With one obvious exception, all the Hugo short story finalists are stellar and it’s going to be extremely difficult to rank them on my ballot. Extremely difficult.
In case you’ve forgotten, the finalists are:
- “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)
- “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016)
- “The City Born Great” by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)
- “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
- “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
- “An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)
“A Fist of Permuations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com)
This is a story of two sisters, Hannah and Melanie, told through a series of increasingly painful and revelatory vignettes. Wong’s prose is spare, brutal, and precise and exactly what this story needs to pack the emotional punch that it does.
Reduced to basics, the story is about Hannah’s refusal to accept Melanie’s death and the cyclical nature of her grief—if she could only turn back time, do something differently. So she tries, running through different permutations of the scenario, desperately trying to reach Melanie before the crisis and never succeeding. Because this story’s also about how you can’t control other people. You can’t tell them who they are or how to live their lives.
I was reminded, a little bit, of Geoff Ryman’s Was as I read this—the cyclical nature of Hannah’s thoughts seems a parallel to the cyclones in Ryman’s novel.
This story ends without resolving the central tension of Hannah’s grief, but instead is poised to continue its permutations. As this story ripped my heart out and stomped all over it, I still couldn’t help but admire the precision and clarity of Wong’s prose and the delicate structure of the story.
“That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com)
This story from Carrie Vaughn is about a nurse, a soldier, and their unlikely relationship. Calla’s a nurse from Enith, and her people have almost always been at war with the telepaths of Gaant. This makes things a bit difficult for both Calla and her people—how do you defend against an opponent who always knows your next move?
The story opens with Calla arriving at a military hospital in Gaant to visit a soldier who had once been her prisoner, as she had once been his. Calla’s there so they can finish their game of chess—an echo of the larger conflict between their peoples who are now at uneasy peace with each other.
I really liked the parallels between Calla and Valk’s relationship and the larger conflict. How they’ve come to an uneasy—but not unwelcome—accord between each other. I found the setting intriguing and I wonder how the Gaant became telepaths while the Enith did not—are they both the same species (are they even human)?
“The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin (Tor.com)
N.K. Jemisin’s “The City Born Great” is wonderful. When cities become large and old enough, they are born into a new kind of existence, using a human avatar as the midwife. The unnamed narrator of the story, a homeless black man, is initially not too keen on being the midwife, but as his connection to the city becomes stronger, he finds it not only inevitable but necessary to do so.
Of course, when any new being is coming into existence, there are those who would seek to end its life—in this case an eldritch horror who hides parts of itself within the city’s police officers who the narrator must avoid if he wants to fulfill his part of the city’s story. While I found this theme powerful, I can only imagine that it is more powerful when this is also part of your daily life.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time in cities and they all have a different feel to them and it’s clear from this story that Jemisin loves New York in all its guises and this was simply a joy to read from beginning to end.
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood, Saga Press)
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a gorgeously written mashup of two fairy tale tropes: the woman who must wear out multiple pairs of iron shoes for the sake of a man and the woman who sits atop a glass mountain waiting for a man to take her golden apples.
Tabitha must wear out seven pairs of iron shoes to break her abusive husband’s curse, and she’s halfway through the fourth pair. Amira sits atop a glass mountain, still, and endures both the elements and abuse from the men attempting to claim her.
I don’t know how to describe this story in a way that does it justice. El-Mohtar shines a bright light on themes that are all too prevalent in fairy tales, cautionary tales about women who don’t know their place and she transmutes them into something wholly different, about two women who discover not only each other, but their agency as well.
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine)
This fierce and foul-mouthed story from Brooke Bolander was one of my favorite stories last year.
This story centers the woman who died violently at the hands of a man. It refuses to give him any consideration: we don’t get his name, we don’t get his sad history and we don’t get excuses. Because he doesn’t deserve them. What we get, instead, is a list of bullet points outlining everything that happened from the woman—the harpy’s—point of view. And honestly, it is a delight to read. (And you know, it’s a delight because in reality we get to read about how that poor, poor, poor boy couldn’t help himself when it came to drugging and raping that young woman who really should have known better.)
The voice in this story is extraordinary. For such a short piece, it’s memorable in its imagery and in the narrative arc—the nice young man from a good family fucks with the wrong woman and she comes back with her sisters and wreaks havoc and revenge and scores a sweet 1967 Mercury Cougar, too.
“An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)
This is less a story than a screed with some awkward and disgusting sex bits thrown in for good measure. There is no plot and the characterization is onion paper thin. That’s fifteen minutes of my life I’m never going to get back again.
You want message fiction? This here’s your message fiction.