Myth, starfaring bots, near-future Nigeria, fell fae, artistic immortals and the magic of the mind all feature in the 2022 Hugo finalists in the category of Best Novelette.
“Bots of the Lost Ark” by Suzanne Palmer sets its story on a large interstellar ship that just barely survived an encounter with hostile aliens and is trying to limp back to Earth while its human crew is in stasis. Unfortunately, certain things are not behaving as expected. Many of the small bots that take care of maintenance tasks have formed themselves into agglomerations that believe themselves to be the human crew. Nevermind that several agglomerations each claim to be the same crewmember. One “glom” believes itself the rightful commander, and is battling the ship’s own conscious systems for control of everything remaining. Moreover, different parts of the ship are damaged and offline, and some of those may harbor other things that are behaving unexpectedly. To top everything off, the ship’s sole course back to Earth takes it through the space of a lifeform that is implacably hostile to inorganic life. They have placed an ultimatum: submit to boarding and prove that organic life is in complete control, or be destroyed. Into this race against time comes Bot 9, original source of some of the shipboard anomalies, brought out of stasis in hopes that it can rectify the situation. Situations. I enjoyed this space adventure among non-human intelligences, even as I thought I had seen its elements used at least as well elsewhere: the servitor bots in Yoon Ha Lee‘s Machineries of Empire stories, conscious but uncertain ship intelligence by Ann Leckie, slightly lost self-aware machines by Becky Chambers, and chatty bot by Martha Wells.
John Wiswell mixes horror and recovery from abuse in “That Story Isn’t the Story.” Wiswell’s tale opens with Anton packing his stuff into a single black trash bag and escaping from the psychological clutches of Mr. Bird, who has kept him and several others in a New York townhouse. Grigorii, Anton’s friend from their school days, drives the getaway car. It’s a classic cult-like abuse situation, and the rest of the story shows Anton trying to build a semblance of a normal life while fighting his own self-doubting, self-destructive urges that tell him to return. Grigorii stick with him — Anton’s family saved him from an abusive situation when he was much younger — and gives him a mantra, the story’s title, that serves as protection against the efforts of other cultists to bully him into returning. Mr. Bird’s effects on the members are suitably creepy, and Anton’s struggle is sufficiently uncertain to make this a deeply felt tale.
Assists from faerie always have a price, but sometimes it’s possible to put one over on them, isn’t it? In “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde the price is paid across generations, generations of strivers and of old money, for the setting is some version of New York society — and of course it’s New York, because there couldn’t possibly be any other American city worth any writer’s time, could there? — and the medium of exchange is fashion, fashion so beautiful it’s magical. Or perhaps vice versa. Wilde’s story follows two cousins whose mothers wore gowns from the eponymous purveyors of haute couture and won husbands with the magic of attire. There, the sisters’ fates diverged; one became rich, the other vanished soon after he daughter was born. Now the cousins are coming of age, and the elusive brothers’ shop is back again, offering beauty at a price and, for the poorer cousin who is working toward a career in fashion, maybe much more. The magic and the beauty are the best parts of this story, the fitting of form and function — particularly the captions describing past dresses made by the brothers’ atelier — adds to the atmosphere. There’s no reason this story needs to be in New York, though, and I think it could have been stronger if it had been grounded in a different place.
In “Colors of the Immortal Palette” Caroline M. Yoachim tells of two artists who, in theory at least, get the better end of Woody Allen’s quip about not wanting to achieve immortality through his work. Yoachim names each section of the story for a color on a painter’s palette, a color that fits thematically with the scenes that she is developing. The tale begins in 19th century France, in the Parisian artistic and intellectual circles that produced Impressionism and much more of modern art. Mari, the first-person narrator, begins as a model, her half-Japanese background intriguing painters even as they regard her as little more than an object for their gaze. One of the artists, though, is an immortal, and she draws him in, melting the ice of his reserve, eventually learning much more about immortality. The story proceeds through the colors of centuries, a series of meditations on time and art and life. It’s deliberately paced, beautiful, and insightful.
“O2 Arena” takes place in a Nigeria of 2030 further ravaged by climate change, to the point that people have to fight for sufficient clean air to breathe. Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s first-person narrator is beginning law studies, a path that his parents hope will put him into a career of prosperity, or at least breathable air. The law, he learns, is no haven from corruption. Nor is it safe from other harms in this world: his closest friend, really his only friend in the law course, has terminal cancer. There’s an underground, a layer of society in which people fight to the death for a share of the wagers placed on the matches. Winnings are often enough for a lifetime supply of good air, and losers, Ekpeki writes, don’t need it anyway. Need drives Ekpeki’s protagonist to the fights, and there he meets unexpected fates. “O2 Arena” is directly told, conjuring the atmosphere, the striving and the desperation, but also the humor and support of a society pushed well past its breaking points. It’s dark, but I can easily imagine a darker one: the fights, for example, do not seem to be fixed in advance. The students seem actually to get degrees, and jobs afterward. “O2 Arena” is not as finely polished as, say, Welcome to Lagos, but its drive and science-fictional imagining made me like it and look forward to more from Ekpeki.
What if Eurydice didn’t want to come back? Catherynne M. Valente asks that question in “L’Esprit de L’Escalier,” imagining Orpheus as a pop music god, with other Olympians dropping in to listen to demo tapes or just hang out. It’s a delirious re-imagining of the myths. Eurydice is back, but not really. She can’t eat human food, has to move almost continuously to keep rigor mortis from setting in, and is otherwise distant from the land of the living. The story is rich, earthy, many-layered. Valente doesn’t just ask readers to imagine that Sisyphus is happy, she shows that he may be the happiest of the pantheon. Apollo blazes by, briefly. The novella asks who the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is really about, and what they really want. The answers aren’t pat, but they’re satisfying.