• Steve Haywood

Short Stories – Hugo & Nebula Nominees 2019

The shortlist for the 2019 Hugo and Nebula Awards are out, so this week I decided to read and review them all. There’s six shortlisted for each award, though three are the same across both of them, which means there’s nine stories to read. I’ve already read one of them (the excellent A Witches Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E Harrow) so just eight new ones to read. I’ll cover them one by one.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by Phenderson Djeli Clark

Hugo & Nebula  Award nominee

Available to read for free online at Fireside Fiction

This is a very interesting story. It starts from a quote from the Mount Vernon (Washington’s Estate) Account book about the purchase of nine negro teeth, for Washington’s dentures presumably. This story tells the history of each of those teeth and consequently their original owners. This would have made an interesting historical fiction story if had stopped there, but there’s more to this story. This is a world in which the fantastical exists including mermen, fay folk, sorcerers and more. Many of the teeth are cursed or bewitched in some way, or impart some of the magical properties of the owner. This is a really good story, even if it didn’t make me think wow I love it. 

And Yet by A T Greenblatt

Nebula Award nominee

Available to read for free from Uncanny Magazine

I don’t know whether it is popular at the moment, but this isn’t the first story I’ve read recently that’s written in the second person. It is supposed to lend immediacy and intimacy by placing you, the reader, directly in the story. You reluctantly go back into that haunted house that scared you so much as a child… that sort of thing. Anyway that’s how this story has been written. I used to hate second person, but I really didn’t mind this and forgot about it after the first couple of paragraphs when I got into the story… which is about a man who goes back to the haunted house which he had a bad experience in as a child, except this isn’t a ghost story, something else is going on here. Different versions of his history is in each room, splinters of different universes.

A Witches Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E Harrow

Hugo & Nebula Award nominee

Available to read for free here from Apex Magazine

I’ve previously read and reviewed this. You can read about it here, but it is a really, really good short story, pure joy to read. If you were ever a teenager who hung around libraries (rather than street corners with cans of beer) then you’ll particularly like this one I think.

The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker

Hugo & Nebula Award Nominee

Available to read here free from Lightspeed Magazine

A street kid is attracted to the sleight of hand tricks performed by the conjurers and magicians in the marketplace. He gets taken under the wing of Great Gretta and learns all of her tricks, though he’s disappointed when he learns that it isn’t real magic. One day, he gets asked if he would like to learn real magic and train to become a Court Magician. He accepts eagerly, not realising the price that he’ll have to pay each and every time he performs magic for the Regent.

This is a really interesting story with a very unusual magic system. If you the reader have ever dreamed of becoming a magician and performing real magic, you wouldn’t want to be a Court Magician in this story! The story was well told and very interesting.

Going Dark by Richard Fox

Nebula Award nominee

The last two Nebula nominees are taken from anthologies, so not freely available to read. This one is from the anthology Backblast Area Clear. It’s a military SF anthology, not typically my favourite type of SF, but the anthology was only £0.99 on Kindle, so figured it was worth it to read the story. Going Dark features Hoffman, a soldier in a war between the alien Naroosha and the Terran Union. Most of the fighters are artificial combat constructs, but losing comrades, even artificial constructs, is never easy.

If you like Military SF, you are going to like this story, it’s got big guns, battle, tactics, but it’s also got a bit of heart too. This isn’t going to be my favourite of the Nebula Picks, but by the end, I quite liked the story, which was impressive in itself.

Interview for the End of the World by Rhett C Bruno

Nebula Award nominee

This is another story that you need to buy the anthology to read the story, £3.99 this time, but it sounds like the kind of anthology I’ll like, so I stumped up the cash for it. It is from the anthology ‘Bridge Across the Stars: A Sci-Fi Bridge Anthology’. I’m so glad I did. I’ve never read anything by Rhett C Bruno before but really enjoyed this story. It’s set at the end of the world, a few decades in the future, as a giant asteroid is hurtling towards Earth to destroy life as we know it (there’s no Bruce Willis to save the day here…). The story is told from the perspective of Director Darian Trass. He’s a billionaire who made it his mission to build a giant spaceship to take the best and the brightest of Earth to form a new colony on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. There’s only three thousand spaces, and he’s personally interviewing all the candidates, a very emotionally tough task (he remembers all those he turned down, their faces burned into his brain). As the ship prepares to leave, a huge mob encircles the spaceport, trying to get onto the spaceship as the world killing asteroid looms ever closer in the sky.

This is a story with a literally earth shattering event as the backdrop, but it is as much a character story about the struggles of Director Trass to face up to the task. At a certain point, I guessed roughly how it was going to end, but that didn’t really matter. It was a story about tragedy, but also hope. It was a good story that felt good to read too. This is the sort of thing SF should be about. After having finished the story, I found out that this was a prequel story to the author’s Children of Titan series, which starts with the novel Titanborn. After reading a short story, I’m often interested in picking up the author’s novels, but in this case it’s shot right near the top of my To Be Read list, no mean feat!

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T Kingfisher

Hugo Award nominee

Available to read free here courtesy of Uncanny Magazine

This is a rather funny story set in a land of elves and fairie folk – you know, the sort where the otherworldly creatures lure unsuspecting human maidens to come and make love to them, before discarding or disposing of them? That might have worked well since time immemorial but that was before they met Rose MacGregor… The fairie folk in this story are sat round a campfire sharing stories of their experiences with Rose. Needless to say, their charms and enchantments did nothing for her, and if anything it was they who were discarded.

I liked this story a lot, it was sort of sweet and funny and involved turning the tables on those dastardly fairie folk. The story ended on a good note too, where it just sort of clicked into place.

The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat by Brooke Bolander

Hugo Award nominee

Available to read for free from Uncanny Magazine

This is the story of three raptor sisters (raptors are another name for birds of prey, and these sisters are certainly that). The story is told mainly from the perspective of the youngest sister, Ceecee. “She was the smallest of the three and the most dangerous for it. Her favorite thing in all the world beside her sisters was raw woodsman.” One day a particularly stupid Prince came into their woods and rather than running screaming when she started off by eating his horse, he just looked confused. Thinking it might be a trap and he might be poisoned meat, she doesn’t kill him but takes him back with her. The sisters then decide that Ceecee should accompany him back to his home to uncover any plot against them…

This is probably the longest of this year’s short story nominees, building up slowly but really well written and it is a joy as the story unfolds. It is very much akin to a more modern (in style) take on a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm.  I liked it.

STET by Sarah Gailey

Hugo Award nominee

Available to read for free from Fireside Fiction

This is the most unusual story of the bunch in terms of style. It takes the form of a very short academic style article (more of a snippet really than a full article) with lots of accompanying footnotes and editors notes. It examines the problem of autonomous driver-less cars and the algorithmic conundrum of who to prioritise saving in the event of an accident (the so called “trolley problem” which has been around in philosophy for a long time, but becoming much more relevant with the advent of autonomous vehicles). The writer of the article is someone who has personally suffered bereavement (the death of a child, as the warning at the start of the story points out) and this personal angle gets into the writing, particularly in the footnotes and the comments of an editor who is clearly a friend of, and worried about, the writer.

This is a very cleverly written & constructed story on a very relevant cutting edge topic. It successfully manages to make the character of the narrator come through, something which I imagine is quite difficult in this documentary style of story. It no doubt receives lots of well deserved plaudits for its combination of unique style and relevant topic of AI ethics. Likewise, I liked it, found it interesting and has certainly made me think.

My Favourites

So here’s the really tough question. Which was my favourite? In deciding this, I’m going which which I personally enjoyed the most, rather than thinking about stylistically which was the best, which advanced the genre the most, or which was the most cutting edge. That’s my way of looking at it, others will have different criteria. They were all high quality stories, and I can’t pick just one favourite, so I’m going to go for two. They were:

A Witches Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E Harrow

Interview for the End of the World by Rhett C Bruno

We’ll have to wait until later in the year to see who the winners are though!

That’s it for now, next time I’ll probably be back to picking general ‘whatever takes my fancy’ stories and rating them, though I will probably come back and look at the Novella/Novellete categories, and maybe even work my way through the rather longer list of Locus Recommended Reading list

#awardwinners #SFF #shortstories

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