WWAC’s coverage of the 2021 Hugo Award finalists continues with a look at the final two contenders for Best Novella: Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby and Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune…
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Chih, a cleric of the Singing Hills abbey, meets an elderly woman who bears the nickname Rabbit. The two begin discussing the history of the land, and soon Chih and their talking hoopoe Almost Brilliant are listening to a story of years ago, when the elderly lady was a “rabbit-toothed girl from the provinces” working as a servant to the imperial household — where she witnessed In-yo, the Emperor’s foreign-born bride, face prejudice and attempted erasure. From here, Rabbit tells more stories to her captive audience, all serving to highlight a different side to the grand narratives of the empire.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune shows a preoccupation with objects. Almost every chapter opens with descriptions of various items written in the dry manner of a museum inventory (“Astrological chart of the constellation of the Baker. Fine rag paper and ink. Signed in the lower-right corner with the character for ‘lucky.'”) The framing device shows the characters of Chih and Rabbit interacting with these objects, which prompt Rabbit to delve into one of her stories. A game board (“Pale wood and gold paint. Drawn in six circles are the moon, a woman, a fish, a cat, a ship, and a needle”) leads into a story about Rabbit hearing In-yo speak for the first time when asking how to play the game. A sculpture of a mammoth (“worked realistically rather than figuratively, every hair detailed and with rubies serving as eyes”) segues into a story of the artist whose mark can be found on the mammoth’s foot.
Although a fantasy story, the novella keeps references to the supernatural relatively light. Rabbit makes brief mentions of “imperial war mages who kept Anh in perpetual summer”, along with ghosts who act as warnings of the future (“There are some very elegant ghosts that walk the edge of the lake, their long hems fading into the bracken. Some of them have handmaidens following along behind them, tongueless, handless, and eyeless, and I know very well what might come of my loyalty to In-yo”). The pantheon of the empire’s religion is also sketched in — and, of course, there is a talking hoopoe.
However, the story has little use for such elements beyond adding a little glitter around the edges. The main purpose of the secondary world setting is to separate the story from real-world history. Nghi Vo Constructs an imaginary Asia from a mixture of Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese details, sketching out the spread of empire and the clash of civilisations with brief references to such events as lychees becoming a rare commodity because of a certain region having “declared sovereignty and closed its borders”. All of this gives the impression of a grand, intricate history while also reminding us that the real story is that which takes place between the cracks in the surface, ignored and erased.
We read of In-yo’s arrival from the colder climes of the north, clad in a sealskin dress. “History will say that she was an ugly woman, but that is not true” says Rabbit. “She had a foreigner’s beauty, like a language we do not know how to read.” Rabbit explains that people were afraid of In-yo “because the women of the north were all thought to be witches and sorceresses. Then they discovered her great secret, that she was only a heartbroken and lonely girl, and she became of no account at all.”
Throughout all of this, the assorted objects that surround the characters remain the chief tools used to unfurl the story. In one chapter, In-yo learns of her mother’s death after being presented with an assortment of rubbish. “It is trash,” says Rabbit to Chih, “but if you want to understand people who have gone, that’s what you look at, isn’t it? Their offal. Their leavings.”
If the above analysis makes heavy use of excerpts from the novella, this is because the clearest way to demonstrate the strengths of The Empress of Salt and Fortune is simply to quote from it. Vo shows a tremendous flair for conjuring up detailed settings and scenarios with simply a few well-chosen words. Consider — to choose yet another excerpt — the sequence that describes the palace being visited by a “revolving cadre” of female spies. This could easily have been the basis for a whole chapter, perhaps more; yet Vo is able to tell the story in captivating detail using just two paragraphs:
They came here with smiles and vows to serve, and they were always playing eagle-eye, watching for the slightest hint of treason, the slightest hint of impropriety that they could report back to court, winning a place in a vaunted company of betrayers and murderers.
Some stayed a season, and some stayed for almost a year, but eventually, the Minister of the Left would arrive on his blood bay stallion, dressed in his favorite red and gold silk robe, embroidered with the figure of the noble kirin. He came to collect the previous ladies and to bring the new lot.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is more than just a narrative about the sundry stories that can be attached to any given object: it is itself such an object. The novella invites us to pick it up and examine it, to see the shapes and colours that appear and vanish like reflections in a cut gemstone. With tales layered upon tales, narratives nested within narratives and stories hinted at by other stories, this is a novella that shall most definitely reward re-reading.
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
Riot Baby is the story of African-American siblings Ella and Kev Jackson, with each of the novella’s four chapters set in a different time at a different place. We first meet Ella during her childhood in South Central Compton, when her mother was still pregnant with Kev. In this urban landscape where children play pattycake while Crips throw gang signs at Bloods, Ella has a sudden and disturbing vision of the future — a future where a neighbour’s child is shot dead:
She leans on the sink, squeezes her eyes shut and tries not to think of what she saw outside: the boy named Jelani, grown to ten years old, walking the five blocks home from school, a bounce in his walk and his eyes big and brown before a low-rider screeches nearby and a man with a blue bandana over his face levels a shotgun out the window at someone standing behind Jelani and, after the bang, everyone scatters, leaving Jelani on the ground, staring up at the too-bright sun for the last, longest two minutes of his life.
Grandma finds Ella on the floor, gasping in a long, aching wheeze, then another, then another.
This is not Ella’s only bleak premonition. Although many people around her have hopes for a better future, Ella witnesses little besides impending death and despair. All of this takes place in 1992, the year in which four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted after killing Rodney King, and Kev is born just as the area descends into riots: “It’s Monday when they finally leave the hospital, and some of the people leaving with them come out, injured and maimed by what happened, to find what Ella and Mama and Brother Harvey and Grandma and now Kev find. Everything has been burned down.”
The novella skips ahead in time for its second chapter. The family has since moved to Harlem, and Kev is now old enough for school (his portions of the story are narrated in first person, while Ella’s remain in the third). Kev, nicknamed Riot Baby, has fallen in with a band of weed-smoking street kids; he is torn between joining their lifestyle on the one hand, and sticking with school in the hopes of improving his prospects on the other. The novella is too sophisticated to offer a straight dichotomy: for one, the group’s leader Malik actively encourages Kev to stay in school.
Meanwhile, Ella’s psychic abilities have developed from premonitions to telekinesis. This has its positive aspects, as she can explode the heads of the apartment’s vermin or create balls of light as escapist entertainment, but her condition also leads to fits in which she suffers convulsions and causes poltergeist-like chaos.
The family is torn apart by a combination of police aggression and conflict between Ella and her mother. The third chapter — which takes up almost half of the novella — sees Kev as an inmate at Rikers Island while Ella remains on the outside. Despite their different vantage points, the two witness the same spectacle: a system designed to grind them down. Kev narrates his sequences with hard-won experience while Ella wanders a dismal milieu of poverty and desperation. A memorable scene occurs at a horse race:
These outings fill her with a gleeful cruelty. She’d walked around these white people invisible, on the racetrack, in the trailer park villages, outside the pubs, and seen nothing but squalor and waste. In some places, hypodermic needles litter the floor and babies, when they cry, reveal teeth rotted by the Mountain Dew that’s cheaper than the milk their mothers want to buy. She wants to show this to Kev. See how little they are, brother. Knowing that jail tries to tell someone that all their betters are on the outside. They’re not better than you out here, Kev. None of them are.
Although the story indicates that all of this is taking place circa 2020, various items of science fiction technology are present — and, naturally, reserved for the authorities. Ella is surrounded by “rusted and abandoned military armament, the detached members and wings of aerial mobile suits and crabtanks and Guardians tall as apartment buildings lying like bones bleaching in the sun”. Kev speaks of prison staff who are rumoured to be “Augments, wired up like comic book superheroes” with inmates’ entire histories beamed into their systems.
These gadgets add nothing to the chapter’s plot and are described in explicitly pop-cultural terms, making them seem less real than the grind in the prison or the strife on the outside. They are symbols of escapism and a better future, corrupted into tools of oppression and a brutal present.
Ella has powers of her own, of course. At this point in the story, however, their purpose is not to reshape the world but to allow her (and the reader) to witness it in all of its layers and complexities. Rather like fellow Hugo novella finalist The Empress of Salt and Fortune — despite the drastically different setting — Riot Baby is about the myriad stories that occur between the cracks in the edifice.
Flashbacks to the history of the siblings’ family, the fates of prison inmates left to suffer and die by indifferent staff; all of this occurs before our eyes in a tempestuous swirl, while Ella and Kev’s only option is to create a tempest of their own.
The final chapter goes into more detail about the story’s science fiction elements. Kev finds himself in a cyberpunk dystopia when, in lieu of an ankle monitor, he has a microchip implanted in his thumb. Not only does this act as a tracking device, it also releases chemicals to counter anxiety and PTSD symptoms. Meanwhile, mechanised cops have been programmed with an algorithm resulting in a vast increase in African-American boys being locked up without pretext, or simply shot dead. But as state attorneys argue, “you can’t indict an algorithm.”
The novella’s spiritual aspects — seen in the first chapter, where the siblings’ mother prayed for divine protection against the violence in society — also return. While separated from Kev, Ella receives guidance from a pastor who tries to steer her onto a path of non-violence. Her visions of the future show no sign of peaceful resolutions, though.
Riot Baby uses a range of different supernatural and science fictional concepts: religious imagery (Ella fantasises about Biblical plagues arriving to punish the Charleston shooting), Carrie-like psychokinetics, comic-book iconography, cyberpunk, magical realism (as when an apparition of Rodney King appears) and even an element of space opera towards the very end. These are applied one after the other like a series of Snapchat filters, while the image in front of the lens is neither fantasy nor a far-off future — just stark reality. Tochi Onyebuchi offers an uncompromising depiction of a modern society where progress can be achieved only through righteous anger.
And so concludes our journey through the Best Novella finalists. That leaves just one more category to be covered in this series: Best Novel…