Welcome to the third installment of WWAC’s coverage of the 2021 Hugo Award prose fiction finalists. This post shall examine two more contenders for Best Short Story: “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher and “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell…
Once upon a time there was a man who built two enormous machines, and he loved them very much.
So begins “Metal Like Blood in the Dark”. Anybody who has read the other short stories on the Hugo ballot may find the territory familiar. After all, the same category includes a science fictional fairy tale in “The Mermaid Astronaut” and a whimsical story of two robots in “A Guide for Working Breeds”, so at this point, a reader may be forgiven for expecting T. Kingfisher’s piece to be a combination of the two modes. As it happens, however, the story turns out to be trying something rather different than its fellow finalists.
The early stretches of “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” certainly commit to the fairy tale façade. The central characters of the two robots and their inventor are referred to simply as Brother, Sister and Father, recalling the stereotyped relationships of the Three Bears or Cinderella’s foster family. Like creatures in fairy tales, where wolves can become grandmothers and frogs can become princes, the robots are beings of transformation and reinvention. Their changes are enabled by nanotechnology – “nanite scurrying over nanite, tweaking the structure of their steel and carbon bones” – and allow them to explore the air with wings, plunge into the sea with rubberised skin and delve beneath the ground with drills and treads. This process requires them to consume rare earth minerals, just as eagerly as Goldilocks devours porridge or wolves gobble up pigs.
But once Brother and Sister depart from their Father (thereby removing the sole human character from the narrative) to explore the wider cosmos, the fairy tale mode begins to fade. After plundering
minerals from what they take to be a derelict spacecraft, the two robots are taken captive by a taloned machine they dub Third Drone, which covets their nanotechnological capacities. The story delves further into a more solid form of science fiction, Third Drone powers the ship with the endpoint to a jump gate positioned at the heart of a star. At the same time, we segue from the perspective of a fairy tale storyteller to that of an artificial intelligence. Sister finds that she mistrusts Third Drone, in the process confronting – for apparently the first time in her existence – the concept of lying:
Lines of code failed and burst into error messages. She overwrote them ruthlessly. Lying. Lying was something like error, which she understood. It was always possible to be in error, and to learn that one was in error, and correct oneself. Lying was to be deliberately in error, and to express that error to others. Error without correction. Error entered into by choice.
From here, she comes to the realisation that she, herself, is capable of lying. She tests this hypothesis by picking up a brown pebble and stating that it is black, throwing herself into a panic as a result of this act. Her concerns are varied: will her lie somehow alter reality, causing the pebble to become black? Will Third Drone be able to tell when she is lying, even when she makes a statement as innocuous as “I saw a black pebble”? Despite her initial trepidation Sister finds lying to be beneficial, as it allows her to rebel against Third Drone and save both Brother and herself from captivity.
All of this constitutes a clever sleight-of-hand on the part of the story. Its ultimate aim is to give us a robot’s-eye-view of its world, which involves dropping us into the unfamiliar; but before doing so, it opens in the familiar (even over-familiar) realm of the fairy tale. The transition between the two modes is so subtle as to be easily missed.
As with all good authors of either space opera or fairy tales, T. Kingfisher knows how to evoke a whole universe with a few choice phrases. Throughout the story, we read of gas giants, star-fragments, mining-moons and the unravelling of Third Drone’s five thousand-year plan for revenge. Like the nanotech-enhanced robots at its centre, the story is made up of sundry tiny pieces all working in unison to create something wonderful. And – again – like Brother and Sister, “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” can change its shape before our eyes.
It could be argued that the central character in any haunted house story is the house itself. “Open House on Haunted Hill” takes this concept literally – or, at least, half of it literally. The house is very much the central character, with the building’s perspective centred as the third-person narration details comings and goings through its doors. Whether the house can be described as haunted, however, is more subjective. The house is not even malicious, as the story establishes early on:
133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.
Largely vacant since the passing of its owner in 1989, the house decides to make an effort to attract new occupants. The perfect opportunity comes when realtor Mrs. Weiss opens the property to prospective buyers, and the house puts on its best show, scaring away garden pests with a breeze, straightening its floorboards and closing doors to conserve heat.
Amongst the visitors are a man (named Ulisses, but referred to simply as “Daddy” for most of the narrative) and his four-year-old daughter Ana. The little girl notices the strange goings-on arising from the house’s activities, and wonders if the building is haunted – perhaps even by the ghost of her late mother. But Daddy, host of a skeptic podcast, is having none of this. The house, meanwhile, is left in the curious position of being required to stage a haunting that will attract, rather than drive away, a family.
If “Open House on Haunted Hill” has ghosts, these are not the machinations of the house but rather the figurative presences of two deceased characters: Ana’s mother, and the former homeowner Dorottya Blasko. As one of its temptations to Ana and her father, the house opens Drottya’s old sewing room – a location so well-hidden that not even the realtor knows of its existence – and Ana declares it to be “like Mommy’s”, thereby uniting the two ghosts.
Of the two, it is the mother who has the strongest presence. She is represented physically by a locket that Ana wears around her neck. At one point the locket goes missing and must be recovered by the characters; but more than a mere MacGuffin, this item is the glue that holds together the story’s emotional aspect. The locket represents the lingering presence of the mother, something that both of her family members cling to in their own individual ways: Ana believes that her benevolent spirit may be present in the house, while Daddy believes that she lives on in Ana.
“Open House on Haunted Hill” takes two of the vital ingredients that come with a haunted house story, namely strange goings-on inside the house and the theme of memory, particularly memory of the deceased. It does, however, remove another vital ingredient: horror. This is a story that surgically extracts the haunted house narrative from the horror genre, and yet still works.
And so concludes our coverage of the six finalists contending for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story. Join us next time as we begin the Best Novelette category…