Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novelette

I always look forward to the Best Novelette category because unless one of my favorite authors has published one, I don’t read novelettes. I just don’t come across them and even if I did, I wouldn’t necessarily know how to tell it apart from a short story.

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

Prior to the finalists being announced, I had only heard about one of the stories – the one that now goes by the title “Helicopter Story”. I went into all of these blindly with only the title and, in the cases where I knew them, the author to give me some idea of what I’d get. It’s pretty rewarding, not knowing anything about a story and being surprised by twisty turns into horror territory or character depth where it wasn’t expected.
It can also be to a story’s detriment when you read it without context and it has to stand on its own. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum, of course, but a story should work whether the reader knows its origin or the author’s background info or not.


The Finalists for Best Novelette

  • A. T. Greenblatt – Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super
  • Isabel Fall – Helicopter Story
  • Aliette de Bodard – The Inaccessibility of Heaven
  • Naomi Kritzer – Monster
  • Meg Elison – The Pill
  • Sarah Pinsker – Two Truths and a Lie

Two Truths and a Lie by Sarah Pinsker was a cool surprise. I hadn’t looked up any of the plots for these novelettes beforehand and the Pinsker story welcomed me with wonderful creepiness and a bit of a shock. It’s about a woman helping an old friend clean out his dead brother’s hoarder house. The protagonist, fitting with the title, has made a habit out of… embellishing the truth, making up facts about herself and her life that aren’t true, of lying so cleverly that people usually don’t catch her. When she makes something up and her friend says he remembers that as well, the story starts going in a new direction and follows an eerie spiral down into the past. I don’t want to give away any more than that but I loved how Pinsker managed to give me goosebumps and made me go WTF several times. This was truly delightful to read, although I was a tad disappointed by the abrupt ending.

Naomi Kritzer’s Monster is making the ranking decision hard for me. Because as a story, it’s nice enough, with a bit of a mystery, a nice science fictional idea, and a good ending, but what makes it more than just good is the characters. I admit I found it rather easy to identify with the outsider nerd protagonist as she struggles to find friends as a kid and only really feels at home when she discovers other SFF readers. But that’s just the beginning of this novelette and once it gets going, it goes pretty dark. I can’t tell you why exactly but I liked the revelations and their implications. Paired with the title, it offers a lot of food for thought and makes you look at things from a different perspective. I really liked it, even though I felt Pinsker’s story was better written and Greenblatt’s story had much better pacing.

I vaguely remember some ruckus about Helicopter Story by Isabel Fall when it came out under a different title, was taken off the internet, then put back online. Something about it being transphobic which made Twitter explode? Then the author came out as a trans woman to put her story into perspective and make her intentions with it clear. To be honest, as much as I love fandom, sometimes the Twitter mob can be a vile piece of shit and I don’t have the will or strength to look up exactly how things went down when this first came out. But none of that has anything to do with the story as such – at least not for me. So the author is a trans woman. I don’t think her gender identity would change my opinion about her story and as sorry as I am to say this, I really, really didn’t like it.
To start with, there’s very little “story” at all. A fighter pilot named Barb is bombing a school building, gets hunted by an enemy pilot and tries to get away. That’s it, that’s the plot. Interspersed are Barb’s memories and thoughts about gender, particularly about being a woman. While I agree with many of the things Barb feels and thinks, this is supposed to be a fiction novelette, not random musings about how shit it can be to be a woman. I believe these bits would have better fit in an essay. The one sfnal idea of this tale just wasn’t enought to carry a story – namely that gender identity can, in this particular future, be manipulated directly, and so the protagonist does actually sexually identify as an attack helicopter because the government made her. I like this idea for an SF story and I believe I see where the author was going with it. But I’m sorry, when I pick up fiction I want a story of some kind and this just wasn’t one. At the very least, not a good one. Based on the story’s merits, it sadly goes below No Award on my ballot.

Which leads me to the next novelette which was well written but so predictable and preachy. Meg Elison’s The Pill didn’t really need a synopsis to create certain expectations. It’s a story by a fat author in a collection called Big Girl, so I was fairly certain I would get a science fictional fat loss pill story. I was excited to see where the author would take this idea because there are sooooo many possibilities. Unfortunately, the author took it exactly down the one road that was the most predictable and the least interesting. A fat loss pill is invented and it actually works. Except 10% of people who use it die. Really cool idea, a well written story, but a sadly boring plot.
The way good and evil characters are represented here, this reads almost like a fairy tale, everything is sooooo black and white. Either you take the magical pill that gives you the “perfect body” and that makes you evil for the purpose of this story, or you refuse, like our brave heroine, and you’re good. There is literally nothing in between.
There are many things the author brings up that I get and that are important to be woven into stories. Being stared at or even mocked because of the way you look is terrible and in a perfect world, we’d accept people of varying body shapes and sizes, heights, skin colors, etc. just the way they are, without judgement. But. Is the way to point out these societal problems really to just flip things around? Fat good, skinny bad? That’s not a very nuanced approach, especially when only these two extremes exist in your story. If you preach body acceptance and diversity, shouldn’t you show it as well? Where are the non-obese characters who refuse the pill? Where are the skinny ones who didn’t need the pill and find their own body better than the “perfect” one? What about disabled people? Pregnant people? There were so many things to explore here, yet all we get is “fat good, skinny bad”.
The way I read it, the story is mostly a vehicle for the author’s message. It’s one I completely agree with – there’s no one perfect body but rather beauty in the range the world has to offer. Tall, short, super skinny, medium sized, flabby, muscular, chubby, curvy, fat, round, pear shaped, it’s all good and the world is much more interesting and beautiful because of this variety. But getting hit across the head with a message hammer has never been fun for me. The extreme good/evil characters, the predictability of the plot, the preachiness and the lack of further exploration lead me to a rather low ranking of this on my ballot. I do, however, want to read more by this author as I enjoyed her prose a lot!

A. T. Greenblatt’s Burn: Or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super was a lot of fun! As the title suggests, we get episodic glimpses into Sam Wells’ life and, thorugh his story, into a world where some people develop superpowers. Except these people aren’t celebrated as heroes as you might expect but they are are unwanted in society. They form Super Teams, to build a community of their own, to fight for acceptance in the wider world, and to save lives when possible. Sam’s talent isn’t all that useful (what do you do with a burning head?) but the story is much more about finding a place to belong, especially when you’re an outsider. You can read this as a metaphor for marginalization or you can read it as a straight up story about a young man learning to deal with his super powers. I thoroughly enjoyed this. The only minor gripe I have is that the ending is a bit anticlimactic.

I thought for some reason that Aliette de Bodard’s sory The Inaccessibility of Heaven was set in her Fallen Angels universe but that’s wrong. Now that I know it’s not part of a larger series, that changes my feelings about the novelette quite a bit. Because there were certain things about it that I felt were lacking. There seems to be this deep backstory between the witch protagonist and her Fallen friend, and I just assumed it was something I’d get if I had read the novels set in that universe. But this is it, the novelette is supposed to stand on its own, so those missing pieces of backstory, those emotional beats that didn’t reach me, they weren’t my fault. The plot as such is exciting and fun, there are glimpses of great world building here and I’d love to read a whole novel set in this world, but in this shorter form, it wasn’t enough. Every aspect needed just a bit more. So I liked it and it made me want to pick up those Angel novels (even if they are set in a differen time, different place, and have nothing to do with this novelette) but I wasn’t super impressed with this story on its own.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Two Truths and a Lie
  2. Monster
  3. Burn
  4. The Inaccessibility of Heaven
  5. The Pill
  6. No Award
  7. Helicopter Story

Up next week: Best Novella

4 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novelette

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