My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Hugo-nominated short stories, 2013 edition

For the past few years I have paid for the privilege of voting in the Hugo Awards. This comes with access to a voter’s packet of digital copies of most of the nominated texts, from novels to short stories and even some of the related works. It’s much less expensive than it would be to buy all the books individually, not to mention hunt down the publications in which the various shorter works were published (though, as digital publishing makes it easier to publish short works standalone online, this is less of an issue).

I had already read two of the nominees for Best Novel: Redshirts and Throne of the Crescent Moon, both of which I enjoyed but neither of which I feel are quite “Hugo material”. I recently finished 2312, which I didn’t enjoy as much but, paradoxically, feel probably should get the award! I shall continue to work through the novels, but here on my blog I’ll write some posts about the other categories.

Normally each category has five nominated works. This year, only three short stories swung enough of votes to meet the threshold for nomination. All three are strong contenders, and all three are very different.

“Mono no aware” by Ken Liu

This is perhaps the most straightforward of the three nominees when it comes to conventions of storytelling and plot. The main character is the only survivor of Japanese descent aboard a generation ship launched from Earth on the eve of a catastrophic asteroid collision. He struggles with survivor’s guilt, made all the more potent by his memories of the sacrifices his parents made to get him aboard the craft. He also struggles with his sense of duty when it comes to preserving Japanese culture and transmitting it to the next generation. It’s difficult for the children aboard the craft to understand or take an interest in a planet of which they have no or very dim memories. Liu gives the sense that he is suffering from depression without actually saying this.

The climax of the story highlights the motifs of self-sacrifice, duty, and devotion. It’s a triumphant story about nobility cloaked in the costume of a tragedy. It’s poignant and sad but can also be uplifting. All in all, it definitely highlights Liu’s skill as a writer, showcasing his ability to create pathos in such a short work.

“The Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson

I haven’t read too much of Johnson’s work, but I have encountered her during previous years of the Hugo nominees. In particular, her story “Ponies” thrilled and chilled me. She definitely has a unique and fecund imagination and a good sense for portraying the Other as a mirror to our own society’s mores and desires. “The Mantis Wives” does this in a melodic, somewhat poetic style. This is a story that screams metaphor. I was a little disappointed, if only because it didn’t quite strike those same chords in me that “Ponies” did. I can appreciate the skill in this story but didn’t enjoy it in either a cerebral or an emotional sense.

You can read this in Clarkesworld.

“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard

I didn’t realize until I was about two-thirds through “Immersion” that I had read it before. I’m not sure when or where I encountered it. I’m not too conversant in de Bodard’s work, but I enjoyed this story. It’s a nice meditation on the subversive effects of colonialism through technology: the way we construct the interfaces to our devices is inextricably tied to our culture. Exporting those devices exports our culture as well, which can have debilitating effects on people from other cultures. The “immersers” in this story are particularly apt metaphors for this, since they literally manipulate the behaviour and body language of the person wearing them in order to make them more conversant in another culture’s lingo and language.

In such a short space, de Bodard manages not only to portray the dangers of this technology but the inherent potential as well. The main character’s sister is committed to taking an immerser apart and reverse engineering its translation components, but she is unable to do so because she can’t think like the Galactics that built it. It’s only by taking advantage of an otherwise tragic event (which I won’t spoil) that they even have a glimmer of a hope of succeeding. "Immersion" is striking; it has a beautiful kind of sadness to it that is both topical and timeless. As much as I enjoyed “Mono no aware”, there is no doubt in my mind that this story should be this year’s Hugo winner.

You can read this in Clarkesworld.

Stay tuned for posts about the novelette and novella categories!