March 31st is fast approaching, and as the month goes out like a lamb, the period for nominating for the 2014 Hugo Awards is coming to an end.
This marks my first experience at nominating works for the Hugo Awards. When I asked our fearless leader, John DeNardo, about reviewing short fiction over the course of 2013 for SF Signal, it was with the intention of focusing on short fiction for this very reason.
It was a rewarding journey, though I quickly discovered how impossible it was to keep up with the amount of original short genre fiction being produced each month in print and electronic magazines, collections and anthologies, and as single stories on various websites. I’m not complaining. As a fan of short fiction, I am thrilled to see so much of it being produced every month.
It was a great pleasure to offer up my opinions on the short fiction I read throughout the year. The choices I have made for Hugo nominations are based solely on my own personal experience, not on the basis of who wrote them or what publications they appeared in. I regret that I wasn’t able to read more and that my reading was limited to but a handful of the worthwhile short fiction venues championing short genre fiction. Apologies to any authors whose works should have been among my consideration, and thank you to all of you who are keeping the pleasure of short fiction alive and well.
“The Other Gun” by Neal Asher (Asimov’s, April/May 2013)
This novella originally developed as a plot thread that was lifted from the first of a new trilogy about a black A.I. known as Penny Royal. The protagonist is Tuppence, a man who is now mostly machine, traveling through space with a dinosaur who was once an exotic dancer seeking to recover the dismantled portions of a super-weapon for the last of an alien race referred to as The Client. The Client wishes to exact revenge on the Prador, the race of beings who destroyed its people. If that opening descriptions sounds bizarre, you don’t know the half of it. Asher’s story is filled with imaginative ideas that leave the reviewer in the unenviable place of writing descriptions that cannot succeed at capturing the techno-coolness of his world building. “The Other Gun” echoes my previous experience with Neal Asher’s work in that it puts the reader directly in the middle of a fully-formed universe with multiple ideas, layers of history, and plot threads all working at once. Familiarity with dark futuristic science fiction and interesting, if equally dark, characters keeps the reader from feeling lost as the workings of Asher’s universe slowly coalesce in the imagination. “The Other Gun” succeeds in telling a contained story while ensuring that readers who find it satisfying will be seeking out his newest trilogy.
“Equoid” by Charles Stross (Tor.com, September 2013)
“…it’s probably safe to tell you that my name’s Bob Howard…and I work for a secret government agency known to its inmates as the Laundry.”
Bob’s employer is a little known wing of the British Intelligence Service, dealing with occult threats as they arise in the best, most efficient and hopefully most quiet manner possible. After all, the common man (woman and child) doesn’t want to know about things that go bump in the night. Most especially if those things are the stuff of sugar and spice fantasy that turn out to be anything but sweet or innocent.
This story sees Bob Howard hustled off to the quaint British countryside to deal with a reported unicorn infestation. Oh, the images that conjures up, right? And oh how wrong those images are. As part of his assignment, Howard is given a dossier containing the death-bed confessional letters of H.P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch which he reads on the train ride to the epicenter of occult activity. It is with these letters, and the humorous way these letters effect Howard’s telling of the tale, that Stross demonstrates just how great a grasp he has on the work of H.P. Lovecraft.
It could be easy to be dismissive of a story that is part of a greater series, especially when it comes to discussing award-worthy fiction. In looking at “Equoid”, the story works in part because it tells a complete tale in a satisfying manner and introduces readers to an engaging character in an interesting setting. A closer look reveals a skillful weaving of an old-style of storytelling with a contemporary style in a way that is very fluid. Stross does so with humor while not distracting from the tension and suspense of the narrative. It is apparent that Stross has an affection for his subject manner which results in the reader getting maximum value out the novella-length tale.
“Over There” by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s, January 2013)
In McIntosh’s novelette a trio of scientists have come together to record the results of their latest experiment only to see their world quite literally come apart at the seams, resulting in two similar but off-center realities existing at the same time. McIntosh structures the story in a slightly disorienting fashion that reflects the simultaneous experiences of his characters. The tale splits into a two-column format with each column telling the story in its own reality and it is a highly effective experiment. I was not only impressed with the story itself but the way in which McIntosh and the Asimov’s staff were able to make each section so perfectly fit the page. The format may be initially disorienting but the reader quickly adjusts to it and is sucked into the ultimately terrifying tale. This isn’t my first experience with McIntosh’s work in Asimov’s and he is fast becoming one of those short story authors whose name on the cover will make me buy a magazine.
“Hotel” by Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s, January 2013)
“Patriots, smugglers, soldiers, spies—you’ll find them all, along with murder and intrigue, at Suzanne Palmer’s grand old Mars “Hotel.”” And find them all you will. “Hotel” is an immensely satisfying story filled with eccentric characters and the twists and turns you expect from a good spy/espionage tale. Though Mars merely acts as a mostly-silent setting for this story it remains a thrilling setting for those who like that good ol’ nostalgic feeling of stories that dreamed of human and aliens coexisting on the Red Planet.
“The Fountain” by G. David Nordley (Asimov’s, June 2013)
In a far distant future Earth’s Empress plays host to an unimaginably ancient, nomadic hive-race who have come to broker assistance in addressing a threat that will not approach Earth until well after the current long-lived humans are forgotten. Narrated through the collective consciousness of the alien visitors, Nordley’s story portrays the subtlety of diplomacy and the deft skill required to maneuver into a position in which one’s message will be heard and seriously considered. Nordley has created a fascinating race in the visiting Children of Light as well as a small cast of interesting human characters, most notably Empress Marie and her daughter, Princess Anne. The story’s length allows Nordley to draw sympathy from the reader not only for the hive-race’s plight but that of another unmet species whose existence is purportedly threatened. In addition, there are elements of mystery and tension brought about by the presence of a xenophobic element in Earth society. There is a thread of duty and sacrifice woven into the fabric of “The Fountain” that lends a feeling of gravity to the whole affair, giving the reader an opportunity for emotional engagement. Nordley does not shy away from including a number of interesting science fictional props and concepts and yet they fit so well into the overall picture that no effort seems wasted. There is no window dressing here, everything serves the story.
“Warlord” by Tom Purdom (Asimov’s, April/May 2013)
In this, the second jungle-setting novelette, a relatively small colony of humans have settled on a distant world inhabited by two warring species. Harold Lizert is a near-sighted and not particularly aggressive human who left, along with his wife Joanne, when a man named Emile and his group of thugs killed Harold’s father to take leadership of the colony. Harold and Joanne ended up in a battle between the itiji and the Warriors of Imeten. The battle had reached a stalemate and Harold took the bold step of fighting a battle to the death that ended with him bringing the two people together into a mutually beneficial relationship. “Warlord” opens with Emile and a group of human colonists traveling in small ships towards the city of Imeten, with Harold, Joanne and the Warriors all believing their intentions are anything but good.
“Warlord” examines man’s aggressive tendencies against the idea of various cultures coming together for a greater good. In addition it turns out to be a tense, and intense, page-turner of a story. Once it gets going there is no stopping until it is all over. “Warlord” is not the first story Purdom has set on the planet of Delta Pavonis II and despite it having an ending it is obvious that it will not be his last. I look forward to seeing a future issue with Purdom’s next story. This was a good one, and not only because I, as a near-sighted man, enjoyed cheering for an equally handicapped hero.
“All the Snake Handlers I Know are Dead” by Dennis Danvers (Tor.com, July 2013)
Maggie and her perpetually frightened dog, Lucille, are attempting to build a house, and a life, in the mountains of Appalachia. If she doesn’t get the work done on the land during the warm days of summer, another winter will be spent holed up in her Airstream trailer, a fate she is determined to forgo. The snakes, however, seem to be indifferent to her plight. Every day it appears as if more rattlesnakes have taken up residence in the area where she is trying to work. Her calls to the local extension agent have netted no results: snake handlers seem to be extinct.
On the day she decides to take matters into her own hands with a bit of shotgun diplomacy, a mysterious man walks onto her land and with inexplicable charm and grace kindly moves the snakes away from her work area. He then proceeds to explain to her the method by which she can obtain complete cooperation from her slithering squatters, leaving everyone happy. Maggie has always felt that this venture was a bit on the crazy side. She is just now discovering the level of crazy.
Danvers’ novelette is a tale of magic realism with a hint of folklore hidden beneath the surface. It is told entirely from Maggie’s point of view and from the very start of the story her voice draws in the reader. One of the strengths of this story is that it works on other levels even if a person isn’t particularly a fan of magic realism (for the record: I am). Danvers explores life after the dissolution of a relationship in a way that feels empowering rather than self-pitying. He paints a picture of an interesting landscape that feels authentic even amidst the fantastical elements of the story. And there is something to be said about an optimistic story.
“About the Mirror and its Pieces” by Carrie Cuinn (Woman and Other Constructs)
If you have ever read fairy tales with their stock evil stepmothers, princesses or queens, or viewed film adaptations of the same, and found yourself wondering about the villain’s motivation, Carrie Cuinn provides a possible explanation. Concepts like “entertainment” and “pleasure” that play at least some part in the story choices of readers are misplaced inducements when it comes to stories of this nature. This is not the realm of fiction in general, let alone genre fiction, where most readers want to dwell consistently on their reading travels. Which is what makes issues like those raised in “About the Mirror and its Pieces” ideal for short fiction.
The story is powerful, visceral, and left me feeling quite raw. I work in the mental health field with broken families and stories like this, which remind me thematically of the work Charles de Lint does in his Newford stories, humble me. They take me to a place that I am grateful I have never experienced personally and they help me to develop a more tangible empathy with the people I come into contact with on a daily basis. Stories like this awe me in their ability to open readers’ eyes and they become a foundation upon which one can begin to build understanding and healing.
“The Urashima Effect” by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld, June 2013)
Leo Aoki wakes from a cold sleep, disoriented and alone on a ship bound for the planet Ryugo-jo in the Alpha Lyrae system. He has been under for three years, awakened as the ship gains proximity to its destination. Aoki’s mission is to establish a small livable base, his astrophysicist wife, Esther, to join him on a ship launched two years after Aoki’s. In addition to necessities and entertainments, the ship contains recordings from family and friends, meant to assuage his loneliness. Esther’s recording begins with a story about a man named Urashima Taro and the rescue of a small turtle. Leo rations this story, completing necessary tasks and engaging in other entertainments to make these moments last. As Urashima’s tale unfolds, the reader is shown how the stories of these two men intersect, and E. Lily Yu leaves her protagonist with a decision that will have the reader contemplating the options for days to come.
E. Lily Yu has crafted a story that focuses on a man in isolation which manages to beautifully convey the importance of relationships and the costs that must be paid in the name of progress.
“Dignity” by Jay O’Connell (Asimov’s, December 2013)
Those who haven’t experienced how a few thousand words, a mere handful of pages, can incite emotions are missing out on one of the many reasons that short stories are so special. If you happen to be one of those people, Jay O’Connell has crafted one for your initiation. In the future of O’Connell’s story, young Melissa is being lectured by her father for doing the unthinkable–feeding and caring for a “hopeless” girl. This girl, Lena, is described by Melissa’s father as being “worthless” because she is unenhanced and proposes to send her off somewhere that she won’t be a “stupid, dirty little girl growing into a stupid, dirty woman with nothing to offer”. I tell you, this story will get you riled up. Asimov’s very wisely points out in the introduction that the genesis of the story was a piece of flash fiction with an axe to grind and that knowledge is helpful in allowing the story to unfold as O’Connell intended.
Melissa’s order are to rid herself of the girl and if followed she will be given a reward. It is not hard to see exactly where Melissa’s thought train is going as her options are placed before her but that knowledge in no way lessens the impact of the story. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the ending leaves you with some very conflicted feelings. “Dignity” is a great story because it has applicability for a lot of what continues to go on in today’s world socially, politically, and economically. This one begs to be part of a group discussion.
“Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” by Genevieve Valentine (Lightspeed, February 2013)
To call Genevieve Valentine’s “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” a re-imagining or re-purposing of the Little Mermaid mythos would be to rob it of some of its tragic splendor, however, it must be mentioned as a bedrock upon which this story of obsession and longing is built. The appeal of sailor stories has always been this idea of the sea as siren, beckoning men to its seemingly endless waters. Valentine’s story takes the vastness of the sea and pares it down to something more intimate in its portrait of a mysterious but plain school teacher and the pull her presence exhibits on a young man named Matthew. “Abyssys Abyssum Invocat” is pleasing in its rhythms; in the way in which the words evoke the sounds of waves crashing on the rocks and the taste of sea salt on your tongue.
“The Sounds of Old Earth” by Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed, January 2013)
In Matthew Kressel’s “The Sound of Old Earth” we are introduced to Abner, one of the remaining hold outs on a decayed and dying Earth. Abner lives in a small wooded area behind a protective screen of his devising in an ancestral home listening to the frogs croak on the nearby pond, reliving memories from when Earth was a vibrant place. Most of Earth’s inhabitants have been transferred to New Earth, while some of the less fortunate live on corporate-owned orbital platforms. Abner wants nothing to do with New Earth and aches as he sees his children and grandchildren so easily abandon the home of mankind. Matthew Kressel’s short story visits the small tragedies and triumphs that make up a life and in the process presents a touching narrative on what it is that makes a home.
As you can see, I am a bit short on novellas. I did not read many of that length throughout the year, and I refuse to add any stories that did not quite measure up just because I have empty slots to fill.
What are your thoughts on my choices? Where did I miss it? You still have a few days to state your case and turn me on to award-worthy stories that I should squeeze in before the deadline.