In my fourth time as a Hugo voter, I can see that while I like formal experiments in fiction and am glad to find them as finalists on the ballot, they don’t rise to the very top of my preference list. I’m not sure if that’s because the attention needed — both author’s and mine — to deal with the formal aspects means there’s not enough left at the end for me to say, “Yes! This is the best story on this year’s ballot” or if there is something else going on.
I’ve been part of online discussions (threaded and otherwise) for more than a quarter century now, so I thought the premise of “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker was pretty neat. It’s an online discussion of a fictional folk song, with various people adding footnotes, comments, comments on the comments, and so forth. The discussion, as Wikipedia puts it, “gradually uncovers a dark secret.” I’ve been in online communities where actual dark secrets, though not about centuries-old ballads, have come to light — sometimes even things the commenters didn’t realize about themselves. In this case, though, my attention strayed during all of the recursion, and I found myself doing what most people do with extended footnotes.
Likewise with “Unknown Number” by Blue Neustifter. It’s a story told as a series of text messages, and was originally published on Twitter. Both of those are neat ideas. The first is essentially a contemporary version of an espistolary (why do I always want to add a syllable and make it “epistolatory”?) story, while the second is a novel but certainly legitimate approach to putting a story out into the world. Neustifter has roughly 9000 followers on Twitter, which I imagine compares favorably with the circulation of magazines of fiction. “Unknown Number” begins here, and is threaded for readers’ convenience. It’s a conversational story that contains the memorable line “you know that therapy is [than] proving multiverse theory, right?” And the reply “it sure didn’t feel that way to me” comes close to summing up the story. It’s funny, and it’s clever, and it’s touching. As a story that’s a recorded conversation, it’s very direct; these are not subtle people talking. “Be your true self!” and “Get help when you need it!” are important messages for people to hear, but also not the pinnacle of the storytelling art.
“Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte brings the math and one science fiction twist on the mundane world. In the story, neuroscience has advanced enough to make a snapshot of all of a person’s knowledge and personality, and computer science has advanced enough to put all of that in a consumer electronic device. Snapshots are taken immediately after a person’s death during a five-minute period of time when brain impressions can be recovered. The snapshot is known as a Coda. “The Coda allows you to interact with a simulacrum of your father, with his memories and personality at the end of his life. … He can tell you if he had a life insurance policy, where the will is, things like that. The Coda cannot change in the way that a person can, however; it cannot learn or grow.” Paulie, the protagonist, is a mathematician whose career is on the verge of self-destructing, threatening the stability of his family life. His Codafied father was also a mathematician. Until his final illness, he and Paulie were working on a proof that would amount to a major breakthrough. Paulie enters the Coda to solve his problems, mathematical and otherwise. I liked this close examination of how a science-fictional notion might play out in a mundane situation.
“The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente brings much more style and art to the storytelling, giving readers a mythologically-inflected incident in a small-town diner in America’s mountain west, told in sometimes incantatory prose that moves back and forth in time. It’s a lush, gorgeous and horrifying retelling of “The Lottery,” although the prominence of Jackson’s story means that there’s less surprise about where “The Sin of America” will end up.
I will borrow Doreen’s summary of “Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow. “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 guess I was in a different state of mind, because I found the ending lovely.
Why did I give my top vote to “Tangles” by Seanan McGuire? It’s a straight-up well-constructed story that is part of a larger world but complete in itself. It’s not didactic or simple; its ending has ambiguities. Characters reveal parts of themselves in small gestures or things they let fall in their speech, but in the limited space of a short story McGuire gives readers the sense that these people — a wizard and a dryad — are much more than just the traits needed to make the story work. There are misunderstandings and emotional moments, some that point toward the resolution of the story, others the product of people under stress. “Tangles” is not a finely cut gemstone of a story, where every facet works together to create its ending. It is more a gloriously wrought cup, with details that compound its beauty without either adding to or detracting from its purpose. It could also be one of a set, or a singular item. I drank deeply from McGuire’s story and came up refreshed.
Doreen’s reactions to this year’s Hugo finalists in the short story category are here.