like, roughly humanoid species as a sort of pet, nicknaming it Slo Mo on account of its lethargic, heliotropic movements. Many more species are out there, and to LT, this is a wondrous thing. But not everyone is so delighted: the plants are, after all, an invasive species, and invasive species tend to spell disaster for other inhabitants of their new domain.
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” repeatedly draws a distinction between plant-time and human-time, the former being a gradual process occurring over long periods of time, the latter being made up of small, personal moments. By covering nearly ninety years through nine single-day chapters, the story is able to examine both at the same time. The reader is able to follow the development of new plant species on Earth, weird and wonderful and at times deeply worrying. At the same time, they will follow the life of LT, one of countless everyday people caught up in the transformations.
We see LT’s development from stargazing boy to adult scientist, and glimpse the changing world around him. His parents separate early on in the story, and he divides time between his strict, militaristic father – who is also a creationist, giving him a religious perspective on the coming of the plants – and his more liberal mother, who works her way through a long succession of male partners. As he grows he realises that he is gay, and finds love in a man named Darren, with whom he adopts a child. He studies invasive species in New Guinea, and eventually comes to work at the State Department of Agriculture.
Daryl Gregory tells this story with a lightness of touch, constructing it from a variety of small, touching moments – as befits human-time. The narrative begins on a note of Bradbury-esque childhood innocence, with the ten-year-old LT tucking into a home-made popsicle as he watches the meteor shower. The coming-of-age narrative unfolds as the plants spread, leading to such images as teenage LT’s male friend removing a shirt to catch airborne plants – the sight of which causes LT to have an early inkling of his homosexuality.
The surrounding cast is well-drawn, right down to the mother’s revolving-door boyfriends, who have their own eccentric character traits (one enjoys painting pictures of naked women turning into buildings.) It is through seemingly throwaway details such as this that Gregory builds a wider narrative of transformation. LT theorises that Earth is due to a visit from “alien bees”, as the existence of alien flowers implies some sort of pollinating agent. Indeed, the story is haunted by the threat of alien invasion, from the apocalyptic implications of the title to a scene involving a Space Invaders cabinet. But as it happens, the story is concerned not with conflict, but with co-existence. In human-time we see how LT is able to forge close bonds with those around him; while in plant time, we see how human society re-orders itself to accommodate the alien plants. “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” successfully builds a rich narrative from small details.
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly
At a royal banquet, the diners are presented with a series of pastry dishes prepared by a chef named Danny. The sumptuous spread is surrounded by tension: presiding over the feast is Duke Michal, who rules as a tyrannous regent in place of the noble Lord Searle. The Duke is hated by his subjects – including Danny’s wife Saffron, who serves as Confection Taster at the banquet.
The castle’s arrangement ensures that Saffron and Danny are kept apart, but Danny has devised a means of communicating with his wife. He has the ability to make food which calls up memories: his specialities include such dishes as the Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth and the Rose-Pepper Shortbread of Sweetness Lost.
As she samples each new morsel, Saffron’s mind is filled with vivid recollections. Her early, uncertain flirtation with Danny, egged on by her sister Rosie; the more peaceful times under the previous ruler, a kindly king; the development of Danny, Saffron and Rosie’s bakery; the ascendance and increasing brutality of Duke Michal; Rosie developing anti-authoritarian tendencies, contrasting with Saffron’s desire to make a peaceful living; Rosie becoming the latest political dissident to disappear.
The worldbuilding of “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” has a very basic foundation – namely, the standard-issue fairy tale premise of a good king replaced by an evil usurper. But on top of this, it places a single, straightforward idea – the food that contains memories – and from there, builds into something altogether more sophisticated.
The story approaches food as an art form, with a gourmet’s loving, detailed descriptions of the culinary process; factor in the food’s ability to convey memories – that is, emotional narratives – and Danny’s magic pastries become a clear metaphor for literature, delicately crafted so as to create a complex emotional response in the reader.
With this interpretation in mind, the story becomes a study of art under an oppressive regime.
Like any dictator, the Duke’s preferred method of rule involves making undesirables disappear; storytelling can therefore serve a subversive purpose, keeping the memories of his opponents alive. Consequently, the central characters are confronted with the dilemmas faced by any artist in a totalitarian regime: fight against oppression, or keep their heads down and settle for making consumers happy. Saffron is haunted by her past failure to save Rosie, and the main narrative turns out to concern her attempts to atone..
This is a complex set of themes for a fairy story. Yet, “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” manages to explore them without losing the essential narrative simplicity that makes a good fairy tale.
Byam is an imugi – a giant serpentine being that, when it turns 1000 years old, can ascend and become a dragon. Through a five-chapter story that spans thousands of years, we see Byam’s trials and tribulations as it tries to reach its goal of dragonhood. Becoming a dragon, we learn, can be an embarrassing experience, as when Byam tries to trick the people below by standing behind a dragon-shaped sculpture made from clouds – only for the image to be mistaken for a giant horse.
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” is a variation on a tried-and-true approach to comedic fantasy: taking a magical being, and giving it recognisable human flaws that humorously demythologise it while also making it more relatable to the reader. Byan must fast to become a dragon – but cannot resist stepping off its diet for just one cow. It spends a hundred years on a work of art, only to have the results totally misinterpreted. For its early stretches, the story is amusing but not particularly original – and then it takes on a new dimension when the narrative reaches the modern day and we meet the academic Leslie.
Leslie’s life story of disappointments and thwarted goals mirrors that of Byam, albeit in a way that is far from comical. When she is introduced, she is a struggling PhD student who has split up with her boyfriend and is contemplating suicide. She crosses paths with Byam when she happens to film the magical being crashing into a mountain, a video that subsequently goes viral. The incident is extremely embarrassing for Byam but life-changing for Leslie, who takes the sight as a good omen and decides to press on, taking therapy and leaving behind her suicidal thoughts.
The fourth and longest chapter is set some years after this occurrence, when the embittered and Byam has given up hope of ever becoming a dragon. It shapeshifts into human form to finally confront the woman responsible for the embarrassment: Leslie, who is now pursuing an academic career. Despite this initial hostility, Byam comes to help Leslie with her research, the former’s familiarity with the divine complementing the latter’s scientific outlook on the cosmos. Over time, the two grow closer and even end up living together.
The story continues to playfully compare and contrast the lives and outlooks of its principle characters. Leslie struggles to obtain a tenure and must face the possibility of never achieving her academic goals, just as Byam has given up hope of achieving dragonhood. The results are often funny and sometimes touching, the latter aspect becoming particularly apparent when the pair have to face a distinct difference between them: while Byam is immortal, Leslie’s time on this world is all too brief.
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” starts out as an amusing literary confection, but by its end, it has developed into a poignant analysis of how magic can happen during a person’s everyday life.
“When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller
A nomadic tribe makes its way across a post-apocalyptic landscape to gather scraps for trading. Along the way its members encounter various dangers. Swarms of centipede-like creatures burrow in the ground below; the wind carries poison; and the land is haunted by ghosts.
The main character, Mink, is a scout with the job of dealing with such spirits. Mink is ambivalent about this role: “I knew they could be laid to rest with a bit of work; I just chose not to whenever possible. The world always felt lessened by their passing.”
When Mink encounters a “ghost” during the story, the reader will recognise the figure as being a holographic projection designed to resemble a human astronaut (“Its whole body was obscured by a bulky, silvery layer of clothing, its head round like a bowl”) But to Mink, whose tribe belongs to a reptilian species, the being is an otherworldly spirit, animated by veins that stretch deep into the ground. When the machinery in the surrounding vessel is activated, Mink realises that this is no ordinary ghost but a fabled Clusterhaunt: “Clusterhaunts were said to be the rarest and mightiest of ghosts, spiteful of the living, and oh-so-strong, the most powerful ghost-shifters, heart concealers, mind-mimickers. Tribe-vanishers.”
The idea of high technology becoming the stuff of legend to a post-apocalyptic society is nothing new, but “When We Were Starless” offers an engaging treatment of this old theme. For a post-apocalyptic narrative, it is remarkably sweet and optimistic: Mink is characterised as a good-hearted sort who is more open-minded and sensitive than other members of the tribe, and ends up opening communication with the hologram – even granting it the name Orion – despite being sent to destroy it.
The story’s worldbuilding is a mixture of the inventive and the light-hearted. The reptilian characters are heavily humanised in terms of characterisation, yet the story makes repeated references to tails, scales and egg-laying; the general effect is perhaps best described as cute, rather like a Jim Henson fantasy film. Elsewhere, as we meet beings that range from beasts of burden used by the reptilians to spider-like terraforming machines, it becomes clear that the story is able to paint a colourful world using only a few broad strokes.
“When We Were Starless” is not pure frothiness. During the climax, as Mink winds up in conflict with the tribe and Orion faces existential angst as a being constructed to aid a species now extinct, the story works with some heavier themes. But it does so in a manner that would be appropriate for a story aimed at younger readers. Running through the novelette is a sense of childlike wonder, which is captured sincerely and successfully without condescension.
“The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer
Studying for a PhD in Folklore, Leah writes a doctoral dissertation about ghost stories – not the literary variety practiced by Charles Dickens and M. R. James, but the allegedly true variety. As she speaks to various interviewees about their paranormal experiences, she makes some stark observations about how true ghost stories function as narratives:
The most interesting thing about ghost stories is that almost everyone has one.
The other really interesting thing, to me, is that they’re nearly all terrible stories if you try to take them as stories. A good story has a beginning, some buildup, and then a resolution or a twist or something at the end. Ghost stories go, “This creepy and inexplicable thing once happened to me. The obvious explanation is that I dreamed or imagined it; I am certain that I didn’t dream or imagine it.” Or in some cases, “I used to live in this house where creepy stuff happened all the time. Then we moved.” Every now and then you’ll hear a story with a ghost that has a beginning, middle, and end, but those are most often urban legends: “One day we were driving along and we picked up a hitchhiker.” (Beginning.) “As we drove, we had this creepy conversation with the hitchhiker.” (Middle.) “Then we reached our destination and the hitchhiker had vanished from the back seat.” (Twist!) That one’s not a real ghost story. It did not happen to your cousin, no matter what he says.
Noting that fairy tales can be classified as per the Aarne-Thompson-Uther system, Leah devises a similar categorisation system for ghost stories: type 31c is “mischevious poltergeist”, type 42a is “vision of a stranger’s suicide” and so forth.
As Leah’s rambling description of her studies continues on its way, the reader becomes aware that she has her own story of a haunting. Her account hops back and forth in terms of chronology, but piece by piece, a narrative emerges of Leah’s relationship with her mother. We see how the mother moved in with Leah, helped with her dissertation, then gradually succumbed to dementia – a state which, in Leah’s telling, rendered her a ghost-like presence that haunted the house – before finally passing away.
Leah’s description of her mother’s dementia is, at times, strikingly callous. “I wondered if she’d felt the first whispers of dementia,” she says of her mother at one point, “and figured that if she wrapped herself around my ankle early, it would be that much harder for me to shake her loose later on.” Elsewhere, Leah complains that “there was no way I could travel to do research when I was caring for my mother, and I hated the thought of wasting a sabbatical on caregiving.”
Leah herself acknowledges her conflicted emotional response to her mother’s passing:
When Mom died, though, my first thought was, “I guess I can get back to work on my research now,” as awful as that sounds. I’d spent so many years losing her a piece at a time, though, that grieving was really strange. Also, I don’t know if there’s anything after death but I could at least imagine her whole somewhere. Restored to the person she was before the dementia.
But then, Leah is a practical-minded, unsentimental person. She is interested in the dry matter of narrative structure, and preoccupied with such materialistic concerns as money and spare time. She categorises ghost stories into neat slots, and gauges audience reactions in terms of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and other biological processes. By contrast, our occasional glimpses of her mother demonstrate the older woman’s interest in the human side of the stories:
She stuck to the style guide I’d given her, but nagged me about it over meals, along with the stories I’d cut because they didn’t fit my overall thesis.
“You should never cut the best stories,” she said. “People care about ghost stories because they care about ghosts. They like these stories because they think the ghosts are real.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but I’m a folklorist, not a ghost hunter.”
“What would you do if you had your own amazing story? How would you use that in your research?”
“I would never,” I said. “That would be unprofessional.”
When the deceased mother inevitably becomes a ghost story herself, Leah takes some time to notice; she is too distracted at first by the ghost stories of others. Only towards the end of the narrative does Leah confront her own haunting, uniting form with content as she reconciles herself with the lingering presence of her mother.
A deeply metafictional piece, “The Thing About Ghost Stories” demands that the reader pay close attention and deconstruct the narrative as it progresses. The result seems likely to frustrate as many readers as it fascinates, but it can hardly be denied that Naomi Kritzer offers a large amount to think about.
Once again, a significant recurring theme across these stories is storytelling. The motif is not as prevalent as in the Best Short Story category, but it is still noticeable. “The Thing About Ghost Stories” and The Only Harmless Great Thing are the most obviously meta, and practically analyse themselves as they go along. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” can be read as a story about art in general, and storytelling in particular. “When We Were Starless” uses the folklore of its fictional society as a major part of its worldbuilding. Even “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”, with its mortal character who draws inspiration from the sight of a dragon, could be interpreted as a story about the power of fantasy fiction. Only “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” is a stretch to fit into this pattern.
Beyond this, the novelettes are a reasonably diverse set of tales. Two are alternate histories confronting humanity with the inhuman; one is a fairy tale, another a post-apocalyptic saga that resembles a fairy tale; and the remaining two are stories that find bittersweet magic in contemporary settings. The themes and subject matter sometimes overlap, but as with the short stories, each writer comes up with a distinctive approach.