2020 Hugo Awards Reviews: Novellas – Part 1

Featured Image for 2019 Hugo Award

Welcome back to the Women Write About Comics series looking at the finalists for the main prose categories at the Hugo Awards. Past instalments have covered Best Short Story and Best Novelette; now, it is time to look at the category for stories long enough to fill books, but still a little too short to constitute novels. This is, of course, Best Novella…

The Deep by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes

Cover of The Deep

When pregnant women were thrown over the sides of slave ships, their children were not drowned with them. Instead, they were born as wajinru, a race of mermaid-like beings. Yetu, the main character of The Deep, is a wajinru, and one who serves an important function within the wajinru society: she is the historian.

The wajinru have long lifespans but short memories, and are typically unable to recall events from mere months ago. It is Yetu’s job to hold the memories of the wajinru race, which she shares with the other members of her kind in an annual event called the Remembrance. But this comes at a personal cost, as Yetu finds her own mind and identity being sapped away by the memories of past wajinru: “The ancestors pulled her deeper and deeper into the abyss of the past with each passing year.” She concludes that if things carry on this way, she will soon be no more…

The wajinru were her people, and for now they were held captive by the History, living the lives of the ancestors from beginning to end. At some point, collectively, when they’d learned and internalized all they could, they would give the History back to Yetu, who would keep it for them while they lived out their days in blissful ignorance.

Yetu didn’t know much, but she knew she couldn’t let that happen. Not this time. Not again. Or she would die. She looked down at her own body, trifling and small. A mere wisp of dead seaweed billowing in the dark.

And so Yetu decides to forsake her duties as historian and p0rusue a new life among the two-legged beings of the surface world. But even as she does so, she is filled with ambivalence. What will the wajinru be without their history?

The Deep is a story that finds a theme ripe with potential, and invites the readers to sink their teeth in and draw out every last drop of juice. Integrating the murder of slaves into its backstory, the novella can be read specifically as a story about historical trauma. The importance of communal memories to the wajinru, the burden that these memories place upon Yetu’s consciousness as an individual, her desire to move away from it all, her subsequent guilt at severing a communal tie – this is a narrative prime for exploring how cultures of the present view historical tragedies and atrocities.

But even away from this symbolic depth, the theme of memory gives the story a succinct means of going about its worldbuilding. It is through the memories shared by Yetu that we see the history of the wajinru and their world, their interactions with both surface-dwellers and the various denizens of the deep, from predatory sharks to protective whales – including species that, in the story’s present, are now extinct. In more subtle terms we also see how the wajinru see the world, the memory sequences placing heavy emphasis on collectivism and plurality (“We become queen of this place”). This may be a story about remembering the past, but it is still able to take the reader on an immersive journey through a world strange, beautiful and new.

After migrating onto land, Yetu befriends fisherwoman Oori, sole survivor of a people called the Oshuben. Their relationship is tense at first, however, and Oori chides Yetu for failing to appreciate the importance of remembered history – after all, history is all that remains of Oori’s kin and their culture. The friendship between Yetu and Oori becomes a means for Yetu to gain new perspective on her role amongst the wajinru.

This is where the story’s sense of giddy inventiveness begins to fade. Although there is more worldbuilding in store – including the history of a conflict between wajinru and surface-dwellers, along with an exploration of wajinru attitudes towards gender – there are few surprises left in the world of Yetu. But by this point, The Deep has built up enough momentum to carry it through to its emotional conclusion.

The novella’s afterword goes into detail about the background of The Deep. The story’s basic mythology was first laid out in the music of techno-electro duo Drexclya, and later expanded upon by the rap group clipping. in a song also entitled “The Deep”; this was a finalist for the 2018 short form Dramatic Presentation Hugo. The novella was written primarily by Rivers Solomon, with the members of clipping. granted co-authorship credits, and translates the saga from music to prose while coming up with some new additions of its own. More than a self-contained short story, The Deep is a manifestation of a living, breathing mythology.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

Cover of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

In the Cairo of an alternate 1912, a city connected through a system of trams, Ramses Station finds that one of its vehicles is haunted. Two agents from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities — Hamed Nasr and his younger colleague Onsi Youssef – are called in to investigate.

The two men have plenty of experience with various forms of djinn, which are accepted as everyday inhabitants of modern Egypt. After all, it was these supernatural beings who helped to overthrow the British colonists in the nineteenth century and who subsequently built up much of urban Egypt’s infrastructure. But while djinns are a fact of mundane life, ghosts remain in the realm of the unproven. And whatever the spirit haunting the tram is, it appears not to be a djinn…

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 takes place in the universe of P. Djèlí Clark’s earlier story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”. This is an alternate history in which a man called al-Jahiz (who may or may not have been the same as his medieval namesake, arriving in the nineteenth century via reincarnation of time travel) opened a portal to a magical realm, aiding Egypt’s rebellion against the British and filling the land with magic.

This sorcery extends beyond djinn. Tram 015 is said to have “a machine mind imbued with magic… capable of thought which it uses to guide itself and its passengers safely.” The intelligence of the sentient trams – along with the mechanical servants dubbed “boilerplate eunuchs” – has led to debate over their legal status: does using them as mere tools constitute slavery? More progressive members of Egyptian society argue that it does, and so the two agents are faced with the question of whether they should treat the haunted tram the same way they would treat a possessed person.

The story’s choice of setting lends it a clear kinship to steampunk, a genre often criticised for romanticising and sanitising European imperialism. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 avoids this by depicting an alternate history in which colonialism has – at least as far as Egypt is concerned – been eliminated. With atrocities and oppression neatly cleared away, the stage is set for a romp through a fanciful period setting.

The story is a light-hearted one, with a lot of humour derived from the combination of the supernatural and bureaucratic red-tape; even the malevolent entity haunting the tram is depicted with a comparatively tame ghoulishness. Hamed and Onsi make a likeable double-act, with the conventional buddy-cop dynamic of a veteran investigator and new recruit being used to explore the story’s wider backdrop. Onsi spent his teenage years at an English boarding school, his parents reluctant to have him learn magic as taught in Egyptian universities, and the characters’ different backgrounds lead to a degree of cultural clash. Onsi defaults to calling his elder colleague “sir”, despite the two being of equal rank: “This isn’t Oxford” chides Hamed.

Meanwhile, the spirit confronted by the two agents is used – like the intelligences guiding the trams – primarily as a means of shunting the story along its line. The real conflict in The Haunting of Tram Car 015 turns out to be one of gender, with a suffragette movement in full swing as the women of Egypt campaign for the vote. Times are changing, as Hamed finds when he encounters one of Cairo’s New Women:

He turned to find a tall young woman. Unmistakeably Nubian, and striking, with curly black hair that peeked from beneath a yellow hijab. But what had him gaping like a fish was the rest of her clothing. She wore the common patterned Nubian dress, but the garment ended at her knees, helped up at her shoulder by silver clasps. Beneath, she had on what looked like tight-fitting tan breeches, tucked into long leather boots. She stood there staring down at them expectantly.
“Good afternoon and peace be with you, madam,” he greeted her uncertainly.

“My, aren’t we formal.” The woman smirked. She squinted her dark eyes and tilted her head, causing her gold earrings to dangle.

Signs of social progress are all around Cairo, from posters depicting a Rosie the Riveter-like Egyptian seamstress to the adoption of Hatshepsut as a feminist icon, and even the old-fashioned Hamend learns to embrace change. The story’s climax includes both the confrontation with the malicious spirit – which turns out to be a natural and satisfying extension of the story’s world building – and the triumph of the suffragettes.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 depicts a world in which social and technological progress mingle with fantasy-oriented tradition. “It often seemed that while the country proudly touted its modernity,” we are told at one point, “it yet yearned wistfully for some simpler past” – a line that sums up much of steampunk and its overlapping genres. The virtue of P. Djèlí Clerk’s novella is that it captures all of the fun, imagination and adventure that comes with this sort of nostalgic fantasy while smoothly shaking off the elements that are best left in the past.

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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.