2017 Hugo Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

Oof, I started this series of posts late. It’s just two weeks until Worldcon! (Not that I’m going, though I’d love to this year for Helsinki).

Better late than never though. Without further ado, the Hugo-nominated short stories.

(The Rabid Puppy slate pick is not being reviewed.)

I love this story.

No, I don’t think you understand. I LOVE THIS STORY.

A homeless black teen is gearing up to act as midwife to the city of New York, to birth it into being, and to defend it against the Cthulhu-like Enemy lying in wait to kill it. This story pulses with life and sensation and voice and imagination. The way N. K. Jemisin writes the birth of the city and incorporates the elements that make New York its one-of-a-kind self is poetry. I love the juxtaposition of someone who is one of the most disenfranchised, vulnerable people in the city is the one destined to birth and become one with a city characterized by wealth and power, but also heterogeneity. People within the city think he’s worthless—especially the cops, especially the Cthulhu-infused cops—
yet his love for New York is as big as the city itself. I loved this story when I first read last September and I loved it again reading it a second time.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

Interesting premise—two warring peoples have recently brokered a piece. The Gaant are telepaths; the Enithi are not. Calla, an Enithi nurse and former war prisoner, goes to visit the Gaantish Captain Valk, himself a war prisoner before he became Calla’s warden in turn. Together they play a game of chess that reflects not just the differences between the two of them and their peoples, but adaptations, and communication and connection.

For a story rooted in war, it’s unusually quiet, kind, and peaceful. The Enithi’s blase acceptance of their inability to hide their thoughts, and so not attempting to do so at all, is a different take than any I’ve read before, and it inherently changes the way the Enithi and Gaant fight, but also communicate. Their differences aren’t the reason these people fought, but they open possible doors for nurturing the tentative peace that now exists between them. A thoughtful, thought-provoking story.

My vote: “The City Born Great”, no question.

2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novellas

Novellas are normally my favorite of the short fiction categories on award ballots. This year’s Nebula ballot ended up being less enjoyable for me than usual due to two reasons: 1) I had a HUGE, HUGE problem with an aspect of one of the nominees and 2) I have never read a word of Lovecraft’s fiction in my life and I couldn’t care less about his oeuvre if I tried, and there were not one, but two novellas directly inspired and in conversation with Lovecraft stories on this ballot.

Trooper that I am, I soldiered on.

  • Runtime by S. B. Divya, (Tor.com Publishing)

I read this novella about a year ago when it was first released, and I enjoyed it upon reread as much as I did the first time. The story is set in a near-future U.S. where internal and external physical augmentations are the norm and immigrants and their children are classified as “unlicensed” and denied all government services. Marmeg, an unlicensed teenager with no money and castoff/black market augmentations, competes in the Minerva Sierra Challenge, an arduous day-long race across the Sierra Nevadas, so she can win enough money to pay for college and licenses for herself and her siblings. The world-building is both prescient (sadly) in terms of social policies and intriguing with regards to norms surrounding bodies, abilities, and personal identities. Marmeg is a tough, empathetic character fighting both to win within and game against the system in order to survive. The story is tightly paced and tense, and there is so much potential for a larger story.

  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, (Tor.com Publishing)

Kij Johnson’s novella is a reworking of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In this version, Vellitt Boe, a middle-aged university professor at Ulthar Women’s College, embarks on an epic journey across the dream lands to find a wayward student who’s escaped into the waking world. After the initial plot-establishing event and immediacy established by Vellitt’s need to get the student back, the tension slacks and the novella takes on more of a travelogue-esque nature, which I would have been fine with if I hadn’t needed to already be familiar with the Lovecraft mythology, setting, creatures, etc. The story is solidly written, the imagery is great, and I loved the Lewis Carol-ized words like “glibbering” and “meep”. Otherwise I did not feel like I was the intended audience, and my overall reading experience reflected this gap.

  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, (Tor.com Publishing)

Lovecraft-reworking number two! This one tackles “The Horror at Red Hook,” which, Google tells me, is a xenophobic, racist screed of a story, even for Lovecraft. This reworking follows Charles Thomas Tester, a Black man from Harlem and street musician who hustles odd jobs on the side. One of those jobs, in which he’s hired to deliver a book containing an ancient, powerful alphabet to an old woman and in doing so catches the eyes of an old, eccentric gentleman named Robert Suydam, brings him into the sphere, and then into the realm, of elder gods and chaotic magic. Compared to Johnson’s novella, LaValle’s stands on its own, as its own story, much better, though I still preferred the historical fiction portions more than the Lovecraftian horror ones. The story does some really interesting things with invisibility and facades and the power that Tommy, as a Black man in 1920s New York, uses to his own advantage and has used against him.

  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, (Tor.com Publishing)

Miss Eleanor runs a boarding school for Wayward Children, for those who discovered doors to magic worlds where they felt like they belonged but were unceremoniously returned years later to the “real” world, to parents who love them but think they’re broken. Nancy is recently returned from the Halls of the Dead and has just arrived at Miss Eleanor’s, where she not only finds others like her, some friendly and others not, but a murderer who is killing the students one by one.

Sigh. I love almost everything about this novella. It’s fun, it’s dark, it’s imaginative, and the world-building for the kinds of portal worlds that exist is fascinating, and full of potential. The dialogue leans overly heavy on the quippy side, but it’s still fun. Nancy, Kade, and Sumi are great characters, though dapper, mad scientist Jack is my fave.

However, this novella has a major issue, and that is the portrayal of Nancy’s asexuality.

“You’re celibate?”
“No. Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings.”

“I can appreciate how beautiful someone is, and I can be attracted to them romantically, but that’s as far as it goes with me.”

I personally could have done without the 101 explanation—Nancy could have just said, “Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual.” I realize we’re still in the “early” stages of ace representation in fiction, but I am already beyond ready to move past the “explain new queer-related terms to people who don’t have those identities” phase.

An additional takeaway from the quote above is that Nancy does not identify herself as aromantic. But then there’s this quote:

Apparently Nancy wasn’t the only one who found Kade beautiful, although she would have been willing to bet that she was the only one who found his beauty more aesthetic than romantic.

Here we have the first conflation of asexuality and aromanticism in this book. In the very first quote, Nancy says she experiences both aesthetic and romantic attraction towards other people. It doesn’t make sense here for Nancy to make the distinction that she would be the only person in the room who isn’t attracted to Kade romantically. The only thing she would not feel for Kade is sexual attraction, since she is, in fact, asexual.

It is possible to take this quote at face-value—that Nancy solely thinks Kade is aesthetically attractive, and she isn’t romantically or sexually attracted to him. But then later on when Nancy and Kade are holding hands, she thinks the following:

This was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things. She liked holding hands and trading kisses. She’d had several boyfriends in elementary school… and she had always found those relationships completely satisfying…. She wanted to spend hours sitting with [Kade] and talking about pointless things. She wanted to feel his hand against her skin, to know that his presence was absolute and focused entirely on her. The trouble was, it never seemed to end there, and that was as far as she was willing to go.

So here, Nancy is romantically attracted to Kade, and is actively interested in romance/romantic activities, and in doing them with him. She even more clearly identifies herself in this quote as not being aromantic. But then why in the second quote does she firmly identify her attraction as different than that of her classmates because hers is self-reportedly not romantic?

The next quote muddles things even further:

“I don’t want to go on a date with anyone. People are pretty, sure, and I like to look at pretty things, but I don’t want to go on a date with a painting.”

So, Nancy is interested in romantic activities described in the third quote, but not in going on dates? It’s stated in-text other places that she didn’t like going on dates before she went to the Halls of the Dead because of expectations that she reciprocate sexual attraction and the desire to act on it with the other person. But here, Nancy isn’t talking about that—she’s talking about the actual act of going on a date in and of itself. By saying that she doesn’t want to go on dates with people the same way she doesn’t want to go on dates with paintings, she’s emphasizing her experiencing aesthetic attraction towards people. But dates are typical romantic activities, even when there is no expectation of sex or sexual activity. And so the text once again gives the impression that Nancy isn’t interested in romance. But the only thing Nancy has ever explicitly said she isn’t interested in is sex.

These sloppy characterizations of the kinds of attraction Nancy does and does not experience and in what manner are all the more aggravating because 1) I “should” be happy there exists another entry to add to the minute pile of books with ace protagonists and 2) it feels like everyone in the universe has been recc’ing this novella on the basis of Nancy’s asexuality (among other things). But conflating asexuality and aromanticism, even unintentionally, does more harm than good. It leads to greater misunderstandings about what it may mean for someone to identify as one or the other, or both. It’s plain old not accurate. The text even goes so far as to say there’s a difference between asexuality and aromanticism, and yet doesn’t do the work to actually demonstrate what those differences are for Nancy. For me, being both asexual and aromantic, it’s infuriating. And it makes me upset that people are upholding this book as a positive example of ace representation without realizing or understanding how it throws aromanticism and aro people under the bus because of this kind of conflation.

  • “The Liar” by John P. Murphy (F&SF, March/April 2016)

Free version unavailable

  • A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson, (Tor.com Publishing)

A second novella set in Kai Ashante Wilson’s secondary fantasy universe where gods walk amongst humans and have Arthur C. Clarke powers (i.e. “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) that, like The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, centers around the complicated love of two men of color. Aqib bmg Sadiqi is fourth cousin to the Royal family of Olorum, both close to and far away from the center of power and influence. Upon meeting a soldier named Lucrio during a Daluçan ambassadorial visit to Olorum, Aqib falls in love for the first time. Because of the overwhelming condemnation of his family and religion and culture, Aqib and Lucrio’s love may or may not survive. Only time will tell.

I always have to take a sideways approach towards Kai Ashante Wilson’s prose—it’s written just so that I can’t smoothly read it and need to take my time with each turn of phrase and arrangement of certain words. This can make his writing somewhat off-putting for me, but that doesn’t take away from how skillfully crafted it is. A Taste of Honey further develops the already-fantastic world building in The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and explores the contours of a lovely, angsty romance between Aqib, a man ashamed of his effeminacy and conscious of his family’s need to rise socially, and Lucrio, a sweetheart of a commoner with perceptive eyes to the truth of a thing. There’s a HUGE twist concerning the story’s structure, the passage of time, and path Aqib’s life takes, and I enjoyed those scenes less than the ones with Aqib and Lucrio. Still, the twist is ambitious, and it works for what it sets out to do. Overall, a complex, multifaceted story rooted in the down-to-earth feelings and relationships of its protagonists.

My vote: For being my personal favorite, I’d choose Runtime. For technique, craft, and prose, I’d go with A Taste of Honey.

2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novelettes

  • “The Long Fall Up” by William Ledbetter (F&SF, May/June 2016)

Free version unavailable.

A quiet, banter-y story that takes place soon after an apocalypse of some sort. The rich and famous live on vast ships out at sea and have commandeered all available resources and amenities, leaving the rest to eke out a living as they can. When an impulsive, talkative rock star from one of those ships washes ashore, she’s the first human being the taciturn, scavenger Bay has seen or spoken to in years. These two women may be like oil and water, but together they might find something they’ve each been without—connection. Like Sarah Pinker’s award-winning novelette from last year, there’s enough story and world-building and potential for a longer story that I would have preferred reading over the shorter novelette version. Otherwise this was a pleasant, engaging read.

WOW.

This story is written in one of my favorite genres: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In a far-off future, damage to the earth and environment is a thing of the past, thanks to grains that are programmed to monitor and protect the land and anchors, grain-imbued humans that act as their proxy and are rooted to the land they come from, unlike the day-farers, who are grain-free and obligated to always travel and never settle. Frere-Jones has been an anchor all her life, and she has lost her husband and son for daring to rebel against the grains’ ironclad will. Now, for protecting day-farers from the grains’ wrath, she’ll pay a terrible price—and maybe make a difference.

I loved this story. It has a unique original concept that’s excellently executed, it’s gripping and filled with tension, and has enough pathos to make you really feel it, tinted with just the right amount of hope that maybe things will change. I also loved the Golden Bough-esque world-building and the way the grains both draw their power and motivation from memories and monitor and compartmentalize them to manipulate the anchors into fulfilling their programmed goals. All of the world-building is top-notch, and Frere’s dilemma is perfectly realized within the context of the world she inhabits.

  • The Orangery” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, December 2016)

This novelette draws inspiration from the many women in Greek mythology who are turned into trees for refusing the attentions of a deity. A guardian has tended the Orangery, a sanctuary of sorts housing all the trees who were formerly women, for years on end, alone, until Apollo breaks in to take back Daphne for good. Interspersed within the main narrative are the stories of three women-turned-trees, told by a guide who used to a tree herself. It’s an intriguing take on agency and choice, and what kind of agency and options a woman has when the only way for her to escape the attentions of a man is to cease being human. A solid entry.

  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde, (Tor.com Publishing)

I bounced hard off this one. In a kingdom with magical jewels where royalty are known themselves as “Jewels” and have lapidaries who can hear the jewels’ voices and wield their powers, the princess Lin and her lapidary Sumi, the only ones to survive a palace-wide betrayal that left everyone but them dead, must fight to save their kingdom from a conquering army and commander before it’s too late. The neck-breaking pace of this novelette read as though the story believed itself to be a full-length novel, except it wasn’t. The result was a story jammed in to fit a length that felt way too confining, whose world-building consisted of simplistic details about how the jewels worked and repetition of the rules binding Jewels and lapidaries. Pass.

Alyssa Wong never writes the same story or kind of story twice, and each one feels distinctly unique and fundamentally hers. A weird west story about a boy named Ellis who can channel the power of the desert and resurrect the bones of the dead, Marisol, his best friend and the one he loves, the man who wants to exploit the dead for his own profit, and the thin line between death and resurrection and desiccation and rebirth. The written setting is fantastic, the prose and imagery are lovely, and the story makes similarly excellent use of pathos and hints of change as “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”. It’s also perfect for fans of Pretty Deadly.

My vote: The story of my heart on this ballot, and my first choice, is “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories.” “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” is runner-up.

2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

It’s that (late) time of year again, in which I read through the Nebula short fiction nominees!

(I also plan on doing the Hugo’s this year, since this current ballot is not a trash fire.)

In reverse order of what I did last year, I’m reviewing the short stories first. An important caveat concerning my response to two of these stories, both of which were hugely popular upon publication, is that I am a cranky agender person who is still working through feelings about feeling obligated to relate to stories “about” “female experiences” (especially gendered violence). They’re lovely stories, but they’re not for me.

The above caveat applies. Prose-wise, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” to be a beautifully-forged weapon of a story. Brooke Bolander is a fierce, forceful writer with a supreme grasp of how to wield words and language like a metaphysical sword.

The above caveat applies. This fairytale, which intertwines the stories, and love, of a woman condemned to walk the world until she wears through the soles of seven metal shoes and a princess self-imprisoned on top of a glass hill, is a solid entry. Amal El-Mohtar’s prose is consistently lovely and elegantly crafted.

  • Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff, (Clockwork Phoenix 5, ed. Mike Allan)

A Prohibition-era story that amiably ambles along up to the very end, a coming-together that illuminates all that came before it. Malka, a nine-year-old Jewish girl, starts a budding friendship with David, an almost-thirteen-year-old African American boy. Despite her father’s irreligiousness, Malka invites David over the next night for Shabbat dinner, which causes her father to embark on a quest to obtain kosher wine in a time when alcohol has become scarce. An ostensibly simple, quiet story that ties together loss, racism and hegemonic brutality, and memory.

Sam J. Miller’s stories are trippy, constantly overflowing with seemingly disparate ideas and concepts and images that somehow fit together into a “this shouldn’t work but somehow it does and it feels right” kind of whole. Also like his other stories, “Things With Beards” is wholly rooted in the real world, with the speculative hiding in its very midst. A story of a white gay man who pretends to be masculine straight man, who suspects he has a monster hidden inside him, a story of New York City in the 1980s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis changing those infected from the inside out, the story of ongoing, never-ending police brutality against Black people, a story of being hidden, of monsters being hidden. It’s thinky and gut-punchy and real, it works really well, and it’s my favorite of the nominees.

A cute, brief story of a young child writing letters over the years imploring that the Gatekeeper reopen the door to a magical world where their best friend Zera lives. It’s sweet, if not substantive.

Alyssa Wong’s prose isn’t flashy or poetic—it just is. In this short story about two sisters who share powers to manipulate the weather and rearrange the future, Wong seemingly effortlessly captures the texture of grief, despair, futility, and loss as Hannah endlessly destroying the universe in order to keep Melanie alive and in this world. The story itself is ethereal, almost too much so, but damn that prose.

You have a weird rash on your arm, so you head to the medical clinic in search of a cure. In your way stand impenetrable bureaucracy, predatory aliens, nurses with a penchant for amputation, and your own mortal clock ticking towards your death. Good luck. Normally I’m not a fan of “Choose Your Own Adventure”-inspired stories. Caroline M. Yoachim’s version worked for me because it retains a somewhat linear narrative and meta-narratively taunts the reader for following—or failing to follow—the directions. A fun, quick read.

My vote: I am fully on Team “Things With Beards.” I suspect the actual outcome will be a toss-up between “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, and “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers.”

2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

YES, I finished reading all the short fiction nominees in time!

More so than the other Nebula short fiction categories, there’s a common theme shared by many of the stories of connecting (or failing to connect) with other humans on an internal, mental level. Three of these stories are from the perspective of artificial intelligence bonding to, caring for, and/or looking after humans’ welfare. Two of these stories take place heavily inside the protagonist’s mind as the result of taking certain drugs.

I’m curious as to the reason behind the selection for this section of the ballot, and a small part of me wonders to what extent the seeming growing interest, or possibly rise, in fiction featuring A.I. protagonists and the boundaries between them and humanity is the result of the popular and critical acclaim of Ann Leckie’s books, The Imperial Radch trilogy. (David D. Levine’s in particular seems to be playing in a similar sandbox.) Regardless, I very much enjoyed reading almost all the stories on the ballot, and even the ones I wasn’t 100% a fan of were still very good.

  • Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed 6/15)
    A short, bittersweet story about loss, mourning the past, and finding a new future, in which a young woman named Madeleine is experiencing strange, incredibly detailed episodes in which she relives her childhood memories of her mother before she died of Alzheimer’s, only she keeps seeing the same unknown figure appearing in her memories. The visual rendering of the memories is evocative and poetic (as per usual with Amal El-Mohtar’s writing), and the description and metaphors surrounding death and grief were equally eloquent.
  • Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
    The Internet just wants to help you. After all, it already knows everything about you, and it has the power to improve your life and make you happier. Isn’t the Internet causing harm through its own inaction by letting humans suffer? So you should really take notice of and click on those ads that keep showing up on your screen about new houses, new jobs, affordable therapists in your area. Listen to the Internet, and all your problems will be fixed. All it wants in return are cat pictures.

    It’s more a conceit than a fully-fledged story, but it’s a really fun conceit. And I loved the Internet’s voice: eager to help, smug at knowing exactly what all humans should be doing, and huffy that humans are incapable of taking it’s help when everything could be perfect if they just did what it says.

  • Damage” by David D. Levine (Tor.com 1/21/15)
    The story I referenced in the Intro, “Damage” is a story told by a fighter vessel nicknamed “Scraps” who’s made up of parts of two different vessels and whose memories of their violent deaths it still has, causing it to grapple with it’s ability to feel emotions and programmed love for its captain withs its programming to carry out inexcusable actions in war. The experience of reading this story is what I imagine it would feel like to be the Vipers that the pilots flew in BSG. It’s an action-packed, emotional story about a ship reconciling who it used to be and who it was programmed to be with who it is.
  • When Your Child Strays From God” by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld 7/15)
    A trippy, horrifying journey into the mind of a middle-aged evangelical Christian wife and mother who takes psychotropic drugs that connect her via “webbing” to the minds of other people on the same drug dose in order to search for her missing son (in more ways than one). It’s an uncomfortable story to read, but that aspect ends up becoming a sign of how well it works as the reader explores the layers of truth and untruth and hidden or suppressed knowledge and feelings of the housewife and mother. There’s an incredibly astute paragraph at the story’s climax about the double-edged nature of empathy as experienced through spiderwebbing that I want to print out and tape to my wall. On the downside, the progression of the story is somewhat convoluted, and it’s also a bit message-y at the end.
  • Today I Am Paul” by Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld 8/15)
    The second Nebula short story nominee to take on the subject of memory and grief, this time prior to actual death. “Paul” is a medical android programmed to build modules of various figures in order to emulate whichever family member or associate the elderly, Alzheimer-afflicted Mildred believes is currently there with her. The more the android emulates these various peoples, the more a nascent identity of the android’s own emerges as he balances fulfilling it’s hospice-care programming and maintaining the psychology of the emanations interacting with Mildred.

    It’s an intriguing piece regarding identity-formation through emotions and relationships, the idea of needing to be a certain kind of person, or a certain person when the other person is in pain. Similar to the A.I. in “Cat Pictures, Please,” the android observes and learns and stores away information regarding human behavior and strives to please certain humans—the meaningful difference is that this android reacts to Mildred’s moods and flickering memory rather than trying to steer her. It’s interesting actually that this android is the only A.I. in all these stories that fulfills its protocols and doesn’t do anything outside its boundaries, yet also has its own internal story arc about identity of how—or who—to be the person, or android, someone needs in times of trouble.

  • Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong (Nightmare 10/15)
    Mmmm, what a succulent story. And now having wrote that sentence I am officially afraid of myself. Written for the “Queers Destroy Horror” edition of the online magazine Nightmare, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” (which is a fantastic title, and everyone should say it out loud at least once) tells the story of a young woman named Jenny who is a monster—she feeds on the harmful, violent, and evil thoughts (obtained through dates on Tindr) in order to survive, but also in order to keep herself from eating the woman she loves. After eating the thoughts of a murderer, she’s famished, unable to find any thoughts as deliciously filling as his until she meets a woman—another monster—who promises her the most potent, pleasurable meals she’s ever tasted.

    This is the first of Alyssa Wong’s stories I’ve read after seeing her work praised to the skies all last year, and dear god if this story is anything to go by, her writing deserves so much praise. Chilling, compelling, so good at the visual manifestations of all these fat, glistening, creepy-crawly thoughts, and causing my heart to break with emotions for Jenny and Aiko.

My vote: This one is so hard, and I’d honestly be thrilled if any were to win (with the possible exception of “When Your Child Strays from God.”) From a writing perspective, all of them are exceedingly good. So going off of pure enjoyment, I’d go with either “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” or “Damage,” with “Cat Pictures Please,” following just behind.

2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novelettes

And we’re back with my thoughts on the novelettes nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards.

Novelettes are tricky things for me, and I tend to like fewer of them on average compared to novellas or short stories. I suspect it’s something to do with the word count—either too few words or too many. As such, I don’t have quite the same amount of love for the stories I read in this batch. Which isn’t to say they aren’t any good, but there weren’t any I especially loved.

  • Rattlesnakes and Men” by Michael Bishop (Asimov’s 2/15)
    The allegorical story of the bunch, “Rattlesnakes and Men” is the story of Wylene, her husband, and their daughter moving to a small town in southern Georgia where everyone is legally required to own rattlesnakes genetically modified to sense and attack intruders. These snakes are a cornerstone of the town’s economy and identity, and men men walk around with snakes at work, in schools, and even hospitals. When Wylene and the town’s doctor engage in activism for tighter restrictions on rattlesnake ownership and usage after several kids are bitten, these men, part of a larger organization of rattlesnake proponents, grow ugly and violent.

As it turns out, this story was written in response to Georgia’s passing a law further legalizing open-carry. It’s transparent about being a political piece on American gun culture (many of the names are thinly-veiled references to Georgia politicians and other individuals.) As an allegory, it’s an effective piece of fiction. As a science fiction story, it’s less so, as the bioengineered rattlesnakes are incidental to the larger issue of the snake owners.

  • And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
    A Kameron Hurley-esque story if ever there was one—Rhye is a battle-hardened, foul-mouthed cyborg on a job with her partner Rack, a cyborg hacker, when he gets caught inside his own security system. Even though she’s far more comfortable in the physical world killing things than in the virtual world, Rhye will have to go in after him if she has any chance of bringing him back to life.This novelette reads like a combination action movie script/sordid cyberpunk story. It’s brutal and messy and I don’t even know how many swear words and rude metaphors are in it, but they are deployed with a kind of poetry. It’s the kind of writing that actually works really well for a piece of short fiction (there’s no way this could be sustained for an entire novel) and is  physically exciting experience to read.
  • Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/11/15)
    Technically a traditional secondary world fantasy, except not actually all that traditional in terms of characters or world-building. This novelette is part of Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse universe, of which I’ve only read this one story, which unfortunately negatively impacted my reading experience to a certain extent—I felt like I was missing some important context about the various groups of people and the magic system that I got the sense had been introduced or explored in previous stories.

It’s the coming-of-age story of sixteen-year-old Aviya, and with it comes acceptance of her own lack of magical abilities, her autistic sibling Kimriel, and her transgender grandparent, the latter of whom is also coming into acceptance of himself after many years of repression for the sake of his family. This description makes the story sound dry—really it’s a colorful, visually intriguing tale of desert peoples with different magical traditions and different uses of words and language, especially when it comes to gender and personhood.

  • The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien (Asimov’s 6/15)
    Henry Lien writes strange fiction. I don’t mean that in a bad way, or even in a New Weird or surrealist way—it’s just strange. The last story I read of his was about wayward girls in a reform school engaging in mandatory roller-blading competitions. This particular novelette is a ginormous parody of nineteenth-century socialite politics, complete with purple language and ridiculously dramatic escapades,  in the form of two women viciously competing to have the best themed garden to impress the richest, most influential wife in town, only to have their efforts descend into environmental catastrophe. This story is so grandiose and unabashed of itself that it actually works. I also feel like I’m incapable of judging it’s worthiness of being awarded a Nebula.
  • “The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir (F&SF, 7-8/15)
    Free version unavailable.
  • Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 6/15)
    And this is where my ambivalence towards the novelette format shows its face—the story of a middle-aged woman named Luce touring with her band across the United States and struggling to make ends meet due to the popularity of holographic technology that broadcasts concert performances and makes obsolete the need to attend actual concerts, this felt like the intro to or an excerpt of a larger story. The ending begged the question of what happens next in a way that didn’t feel satisfactory or like the novelette length was adequate to tell this particular story. I did enjoy Luce’s tough, world-weary demeanor, her dedication to her music, and her love for her van, Daisy.

My vote: There’s no particular story I especially want to win here. So I’m going to base this on enjoyment factor and cast my vote for Bolander’s “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead.”

2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novellas

(I know, I know, the Nebula ballot is yesterday’s news now that the Hugo nominations were released yesterday, but I refuse to touch at least half of that ballot with a ten-foot pole.)

I’ve been slowly making my way through the Nebula ballot in the short fiction categories. I always intend to do it every year, and sometimes I even achieve it! This year I’m actually on track to finish, hopefully before the awards themselves are presented.

So far I’ve read through all the nominated novellas and novelettes (with the exception of a couple that were either unavailable in a free version or inaccessible.) This post will go through my Nebula novella thoughts of those that I’ve read, and the next one will cover the novelettes.

  • Wings of Sorrow and Bone by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager Impulse)
    (Free version unavailable. Will potentially try to read after finishing everything else.)
  • The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
    A beautifully written fairytale combining elements of “The Two Sisters,” “Juniper Tree,” and “The Pied Piper.” It has a intriguing narrator in the form of Maurice the rat, a cunning and entertainingly vulgar individual who acts as both observer and participant in this story’s shenanigans. The word that most describes this novella for me is “solid.” It was a delightful and fun read, and probably the most straightforward of all the novellas nominated. I don’t really have much more thoughts beyond that, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the writing.
  • The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer (Asimov’s 4-5/15)
    The most traditionally-written SFF story of the bunch, this novella is a “what-if” story whose premise lies in a new and curious genetic condition, spread via sexual contact, that causes women to be able to reproduce asexually every time they ovulate and causes men to become sterile. Tessa, a reporter and a lesbian who’s halfway through her pregnancy, seeks to write an article covering the issue from scientific, political, and social angles, all of which take on a more personal meaning for Tessa as she sorts through her feelings of her own IVF pregnancy and the prospect of raising a child.

If you’re going to write a story in which men are potentially threatened with extinction, you might as well write it this way—Fischer’s story effectively highlights how a drastic upheaval in the way human reproduction works, one that renders men obsolete in the act of propagation, would likely be received in the context of the United States’ current turmoil over gender equality, reproductive rights, and the legal definition of a human being. This story is a bit short on character and very heavy on the “what-if” scenario, and the writing itself leans towards overly describing the setting several times, but the “what-if” scenario is realized enough to carry the story.

  • The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik (Tor.com, 4/22/16)
    This novella blew my mind. A story-within-a-story in which a Pakistani-American man who was raised on his Gramps’ stories of his childhood travels to Northern Pakistan for the first time, seeking to uncover the truth behind Gramps’ story of the Pauper Princess and her jinn who lived inside a eucalyptus tree, it mixes magic and science and mysticism and history and folklore and math and religion and cultural identity in equal measure. It’s beautifully written, and the ending comes together in a mind-bendingly satisfying way.
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
    It’s a novella written by Nnedi Okorafor, therefore I would have bought and read it regardless of whether it appeared on the ballot (which in fact I did, a month or so before it was released.) Binti is going to be the first person from the Himba people to go to space. Against her family’s wishes, she’ll attend Oomza University, a school of great cultural renown run by the Khoush, the majority ethnic group. Halfway to the university, Binti and her fellow travelers are attacked by the Meduse, jellyfish-like aliens looking to confront the university for stealing a vital item of cultural significance from their leader. Again, a solidly-written story mixing action and adventure with questions about cultural interaction, appropriation, and imperialism.
  • Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson (Tor.com, 6/10/15)
    I’m not even sure how to compare this novella to the others on the ballot. It’s a light, hilarious yet touching story of a French soldier-turned-courtier with plumbing problems. He’s installed toilets all over Versailles, and every noble is clamoring to have this latest fashionable contraption. Powering this vast network of plumbing is a mischievous, child-like nixie, who may or may not be interested in doing the job Sylvain has set her to do. It’s strange and unusual and ridiculous (as is appropriate for a story set in the court of Versailles), and it’s also clever and tightly-plotted, and why am I having all these feelings for an “Enlightenment-era French slut” (author’s own words)?

My vote: If I had the ability to cast a vote, I’d pick “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” All the novellas I read were strong in their own ways, but Usman T. Malik’s story stands out for me as one that will continue to have an impact upon re-read and will stand the test of time the best. If I were going solely by enjoyment factor, I’d probably pick “Waters of Versailles” since it pushes all my buttons, and again I must ask why I have so many feelings about a story about MAGICAL PLUMBING?