Continuing our reviews of the 2020 Hugo Awards finalists in the Short Stories category, we move on to “Blood is Another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon and “As the Last I May Know” by S. K. Huang.
Sully is a fifteen-year-old slave owned by a Southern family during the American Civil War – that is, until the night that she drugs their food and slits their throats. In the process, she attracts the attention of supernatural forces:
The murder of a family by a girl so tender and young ripped a devilishly wide tunnel between the fields of existence, for it was not the way of things, and the etherworld thrived on the impermissible.
And so, the etherworld prompts Sully to suddenly give birth with the resurrected form of Zivvi, a teenage girl who died but is now restored to the mortal world. The two girls – each having been granted a new life, each having seen death up close and lived to tell the tale – become companions as Sully continues to explore her new gifts.
“Blood is Another Word for Hunger” opens with an inversion, establishing what appears to be a family drama of the wartime South only to throw it on its head. In the same paragraph that we are introduced to the family matriarch, her grown-up daughters Adelaide and Catherine, her sister Bitsy and her ailing mother Anna we see the entire family being killed by Sully. The characters who take over as protagonists would, in traditional horror fiction of the past, have been viewed as monstrous: Sully the killer, Ziza the living dead. This is par for the course in a story concerned with tearing down what came before so that it can commence building.
The building process happens in a number of ways. For one, the story builds a relationship between its main characters. Sully is initially an unempathic individual: we are told that she “had a heart made of teeth—for as soon as she heard word that Albert, the Missus’s husband, had been slain in battle, she took up arms against her family who’d raised her”. So worn-down is she that, even after obtaining freedom, she is unable to appreciate pleasure or beauty, and has no urge to continue with life. Ziza, meanwhile, is the opposite: full of a joy at merely existing, so much that the simple sight of a blue sky fills her with glee. Once they become companions, Ziza comes to help Sully find new purpose and fulfilment in life.
While this is happening, the story is also building a world. The narrative starts out in a tactile realm of dirt and squalor, with much attention paid to blood spraying from the slain family, the dirt under which Sully buries her corpses, and the abdominal passage through which Ziza first crawls. Indeed, Ziza’s description of the afterlife is defined by its lack of sensory stimulation: “what happens when you die isn’t a thing you call talk about. It’s not a place that exists where I can just describe the color of the sky and the whoosh of the water and the subtle hue of violet in the flowers in bloom.” Creating a world that the reader can reach out and touch is a major concern of “Blood is Another Word for Hunger”.
The story draws upon African-American folklore: Zita speaks of “necromancy, zombie-folk, mojo, herbs, conjurers” while Sully, we learn, was nicknamed moskti by her mother (“after the blood-eating fairy in stories of their old home back across the water”) due to her habit of biting as an infant. But even before these concepts are introduced by name, we have already seen them up close like specimens under a microscope. Sully’s seemingly nonsensical ability to birth revenants becomes as natural a part of her world as the bloodstains on her clothes or the dirt beneath her nails.
It is the story’s matter-of-fact conviction in its dark fantasy logic that allows it to keep on building and constructing. While Sully continues to tear down, she also continues to build; and bringing the story in an inevitable circle, she eventually rebuilds herself – fantasy, emotion and historical backdrop finally uniting.
A country is at war. It has a weapon, the sere missile, that is capable of vaporising entire cities. Debate has raged over whether or not such a devastating implement should ever be used, even as a potentiality. The nation’s course of action is to leave the launch codes to the sere missiles in a capsule which, in turn, is implanted in the body of a child. Any president wishing to use the weapons on cities – killing untold numbers of foreign children with the signing of an order – must first kill a child of their own country.
The main character in “As the Last I May Know” is Nyma, the girl who was chosen at the age of ten to be the receptacle of the launch codes:
Nyma knew. Her tutors had taught her: she would always have a choice. But they’d also taught her why her duties were so vital, and why those duties had to be done by someone young, if not her then one of her classmates.
And she believed them. She believed in the Order and everything it stood for.
Dying scared her. A lot. The idea of it was so impossibly big and black that she couldn’t even hold it in her head. But it didn’t scare her enough to break the faith—not when her name had been the one drawn.
Of course, the news feeds said she shouldn’t be allowed to choose this life at all, blasting the Order for following the old ways. Ten-year-olds are too young to agree to this; they can’t make that decision for themselves; it’s inhumane! Some of those people wanted the Order disbanded. Some of them wanted only adults to follow its dictates, people who had passed the magic threshold of being able to say yes to saving the world.
Seeing the world through Nyma’s perspective we learn of her faith in the process as a means of maintaining peace, and of her love of poetry: Nyma articulates her views both through her own poems, and the work of a fictitious poet of her country’s history.
It is also from Nyma’s standpoint that we see the conflict between the story’s other principal characters. President Otto Han considers the whole business barbaric: although established as being less hawkish than his rival candidate, he stresses that the opposing side of the conflict also has sere missiles and would be less reluctant to use them. Tej Rokaya, Nyma’s tutor and a member of the Order that arranged her implant, clings to the necessity of the process.
The story avoids caricature. President Han is never oversimplified as a blustering militarist, nor is Tej reduced to a naïve peacenik. The two men each represent a different form of pragmatism – making a volatile contrast with Nyma, the true face of idealism. The girl finds herself sidelined by the adults’ arguments, being treated as a moral dilemma rather than a human being.
Despite its geopolitical themes, “As the Last I May Know” leaves its setting deliberately ambiguous, the characters’ names transcending nation. We learn that Nyma’s country is the only one to have had (presumably nuclear) “sere” weapons used against it; there is also a reference to surrender being announced on a wireless, hinting that World War II occurred in the story’s timeline – although whether it was the same World War II as our timeline is far from certain. A reference to the country’s capital city being destroyed by a faction called the Havanites indicates that this is either an alternate history or a substantially misremembered one.
The make-up of the story’s futuristic society is suggested rather than spelt out. Particularly intriguing is its religious aspect: the Order that handled the implant is apparently a priestly caste, while the word “Peace” is invoked as a religious oath.
Ultimately, “As the Last I May Know” uses the language of cold war geopolitics to build a fairy tale, complete with a damsel in a tower. However, the cast face a thornier set of issues than the figures of a typical fairy tale. Through a triptych of character sketches, S. K. Huang tells a story that is both straightforward in its clarity and haunting in the questions it raises.