Hugo 2019 Novelettes: When We Were Starless by Simone Heller

In a clouded, toxic and blasted world, a nomadic tribe does it’s utmost to survive. Mink is a scout, looking for the remnants of an old world to scavenge, while the tribe evades monstrous centipedes and ghosts.

“The run-in with the rustbreed had not been my fault. I was a good enough scout—I scoured inaccessible ruins for scarce materials, and I never ran the tribe into the lairs of the befouled crablion or let anyone’s mind become ghost-shifted. But when the heat-baked ground of a salt flat we were crossing was suddenly riddled with burrower holes, a full legion of the writhing, rearing centipedal creatures already upon us, all I could do was to change the gentle hum of the Lope Concord to the jarring trill of the Rush and find us a path out of this trap. The air had been filled with the dry stick sounds of the rustbreed’s milling legs and the sharp smell that went for communication among them. But for all their legs, we were the better runners, and we made it. Barely. The hindquarters of our sole gearbeast were a fused mass of metal and dried fluids from a rustbreed feeder, and I didn’t want to think about Truss’ side, which had been similarly exposed. Others, like Renke, had been burned badly, too, but he had been the only one to suffer a bite and get the corrosive substance under his scales.”

But in her searching, Mink stumbles upon a very different kind of ghost: Orion, some sort of holographic AI set to maintain a museum of sorts. The meeting leads to change and violence for Mink and her tribe as well as a new understanding of the world they are.

The story asks a lot of its readers. It is never clear what kind of creature Mink is but the implication is that she isn’t human. What a ‘weaver’ is needs to be inferred from events in the text and the disasters that have overwhelmed the planet are so ancient as to be forgotten.

The setting and style is reminiscent of Heller’s 2017 story “How Bees Fly’ ( but that featured “demons” rather than ghosts and a more human-like protagonist (with a tail). Perhaps the story is set in an earlier time amid whatever disaster has consumed Earth (e.g. both mention gearbeasts).*

Of the two, When We Starless accentuates the contrast between the desperate lives of the people and the potential for kindness and hope and common understanding. It is a surprisingly up beat story for a world that is a literally poisonous.

It is slow to get into, I bounced off it twice, and demands both patience and thought from the reader. However, once I was in the rhythm of it, there is a dark but hopeful tale of enlightenment and ambition in a very alien setting.

My tendency to dad-jokes makes me want to call this story haunting and atmospheric but the description works unironically.

*[OK, so I should have read the author’s website first before writing that paragraph but I’ll leave it as is because I’m too lazy to reword it. The two stories are directly connected: is my second story set in a world I call the Shrouded Earth. It’s not a direct sequel to How Bees Fly, but they follow a shared trajectory, and WWWS holds some spoilers for things that are revealed in the course of HBF.” Also, apparently Mink’s people are lizard-like which means this one fits into my hugo-dinsoaur project!]

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5 responses to “Hugo 2019 Novelettes: When We Were Starless by Simone Heller”

  1. I had problems getting into this story as well.

    I’m always happy to see continental Europeans, particularly a fellow German, nominated for the big SFF awards, since we are usually overlooked. But at leats based on this story, Simone Heller’s work isn’t my thing.


  2. I really liked this one. It’s currently fighting it out with radium mammoths and enchanted candies for my top spot.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I really loved this story. It’s at the top of my ballot at the moment, edging out “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”.

    Liked by 1 person

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