Today’s SHORTS column features all of the 2018 Locus Award finalists for short fiction. The Locus Award winners will be announced by Connie Willis during Locus Award weekend, June 22 – June 24, 2018.
In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle (2017)
Claudio, a middle-aged curmudgeonly farmer living in a remote area of the Italian countryside, has been a standoffish loner since his wife left him decades ago. He’s satisfied with his current lifestyle, taking care of his land and his animals, and writing poetry that he shares with no one.
Everything changes one morning when a unicorn shows up on his farm. The pure and beautiful unicorn inspires Claudio’s poetry and gives him sense of purpose. All goes well until word eventually gets out. Everyone wants to see the unicorn and some people want more than that. Claudio suddenly has to deal with reporters, paparazzi, the internet, and other intruders ― even gangsters.
In Calabria is a sweet story that’s beautifully written. I loved the Italian setting and I even loved the aloof but kind-hearted protagonist. This is a story about poetry, self-forgiveness, and the miracle of love. I listened to Bronson Pinchot narrate the audio version by Blackstone Audio. Pinchot, as always, delivers a top-notch performance. ~Kat Hooper
Previously reviewed Locus-nominated novellas (link in title is to review):
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang
The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Waiting on a Bright Moon by J.Y. Yang (2017, free at Tor.com)
In Waiting on a Bright Moon we glimpse an interstellar government system whose flaws have shaped the life of the main character. She is an ansible, a woman with a gift ― the gift ― of magic, who was found to be too familiar with other women. Her role, as ansible Xin, is then to use her gift (tied to singing) in conjunction with other ansibles in order to open portals between them. Essentially, their sole purpose is to transport goods between points in the empire. They have been denied the full power of their gifts due to their sexual orientation under the system as it is.
I thoroughly enjoyed Waiting on a Bright Moon. I liked how much I was surprised by it. There are familiar plot elements, but how they were connected in this novelette felt new and interesting. The details surrounding Xin’s life are sparse, and we may only get her narrow outlook on the systems in play, but I believed in her feelings and reactions because I believed her as a character. My preferences tend towards character arcs over setting and plot, and this story is no exception ― I think others might find the little structure we get to see too sparse, but for my reading tastes I was able to forgive that in the space this story takes up.
For a story about songs and love and freedom, Waiting on a Bright Moon includes a great deal of violence. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will say that one particular moment of extreme violence was crafted in such a way that the same instance shocked me twice and left me thinking after the story had ended. I would highly recommend this story for how its protagonist thinks, acts, and loves. ~Skye Walker
Here we are on the Eighth Corridor within a collection of linked worlds dominated by a strictly dictatorial Imperial Order, and structured by a rigid, apparently military, social class system. At the top of the system are the “starmages,” warriors by whose arm the Order was probably formed. Somewhere near the bottom of the social class structure are the “ancillaries,” low ranking functionaries with the not quite unique ability to transport physical objects between worlds.
What follows is the Cinderella story of one ancillary (Tian) and her starmage lover (Suqing) and their rebellion against the oppressive Order.
The regime being what it is, ancillary lives (pun intended) are strictly regulated. These women — almost always women — live together, sing together, and conjugate together in a temple. Homosexual practice is not proscribed like political expression. But it is frowned upon socially — I cannot quite figure why, due to its undeniable utility in the highly useful function of transportation between worlds. Perhaps on this basis alone, it is allowed among ancillaries. (Starmages don’t seem to get much — I think rather grudgingly. Why do they put up with it?)
Tian has a particular ancillary lover, but she breaks cast and liaises with the high-ranking starmage Suqing who introduces her to the Order’s political rebellion. The two share a song — song is very important for interstellar transport. It is not the same song shared between Tian and her ancillary lover (out of respect for the bond they alone share).
Yang’s writing is lyrical and evocative of imperial China’s mystique, thanks, in part, to untranslated Song Dynasty poetry references sprinkled throughout. That mysteriousness has a key, however, and I’m happy to give it a turn for curious readers. The title of this piece (Waiting on a Bright Moon) translates fairly neatly, and intentionally, to the first line of a popular Hong Kong pop ballad. The text is originally a Song Dynasty politically subversive poem. But the words were highly romanticized and wildly popularized when set to a pop ballad sung by Wang Faye. (The entire song is sung in between the lovers.) Hong Kong readers absolutely cannot have missed this reference. Suqing and Tian’s song of choice, “Dan Yuan Ren Chang Jiu,” I could sing along with the lyrics, and I wanted to laugh in spite of the fact that the song is really quite sad. ~Taya Okerlund
The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids by Seanan McGuire (2017, anthologized in Black Feathers)
Brenda, the 15-year-old narrator of Seanan McGuire’s Locus Award nominated story, “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids,” is mathematically brilliant but autistic, complete with the obsessive compulsive disorder that is often a component of that condition. Her stepfather despises her because she is autistic, and lets his hatred show openly. But she and her half-brother David, who is 11, are very close and share secrets that their father is oblivious to. Brenda has the weary love of her mother as well, but it is David who makes life worth living.
One of the hallmarks of Brenda’s condition is her special relationship to birds, and more specifically, to crows and their cousins. She counts corvids, from jays through crows, and applies to them a rhyme her grandmother taught her: “One’s for sorrow, two’s for joy, three’s a girl, and four’s a boy.” She believes that the number of corvids she sees determines how her day will go. Sometimes this means that Brenda will ask to be excused from her classes in the local high school to find more crows, because if she sees nine — well, nine’s for Hell.
On the day the story begins, Brenda has counted nine corvids. She has searched high and low for more, because ten’s for the Devil, eleven’s for penance and twelve’s for sin, and while they’re all bad, they’re not as bad as Hell. But there are no other corvids to be seen. What that portends, and how Brenda reacts to it, is the meat of the story.
The story is skillfully written, and the character of Brenda is drawn beautifully. It is absolutely worth reading, especially for would-be writers who could use a master class in characterization. The story it does not rate as one of McGuire’s best — though, to be sure, that is a very high bar — because the plot is predictable and not particularly compelling. Still, it persuaded me that I should be reading Black Feathers, edited by Ellen Datlow, where it was first published. ~Terry Weyna
“The Hidden Girl” by Ken Liu (2017, anthologized in The Book of Swords)
Note: We are so sad to report that Gardner Dozois, an editor who is much loved by the SFF community, died yesterday.
An anthology edited by Gardner Dozois is always a good bet. I’ve got the audio edition of The Book of Swords and haven’t read all of it yet, but I made sure to read Ken Liu’s “The Hidden Girl” after it was nominated for a Locus Award.
The theme of this anthology is, as the title makes clear, “swords.” Ken Liu’s story stars a young swordswoman who was taken from her family and raised to be an assassin. After six years of training, in which she learns to travel through other dimensions, she’s ready for the final test that will launch her career: she must assassinate a governor. It turns out to be more of a struggle than she’d bargained for and the encounter with the governor ends up shifting her career in an unexpected direction.
I thought “The Hidden Girl” was a mild and unsurprising story (it played out the way I thought it would), but I loved the Chinese setting as well as Liu’s young protagonist. I expect that we will be seeing more of her in the future, and I look forward to it. ~Kat Hooper
“The Hermit of Houston” by Samuel R. Delaney (2017, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
It might be easier to say who shouldn’t read Delaney’s “The Hermit of Houston” rather than who should. A fan of traditional narrative plotting? You probably won’t find yourself rewarded here. Like your stories to “end,” preferably with a nice neat denouement or maybe even an epilogue that wraps things up clearly, leaving no unanswered questions? May I suggest this story over here instead? Looking for some “family-fare” entertainment? As in no swearing, no reference to body parts, no graphic sex, and definitely no gay sex? Oh, you people definitely want to steer clear.
On the other hand, if you like to let a story wash over you, and maybe even past you, and are happy enjoying the atmosphere, tone, and voice as opposed to worrying over the little details, sort of like closing your eyes at the symphony, not caring which instrument is playing which part at any particular moment, then you might enjoy “The Hermit of Houston.” It’s set in a more than confusing (to this reader at least) future world where gender is fluid, Facebook is an ancient religion (supplanted by Handbook, which itself is somewhat old by now), over-population is an issue requiring desperate solutions (or so some think), memories can be edited, writers can be shot, there may or may not be extra-planetary colonies (I wasn’t quite sure on which it was), and hermits keep social order (maybe? I think?). Set against all that, and more, is the tale told by the narrator of how he met his lover Celibrex and their life together first in the Yucatan then in Houston, with some memories of the narrator’s childhood mixed in as well. It’s digressive, discursive, rambling at time, and to be honest, more ambiguous/hazy than I prefer (and I don’t consider myself as a reader who needs everything nailed down and out in the open). Oddly enough, there’s also some contrastingly awkward exposition in the latter part that seemed unnecessary and out of place. I also thought the time period was muddled, with a mix of things that seemed to place our time in the deep past but then other that would indicate our time wasn’t all that long ago. Maybe I just didn’t read well enough.
That said, I did like the voicing throughout; the prose for the most part felt pretty effortless and precise if the narrative/background didn’t, and some of the conceptual background was intriguing, though I wish they’d been explored both more in depth and with more clarity. I’m thinking mileage will vary greatly on this one. ~Bill Capossere
Update: This story won the 2018 Locus Award for “Best Novelette.”
“The Lamentation of Their Women” by Kai Ashante Wilson (2017, free at Tor.com)
This novelette appears with a header warning for “mature themes and graphic violence,” which the reader is advised to take seriously. Here be gorn (and some sex, but mostly gorn).
The story begins with the narrator Tanisha (Nisha to non-bureaucrats) and her sometime boyfriend Anhell (which I think has to be a deliberate conflation of the Spanish pronunciation of “Angel” with “Hell,” given what follows) visiting the apartment of Nisha’s recently deceased aunt, who was a witch. The kind who worships Satan. While rummaging through the aunt’s belongings they pick up a pair of weapons — machete for her, shotgun for him — which are supernaturally deadly and endow their wielders with supernatural speed and a diabolic lust for blood.
So, naturally, they decide to visit the nearest police station and try them out — a scene which is then intercut with the titular lamentations.
Wilson’s use of language is really top-drawer; the narration here crackles with energy, verve, and pitch-black humor. As for the rest of it, well, it’s a story about diabolically possessed psychopaths murdering policemen in full Technicolor. ~Nathan Okerlund
Previously reviewed Locus-nominated novelettes:
Wind Will Rove by Sarah Pinsker
Children of Thorns, Children of Water by Aliette de Bodard
Come See the Living Dryad by Theodora Goss
The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal
Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee
“Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” by Tobias S. Buckell (2017, anthologized in Cosmic Powers, free online at Lightspeed)
“Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” by Tobias S. Buckell is the most enjoyable hard science fiction story I’ve read in a long time. No wonder it’s been nominated for a Locus Award. It was published in Cosmic Powers, edited by John Joseph Adams, who is really tearing up the place with his original anthologies, his web magazines Nightmare and Lightspeed, and now with his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Buckell’s narrator is fundamentally human, but it has given up free will in order to be uploaded into a maintenance robot on the hull of a vast ship and see the universe. This means it is governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, which are referred to obliquely and never named — but if a reader doesn’t know what those laws are, and how they have developed in the decades since Asimov first set them out, he or she will miss a lot of this story. In addition, the physical laws of time dilation play a role in this story, and again, if the reader doesn’t know just a little bit of Einstein, he or she will be lost. The narrator’s ship, With All Sincerity, has just won a 700-second war against the Fleet of Honest Representation (aren’t those ship names wonderful?) when the narrator finds a “bipedal figure clinging to the hull” — it’s an actual human! In his original skin! He even still has a name instead of a location as an identifier!
The rest of the story unfolds from there as the different sorts of laws interweave. The ending is brilliant, following naturally from every single thing that has gone before. I never once felt stranded by the talk of physics, though that is often a problem for me when I’m reading hard SF; Buckell is careful to avoid jargon and to explain just enough that the story doesn’t feel like a lecture but does keep the audience cued in. It’s my choice for the Locus Award. ~Terry Weyna
“Persephone of the Crows” by Karen Jay Fowler (2017, Asimov’s Science Fiction)
Ten-year-old Polly is at her younger friend’s home while the adults are drinking and socializing. Polly is more than a little jealous of Isabella for several reasons, including Isabella’s just-proffered declaration that she saw a fairy recently. Polly wishes she too could see one, just before she also wishes her father wouldn’t get drunk that night. The story relates that night’s events and the following day’s, as well as jumping ahead a few years, though it doesn’t follow a linear timeline in doing so.
Fowler perfectly captures the younger Polly, creating a bit of early tension with the girl’s resentment, the reference to her father drinking, and the two wishes. Fowler then layers over a wonderfully creepy tone as Polly and her parents leave. The latter time period is somewhat more flat and maybe even a bit anti-climactic, though the time shifts work nicely in adding suspense, and I liked the tonal shift. The length is pretty much perfect; if the story were much longer I’m not sure the payoff would have been worth it, but it works as is. I don’t want to say too much save to say I liked the playfulness (a dark playfulness, granted) of the basic concept. There isn’t a lot to mull over here, but it’s a nearly perfectly constructed/crafted nugget of a tale in terms of voice, tone, structure, and premise. ~Bill Capossere
“Dear Sarah” by Nancy Kress (2017, anthologized in Infinity Wars)
An apparently benevolent alien race, the Leckinites (called Likkies), has come to Earth, sharing their culture and their technology, especially a clean energy source called Q-energy. But there’s always fall-out when disruptive technology is adopted, and the workers on the oil rigs and gas drilling operations are left destitute and jobless, inflaming prejudice against the aliens. An underground rebellion against the aliens and their technology forms, and most of the Addams family, whose jobs in the coal mines were lost to the Q-energy revolution, supports the rebellion.
MaryJo Addams takes a radically different approach to dealing with her family’s poverty: she enlists in the U.S. Army, appalling her family and straining her close relationship with her beloved younger sister Sarah. Despite her enlistment, MaryJo’s loyalties are still somewhat torn, especially when she becomes aware that some of her fellow soldiers harbor deep resentment toward the aliens. Matters come to a head when MaryJo’s unit is sent to help with a fraught situation: a rebel group is holding both human and alien children hostage.
In “Dear Sarah,” Nancy Kress examines immigration and economic issues through the science fictional lens of the issues with developing relations with an alien race sharing superior technology. It’s a thoughtful but straightforward short story. Kress effectively captures MaryJo’s rural voice and background and her divided loyalties, including the pain felt by those who feel that their livelihood and choices are being taken from them by those who are Other. ~Tadiana Jones
The Locus Award-nominated “Dear Sarah,” by Nancy Kress, is as competently written a story as one has come to expect from an author sometimes referred to as the best writer of science fiction working today. But it reads as too obviously an extended metaphor for a political and economic problem already at work in Appalachia today; we don’t need aliens to close down the coal mines, as natural gas and solar panels are getting that done already. What remains, then, is a question of where a soldier should put her loyalties, and that, too, seems trite. It’s a disappointment from an author usually noted for her originality.
“Dear Sarah” originally appeared in Infinity Wars, edited by noted anthologist, editor and publisher Jonathan Strahan. The first-person narrator, MaryJo, has left her family to join the military. She informs her father by Skype, knowing that he will not approve of her enlisting, given that the United States Army is in the business of protecting the aliens and fighting an uprising by terrorist groups opposed to Q-energy. Q-energy has closed down the oil fields and coal mines, enriching the elite to whom it was given by the aliens, but plunging those at the other end of the economic spectrum into unemployment and poverty. MaryJo’s father calls her a traitor to her family and her country, and tells her he never wants to see her again.
Despite this emotional burden, MaryJo becomes a competent soldier. She is about to ship out to upstate New York when she decides to attempt a phone call to her baby sister, Sarah. The conversation leaves her lonelier than she was before, but what choice does she have? She gets on the plane to New York.
From that point, MaryJo’s choices sharpen, each one cutting her more deeply. She imagines Sarah at home picking wild strawberries while her mother sets out tomato plants, and tries to decide where her real loyalties lie. When the moment comes, she does what she thinks is right. As she says afterwards, “[T]here is always a choice, even for people who will never be at the center of nothing. Changes and choices, they go together, bound up like sticks for a bonfire that’s going to be lit no matter what.” Alas, however, there is virtually no suspense as to what choice MaryJo will make, resulting in a story that is entirely predictable.
MaryJo is a strong and admirable character, and her ability to stand up to the strong patriarch of her family reveals her strength from the outset. It is satisfying to see her make the right choice. And it is even more satisfying to see her trying to explain her decision to her younger sister when she sets out to write a letter at the end of the story. These factors probably account for the story’s nomination for a Locus Award. There are much stronger contenders in the field, however, and I’d be very surprised if this story took the prize. ~Terry Weyna
“Starlight Express” by Michael Swanwick (2017, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
“Starlight Express” is set in Roma on a far-future and diminished Earth whose inhabitants not only no longer comprehend their ancestors’ tech; they “didn’t even know how to turn it off.” This is particularly true of the Astrovia (aka The Starlight Express) that once upon a time transmitted people to the stars but, thanks to star drift over time and that aforementioned lack of knowledge, it no longer works as intended and instead has become a common mode of suicide. One night, though, Flaminio the Water Carrier sees a woman coming out of the Astrovia. The rest of the relatively brief story deals with Flaminio’s attempt to solve the riddle of who she is.
I absolutely loved the start of this story for its poetic language and great sense of time and loss, as when those planning to commit suicide are described as “furtive shadows slipping silently up the faintly glowing steps like lovers to a tryst,” or “quivering and helpless as a wren in a cat’s mouth.” And I loved the character introduced in the middle — The Great Albino — who was “three thousand eight hundred forty-seven years and eleven months old… constructed so that [he] would never age, back when humanity had the power to do such things.”
Unfortunately, I was less enamored of the latter part, which became too expository in style, too plain in language, and headed down a plot path that I struggled with thanks to it being a bit predictable as well as a bit implausible. That said, I’d still recommend it for the first two-thirds and for the overall elegiac tone. ~Bill Capossere
“Fire.” by Elizabeth Hand (2017, anthologized in Fire.)
Elizabeth Hand is a versatile writer, known for her novels, short stories and non-fiction essays across a range of genres. Her Locus award nominee ‘Fire’ is a snappy portrayal of a group of people apparently waiting for death as a ‘megafire’ rages below them. As the rag-tag group gathers round and holds hands one member tells their story of the fire and so the tone is conversational, the story told in the vernacular. The speaker starts off by trying to make light of the situation despite the fact she or he can tell it doesn’t go down well with the rest of the group. As the story progresses the tone changes. The speaker is sometimes angry, sometimes reverential and, finally, just a little hopeful.
Given this is such a short story, even by short story standards, Hand does an impressive job conveying the character of the speaker, as well as those of the other members of the group, who we hear about in snapshots. The naturalistic style is such that it’s easy to picture this desperate bunch vainly trying to keep themselves going by telling their stories. Nevertheless, though structurally perfect, the lack of background detail and, to a certain extent, the chatty tone mean that “Fire.” fails to pack an emotional punch. ~Katie Burton
“Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” by Charlie Jane Anders (2017, free at Boston Review, included in Global Dystopias anthology)
I am rarely a horror reader, and I think “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” encapsulates both the things I miss out on narratively and the reasons I don’t often reach for the genre.
The story details the series of events by which the main character, Rachel, finds herself drugged and restrained while a medical procedure about which she knows nothing is performed on her. It is this aspect that makes me call this story horror specifically, and also the element that was most engaging to me. The idea of having a completely unknown medical procedure occur, and not having any way to influence or understand the goings-on, is deeply horrifying. Reading Rachel’s story was paralyzing ― each moment I was hoping against hope that she would somehow be able to escape whatever fate was rapidly approaching, and that bit of hope coupled with also wanting to know the end goal of the procedure kept me reading.
The horrifying nature of the tale kept me reading “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” but the horror of it relied on the revelations in flashbacks that concern Rachel, on the operating table, and one of the workers, Jeffrey, at the facility to which she has been taken. The reader is allowed some glimpses into their shared history which reveal possible ulterior motives and attitudes on the part of both parties. Rachel is a transwoman, and her transition is central to both the horror of the procedure and to her past with Jeffrey. Unfortunately, with so little space allotted to their shared history, I was left feeling like I had missed something integral by the end of the story. I kept thinking the context of their relationship would come into focus with one more flashback, and when no such explanation arrived, I was puzzled by their connection.
However, if the lack of closure with regards to context utilizing flashbacks was intended to confuse, I would want the transition from the final flashback to the present conflict to be more abrupt. Something more like a thought interrupted. I wanted to feel like I’m supposed to wonder what actually happened between Rachel and Jeffrey, not wonder if I’m supposed to be wondering or grasping for an answer.
“Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” does something interesting with how Rachel is portrayed. It goes into some details about how Rachel isn’t perfect. She is full of hypocrisy and contradictions. There is a passage which cheekily points out these flaws out ― in a way of not hiding what some people would use as ammunition against her as a transwoman. I found this treatment humanizing, as well as an effective way to sidestep a two-dimensional portrayal of Rachel as merely a victim. She is given a personality in her contradictions, and I thought the story was stronger for having included that. ~Skye Walker
“Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” appears in a collection called Global Dystopias, and I for one am ready to declare that dystopias have had their day in the sun and can be retired for a generation or so.
But that’s not the world we live in (ahem). Thankfully, we also do not live in the world depicted in “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” although it is pretty easy to see how we might get there, or somewhere rather like it, from where we are now. A transgender woman (Rachel) has been — arrested? Abducted? Involuntarily committed? The story doesn’t really say — with the goal of “curing” her of being transgendered. This process, it turns out, will be supervised by a childhood friend, now a harried salary slave of the industry/government initiative devoted to developing this “cure.” Unsurprisingly, this ends badly.
I wasn’t very taken with the details shown of the “cure” process and its sequelae — the story seems to be splitting the difference between “plausible psychology/physiology” and “nightmare logic,” and I felt it would have been stronger to commit to one or the other. The story served rather better as food for thought — in particular as a nexus between C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Abolition of Man” and Gene Wolfe’s “Forlesen.” Global dystopias, forsooth! ~Nathan Okerlund
Previously reviewed Locus-nominated short stories:
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” by Rebecca Roanhorse
“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim
I’m glad Terry gave “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” such a glowing review. I read it yesterday on Lightspeed and loved it. It’s wonderfully imaginative, well-structured, and fascinating in its take on future humanity and its intersection with robotics and Asimov’s three laws.
And I see we agree on the Nancy Kress story as well!