The Hugo ballot is officially open, and the time has come to perform the laborious task of deciding among excellence. And, while much of the attention of the voting community tends to concentrate on the Best Novel finalists, we at Tor.com all felt that this year’s short fiction field was exceptionally strong. I’ve decided to help guide readers through the short story, novelette, and novella finalists in preparation for voting.
This week I discuss the short story category. This is, in my opinion, the most competitive category on the ballot. These stories are strong, interesting, compelling, and well-worth your time. So, without further ado, let’s get right to it.
Please keep in mind that I am an acquiring editor at Tor.com. While I didn’t acquire any of Tor.com’s Hugo finalists this year, I do possess an inherent bias. I will try to mark that bias as best I can, but you should take my suggestions for what they are.
“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”
Written by Rachel Swirsky
Published by Apex Magazine
Rachel Swirsky’s heartbreaking short story drives forward with an unstoppable, unbearable necessity. Each step from ‘if this’ to ‘then that’ requires a leap of magical thinking that makes us relax into the sweet whimsy of the story. But at the turn, when Swirsky’s narrator reminds us that we do not live in a world of magic, that her love is not a dinosaur, that in fact her love is fragile, human, vulnerable and broken, we crack and chip and shatter with the illusions. Despite all the linguistic flourishes of “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love,” it is remarkably compact. The story unfolds in less than a thousand words because it is a single moment, a desperate dive into escapism that the mourning narrator cannot maintain.
Rachel Swirsky has already won a Nebula award for “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” and I must say that it was an award well-won. “If You Were a Dinosaur” is brief, but never slight, whimsical and escapist but grounded in grim reality. It is a compact journey that I am glad we have been allowed to take.
“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”
Written by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Published by Tor.com
“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” is tremendously self-possessed. At every point in this short story Thomas Olde Heuvelt has a thorough understanding of where he has come from and where he is going, allowing him to reach a conclusion in which a web of providential coincidence can be satisfying, and not just wish-fulfillment. Yes, I’m terrible. Heuvelt’s sentencecraft is also top-notch. Consider the following sentence: “The point here is that young Tangmoo screamed, and his lungs filled with water, and please, he did not want to die this way.” That moment of closeness with Tangmoo, the moment at which his desperate, dying voice floats up to us like an escaping air bubble, is tragic, moving, gripping. That sentence, so much more personal than the distanced voice of the mostly unmarked narrator, invests us in Tangmoo, and the story.
But while I describe the narrator as mostly unmarked, I do think there is a problem in this story, and one which Heuvelt directs our attention to. Heuvelt is not Thai, and while his depiction of this festival is loving and compassionate, it strays close to the distant condescension of a visiting anthropologist. His choice to include endnotes translating each character’s nickname and providing brief cultural explanations, drives home the point that this is a story attempting to translate one culture for the benefit of another. The endnote is an academic technique, one that pulls us back from getting too close to the contents of the story, keeps us prepared to consider them academically and make rational choices about whether what we are seeing is magic or coincidence. In “Ink Readers,” the endnotes walk hand-in-hand with Heuvelt’s too-pithy encapsulations of most of his characters, most of whom are given nothing beyond their description as a philosophical irrigator or well-bellied weed exterminator.
“Selkie Stories Are for Losers”
Written by Sofia Samatar
Published by Strange Horizons
“I tell her they’re not my selkie stories, not ever, and I’ll never tell one, which is true,” says the narrator of “Selkie Stories Are for Losers.” I struggled to understand this contradiction. She tells us so many selkie stories, culled from old books or folklore, even from her own life. She tells herself selkie stories again and again. While they may not be her story (she hopes, she prays), she has lived a selkie story, she has been the child who helped her mother leave forever, she has known an irreplaceable love forget how to live in her life. But she never tells Mona, her love too precious for her to dare to kiss, who tried to kill herself in an oven, breathing gas instead of air. She never bridges the gap between them with their mutual abandonment.
The narrator of “Selkie Stories” knows that there are more important things about herself and Mona than their mothers’ weaknesses. She knows that it doesn’t matter that her ancestors lived in the sea, or that Mona’s lived in Egypt. Faced with a genetic history of collapse, she demands instead that the two of them live, and love, and hold on because of who they are. Sofia Samatar shows, through them, that our lives can or should be more powerful than the pressing weight of family history or tradition, proving again that the second-year John Campbell nominee possesses a talent to watch out for.
“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”
Written by John Chu
Published by Tor.com
No, I’m sorry, please, can I come back to this story tomorrow? It hurts too much right now. I say this, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t hurt less tomorrow, or a week from now, or in any amount of time. The pain Matt feels as he tries to come out to his parents despite the obstruction of his hateful sister, as he tries to express his love to his partner Gus and break open the shell he’s made for himself, is so unutterably piercing and human. It demands that I feel the same pain, despite knowing that I will never have to live his life. This is not a story you can read to escape from suffering, but rather an opportunity for deep, painful empathy.
“The Water That Falls” didn’t have to be speculative fiction. It’s possible to tell the story of a gay man coming out to his parents, knowing that his family will disapprove, without the aid of science fiction or fantasy elements. But that doesn’t mean that the speculative element is anything but integral. The water that falls when you lie is integral and transformative. Because the universe has decided to punish deceit, Matt can no longer hide from his family, his partner, or himself. If he wants to protest that his love for Gus is any less fundamentally true than the love he receives, he will have to accept the possibility that that lie will kill him.
There you have it. Four amazing short stories, each worth celebrating in its own way. Even with my pre-existing bias for Tor.com short fiction, this choice is painful, and I’m not sure how I’ll cast my ballot. In my opinion the strongest pieces in the field are “Selkie Stories are for Losers” and “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” but I could see strong arguments being made for any ballot arrangement. The unenviable task of picking one to place above the others falls on you. Happy voting!
Carl Engle-Laird is an editorial assistant at Tor.com, where he acquires and edits fiction both for the Tor.com Originals program and for Tor.com: The Imprint. You can follow him on Twitter here. If you ask nicely he might even tell you how to find his Brooklyn Nine-Nine podcast.