Hugo Awards 2021: Best Novelette Nominees

There was an incredibly strong field in this category this year! I’m going to go ahead and review these from my least favorite to the one I hope will win, starting with Aliette de Bodard’s The Inaccessibility Of Heaven. In all honesty, her overuse of the em dash is a pet peeve of mine: it’s like reading a short story gasped out by Emily Dickinson, and throws me right out of the rhythm of reading. That said, the novelette, about witches and Fallen angels in a city below the heavenly City, has an interesting premise loosely related to Ms de Bodard’s Dominion Of The Fallen series. It was, ultimately, a little too Catholic for my taste: YMMV, ofc.

The next story on my list was A. T. Greenblatt’s Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super which posits a sort of grownup X-Men dilemma: what if superpowers erupted in one’s 20s and people around you feared and hated you for having them? Ms Greenblatt more explicitly ties this to the representation of historically marginalized, if not outright persecuted, identities, with more adult angst than adolescent. Overall, it’s quite a good story, if not groundbreaking. That said, I’d completely forgotten I’d read it once I was done reading everything else in this category, and had to be reminded by the handy pdf given to me by the Hugos.

Two Truths And A Lie by Sarah Pinsker is wonderfully atmospheric, and by far the scariest of these tales. It opens really strongly with a young woman, a habitual liar, offering to help a childhood friend clean out his family home after the death of the hoarder older brother who’d inherited it. Their excavations turn up memories (or otherwise) of a strange kids show from their youth. The creepiness starts to lose a little coherence towards the end, but it is overall an effective horror story that ruminates on the eternal struggle between conformity and freedom.

I adore Naomi Kritzer, and enjoyed the moral considerations of her novelette Monster. A middle-aged scientist must travel to China to find and put a stop to a childhood friend who used her gene-editing research for evil. It’s almost as much technothriller as it is spec-fic, but as always with Ms Kritzer’s writing, the sheer humanity of her characters and their relationships shines through.

The runner-up in this category, for me, was Meg Elison’s excellent The Pill. I don’t remember reading anything that’s so successfully dissected fatphobia and the dehumanizing ways society deals with larger bodies through the lens of science fiction before, and I’m really grateful she’s written this. Which is going to make my one complaint about it seem weird, perhaps, in the sense that the story makes a universal claim that I’ve found in my experience not to be true. The narrator of The Pill believes that fat kids have sex later in life than their skinny peers. Perhaps my own adolescence and friendships were different, but anecdotally, my sexually active peers were doing it regardless of size, and any lack of activity was mostly to do with reticence, not lack of opportunity due to perceived lack of attractiveness.

Speaking of opportunity, I hadn’t read Helicopter Story by Isabel Fall when it was initially published, partly because my daily life is crammed so full of reading books for work that I rarely have time to read fiction on the Internet. But also, when the controversy around the story abounded, I felt it wasn’t right for me as a cis woman to place myself into the discourse. Having now read the nominated work and caught up on the controversy, I’m… actually angry that critics chased Ms Fall off the Internet and away from writing (and my God, almost away from living! Ms Fall, if you’re reading this, know that I think you and your work have so much value!) This is a sensational novelette, interrogating gender and identity and the ethics of military action in one stunning package. I can see why certain marginalized groups might react badly to the idea of it — when you’re constantly attacked, feeling defensive comes naturally — but it would be really fucking swell if people with less skin in the game would judge art on its merits instead of having knee-jerk reactions to just the controversy before admitting they haven’t even read the work in question. Ah, well, at least that one big name author apologized. I have also had A Lot Of Thoughts on the recent Bad Art Friend debacle (#TeamDawn) and I must say that it’s been really demoralizing and weird to see all these famous, respected authors just repeatedly pants themselves in public. I know it’s hard to communicate with thoughtfulness and sincerity at all times — I sure as hell don’t manage it as much as I’d like to — but there’s a difference between offering coherent critique and publicly bandwagoning to bully. If you’re not adding anything useful to the conversation, shutting up is freeeeeee.

Anyway, Helicopter Story for the win, and I hope to God that the worst of us haven’t snuffed out the flame of Ms Fall’s writing career for good. Enjoy the links to each available story while they’re still up and let us know in the comments what you think!

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