The pandemic may have led to conventions around the world being cancelled, but many of their events have managed to survive in virtual form – Worldcon’s annual Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy being one example. The awards are scheduled to be presented in August, under different circumstances but retaining the same spirit as in past years. In the meantime, the SF/F blogosphere, undeterred by disease, has taken part in the annual tradition of discussing the stories that are in the running for the coveted Hugos.
Let us join in with an overview of the first two of six finalists competing for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story…
The wind’s moving fast again. The weathermen lean into it, letting it wear away at them until they turn to rain and cloud.
“Look there, Sila.” Mumma points as she grips my shoulder.
Her arthritis-crooked hand shakes. Her cuticles are pale red from washwater. Her finger makes an arc against the sky that ends at the dark shadows on the cliffs.
“You can see those two, just there. Almost gone. The weather wouldn’t take them if they weren’t wayward already, though.” She tsks. “Varyl, Lillit, pay attention. Don’t let that be any of you girls.”
Her voice sounds proud and sad because she’s thinking of her aunt, who turned to lightning.
The town’s first weatherman.
So begins “A Catalog of Storms”, a tale set in a world in which people are prone to becoming “weathermen” – not television forecasters, that is, but elemental beings. Some transform into clouds, others become lightning, still others may end up as rain, or snow, or sleet. The role of the weathermen is to warn of impending storms and help to drive them away, and their presence inspires both pride and a degree of fear: when weathermen return to their old homes, parents hide their children.
The main characters in the story are sisters Sila, Varyl and Lillit, along with their unnamed mother, with Lillit due to become a weatherman. Becoming a weatherman is an honour for the individual but a loss to their loved ones, a process that the story explores through the eyes of the youngest child, Sila.
John Ruskin famously coined the term “pathetic fallacy” to describe anthropomorphism in poetry, citing as an example Charles Kingsley’s reference to boat rowing across “cruel, crawling foam”. Fran Wilde’s story feels like a direct attack on Ruskin’s dismissal: as a story of loss, duty and sacrifice set against the background of a storm-ravaged coastal community, “A Catalog of Storms” has plenty of room for pathetic fallacy to run rampant – and Wilde works the anthropomorphism of weather into her very worldbuilding.
The narrative is interspersed with descriptions of different storm varieties (“A Felrag: the summer wind that turns the water green first, then churns up dark clouds into fists”; “A Neap-Change: the forgotten tide that’s neither low nor high, the calmest of waters, when what rests in the deeps slowly slithers forth”). The descriptions become increasingly humanised as they progress, so we read of how a Searcloud “wraps charred arms around those it catches”, while an Ashpale can be driven away by screaming at it. The story establishes that storms are easier to contain and confront if they are have been named and classified – not only are people becoming weather, but weather is being transformed into people, so to speak.
That said, the anthropomorphism goes only so far. Wilde avoids making the storms into characters – the story never depicts a talking stormcloud, for example. Instead, the fantasy concepts of weathermen and storm battles are used as lenses through which to view the narrative’s emotional centre: the relationship between the four main characters.
“A Catalog of Storms” is a coming-of-age story, telling the old tale of a youngster leaving home and venturing into the wide, dangerous world, as seen from the perspective of the family members left behind. Consequently, it deals with themes of loss and discovery, of melancholy and hope – all articulated via the fantasy concepts of weathermen and Neap-Changes. Fran Wilde has spun pathetic fantasy into an entire imaginary world.
Eefa, a healer, is weary of seeing her soldier-spouse Talaan march off to war, and dreads the days when her children are old enough for the army. She decides to flee the city of Xot altogether and escape the warmongering Emperor. She knows that it is wrong to abandon her family; she knows that the wars will continue whether or not she is present; and she knows that – given the empire’s expansionist ambitions – she has few places to hide; but nonetheless, she is desperate enough to make her attempt at escape.
But Talaan pursues and catches up with Eefa, making a plea: the couple will have one more child, Talaan being already pregnant, and this child will grow to become a healer and never go off to war. Eefa reluctantly returns to Xot, where she must face the ire of its martial culture.
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion” depicts a society structured entirely around warfare. The emperor is hailed as a glorious “Conqueror-King”. Bodily scars are objects of honour and awe, so much so that babies are ritually scarred at birth. The religion of the land is centred on a bloodthirsty goddess named Ukhel, depicted as one-eyed, one-breasted and with a vulture on her shoulder, her temple stained from animal sacrifices. People with disabilities that prevent them from taking part in combat, such as Eefa, are widely viewed with suspicion and contempt. Imperial pomp and circumstance, far from hiding the brutality of war, celebrates it in displays of blood and mutilation:
Husbands and children line the streets, weeping and cheering. Ukhel’s choir sings songs about death and glory and grasses watered with the blood of their enemies. The Emperor herself blesses each of them as they go through the city gates, cutting her own tongue and marking each soldier with a bloody kiss.
So tightly-concentrated is this war-obsessed land that author Alix E. Harrow is able to paint a comprehensive picture of it within the small space afforded by a short story. Every aspect of the society is built upon war – and so, a story about war can touch upon every aspect of the society.
Some of this might be easy to miss at first, however, as the most immediately obvious element of the story’s worldbuilding is its gender-bending. Eefa is referred to using feminine pronouns, yet also identified as a husband husband. Talaan, her wife, is specifically described as a pregnant woman, but has male pronouns.
This, too, feeds into the story’s martial culture. To the people of Xot, warfare is seen as a woman’s occupation, because – as the priests of Ukhel have it – “she who brings Life brings Death also”. Implicitly, this cultural association led to a scenario in which men like Eefa are forced into passive civilian roles, with feminine terminology to match. The story continues the trend popularised by Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice for playing with gender roles and encouraging the reader to confront their preconceptions.
Another example of the story’s playful nature is the fact that, while ultimately about war, it never depicts war directly. The central conflict of “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” is emotional rather than physical: above all, this is a story about what it feels like to value peace and family relations in a society founded upon militarism. The conflict plays out through Eefa’s fear for the children in her family – the fates of the current children, the future of the unborn child – and is granted genuine emotional weight.
Ostensibly a brief, even trivial tale set in a largely conventional fantasy setting (albeit one with an unconventional approach to gender) “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” turns out to be an intricate weaving together of feeling and world-construction, with results so tightly-threaded that they may be missed on first glance. This is a story that rewards additional readings.