April 15, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Short Stories

All of these stories can be found for free online. This may be the first time this has happened with the final ballot? At any rate, with the amount of reading I'll have to do this year, I'm not waiting for the Hugo packet.

"Sun, Moon, Dust," Ursula Vernon, Uncanny Magazine May/June 2017. (Ursula Vernon is famous for gardening and writing whimsical little fantasy folk tales, and both those traits are on display here. Allpa is a farmer who inherits a magical sword from his grandmother, a sword with three warrior spirits in it that are supposed to teach him to fight; but he has no interest in being a warrior. This story is full of quirky laugh-out-loud humor. In the end, the warrior spirits realize it's quite all right to be a farmer after all, and two of them return to the sword to sleep until they are needed. The third remains with Allpa, and we have a hint of a budding romance. This is a lovely, gentle story.)

"Clearly Lettered In a Mostly Steady Hand," Fran Wilde, Uncanny Magazine September/October 2017. (This is a creepy, unsettling tale of--I'm not quite sure what. The narrator is taking a "guest" through what appears to be some kind of museum, an old-fashioned display of grotesqueries? Blood-encrusted nineteenth-century medical instruments? Fairies? Mermaids? Freaks? The writing walks the fine line of being detailed enough for the reader to envision each room the guest is whisked through, and vague enough to assign several possible interpretations to what is read. The ending is ambiguous; I'm not sure if the guest is allowed to leave, or s/he joins the menagerie. It takes a great deal of skill to pull off a story like this.)

"The Martian Obelisk," Linda Nagata, Tor.com 7/19/17. (This is a hard science fiction story of a future where an Earth ravaged by climate change is dying, and 80-year-old Susannah Li-Langford is building, via remote-controlled AI on Mars,what will be humanity's final testament--an obelisk spiraling into the Martian atmosphere. The project is interrupted by the approach of a vehicle from one of the other failed Martian colonies. Is it an artificial intelligence? Or a survivor now stranded on Mars, since Earth will be able to launch no more expeditions? [Which is a horrific thought in itself.] This is a poignant story that absolutely nails the ending.)

"Fandom for Robots," Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Uncanny Magazine September/October 2017. (This is a charming little story mixing a retro 50's feel with the modern Internet and fandom. Computron, the world's only sentient robot, discovers Japanese anime and connects with fans of a particular show. The storyline is a bit meta, of course, but that's its strength.)

"Carnival Nine," Caroline M. Yoachim, Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17. (I have mixed feelings about this one. The setting is unique--the characters are little steampunk windup people with mainsprings that have a limited amount of turns, and they spend their lives making the circuit of a toy train in the "maker's" house--but I don't care for some of the things that happen to the protagonist in this story. Particularly her sacrificing her entire life, all she dreamed of or thought she could be, to care for her son. And the fact that since she was his mother, she was expected to do just that. Your mileage may vary. A lot of people seem to like this story.)

"Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience," Rebecca Roanhorse, Apex Magazine 8/8/17. (I wasn't sure about this story the first time I read it, but it's definitely grown on me. Partly because it's told in second person, which is always a difficult thing to do. The protagonist, Jesse Turnblatt, works at a virtual-reality firm that supplies "authentic Indian experiences" to white tourists--only they aren't "authentic" at all, instead being based on the false sanitized Hollywood version of Native experience. This story is a pretty pointed commentary on appropriation, and the necessity of marginalized populations getting the chance to tell their own stories.)

Whew, this is quite a lineup. At the moment it's a coin toss between the Roanhorse story and the Nagata story for the top spot (I'm also delighted that both Rebecca Roanhorse and Vina Jie-Min Prasad are on the Campbell ballot for Best New Writer), with Ursula Vernon coming in a close third. The other three are...okay. (The best story I read by Prasad, "Portrait of Skull With Man," didn't make the final ballot. If it had, this order would be turned upside down. That story is gonzo and over-the-top in a way that will blow the top of your head right off.)

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