The Hugo Awards are an interesting set of awards. Decided by those who choose to attend or to support the operation of a given year’s World Science Fiction Convention, the Hugos are a blend of a popularity contest and an industry award, voted on by fans and professionals alike. Even though the award is essentially a popularity contest–to the point where it has been famously skewed by voters working towards a political agenda–it still has a lot of clout within the sci-fi community. Despite some ballot-rigging, the finalists, and doubly so the winners, tend to be a representation of the great things happening in sci-fi.
The Best Short Story finalists are an especially stacked group; short stories as a whole have gotten a lot of support and resurgence in recent years, with a rise in mostly-online short story houses such as Uncanny Magazine and Fireside Fiction. They’re also perhaps one of the easiest and most egalitarian categories, since every finalist is available online to read, and relatively easy to read, too.
In recognition of that fact, this isn’t going to be a bunch of in-depth reviews, since, if any of these stories sounds remotely interesting, you have no excuse not reading them. I have no excuse either. That’s why I’ve read all of them, and I’ll give you my non-review thoughts in brief.
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker is perhaps my least favorite of the finalists, but it’s still very good; just mostly told in an impersonal style I don’t prefer. It’s got a good ending, though, which is a plus.
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher , is very enjoyable, and a bit meta–a story for fans of fairy stories. It’s not overly complicated, but it still has room for implication and good fun in the unspoken words of the story.
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander is the one I enjoyed reading the most, if we qualify “enjoyable” as separate from “best.” It is very, very fun, and honestly, everyone deserves to read a fairy tale starring velociraptors, especially one told from the reptilian perspective.
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark , is really, incredibly good. Invoking the ghosts of the people behind George Washingon’s smile, and reclaiming their stories as full of life and meaning beyond their relation to Washington, while tormenting Washington with the specter of his complicity, is a somewhat complex idea, but P. Djèlí Clark has done a fantastic job making it seem effortless.
Out of all of the nominees, “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow will probably be the one I reread the most in years to come. I do work in a library, and my secret heart of hearts still believes they’re magical spaces, so I am precisely the sucker to let this story wrap its way around my heart. But there’s some rightful criticism of the story–in fact, it’s been posted as comments on the story. For one, while it tries to dissemble from the idea of a white savior by being aware of it, it doesn’t totally escape the form. And two, the story, perhaps unknowingly, hits on a hot-button debate within librarian circles about our status as saviors. Suffice to say that the depiction of librarians in this isn’t going to sit well with every librarian.
So I think the winner, ultimately, has to be “STET” by Gailey Frey. You should read it. You should read it as soon as possible, and you should read it on a laptop or desktop (the mobile version is more difficult to parse thanks to the unique formatting). “STET” is a story that uses footnotes to break your heart. “STET” is speculative fiction made personal. It’s an incredible thing, and a new thing, and a bold thing, and I hope it gets recognized for the great thing it is.
You can ask the author to go on a Twitter rant about all of the above here, or you can just take your grievances to the comments section.
I agree with you on basically all of this!! STET did it all and so much more. I love Pinsker’s work but thought The Court Magician was one of the weaker of her stories that I’ve read. My favorites of hers are Wind Will Rove (novelette-free online via Asimov’s) and And Then There Were (N-one). She has a collection coming out that I’m excited about.
Overall I’m not quite as impressed with this slate as I have been in the recent years I’ve been closely following SFF (since like…2016). On the other hand I didn’t dislike any of them, and I’m reading a Nebula finalist novelette right now that I haaaate.
I’ll have to read more of Pinsker’s work–I feel like I’ve read her somewhere but I couldn’t tell you what it was off the top of my head.
It was interesting to me that in this slate about half the stories were…perfectly fine, enjoyable and rereadable but not something I’d give awards to, and the other half just completely blew my socks off? I have been meaning to read all the Hugo nominees every year, but this is the first year I’ve done it, so maybe I need to go back and learn a little more about what generally ends up as a finalist.