Learning to Love a New Type of Story: Hugo Nominated Novelettes

There are many benefits to reading short fiction: it’s a way to fit a little reading into your day even when you’re crunched for time, a quick intro to a new writer you’re thinking of checking out, a short break between reading longer books… Short fiction also has the ability to really pack a punch in a way that longer works don’t always manage; in short fiction, when every word counts, the complexity and richness of good writing can have a much more profound impact.

I used to read short fiction like so: I kept a book of collected short stories by Ursula K. LeGuin or Angela Carter or James Joyce by my bed and read one story before sleep each night. I secretly hated it. Although it seemed like an ideal way to read some more of my favorite authors’ shorter works, I often was a little too sleepy to appreciate a really impactful story. And then there were the novelettes… I was frustrated by a story that was too long to read in a few minutes while I was half asleep, but too short to treat like a novel. In my mind, they interrupted the flow of the short stories I thought I had signed up for.

Then I started reading the Hugo nominees – I kept one story open on my phone at all times, and whenever I had a little downtime while standing in line at the coffee shop or in between appointments at work, I read a little bit. The stories floated in and out of my head throughout the week, immersing me in their daydream. I even found other novelettes that I loved, such as The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon. I stopped worrying and learned to love the novelette. I think this is a great way to read shorter works, and I am looking forward to reading more in the future.

Here are my quick thoughts on the novelettes that were nominated for this year’s Hugo Award:

“Bots of the Lost Ark” by Suzanne Palmer – A bot’s-eye view of maintaining a malfunctioning ship.
This was very cute. It took me a second to get into – perhaps because I never read her previous story “The Secret Life of Bots”. Regardless, I found the end very charming, and a little humorous.

“Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim – A painter’s model wants to have success as a painter in her own right – so she seeks to be made immortal.
I found this to be a thoughtful reflection on art, the self, and im/mortal relationships.

L’Esprit de L’Escalier” by Catherynne M. Valente – Maybe, Eurydice didn’t want Orpheus to bring her back…
This had a really interesting concept of dealing with the return from death, the disconnect that happens in a relationship after trauma, the dissatisfaction in a relationship that was once passionate but is now empty. And I love retellings of myths (seriously *loved* Circe by Madeline Miller,) but this time I found that I got tired of the repetitive description of all the gods as modern stereotypes.

“O2 Arena” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki – In a future where humans have destroyed the planet, people have to fight for air – literally.
Okay so my first impressions of this and my thoughts about it after talking with other readers are polar opposites. I thought it was somewhat brutal and very Human which is what I liked about it. On a rapid read I was left with only a raw impression of pain and struggling that came from a very real core and stuck with me. But several months later, all I remember is a lot of kind of ham-fisted description of the world and a weird subplot about a creepy professor that didn’t seem to fit. Ekpeki is a disabled man, and I found myself wondering how much of the story was inspired by personal experience. It is crushing, a frightening black mirror. This story won the Nebula for best novelette this year.

“That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell – Anton escapes the house where he has been staying with Mr. Bird and stays with a friend, but is scared Mr. Bird will find him.
Weirdly, this is another story where by opinions of this story completely flipped over time. This is a very well-written story a story about abuse and moving on… but found it very uncomfortable and didn’t understand the ending, so initially I didn’t like it. Eventually, I came around to the sort of amorphic ending and really appreciated how the structure of the story reflected and reinforced the themes of learning to live again after trauma. I looked up a couple other stories by Wiswell (“For Lack of a Bed” was nominated for a Nebula award this year,) and found that he consistently writes about tough subjects, and consistently is extremely skillful in translating that to science fiction in a way that feels very relatable.

“Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde – A moving dress shop shows up in town, and Sera learns that she has a connection to the magical tailors.
This had a very magical feeling to it, but ultimately I felt uninspired and found it forgettable.

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