In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s Finalists in the short story and novelette categories, and what makes each of them great.
“And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas
A story of historical horror planted firmly in our reality, Ramdas’s tale speaks to the atrocities of war that victors would prefer to erase from record. Set amidst the Bengal famine of 1943, the Matriarch of Midnapore—a dollmaker named Apa—carries out a plan of vengeance for all that Britain has done to her country, her way of life, and her family. The prose cuts sharp as the knife Apa wields to make her finest work, as the reader is reminded that who is mourned and remembered in the shadow of global conflict is a choice that we must make each and every day. This tale serves as a potent reminder for those who already know what happened to Apa’s people, and a guiding hand to those who mean to learn. But most important of all, it is a heartbreaking window into colonialist power and one woman’s choice to answer loss with the retribution it so keenly deserves.
“As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang
Take a deep breath before you dive into this one. As the Last I May Know is the classic Trolley Problem come to life on a massive, worldwide scale. In this world, the President has access to deadly weaponry called Seres, but access to them comes at a price. The code for the Seres is embedded inside a small child, and in order to get them, the President must sacrifice the child. When Nyma, at ten years old, becomes the carrier for President Otto Han, as decreed by the Order, she must exist despite her life being entirely out of control. She writes poetry, which her Order tutor Tej gets published, and she wonders what else she can do with whatever time she has left. Both Tej and President Han grow to care for her over the years as this philosophically dark story comes to a head. Hauntingly topical, As the Last I May Know will stay on the mind long after the first read.
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon
When young slave girl’s furious act of rebellion is enough to cause a divide between dominions in the etherworld, an opportunity is seized. Sully, who has murdered the family who owns (owned?) her, becomes the vessel through which Ziza, a spirit who has been trapped in the land of the dead, is re-born. Let me be more clear: Ziza comes into Sully’s womb as a full grown teenager. And for each of the people Sully has killed, another birth comes. Sully becomes the mother of ghosts, and together, they settle the home of her former owners. Blood is Another Word For Hunger is a story about anger and sin and revenge, but Rivers Solomon is a master of writing complex emotion. The story tackles the good things that come out of anger too, and the agency Sully finds when she realizes what she’s capable of. It’s about how sometimes, actions are supposed to make you feel one way but they don’t, or when you want to be good but can’t be. It’s about finding love and solace in your sins, and becoming comfortable with ghosts.
“A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde
If your father ever told you ghost stories in the rain, or you’ve ever gone out in the thunder and screamed, you won’t want to miss reading A Catalog of Storms. A small town besieged by strange weather, by storms that bring out rumors or leviathans in turn, that take the shape of a mother’s grievings, is saved by the citizens of the town that turn into weathermen, humans that are part-storm themselves. They belay the storm by screaming at them, turning them back with voice alone, by the strength of their halfway human will. The story follows a trio of sisters, Lillit, Varyl, and Sila, as Lillit becomes a weatherman, and how their mother both venerates and dismisses her sacrifice. As Lillit becomes more and more weather, Sila’s connection to her grows thin, even as the storm starts to break. It’s a delicate story, full of worldbuilding and sadness that takes over at the edges of the sections, soggy and soft. Wilde’s prose is clipped, effective, and sweeping, an entire horizon seen from the edge of the fishing village. While a story about weather, it’s not climate fiction, and is grounded in a much more focused folktale, an aeromancy of family drama. Wilde’s world is both expansive and restrained, and this piece is lightning in a bottle, a season for stories and storms.
–Linda H. Codega
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow
In such a short space, Harrow has crafted an epic world ruled by the clash of dualities: women who are warrior wives and healer husbands, ordered to humbly give Life and lionized for doling out Death. Talaan is the latter, a pockmarked figure of myth who has borne soldiers and slain enemies to ensure the Emperor’s bloodthirsty rule—but it is her husband, Eefa, who demonstrates the more awe-inspiring strength of daring to question their brutal culture, and maybe even to leave it behind. A poignant portrait of a marriage buckling beneath the expectations of a society that prioritizes a great Death over a good Life.
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen
This title tells you exactly what the story is while also telling you nothing at all. It entices you to take a look, and it keeps you there with dark, foreboding mystery and horror. According to the story presented in ten excerpts from an annotated bibliography, British soldiers came to Ratnabar Island in 1891. They expected conflict but instead, they discovered an island of mostly women and children. When offered a meal, the British commit a cultural offense which leads to conflict, where the repulsed British attacked. Three young girls were spared, given Christian names, and only one made it all the way back to Churchill Academy—Regina. She becomes close, close friends with another girl named Emma Yates. Together, Regina and Emma plan a cannibalistic meal that no one could have prepared for. This story borders between speculative satire and sincere fiction while questioning the blanket misogynistic white gaze often shrouding historical events. Tone expertly changes between each annotation based on the time period the piece was written, and by the end, this marvel of horror wraps itself around you. Women’s rights and power, historical revisionism, and lesbian cannibals? What’s not to love?
“The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim
An expedition comes to New Mars. The scientists aboard were meant to be joining colleagues and family here, but soon after coming out of stasis they learned the terrible truth: the colony has collapsed. What was meant to be a reunion would now be a research expedition to determine what killed a thriving new community. To say much more would spoil this delicate story of grief and love, but go in knowing that there are two narrators, and a few moments of pure light and joy dotted through all the sadness. There is also a fascinating innovation in the form of “The Chronicle”—a living record of the past that can be entered and excavated much like an archaeological site—hence the field of Archronology, a study not for the faint of heart.
“Away With the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey
I am someone with joint hypermobility that often leads to recurring pain. Gailey’s Away With the Wolves is a stunningly real glimpse into what life can be like with chronic pain. Our lead, Suss, spends time Away. As a human, she is in constant pain. It starts when she wakes, and it just gets worse until she sleeps. But when she spends her time as a wolf—Away—her pain disappears. However, her time as a wolf tends to lead to village destruction, and the longer she is Away, the more she wonders if it is even worth returning to her human form. The elements of fantasy masterfully anchor the reality one feels when living with chronic pain. It examines the equivalent exchange that happens when you live with pain, knowing that going about your day is only going to cause more for yourself, as well as how it will affect others. As a wolf, Suss has reclamation and choice over her pain. If she runs as a wolf and falls, that’s her pain to own. She made that decision. She also deals with the very raw guilt some of us feel over a condition we can’t control and how, despite our best efforts, it does sometimes affect those around us we care about. I felt for Suss, and I think you will, too. Gailey should truly be commended for their work on Away With the Wolves.
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” by Sarah Pinsker
The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye starts as a writing retreat for Zanna, mystery author extraordinaire. She churns out books twice a year, and whenever it’s time to draft, she and her assistant Shar find a quiet, middle-of-nowhere cabin to do the work. No distractions. The first morning there, Zanna accidentally blows the fuse to her cabin while making coffee. With no cell reception, the only solution is to walk two miles back down the mountain to speak to the cabin’s owner and find a replacement fuse. When she arrives, she stumbles upon an actual body. Her mystery writer brain begins to pick apart the scene, and as the day continues, the mystery of the body twists into its own horror. Pinsker connects every detail in her story, making you go back and read it a second time. What a perfect blend of mystery and horror.
Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin
In Jemisin’s novelette, part of Amazon’s Forward collection, “you” are a brave explorer, journeying back to the planet your Founders abandoned. You are accompanied by an AI that will guide you to the treasure that will ensure your culture’s continued prosperity, and that will earn you the skin of which you are not yet worthy. Or maybe… you are nothing more than a serf. You are an intruder on a planet that hasn’t thought of you in generations. You are a fool.
Utilizing second-person in a vastly different fashion than her Broken Earth series, Jemisin presents an almost-parody of “leaving Earth” science fiction stories, of humanity propelling itself to the stars with its own distended superiority. As “you” gain more information, like nanite layers of skin grafted upon vulnerable flesh, your understanding of the Founders’ stubborn ethos, and what they left behind, expands the scope of this slim but potent story. (Which, no surprise, was recently selected for Neil Clarke’s Best Science Fiction of the Year!)
“For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll
Flash and fire! Bristle and spit! This is my favorite in the novelette category. Carroll has written the best cat narration I have ever read. Jeoffry is the cat in charge of the asylum, where he fights demons and devours treats. He loves his poet very much, even though he doesn’t understand his obsession with the written word—pets are much better than poetry, obviously. When Satan himself arrives to make a pact with The Poet, Jeoffry realizes that he must defeat the devil. This story is one that will stick with me for ages. Dialogue left me giggling, my face hurting from pure delight. I hope Carroll revisits this world, and that we get to see more of Jeoffry and his fellow felines. I will refer to my own cats as the Nighthunter Moppet from now on. This is one novelette that you will read again and again.
“Omphalos” by Ted Chiang
There’s a peculiar subgenre of alternate histories focusing on worlds where concepts of the universe that have since become outdated provide the setting. Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance and Adam Roberts’s Polystom are two novel-length examples of this micro-genre; it’s also something that Ted Chiang has returned to repeatedly in his fiction, including in Stories of Your Life and Others’ “Seventy-Two Letters.” His novelette “Omphalos” is a prime example of this, telling the story of a scientist undergoing a crisis of faith despite living in a world in which evidence of the Biblical Creation is part of archaeological history. What does that mean? Mummies without navels, for one thing; growth rings on ancient trees indicating that they were spontaneously created, for another. But while the setting of “Omphalos” is evocative enough on its own—both in how science would work in such a world and in the slight differences between its history and our own—Chiang doesn’t stop there. Dorothea Morrell, the story’s narrator, is an archaeologist who discovers a number of rare relics being sold in unexpected places. Dr. Morrell begins to explore how they came to be there; what she discovers turns out to be an intimate conspiracy involving faith, science, and another scientific discipline’s shocking discovery. If this story coasted on its one big idea, it would be entertaining enough; by showing its protagonist tested in a number of ways, Chiang gets at something even more profound.