This week’s SHORTS column features some of the 2020 Nebula and 2021 Locus and Hugo award finalists in the novella, novelette, and short story categories.
“A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (2020, free at Tor.com, originally published in Made to Order: Robots and Revolution)
This is an absolutely delightful story! A grumpy robot, Constant Killer, who makes a living by engaging in robot deathmatch and assassination games, is obliged to mentor a chirpy, innocent new robot who is having problems with its life, ranging from “how do I remove illusionary dogs from my optical feed” to dealing with adverse working conditions at a cheap automated café. What begins as a meeting between opposite personalities gradually evolves into an unlikely friendship.
“A Guide for Working Breeds” is told in a creative, offbeat way, using the robots’ electronic messages, online searches and product orders to tell the story. On the surface it’s so funny and charming, but it deals with some underlying serious issues about the exploitation of workers.
I don’t love everything Vina Jie-Min Prasad writes, but she’s written two other Nebula and Hugo Award-nominated stories that are equally appealing, “A Series of Steaks” and “Fandom for Robots.” All three are well worth reading if you enjoy humorous and heartwarming science fiction. ~Tadiana Jones
“The Pill” by Meg Elison (2020, from the collection Big Girl)
Meg Elison’s “The Pill,” which has been nominated for the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Novelette, is an engrossing, visceral (a truly apt word here), and unforgettable tale about an obese young woman from a “fat family.”
When her mother takes a new pill that gives her a perfect body in just a few days, and is guaranteed to never let her gain weight again, she pressures the family to do the same. The problem is that there’s a 10% mortality rate. As our narrator grapples with the decision about whether to take the pill when she comes of age, society changes around her.
Elison’s speculative view of a fat-free “utopia” is presented with sharp insights and plenty of black humor. Elison lets the reader experience fat-shaming, shows us how fat people are viewed (yet often not seen), and asks if being thin is “the only kind of life worth living.” ~Kat Hooper
Two Truths and a Lie by Sarah Pinsker (2020, free at Tor.com)
Some thirty years after graduating from high school and leaving her home town, Stella returns for a visit and attends the funeral of the older brother of one of her childhood friends. She ends up impulsively volunteering to help her friend Marco clean out his brother Denny’s home — a major undertaking, since Denny was a massive hoarder.
Stella often lies about her life for no particular reason, so when she and Marco come across an aged TV set, she asks him if he remembers The Uncle Bob Show, something she had made up on the spot. Oddly, Marco says yes, and as he chats about Uncle Bob and his TV show, Stella begins to remember the show too, and even being part of the show’s child audience several times when it was being filmed at the local public broadcast station. As Stella investigates this old TV show with its unsettling host, she begins to notice the creepy stories that Uncle Bob would tell the children in the audience … stories that may have a lingering effect on the child they’re told to.
Two Truths and a Lie is one of those stories that gets more intriguing and impressive as you look more closely at it and examine its parts. The first time I read it I thought it was okay, maybe 3.5 star material. When it got a Nebula nomination I reread it, and I was completely on board with it the second time around. It’s subtle horror, in a creepypasta type of way, and it has its own internal, inexorable logic. I do feel sympathetic toward Stella, even as it becomes clear that she’s got pathological lying issues. But maybe it’s all the fault of Uncle Bob, who in one of his shows told a story about a girl:
“… the girl was willing to trade who she was for who she could be, so she began to do just that. Little by little, she replaced herself with parts of other people she liked better. Parts of stories she wanted to live. …This girl was her own cuckoo, laying stories in her own head, and the heads of those around her, until even she couldn’t remember which ones were true, or if there was anything left of her.”
The internal logic of the story breaks down a little, leaving the reader confused as to whether Stella’s initial lie about remembering the show was really a lie that somehow became truth, or whether she’d forgotten the show (or blocked it out of her mind) until she mentions it to Marco. The ending also initially seems like it comes out of left field, but the clues to the logic and even inevitability of that ending are there, hidden in Uncle Bob’s tales. ~Tadiana Jones
Stepsister by Leah Cypess (2020, free at author’s website, Fantasy & Science Fiction Sept/Oct. 2020 issue)
Leah Cypess’s Nebula-nominated novelette, Stepsister, revisits the fairy tale of Cinderella, five years after the fateful royal ball, from the point of view of the prince’s (now king’s) bastard brother Garrin. (Garrin is recounting this story to someone else, but we don’t learn who the listener is until later.) King Ciar demands that Garrin find Queen Ella’s stepsister Jacinda, who has been in exile, but won’t say why, and Garrin has his own reasons to be conflicted about this order.
As the story circles toward the secrets at its heart, Garrin realizes that while he may know this flawed group of people better than anyone, there are still things he has failed to see. This is a sharp little tale with some interesting points about how well we ever truly know another person, and about the nature of stories. ~Kelly Lasiter
“My Country is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou (2020, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)
“My Country is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou is a story based more in emotion than plot, in character rather than action. It starts with a great opening line, wonderful in the way it succinctly creates a new world, the core premise of the story, and a mood, all at once in evocative fashion: “When Niovi tried to smuggle her mother’s ghost into the new country, she found herself being passed from one security officer to another, detailing her mother’s place and date of death over and over again.”
In this universe, ghosts linger, “tethered” to individuals in benevolent fashion, there to offer advice or merely be a calming presence (one nice touch is how ghosts are culturally/regionally varied, with those in Niovi’s homeland of Greece “louder” and also more heartened to). In a cruel bit of legality, though, ghosts who died in a different country cannot cross the border into a new one, and so Niovi is forced to give up her mother’s ghost in heart-rending fashion.
Eventually, she finds a job as a dishwasher in a Greek restaurant where she awkwardly, minimally engages with the other workers. Mostly she wanders the streets, saddened by and resentful of all the people walking around with their own ghosts. Without her own, without as well her traditions, a family, and with fading memories (her mother’s voice, the way to make certain foods), she is adrift in a sea of loneliness and grief, no history to anchor her.
The metaphor here is pretty blunt, and carried over too many pages would suffer from its obviousness and thinness of plot. But the author takes Niovi’s story as far as it can go without crossing the breaking point, ending in a lovely scene of connection, empathy and hope. Triantafyllou does a nice job of conveying the immigrant experience in a few brief scenes, creating a forlorn, wistful mood, more sadness and loneliness than bitterness or anger. Side characterization is minimal, as is setting detail, but as noted, this is a piece more interested in emotion and character than plot, and on that level is succeeds nicely. ~Bill Capossere
“Burn or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A.T. Greenblatt (2020, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)
Sam Wells, an accountant, has a super power — he can light himself on fire. After auditioning and being halfheartedly accepted to a Supers team, he realizes that they weren’t impressed with his fire trick. They just needed an accountant.
Sam struggles to fit in with his new colleagues and he’s not really thrilled about his boring desk job, but it’s better than the alternative since nobody wants to be around a guy who keeps accidentally setting fire to things. But what Sam really wanted was to be a superhero.
A.T. Greenblatt’s “Burn or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” is a delightful story that’s a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for best novelette. Sam is funny in a deadpan way and most readers will find it easy to identify with his insecurities, his need for approval, and his desire to be someone important. ~Kat Hooper
“Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell (2020, free at Diabolical Plots #64A)
“Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell is a warmly clever story that nicely plays (and plays nicely) with the haunted house trope. The first sentence tells us that “133 isn’t a killer house,” not like that “show off” 35 Silver Street that “annihilated a family back in the 1800s… And in 2007 still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze.”
No, the only person to die in 133 was Dorottya Blasko, who chose in 1989 to die at home instead of at hospice, and who “spent two and half months enjoying the sound of the wind on 133 Poisonwood’s singles.” That the house “played its heart out for her every day” tells you all you need to know about 133 Poisonwood. It misses Dorottya, it misses 1989, it misses being filled.
The story takes place on an open house day, with the harried realtor doing her best to sell uninterested drop-bys the merits of the house, even as it “straightens its aching floorboards like a human sucking in their belly” and “uses its aura to spook any groundhogs off the property.” Things aren’t going well, until a single father and his young daughter Ana arrive and tour the house. The two have suffered a loss — Ana’s mother recently died — and like the House they feel empty, they grieve. The House pulls out all the stops, even revealing Dorottya’s secret sewing room (even the realtor didn’t know of its existence), but things go awry and the two depart. I won’t spoil the close save to say it is touching and gratifying.
Wiswell does a good job of balancing the more sorrowful, maudlin aspects of the story with some welcome bits of humor, such as having the father host a paranormal-debunking podcast. It’s a simple tale in many ways, but there’s a real pathos at the heart of this tale, one evoked by both the human and inhuman characters. Short, sweet, and effective. ~Bill Capossere
“The Eight-Thousanders” by Jason Sanford (2020, Asimov’s Sept./Oct. 2020 issue, reprinted free at Apex Magazine)
Just when you think there are no new twists on vampires to be had, Jason Sanford comes along with the Nebula Award nominee for best short story, “The Eight-Thousanders.” A vampire haunts the summit of Mount Everest — but, as in all of the best vampire stories, she is only the start of the story. Keller, the narrator, has accompanied the unpleasant Ronnie, his boss, who is the leader of the expedition. Ronnie has made Keller’s life an empty pursuit of obscene wealth, a man who sees nothing more to life than showing how tough he is; the sort of man who climbs Everest without oxygen to demonstrate that he is far stronger than most. Keller questions his choices as he risks his life in order to appear physically and mentally strong to Ronnie. But he is not so dogged that he is able to pass by a dying man with nothing more than a glance. He leaves only when Ferri, who initially appears to be just another climber, agrees to stay with him.
The story is full of choices. Keller chooses to leave the dying climber; he chooses to reach the summit; he chooses to climb down through a dangerous storm with Ronnie. He is near death as the storm rages, but ultimately he is strong enough to make a final, ruthless choice.
Sanford has a lot to say about how climbing Everest has become nothing more than a form of extreme tourism, with dozens of climbers left behind in Rainbow Valley, so named because of the colorful parkas the climbers wear. Summiting Everest is also a metaphor for summiting the heights of the business world; Ronnie repeatedly says that every day in the business world is the same as climbing the mountain, with all the lack of joy in one’s work that that implies. The story is occasionally too obvious and a tad preachy, but it is beautifully layered and thoughtful. ~Terry Weyna
“Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math” by Aimee Picchi (2020, free at Daily Science Fiction)
In four very short vignettes, we meet Penny at ages 13, 16, 20, and 30, a young woman who’s great at math but isn’t able to meet her potential due to setbacks such as having parents who support her brother’s studies at the expense of hers, and dealing with male math teachers who see her as more of a budding sex object than a budding mathematician.
Penny dreams of finding a portal to a world where she can spend her days reading and studying. After each vignette, Aimee Picchi gives us a math problem in which we must, for example, “calculate the nearest portal’s location and extrapolate why Penny was unable to find it.”
Aimee Picchi’s story is cute – I liked the format and the nonsensical word problems, though I would have tired of them pretty quickly if the piece had been much longer. I felt for Penny’s situation, especially since I have personally experienced the struggle to balance my academic life with my “gender role.” But for a feminist story, I would have preferred a protagonist who was trying to change her world rather than escape it. ~Kat Hooper
“Badass Moms of the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson (2020, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)
Brit and her partner Marisol live in an all-female enclave during the zombie apocalypse. Brit is about to give birth to their first child, so the two women must trek to the birthing hideout which has been set up in the woods at a distance from the enclave. The zombies are attracted to the smell of human blood, so having a hidden location for giving birth protects the other women. But the trip will be extremely dangerous for the mothers; most women don’t return from the hideout. Some of Brit’s companions think she’s selfish for choosing to get pregnant and risking the lives of the two most valuable members of the enclave. We follow these “badass moms” as they give birth, battle zombies, and care for their friends.
Rae Carson’s “Badass Moms of the Zombie Apocalypse,” which is up for the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for best short story, is an exciting and touching story with perhaps the most harrowing birth scene I’ve ever read. Birth is brutal enough, but adding flesh-eating zombies really kicks it up a few notches!
As much as I appreciate a couple of badass moms as protagonists (thank you, Rae Carson!) and as thrilling and moving as this story is, I don’t think it’s groundbreaking enough to win those awards. ~Kat Hooper
Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (2020, free at author’s website, first published in Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora)
In a post-apocalyptic world after a worldwide war, all of Afrika has been destroyed by nuclear fallout except for a small area surrounding the Nigerian village of Ife-Iyoku. It was protected from the war and radiation by the intercession of the orisha Obatala, who left many of the people of Ife-Iyoku with superpowers — whether mutations or magical abilities, they aren’t certain — to make up for what has been lost.
But traditions and restrictions to specific roles, including limitations on women and their rights, bind the people. The villagers are also fearful of the encroaching corruption in the wilderness around them, where monstrous mutated beasts threaten the people. A young woman named Imade is particularly concerned about their uncertain existence and pushes back against her society’s expectations of her duties as a woman. Meanwhile, Ooni Olori, chief ruler of Ife-Iyoku, also concerned about the many dangers surrounding the village, decides to take a risky step that may lead to either the salvation or destruction of his people.
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s Afrofuturistic novella weaves fantastical elements into a dystopian science fiction tale. The writing style is somewhat simple, evoking African mythology and tribal culture. He also explores the tensions between tradition and changing societal roles, those who push for change and those who cling to the old ways. It’s a powerful but frequently disturbing and brutal tale, where people engage in vicious battles, exile is a death sentence, and women are used and raped. But some, at least, gain the ability to fight back against oppression in its various forms. ~Tadiana Jones
“Shadow Prisons” by Caroline M. Yoachim (2020, originally published in The Dystopia Triptych; reprinted (free) in three parts in Lightspeed Magazine)
Caroline M. Yoachim’s novelette in triptych, “Shadow Prisons,” tells the tale of a dystopian society in which privacy concerns have led to individuals wearing “skins” that disguise them whenever they are in public. At the same time, however, society in general has increased the number of behaviors that are considered not just offensive, but illegal, from protesting against the government to using bad language in public. When the technology that makes the first possible slams into the concerns of the latter, those who are offenders become shadows, blotted from sight except for a black outline. The implanted technology that makes this possible, known as Personal Implanted Perception, makes life increasingly difficult for the shadows, even as the rest of the population lives in fear of taking a step over the line that will disappear them from the world.
Decades pass between each of the three parts of the story, detailing the experience of Vivian Watanabe as she becomes a shadow for compassionately helping another shadow to obtain food for her children, to the apparent aftermath of a revolution. The technology Yoachim has invented, however, is so sinister, so deeply embedded in the society she portrays, that I finished the third part of the novelette wondering whether the revolution did, in fact, take place or was just a fantasy fed to Vivian through the chip and nanobots that were fed into her brain and body.
I found the structure of the story was more distracting than useful as a means of telling this Nebula-nominated novelette, even given the long period of time it covers (essentially Vivian’s entire adult life). The second two parts of the story contain large infodumps that are not well-integrated. Most of all, though, the characters are not particularly well-drawn; even Vivian seems to be nothing more than a bundle of fear until, somehow, she comes up with the proper means of ending the use of shadows. While the technologies Yoachim posits are fascinating, they are incompletely explored. Still, Yoachim’s imagination leaves me looking forward to new work from her pen. ~Terry Weyna
D.N.F. “Where You Linger” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (2020, free at Uncanny)
Three of us (Tadiana, Bill, and Kat) tried this one and couldn’t get through it.
Great reviews, everyone! I’ve read all of the Nebula nominees in the short story and novelette categories, even though I didn’t review all of them myself, and I agree with everyone else’s opinions in their reviews. Some really helpful insights.
Yep. Great reviews. Adding these to my list.
Zina keeps adding stuff to the TBR list. Zina’s going to need a couple of clones.
And a lot of sleeep! LOL.
Good reviews all! Kat, I seem to remember that when gastric bypass first came out, it had a shockingly high fatality rate–I don’t remember if it was quite as high as 10%, but it was mind-boggling. I believe it’s improved since, but at the time I thought it was horrifying, and meanwhile people were getting pressured into it. (I remember thinking at the time, “I’m willing to take the chance that I won’t die of Teh Fatz in the same time period,” and indeed I didn’t.) The story sounds close enough to reality to be scary as hell!
It was pretty scary. A few min ago a commenter on our Thoughtful Thursday Nebula Post said the same thing and I replied that while reading The Pill I kept thinking about Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day which I didn’t believe in when I read it but changed my mind a few months later due to COVID. https://fantasyliterature.com/giveaway/thoughtful-thursday-the-2020-nebula-awards-novelettes-short-stories/
Yes! Pinsker was so prescient with that one.