“The Tomato Thief” by Urusla Vernon will have my first-place vote for this year’s Hugo award in the category of best novelette. It is a sideways return to the world of “Jackalope Wives,” which won the Nebula in 2014 for best short story, and is the only other story of hers that I have read.
Both are set in what feels like a mythologized version of the American Southwest. The timing is vague; this story features trains, and they have been around for a while. But people also mostly get around by foot or by animal transport. If this is the modern world, it is very distant for one reason or another.
It’s very tightly focused, mostly on Grandma Harken.
Grandma Harken lived on the edge of town, in a house with its back to the desert.
Some people said that she lived out there because she liked her privacy, and some said that it was because she did black magic in secret. Some said that she just didn’t care for other people, and they were probably the closest to the truth.
And of course on tomatoes.
Tomatoes are thirsty plants and they don’t always want to grow in a desert. You have to give them criminal amounts of water and they’ll only set fruit in spring and autumn. Summer heat is too much for them and if they don’t die outright, you’re pouring gallons of water a day into the sand just to keep them alive.
Grandma Harken had spent the better part of fifty years growing tomatoes and she had a spot in her garden that held water just a fraction longer than anywhere else. It got shade in the worst of the afternoon and sun in the earliest part of the morning.
Her tomatoes were the biggest and the juiciest in town. She started them on the windowsill on New Year’s Day and she planted them out in February. They ripened in spring and she pulled the plants up as soon as the last one had been picked.
The same people in town who muttered about black magic swore that she was using unholy powers on her tomatoes. This was a little more plausible than general black magic, because obviously if you had unholy powers, you’d want to use them on your tomatoes. But Grandma Harken was extremely useful to have around and knew more about dangerous desert spirits than anyone else, so people shushed their whispering neighbors and smiled politely when Grandma passed.
But after all that effort, her newly ripening tomatoes are disappearing. No footprints, and the birds don’t really go in for her tomatoes. She tries to stay up through the night to catch the thief, only to fall asleep sometime in the dark hours.
Things, of course, are not as they seem. Grandma figures out who the thief is, but that, in a way, is just the beginning of the story. The who is not as interesting as the how, which in turn is not as interesting as the why. And what happens next.
I liked the spareness of the style, how that fit with the desert setting and the terseness of the characters’ dialog. I liked how the mythic slides in with the mundane, how tomatoes lead to something deeper and stranger. I like that there’s a lot more going on in this world, and that Vernon only shows us just a little, just what it takes to tell her story. I like how myth, magic and technology rub up against each other in this dry corner of the continent:
When the train-gods woke, it was no wonder who they chose to be their priests. Chinese, black, Irish—even a Cornish woman way up north, where the snow piled up everywhere but on the tracks. People who had, with toil and tears, earned the gods’ regard. …
Anyway, the system worked. You could get a train from one side of the country to the other, though it wasn’t always the same train or even the same country out the windows. Freight got moved, more or less. Sometimes it wound up in the wrong place or was summarily dumped in the middle of nowhere. The machines were capricious gods. (This was part of the reason for the price of coffee.)
They were very good about letters, though. Anna’s grandson was the current train-priest, and he said that his god thought letters were prayers and moved them as a kind of professional courtesy.
You appreciated that sort of thing in a god.
Coyote shows up too, as he should in a story like this one.
I liked the complexity underneath the story’s simplicity, the amount of unexpected life in the desert; I liked the simplicity underneath the complexity, how things fold, and then fold back again. I hope that Ursula Vernon will share more of what happens to Grandma Harken, and the people and places that surround her.
My vote almost went to “The Art of Space Travel,” by Nina Allan, which is also a story of regular life in a very different setting. London, in a nearish future, with a second manned mission to Mars hoping to avoid the disastrous fate of the first. The first-person narrator works in a hotel near Heathrow, and some of the astronauts will be staying there briefly on their way to the launch site. Allan uses this window to look backward into the narrator’s life, and particularly at her mother who is sliding into dementia but may have had a connection to the first Mars mission. It’s a lovely story, full of believable moments and intersecting with a convincing future. I won’t be in the least bit disappointed if it wins the Hugo.
The novelettes were the sixth bit of Hugo reading that I have done this year, and the fourth I have written about.