In this week’s SHORTS column we wrap up our reviews of most of the 2021 Locus and Hugo award finalists in the novelette and short story categories.
“50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know” by Ken Liu (2020, free at Uncanny magazine)
One eventually gets the list the titles implies, but first the story opens with an obituary of the list’s author — “WHEEP-3 (‘Dr. Weep’), probably the most renowned AI AI-critic of the last two decades.” The obit explains how WHEEP was created/trained by Dr. Judy Reynolds Tran, the odd and at times controversial relationship between the “strange pair who whose lives were inextricably entwined,” the three phases of WHEEP’s career, culminating in “advice aimed at advanced artificial intelligence,” and finally its decline into senescence and eventual retirement. Following the obituary comes the “famous” list.
The story is multi-layered, with playfully thought-provoking connections between the perceptions of humans and AI, beginning with how the obit itself is written by an AI. The layered form continues through the list, which waxes philosophical (“how great is the distance between any two individuals using the same language”) even as it also throws a few chuckle-worthy bones to genre fans (“Hal 9000”, “Ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion”). Many of the lines build on or turn on prior ones, as when the aforementioned line about language is followed by “How vanishingly small is the gap between any two languages” and then by “Why humans will never see it that way.”
Despite the small amount of actual words, Liu manages to run a tonal and emotional gamut: sorrowful, resigned, tragic, humorous, whimsically surreal, idealistic, hopeful, and more. It’s a story driven not by plot nor by character, but by ideas and structure, which combine to create a story that lingers after the reading. ~Bill Capossere
Editor’s note: We highly recommend reading Liu’s insightful interview with Caroline Yoachim in Uncanny in connection with this story.
“Color, Heat and the Wreck of the Argo” by Catherynne M. Valente (2020, free at Strange Horizons)
Johanna, a filmmaker, is shopping at the estate sale of a guy named Jeff when she falls in love with an old clunky 1980s camcorder that used to belong to Jeff’s dad and still has a tape stuck inside. When Johanna puts her eye to the camera and presses plays, the old distorted tape seems to show Jeff bleeding from a shard of glass lodged in his chest.
She buys the beast, takes it home, names it “Big Edie,” gets the tape dislodged, and buys some new blank tapes. But when she starts playing back her new recordings, they are still showing scenes that Johanna didn’t record. She begins to think that Big Edie predicts the future.
“Color, Heat and the Wreck of the Argo,” a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Novelette, is a lovely nostalgic piece written in Valente’s characteristically elegant prose. Besides the mystery of the camcorder, Johanna is also dealing with a devastating breakup. She’s obsessed with the camera and with her former lover, and she has trouble letting go. This is a painful but beautiful story about loss, obsession, nostalgia, and magic. ~Kat Hooper
“Dresses Like White Elephants” by Meg Elison (2020, free at Uncanny)
I was intrigued by Kat’s review of Meg Elison’s acclaimed novelette “The Pill.” It piqued my interest in Elison, and recently I saw that she had another work in the running for a major award: the Locus-nominated “Dresses Like White Elephants.”
Beni is an aging drag queen scouring a sale of used wedding dresses, looking for the perfect frock to dazzle at what will probably be his last pageant. It’s not an easy search, both because he wants something unique and because his body type is difficult to fit. And — here’s the speculative element — the dresses at this sale are not paid for in money, but in a much more personal manner. He finds the perfect dress, which is being offered by a young woman with a painful history of abuse, and what follows is a poignant sequence written with deep compassion for both characters.
“Dresses Like White Elephants” is a story of “women’s pain and women’s labor,” quietly devastating but ending on a hopeful note. Like “The Pill,” it isn’t set quite in our reality, but close enough to hit hard. ~Kelly Lasiter
“City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat” by Usman T. Malik (2020, free at Tor.com)
I’m a sucker for nested story-within-story structures, and Malik does an excellent job delivering with that form in “City of Red Midnight,” a Locus finalist for best novelette, creating a wonderfully smooth and seamless narrative flow that captivates the reader even as it hits pretty hard on some social criticism, particularly concerning the treatment of women. The frame story is a group of newly-arrived and jet-lagged creatives in town for a con who are debating the impact of imperialism on storytelling. One side argues that “cultural terrorism” had expelled traditional storytelling from the mainstream, while the other (playing devil’s advocate) said “such erasure … led to assimilation and desired change.”
Into this conversation strolls Baba Kahani, a “qissa-khwan — a devotee of the oral storytelling tradition.” He offers up The Marvelous Tale of Taimur the Trickster and the Moon-Mad Roses. And a marvel it is, a story involving thieves, sorcerers, magic rings, vengeance coercion, duplicity, quests, magical otherlands, and more, with the first story unfolding to reveal another within its boundaries, one that itself holds another tale within it, and so on. At their center is Fatima, married off at the age of fourteen to an older “good, pious man” who was neither. The story of M______, as her husband is referred to, Fatima notes, has been told “a different way,” but in her story she corrects that version, which labeled M____’s wife “Fatima the Dung” and had him praying to be “relieved of his burden.”
I won’t go into the details of the stories themselves, but will simply say again they are captivating, as well as wonderfully inventive in setting, image, and voice. The theme of how men treat women adds a sense of depth with a bite to it, as for instance how Fatima reclaims that which is hers in several ways, an object desired for her own reasons and not those assumed by those who know nothing of her inner thoughts, her power and agency, and her name, even as her husband loses his via the traditional but nicely appropriate here use of the initial-underline format. ~Bill Capossere
“The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (2020, free at Uncanny)
The Fallen angels who live in the human city of Starhollow (an alternative version of modern-day Paris) are being systematically hunted down and murdered, the flesh clawed from their bones, which are drained of their innate magic. Samantha de Viera, a witch with mediocre powers and a possibly unrequited love for a Fallen named Calariel, gets an invitation (the type you can’t refuse) from Arvedai, a Fallen gang-lord, to investigate the serial killings.
Cal tries to take over the investigation to protect Sam from danger, but Sam evades Cal’s attempts to sideline her. She continues her search the cause of the Fallen deaths with the help of O’Connor, a human henchman for Arvedai, and some timely input from Lucifer himself.
“The Inaccessibility of Heaven” is a noir, Golden Age-type of murder mystery with a fantastical element to it, and is both a Hugo and Locus award finalist for best novelette. Its world has similarities to Aliette de Bodard’s DOMINION OF THE FALLEN series, with Fallen angels from whose magical bones a powerful drug is made, exiled from the Divine City to an alternative Paris filled with humans — some of whom set up homeless shelters for the bewildered newly Fallen. In Starhollow, though, the city is far more functional and there are modern conveniences like cell phones.
This mixture of a modern city, fallen angels and a brutal serial killer is an imaginative one, and I’m pleased that de Bodard chose to finish and publish this story, even though its setting is so similar to that of DOMINION OF THE FALLEN. Quite a few characters move in and out of the storyline, which got a bit confusing, but I found the resolution of the mystery both surprising and fitting. There’s a spiritual aspect to the plot and its resolution that is touchingly poignant in a secular time. ~Tadiana Jones
“Fairy Tales for Robots” by Sofia Samatar (2020, published in Made to Order: Robots and Revolution)
Sofia Samatar is a brilliant writer, her work full of clever allusions and beautiful metaphors. In “Fairy Tales for Robots,” however, that intellectual brilliance robs her story of any emotional punch. Yes, robots are like Sleeping Beauty, turned on and off by the touch of a spindle or the touch of an off switch. Yes, a robot does rather resemble Galatea, created by a Pygmalion of a technologist who creates it and then falls in love with it. And yes, like Vasilisa the Beautiful, with tiny rivets instead of freckles, and Caliban and Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, creations can backfire, and so on and so forth.
In describing her robot by comparisons to fairy tales, Samatar manages to say a great deal about humans as well. It is a very smart story, and I loved reading every minute of it. But it did not move me. Perhaps that is true to the narrator’s role as a technician, but it is not true to her role as a storyteller, alas. This is a story as written by Bach: shining with talent, but mathematical in its effect. It’s beautiful, and well worth its selection as a finalist for the Locus Award, and I urge you to read it. But for me, Samatar sacrificed dramatic immediacy for intellectual heft. ~Terry Weyna
“A Stick of Clay, in the Hands of God, Is Infinite Potential” by JY Neon Yang (2020, free at Clarkesworld)
Stick is the genetically-engineered pilot of a mech fighter that’s been deployed to kill apostates in a long-running holy war sanctioned by the Church. Stick has a male body that doesn’t seem to fit, so Stick has always thought of itself as an “it.” Stick’s world is rocked when it finds out that its battle partner, a woman named Versus, is questioning not only their holy mission, but also her own gender identity.
Holy wars really aren’t my thing, so I didn’t love this Locus finalist for best novelette. It dragged for me, especially because we know so little about Stick’s world, the war, the characters, and their society’s gender roles. I couldn’t bring myself to care much.
Something interesting that readers may take away from this story, though, is the idea that it’s normal to be confused and conflicted about your patriotism, mission, and even your gender identity, that sometimes it takes time to figure things out, and, even if you never figure it out, maybe that’s okay, too. ~Kat Hooper
“The Sycamore and the Sybil” by Alix E. Harrow (2020, free at Uncanny)
A sycamore tree stands on the banks of the Big Sandy River in Crow County, a tree who once was a woman, Sylvia, who turned herself into a tree to escape the unwanted pursuit of a man, using magical words passed down in her family.
My Great Aunt Daphne taught them to me when I was young: old, secret words, the ones you say when the wolf is at your throat and there’s nowhere left to run and you don’t know any witching strong enough to strike out at him, so you strike inward, instead.
One day another young woman, Kat, comes into the woods, followed by a handsome wolf of a man who overrides her objections to his kisses. The sycamore watches bitterly as the old pattern repeats itself, thinking that she could teach Kat the words to turn herself into a tree to escape the man’s sexual pursuit, angry at the unfairness of it all, but not sure any more that such a price is worth paying.
There are some nice links in this Locus award finalist short story to other works. It’s set in the same world and (apparently) time period as Alix Harrow’s recent novel The Once and Future Witches, where women have powers of witchcraft that have been pushed underground due to men’s hostility and nearly lost. Sylvie’s Great Aunt Daphne directly evokes the nymph Daphne of Greek mythology, who is transformed into a laurel tree in order to escape Apollo. I like to think that maybe she’s even the same person.
“The Sycamore and the Sybil” is laser-focused on gender issues, the physical and social power enjoyed by men and the injustice of the way women are mistreated. This message is at the forefront the entire time and threatens to overwhelm the story, which has a very slight plot. But Harrow’s writing is, as always, evocative and insightful. It’s lovely even as it lashes out in anger. And it’s hopeful in the end, an encouragement to women to help each other out. ~Tadiana Jones
“In the Lands of the Spill” by Aliette de Bodard (2020, originally published at Avatars.inc, available at Internet Archive)
“In the Lands of the Spill,” a Locus award finalist for best short story, was a mixed bag for me. The story’s narrator is piloting an avatar body on a rescue mission into near-future Vietnam, one that has been abandoned after rising seas due to climate change stole the south and a massive toxic environmental disaster ruined the rest. This caused most of the population (including the narrator’s family) to flee the country, though some remained. As one might expect, tension and resentment exist between those two groups, which comes into play here as the narrator’s teammate (working the drones and helping guide her) is one of the ones who stayed. Beyond the polluted air, corrosive water, etc., the biggest danger is the feral “shoals … microscopic AIs with an insatiable hunger for minerals and tech and everything they could strip from the living.”
My favorite aspect was the bleak imagery, lyrically haunting in its vivid depiction, with “the jagged edges of houses and domes like a scattering of metal flowers,” or the corrosive river holding her “as a mother holds a child.” I also liked the impressionistic style much of the story is told in. What didn’t work for me was the conversation between the narrator and her teammate, which felt like an overly-blunt and unnecessary distraction, one that muddied the story’s impact. The ending, meanwhile, felt more than a little anticlimactic and led too quickly and easily to the narrator’s epiphanies, which didn’t feel wholly earned.
In the end, I loved the style when the narrator was focused on Vietnam, found the main plot less compelling, and the side-story an unwelcome intrusion (though with more space I think it could have worked to some stronger impact). ~Bill Capossere
Sybils, Mermaids, and books. Oh my. Good thing I can sped read.