Reading the Hugos: The Short Story Category

Hugo season continues! With the Nebulas wrapped up, you’ll be seeing more and more Hugo-related posts between now and August. Up next in our reviews of the Hugo-nominated works of 2016: the entire short story category.

I was especially drawn to the short story category as a challenge to myself. I haven’t read a lot of short fiction that isn’t fan-fiction (which is its own beast) in the past and don’t have a lot of exposure to the format. Also, because someone was gushing about “Seasons of Glass and Love” on twitter a few months ago, I’d actually already read that one and loved it.

I will talk about these stories in ballot order and will only spoil the ending for one, “The Unimaginable Light.”

The City Born Great” (2016)
Written by: N.K. Jemisin
Published by:

This story marks the first time I’ve ever heard Neil deGrasse Tyson described as hot. I can’t say I agree or disagree, but it’s definitely a first.

When a city reaches a certain distinguished age it stops being merely a city and truly comes to life. Like, actually, really to life, with a birth and a breaking of waters and labor pains and everything. There’s an “enemy” out there, embodied in this story by New York police officers, that tries to interrupt the process and take the city’s life for itself.

And there’s a midwife to protect the city, help it through the process, protect it as it comes to life. The midwife? A gay, homeless, Black teenager who goes from not believing at all to standing in the middle of Central Park basically doing lamaze for a city in a pretty quick turnaround. If I have one complaint about the story, it’s that it honestly could have been developed more. But that’s a really piddling complaint.

The fact that the police are the physical manifestation of the “enemy” is very deliberate and certainly adds an interesting social justice aspect to the story.

Will It Win? It’s one that could be divisive but it’s a good story. I think it’ll get votes.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” (2016)
Written by: Alyssa Wong
Published by:

This story was a difficult read, both in subject matter and the construction of the story. Hannah and Melanie are sisters who both have some control over physical elements. They can fly, they can control weather, they can cause fires. Not a lot of this is explained, but it is stated that they are the only ones that can do this.

The story begins and ends with Melanie dying. In the middle of the story, Melanie dies over and over and over again while Hannah moves the earth in attempts to stop her, effectively traveling back in time and to alternate universes to stop her sister from killing herself.

It’s as she’s trying to do this that the small details of what happened to her Melanie, and what keeps happening to Melanie over and over again, are brought to the surface. I don’t want to spoil much, but if you read it on, check the second reader comment from “Hannah,” because it’s a good one.

I say it’s difficult to read in its construction because so little is explained, and so much is left to the reader to extrapolate for themselves. I don’t mind working for a story, but this one definitely required a close read.

Will It Win? I think this one could have a good chance. It takes a lot of risks in construction and has timely subject matter. The question is whether voters will put the effort in to get everything they can out.

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” (2016)
Written by: Brooke Bolander
Published by: Uncanny Magazine

Their talons can also crush three page short stories.

This story is the shortest of the lot and probably even more raw and brutal than the previous story. It’s a revenge fantasy played out by an immortal being who, after being brutalized and reborn, comes back to Earth in a fury of wings and fanged teeth to wreak vengeance on her aggressor.

I like what Bolander does with the format of this story. She begins by telling the reader that this is not a story about her death, although she does die. It’s also not a story about the unnamed aggressor, which is a stark (and deliberate) contrast to the way sexual assault is handled by US media. The middle section of the story is a bulleted list describing the rebirth, the return to Earth, and a very little about the assault itself.

This story is an angry one, and I love that about it. No holds barred, raw, empowering emotion, and packs a hell of a punch in three short pages. It’s truly masterful in its scope.

Will It Win? My guess is no, but that’s only because the competition is fierce. I think the subject matter will make this one divisive among voters.

Seasons of Glass and Iron” (2016)
Written by: Amal El-Mohtar
Published by: The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press; reprinted in Uncanny Magazine

Two women, forced to live out curses in two very different ways, find the friendship and support in a most unlikely place: each other.

This story is very strongly about choice. Tabitha chooses her curse, to wear out seven pairs of iron shoes, in an effort to free her husband from his cursed bear form. Amira chooses to free the men of her kingdom from their everlasting pursuit of her by sitting on top of a glass mountain, sitting very still, holding a single apple.

The obvious parallels here are heartbreaking. A woman trapped in an abusive and loveless marriage punishes herself, tortures herself because the fact that her husband hurts her must be her fault. A beautiful woman, pestered and verbally assaulted constantly by men who want to possess her walls herself off, spiritually, mentally, and physically, to save them from themselves, because their behavior is something she does to them.

It is only through their friendship, through the love and insight they share with each other, that these two women are able to see the truths of their own stories.

Will It Win? It was the Nebula winner against a few of these same stories and is probably the strongest candidate. There’s a lot of easily accessible emotional connection in this story that will appeal to readers. I predict that this is the story the rest of them need to beat, and it really will end up depending on the voters.

that-game-we-played-during-the-war.jpgThat Game We Played During the War” (2016)
Written by: Carrie Vaughn
Published by:

Two former prisoners of war (one of the other and visa versa, throughout the war) meet again after the war to play a game of chess. That’s all that happens in this story, but it’s quiet and pretty and moved me to tears.

The Gaantish are telepathic, the Enithi are not. Calla is an Enithi nurse visiting Valk, a Gaantish commander, as he recovers from an unspecified illness in the hospital.

Great thought was given to telepathy in the story, in small ways, like how it affects playing a strategy game like chess, and large ones, like how a non-telepathic race would wage war against a telepathic one. She describes trying to be an Enithi nurse in a Gaantish hospital, where all of the doctors discuss the patient at length but only speak sparingly. She describes an Enithi spy system where the spies couldn’t be told they were spies, and delivered messages they were never aware they carried.

The war has left its scars on both characters in different ways, though we mostly see the effects it has had on Calla, the point of view character. But it’s a lovely story about finding peace.

Will It Win? It’s well-constructed, well-written, and lovely. It’ll get votes, but I think others will garner more attention.

51VzrUuJGrL “An Unimaginable Light”
Written by: John C. Wright
Published by: God, Robot, Castalia House

I don’t know how to sugarcoat this: this story is awful. It is honestly so awful that I went to the internet to find out how it got included on the ballot at all, which is when I discovered that it was the chosen insertion by the rabid puppies. (If you’re not familiar with the term “rabid puppy,” it started with the sad puppies, a group that started in 2013 to influence Hugo voting so more pulp action and less “message driven” fiction got nominated. The rabid puppies are, if you will, a more rabid brand of sad puppy.)

At its roots, “An Unimaginable Light” is a philosophical discussion on the nature of man and the philosophy of robots. I’d have been here for that, because I find discussion of the three laws of robotics interesting. Its execution, however, reads a lot like Neo’s conversation with the Architect in Matrix Reloaded: paragraphs are overly long, everything is a bit convoluted, and neither side is necessarily talking to the other, if the way their long paragraphs relate is anything to go by.

Wright clearly spent time with a thesaurus trying to inflate his own vocabulary. The naked female “whorebot” is described: “She was pulchritudinous, buxom, callipygous, leggy.” Additionally, there were misplaced commas, weird spacing, and grammatically incorrect phrases sprinkled throughout.

I’m going to spoil this story because it’s the only one of the short stories not currently available for free online (though it will of course be included in the packet for Hugo voters) and no one else should have to pay $4.99 to read it. The big twist is that the clothed man interrogating the naked female whorebot (who is burned alive for violating the laws of robotics, namely because she wouldn’t give the man a blowjob) is actually the robot, and the “whorebot” is human. He discovers this when he investigates her skull afterwards and doesn’t find the cybernetic brain he expected. He appears to short circuit after this discovery and presumably is rendered nonfunctional. The entire thing was a thought experiment on the part of the robots that they, apparently, failed.

Will It Win? *pause for laughter* *she’s still laughing* *we’ll come back to this later, when she’s done laughing*

Edit 6/21/2017: The post originally titled El-Mohtar’s story “Seasons of Glass and Love.” It has been corrected to the proper title “Seasons of Glass and Iron.”


  • Shara White June 20, 2017 at 7:51 am

    Of these, I’ve only read the Carrie Vaughn, and I really enjoyed that story. I also can’t get that particular cover out of my head: every time I see it, I think I’m looking at Maisie Williams, aka Arya Stark from Game of Thrones.

    Some of these other stories look awesome though, so I’m going to have to check them out!

    • Merrin June 20, 2017 at 11:17 am

      Yeah that’s a very striking cover. Honestly they were all good and worthy of winning with the very notable exception of the Wright story.

      • Shara White June 20, 2017 at 7:49 pm

        It’s always interesting when the ballots are so similar between the Hugos and Nebulas if the same stories win. One is a fan award, the other is a peer award. You never know how it’s going to fall out!

  • Stu West June 21, 2017 at 11:19 am

    There’s a typo in the title of “Seasons of Glass and Iron” in this post (and in the tags below the post).

    • Shara White June 21, 2017 at 1:17 pm

      Oh, thanks for that catch. It’s fixed!

  • Lane Robins June 21, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    I’m kind of surprised I haven’t read more of these. Usually, I’ve read at least three of the noms, but this time I’ve only read one–Brooke Bolander’s. Guess I’ve got some catching up to do! (Though I’ll be skipping Wright’s story. I tried to read Orphans of Chaos a gazillion years ago and found it not to my tastes at all.)

  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier June 23, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    “Seasons of Glass and Iron” sounds like my type of story, as does the Carrie Vaughan one.


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