Concluding the exploration of the Hugo Awards Short Stories category (read part 1 and part 2) with the final reviews below, we have journeyed from a fantasy empire to an apocalyptic future, met cloud-people and the living dead, and heard tales of cannibal women and dancing dolls. Along the way, it is hard to miss a few recurring themes.
Anti-colonialism is one. Although it turns up in Alix E. Harrow’s “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, which deals with imperialism in the context of a secondary world, the theme is clearest in “And Now his Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas and “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography of the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen. In each of these stories, an Indian-born writer confronts the legacy of the British Empire, overturning more sanitised and nostalgic narratives. Rivers Solomon’s “Blood is Another Word for Hunger” is similar in spirit, although it tackles American slavery rather than European colonialism. Between them, the Shiv Ramdas, Nibedita Sen and Rivers Solomon stories share a narrative of oppressed peoples – and the folklore that comes with them – striking back.
The theme of gender in imagined societies, another favourite motif at the Hugos in recent times, is also evident: “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography of the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” shows us a culture populated almost entirely by women, while “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” uses gender-bending as part of its study of militarism. Speaking of which, anti-war stories are also in vogue: as well as the suspicion of the military seen in the anti-colonial pieces, we have S. K. Huang‘s “As the Last I May Know” and its stark evocation of warfare’s human cost. As an aside, Huang’s story is the only work of science fiction in a category otherwise dominated by fantasy.
But while the category is concentrated in large part among three specific themes, the assembled writers nonetheless manage to deliver a varied set of stories. And then we come to “A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde, the odd one out: it has little bearing on the topics of colonialism, militarism or gender roles, and is content simply to take the reader on a tour of a quietly odd little world.
The 2020 Hugo Award for Best Short Story selection is unafraid to tackle imposing subjects – but at the same time, it also appreciates that there will always be a place for escapism.
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography of the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen
This story deals with Ratnabar, a fictional island in the Andamans populated almost entirely by women and children. British explorers arriving in 1891 perpetrated a massacre – ostensibly because the Ratnabari practiced cannibalism – before taking some of the island’s girls back to England. One, christened Regina Gaur, was enrolled at a private school in which she befriended a girl named Emma Yates. Before long, the school was hit by a scandal when Regina’s classmates sat down to a meal of human flsh.
As its title suggests, this piece takes the form of ten excerpts from various fictitious documents. Through hints and glimpses, these fragments tell a story – a story not only of the life of Regina Gaur, but of different social attitudes towards her and her ethnic group.
The first excerpt is from a book published in 1965, giving a short account of the British massacre of the Ratnabari; the description treats the affair as a tragic misunderstanding, describing the islanders with sympathy while also justifying the British perspective (the explorers were “braced for the same hostile reception other indigenous peoples of the Andamans had given them”). The second, from 1943, is from a book by the headmistress at Regina’s school in England; this presents the abduction of the Ratnabari girls as a noble exercise – a “rescue”, despite the fact that one died during the voyage – that aimed to save the girls from their own savage culture.
Subsequent excerpts look at the events from still more angles. A news report from 1904 discusses rumours that the islanders have the ability to shapeshift. A feminist writer discusses the affair purely in terms of gender, ignoring the cultural clash: “it is women, not men, who are called upon to limit their appetites, shrink themselves, rein in their ambitions. A hungry woman is dangerous.” An ethnographic author couches her discourse in academic lingo, while a book on the history of lesbian explores the possibility of romance between Regina and Emma.
Then, towards the end, the perspective changes. The final four excerpts are all attributed to descendants of Regina Gaur, who have their own side of the story and their own conclusions to draw.
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography of the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” is another contribution to a body of postcolonial fiction recognised by the Hugo Awards, other examples being fellow 2020 finalist “And Now his Lordship is Laughing” and, from last year, P. Djèlí Clark’s similarly-structured “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”. The story has a point to make, and delivers it through a mixture of anger, creativity and wry observational wit.
Through the story’s ten vignettes, we see a colonial power’s developing perception of a foreign culture and its people: first as a strange new world to be explored, then as something monstrous to be destroyed, then as a victim deserving of rescue. From there, it becomes something to be adapted to fit the dominant culture, while simultaneously serving as an exotic curiosity to borrow from. Finally, we are left with the perspectives of people from the minority group itself, faced with finding a place for the culture that has been warped, twisted and picked apart.
Some of the story’s nine narrative voices are merely upholding the dominant culture, and even those who present themselves as fighting against oppression turn out to be self-serving: witness the feminist commentators, one of bearing the significant name of Victoria, who care more about the Ratnabari as icons than as people. The narrative becomes a puzzle which the reader must assemble as they read; and even when they have done so, a number of questions will remain.
The story’s central event – the fateful dinner at the private school circa 1904 – is gradually detailed fragment by fragment throughout the narrative, with many details still left to the reader’s imagination at the very end. Similarly, it remains ambiguous as to whether or not the islanders ever actually practiced cannibalism: this detail serves instead as a symbol, be it of a savagery deserving to be quashed or as a rebellion to be celebrated.
After sketching out generations of cultural clashes, the narrative closes with Regina’s descendants sifting through all that remains. How appropriate that a story of fragments should conclude with people picking up the pieces.
Apa, a Bengali grandmother, makes dolls. They are special dolls, capable of clapping and dancing in imitation of their owners. Her grandson Nilesh and others in Midnapore are delighted with them, but the dolls also attract unwanted attention. A British captain from the Calcutta Presidency Battalion approaches Apa with news: Bengal’s governor Sir John Arthur Herbert desires a doll as a gift for his wife, and requests that Apa provide one.
Apa refuses. There are other dollmakers, she says, and there might have been still others had the Governor not “made it a point to drive so many out of work with duties and levies every time the wind changes”, while schools “tell our children how backward out ways are.” And so the captain departs, threatening Apa with the Governor’s ire.
A famine follows. The British confiscate Midnapore’s grain and livestock, and Apa’s grandson Nilesh perishes of hunger. Even as Apa starves, she is visited again by the British captain; he informs her that the famine is a necessary sacrifice in a war against the Axis, and that the Bengalis are actually being protected from invaders. Once more, he demands a doll from her, this time offering food in return. And so, Apa works her magic – but not in the way that her oppressors had hoped.
“And Now his Lordship is Laughing” tells its fantasy story against the background of a real event, the Bengal Famine. Winston Churchill made no reference to this calamity in his war memoirs, and many subsequent historians of World War II followed suit. It fell upon more recent generations of writers and researchers to explore the causes of the famine that killed millions of Bengalis, with the 2010 book Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukerjee being one of the most widely-read works on the topic.
Mukerjee discusses a number of factors that contributed to the 1943 famine, including a cyclone and flood that hit in October 1942, the Japanese bombing of Kolkata and hoarding amongst unscrupulous merchants and corrupt officials, but places much of the blame on the British government for two reasons. The first of these is the euphemistically-named “Denial Policy” of 1942, in which the British wilfully destroyed food stocks and transport across coastal Bengal to prevent these resources from falling into the hands of Japanese invaders; the second is Britain’s subsequent failure to send sufficient foot aid after the famine’s outbreak, with resources instead being routed to the military and to liberated countries in Europe.
“And Now his Lordship is Laughing” does much to condense these details. The Denials Policy is described by one of the British characters as “a huge help to supplying the war effort… ensuring continued food and supplies for the Allied troops”, conflating the 1942 policy and the 1943 failure to send aid into a single root cause of the famine. But while the story grants the historical events into fairy-tale simplicity, its portrayal of the famine’s effects on the people of Midnapore – the sight of starved corpses, Apa’s feelings as her body consumes itself, her anguish at her grandson’s death — is depicted with unflinching realism.
The mingling of historical events and personages with the structure and archetypes of fantasy fiction permeates the story. Although John Herbert is cast as the central villain, the story acknowledges his role in a chain of command leading up to Winston Churchill (anachronistically referred to as “Sir Winston”) who is described in a passage that evokes both Nazi atrocities and fantasy villainy: “there are whispers among the men that the scale of the holocaust has moved even some British hearts, but not Sir Winston’s: that Dark Lord is instead mightily pleased.” Where fictionalised portrayals of Churchill are concerned, it has long been customary to print the legend; “And Now his Lordship is Laughing” chooses to print a rather different legend.
The story’s central element of supernatural fantasy comes in the form of the magic dolls, which serve as a microcosm of Bengali culture in relation to British imperialism: Apa’s handiwork is admired as an exotic curiosity while Apa herself is exploited into oblivion. For much of the narrative the nature of the dolls is ambiguous, as the brief references to them clapping or dancing could be taken to mean that they are being moved by Apa and her grandson. The story’s true magic, then, exists between the lines, flickering in the background.
Only at the very end does the supernatural come to the front, in a climax where the darkness of fairy tale successfully invades the atrocities of history – and Apa has the last laugh.