Hugo Ballot 2018: Short Story

It doesn’t feel that long ago that the talk was whether the SF short story was dead or close to death. The impact of Sad Puppy campaigns and Rabid Puppy vandalism hit the short story category hard. And what an emblematic category it had been for the Hugo Awards and science fiction! American style science fiction had grown out of the short story style and some of the greats of SF were intimately connected with shorter form fiction. Ray Bradbury especially but also Issac Asimov – The Foundation Trilogy being one of many SF classics that grew from connected shorts.

The Hugo finalists this year are a set of entertaining and varied reads. There’s not one theme or style and there are elements of fantasy and science-fiction as well as some classic twists.

It is too early in the process to rank them I think and a couple I only read recently. I’d like to gestate on them a bit longer but I’m also mindful that if I don’t put my thoughts down now then I will have to do a whole bunch of things in a rush. So, some mini-reviews and thoughts but no rankings. I do have an unsurprising favourite but I may shift rankings later. Overall though I enjoyed them all.

Reminder: you don’t need to wait for the packet to read the Hugo Short Stories as they are all available free online. JJ collected the relevant links here and I repeat them below.

Best Short Story

▪ “Carnival Nine“, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

The story works both in terms of its own world building (with a few unanswered questions) and also as a metaphor about life, parenthood, chronic illness, and death. The setting is a world that might be a house or a bedroom in which small clockwork people live. Each one is wound each night but their mechanisms can only be wound up so much (and some people’s more than others). Eventually they fall prey to entropy as their mainspring becomes unwindable.

The story follows the life of one character from late childhood to bringing up a child and her relationship with an absent mother who lives in a carnival on (or carried by) a train.

Poignant and wistful, the story does a lot of work in a short period introducing a world but also creating deep emotional engagement with a set of characters. It could have easily become overly twee and sentimental but I think it avoids becoming either.

▪ “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand“, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)

The least conventionally story like of the set. A guided tour through a museum (or is it?) of curiosities. Disturbing images and ideas – the curiosities are the voyeuristic medical views of people as ‘freaks’ of body or behaviour. The story attempts to reverse the gaze of the curious and the dehumanising. A story best read rather than described that uses setting rather than narrative to create an effective horror story.

▪ “Fandom for Robots“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)

Elsewhere Murderbot is doling its best to mix genre consumption with themes about Artificial Intelligence but here we have a different style of robot interact with genre fiction.

Computron lives a dull life as an aging exhibit in a museum of robot history. Clunky and classically unemotional, Computron has little to do other than a short performance for visitors. By chance the robot begins to take an interest in a TV show which also features a rather boxy robot as a main character. This in turn leads Computron into the world of fan fiction and a new life.

Nice and engaging but I did feel it more faded out at the end rather than deliver a distinct conclusion.

▪ “The Martian Obelisk“, by Linda Nagata (, July 19, 2017)

The world has gone to shit and humanity’s attempt to colonise other parts of the solar system has failed. With little hope for a better future an architect controls machines remotely from Earth to build a quixotic monument to humanity on Mars. But is everybody really dead on the Red Planet?

More whistful than depressing but not a jolly story to put sunshine in your step. Even so there’s a stronger theme of hope in the story and the importance of doing what is right over grandiose self-indulgence.

▪ “Sun, Moon, Dust“, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)

There is gardening (well, farming) and there is a cranky old woman (briefly) as signatures for an Ursula Vernon story but this is a different style than Jackalope Wives.

Allpa receives a magic sword from his grandmother who had been a famous warrior in her youth. Trapped in the sword are three spirits of legendary fighters: Sun, Moon and Dust. Unfortunately for each of them Allpa’s main concern is his potatoes.

It’s a simple story that subverts the reluctant hero trope. Allpa genuinely would rather farm his land than seek out a hidden destiny as a warrior. The story follows this idea but in a way that feels like you are reading a familiar folk tale of some antiquity.

I was a fan of Ursula Vernon’s writing before I started this blog and this story only reinforces my high estimation of her writing. The story looks simple and effortless but of the six people mentioned (one only very briefly) you are left with a sense of fully formed characters of depth. I guess that is an illusion given we don’t know really know very much about any of them but it is rather like an artist who uses a single brush stroke to imply the more complex features of a face. There is also a sense of a bigger wider world as well as brief details that give Allpa’s world more sense of place.

The story doesn’t have a twist as such, indeed in one sense it has the opposite. The ending feels obvious and natural when you reach it, even though it sits exactly opposite to the initial premise of the story (a young man is given a magic sword). Calling it a subversion is misleading – it just goes where it wants to go rather than where genre conventions demand that it should.

It is masterful in the sense of showing mastery of the form. I really liked it.

▪ “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™“, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017)

What is it like to be somebody else? A neat question and one of those philosophical queries that science fiction can explore through imagined technology. Here a use of mind immersive virtual technology allows people to experience the lives of others.

Told (sensibly and appropriately) in the second person “you” are a Native American who works for a company that provides people with “authentic” immersive experiences. In your case these experiences are corny vision quests in which eager tourists keen to connect with their spiritual side engage with a fantasy of Native American culture. That fantasy contrast with the realities of life and work and relationships.

But one day an encounter goes off track and…well spoilers follow.

This is both original in scope but also a classic style of twisty story in the tradition of the Twilight Zone. Mixing questions of personal identity in the setting of virtual reality with wider questions of cultural identity and personal connections. As with the other finalists, I am amazed at how Rebecca Roanhorse packs in so much into a short text.

Currently Sun, Moon and Dust and Carnival Nine are my favourites and probably Fandom for Robots is my least favourite but it’s a tough choice and I quite like Fandom for Robots!


7 responses to “Hugo Ballot 2018: Short Story”

  1. I loved “Fandom for Robots” so much that I immediately made the Mr. (who likes anime and robots) read it off my screen while I had it open. He subsequently put it on his ballot. I can almost guarantee that’s what he’ll rank #1. It went on my ballot right away.

    “Carnival” and “Clearly Lettered” simply did not work for me. Well-written, but what was the point? I like my short stories to have a point, being as they’re… short. I actively disliked them on second reading. “Your Authentic” had a point, but it was delivered with a sledgehammer. Roanhorse is a good writer though and I want to see what’s in her Campbell packet.

    “Martian Obelisk” is elegiac. It reminded me of Zelazny, but less mystical. I liked it a lot, even though I don’t generally like sad stories. I suppose since it wasn’t depressing as such. It was a good cry.

    And of course Oor Wombat is always good. I’d somehow missed this earlier in the year and didn’t read it till right before deadline and then it went on ASAP. The characters are so well-delineated, and I like the “twist” on the old trope. This is first for me. Second is between Martian and Fandom, and I’ll probably waffle there.

    Am chuffed that Nagata is getting the recognition she deserves.

    Agonizing over which of several stories is the best and changing your mind repeatedly b/c they’re all good in their way is such a nice problem to have.

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  2. I thought that “Carnival Nine” had some great worldbuilding, and I liked the way it represented the concept of spoons.

    … but …

    I really hated the way it endorsed the idea that it’s the woman’s job to take care of everyone else, and it made me really angry that not only was the woman punished every time she tried to take a little time for herself, she accepted that punishment and the guilt she felt as things she deserved for having had the audacity and selfishness to try to take some time for herself. The story made me want to hit things, and I’m not a hitter.

    So while the story had lots of promising aspects, it failed for me.

    I can see how “Fandom for Robots” hits the sweet spot of people who’ve participated in fan fiction, but the story seemed pretty predictable, and really doesn’t do anything for me.

    I have mixed feelings about “Clearly Lettered”. It does a good job of illustrating how people with disabilities are regarded and treated by able people around them, and (hopefully) inspires some empathy in the reader as a result. It falls into the same category of fiction as “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love”, and while I appreciated both stories, they’re not the sort of speculative fiction I want to see from a Hugo finalist.

    I really enjoyed “The Martian Obelisk”, “Sun, Moon, and Dust”, and “Authentic Indian Experience”, and they will appear on my ballot in that order.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fair point – I took it as an attempt to reflect societal expectations and on whom the demands of caregiving normally fall but maybe that’s an easy way out when there’s scope to challenge those assumptions.

      Clearly lettered – I think fiction should be more than just narrative and long-fiction has the capacity to inter-weave narrative with other aspects of writing. So less narrative focused short fiction is a thing I’d like to see but…yeah, results are mixed.


    • I very much agree with JJ about “Carnival 9”, but then we have had this discussion before. It’s probably well intentioned, but the implications (it’s women’s job to take care of the young, the elderly and the disabled, if a woman wants time for herself, it’s selfish and bad things will happen, conformism is good, wanting something different out of life is bad, etc…) really drag the story down.

      “Clearly Lettered” is well written, but as I read it I couldn’t help but notice how very much it reminded me of the 1932 movie “Freaks”. “Fandom for Robots” is fun, but slight. “The Martian Obelisk”, “Welcome to You Authentic Indian Experience” and “Sun, Moon, Dust” are all good, with the latter beiing my favourite.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. That’s why I hated it more the second time. First time, I thought “o..kay, but pointless and overly sentimental”, second time I was “the twee is outweighed by the anti-feminist tone”. I don’t give up all my spoons for nobody, esp. those who expect me to b/c I’m the woman. “Clearly Lettered”, I was “eh, okay, whatevs” and “Carnival” I was OH HELL NO, this is the sort of thing that should not be put up with. It was so retrograde, and not in a fun retro way. It was a Hallmark movie.

      And while the tragedy/death in “Martian Obelisk” is on a much, MUCH larger scale than “Carnival”, it did not anger or depress me.

      Whereas “Sun, Moon, and Dust” had swell characterizations and wasn’t trite or made me want to throw things (Honestly, I thought “Fandom For Robots” had better characterization than “Carnival”, with much less to work with).

      Liked by 1 person

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