Hugo Short Stories
First off, happy book day to my friend Lisa Shearin, whose book All Spell Breaks Loose [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is out today. And last week marked the release of Mira Grant’s Blackout [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy].
This year will be my first Worldcon, and the first time I’ve voted in the Hugos. I’ve been diligently downloading and devouring the Hugo Voters Packet, starting with the short stories, because … well, they’re short!
Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue, by John Scalzi. I wonder how I’d feel if a story I wrote for an April Fool’s Day joke made the Hugo ballot. On one hand, it’s delightfully random and unexpected. At the same time, I think I’d have this nagging sense of, “Wait, what about all the stuff I wrote that wasn’t a joke?”
As a joke, this was marvelous. Tor and Scalzi went all out, including cover art, and the story was an amusing read. It’s nice to see humor on the ballot. And there’s an actual story here amidst the jokes and the over-the-top fantasy tropes. I can honestly say that when I finished reading, I wanted to know what happened next.
You could tell Scalzi was having a good old time with this one. That said, some of the humor felt a little forced. While it’s a fun read and you should check it out, I don’t see this one taking home a rocketship.
Movement by Nancy Fulda. This is a first-person SF story set in the near future about a girl named Hannah with temporal autism. Hannah’s parents are trying to decide whether to pursue a new technology which could help her integrate into society, but becoming more “normal” isn’t always a good thing. This made me think of Elizabeth Moon’s award-winning novel The Speed of Dark, which I reviewed here. Like Moon, Fulda does a very good job of capturing her protagonist’s voice, showing us the world through Hannah’s eyes. As the father of an autistic child, it’s hard for me to be entirely objective about this story, but I really appreciated it, and I thought the ending worked well.
Also, even though Hannah doesn’t think it’s terribly effective, I totally want to invest in shoulder-mounted mosquito-killing laser technology!
The Homecoming by Mike Resnick. Resnick is one of the most prolific writers in our field, and “The Homecoming” has a lot going for it. It’s an emotional story of an estranged son (Philip) coming home to visit the father who wants nothing to do with him. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and has only a few lucid minutes each day. Philip left Earth years ago, after radically redesigning his body into an alien form, in order to explore another world. His father took it as a rejection of family and humanity.
To me, it felt like a metaphor for a father unable to accept his son’s sexuality. I could be reading into it, but this is how the story resonated for me — the father mourning his lost grandchildren, hating the life his son has chosen, while the mother takes on the role of peacemaker, bringing them together despite her infirmity.
While the SFnal elements were wonderful, the ending felt too quick and easy, and didn’t really work for me. It didn’t feel true.
The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu. This is, in my mind, a good example of that sense of truth I’m talking about. Jack’s mother was a mail-order bride from China. When he’s young, she makes origami animals and infuses them with life: a paper tiger purrs and prances, the tinfoil shark swims, and so on. It’s amazing and beautiful. But as Jack grows older, he rejects his Chinese heritage, wanting to fit in with his “American” peers. In doing so, he rejects his mother as well. Only after she’s gone does he learn the rest of her story.
There is no neat ending here, but there is … understanding. Movement. Regret and loss, but with a thread of connection through the story’s magical element.
One of the things I admire about this one is that it’s not overstated. Jack has little understanding or compassion for a mother who sold herself in a catalog, but there’s a line later on where he’s prepping resumes and says, “I schemed about how to lie to the corporate recruiters most effectively so that they’d offer to buy me.” It’s just one line, and Jack doesn’t see the connection, but the reader does. One line is all it takes.
This story has already won the Nebula award, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it take the Hugo as well. Yeah, it’s really good.
The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu. Let me put it this way: this is a story that made wasp nests beautiful and magical in a mere two paragraphs. It’s a story of clashing civilizations, in which the wasps colonize the less powerful bees, a situation with many real-world parallels. The wasps take tribute from the bees, but offer them “the honor of watching us elevate [you] to moral and technological heights you could never imagine.”
This kind of story could become preachy, but it never does. It is what it is, unapologetic and disturbing. Yu takes advantage of the shorter insect lifespan to show the evolution of a new line of bees: anarchists who set out to create a new future.
Like Liu’s story, the ending isn’t neat or happy, but it feels right. There’s a sense of movement that feels circular even as it moves forward. There’s a lot going on in this one, and I may have to reread it to catch things I missed my first time through.
Discussion is welcome, and since the stories are all online, you don’t even have to be registered for Worldcon to read them.
Stephen A. Watkins
May 29, 2012 @ 11:48 am
I don’t get a vote, but for my money I’d say that either “Paper Menagerie” or “Cartographer Wasps” is going to get it. Those were my two personal favorites among the nominees – and also, I think, the two best written stories of the bunch.
Jim C. Hines
May 29, 2012 @ 11:51 am
I think Resnick and Scalzi have the best name recognition, but I suspect you’re right that it will be either Liu or Yu.
May 29, 2012 @ 12:24 pm
Thank you so much for the shoutout, Jim! You’re the best!
May 29, 2012 @ 3:33 pm
I have read the stories a while ago, and still cannot make an easy decision between the Fulda, Yu or Liu. They all have their own strengths. “Movement” with the parents not understanding their children, and being left behind in the changes. “Paper Menagerie” with its focus on identity, culture and integration. “Wasps and Bees” with the effects of colonialism and exploitation (even after the initial event has past), on humans, wasps, and bees.
Jim C. Hines
May 29, 2012 @ 8:50 pm
I think it’s a pretty cool dilemma to have, though 🙂 I like the strength and range of the short story ballot this year.
May 30, 2012 @ 9:01 pm
I’ve read all 5 short stories, and my thoughts are somewhat close to yours:
Shadow War of the Night Dragons: The story was funny, but rather slight. Playing with tropes is a good thing – the story is fun! – but there wasn’t much at the heart of it compared to the other stories.
The Homecoming: I agree with you in that the ending was abrupt and attempted a level of emotion it didn’t earn. I felt the dialogue was a bit forced and repetitive – especially the use of “dammit” several times within a short space of dialogue to convey strong emotion.
The Paper Menagerie: I’m the odd one out in that I didn’t like this one very much. Like “The Homecoming,” I thought it tried too hard to reach heights of emotion it didn’t earn. I was okay with the story until we read the mother’s letter to her son – that brought it to a screeching halt for a few reasons:
1. The story says that the mother’s letter to her son was written on the same paper that she had used to create the paper tiger. Yet it also says that this same piece of paper was torn apart and taped back together. Could she really have written a letter of that length on an origami-sized piece of paper in such poor condition?
2. The mother mentions she grew up among farmers and other peasants, and then became an undocumented worker in Hong Kong. This would indicate a low level of literacy – yet the letter she’s left behind is skillfully written, and there aren’t any odd/broken turns of phrase you might expect from someone with her level of schooling. Granted, the letter was spoken out loud by an interpreter, so we can’t know if the interpreter was smoothing out some of the language, but I still found it jarring.
The Cartographer Wasps: There was a lot of good detail and world building in this story – a really wonderful degree of imagination. Yu’s got a great feel for words, and this is my runner-up choice.
Movement: This leaves me with Fulda’s story. Hanna is a well-realized character, and you can sense that a lot of the story was informed by Fulda’s own family experience of autism. I thought the repetition of the final two lines – and what Hannah’s real meaning behind those words were, as well as the likelihood her parents wouldn’t understand her meaning – was devastating. I’m voting for Fulda here.
June 19, 2012 @ 12:51 am
I am a brand new member of this group, and just found your website. Thank you for the helpful reviews and links!
The Paper Menagerie made me cry. Odd that no one has commented on the connection of its title to The Glass Menagerie….
I have tweeted the Anarchist Bees to the attention of my friend and fellow anarchist Teller–We shall see whether it rates a response from him(not a SF fan).
Jim C. Hines
June 19, 2012 @ 8:59 am
I haven’t seen The Glass Menagerie. Are you familiar enough with it to say whether there’s an overlap in story/theme as well, or just the title?
June 19, 2012 @ 2:20 pm
It is a play about a girl (with a menagerie of glass animals) whose shyness gets in the way of her living her life and pursuing love. The connection may be tenuous, but how many titles are there with the form THE MENAGERIE? The mother who made and mended the animals so carefully was isolated by her language-shyness….and lost the love of her beloved son. A minor detail of the play has the girl acquiring the nick-name Blue Roses when her beloved mis-hears a reply as to why she wears a leg brace which makes her self-conscious. The red and green candy canes play a minor but important part in the fate of the Tiger. The girl’s favorite animal, a unicorn, gets broken at the end. She speculates maybe he is happier becoming an ordinary horse and being able to fit in more easily….Perhaps this is reaching, but perhaps not. It would be worth asking the author, if that were possible.
June 19, 2012 @ 2:23 pm
The computer edited my reply. I wrote “but how many titles are there with the form THE [material noun used as adjective] MENAGERIE?”