Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novelette

Welcome to the second instalment in my Reading the Hugos project. This week, we’ll have a look at the finalists for Best Novelette.

Previous categories and what’s coming up:

Links to the upcoming categories will go live every Monday. Depending on when you read this, they may already be clickable. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait a bit longer (I’m still reading and gathering my thoughts on some of these categories).

I may not read short stories unless they are in a collection by an author I like, but I do stumble across the very occasional novelette on my own. This year, I had read one of the finalists and it was mostly a joy to catch up with the rest. Unlike the short stories (and the novellas, which I’ll talk about next Monday), this was a more balanced ballot for me, in that I didn’t love everything. I also didn’t hate anything, which is nice, but I’m having a much easier time ranking these novelettes than I did with many other categories.

The Finalists for Best Noveletta

  • Caroline M. Yoachim – The Archronology of Love
  • Sarah Gailey – Away With the Wolves
  • N. K. Jemisin – Emergency Skin
  • Ted Chiang – Omphalos
  • Siobhan Carroll – For He Can Creep
  • Sarah Pinsker – The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye

N. K. Jemisin is a master storyteller but not just when it comes to novels. She’s also really good with shorter works, as is shown in her novella Emergency Skin. This story is interesting for its narration – a first person narration by an AI implant in a space traveler’s brain – as well as its themes. While I agree that the point may be very on the nose and the message  obvious, I didn’t mind that at all. In fact, I thought it showed a lovely glimpse of a possible future for humanity if we only behaved differently.
I think it’s best to go into this story blind, so I won’t say anything about the plot. But you can expect Jemisin’s trademark writing (meaning to say, it’s brilliant) and her characters dealing with diversity and social justice. This was definitely a very hopeful story that left me feeling slightly better about the world.

Ted Chiang’s collection was my first foray into his writing and, boy, was I impressed! That said, the nominated novelette Omphalos was not my favorite. It’s about a version of Earth that was created by an all-powerful being (like God) and where there is scientific proof of that – bones that are fully formed without signs of having grown, ancient mummified humans without navels, etc.
When one archeologist finds out that there is more to this than the world thought so far, her belief is called into question. Like the rest of the collection, this story deals with big questions of free will, the importance of one’s actions, and the meaning of life. You know… the usual. The reason I didn’t like this story as much as the others in the collection was the style. While it fits perfectly with the setting and world building, it just wasn’t as enjoyable for me to read. That’s purely a matter of personal taste, however, and says nothing about the quality of the novelette.

I had high expectations for Sarah Gailey’s Away With the Wolves but it was… kind of disappointing. Gailey wrote a fresh take on werewolves, with a young girl living openly as a shape shifter in a small village. When she spends time as a wolf, she feels free and right. When she’s in human form, her body is plagued by constant pain and things just aren’t what they’re supposed to be. Trying to bridge these two identities make life pretty hard for her.
There is a lovely female friendship at the heart of this tale and I loved how the village dealt with the werewolf in their midst (not as you’d expect). But this story felt so repetitive after a while. We learn right away that being in a human body physically hurts the protagonist and this point is hammered home over and over again, to the point where I wondered if there would be any pages left for actual story. It also never became quite clear why staying in wolf shape forever and living in the forest was out of the question – or maybe I missed a line that answers this question? So I wasn’t super thrilled with this story but I did love the ending very much! It’s a good novelette but with this competition, it still goes somewhere near the bottom of my ballot.

The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker was both unexpected and super fun to read. It’s about a mystery writer who spends some time every year in a remote cabin where she finishes the next novel in her book series. She also has the World’s Best Assistant and, of course, a keen eye for clues. When a dead body shows up, she can’t help but try to figure out what happened…
This may sound like your average murder mystery and it certainly uses the tropes of the subgenre to its advantage. But rest assured, this does have a speculative element and it is super cool! The writing was so much fun and would have entertained me for many more pages. Like in a murder mystery, we get the solution to all our questions at the end. In this shorter format, that felt almost a little overwhelming, but since things fit together so beautifully and I got so much enjoyment out of it, so I’m ranking this one pretty high.

Siobhan Carroll’s For He Can Creep is a story told from the point of view of a cat. Immediate brownie points for that – I am a sucker for cat characters, especially if they feel properly cat-like. It’s also the story of the cat’s owner who is a poet in an asylum struggling with his art. When the devil appears one night to make a deal, things don’t go so well for cats and humans alike and our pawed protagonist Jeoffrey has to ask some friends for help in setting things right again.
I didn’t dislike this novelette as such, but compared to the others, it felt generic and flat. The plot was super predictable, right from the start, the cat characters were great but not intersting enough to set them apart from other fictional cats I’ve read about. It’s nice that this story is based on an actual poem about cat Jeoffrey but overall, this one was only okay.

The final novelette, The Archronology of Love, deals with grief in a science fictional setting. A colony on New Mars has been completely wiped out. On that colony was protagsonist Saki’s lifelove M. J. and wehil she may just be doing her job as a xenoarcheologist, trying to figure out what happened to all the people, she also can’t let go of the hope that she might see her love just one more time. In this story, humans make use of the Chronicle – a way to sort of time travel and look at a place how it was at a different time. But, as with all scientific observation, simply looking at something already changes it.
This was another nice story but one that didn’t do anything very special with its premise. The mystery at its core – what alien disease killed the entire colony? – never interested me that much because the book focuses more on Saki’s way of dealing with her loss, of never having been able to say goodbye properly. While that is something I sympathise with and generally like reading about, there wasn’t really enough time in this shorter work to delve into it deeply enough. We didn’t get to see the couple when they were together, we are simply informed that Saki is grieving, so I was missing the emotional impact. It’s a good story but, for me, not a Hugo Award worthy one.

My ballot (probably)

  1. N. K. Jemisin – Emergency Skin
  2. Sarah Pinsker – The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye
  3. Ted Chiang – Omphalos
  4. Sarah Gailey – Away With the Wolves
  5. Siobhan Carroll – For He Can Creep
  6. Caroline M. Yoachim – The Archronology of Love

Whew! That’s my ballot and I’m pretty sure it will stay that way. Jemisin’s work just resonates with me, so it sits firmly in my top spot. Pinsker’s murder mystery was so much fun and so clever that it has to come next. While Chiang’s story may not have been my favorite in his collection, it still has a brilliant premise and makes me think – I always appreciate stories that impact me so much that I tell others about them and mull them over long after reading.
I’m also quite certain about the ranking of my bottom three spots. Gailey’s story had some pacing issues but otherwise does interesting things with a well-known genre trope, Carroll’s story of Jeoffrey the cat was predictable but still fun. And Yoachim’s novelette, while an okay read, would have worked much better as a novella or even a novel.

Up next week: Best Novella

9 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novelette

  1. gehmeyr says:

    I have yet to read the werewolf story – btw is it an allegory for transgender issues?
    My lineup is quite different with
    Chiang – Caroll – Jemisin – Yoachim and Pinsker. Well, details are on my blog, but it’s all a matter of taste, I guess.

    Like

    • Dina says:

      I think it can be read as an allegory. The thought certainly crossed my mind while reading it but I have no idea if that was the author’s intent.
      The stories are all good so yes, it’s very much a matter of personal taste. 🙂 I honestly wouldn’t be mad if any of them won but of course I’m rooting for my favorites.

      Liked by 1 person

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