ARB Guide to the ’21 Hugos: Short Stories

Jake Casella Brookins

The Hugo for Best Novel is arguably “the big one”. Other awards are important recognitions of and commentaries on the the field and its communities—but, personally, for me, the Hugo for Best Short Story is the most valuable: I don’t get around to reading much new short fiction through the year, so the awards-season round-up of the best short stories out there is a delightful resource. As I mentioned last time, the novelette is a superb form for speculative fiction—but the short story might be the best suited for the kind of experimental, idea-driven writing that draws so many of us to the genre.

Unlike the other fiction categories, and unlike previous years, the Short Story nominations this year are dominated by gentle, hopeful stories, which is kind of interesting. For each story, I’ll give a very brief synopsis and some context, and then a brief personal review; all the stories are currently still available online, so I’ve linked to them from their titles.

* * *

“Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson

A pregnant woman and another member of her survivor community must survive the birthing process while under siege from the undead. Carson is a fantasy YA writer of some note; this is her first Hugo nomination.

This story was fine, does what it says on the tin; I think I’m just personally not very interested in stock zombie scenarios. Packs in a lot of drama in a short space, foregrounds women and women’s relationships, remembers the importance of community and continuity even in the apocalypse, so that’s cool.

* * *

“A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Told entirely in the form of texts or chat messages, “A Guide for Working Breeds” chronicles the relationship between two artificial intelligences—a veteran combat robot, and the newly-manufactured food service bot that “Constant Killer” has been assigned to mentor. Prasad is a Singaporean writer who’s only been on the scene for a few years, but this is already her third Hugo nomination.

Every Prasad story I’ve encountered so far has really impressed me, and this is no different: playful, funny, and empathetic. I particularly like the ambiguity between the real and the virtual here, but even more than that I like the way that the humor of the form and content, even when a bit dark, back up an expression of worker solidarity and a really delightful snapshot of two different characters.

* * *

“Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer

A woman in St. Paul builds a little free library and stocks it with some of her favorite fantasy books; from notes left in the library, it soon becomes clear that the books are being borrowed by someone in a war-beset fairy land. Kritzer is also nominated for best novellete this year, and has previously gained attention with her excellent short and YA speculative fiction.

Another delightful, well-crafted story from Kritzer; like its titular object, it’s a quirky, fun little piece of work, and reaches outward to a lot of other fantasy. This gave me “Jo Walton’s Among Others, but teeny tiny” vibes, which is rad.

* * *

“The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee

A literal mermaid, from a world of merpeople, gets her wish to travel among the stars, joining a multispecies starship crew. Yoon Ha Lee is another who has been widely nominated and awarded. This is his 6th Hugo nomination—all three entries of his superb Machineries of Empire trilogy were nominated—and he’s recently been writing a lot of great YA/middle-grade and flash SF.

Definitely file this one under “hopepunk”; it’s a gentle, fairy-tale-like story (despite the space-opera-y interlude), more focused on acceptance and personal growth than wild plot or ideas.

* * *

“Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher

Two spaceborne robots—Brother and Sister—face a mysterious threat when their human creator has to leave for medical treatment. It seems like I’m seeing T. Kingfisher everywhere these days—a pen name of Ursula Vernon, who’s won multiple Hugos, Kingfisher’s horror, YA, and short stories have been getting a lot of buzz.

I loved this story. Classic space-and-robot SF, and it uses a simple, mythic language that clicks well with its resourceful-but-naive protagonists—it would probably be difficult to carry off in a longer work, but is perfect here. This story is a nice companion to “Mermaid Astronaut” and “Working Breeds”: engaging robotic characters and fairy-tale structure.

* * *

“Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell

Kind of a reverse horror story, this has four characters: a real estate agent, a single father and his daughter, and the haunted (but friendly) house they’re checking out. This is Wiswell’s first Hugo nomination; “Haunted Hill” made a great showing on the awards circuit this year, and has already won the Nebula.

A fun and optimistic story that plays with haunted house conventions—has a kind of vaguely Velveteen Rabbit feel to it. The more I think about the mash-up of “Shirley Jackson” and “gentle/friendly”, the less I know what to make of it, but I did quite like reading this.

* * *

That is it for this year’s Hugo Guide—the awards are tonight! If you’re interested, you can watch the livestream. Besides the main fiction categories, I’m particularly interested in watching the Best Related Work category, which includes a wide range of things this year, including several that are direct or indirect commentary on WorldCon, the Hugos, and fandom generally. It seems like there’s always some kind of drama going on at the Hugos, behind or in front of the curtain, but it’s also always a snapshot of some of the best and most exciting parts of the field. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series, and hope to do it again next year!

* * * * * *
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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