The Hugo Awards are approaching for 2021, and I have read and offered mini-reviews of all the short story finalists! If you’ve read them, let me know what you think. A number of them are available via links that I’ve provided in the names.
“Open House on Haunted Hill“ by John Wiswell
My heart is so full after reading this touching short story. It’s almost a fable of homeownership and belonging wrapped into a cute idea of a haunted house trying to balance its needs with being as accommodating as it can to potential home-buyers. I’ve moved so many times in my life that the sense of belonging and “home” is hugely important to me, and this short story brings that straight to the forefront. I was surprised by how quickly I felt opened up to this haunted house and its earnest desire to be loved. The way that this old house creaked and moved and had a personality all its own. It reminded me of living in an older house and how much I loved that house. The real story here is a sense of place, in my opinion. It’s how we perceive our lives and the spaces in which we live it. What a delightful read.
“Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer
A cute intro about setting up one of those little free library boxes in Saint Paul, Minnesota develops into a mysterious correspondence with what turns out to be a kind of magical or alternate-reality relationship. The woman running the library starts finding letters and especially starts to fuel the attempted rebellion or resistance in its fight against others. We don’t get any details about what the conflict is about; we don’t really know whether our librarian is rooting for or helping the “right side.” And then we’re stuck with an incredibly awesome ending that just… stops. I am torn about how to ultimately judge this story. The end has me basically desperate for more. This could easily be a series of short stories or get developed into a longer work. As it stands, though, the story just has me wanting more. Give me more!
“Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson
I loved this one. It starts with two women going to sequester in a cargo container so one of them can have a baby while protected within the container from the zombie swarms. It feels claustrophobic, alive, and empowering all at once. It’s got to be hard writing short stories that make readers instantly connect with the characters, but I did in this one. I was rooting hard for the BA moms. There’s something wild to think about how basically the whole plot took place within a cargo container and immediately outside of it. It’s claustrophobic while also conveying all kinds of atmosphere and tension. It’s a fantastic story.
I’ve read–and I tried to find a source but struggled–that LGBTQ+ characters in books dying is a major trope and honestly a problem with speculative fiction. The perseverance of these characters is made stronger in light of that. This a thoroughly feminist yarn which doesn’t shrink from frank discussion of things like menstruation and even uses menstrual blood to combat zombies. The story is full of ideas and was a joy to read from start to finish.
“Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher
Two artificially intelligent machines with nanotechnology silently explore a planet with their human “father.” But he gets sick and has to leave, so they adapt to make sure he is protected. This story has a kind of mythic aspect that science fiction often lacks. It’s powerfully written with prose that carries it all the way through. The question of how minds might explore ideas such as deception when they’ve never been exposed to it is central to this story, and I thought Kingfisher posed it vividly and creatively. It’s another major winner in this great collection.
Kingfisher has also written the story with the strongest prose-wise of all the short stories here. I loved descriptions of the activities of Brother and Sister, the way dirt tasted, as Sister dug into the earth; the soaring feeling with Brother. The very real sense of innocence and innocence lost, and the questions that raised about how things work in our universe–what does it mean to basically have this story that confirms hardness of heart, deceit, and loss of innocence is necessary for survival in the harsh world? It’s hauntingly beautiful. One panelist in a discussion I participated in described this as a kind of Adam and Eve retelling, and I believe that’s spot on.
“The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee
The title of this one basically tells the story. At some point I kind of expected it to go farther afield than it does, but this is a story of a mermaid astronaut. There are shades of some well-known stories here, particularly a kind of twist on The Little Mermaid. Frankly, it feels closer to the sanitized Disney version than it does to the original story by Hans Christian Anderson. I enjoyed the ending, in particular, though I thought it was largely an expected story all the way through. It was comfort food, but almost to the point of being milquetoast. My investment in the characters just wasn’t really there because it never felt like there was anything at stake.
“A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Two robots communicate via text as one, a kind of assassin robot is forced legally to be the job mentor for the other, who is working at a restaurant. I fell in love with this fun friendship and was somewhat devastated by parts of it, as well. Over the course of the story, the reluctance with which the killer robot enters into the relationship is endearing, just as much as the chef robot is. It’s so heartfelt, and Prasad nailed the ending. There are some darker tones here, too. Is the killer robot killing people or just fighting other robots for entertainment? I’m not sure. The exploitation of robot labor is clearly there, and some questions could arise about that–if we developed AIs who eventually gained sentience, how different from slavery would it be for them to be forced laborers on menial tasks? Honestly, this story could be a great miniseries or movie. I loved it.
2021 Short Story Nominee Panel– I joined the Hugos There Podcast along with the members of the Hugo, Girl! Podcast and more to discuss the 2021 short story nominations. Every panelist had such insights and were all so wonderful. Please give it a listen.
Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.
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