Hugo Awards 2022: Best Short Story Nominee

Hugo packets are out, hurray, and I have till August to read everything! Having already consumed and voted for the nominees in the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category and reviewed the first in the Graphic Story category, it’s time to look at the Short Stories, which I’ll discuss here alphabetically by title. Links are included to each story as available.

The first of these is Mr Death by Alix E Harrow, a writer I often find hit or miss. Mr Death starts out as a hit for me before slowly devolving into a sentimental miss. It’s essentially the tale of a man who gets recruited to become a Reaper, one of the guides that watches over the souls of those about to die and is on hand to immediately bring them over the river to a Nirvana-like eternity. His record is exemplary… till his latest assignment, which hits far too close to his own pre-afterlife. I mean, it’s fine, and were I in a different state of mind, perhaps I would have found the ending more hopeful than mawkish. As it was, the story did not land for me, tho I appreciated the attempt to grapple with grief.

Jose Pablo Iriarte’s Proof Of Induction is second on this list and second in my esteem. It’s a near-future sci-fi tale which also tackles grieving and the afterlife, but in a way that feels far more complex and human. It’s a bit of an academic’s Rogue Moon (by Algis Budrys, natch,) only instead of searching for a MacGuffin, the protagonist is searching for something even more impossible to attain. Plus, I have a hard time resisting stories where math is a central ornament.

The Sin Of America by Catherynne M Valente is extremely American, and for once I do not use the phrase to cast even the dimmest of aspersions. A young woman has been selected to eat a meal that represents the sins of our nation, in the process cleansing the rest of her fellow citizens of their guilt, in a sort of 21st century update of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery via the old practice of sin eating. The story unflinchingly looks at the crimes, past to present, of the United States and coolly extrapolates a horrific way of dealing with them, given the nature of the average American. On its own, it is very good — third on my list of favorites — but sometimes I worry about Ms Valente’s inclinations to punish her heroines.

The nomination of the next entry, Seanan McGuire’s Tangles is a bit of a puzzler for me. The story itself is objectively good, but requires, if not a working knowledge of Magic: The Gathering and its Innistrad setting, at the very least Heonhwa Choe’s sublime art to literally and figuratively illustrate the proceedings. Even my passing familiarity with the setting wasn’t enough to truly fill in the gaps of the story’s background: I can only imagine it’s that much more opaque for people who don’t play Magic.

Blue Neustifter’s Unknown Number started life as a Twitter thread, which is something I absolutely love. A strange text from an unknown number is the spark for a deep and meaningful conversation between two people on the concept of gender identity. It’s a wonderful, affirming way to discuss transitioning via a sci-fi conceit. That said, it feels oddly limited, and I’m not sure I have the words for why. Not in its format certainly, but it seems to take the narrowest scope of all the stories written here, with the fewest surprises to be had in its narrative.

Finally, my favorite of the six stories nominated here is Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker. I’ve been mostly lukewarm about her work in the last few years but was absolutely sucked in by this clever story-within-a-story, that was published in the same issue of Uncanny Magazine as Ms Valente’s above. The tale itself is an annotated page on a website devoted to song lyrics, as various enthusiasts discuss and dissect the (fictional) English folk ballad that gives the story its title. The horror creeps up on you slowly, even as you have to deal with the sometimes hilarious, sometimes fatuous commentary of the site posters. I’m still a bit miffed at Rhiannonymous, who was allegedly the linguist of the group but only seemed to care about the present-day usage of words, bereft of cultural context — this irritation, ofc, only served to ground the story in verity (especially since I was listening to folk ballads at the time, following a Joan Baez reference in the text, and felt a literal chill when she started singing about Henry Martyn, one of the user handles in the story.)

So that’s another category done! I’m off to vote. You can expect more Hugo discussion soon, as I fit in the reading between work assignments.

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  1. We had really different reactions!

    1. Yes, your choices do continue to baffle me ;P.

      1. Reader, I lol’d.

        I have no idea about Innistrad, and yet I did not feel lost in the story at all. Whereas eventually my eyes just slid right off of “Oaken Hearts.” And I spend way too much time in long blog discussions! I think “narrow scope” gets at why we both thought “Unknown Number” was good but limited. Like the odd quirk about Rhiannonymous marks them as a slightly more rounded character, whereas the two characters in “Unknown Number” are both flat except for their struggles with being trans.

        “Punishing heroines,” yeah. Lots to unpack there. Like, the story reflects a lot of misogyny in the world, But telling a story that puts that misogyny is a choice. Valente has written The Refrigerator Monologues, which is absolutely furious about punishing women characters to advance male characters’ storylines, and I don’t think September (of Fairyland) gets punished any more than your average fantasy protagonist. The woman at the center of Radiance, I’m not so sure about. Definitely a theme worth thinking about.

        Baffle away!

        1. Yeah, I was wondering if my slight familiarity with Innistrad was to my detriment, as my brain kept asking things like “Is he a blue/white wizard?”, “Why would cathars hunt a white witch?” and, the perennial question, “Why are blue wizards so annoying?” I think if I knew less, I could have accepted the setting unquestioningly.

          Of the stuff I’ve read of Ms Valente’s, only Space Opera did not feature a heroine who was assaulted a/o physically humiliated as part of the narrative (perhaps by virtue of the novel’s two main protagonists being men.) The Sins Of America, Deathless and The Future Is Blue (which I read when it was printed as a standalone: I have not yet read The Past Is Red) all place their heroines at the receiving end of violence, often as a punctuation mark. It is starting to seem like a bad habit. I do not care for it.

  1. […] Doreen’s reactions to this year’s Hugo finalists in the short story category are here. […]

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