Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try, Again” by Zen Cho

Byam is an imugi, a kind of Korean proto-dragon or water serpent creature. Byam hopes to reach a level of spiritual advancement to fully become an actual dragon and ascend to the sky but this is a difficult path and over hundreds of years, Byam experiences many setbacks in it’s quest.

“If you wanted to be a dragon, dumb perseverance wasn’t enough. You had to have a strategy. Humans had proliferated, so Byam retreated to the ocean. It was harder to get texts in the sea, but technically you didn’t need texts to study the Way, since it was inherent in the order of all things. (Anyway, sometimes you could steal scriptures off a turtle on a pilgrimage, or go onshore to ransack a monastery.) But you had to get out of the water in order to ascend. It was impossible to exclude the possibility of being seen by humans, even in the middle of the ocean. It didn’t seem to bother them that they couldn’t breathe underwater; they still launched themselves onto the waves on rickety assemblages of dismembered trees. It was as if they couldn’t wait to get on to their next lives.”

Byam’s struggles last over millennia and brings them to the modern age, where Byam encounters Leslie, an astrophysicists. At a particularly rough spot in her life, a glimpse of an imugi attempting to ascend into dragon-hood, inspires Leslie to complete her failed Phd and continue her career.

There are no big twists or surprises in this story and the moral (of sorts) is right there in the title. True love (and possibly learning some modern astrophysics) is what Byam has been missing and it’s no spoiler to say that Byam succeeds in the end. It really could have been quite a trite story about having people who care for you and believe in you but without really departing from a kind of romantic comedy-but-with-Korean-sea-serpents template manages to be genuinely moving.

Sweet and melancholy but it is the sweetness, successfully confectioned, that marks it out in this set of novelettes that collectively have a fair share of melancholy.


5 responses to “Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try, Again” by Zen Cho”

  1. This was the only novelette I nominated that made the ballot, so clearly I’m going to be a supporter of it.
    I think it’s the moving nature of the ending in particular that did it for me. You’re right that it could have been trite, but I think that Zen Cho dodges the potential to just be sickly sweet and builds a set of characters you care about. (Also, the imagery of the various attempts to ascend to dragonhood was fun.)

    I’m currently putting it top of may ballot, although that’s slightly arbitrary and at least two others could be top instead.


  2. I like this one a lot, too, and it’s currently sitting in the top spot of my ballot, followed by “The Thing About Ghost Stories”

    Liked by 1 person

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