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Review: 2014 Hugo Nominees for Best Short Story

More discussion about short stories on bookish.



If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, by Rachel Swirsky



If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love


If you were a dinosaur, my love, I’d teach you the scents of those men. I’d lead you to them quietly, oh so quietly. Still, they would see you. They’d run. Your nostrils would flare as you inhaled the night and then, with the suddenness of a predator, you’d strike. I’d watch as you decanted their lives—the flood of red; the spill of glistening, coiled things—and I’d laugh, laugh, laugh.


This won a Nebula, and while I will not deny that Swirsky can write (I quite enjoyed A Memory of Wind), this is not SF/F, even if it does have "dinosaur" in the title.

In short, it's a revenge fantasy, and the "punchline" is that the narrator's lover was attacked by cartoonish redneck caricatures for unspecified but obviously bigoted reasons.(She provides a laundry list of possibilities, for maximal inclusion of marginalized groups.)

Fine prose, but this story tripped my cynicism in a big way as far as what earned it its accolades.

The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt



The Ink Readers of Doi Saket


But while the people in Chiang Mai partied, the villagers of Doi Saket set to work. Under guidance of the wayward harvester driver Sungkaew, they strung nets across the river and caught the krathongs. Men rowed to and fro in tiny boats while women waited on the bank to unburden them. Burnt incense sticks were tossed onto a pile of smoldering embers, spreading a fabulous aroma that the sultry breeze carried across the rice fields like a whispered message. Candle stubs were melted down, the wax used as fuel for the khom loi. Money, jewelry, and other valuables sacrificed to the river goddess were collected by the Puu Yaybaan and pinned to the timber tree frame standing beside the stone phallus outside the temple, so that all could follow the example of the generous ones. Woe the mortal who tried to steal: a night of dangling upside down from the holy daeng tree would await him, and a next life as the larva of a dengue mosquito.


Set in Thailand, this is a story of butterfly effects and karma. The people of Doi Saket grant the wishes floated downriver by the city folk of Chiang Mai, but the Doi Saket villagers have wishes of their own. Some are poignant, some are petty, and the story at times seemed like a conglomeration of themed flash fiction, though there is a unifying thread winding through it, represented metaphorically by the river.

Meandering from one character to another, each of whom has varying amounts of nobility or baseness, we meet monks and divers and farmers and crab harvesters, and witness their greed, lust, despair, humor, and humanity. I liked this story, which made the Thai village and its people come alive, and if the fantastical elements were understated, they were at least there.


Wishes, wishes, wishes everywhere. The well-mannered crab huntress Kulap found some scrap metal from Daeng’s wrecked truck in the rice field and used it to forge a gong. When she sounded it one night, she touched such a probing frequency that every man in Doi Saket was enchanted and lured toward her little house. As soon as the well-bellied weed exterminator Uan saw her, he fell head over heels in love. Kulap, not a bad sort, gave him a cursory embrace, and at least the idea of love.


There is a plot and a central protagonist of sorts; the author connects end to beginning skillfully enough that I was at last convinced he knew what he was doing with this form. It is, however, an example of a short story that lacks the "tightness" of prose usually demanded of short fiction, and while I didn't mind terseness being sacrificed for color, it took a while for me to focus on where the story was going or whether it was just a trip with no destination.

Selkie Stories Are for Losers, by Sofia Samatar



Selkie Stories Are for Losers


I hate selkie stories. They're always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said "What's this?", and you never saw your mom again.


This story annoyed me at first read. The narrator is a whiny adolescent whose life sucks, which is not a premise likely to engage my sympathy.

On second read, I picked up the understated element of the fantastic which actually made it rather subversive, and so give it points for more cleverness than was immediately apparent. Without spoiling too much, it's an abandonment story, and whether the girl's mother was really a selkie or not, it makes you think a little harder about all those fairy tales about some woodsman or fisherman who traps a fairy bride into marriage — or a fox, or a selkie, or whatever — all variations on a theme seen in the folk tales of nearly every culture. Those stories usually focus on the bereavement of the man after his otherworldly wife leaves him, but seldom mentioned are the children left behind.

With a speculative element and an emotional punch added, this story rose a bit in my estimation, but while I appreciated the craft, I still found the breathless teenage voice annoying and the obligatory same-sex love interest a bit pandering. A fine story appealing to an entirely different demographic than those who read Analog or Asimov's back in the day.


I won't even tell her what she needs to know: that we've got to be tougher than our moms, that we've got to have different stories, that she'd better not change her mind and drop me in Colorado because I won't understand, I'll hate her forever and burn her stuff and stay up all night screaming at the woods, because it's stupid not to be able to breathe, who ever heard of somebody breathing in one place but not another, and we're not like that, Mona and me, and selkie stories are only for losers stuck on the wrong side of magic—people who drop things, who tell all, who leave keys around, who let go.


The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere, by John Chu



The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere


The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago. Everyone on Earth did. Everyone with any sense of lab safety anyway. Never assume any liquid is just water. When you say “I always document my experiments as I go along,” enough water falls to test, but not so much that you have to mop up the lab. Which lie doesn't matter. The liquid tests as distilled water every time.


Like two of the above three stories, this is basically a relationship story with a speculative element inserted. Matt is a biotech engineer who has not come out to his traditional Chinese family. When he goes home for Christmas with his lover, a personal trainer described as having the body of a Greek statue, complicated and heartwarming family drama ensues.

Also, water falls on you when you lie. This is, I think, some kind of metaphor, but damned if I could quite figure it out. It's an actual physical phenomenon that happens, though. At one point Matt grabs a pan off a stove so his sister doesn't get burned by oil splashing when she's about to make a vicious but untruthful remark. So there's your science fiction element.

Another story that was well written, and Chu's gift seems to be with characterization. The characters — Matt, his boyfriend Gus, and Matt's family — are all very real, nuanced people, an impressive feat to pull off with quite a few characters in a short story. I suppose to me it resembled a work of magical realism more than a work of science fiction, and I appreciated the craft while finding parts of it indulgent in a way I also get from a lot of Haruki Murakami's work. I am trying to get past the sense that it's a gay love story with arbitrary magical-falling-water inserted to make it something Tor.com would publish.

Tags: 2014 hugo nominee, reviews, science fiction, thomas olde heuvelt
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