Hugo Shorts 2019 Round Up

Well I’ve read them all and I can’t believe that there was a time in recent memory where people were genuinely worried about the state of short fiction. This is an entertaining crop of stories with real variety and a wealth of ideas. I love it when the set of nominees work as a whole — people deride democracy as somehow being inimical to good decision making or aesthetics but the Hugos when they work are a notable counter-example.

I see these stories as three pairs and each pair offers something different.

Form and structure

My two personal favourites play with form and structure and push the boundaries of a what a short story is or should be.

STET” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018) [my review] – it is absurd this wasn’t a Nebula finalist given that the Nebulas is an award for and by writers. It’s a very worthy Hugo finalist but the Hugos are different kind of award. I love every piece of this story, the use of a different genre of writing and the way the story is revealed by talking around events instead of talking about them.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018) [my review] – is more than the sum of its parts and each of those parts are intriguing glimpses of other worlds. Like STET it isn’t a conventional story and avoids a beginning-middle-end structure for good reasons.

But playing with form and structure is something that ticks lots of my boxes and that’s not for everybody. There’s a different challenge in writing a story that is fresh and original and which conforms to the conventions of the Short Story as a genre rather than as a word count. I get why these might not be some people’s top picks but you can expect to find these two at the top of my voting.

Humour and story telling

A good yarn and a tall tale is at the root of our love of fiction. Sex, violence, fear and laughs is what we want at a visceral level in our camp fire tales.

The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018) [my review] offers both violence and humour in a bedtime story for young dromaeosaurs. Nicely executed, just as the titular Prince’s horse gets nicely executed.

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018) [my review] has less violence and no dinosaurs but is much sexier and gets wry humour out of the disconsolate fae-folk who feel somewhat used by Ms MacGregor.

I’m glad both of these are on the ballot as they create a more rounded set of finalists. However, neither are top choices on my ballot.

The price of magic

The final pair both explore magic tangentially, looking at the personal cost and limitations of power and proximity to power. To act is to change another person’s life and hence all acts have a capacity to be violence in a broad sense. The obverse is that every choice not to act has the capacity to be negligence. Two powerful and yet superficially lowly people face their own dilemmas around power and the personal consequences of power.

The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018) [my review] is the darker of the two. The life of a man from street urchin to magical servant to a king is told as he gains arcane knowledge.

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018) [my review] presents the opposite problem. A powerful witch who is forbidden from acting but who finds ways of making some lives better.

I’m not sure which I prefer of these two stories. They are both masterfully executed. With a different set of other finalists, I could imagine putting either of these two at the top of my ballot.

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13 thoughts on “Hugo Shorts 2019 Round Up

  1. I still need to read “STET”, but I read all the others before nominations closed. “A Witch’s Guide” was on my ballot. So right now I’m thinking I will put it first, then the two humor stories (don’t ask me which order yet), followed by Pinsker’s. We’ll see if Gailey’s story upsets all my plans! It’s definitely a good batch even if only one of my top 5 made it.

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  2. No real clue how I’ll vote yet. The only finalist on my ballot was “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” so I guess that’s my front runner. The Court Magician is also a really strong story IMO even though the body horror elements weren’t really my sort of thing. I love the Rose McGregor story but how to rank fun and humour in amongst these other stories?
    Far too hard – but a nice problem to have.

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  3. None of these on my ballot, but I had read all but Bolander’s before nominations closed. All worthy stories but I think Pinsker and Gailey are my current front-runners, with “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” probably edging its way to third place.

    Interesting that there’s only one sci-fi story amid the fantasy – a very different balance from the novel shortlist, which has four SF stories.

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      1. After looking at it in the Hugo packet, I see what you mean. For others, definitely take a look at the PDF if you can. It actually has the editor notes and responses from the author in red pen handwriting.

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  4. I really enjoyed the novel way “STET” way written, and it’s very good. I thought the emotional manipulation of the reader was perhaps a bit too deliberate and obvious. “Secret Lives” is also really well-done, and manages to accomplish a lot of storytelling for its very short length.

    I really enjoyed “Rose MacGregor” but it doesn’t touch me deeply in the same way as some of the author’s other stories. “Raptor Sisters” to me seemed a very predictable fairytale subversion; the author seems to have one setting: Angry At Men At Level 11, which I imagine is very cathartic for the author and their fans, but I think it tends to remove the capability for nuance from the stories.

    “Court Magician” is really skilfully done, with its gradual slide into understanding the full horror of the situation. “Witch’s Guide” is a great ‘conflict with the Prime Directive’ story, and I loved the worldbuilding.

    My ballot is probably going to look like:

    “Witch’s Guide”
    “Court Magician”
    “Secret Lives”
    “STET”
    “Rose MacGregor”
    “Raptor Sisters”

    But the top two may keep changing places until the last moment.

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