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!]

What have I missed?

This is my current list of dinosaur related stories (in some cases the dinosaurs being metaphorical) in the Hugo Awards. Any others? I don’t seem to have any novels?

Year Author/Creator Title Type Published Status
1956 L. Sprague de Camp “A Gun for Dinosaur” Best Novelette Galaxy Science Fiction Finalist
1964 Edgar Rice Burroughs “Savage Pellucidar” Short Story Amazing Stories Finalist
1981 Robert Silverberg “Our Lady of the Sauropods” Short Story Omni Finalist
1988 Walter Jon Williams “Dinosaurs” Best Novelette Asimov’s Science Fiction Finalist
1992 Connie Willis “In the Late Cretaceous” Short Story Asimov’s Science Fiction Finalist
1994 Steven Spielberg (director), David Koepp (screenplay), Michael Crichton (screenplay, original novel) Jurassic Park Best Dramatic Presentation Universal Studios/Amblin Entertainment Winner
1996 James Patrick Kelly “Think Like a Dinosaur” Best Novelette Asimov’s Science Fiction Winner
2000 Michael Swanwick “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” Short Story Asimov’s Science Fiction Winner
2003 Richard Chwedyk “Brontë’s Egg” Novella Fantasy & Science Fiction Finalist
2014 Rachel Swirsky “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” Short Story Apex Magazine Finalist
2016 Chuck Tingle Space Raptor Butt Invasion Short Story Amazon Digital Services Finalist
2017 Stix Hiscock Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex Best Novelette Self published Finalist
2019 Brooke Bolander “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” Short Story Uncanny Magazine Finalist