ARB Guide to the ’21 Hugos: Novelettes

Jake Casella Brookins


Ah, the Hugo for Best Novelette, which is also a perennial excuse to go “wait, what’s a novelette again?” Shorter than a novella, longer than a short story, novelettes exist in a bit of a limbo for most readers—they’re infrequently available as standalone printed books, and perhaps less likely to be included in multi-author short story collections. That said, I’d argue that the form is an important one for the field: novelettes are a superb length for speculative work, with a high density of theme and idea but still enough room to develop them. Novelettes are also a vital component of the SF magazine, which themselves play a critical (and under-funded) role in the development of the genre as a whole—venues like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Tor.com provide an essential space for developing writers and ideas.

For each of the 6 nominees this year, I’ll give a quick summary, some context, and then a tiny personal review. Also, I’ve provided links to the stories: online if they’re still available, or to collections that include them. Enjoy!

* * *

“Burn or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A. T. Greenblatt

This story follows the eponymous Sam Wells, whose questionably-useful superpower of bursting into flames when stressed leads to his induction into a team of Supers, where he finds himself using his skills as an accountant more frequently than his superpowers, and ultimately becoming more comfortable with himself and his new life. This is Greenblatt’s first Hugo nomination, but I expect we’ll see more of her, as she’s had a string of excellent stories over the last few years.

If there’s a term for “normalized” superhero stories, the kind that focus on pragmatic, even bureaucratic aspects of that kind of world, I’ve missed it—“Quotidian Superhero” or “Low Cape” maybe? I’m not personally a huge fan of the superhero genre or its parodic offshoots, but this is a deft, sensitive story, and if it’s a bit blunt with its metaphor—a “flamer” learning to accept his identity—it’s still quite well done, with some good musings on morality, fate, and friendship added to the mix.

* * *

Helicopter Story by Isabel Fall

A cyberpunk-ish military story set in a near future where a divided United States makes war on its own former territories, Helicopter Story’s protagonist has been neurologically modified to identify as her helicopter, co-opting the brain’s sex and gender hardware to make her better at her job. If you haven’t been following the story around this story, well, there’s a lot of it, all of it quite tragic; I can’t do more than sketch out the very basic outlines here.

It was originally published under the title “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, a transphobic meme. Fall is reclaiming and interrogating the phrase, using it as inspiration to dig into questions of gender and identity; on publication, however, the story quickly turned into a maelstrom of controversy, with many critics claiming the story was a harmful and likely disingenuous attack. Big names in the SF world variously slammed and defended the story; Fall outed herself as a trans woman, changed the story’s title, and eventually asked that it be taken down, announcing that she was going back in the closet and would not be writing any more SF. There’s been tons written about this, the most in-depth of which is probably Emily VanDerWerff’s Vox article, for which she was able to interview Fall; as a chaser I’d also recommend Lee Mandelo’s brief thread on the issues of harm-based critique.

I think this story’s quite good—gnarly biopunky tech and politics, good writing, and I admire the narrative judo of subverting both the original title and the military SF genre. What happened to Fall is incredibly sad, and the damage to the community is far from over—just this past week, Neon Hemlock’s announcement of an anthology including one of Helicopter Story’s critics sparked an ongoing online shitstorm (investigate at your own peril). I don’t have any pithy way to sum this all up, and there’s no way to separate Helicopter Story from its context. I am glad it’s on the list: it’s an excellent story, and it deserves to be talked about, hopefully learned from.

* * *

“The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard

A noir-ish murder mystery with demons, angels, and complicated spells and summonings, all from the perspective of a mortal human caught up in it. Bodard is a prolific writer, mostly at shorter lengths—this is her eighth Hugo nomination.

This is a good story, probably my favorite of Bodard’s angelic entries. She has an interesting way of writing character—very insightful, but at a slight distance—that works really well here. I’ve been impressed for a while by how Bodard’s science fictional Xuya universe uses a long fictional timeframe to good effect (an elaborate alternate history that extends into an elaborate future history), and “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” gives a possible glimpse of that same approach in her Dominion of the Fallen world.

* * *

“Monster” by Naomi Kritzer

Following a researcher as she looks for an old friend who has gone off the rails, the whizz-bang factor here is genetic engineering and the ethics of human experimentation. It’s really the flashbacks to that friendship—and the setting, a tourist’s visit to the Guizhou province of China—that carry it. Kritzer has previously won a Hugo for her short story “Cat Pictures Please”, and has quite a number of other awards and nominations to her name.

The writing is superb, and the characterization here is on a different level of realism from the rest of the list. Kritzer’s prose is a treat, really polished, and she does a lot with what isn’t told or revealed, which is a rare trick. The specultive elements in “Monster” are almost incidental, however, which might knock down its chances with Hugo voters.

* * *

“The Pill” by Meg Elison

A “miracle” weight loss treatment that transforms people in a matter of days—but kills about 1 in 10 users—is widely adopted; the story follows a young woman who refuses the pill, watching its effects on her family and society at large. Elison is an accomplished essayist in addition to her SF writing; this is her first Hugo nomination.

I cannot say enough good things about this story. Potent, incisive, biting, it put me in mind of Shirley Jackson or James Tiptree at their best, but it maintains a humane and empathetic core. Uses the classic SF “What If?” formulation to blast our society’s fatphobia—and any illusion that we have progressed past it—and then thinks beyond that, ending in a stranger and more generative place than I expected. Highly, highly recommended.

* * *

“Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker

Returning to her hometown to help a friend clear out the house of his deceased brother, a hoarder, the narrator of “Two Truths and a Lie” is reminded of a very strange local television show they had all participated in as children; the story gets weirder from there. This is Pinsker’s fifth Hugo nomination, and she has a slew of other awards and nominations for previous work, including the fantastic and weirdly prescient post-pandemic novel A Song for a New Day.

I love how weird this story is: the writing is matter-of-fact, yet it blurs together several layers of reality and horror. It’s definitely an homage to creepypasta—a kind of internet-enabled urban myth—specifically Kris Straub’s Candle Cove, which is itself inspired by the Onion’s “Lidsville”. Extremely well done: uses the frailty of personal and cultural memory to play around with a compelling mixture of goofiness, surreality, and creepiness.

***

That’s it for the novelettes! I’d hoped to get these out sooner, but so it goes—I’ll have the ARB Guide to the short stories out before the awards. Which is this weekend, good gosh! Also, if you happen to be attending the virtual side of WorldCon, you can catch me, and a lovely collection of other critics, talking about reviewing on Thursday.

* * * * * *
ARB Guide to the 201 Hugos:
Intro | Novel | Novella | Novelette | Short Story | An Open Letter | Results & Diagrams


Originally from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Jake Casella Brookins (he/him) now lives in Chicago. He is an SF reviewer and independent scholar, and runs the Positron site for speculative fiction book clubs and other literary events in the Chicagoland area. When not making coffee (professionally), he is probably riding his bike (amateurishly). Book ramblings and occasional bread experiments can be found on his blog.


Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by an internal pitch among the ARB editors. Review copies were not arranged by ARB; access to some titles was provided by the Hugo Voter’s Packet, which the author had access to through their personal Worldcon membership.

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