Hugo Award Reads: 2019 Short Story Nominees

Howdy, all!  It’s Hugo ballot season for me, and I am in the thick of reading a lovely pile of fiction and non-fiction (and graphic novels and media and art….) so I can cast my ballot for the 2019 Hugo awards.

I’m happy to see the Hugo nominations overall return to what I’d consider an all-round high level of quality. The “sad puppies” years crammed some real crap onto the ballot, to little end. If anything, I feel like the Hugo nominations are breathtakingly diverse this year, and women writers have overwhelmingly earned nods in most of the categories.

As per my usual, I like to blog my thoughts as I complete categories. I haven’t settled on my votes in this category yet, but if I were to cast the ballot today, here’s how I would rank these excellent works.

SPOILERS BELOW  I’m not going to run any endings here, but I recommend that you try to read the stories without any prior information, including my comments below, if you can. These stories are all VERY short – you can read each one in 15 minutes, on average, so there’s no reason not to enjoy them unspoiled.

  • “STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)

Gailey packs into a very short story one of the best summarizations of the coming AI morality crisis that I’ve ever seen. It’s an excellent example of a highly crafted short fiction piece, not a word wasted, with most details implied rather than stated.

If possible, read this as a PDF rather than e-book, so you can see the markings as she originally intended. The piece is constructed as an editor’s handwritten notes on a galley, with the author’s responses. Their conversation in the margin amplifies the tension, driving home Gailey’s point with terrifying clarity. Her use of the short story form is exemplary, and I think she deserves top nod on my ballot.

If we do not begin now to recognize and address the moral code so thoughtlessly baked into our algorithms, we will not see the consequences coming until they’ve torn into us. Everything reflects a moral outlook; our choice is whether to acknowledge this and work to build tech tools that push us toward a society of fairness and goodness….or pretend that ignorance is an excuse for injustice.

Read Gailey’s story in the original layout, if at all possible. The handwritten notes make all the difference — they ARE the story here.

 

  • “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

As a former librarian and high school teacher and foster care relief parent, I found this story hit me in all the feels. I’ve been thinking about it all day. I processed this story in my gut, in the parts of me that carried the stress of kids who were deeply in danger when they had so little hope that life could get better. Seeing books as a balm in this world, the main character (a librarian) attempts to bring light to a young man’s existence by recognizing that “escapism” is sometimes a life survival skill.

The story structure is relatively traditional but with library catalog numbers inserted as a record of what the youth was reading, moving the plot forward.  It works.  I felt like Harrow gave us a good crisis (decision point) for the main character and a meaningful ending. Plus, I love books. And libraries.  Wins all around.

It’s possible that some might see this story as reinforcing white-saviorism, and I look forward to reading informed critique as more people read and vote in the Hugos. But I’ve known a lot of librarians and teachers who would throw lifelines to any kid foundering off the shore, so not sure that the racial tones here are the point or that they detract from the story.

  • “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)

It was really hard for me to decide which of the next two stories I would place third. What is the determining factor? Is it theme? Artistry? Precision? Interest?  The ballot-filler’s dilemma.

This story is Djeli Clark’s interesting and fantastical (yet gripping and historical) jaunt through nine Black slaves whose teeth (supposedly) ended up in George Washington’s dentures. I had to stop steveral times and hit Wikipedia to fill gaps in my historical knowledge of slave narratives and culture. I hope this story makes it into millions of literature textbooks for that reason. It’s artful and provocative.

It’s 2019 (2018 when he published it), and #resistance is more important than ever. So is deconstructing the white imperialism and colonialism that’s so tightly wound into American history, we aren’t even aware of it…..until someone sets it in our faces that America’s first president owned scores of slaves and everybody thought that was normal. Even his teeth.

  • “The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)

Good fantasy stories nearly always involve magic (I’m here for it), and strong magical systems recognize that power doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The best authors infuse their magic with a cost — recognizing that nobody gets something for free. If you want to bend the natural order to your will, somebody somewhere will hurt for it. And even more basic, that power comes at a cost.

Pinsker, who is one of my favorite Hugo-nominated authors in recent years due to the amazing quality of her work, gives us a reason to question the cost of power, and the way that people who wield power on behalf of a ruler are complicit in those decisions.  It’s a vital theme anytime we question the morality of our government, so I’m not surprised Pinsker wrote published this in 2018.

So. When you recognize the cost, how do you balance the personal expense (power always takes a toll) with the social benefits? And who decides who wins?

Excellent story.  I may have to move this one up. *decisions are hard!*

The next two stories sit in the growing tradition of spec-fic authors subverting fantasy tropes, usually empowering the women and breaking down class and gender stereotypes. Naomi Novik’s excellent novel Spinning Silver is on this year’s Best Novel ballot for this very reason. I enjoyed both stories, not sure how I will order them on my ballot.

  • “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)

Men. They are such heart-breakers. Erm, wait……

  • “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)

I’ve loved Brooke Bolander since I first read her blood-drenched story of cyberpunk revenge back in 2015 (maybe 2014?). Her style is straightforward with a strong focus on female empowerment. In the age of #metoo and #timesup, take enjoyment from this cross-species example of women sticking together to sort it all out.

**********

Honestly, I enjoyed every story I read in this category. Some are stronger Hugo nominees than others (depending on what criteria you use to make that determination), but that doesn’t diminish from each story’s value. If I were teaching this fall, I’d happily build a project around all 5 of these.

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