Hugo Award 2022 Best Short Story: my votes

The 2022 Hugo Awards are scheduled to be presented on Sunday evening, September 4, 2022, during a ceremony at Chicon 8, the 80th World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, Illinois. It will be live-streamed.

I’ll be there in person. As a member of Chicon 8, I get not just to attend but to vote on the Hugos, using a ranked ballot. (A World Science Fiction Convention is a fan-run, fan-owned, participatory event, not one of those “expos” or “comic-conventions” where you get to walk around as a consumer in a specialized shopping mall. Extended rant available upon request.)

As usual, the ballot presents a tough choice. All these short stories are solid, and any one of them deserves to win. I need a criteria by which to vote, though, so I’ll judge based on how hard I think each finalist pushes the art form of short story. Your opinion may vary, of course.

6. “The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente (Uncanny Magazine, Mar/Apr 2021) – A surreal horror story, almost an allegory, of exquisite detail and searing brutality. Because the story is hard to understand at first, intentionally and effectively, I won’t say more.

5. “Tangles” by Seanan McGuire ( Magic Story, Sep 2021) – A dryad, a mage, and a search party walk into a forest … and they help each other. I’d enjoy seeing the characters again solving bigger problems.

4. “Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, Feb 2021) – No spoilers, but this story is sweet, heartfelt, and lovely, which I didn’t see coming. A Junior Reaper of Death must take a toddler “across the river” to join the cosmos, and it’s just too hard.

3. “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte (Uncanny Magazine, May/Jun 2021) – A father and son work together after the father’s death to solve a mathematics hypothesis, a process that isn’t emotionally satisfying for the son. The story was emotionally moving to me as a reader.

2. “Unknown Number” by Blue Neustifter (Twitter, Jul 2021) – A physicist has questions about how his life could have gone. The story is told as a series of text messages, which works well.

1. “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine, Mar/Apr 2021) – An online group debates and investigates the meaning of a traditional song. The storytelling format is untraditional and effective. This gets my first-place vote as a reward for experimentation. This was also my choice for the Nebula Award, which it won. Congratulations!

Why your first draft might disappoint you

The long, slender stalk will eventually bear a flower. It’s growing from Haworthia venosa ssp. tessellata, a succulent from South Africa.

You have a bright, shiny idea to write something — a poem, song, story, novel, essay, article, speech, or report — and you start to write it down … and it’s not quite right. In fact, halfway through it might even seem not worth finishing.

It happens to me all the time. I deal with that feeling by ignoring it, and I ignore it because I understand what triggers that feeling. I start with a bright, shiny, but somewhat incoherent idea. Then I commit that idea to words, it coheres, and in the process, it changes.

It changes for many reasons, but the main one is that the idea has to move from one form of expression to another, in the same way that turning a painting into a sculpture, or a novel into a movie, brings changes. I was inspired in one kind of expression, which was thought, and now I’m staring at words … and it’s different.

Different isn’t bad. In fact, different can be good. Sometimes an idea improves during the move, or it ventures in a different, equally inspired direction.

Still, the first draft is normally imperfect, even deeply flawed. It’s a first draft, after all, a rough draft. Imperfect is okay. All first/rough drafts have problems, and problems can be solved. Perfection in a first draft isn’t required and shouldn’t be expected.

The first draft must fulfill only one requirement to be worthy: it must exist. I can do anything with that draft, but only if I have the draft. If that draft goes all the way to “the end,” it has achieved a success that rivals the state of a Platonic ideal.

So don’t feel disappointed with your first draft. Instead, load it onto a pen drive or print it out and take it with you to your favorite restaurant or park to celebrate its existence. You have a first draft!

Why Cervantes Claimed He Didn’t Write ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’

Photo by Sue Burke

In front of Spain’s National Library in Madrid, a statue of Miguel de Cervantes stands with one foot resting on a pair of books. One of them is spine-out, and we can read its title: Amadís de Gaula (Amadis of Gaul).

That book tells the story of Amadis, from the fictional kingdom of Gaul, who was the greatest knight in the world. This Spanish novel of chivalry, written by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo and published in 1508, became Europe’s first best-seller. It was reprinted 19 times, translated into 7 languages, spawned 44 direct sequels in several languages, and fueled an entire genre that lasted a century. Most notably, around 1600, it inspired Don Quixote of La Mancha.

In many ways, Cervantes satirizes (or pays homage to) that tale, including a characteristic element of novels of chivalry that began with Amadis of Gaul. An earlier version of Amadis had existed since the 1300s in the form of a three-book novel, but Montalvo’s edition was different, as he explains in his prologue:

I corrected these three books of Amadis, such as they could be read, due to poor writers or very corrupt and dissolute scribes, and I translated and added a fourth book and a sequel, Sergas de Esplandián, which up until now no one has seen. By great good fortune, a manuscript was discovered in a stone tomb beneath a hermitage near Constantinople, and it was brought by a Hungarian merchant to eastern Spain in such ancient script and old parchment that it could only be read with much difficulty by those who knew the language.

Of course, Montalvo himself wrote the fourth book and Sergas de Esplandián (Exploits of Espandian; Esplandian is the son of Amadis). Why lie about it? Because, as he himself put it, the novel “had been considered rank fiction rather than chronicles.” By proclaiming it an ancient story and perhaps even forgotten history rather than fiction, it could obtain the status of works by Homer and Cicero.

He doesn’t seem to have fooled anyone, but he did set a pattern for sequels to Amadis of Gaul by other authors. Supposedly, the manuscript for Lisuarte de Grecia (Lisuarte of Greece)by Juan Díaz (1514) had been written in Greek in Constantinople and taken to Rhodes when the city fell to the Ottomans. Amadís de Grecia (Amadis of Greece) by Feliciano de Silva (1530) had been found in a wooden box behind a wall in a cave in Spain, hidden during the Moslem invasion in 711. Silves de la Selva (Silves of the Jungle) by Pedro de Luján (1546) was encountered in the magical sepulcher of Amadis himself, written in Arabic.

And so on. Manuscripts were discovered in distant castles and during voyages to far-off lands. Some were written in Hungarian, Latin, Tuscan, German, Chaldean, and “Indian” (Sanskrit, perhaps). A few were even supposedly written by characters from earlier novels.

Among the many jokes in Don Quixote whose punch line we have forgotten today is the one in Chapter IX. It recounts how, in a market in Toledo, a boy was selling some old papers to be reused. Cervantes looked at one of the pieces of paper, a pamphlet, and it turned out to bepart of the History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written in Arabic by Cide Hamete Benengeli. He purchased a translation of the pamphlets for two arrobas of raisins (probably about two pecks) and two bushels of wheat. This discovered manuscript, Cervantes said, became the basis of the rest of the first part of his novel.

Rather than being found in some exotic place after a search filled with drama, difficulty, and great cost, Don Quixote was rescued from the garbage and translated on the cheap.

Besides that satire in Quixote, there’s another joke based on one of Montalvo’s books that we’ve forgotten. An imaginary island described in Exploits of Esplandian overflowed with gold and was ruled by a califa. Spanish conquistadors had read many novels of chivalry and sometimes compared the wonders of the New World to the marvels in those books, but when they sailed up the western coast of what we now call Mexico, they found a place that offered little besides rocks and condors. To entertain themselves, they started calling that barren land after the fabulously rich island in the book: “California.”


A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of The Source, a quarterly publication of the American Translators Association Literary Division.


You can read my translation of Amadis of Gaul here.

A portal fantasy right here and now

I’ve found a portal to another dimension in my apartment building: the missing 13th floor.

You scoff. Lots of buildings don’t have 13th floors, you say. Otis Elevator has explained that it’s not a plot, just a preference. “Due to the superstition associated with the number 13, the unlucky number is often omitted from elevator panels and stairwells.”

I say that’s what they want you to think. Or maybe Otis really believes this because the corporation operates exclusively in our quotidian dimension and doesn’t have all the facts.

True, though, it’s not just this building. The “13th” dimension exists as a horizontal layer across the landscape from building to building. It’s vertical, too. Like many buildings, mine has no 13th apartment units. The numbering goes …1410, 1411, 1412, 1414, 1415…

So, what’s in the 13th dimension? It could be a fantasyland with fairies, elves, unicorns, and the like, living and working in apartments, offices, and hotel rooms, possibly rent-free. The dimension could function as time travel, taking us to the year each building was built. It could be the hub for a physical shortcut, letting us jump from a building in Chicago to a building in New York by opening the right door. Or perhaps something nefarious is operating on the 13th floor…

Think about that when you get on an elevator. Better yet, think about that when you get off. Be sure it’s the floor you want. If you’re looking for the 13th floor, come prepared.

Where will it take you?

How much of a tree is alive?

Photo by Sue Burke

“How much of a tree is alive? Certainly not the outer bark. That falls off in dry scales, or can be scraped off down to the white layers within, and the tree be none the worse. Certainly not the wood. One often comes across old trees that have lost limbs or been carelessly pruned, which are entirely decayed out on the inside, so that nothing is left but a thin shell next the bark. Yet these trees grow as vigorously as ever, and bear leaves and fruit like a solid tree. The bark is dead; and the wood is dead. Between the two is a thin layer, perhaps a quarter inch through, which is alive. On one side, it is changing into dead wood. On the other side, it is changing into dead bark. The new wood is alive, and the new bark. Between them is something neither wood nor bark, but just living tree-stuff. The green leaves also are alive, and the green twigs, and the blossoms, and the growing buds. But at least half of every living tree is already dead; while the larger and longer lived a tree is, the smaller proportion of it is alive at one time.”

— from Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know by Edwin Tenney Brewster, physicist and popular science writer (October 11, 1866 – March 14, 1960). More information and links to download the book are here.