This week’s SHORTS column features some of the 2021 Locus and Hugo award finalists in the novelette and short story categories.
“Wait for Night” by Stephen Graham Jones (2020, free at Tor.com)
Chessup is a day laborer working as part of a crew outside of Boulder, Colorado, helping to clean up a creek that was filled with trash in the aftermath of a flood. At the end of the day, looking to borrow a battery from the crew’s bulldozer to jumpstart his old car, Chessup finds something very old tangled up in the roots of a tree that the bulldozer had pulled down.
With visions of selling his discovery to a pawnbroker for cash, Chessup sets about removing it from the tangle of tree roots. He’s about to leave when his co-worker Burned Dan, who wears a bandanna over his face like a train robber, confronts him and demands that Chessup sell his find to Dan instead. But darkness is beginning to fall, and it may be too late for both of them …
Stephen Graham Jones’ “Wait for Night,” a Locus finalist short story, weaves a familiar mythology into an unusual setting. A pair of world-weary, down-on-their-luck workers are the main characters, and Jones’ depiction of Chessup’s character and his world is stellar.
Thirty minutes later, that five o’clock whistle blowing a couple hours late, my uncle’s unregistered Buick fell into its usual routine of refusing to start, and I was the only one still parked in the pullout. I sloped back down to the creek to splash my face, consider my life, and all the decisions I’d made to get me to this point.
The characterization remains true even as Chessup finds himself in an intense life-and-death situation, faced with choices he never thought he’d be required to make. Burned Dan is equally interesting, making seemingly off-hand comments earlier in the story whose true import becomes all too clear later on. It’s exceptional storytelling, with so much going on between the lines.
Also, now I kind of want a pair of Red Wing boots. ~Tadiana Jones
“A Whisper of Blue” by Ken Liu (2020, in The Book of Dragons, edited by Jonathan Strahan)
Ken Liu’s “A Whisper of Blue,” a finalist for the Locus award for Best Novelette, is an alternative history where, instead of coal, oil, and nuclear energy, dragons provide our energy. This has all sorts of consequences. Some are related to health because dragons are dangerous. Some are related to economics and geopolitics because dragons migrate, giving certain regions more financial opportunities and political clout.
Liu’s story is told as a series of interviews with people who, for example, want to free the United States from its addiction to cheap dragon energy, or worry about the physical and mental dangers of dragons, or think it’s unfair that universities create endowments that lure the dragons to their campuses, and unethical that politicians kowtow to the dragon energy complex. In a small town in Massachusetts, the town manager is trying to figure out how he can make a profit from the tiny dragons that have recently arrived, while a girl named Zoe thinks the dragons might be therapeutic for people suffering from grief and depression.
“A Whisper of Blue” is original, amusing, thoughtful, and hopeful as it uses this quirky world to examine some of our own world’s troubles. ~Kat Hooper
“Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer (2020, free at Tor.com)
Meigan builds a Little Free Library from a kit, paints and decorates it, sets it up in her front yard, and puts a bunch of her old books in it for neighbors and passers-by to trade and share. All goes well the first day, but on the second someone empties out the Little Free Library box completely. Meigan is rather miffed, but shrugs it off and leaves a handwritten note to them in the box to next time please take just one or two books, or leave a book in return. Rather than books, the unknown person starts leaving unusual presents for Meigan in the box in exchange for the books they take. Then one day Meigan puts a copy of Defending Your Castle in the box, and things start to get really odd.
“Little Free Library,” a Hugo and Locus Award finalist for best short story, is heartwarming and whimsical, with a bittersweet note. If you’re partial to stories about libraries and books and the ways they can affect lives, this is an enjoyable tale. It’s set in our world, but with a hint of magic in the wings, just waiting to come onto the main stage.
This short story has one of those open-ended conclusions that really leaves the reader wondering what will happen next, but it’s not clear if Naomi Kritzer has a follow-up story in mind or that’s just the way the story ends. The latter is where I tend to think she’s going to land, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong. In any case it’s fun to imagine what might occur next. I have a few thoughts … ~Tadiana Jones
“The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee (2020, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Essarala, whose name means “seeks the stars,” is a mermaid who loves to sit on her rock and stare at the stars above. She dreams of traveling in spaceships and visiting unknown worlds, but how can she leave her own when she is unable to live away from water?
When star traders come to visit, Essarala longs to leave with them, even if it means abandoning the sister she loves. So she visits a witch, who gives Essarala legs in exchange for an unknown future price to be paid, and leaves on a grand adventure where she will see amazing things, meet different types of people, and learn many new things.
“The Mermaid Astronaut,” which is a finalist for the Locus and Hugo Awards for best short story, is a beautifully written and sweet fairytale about wanderlust, knowledge, and sisterly love. It’s easily digestible, without much tension or conflict. An audio edition, narrated by author M.K. Hobson, is available at the Beneath Ceaseless Skies podcast. ~Kat Hooper