The first novelette I read was You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, by Alyssa Wong. It’s a bit of a strange one to read – it’s written in the second person, which I find a little uncomfortable, and it’s sort of a Western, only with magic. Specifically, the desert is full of dead things that are walking, and the protagonist can make the bones of the dead come together and walk, too, often without meaning to (for example, the chicken being prepared for dinner…). It’s a bit of a coming of age story, and it’s fairly sad, and fairly dark. By the end of it, a lot has been lost, but something has been gained, too.
It’s good, but I wouldn’t want to re-read it.
I then moved onto the Puppy Special, which is that edifying work by Styx Hiscock known as Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex. This was clearly an attempt to get back at WorldCon / Chuck Tingle after last year’s Puppy nomination of Tingle backfired on them.
Honestly, I thought this was going to be another distasteful Puppy parody, and was expecting misogyny and rapiness. In fact, while there is some fairly bad writing in there (Hiscock suffers from a terrible case of adjectivitis, and periodically switches tense mid-sentence), it’s all quite enthusiastically consensual, and clearly being written by someone with a sense of humour and an awareness that the premise is entirely ridiculous.
Let’s see if I can give you a slightly serious review of this…
The heroine is from the planet Fylashio (I feel certain that the author worked hard on that one), and is working as a stripper to earn quick money in order to fix her spaceship, which has broken down. You need to know that she is bright green and has three breasts that discharge laser ejaculations when she has an orgasm.
The T-Rex at first appears to be judgmental, but turns out to be rather sweet, and with a Tragic Past. The brontosaurus girl whom he loved died, and things have never been the same for him.
My personal favourite bit in the story is where our alien sympathetically asks him what happened to her, and he replies:
“A, um… a meteor got her… And my family… And friends… My neighbours… My church group… My dentist… My weed dealer…. Pretty much everyone I knew, actually…”
There is much to love in that sentence, as I think we can all agree.
I’m not entirely convinced there is enough here to raise it above No Award, and I don’t think it achieves entirely what the author is aiming for. For one thing, it can’t quite decide whether it is slut-shamey or not (it is, I think, trying not to be, but not entirely succeeding). There is some truly bad writing in places – so many adjectives, and a fair bit of repetition in words and phrases – but on the other hand I have definitely read worse-written sex scenes than the ones in this story, and I did quite enjoy the way the author was rejoicing in the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing.
I would also note that my research indicates that Hiscock is, in fact, a woman, a legitimate author of SF erotica, and not puppy adjacent. This might explain why it is that her jokes are actually funny. I’m thinking I might put her last in the novelettes, assuming there isn’t a truly terrible one to come, but keep her above No Award, since she is clearly being used by the Puppies rather than being a Puppy herself. And also because I did, in fact, find this story quite fun. Terrible, but fun.
The third novelette I read was The Jewel and her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde. This is a high fantasy story, in which the Jewels are royalty, and their Lapidaries are bound courtiers who can speak to jewels and use them to magically defend against enemies, or calm the distressed, or put people to sleep. The relationship is a symbiotic one – the Lapidaries require their vows and bindings in order not to be driven mad by the gemstones, and the Jewels require the power the Lapidaries bring them.
This story starts by making it clear (via a guidebook extract) that the Jewels and their Lapidaries are all gone, and were in fact killed off some time ago, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is not a cheery story. It starts with a palace coup, in which the King’s Lapidary goes gem-mad and betrays him, killing the entire court and then himself, and leaving only the youngest Jewel and her Lapidary alive.
Lin, the Jewel, was never intended to rule, so she was trained only to be a good wife to the prince of another kingdom. Her Lapidary, Sima, who is three years older than her, is likewise quite weak and under-trained, which is one reason she was bound to a relatively unimportant princess. But the two of them are all the kingdom now has, and so two teenage girls have to thwart the invading general who wants to marry Lin to her son so that he can take the throne, and take over the kingdom.
I love the relationship between Sima and Lin. Sima is at different times servant, guardian and nursemaid to Lin, and their relationship becomes more equal as the story progresses, with the balance of power tipping one way, then the other, between them. It is, above all, a very strong friendship, with each trying to protect each other, and each holding an even higher loyalty to the kingdom itself. I also love the way both girls slowly realise the power they have over the course of the story – not because they have had no power before, but because they have not been required to use it to its fullest degree.
The story feels a lot like a chess game, and I do not understand all of the moves. I feel as though there is a lot of worldbuilding in the background that doesn’t always make its way quite enough into the foreground to be intelligible, at least to me. But there is something very vivid about this world, that I think makes it quite compelling, and clearly puts it at the top of my novelette ballot so far.
At the halfway point of this category, I’m feeling unexpectedly heartened, mostly because I really was expecting the Hiscock to be like some of the nauseatingly awful puppy food from last year, and since it wasn’t, everything is just lighter and better! I do hope that at least some of the novelettes or Campbells will strive for cheerier storylines, however. I feel like I’m reading a lot of depressing things in a row at present…
Touring with the Alien, by Caroline Ives Gilman, is weird. The aliens have come to earth, but all they do is sit there in their pods. They have translators – children they abducted from Earth and raised, and with whom they seem to be in a symbiotic relationship – but the translators don’t say much and don’t really understand how to be human anyway.
In this story, the protagonist is asked by the government to take an alien and his translator on a tour of the country, with no particular destination. And I don’t really know how to describe the story further. The alien is really very alien, which is good, and there is a lot of discussion about what it means to be conscious and whether this is even important. There is also animal cruelty because apparently the unofficial theme of this year’s Hugo Awards is Let’s Traumatise Catherine By Doing Terrible Things To Cats.
It’s an interesting science fictiony story with some very lovely writing, and I didn’t like it.
The Art of Space Travel, by Nina Allan, was much more to my taste. It’s only just barely science fiction, and is about the daughter of a physicist who was involved with planning the first voyage to Mars and in analysing the debris when it exploded over Heathrow. Now there is another trip to Mars planned, and two of the astronauts are coming to visit the hotel at which the heroine works.
This was mostly a story about family, and identity, and history, though there were some interesting little moments, like when the heroine is thinking about the fact that one of the astronauts has two young children, and yet she is choosing to go on a voyage which she will not come back from and which is likely to shorten her life significantly. The heroine is also trying to figure out the identity of her own father, who might or might not have been on the first, disastrous, Mars voyage, and her mother is dying of a mysterious illness that was probably caused by her work on all the radioactive debris from the first mission.
I’m not sure that a lot happens in this story, and the SFF connection is somewhat tenuous, but it was a relief to read after so many fairly grim stories, so it’s going to go high on my ballot.
I saved The Tomato Thief, by Ursula Vernon, for last, since I always enjoy Vernon’s work, and was pretty confident that this one would be just as much fun. And it was. The Tomato Thief is a cranky, subversive fairy tale about an old woman who is more than she seems to be, who lives in the desert and is tired of having her tomatoes stolen, so she lies in wait to find out who is doing the deed. The answer to this question leads to entirely new questions, and also a quest, with all the proper elements done in Vernon’s lovely, dry, affectionate style. Her fairy tales are always very concrete and grounded, and her characters are entirely and stubbonly themselves. The protagonist in this story – I’m not sure we ever learn her name – reminds me a bit of Old Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, which is never a bad thing.
I definitely enjoyed Vernon’s story more than any others in this category though Wilde’s may actually be the better story. I can’t tell if Wilde’s worldbuilding is actually more complex and interesting or if it’s just that I know Vernon’s style so well that it’s harder to see where it’s original. This is where things get tricky, because if I were ranking purely on enjoyment, I’d actually put the Hiscock ahead of the Gilman, even though the latter is definitely better written and the former probably shouldn’t be on the battle at all. I think my final rankings are Vernon, Wilde, Allan, Wong, Gilman, Hiscock.