2017 Hugo Reading: Novelettes
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Written by Natalie Luhrs

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June 29, 2017

Hugo Award LogoI think the novelette finalists are a bit more of a mixed bag. Some of them I think are outstanding, one fell flat for me, and then there’s that other one. You know the one.

The novelette finalists are:

“The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine)

A sequel to “Jackalope Wives”, this novelette bears all the hallmarks of Vernon’s work: practical and pragmatic characters, a sharp sense of right and wrong, talking animals, and gardening.

Grandma Harken lives in the desert and she grows the best tomatoes in town. She’s waiting for them to ripen, so she can have a tomato sandwich and can I say that I am completely with Grandma Harken on this? Her version of a tomato sandwich is exactly mine and there really isn’t anything else like it. Imagine her frustration when her tomatoes go missing as soon as they’re perfectly ripe—there’s nothing for it but to figure out why and if that means sitting up all night on the porch waiting for the thief, then that’s what Grandma Harken is going to do.

There’s so much to like about this novelette. Grandma Harken is a delight—of course—but I also loved the worldbuilding and want to know more about the train-gods and their priests. There’s also a young girl with bones made of cholla-wood, and I’d like to know what happens to her when she grows up, too. Vernon’s prose is economical and straight-forward even as she tackles the twistiest of subjects.

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine)

I didn’t connect with this story as much as I’d hoped and I’m not sure why. It is told in second person, which is usually fine but it felt off-putting this time around.

There are a lot of things I loved about the novelette—the setting is beautifully described and Ellis’s connection to the desert is tangible, as is his sense of grief and loss about his father’s death and his love for Marisol.

The basic plot is that Ellis has an eerie connection with the desert and can reanimate the dead–of which there are plenty after a recent mining accident. His talents bring him to the attention of some shady men who come into town.

I think a large part of why this story didn’t work for me is that it’s essentially a fantastic Western and that’s a genre I really don’t care for. Wong deploys many tropes that I associate with Westerns and I don’t think she succeeded in reimagining them. Like everything else Wong writes, the prose is gorgeous and she puts the characters through the emotional wringer. This is not a bad story by any stretch—it simply isn’t a story for me.

“The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde (Tor.com)

Disclosure: Fran’s a dear friend, so I am completely biased in this story’s favor.

Sima and Lin are bound to each other: one a princess, the other the lapidary bound to her service. This is a bit more complicated than you’d think, since what connects them are gems of power that much be controlled and used carefully, lest they destroy the user or drive them mad.

Lin’s father, the lapidary to Sima’s father, the king, has gone mad and killed everyone at court and essentially invited an army to invade. The entire set up is basically a Kobayashi Maru and that’s the pivot around which Lin and Sima’s story revolves—what is the best bad choice you can make?

And then there’s the travelogue frame story, which pushes these events into the far past and into myth, changing their context entirely.

Wilde’s use of language is clear and precise, there’s not a word out of place. I keep waiting for one of the gems in these stories to not be completely terrible for the person who owns it. I think I’m going to be kept waiting for quite a long time.

“The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allen (Tor.com)

I found this to be a charmingly quiet story. It’s primarily about the relationship between Emily and her mother, Moolie, and the mystery of Emily’s father–against the backdrop of a manned mission to Mars.

Thirty years before the start of this story, the first manned mission to Mars ended in tragedy. The second mission is getting closer to launch and Emily is a housekeeper at the hotel where the astronauts will be staying. Her boss, Bennie, is both anxious about appearances and wanting everything to be perfect for the astronauts and very understanding about Emily’s position as her mother’s caretaker.

Moolie was a brilliant metallurgist until her work on a plane crash exposed her to toxic substances which gave her a kind of progressive dementia and an exceedingly strange lung condition. She’s never going to recover, but she does have her lucid moments and during them, she seems to be trying to tell Emily something. Emily, for her part, is equally obsessed with space travel and with the identity of her unknown father.

I really liked the close focus on Emily and her point of view and how the hubbub and excitement surrounding the astronauts was secondary to Emily’s musings about the identity of her father and her worry over Moolie. The ending was a bit strange and didn’t work for me, but the rest of the story is quite solid.

“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld)

This novelette opens with Avery getting a call offering her a job transporting an alien from the DC area to St. Louis. The aliens had appeared overnight, large domes across the country and until this one decided they wanted a tour of the country, what they wanted and their motives for coming to Earth were unclear. Their motives are still not very clear at the outset of the journey, but by the end–well.

The alien comes aboard the bus in crates and is accompanied by his human translator, Lionel. Each alien has a human translator, someone who was abducted as a child from a family that didn’t care for them, a child no one would miss (how horrible is that?) Avery starts driving and as they make their way across the US, she gets to know Lionel and through Lionel, the alien.

Avery’s a sympathetic narrator and she is genuinely curious about the aliens and willing to acquiesce to most of Lionel’s requests on the alien’s behalf. There is a lot about what it means to have consciousness—the aliens are not conscious—and what value, if any, that brings to existence. I found the ending to be both a surprise and quite endearing. Gilman is an easy prose stylist and Avery’s conversational and self-reflective voice is exactly what this story requires.

Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T. Rex by Stix Hiscock (self-published)

Well. This was certainly something. I can’t say I recommend it. Unless this is the sort of thing you enjoy reading for certain, ah, activities. In which case, have at it. But way over there, please.

And don’t put it on your ballot.

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