My votes for the 2021 Hugo Best Novelette Award

Six fine novelettes made it to the final ballot for this year’s Hugo Awards. Any one of them deserves to win, so how do I decide? Literary merit can be measured in many ways, such as technical excellence or imaginative leaps. I’ll rank them according to my opinion of their daring. Which one took the biggest risks?

6. “Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine, May/June 2020) Superheros are feared and hated — by themselves and by the public at large — for their poorly controlled powers. Emotions in the story are carefully depicted. This novelette excels in technical excellence.

5. “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny Magazine, July/August 2020) What happens after Paradise Lost by Milton? The fallen angels become prey in a fast-moving murder mystery. An impressive imaginative leap.

4. “Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker (Tor.com) A woman finds herself caught in a web of her own lies. Genuinely creepy horror. Both technical excellence and an imaginative leap are at work here.

3. “Monster” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2020) A medical researcher looks for a friend, and the search takes a terrible turn. People are not who they seem to be in this powerful story of betrayal. Technical excellence and a daring plot twist.

2. “The Pill” by Meg Elison (from Big Girl, PM Press) A pill can cure obesity, and people rush to take it despite its “acceptable” casualties. A daring story that dissects our current society with a pitiless scalpel, exposing how deep our prejudices reach and how much pain they cause. This story might change the way you think.

1. “Helicopter Story” by Isabel Fall (Clarkesworld, January 2020) Without a doubt, given the intense negative reaction to the story on many fronts at its initial publication, this story took the most risks. “To be yourself well is the wholest and best feeling that anything has ever felt,” the story says, but, “We are propelled by disaster.”

My votes for the 2021 Hugo Best Short Story Award

The Hugo Awards will be presented at Discon III, the 79th World Science Fiction Convention, in Washington, DC, from December 15 to 19. I plan to be there. As a Worldcon member, I get to vote on the Hugos.

Here’s my ballot for the short stories. Every single one of these stories is worth reading, and choosing the winner is tough. Is a six-way tie possible? I guess not. I have to rank them for voting, and I know other voters have made very different choices, and I can’t fault them.

Note that, at least in my opinion, most of the short stories this year have a bit of a gentle, sweet tone. I suspect that’s just coincidence, but I don’t mind. Lately real life has been rough and bitter for all of us.

6. “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020). An naive pair of life forms made of metal encounter a stronger, evil metal life form in a story that evokes the fairy-tale style of “Hansel and Gretel” and updates its substance.

5. “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2020) A woman gives birth in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Well-paced and vivid.

4. “The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2020). A mermaid wants to travel to the stars, and she does, then discovers the price. Although quiet and sweet, the narration is compelling.

3. “Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer (Tor.com). A woman sets up a free library, and one of the borrowers leaves strange and wonderful gifts. As so often with her stories, it’s at once gentle, sweet, and terrifying.

2. “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots – 2020, ed. David Steffen). A haunted house wants a family and will do everything it can to make those people happy. Sweet without being sentimental.

1. “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, ed. Jonathan Strahan (Solaris)). Two robots with mismatched personalities find ways to help each other. This is my top choice because of its humor, the strong voices of its protagonists, the oblique but effective way it tells the story, ending on a sweet note, and because I’m a fan of Vina Jie-Min Prasad.

Two new articles on my website

I’ve posted two new articles here on my website.

The Highest Mile: In Spain, the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, has been an important pilgrimage route since medieval times to venerate the relics of St. James. It’s not one route, but several, and pilgrims can walk directly from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela, although few do. I hiked the route in the Guadarrama Mountains up to the Fuenfría Pass between Madrid and Segovia, where I found a solitary but not spiritually quiet meadow.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel decree: As a Spanish-to-English translator, one of my specialties is historic Spanish, and a few years back, I translated a document from 1491 signed by the King and Queen of Spain for an auction house. By itself, the decree is a minor matter about ownership of a farm, but it illustrates a crucial historic moment.

I received this poem as a gift

In exchange for a couple of houseplants, a friend gave me this poem, drawn from real life.

Fartin’ ‘n Gold Pants at the Dollar Tree

by Michael Ryan Chandler

Is it a frog?
Did someone step on a duck?
Did someone pop a lunch sack?
Fartin’ ‘n gold pants at the Dollar Tree.

Did a sewer line back up?
Did someone forget to wash?
Did a mouse die under the cans?
Fartin’ ‘n gold pants at the Dollar Tree.

Was it a burrito you ate?
Was it bad broccoli?
Was it a sandwich full of hate?
Fartin’ ‘n gold pants at the Dollar Tree.

I’m sympathetic to folks with gastritis
with pants touched by Midas.
But a mighty gastritis done got hold’a you.

I guess I should’a known.
I was feeling so alone,
all alone in an empty old store
when from across the way what did I hear?

It sounded like a flock of geese.
It sounded like the end of the world.
At first I was confused.
At first I felt fear.

Then I saw your gold rump
shakin’ and quakin’
calling out.

People say express yourself
and I believe that to be true,
but honey, please find another way.

Maybe change your diet.
Maybe go to France.
I heard they don’t fart there.

Whatever you do
when you’re at the Dollar Tree
please don’t fart in gold pants.

Guess the movie

Here’s a game I’ve played with a few writing classes. These are the opening paragraphs to novels that were made into films. Do you recognize them?

For writers, this exercise offers the chance to study what makes these openers successful. As we write, with the very first words we make promises to the reader.

What do these first words tell you about the book? What kind of narrator is telling the story? How much do you know about the setting, characters, and likely conflict? What should the reader expect going forward?

The opening paragraphs:

1. [He] was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in “The Good Old Summer Time,” the waltz of the day.

2. An angry man — there is my story: the bitter rancor of the prince that brought a thousand disasters on the opposing army. Many a strong soul it sent to the underworld, and left the heroes prey to vultures and dogs, while the will of a god moved on to fulfillment.

3. Current-bourne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways, pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moondriven sea.

4. The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heel boots with pointed toes.

5. Your father is about to ask me the question. This is the most important moment of our lives, and I want to pay attention, note every detail. Your dad and I have just come back from an evening out, dinner and a show; it’s after midnight. We came out onto the patio to look at the full moon; then I told your dad I wanted to dance, so he humors me and now we’re slow-dancing, a pair of thirty-somethings swaying back and forth in the moonlight like kids. I don’t feel the night chill at all. And then your dad says, “Do you want to make a baby?”

6. I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked. Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare. I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now. For the record … I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

1. Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis (1927), film in 1960. A confidence man and a female evangelist sell religion to small-town America. The opening paragraph tells us that the story takes place in the Midwest in the 1920s. It suggests a judgmental narrator and gives us a glimpse into the personality of the protagonist, an outgoing man of questionable character. The movie starred Burt Lancaster and won three Academy Awards.

2. The Illiad by Homer (8th century BCE), film Troy in 2002. Not exactly a novel, this is still a major work of fiction that defined a culture and continues to influence literature to this day. The opening words promise an exciting story about war and blood involving high-born men who must deal with divine intervention. The narrator is outside the story but actively participates in the telling.

3. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin (1971), TV movies in 1980 and 2002. A man’s dreams change reality, and the novel opens in a dream, followed by a terrifying dream, and then he wakes up in an impoverished, war-torn world. The opening promises an immersive, lyrical story with a narrator who reports the story but stays out of it.

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965), films in 1967, 1996, and 1993. Not exactly a novel, instead this is a pioneer work of creative non-fiction, using all the resources of fiction to tell a story based on fact. Specifically, it recounts the 1959 savage murder of a family in Holcomb. At the time, the nation was shocked that such senseless bloodshed could take place in such a quiet little town, and opening with a description of the place reinforces the trauma of what eventually happens.

5. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (1998), film Arrival in 2016. The novella, unlike the movie, focuses on a woman coming to terms with her daughter’s early death. The narrator is the mother, and she’s telling the story to her daughter as if the daughter were still alive, which becomes thematically important within the context of the story. The opening paragraph establishes the tone and frame of the narration.

6. The Martian by Andy Weir (2011), film in 2015. From the start, we know this is going to be a first-person narration, and that the narrator casually drops the F-bomb. He also maintains a pretty good sense of humor for a man who’s reasonably sure that he’s going to die. We know by the end of the opening exactly what the conflict is: man vs. nature, in this case Mark Watney vs. Mars.