by Doctor Science
The shenanigans surrounding the Hugo Awards Nominations this year inspired me to buy a voting membership, which includes ebook versions of most of the nominees. Here's the Short Story list in the order I read them, with links to online versions so you can play along at home:
- "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)
- "The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com, 04-2013)
- "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)
- "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, Mar-2013)
Until I did this, I hadn't consciously realized how little pro short fiction I've read in the last 20 years, while I've been reading not just buckets but oceans of fan fiction. So I automatically read these short stories as though they're recommended fics from a fandom where I don't know the source.
Thorough spoilers below the cut.
Overall, I can kind of see why the ConservaMonsters (™ to describe Conservative SF fans mostly coming from Larry Correia's Monster Hunter Nation site and his Hugo recommendations) feel like the Hugos ain't what they used to be. In the first place, none of these four stories is about a straight white male, which may be something of a shock for guys who are used to seeing themselves represented by default. In the second place, none are IMHO science fiction, they're all some variety of fantasy. The latter is slightly disappointing to those of us (like me) who prefer SF stories to fantasy, but it's not a sign of the times: there have been plenty of SF stories nominated in recent years. But indeed it's true that the default SWM protagonist ain't what he used to be: last year's winner, for instance, was Mono no aware by Ken Liu.
All four of the stories are extremely well-written, I can't use literary ability as a screen to narrow my choice of winner. Bear in mind that my Hugo votes should be the form of a *ranked list*, not just a single winner. If I think a given work isn't worthy of a Hugo, I should end my list with "No Award" and not list the disdained work at all. Here are my thoughts about each story:
"The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" by John Chu is the kind of sf/f where you have a single magical or fantastic element, and the rest of the world operates by the laws of science/sf. In this case, the element is that, all of a sudden, every time a person tells a lie icy water rains on them "from nowhere", until they say something that is true.
Our POV is a gay Chinese-American man who hasn't visited his parents since the rain started falling, because he's scared to come out to them. He's finally in a relationship that he wants to be out about, he takes his boyfriend home for Thanksgiving, family drama ensues, his parents turn out to be not as surprised as he expected.
Reading "The Water" with the habits I have from fanfic, I'm not really satisfied with it because I feel there's something missing. Specifically, I found the protagonist's sister seems more interesting than he was. She's angry and borderline-abusive toward him, undercutting his confidence and his efforts to come out to his parents. But at the end, when his parents accept him so easily, I couldn't help thinking that no wonder the sister was angry and bitter: there is literally nothing she could do for their traditional Chinese parents that could make up for the fact that a daughter isn't as worthwhile as a son. But I never got the feeling that Matt, the POV character, recognized this, and I'm not at all sure John Chu sees it, either.
As a fanfic, "The Water" would be a great starting point, and would doubtless generate lots of discussion, meta, and spin-off fics -- with quite possibly a small flame war on the side -- but it's not really complete in itself.
"The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is IMHO more literary fiction, magical realism division, than it is sf/f, mostly because I'm not at all sure what actually *happens* and I had a kind of feeling that "it was all pretend and/or a dream" is the explanation for the world-building. It's set in Thailand and written in a very beautiful, but to me "distant", style. I haven't yet decided if I'll rank it above "No Award" or not, because it just doesn't feel to me like sf/f.
"Selkie Stories Are for Losers" by Sofia Samatar reads like something we'd classify as a "really good, femslash, double-selkie AU". I happen to love selkie stories, and Samatar plays with the trope really well: twisting it around, looking at how selkie stories are about abusive marriages, and all the ways a selkie/a woman would look for a way out.
"If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky starts out playful, and with a style that echoes the classic children's story The Runaway Bunny. But as it goes on it becomes darker, bitter, until it becomes really a meta-story: it's sf/f because it's a story about how we use sf/f to help us deal with disappointing or terrible things in what is called "Real Life".
For me, the Swirsky story has the most interesting style and structure of the four stories, the Samatar is the best in a more conventional way, the Chu is provocative but flawed, and the Olde Heuvelt isn't sf/f. So I'd rank them:
1 & 2: Samatar & Swirsky, rank keeps switching back and forth as I dither
4. No Award
5. Olde Heuvelt
What do you guys think?