2018 Hugo Finalists: Best Short Story

This year’s Hugo finalists for Best Short Story are a wide-ranging batch of stories, ranging from light-hearted and humorous to depressing and angry, but I enjoyed all six of them to various degrees. In order, starting from my top choice on the ballot:

1. “Fandom for Robots”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad

2017 seems to be a wonderful year for delightfully relatable, socially awkward machine intelligences.  “Fandom for Robots” is the story of Computron, a robot – the only sentient robot ever built, in fact – who is a fan of Hyperdimension Warp Record, an anime show streaming episodes once a week.  In two paragraphs (and a third consisting of a single sentence), Vina Jie-Min Prasad cuts to the core of that slightly obsessive (and only just a little alienating) feeling of fandom that so many of us are familiar with.  The story then rewinds a little to show us Computron’s discovery of the show, prompted by an enthusiastic teenage girl who suggests (at a public Q&A session at the museum where he is an exhibit) that he might enjoy the show since he resembles one of the characters.

Then Computron runs out of episodes.  Then Computron discovers fanfiction.

“Fandom for Robots” is a love letter to fandom of all kinds, and the way that people who feel isolated from “normal” human society can find comfort and friendship within it.  The story might come across to some people as a little pandering, particularly as a finalist for a fan-voted award, but the way Computron’s fandom and friendships develop is just so well-written, with sincere joy and love for the community.

2. “Sun, Moon, Dust”, Ursula Vernon

The archetype of the crotchety, wise old grandmother with no patience for anyone else’s nonsense – particularly from her own family – may well be one of Ursula Vernon’s favorites to write.  It’s certainly one of my favorite categories of her characters to read.  Though in this case, the grandma manages to avoid stealing the show by dying in the first scene, and her poor potato-farmer grandson, Allpa, is left with a magic sword and no notion of what to do with it.

Reluctant, well-meaning but slightly confused heroes might be another of my favorite Vernon archetypes, come to think of it.  And then there are occasional digressions into potato varietals, and spirits whose expectations about the hero are immediately turned on their head, and goats that think they’re far more clever than they actually are…

Basically, “Sun, Moon, Dust” is another classic Ursula Vernon story.  If you’re familiar with her other work and you liked it, you’ll enjoy this too.  If you aren’t familiar with her other work, this is a great introduction to her distinctive and entertaining style of writing.  If you’re familiar with her work and didn’t like it… well, our tastes are probably different enough that you should take the rest of my recommendations with a grain of salt.

3. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™”, Rebecca Roanhorse

Roanhorse’s story discusses the tragedy of modern American Indian culture in a white-dominated society.  Jesse is a guide at a business offering virtual-reality experiences of Indian life to predominantly white tourists.  He and his coworkers package up and sell a sanitized version of their own culture, hamming up their exoticism because it’s what their white customers expect.  They speak to their customers in broken English and adopt different names when their own names aren’t Indian-sounding enough (Jesse Turnblatt goes by “Jesse Trueblood” at work).  Jesse is uncomfortable with his job and his boss’s increasingly stereotypical ideas for experiences, but is afraid to speak up because he needs the job.

The whole situation is less an allegory than simply a fictionalized example of the problem Roanhorse writes about – indigenous people forced to cheapen their own culture and sell it to whites because the alternative is poverty and starvation.

But then a more thoughtful-seeming white man shows up, clearly dissatisfied with the cartoon-Indian experience Jesse’s company typically offers tourists, and engages Jesse in discussion outside of work.  He just wants to know more, he says.  Get to know an actual person, not the “How”-saying caricature Jesse typically portrays.  They talk over drinks, multiple times, and Jesse thinks he’s made a friend.  But here’s where the more allegorical part of the story comes in, as his new friend insinuates himself into Jesse’s life and starts to replace him both at work and at home, while provoking Jesse’s own behavior to degrade into the worst stereotypes of modern-day Indians

“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is a cautionary tale for the marginalized cultures exploited by white European society, about the dangers of participating in the commoditization of your own culture for consumption by others.  Coming to it as a white reader, the story has another message as well: look what you have done to us, Roanhorse says.  Look what you continue to do, every time you appropriate someone else’s culture for your own amusement.  Look at the lives your people have destroyed.

I suspect a lot of white American readers are going to feel attacked by this story.  Rather than getting defensive about it, I hope at least some of us can reexamine our own relationship with indigenous cultures and others that America has marginalized if not outright destroyed, and think about ways we can do better.

4. “Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim

A gentle, bittersweet story about clockwork folk, measuring out their lives in the house of their maker by the turns of their mainsprings.  We follow Zee through her entire life, starting from early childhood.  Zee is blessed by the maker with a mainspring that can hold more turns of her winding key than most people, so she is naturally full of energy and inclined towards adventure and exploration; this spirit leads her to the nomadic life of the carnival, and to Vale, a carny boy she meets there.  Zee and Vale build a son together, leaving the new body on the maker’s workbench for the installation of a mainspring, but in the morning they discover that their son, Mattan, has a particularly weak spring, only capable of a handful of turns.

Like many of Yoachim’s stories, “Carnival Nine” has a folk-tale feel to it – it’s written simply and conversationally, but still touches upon some profound concepts of human emotion. Here Yoachim addresses with her usual empathy the difficulties and sacrifices of raising a disabled child, including the tension it introduces into the parents’ relationship and the totality with which it can consume the parents’ lives and identities.

5. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, Fran Wilde

A bizarre story, deliberately disorienting from the beginning.  The narrator is a guide through some sort of museum of curiosities or circus sideshow which you, the reader, are visiting.  But the narrator is also part of the museum herself, and the reader is also somehow involved with – possibly even responsible for – some of the things on display.

As the tour goes on, the narrator’s running tour-guide patter grows more pointed and even a little hostile towards the reader.  I expected the story to be drawing to some kind of a twist or a reversal to contextualize the menagerie of weirdness on display – but ultimately, both within the text and as a reader of it, I was escorted to the end of the story and then unceremoniously booted out of the exit.  I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but it sure was an experience.

6. “The Martian Obelisk”, Linda Nagata

After catastrophic climate change, and diseases, and wars, humanity is in decline.  Susannah Li-Langford has been remotely controlling equipment from an abandoned mission to Mars to build a massive cenotaph for the human race.  She’s lost her husband, her children, everything in her life except for this one last effort to build an obelisk on Mars, an effort which has consumed her life for the last seventeen years.

Then a vehicle from another Martian settlement – thought dead and abandoned for nearly a year – shows up at the building site.  Has an AI gone rogue, or has someone on Earth taken control of the other settlement’s vehicles?  Is the Obelisk project at risk?

“The Martian Obelisk” is a pretty depressing and pessimistic story, but it does suggest that even in humanity’s bleakest moments, life can continue and there is still some hope for an eventual better future.  However, I found the means by which the story drives this point home somewhat trite and implausible; I felt it undermined the story’s hopeful message with its reliance on a convenient coincidence of timing.

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