Reviews and Reactions: 2021 Short Story Hugo Nominees
NB: These are for the 2021 Hugo awards, not the recently-announced 2022 Hugo awards. That one is coming soon.
I decided to write up my thoughts on each of the short stories nominated for the 2021 Hugo awards. Of course, here be spoilers, spoilers galore. If you don’t want these stories spoiled, go read them, and then come back here.
As an exercise, a friend and I read each of these stories and told each other what we thought the themes were, and I reference that throughout these reflections. Themes, as we define them, are thematic statements: the point the story is trying to make. Themes are distinct from thematic concepts, in that they are complete sentences rather than just nouns. They are distinct from premises, in that they are the take-away for the real-world, not a statement about the world of the story. And, to be clear, there can be more than one completely valid answer. Both my friend and I would posit what we thought the theme was, answering independently without consulting each other, and then we would discuss the story in greater detail.
What follows are the tangible results of those discussions: reflections about each story, somewhere between review and analysis. Each header is also a link, because all of these stories are available to read online. They are reviewed in descending ranked order of how good I thought they were, and the rankings are explained.
1. Metal Like Blood in the Dark#
I found this story deeply compelling as well as deeply enjoyable, and it touches on deep questions of how we should interact with evil and what to do about necessary evil and the corruption that results from it, and how much we should prepare our children for it. It does so while leaning heavily on its Sci Fi setting – the message itself depends deeply on the unrealistic setting where it’s possible for a child to grow into a quite capable near-adult without experiencing the concept of intentional deception.
A creator and father makes one male, one female creature, and raises them in blissful innocence, within the confines of a garden (or, as it were, a planet), with boundaries programmed in to prevent them from gaining too much knowledge of good and evil, keeping them innocent – innocent, or alternatively put, naïve.
This telling is more optimistic than the Biblical story. Knowledge of Good and Evil comes from practical experience and necessity, not disobedience. Somehow, Sister (but not Brother) works out (from first principles!) deception, lying to yourself to stay consistent, sabotage, and killing in self-defense.
Her initial reaction to lying was very visceral to me as a programmer. Programming is an exact discipline; most computer programs cannot recover from internal data corruption. If an error is not caught and handled, the corruption can spread, resulting in security breaches or arbitrary instability. Much of the history of software design is coming up with ways of partitioning this instability. The thought of causing corruption on purpose is so counter to all of this work!
And of course, that is how lies spread throughout the honest world in human life too; we’re just so used to dishonesty we don’t realize.
When Sister realizes lying is possible, she realizes that understanding lying is necessary to interact with others, and gradually realizes that lying is something she might be forced, by circumstances, to do. She realizes that it would therefore be impossible to go back to a world where the only falsehoods are errors, where errors do not need to be maintained on purpose. What a novel way to look at the loss of innocence!
I was surprised that, once she realizes how necessary lying is, she decides that in any case, she wants to protect Brother from it – another contrast to the Biblical story where Eve shares the fruit with Adam. I feel like even this drive to preserve innocence comes from a loss of innocence: The old Sister, the naïve Sister, would surely reason that this new “lying” concept was an important skill, that of course it would be practical for Brother to know about. But now that she knows how to lie, she decides to use this new skill to protect Brother’s innocence.
Because she is lying to Brother: She lies by omission about what happened concretely to the villain, but she also lies in a bigger sense by omission by not explaining lying to him, and how it is sometimes necessary. From this point on, her relationship with Brother will be a big lie by omission about the fundamental nature of the universe – and still a lie that she thinks is worth it, to preserve his innocence.
My friend says the theme of this story is “Teach your children to be good, and then when they confront evil, they will learn to be cunning without becoming evil themselves.”
But if the story is trying to say that, I don’t think it proves it. Brother does not learn cunning; Sister is merely luckier. And with Sister, I get the sense that she barely learns it on time, and that her ability to leverage it so successfully on her first life or death attempt is fundamentally, again, a lucky break.
I would agree that this story is about evil, particularly dishonesty, but I would say the theme is that even the concept of evil and dishonesty is fundamentally corrupting. That innocence, once lost, cannot be regained. The concept of saying something false on purpose, to a truly innocent soul, would itself be an irreversible corruption that she would then want to protect others from.
I ranked this one first, as did my friend, independently of each other. Later, I learned that it did in fact win the Hugo, well-deservedly. It stood head and shoulders above the rest, in my opinion.
2. Open House on Haunted Hill#
This story is about places. Places often seem to have personalities; the premise here is about what it would be like if houses literally did have personalities – if they had personalities and could act on them. This story is about belonging in a home, a home that is so loved that it begins to love you back. It is about finding a place to belong after being stricken by grief.
I enjoyed the detail that the couple was not yet married, but did have a child together. It showed the motion and dynamism of their lives when tragedy struck.
My friend said the theme of this story was “in our grief, it’s hard to see what’s good for us or to see when others are trying to help us, but goodness abounds in the world – just keep your eyes open.”
But I think there’s also lot about place: “Choosing a good environment is important especially if you’re emotionally developing or emotionally healing.” As someone who’s moved not only houses but states in the past year, that really resonates with me. As we’ve all suffered through the lockdowns and restrictions of Coronavirus, the importance of our environment for our sanity and stability, I think, has been magnified for all of us.
It is perhaps for that reason that I rank this one second instead of third; it was a really close one.
3. Little Free Library#
I really enjoyed this story. I couldn’t put it down – and my ADHD has really been getting in the way of my reading recently, so this is high praise.
I used to live in New York City, and I often would people-watch, and think about the lives of all the people I’d see on a day-to-day basis. Their worlds were completely separate from mine, even though, for a few moments, we were in the same physical space. In the buildings around me, completely different lives, completely different problems, completely different dreams are happening, and we get continuous brief windows to interact with them. And of course, the same is true in other environments as well; the other worlds are just less visible to us than they are in a big city.
Little free libraries are designed to encourage this, encourage this connection with strangers, to reach out into other worlds, with the power of books, and the power of art. Who knows what’s going on in the lives of the people who take your books, who drop other books off?
This story expanded on this theme. The narrator’s little free library, rather than simply connecting with the “other worlds” that the neighbors live in, connected in Narnia-like fashion to a literal other world.
Like many fantasy stories, this has an element of “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” As applied here, it is a reminder that the people we interact with might be going through a completely alien situation to ours, as symbolized through interacting with a literal alternative world.
A friend said the theme could be stated as “books are powerful tools, and it’s good to help others.” I said “one person’s community engagement art project is another’s life or death lifeline,” and I think this is true even if they aren’t some strange birds or dragons from another dimension.
After all, sometimes other people’s lives, in real life, are as strange to us as inter-dimensional birds or dragons.
The premise is super fun. I would have enjoyed a sequel: what is it like to raise the heir to the bird/dragon throne, in our world?
4. The Mermaid Astronaut#
The premise of the story is so loud here it crowds out the theme: “The Little Mermaid”, but in space! So full confession: I have actually not read “The Little Mermaid,” but I have seen the Disney movie. So from my point of view, the romance of being a crewmate of a starship fills in for the romantic Disney prince, which is definitely a statement about alternatives to finding a partner as a purpose for life.
My friend says it’s about remembering your family and where you came from – specifically, “It’s important to explore and grow, but at the end of the day, never forget your roots.” I had a similar thought, but a bit starker: “Following your dreams often requires great sacrifice, in the form of missing out on the entirety of what your life otherwise would be.” This happens twice: she misses out on her entire life with her sister to go to space, and she misses out on having a full life in space to ever see her sister again. No, this story says, you can’t “have it all,” even if that isn’t defined to include raising children.
The big reveal was that she was separated from her sister by time dilation, so that she is still young when her sister is old. One thing I found unrealistic is that no one warns her, and that she’s not angry. Both the witch at the bottom of the ocean and the crew of the ship knew about time dilation, but apparently it’s only explained to her right on time for her to get back to her sister while the sister is barely still alive.
The end result is appropriate thematically, as it stands in for careers or dreams when we realize only when it’s almost too late – or entirely too late – that we need to re-connect with the people that we love and that we have left behind.
But that theme wouldn’t have been dampened by some more conflict, but rather enhanced. If she were angry that she hadn’t been warned, that would apply equally well to real-life careers. If her crewmates were more resistant to her going back so early (and diverting their entire ship), that would, again, apply equally well to real-life careers.
All in all, everyone was too chill about these high-stakes life-altering decisions. The knife to cut her fins and the pain was good, but the emotional pain of conflict would have been even better. In all honesty, I suspect this story would improve with expansion – I think it would work better as a novella or even a novel, so all these major life twists could be fully fleshed out.
Because of these technical issues, and the lack of originality in the premise without that substantial a twist (“The Little Mermaid” is also originally about sacrifice and irrevocable major life choices), this one ranks on the lower end. The twist was still enjoyable, but not as deep or as well-executed as it could have been.
5. A Guide for Working Breeds#
This story was fun, but didn’t seem that rich.
It wasn’t clear, as my friend pointed out, in what way these were robots and not just regular people. This wasn’t meant entirely literally; the story makes constant minor references to them being robots, like how they don’t eat food (but somehow still like omelettes) or get static damage to their GPUs, but they’re not robots in a way that is interesting to the plot. Robots are just another oppressed minority group, taken advantage of by bosses via machinations of questionable legality. The story could’ve worked equally well set in a medieval setting with some oppressed ethnic group. It’s not using the Sci Fi for the purpose.
My friend said the theme was “always be nice to those you meet; goodness is paid forward.” That’s definitely there, but I think there’s more to it. The continuous references to labor laws, plus the odd gladiator fights the mentor is involved in, make me think the author is going for (and hitting) something deeper than that. “Solidarity is necessary in the working class” I think is closer to it. “Leverage the system fully to acquire wealth and then share with your working-class comrades.”
Unfortunately, it seemed too easy in general, but particularly in not requiring the Sci Fi content for its theme (a bad sign in my book). Why did the original mentor come around and turn from an annoyed conscript into the mentorship program to a true friend to the mentee? No solid explanation is given, besides raw empathy, robots' robotity to robots. And enjoyment of dogs is there, I suppose, as a facile personality quirk, but not fully developed or explained.
6. Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse#
This story wasn’t for me.
This is literally true, in that it seems to be for women about womanhood, and I am not a woman. It is also more broadly true, in that I am not a huge fan of zombie apocalypse stories in general (though I’m not categorically opposed either), and specifically I wasn’t a huge fan of this story.
This story focuses on a group of women who have decided to live in an explicitly matriarchal and (at least initially) all-woman group to better survive the apocalypse, which reminds me of the ancient Greek legend of the Amazons, or the Many Mothers from Mad Max: Fury Road. This group uses explicit feminist solidarity as their impetus to band together to survive the zombie apocalypse.
In general, I found the story cringily on-the-nose. I thought the way it re-applied the feminist rallying cry “my body, my choice” to be forced, rather than insightful. In general, I found it somewhat incredible (and therefore also forced) that even an all-woman group would be talking so much about feminism and feminist topics while surviving a zombie apocalypse. It seems more likely that they’d be more focused on being people than being women, as their gender wouldn’t be the most relevant factor in the situation.
There was one point within the story where it was revealed that the protagonist had once had to come out to her racist preacher father; it was extra difficult, because she was not only dating a woman, but dating a Black woman. I know that these situations are all too common in our society, but I also felt like in this story, this was gratuitous. It was played entirely straight, just referenced as a situation that would obviously be difficult, in a way that conveyed nothing new about such a situation, no particular insight. I already know that such situations exist, and are hard, and I already know that a lot of people go through similar situations. Show me some depth, some new realization about it!
And that holds for this story in general. I already know that women can be survivors too, that women is just as useful in an apocalypse as a men, in some ways more useful. I’m even willing to believe that a group of all women might have even better survival characteristics, but this story didn’t convince me of it – it just asserted it.
I enjoyed this activity, and I feel like I have new insights into Sci Fi, particularly that stories are better when the Sci Fi elements of it are more core to the theme. I hope to do more of these short story reviews in the future.
NewsletterFind out via e-mail when I make new posts!