Hugo reading 2018: Short Story Nominations

I’m doing this category in one giant batch, because I don’t think anyone really wants blog posts that go for two paragraphs at most…

Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience, by Rebecca Roanhorse is a near-future science-fiction story with a theme of cultural appropriation that expands to… appropriate the whole story, for want of a better description. It’s hard to talk about this story without spoilers, but the protagonist works in a virtual reality studio, providing ‘authentic’ Indian spirit guide experiences, which have more to do with what people have seen in old movies than anything relating to either the historical or contemporary experiences of American First Nations people. The story is told in the 2nd person, which is cleverer than it sounds, given the context.  It’s very gritty, and a bit single white female, with a twist at the end that I’m not entirely sure I understood.  It was fine, but didn’t grab me – it’s a bit grim for my tastes.

(Incidentally, Roanhorse was also nominated for a Campbell award, and this story was her contribution to the voter pack.)

Fandom for Robots, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, on the other hand, is a total delight.  In this story, a somewhat obsolete sentient robot who works in a museum discovers an anime series about a human and a robot on a revenge quest and becomes hooked. And then he discovers fanfic. Which is not logical, nor does it portray the robot character accurately. So he decides to see what he can do to increase the standard of accuracy in fanfic, first by commenting, and then, when he sees that honest critiques are not always well received by authors, by writing fanfic himself.   I absolutely loved this story – it’s funny and clever and affectionate and a complete joy to read.

Carnival Nine‘, by Caroline M. Yoachim is an odd sort of story. All the main characters are clockwork toys, who are wound up by the Toymaker every night, and have a certain number of turns during the day. These are determined partly by the quality of the clockwork, and partly by the Toymaker. As the toys get older, their clockwork tends to wind down a bit and they get fewer turns. It’s not very subtle, but the worldbuilding is fun.

The first part of the book introduces our protagonist as a child. She lives with her father, and has a LOT of turns by most standards (generally 35-45), so she is restless and wants adventure. She visits the carnival and meets Vale, and later on runs off to live with him and work at the carnival. It’s fun and the worldbuilding is cute, and it’s all light and fun and enjoyable. And then they decide to make a child together and things go wrong. The child only has four turns a day, which means he can do very little. And so she has to use a lot of her turns on his behalf.

If I’d never heard of spoon theory, I’d probably be fairly impressed by the analogy. As it is, I sort of sat back and watched the author ticking off all the boxes of Life With A Child With A Disability. Relationship falling apart under the stress – check. Guilt about doing anything that wasn’t related to caring – check. Worry about what would happen to child when protagonist dies – check. Resentment at having to use almost all her turns to look after child – check. Guilt about said resentment – check. Focusing on respecting child’s autonomy – check. Finding new ways to accommodate child without completely losing herself – check.

(Andrew wants to point out that this is an instance where the worldbuilding / fantasy genre is helpful in getting people who might not be interested in reading a story about disability to be exposed to these ideas, and he has a point. But I still think it could have been less heavy-handed.)

I like what the author was trying to do, but it felt a little heavy-handed, to be honest. And I felt that the tone of the story was really uneven – it started off very light and bright, but then kind of became a bit of a grim endurance exercise.

Also, I couldn’t help noticing that this was very much disability from the perspective of the carer. We never really know much about what the child thinks about the situation, which I think is a bit of a shame, really.

(Andrew’s perspective is a bit kinder than mine – he sees it more as a slice of life / average life in this world sort of story, though he agrees that the disability stuff is central to the story – but he also pointed out the centrality of not wanting to repeat the mistakes of her parents.)

To me, this story is definitely less successful than Prasad’s story. I’m not sure whether it’s better or worse than Roanhorse’s story. I’ll have to think about that one.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde is a strange, strange story, where I’m not entirely sure I know what happened. It is told from the point of view of, I think, a carnival freak, who is showing you through some sort of exhibit. The nature of the exhibit is odd and uncanny and seems to have an unpleasant effect on the person viewing it. It mostly creates an atmosphere of gentle horror, rather than having much in the way of plot, but it does this very well. There are little, unpleasant, allusions to the sorts of medical studies done on the guide and people like her; a place where photos are taken of souls; and the atmosphere is such that when she asks ‘may I take your hand’, one is not at all sure that the question is not a literal one.

It’s very well done, if not quite my cup of tea.

Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon is good fun, as stories by Ursula Vernon always are. Allpa, a nice, unambitious, down-to-earth farmer, is bequeathed a magical sword by his grandmother, and has to deal with three spirits who want to train him to be a hero and go forth and conquer when all he really wants to do is grow nice potatoes. It’s funny and sweet, and there’s a hint of a romance to it, and I like it very much.

The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata is a science fiction tale about a future where everything seems to be doomed by lots of little things – natural disasters, antibiotics failing, Mars colonies not working out. The protagonist, Susannah, views time as a Master Torturer – killing the world and the human race inexorably, but excruciatingly slowly, and responds to this by deciding to build a tower on Mars – a monument to the human race that nobody will ever see, since nobody is there except the robots who are doing her bidding. Except that… maybe someone is there. Or maybe it’s just another AI, or a rival corporation, or something else. This is a story about whether it’s safe to hope, and whether one should hope anyway, and it’s probably one we need right now, but mostly it left me depressed (and also quite pissed off with Nate, who withholds some fairly important information from Susannah, with the specious excuse that she didn’t want news… but I feel that he must have known she would have wanted this news, he just didn’t want her distracted from the project…).

This is a hard category to judge, because there were a lot of things I liked (or at least wanted to like) in it. I’m putting Fandom for Robots first, because it is just such a delightful story. If I’m pretending to be all lit-crit-ish, I could comment that it does some interesting things with the ideas of sentience, logic and emotion, but mostly it’s coming first because I just plain like it. “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience is clearly last, because it did nothing for me even after reading it twice, and “Carnival Nine” is fifth, because I got irritated with its lack of subtlety. But I like all the others for different reasons and just don’t know how to rank them! Right now, I’m inclined to put “Sun, Moon, Dust” second, “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” third, and “The Martian Obelisk” fourth, but they could swap at any time, and may well do so before I put in my final vote.

I should probably look at this as being quite a good thing – there is a 2/3 chance that I’m going to be happy with the winner of this category, after all, and a 1/6 chance that I’ll be very happy with it!

Hugo reading 2018: A Series of Steaks, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is just a world of fun.  In it, we meet Helena, an artist in 3D printing, which in this world can be used for everything from making meat from animal cells, to creating replacement organs for human beings.

Helena… started off on the latter track, but after a catastrophe, she found herself on the run from a powerful family, and had to change her name and go underground.  She now makes a living forging steaks, something which is apparently illegal in this world. When she is blackmailed into forging a large order of T-bone steaks, she hires an assistant, Lily, who is perky and energetic and very competent, and who has, shall we say, hidden depths. I sort of want to be Lily when I grow up…

I don’t want to say too much about this story, because it’s too delicious to spoil.  It has moments of darkness – I mean, technically you might say it was in the noir genre – but the relationships between the central characters are delightful. I also really appreciated the description of the artistry involved in forging meat – making sure the marbling is just random enough to look real, but not so random that it no longer looks organic, for example – not to mention the anatomical knowledge required to put a steak together that looks and behaves like a steak.

Also, did I mention that I adored both Helena and Lily?

I found myself chortling with glee as the story wound towards its conclusions.    Highly recommended.

Prasad was nominated for a Campbell Award, and this was part of her voter pack, alongside her short story, Fandom for Robots, which was also enormous fun.  I’ve put her high wherever I’ve seen her on the ballot, and hope to read more of her.