2018 Hugo Finalists: Best Novelette

Unlike my reviews of the Hugo finalist novels and novellas, the Novelette category has works short enough that I think I can address them all in a single post – but it’ll be a slightly longer one than usual.  That does also allow me to put them in order of my preference on the ballot, though.  So, starting from the top and working downwards…

1. “Extracurricular Activities”, Yoon Ha Lee

Years before Shuos Jedao massacred both the enemy and his own troops at Hellspin Fortress, and four centuries before the events of Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, he was a commander in the Kel military.  As the story starts, he’d already gained a mostly-deserved reputation for both infantry tactics and special operations.  He’s assigned to an covert mission outside the heptarchate, in a neighboring real called the Gwa Reality, where he is to rescue a former classmate of his who had been in place as a spy – and who has apparently gotten into some trouble.

While the Machineries of Empire books have included occasional bits of Shuos Jedao’s past, I’m always up for more – he reminds me of Miles Vorkosigan in his brilliant, unconventional problem-solving abilities and also his generally brash attitude.  (He’s not quite as good at talking his way out of situations as Miles was, but with assassin-level unarmed-combat abilities in his toolbox, he hasn’t needed to be.)  And the Gwa Reality reminds me just a tiny bit of Cetaganda as well, with their obsession with poetry and aesthetics and their penchant for genetically engineered viruses as a weapon.

“Extracurricular Activities” has a wry sense of humor and an entertaining spy plot, with a few twists to keep Jedao and the reader alike on our toes.  And taking place as it does before the main trilogy, I think it’s mostly accessible to new readers as well; though the author uses faction names (Kel, Shuos, Andan) as shorthand for certain traits, they’re either understandable from context or not crucial to the story.

2. “Wind Will Rove”, Sarah Pinsker

Rosie is a middle-aged history teacher and fiddler aboard a generation ship.  She tries to connect folktales (such as the story of her grandmother playing fiddle on a spacewalk) with old Earth history, which is made particularly challenging by the Blackout, a massive data-loss incident earlier in the ship’s own history.  She sees herself as a bridge in the ship’s history, a conduit to old Earth history, trying to connect her memories of her grandmother (who was among the original passengers who left Earth) to the present and the future of her community.  Rosie contends with a minor rebellion in her class, led by a student insistent that learning history is pointless, as well as with memories of her own mother and others who rejected history in various ways.

“Wind Will Rove” is a meditation on history and the way our understanding of it changes over time and generations.  Using as an allegorical standin the evolving, branching lineage of a folk song – the lost original, “Windy Grove”, its offshoots “Wind Will Rove”, “Wendigo”, “When I Go”, and later interpretations like the hip-hop remix “Wild Will Roam” – Pinsker contemplates the meaning of history and the way each generation understands it anew.  The themes of the story will feel very familiar to anyone who’s spent time thinking about the musical Hamilton and how it fits into the dialogue of American history, as a reinterpretation of past events in a modern context that makes them more accessible while simultaneously (and, in my opinion, unavoidably) eliding parts of them that don’t fit into the narrative for various reasons.

This is the second story of Pinsker’s that I’ve read for the Hugo ballot this year, and while my sample size is tiny so far, I’m definitely getting a sense that the ambiguous, open-ended conclusion is a distinctive aspect of her style of writing.  In both cases, she’s ended the story at a pause from which it could proceed in any number of directions, and suggesting to the reader several possible ways the story could continue without dictating any of them with certainty.

3. “The Secret Life of Bots”, Suzanne Palmer

This was one of the novelettes on my nominating ballot (and in fact the only one to make it on to the final ballot).  I still like it quite a bit!  It’s the story of a bot aboard a spaceship assigned to investigate a biological infestation.  9 is the oldest bot on the ship, and a little unusual by the standards of its younger comrades, but its different perspective and multipurpose functionality enables it to employ some unique problem-solving in addressing the intruder.

“The Secret Life of Bots” is filled with gentle humor as well as a dose of adventure and a variety of mostly sympathetic bots.  It’s a cute story, and it succeeds at portraying the bots’ perspective as an interesting counterpoint to our more usual human outlook; the places where the human and bot approaches to the problem come into conflict are particularly rich sources of both humor and drama.

4. “A Series of Steaks”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad

The story is set in an ambiguously near future where 3-D printing of biological matter is possible.  Extruded food is perfectly edible, but many people still care that their fancy beef comes from an actual cow.  Helena Li Yuanhui produces counterfeit meat to try to earn enough money to escape her life and past misfortune.  Then, someone who knows her past blackmails her into taking on an impossible job…

The unmarked transitions between the main story and the handful of flashbacks detailing Helena’s backstory were a little confusing, but those flashbacks also helped to establish setting and background with a minimum of expository narration.  “A Series of Steaks” was a fun, quick story, with sympathetic characters and a satisfying ending.

5. “Children of Thorns, Children of Water”, Aliette de Bodard

I have been curious about Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series for a while, but for whatever reason never got around to reading House of Shattered Wings, the first novel in the series.  So unlike some readers, I went into this story – set between the first and second novels – completely new to the world.  This made the opening scenes a little disorienting, but the author did an excellent drop of dropping just enough bits of detail and explanation here and there that I was able to piece together the context in which the story took place.

The meaning of the story itself, on the other hand, I feel like I don’t entirely get.  At the surface level the plot was relatively straightforward – Hawthorn House is testing servants to hire (and potential future members of the House), and a couple members of a rival faction intend to take the opportunity to infiltrate the House.  But beyond that, there seemed to be a lot of important details of politics and the meaning of the House within which the story takes place, and while I could tell they were there I couldn’t really make much sense of them on their own..  The conclusion of the story looked to me to be primarily about setting up the main character for future plot complications.  Overall, while I am definitely intrigued (and will probably be picking up House of Shattered Wings soon), this story just didn’t do much for me as a standalone novelette.

6. Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, K.M. Szpara

This novelette juxtaposes the concept of vampirism with life as a transgender individual.  Unlike in many vampire stories, here the vampires are known to exist and live more or less openly in society, but with their behavior strictly regulated and often relegated to the corners of society all the same.  This slightly unusual approach to the setting enables discussion of transgenderism on multiple levels.  It’s not that the medical establishment doesn’t know vampires exist, for example, but rather that vampirism is a complication to normal medical issues, and one that most doctors will not address, being unqualified to do so, or unwilling to even bother, or both.  Thus also with being transgender.  The bureaucratic issues and society’s general distrust compounds more fundamental issues of feeling betrayed by one’s own body and struggling to gain any control over it.

Unfortunately, the story’s approach to feeling a lack of agency included multiple scenes of actual violations of bodily autonomy, which seemed to get smoothed over far more easily than I felt was warranted.  Perhaps there’s some additional aspect to the story’s subject matter that I’m missing here, but the shrug-and-move-on approach to those violations left a bad taste in my mouth.


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