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Short Fiction Friday: The 2014 Hugo Nominees for Short Story

Hard to believe that is is the first Friday in July. And Independence Day (here in the ol’ U.S. of A.) to boot!

It hardly seems that long ago that I was sitting in this same chair, in much colder climes, writing about the stories I was nominating for this year’s Hugo Awards.

Now here we are, less than a month away from the deadline for voting, and all over the internet folks are talking about their picks for this year’s rocket.

In the midst of today’s festivities, I would encourage you to take the time to check out the four entries for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

There are four very strong contenders that not only represent new (or newer) voices in speculative fiction, but the stories are also very much a reflection of the social and cultural issues prevalent in the science fiction community and in the world at large. There is nothing of what I would consider a long-held “standard” Hugo short story here.

While there are some similarities in theme, each story is uniquely its own and is different enough from its fellow contestants to make reading them truly pleasurable. It also makes it that much harder to decide which to vote top honors.

All four stories are available for you to read online for free and are well worth your time.

The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt 

The hubbub caused many a window shutter to open, many a cell phone to ring, and many a banana leaf to furl bashfully back into its tree, as curiosity was the one thing that could mobilize all the villagers in unison

Heuvelt’s delightful story of Thai tradition opens with young Tangmoo being drowned in the river, and act which ironically fulfills the first and only wish he has ever had in his life. This gentle, humorous short steps back in the middle of this act of violence to guide the reader through the events that lead up to Tangmoo’s wish fulfillment.

In an annual tradition, people send their wishes down the Mae Ping River in the hopes that they will be fulfilled. Thomas Olde Heuvelt tells the story of how a tiny village receives those wishes and goes about fulfilling them…or at least some of them…in sometimes corrupt, perhaps coincidental, and possibly simply miraculous ways.

Heuvelt’s story has a marvelously wry sense of humor that reminded me of the later part of the Coen brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which George Clooney’s character Everett, having sincerely cried out to God in an hour of need, proceeds to explain away any divine influence by logic once he is saved. It is these moments, sprinkled throughout the story and told with deft skill, that make a really good story a great one.

“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” is a story of wish-fulfillment, of the wide range of desires that lie hidden in the heart of mankind, and of the small miracles that make life truly interesting.

This story was published by and acquired for them by editor Ann VanderMeer.

The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu

The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago.

Chu uses an unexplained but imaginative near future re-imagining of the Pinocchio phenomenon to add an element of the fantastical to a real world story of a young Chinese man faced with the need to finally overcome his fear to let his parents, and the rest of his family, know that he is gay.

In Chu’s story, the water that falls from nowhere is a real-world phenomenon that occurs whenever one lies. The water may be the mere hint of humidity in the air if the lie is small and vague to a torrent if the lie is particularly strong. Chu does a brilliant job of introducing how this works when the protagonist, Matt, responds to his partner Gus’ declaration of love by stating that he clearly doesn’t love Gus as much as Gus loves him. Not only do lies in Chu’s imagined future release precipitation, but deep truth seems to have the opposite effect of pulling moisture from the air.

What could be a very gimmicky addition to what is very clearly a non-fantastical story of the fear and pain associated with act of coming out to one’s family is instead woven into the story in very clever and creative ways, making for some interesting visuals as one progresses through the story. Adding to the story’s interest is the fact that John Chu eschews any heavy-handed social commentary and instead presents a group of very normal characters that are easy for the reader to relate to. The only character who possibly veers into caricature is Matt’s sister, whose life-long cruelty makes her an interesting antagonist in that her anger is not directed from religious directions, which I imagine would be tempting to do in today’s climate, but instead for more personal, familial reasons which I will not spoil here.

“The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere” was acquired for by editor Ann VanderMeer.

If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky

Audio version

If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you. You’d be fragile-boned and you’d walk with as delicate and polite a gait as you could manage on massive talons. Your eyes would gaze gently from beneath your bony brow-ridge.

Swirky’s is the shortest of the short story offerings, but she uses her words to great effect, telling the story of the protagonist’s reaction to violence committed against a lover because of his sexuality.

Have you ever read the hugely popular children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? I have read nothing about Swirsky’s inspirations for the story, but as I read this I could swear she was using the same template. Laura Numeroff’s children’s tale has such a great rhythm, using the beats of previous sentences to kick off the next paragraph in the tale. Swirksy does something similar here, at least through the greater part of the story. By doing so she lulls the reader into thinking that this is a slight, if entertaining, tale about what it might be like if the narrator’s partner were indeed a dinosaur instead of a human.

The clever humor gives way to something more poignant, and then something much darker, as the story comes to its conclusion. As I get older I grow more wary of revenge fantasy…the old saying “two wrongs don’t make a right” seems to carry much more weight. Swirsky’s protagonist acknowledges as much, and truly all of us who would see violence committed against one we love would ache for swift and equal justice, even if violence begetting violence isn’t the answer. Yet for all its candid look at how any of us would first react, I’m not sure I see the pure beauty in the story that I see from the comments of others. Which, if I do say (write) so myself, is okay. I don’t think the story is meant to make us feel, and to think, and in that Rachel Swirsky succeeds.

“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” was published in Apex Magazine.

Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar

I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.

Sofia Samatar’s tale, much talked about in circles of short story readers this awards season, has a title that speaks of the disdain for fantasy tales that permeates the narrators tone, while her very story hints of things just beyond the veil of normal.

Samatar’s narrator is a young girl who works at a restaurant and befriends Mona, the niece of the owner of a family-run restaurant. They become fast friends and dream of running off together to Colorado, a place Mona used to live and remembers fondly. As for our narrator, she simply wants to be somewhere landlocked.

There is an interesting contrast between the two women, as Mona is presented as sharing things about herself while the narrator shares openly with the reader, yet not with Mona. There is fear and denial in our narrator that she does not want to share.

After a fantastic opening, Samatar’s story unfolds with short vignettes of the passing days. It is story with intriguing hints of mystery and folklore that, for me, did not have the emotional hook that I needed it to have to push it to the top of the group.

“Selkie Stories are for Losers” was published by Strange Horizons.

Compared to each other, this is a strong foursome. Three stories feature same-sex relationships and, despite their fantastical trappings, speak clearly of real-world issues. The fourth, “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, is the fun story, with far more fantasy elements than the other three…and I have a feeling it is the least likely one to win the Hugo.

Is that why I prefer it to the others? I’m not sure. At the risk of having my opinion denigrated because I am a heterosexual white male who prefers the one story without an LGBT protagonist, I can only say it is the story I feel the most strongly about. The writing is clever and imaginative and the story flows very well.

Truth be told, that same sentence can be applied to each of the four. I just happen to enjoy the more fun aspects of Heuvet’s story with the undercurrent of cynicism and darkness that flows through it.

It is a strong group. My prediction is that Sofia Samatar’s story will be the winner.

How about you? Have you read these? If not, don’t hesitate. They are free, they are all short enough to read it one sitting, and they each pack their own particular narrative punch.

If you have read them, who would you vote for/are you voting for, and which story do you think will bring home the rocket?

14 Comments on Short Fiction Friday: The 2014 Hugo Nominees for Short Story

  1. StephenB // July 4, 2014 at 1:29 pm //

    Pretty far from what most people would call science fiction, as a group. I am unenthusiastic. I have no idea which would appeal most to the voters.

    • Sensawunda // July 4, 2014 at 7:03 pm //

      It is a non-traditional group of nominees this year, but I think that’s an amazing thing. It shows the maturing of genre. The Water that Falls from You on Nowhere was by far my favorite story on the list and The Ink Readers by far my least favorite, but there wasn’t a poor story on the list for once.

      • StephenB // July 4, 2014 at 8:20 pm //

        I’m not sure it shows much about the state of the genre, “maturing” or otherwise… there is still lots of good science fiction being published in the magazines and elsewhere… I just don’t think any of these stories is science fiction as I understand it. I will probably be voting “no award” in this category.

      • Matte Lozenge // July 4, 2014 at 9:54 pm //

        I agree Water that Falls is the best of the four, because its narrative structure is the most relatable. Swirsky’s poetic fragment is also touching.

    • Matte Lozenge // July 4, 2014 at 8:57 pm //

      Concur. And I can recall quite a few excellent science fiction stories that explore sexual orientation.

    • I echo StephenB. I would disqualify all four because they are not science fiction. Three of them may be fantasy, but “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” is not even fantasy.

  2. StephenB // July 5, 2014 at 6:16 am //

    I liked “Selkie Stories” best… I think it is a story that may turn out to be quite memorable and have real staying power. The element of the fantastic works well with the characters’ situation and I liked the emotional tone of the atory.

  3. Steve E // July 5, 2014 at 10:06 pm //

    I grew up reading SF and some Fantasy from around 1967 and on from when I was only 10 years to now and always thought the Hugos were specifically for Science Fiction , not fantasy. None of these stories are truly Science Fiction, there is no science in them, just emotional subjectivity and focusing on LGBT issues so I would consider all these stories to be fantasy or at the least SPECULATIVE not science fiction. So I would have to vote ‘no award’. ‘James Tiptree Jr’ wrote science fiction, alien planets with unique anthropologies and social thought. These new writers only think they are writing SF and to me they are not

    • Agree. I too get impression that new science fiction too often are of some type of emotional weird-fantasy-sf. Not that it is necessarily bad, but still I would like to see more real *science* fiction out there – especially among award lists.

  4. I’m nitpicking here but you are actually only using half of Olde Heuvelt’s family name in the article.

  5. I think your interpretation of the central relationship in “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” as same-sex is a misreading. According to these lines, the protagonist is female and her partner male:

    “How reporters adore my face, the face of the paleontologist’s fiancée with her half-planned wedding, bouquets of hydrangeas already ordered, green chiffon bridesmaid dresses already picked out. The paleontologist’s fiancée who waits by the bedside of a man who will probably never wake.”

    As for the reason the man is beaten, Swirsky is careful to not state that definitively. According to the protagonist, his assailants called him “a fag, a towel-head, a shemale, a sissy, a spic, every epithet they could think of, regardless of whether it had anything to do with you or not.” Which leads me to think it’s possible that he was bi and/or trans, but equally possible that he was straight and cis but insufficiently “masculine” in his attackers’ eyes, and equally possible again that he was targeted for being Muslim or Latino or etc. and that the gender- and sexuality-based insults were part of the “regardless of whether it had anything to do with you or not.”

  6. The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere was a solid story that easily gets my vote in this group.

    The other ones had compelling themes that were eloquently written, but found them lacking as stories and heavy enough on message to have gone superliminal.

    My ballot for Short Story category:
    1. The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere
    2. No Award

  7. StephenB // July 11, 2014 at 9:16 am //

    I see 3 of these stories are also on the World Fantasy Award ballot, which suggests that there is a broad consensus that they are award calibre stories. And/or that there is considerable overlap in the groups that nominate for the 2 awards.

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