Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Short Story

The only time I read short stories is when I pick up a collection or anthology (which is rare enough). Occasionally, I’ll read one that I stumble across online, but there’s just too much out there for me to know what to nominate. So I leave that to other people and then simply bask in their choices when the finalists are announced.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

As expected, I had read zero of the finalist stories before they were announced but I have read stories and/or novels from four of the nominated authors. As I have liked previous work from the known-to-me authors, I was super excited to dive in but I’m also glad that there were new writers to discover. After all, I want the Hugo Awards to show me what else the genre has to offer, not just the authors I would read anyway. And this year’s crop of short stories did not disapoint.


The Finalists for Best Short Story

  • Rae Carson – Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse
  • Vina Jie-Min Prasad – A Guide for Working Breeds
  • Naomi Kritzer – Little Free Library
  • T. Kingfisher – Metal Like Blood in the Dark
  • John Wiswell – Open House on Haunted Hill
  • Yoon Ha Lee – The Mermaid Astronaut

This was a great choice of short stories and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they were published in a variety of places (as opposed to all in the same magazine, say). I read all of them in a day, one right after the other with breaks in between to digest each story but to keep them all fresh in my memory. I thought this would help me rank them. It didn’t particularly.

I started out with “Badass Moms of the Zombie Apocalypse” which is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Two women living during zombie times are preparing for one of them to have their baby and they both know it’s going to be brutal. These zombies are attracted to the smell of blood and while women have managed to deal with menstruation pretty well, giving birth and all that that entails is a whole different story. But these badass moms come prepared and we follow them on their trip to a (probably… mostly) safe birthing place where the chances of survival are at least measurable, although by no means high.
It’s an exciting story that combines the stress of an impending birth with the stress of the zombie apocalypse. Because one of those by itself wouldn’t have been scary enough, I guess. I enjoyed this a lot although the SF content is secondary to the birthing story.

“Little Free Library” might have been the shortest of the stories but no less impactful for that. A girl sets up the eponymous library and accidentally gains a pen pal through it. Because books are taken out but none are returned and she leaves a note saying that’s not in the spirit of the library. Instead of books, the mysterious reader then leaves other gifts behind and those become stranger and stranger.
I adored the tone of this as well as the way the friendship between book taker and librarian grows over the course of the story. The speculative aspect only comes up right at the end which is sadly a bit abrupt and cuts off at the most interesting part. If Kritzer decides to turn this into a novel some day, I’ll be the first to pick it up though.

I knew I liked Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s writing from reading some of her stories when she was an Astounding finalist, and “A Guide For Working Breeds” was especially cute. It’s told through chat/instant messages between a new working robot and their unwilling mentor. It’s also about the fact that dogs are the cutest and how knowing your rights is important! I adored both style an idea from the start and I would have ranked this as my number one story if it hadn’t been for the too cutesy and adorable ending. It didn’t feel right for one of the characters to suddenly change that much. I still loved it but that was a bit too sugary sweet an ending.

T. Kingfisher’s “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” is the story that has stuck with me the most. It’s about two robot “siblings” who live off sunlight and “eat” metal which lets them change or enhance their bodies. They live through a Hansel and Gretel like story, except in space and way cooler! For Kingfisher, this was a pretty dark tale without her trademark humor but instead with cool ideas and surprising character depth for a short story. Especially for characters who are not human. I liked it while I read it but out of all the finalists, it’s the one I keep thinking about the most months after reading them.

Yoon Ha Lee didn’t surprise much with “The Mermaid Astronaut” which is a pretty straight forward retelling of The Little Mermaid. In Space. The eponymous mermaid wishes to explore the stars more than anything. Her sister takes her to the sea witch who grants her legs so she can join the humans when they travel among the stars. I loved that the mermaid’s reason for wanting to become human isn’t a dude but rather her life’s passion, I loved that it’s her sister who wants to help, and I loved the little twist at the end. But the story as such wasn’t all that gripping and the plot beats stuck predictably close to the fairy tale.

Lastly “Open House on Haunted Hill”, which has won the Nebula for Best Short Story, had the tough job of meeting my high expectations. And unfortunately, it was my least favorite story. It was by no means bad, just very, very underwhelming. It is told from the point of view of the house on Haunted Hill, or from the point of view of the entity that haunts it. Turns out that entity is actually pretty damn nice and just wants people to live in the house so it can make life easier for them (by opening and closing doors for example). Sadly, that’s it. People come to visit the house, some spooky (but not really) stuff happens, story over. I guess it’s cute but apart from a sweet idea there’s nothing about it that makes it stand out. Again, a novel based on this premise is definitely something I’d check out.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Metal Like Blood in the Dark
  2. A Guide For Working Breeds
  3. Little Free Library
  4. Badass Moms of the Zombie Apocalypse
  5. The Mermaid Astronaut
  6. Open House on Haunted Hill

My ballot is unlikely to change and that’s honestly such a relief. I am still very unsure about some of the other categories, I’m dreaming about how I could shift things around to best represent my feelings and it’s stressing me out. But this category, I feel pretty good about. I’d honestly be okay with any of these stories winning, although I do think my top picks are more deserving of a Hugo than my bottom ones (thus the ranking, after all).

Up next week: Best Novelette

5 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Short Story

    • Dina says:

      Aaaah, I always find it so interesting how one person’s top story can end up as another one’s least favorite. I think I’m pretty alone with my least favorite novella as well… But we’ll see in two weeks. 😄

      Liked by 1 person

      • Andreas says:

        It’s all a matter of taste, as usual 👍Good thing is that we have very diverse contributions. That’s great!
        Sad thing is that very often, those awards don’t match my personal taste.

        Like

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