Thu
Jul 10 2014 1:30pm

Voting the Categories: A Guide to the 2014 Hugo Short Story Finalists

Hugo Awards 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.

9 comments
Stephen Dunscombe
1. cythraul
I find there's an unfortunate amount of True Art Is Angsty in play with these stories, with hints of Death By Newbery Medal and Oscar Bait.

I would honestly and earnestly describe all four of these stories as Sad And Poignant And Quietly Delightful, and if I'd encountered any one of them in the wild, I think I'd have fallen madly in love.

The effect of reading all four of them together, though, is downright depressing.
Pamela Adams
2. Pam Adams
I agree- this is a tough category this year. My least favorite is Ink Readers, but the other three certainly deliver that kick in the teeth feeling that I love in short fiction.
I did manage to mix up my reading with other fiction, so as to blunt the effect of reading them all at once.
Scott Silver
3. hihosilver28
Selkie Stories didn't really work for me.

Dinosaur shattered me. I don't know that I've ever read a story that accomplished so much with so little. That's the one that has my vote.
rob mcCathy
4. roblewmac
I only really liked "Water that falls" Did not like Dinosurs at all it's not an SF story and it aungsty enough so I feel dared not to like it.
mutantalbinocrocodile
5. mutantalbinocrocodile
I'm with those who were shattered by "Dinosaur". I wonder if it makes any difference to readers whether they know anything about the implied real-world subject matter. Disagree that it is not SF--it's thoroughgoing magic realism allegory, which really ought to belong. (If you want to hear about my annoyance with nominees that aren't SF, there's Gravity and the just-barely-magic-realist "Wakulla Springs", which is impossible to judge against its competitors. Also was not a huge fan of "Ink Readers"--the ending seemed too sentimental compared to the overall drift of the story, and there were slight hints of exoticism in the setting (and not in a good way). Still, agree this was by far the strongest fiction category.
Alain Fournier
6. ALF
I thought I had posted on this topic yesterday but I see no post. I guess the internet gremlins were at work.
Of the four stories I thought that “If You were A Dinosaur, My Love” was the strongest. I also don’t think it was a SF or Fantasy story but I wonder if reading it with the optic heightens the gut punch when you realize what is the point of the story.
I also enjoyed “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” and thought it nicely depicted the impact the premise would have on behavior. I also enjoyed the fact that the narrator’s cultural heritage had a huge impact on the story’s resolution.
“Selkie Stories are For Losers” did not appeal to me at all. I understood the point but I think the brief nature of the story went against it. Also did not enjoy “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” not sure why.
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
The short story category was particularly good this year. All of the entries were strong and well done. Here is my ranking and brief thoughts:
1. “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, -- I really liked this. It was very well written and the fantastic elements tied nicely into the theme.
2. “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”, Rachel Swirsky --This was a lovely story with a lot of message packed into its short length.
3. “Selkie Stories Are for Losers”, Sofia Samatar-- Another fine entry. I found it interesting how the story played on touching the speculative aspect and interwove that with the story of racial and gender difficulties.
4. “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt --This was well crafted but didn’t really resonate with me. It seemed a bit disconnected.
Ian Gazzotti
8. Atrus
I absolutely loved Ink Readers and Selkie Stories.

The water... sadly fell flat for me. The magical water seemed more like a metaphor for feelings (oppression, guilt, shame) than an actual thing that exist in that world. Remove that, and it's a coming out story like several other billions that have been written before.
(I admit, but this is a personal thing related to my experiences and those of my friends, that I'm seriously annoyed at characters who go all angsty while having having incredibly understanding parents. Dude, when they cry for a week or kick you out of the house? Then you can pout. Not when they welcome your boyfriend into the family even though your sister is an ass.)
Gerd K
9. Kah-thurak
Honestly, I was disappointed with the stories nominated here. The best of them was “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” in my opinion, as it was well written and engaging, but the SF element felt arbitrary and superfluous. The others just failed to interest me much and I did not enjoy reading them. Espeacially “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” did not work for me at all.

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