July 8, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: Best Novelette

Now moving up in length. "Novelette" is kind of an odd duck, as it's jammed between short story (7500 words) and Novella (17,500-40,000 words). It's honestly just a reaaaallllly long short story (with oxymorons intact). 😉 As with the Short Story category, however, there is some very good work here.

My ballot:

6) "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth," Daryl Gregory

This is a sort of slow apocalypse: the story begins in 1975, when Earth is bombarded by an extended meteorite shower that turns out to be millions of seeds of an invasive alien species, distributing themselves across the planet.  The characters never discover where these seeds come from, and the ending is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the invasion will be defeated at all (although the story hints that it will be). This is because the plants are not the story's focus. This is an entire human life, namely the protagonist LT, against the backdrop of this alien invasion. It's a slow, restrained, quiet story, a deep character study that certainly had its moments, but didn't seem very memorable to me in the end.

5) "If At First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again," Zen Cho

I'm a bit surprised that this story found its way to the ballot, as it was originally published at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog. This is the tale of Byam, a Chinese snake and its quest to transform into a dragon. It tries many times over the milennia, until it's sidetracked when it falls in love with a human woman. This is another quiet story, brimming with emotion, that nevertheless doesn't quite rise to the quality of the others on the ballot.

(And now we get to the point where there isn't a finger's worth of difference between the nominees. I've put together various combinations of the remaining stories in my head for quite a while now, and even after I write this down I can't guarantee you that I won't change it.)

4) "The Thing About Ghost Stories," Naomi Kritzer

This is a lovely story about just what it says--ghost stories, not ghosts. Although ghosts definitely make an appearance, in the form of the narrator's mother, who recently succumbed to Alzheimer's. (The details of this ring scarily true, by the way.) This is another quiet story, but in this case, the still waters run deep, and the mother-daughter relationship depicted here is sad and beautiful.

3) "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections," Tina Connolly

This is a story of injustice and revenge, spun by a chef who can bake memories into his pastries and uses them to bring down a tyrant. I don't know if there are real recipes for the various tarts and chocolates described here, but you can taste every bite. Taste is one of the hardest senses to describe well, and the author just nails it.

2) "The Only Harmless Great Thing," Brooke Bolander

When I first read this, I thought for sure it would be my top choice. This riveting tale of a past and future alternate timeline with sentient elephants, mythic tales of mammoths, the real-life Topsy, the renegade circus elephant who killed a man and who was electrocuted in 1903, and the real-life "Radium Girls," who suffered radiation poisoning by painting watch faces with glowing radium paint, comes together in another searing story of injustice and revenge. This is Brooke Bolander at her best, full of righteous fury.

1) "When We Were Starless," Simone Heller

This story is just beautiful. When I reread it, I couldn't deny that it belonged at the top. Taking place on what might be a far-future Earth after humans have seemingly poisoned it and abandoned it for the stars, this focuses on a tribe of lizard-people crossing the wastes, wringing a meager, miserable existence from the ruins. They stumble across a dome, an automated NASA (or future equivalent) visitor center, and learn from the holographic guide left there to dream of other worlds, and a better future. These characters may not be human, but the universal values of love, sacrifice and hope are illustrated by this wonderful story.

Next up: Novella.

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