Reading the Hugos: Novelette Category

Novelettes are tricky little beasts. They are story tidbits, and it takes a particularly skilled writer to create one that offers a full story within the limited constraints of standard word count for the form. I am challenging myself to read more short fiction this year, so when our editor approached me to ask if I would be willing to read and write up the novelette category, I agreed. I was particularly pleased to see that all of the nominees this year were women. I was able to finish almost all of these in one sitting. Largely, they are available for you to read online, and I encourage you to seek out and them for yourself (with one exception, which will be addressed). Stories will be discussed in no particular order, and no endings will be spoiled.


Touring With the Alien” (April 2016)
Written by: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine

What started out sounding as if this were going to be the standard alien invasion story turned into something a little different by the end. I’m not going to spoil it; you can read it yourself for free. Suffice to say that I didn’t see it coming, which was refreshing! Main character, Avery, works for a murky courier service that takes jobs other services don’t really want to touch. After aliens “invade” Earth by landing dome-shaped vessels all across North America (and elsewhere, I presume, though it’s not specified), the people of Earth wait for … anything. Demands to speak to leaders, abductions, friendly greetings … anything. Instead, what happens is this: humans emerge from the vessels, state that they are the aliens’ translators, and that they were children of Earth that the alien species abducted years ago.

Avery is hired to transport an alien and his handler to St. Louis. She does so via tour bus. There isn’t a lot of contact between her and her alien’s handler, Lionel, at first. Eventually, the two of them become conversant (because Lionel’s alien becomes comfortable enough to allow conversations to happen — it’s complicated). Avery learns a bit about what the aliens seem to want and is forced to confront her own past in the meantime.

This is a lively, entertaining story that’s written in an extremely accessible fashion. It’s not a flashy tale of alien invasion. It’s more a story of what happens when aliens move into your neighborhood. Sure, they want something, but doesn’t everyone? Gilman challenges what it means to be conscious and alive by speaking of the one thing that the aliens enjoy but do not actively pursue: consciousness. It seems that these invaders can and do create and travel while in an unconscious state. Consciousness, Gilman states, comes at a great metabolic cost to our brains and bodies.

It’s a fascinating story and Gilman does a great job bringing Avery to life. The ending was lovely if a bit sinister. I’d like to see the aftermath of this story.

Will It Win? It’s a strong contender, with its easy style and refreshing take on alien invasion. I wouldn’t completely give up on it, but I believe that other stories are heavier hitting than this one.


You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay” (May 2016)
Written by: Alyssa Wong
Published by: Uncanny Magazine

Right off the bat, this story stands out from the pack. It’s told in the wildly underused second person point of view. This lends an immediacy and intimacy to the story that would otherwise be missing. The result of this is a story that draws the reader deep into its grasp and refuses to let go.

Wong’s an extremely talented writer. She doesn’t explain a lot about what’s going on in this story, but she honestly doesn’t need to. She gives you just enough information to grasp what’s happening to Ellis (the narrator), who he is, and what he can do. The story takes place in a desert town and the nearby mine that employs a significant portion of the townsfolk. We are told that there have been accidents in this mine, one just recently. A group of men from the mining company have arrived in town to investigate. Ellis has certain abilities that make him very attractive to this group of men, so he is recruited to accompany them to the scene of the accident.

I won’t say more. Read the story and see what I’m talking about for yourself. Keep your eyes on Wong, ladies and gentlemen. She’s amazing at what she does, and I can’t wait to see more of it.

Will It Win? I believe that there is a strong possibility that this will take home the award. The story is intriguing, it’s beautifully written, and the unique point of view makes it highly memorable. I fear that some readers may find the POV to be off-putting, but that same POV is what makes this story so effective.  I already want to read it again and just sink into Wong’s writing.


The Tomato Thief” (January 2016)
Written by: Ursula Vernon
Published by: Apex Magazine

This is a deceptively simple story. Grandma Harken lives at the edge of a town that is adjacent to the desert, grows tomatoes (and other vegetables), and lives her life. Until her prized (and extremely difficult to grow, because it’s the desert) tomatoes begin to disappear each night, just on the cusp of ripe perfection. Not being one to take things lying down, Grandma Harken figures out how to stay awake to nab the thief. Then the story grows exponentially.

I’m trying not to spoil things — it’s a novelette, and can be read in a single setting after all — but I’m intrigued by one particular part of the story that isn’t the focus at all. Grandma Harken, upon realizing that she needs information on something that isn’t particularly right with the way the world looks, decides that she needs to consult the Mother of Trains. Vernon gives just enough information about the train gods and their priests to be intriguing. I haven’t read any of Vernon’s other work, so I cannot say whether or not she has written about the trains gods elsewhere. Having read this story, however, I will be correcting this oversight and seeking out more of Vernon’s work in the near future.

Overall, this is a really fun story that features a heroine not often seen in fiction: an elderly woman. It’s a direct thumbing of the nose to “standards” of a lot of popular fiction to feature such a character in a lead story. I love it! Men get to continue having adventures long after their “prime;” I say, bring on the grandmothers of science fiction and fantasy. Women can kick ass at every age, and we need to see more of that.

Will It Win? This is an extremely straightforward, accessible story that I think most readers can easily enjoy. Vernon’s writing is simply stated (which suits the story perfectly). This story is nicely self-contained (despite being the second Jackelope Wives story (the first can be read here; I’ll be reading it myself soon).  I think it has a strong chance at the award.


The Art of Space Travel” (July 2016)
Written by: Nina Allen
Originally published by: Tor.com

Heroine Emily has never known who her father is or was. Her mother can’t or won’t tell her for most of her life, for reasons that aren’t really ever explored in any significant depth. Emily is the head of housekeeping in a large hotel near Heathrow that will soon be playing host to two astronauts that will be traveling to Mars. Everyone on Earth seems to be excited by this coming mission. Said excitement has brought back a tragedy that occurred thirty years prior with an earlier attempt at visiting Mars.

Emily’s interested in the mission, but that is sidelined by the search for her father and worry over her mother’s declining health. Her mother investigated an airplane crash several years prior that exposed her to toxic chemicals. As such, Moolie (as Emily refers to her mother) suffers from an unknown illness that causes her lungs to fill with microscopic fungus and her mental state to be wildly unreliable. Officially, she has Alzheimer’s. Unofficially, an inquiry is still open into the state of the plane crash, and other people working the same site are either dead or suffering from the same condition that affects Moolie. But again, this is merely a sideline in the story.

This is a nicely written story, but aside from the fact that it takes place in a future where we are now sending astronauts to Mars, it lacks any speculative elements. I would go so far as to say that it isn’t science fiction at all. It is a meditation on childhood and familial relationships. It is a lovely story, and as one who grapples with my own parental relationships from time to time, it was poignant.

Will It Win? With the competition that it faces, it’s probably a long shot, especially considering its significant lack of speculative elements.


The Jewel and Her Lapidary (April 2016)
Written by: Fran Wilde
Published by: Tor.com
Note that this title was published as a stand alone volume from Tor.com and is available in e-book form for 2.99. Above link contains an excerpt.

This is a more traditional, high fantasy tale. Here, gemstones have great and terrible power to compel and control those who can hear them. Members of the royal family, known as Jewels, are assigned a lapidary at birth. Lapidaries can hear the gems speaking, while most other individuals (including the royal family) cannot. The lapidaries are those with the true power here: the power to shape and direct the gems to inspire hope, fear, calm and ultimately, control. The story begins with a terrible betrayal to the much-beloved royal family and snowballs from there. The main characters, Lin (the youngest Jewel) and Sima (her lapidary) are the last two survivors of the palace uprising and subsequent invasion.

Wilde’s story goes back and forth between Lin and Sima’s story and pages from a guidebook that we are to assume is from much later in this world’s history. The guidebook gives the reader tidbits of information that hint at what will happen at the end of the story, but it never truly gives away the ending. The two parts of the story are skillfully woven together to provide breaks in the main narrative. Wilde’s writing is lovely and evocative.

I didn’t cry, but I definitely had some heartache over the ending. There *is* hope for the future (and the guidebook suggests that what our heroines planned worked), but it still ends on an incredibly bittersweet note.

Will It Win? I feel like this story might have an edge due to its nature. It’s a beautifully told story, and while it has subversive elements (a female general at the head of an invading army, for example), it also has much-beloved themes of loyalty, integrity, friendship and resilience. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking story. I think it will appeal to a large portion of voters.


Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex (2016)
Written by: Stix Hiscock
Self-Published

OK. It’s time. We need to talk about Stix Hiscock.

When the awards were announced, it was immediately clear that at least one of those nominees came from the disgruntled infant canines whose name won’t be mentioned here. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By the T-Rex wasn’t found on anybody else’s “Best of 2016” list and seemed to have been nominated because those disgruntled infant canines had decided to encourage its nomination as a lark. What they likely did not take into account was that the writer of this novelette, one Stix Hiscock, was likely oblivious to their shenanigans. Beth Elderkin, of io9 wrote a brief article introducing the writer behind Alien Stripper and included the following:

Hiscock also said she didn’t know anything about [the canines’ leader], and seemed to be unaware (before the interview) that he was responsible for Alien Stripper getting on the ballot. She was a little hurt that he would use her novelette as a way to mock the Hugos, especially since it doesn’t seem like he’s even read it. (It’s possible [the canines’ leader] picked it specifically because of the [disgruntled infant canines’] hatred of the award-winning novelette If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love.) “I guess I’ll cry a little, laugh a little. But I’ll be ok. Jokes are pretty hilarious sometimes,” Hiscock said.

This is a remarkably good-humored way to look at things. May I have the same amount of dignity should I ever find myself in such a position. So there’s that.

Honestly? I didn’t read this one. My reasons for doing so have nothing to do with the content. Let us be honest with ourselves: this work is not going to win. This work was nominated with the sole purpose of screwing with the non-canine members of the voting population. I didn’t read it because frankly, I don’t have the time to spend on a work that is clearly not a genuine contender for the award. Perhaps I will read it later, when I am in better spirits and not operating under a deadline, but at this time, I have decided to pass on the dinosaur and alien stripper shenanigans.

And if it does win? I hereby promise to read and review it in its entirety.

2 Comments

  • Shara White July 19, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    Yeah, definitely need to read the lot of these. I’ve read Gilman before and have enjoyed her work, and I’m really curious about Nina Allen’s. I’ve read Wong’s fiction in the past and REALLY enjoyed it, so that’ll be a must too. And Ursula Vernon is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

    …. is it bad I’m kind of tempted to read the Hiscock for giggles?

    Reply
    • Casey Price July 19, 2017 at 7:09 pm

      Nope! Read it! I probably still will when I’m in the proper mood for such things

      Reply

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