Remember a few weeks ago when I was talking about reading short stories for the Hugo Award nomination process? Well, that has come and gone and the 2014 Hugo Award Finalists have been announced recently.
Allow me a quick aside to say that OH MY GOD The Book Smugglers have been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fanzine!
Ahem. Moving onward to talk about the short story ballot. Having read all four nominated stories now, I can say I consider it an excellent, well-balanced ballot. I like all stories very much but some more than others. Two things strike me the most about the nominees: One is the welcome diversity of stories in terms of authors and characters as well as the representation of LGBT protagonists. The other is how most of the stories strike me more as leaning toward a more literary/poetic form of magical realism.
I will start with “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, my least favorite of the ballot. It’s a well-written—and well-shaped—story that effectively plays with the theme of coincidences, choices, traditions and wish-making. “Play” is an important word here because of the way that the tale is told and how the narrative is playful and self-aware even when addressing heavy topics.
But there is something about it that gives me pause, and that makes me wary and cautious. It’s a story by a Dutch author that is set in Thailand and creates an imagined mythology whilst playing with existing traditions. I am simply not sure how appropriative this story is. It also features notes throughout explaining character nicknames (from Thai tradition) and even though those show a certain respect for the source material and I appreciate the careful addition they end up being distracting and disrupting as they don't allow for the story to flow naturally.
Lack of natural flow is something that does not afflict “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky. This is a story that flows so beautifully, almost like a piece of poetry with a rhythm that is more stream of consciousness than anything else. It’s the shortest piece of the bunch but one that delivers an unexpected blow half way through—it started as if it was going to be a light and adorable romp and it left me bereft, in tears, wanting to set the world on fire. It’s a powerful, intense piece but one that I am not entirely convinced falls under the speculative fiction umbrella?
The third nominated story is the only one that I had read before and one that I nominated myself. “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar is a mix of fantasy, folklore, a sweet love story and difficult familial interaction. Just like all the stories in the ballot, it has a poetic tone, an intonation that is both comfortable and moving. The opening line has stuck with me:
“I hate selkie stories. They're always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said "What's this?", and you never saw your mom again.”
It’s irony, beauty and resentment all perfectly mixed into a few lines that basically say everything you need to know about the viewpoint character and the story that will follow.
Inasmuch as I enjoyed all these three, nothing could have prepared me for “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu. It’s a story that deeply affected me in many ways. I am in awe at how expertly the author intertwined all the different elements here. Starting with the fantastical premise where water falls on people from nowhere when they lie. This premise at first seems random and detached but proves to be elemental to the way the characters behave and speak. It’s probably the most speculative of the stories in the bunch too, where speaking lies and falsehoods become an impossibility. How does that alter speak and the very interaction between people?
The core of the story though is love, the love between two young lovers and love between family members. And especially how those affect and are affected by tradition, society and bigotry. The main character is gay and hasn’t come out to his traditional Chinese family. He has barely come out to himself and saying “I Love You” to the man he is so in love with is the most difficult thing in the world. There is hurt, and hope, and romancel, and my heart was swelling but also twisting.
A few paragraphs above, I mentioned that in “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” there are Thai words that come with glossary notes. In contrast, Chu’s story has Chinese characters that come with no explanation but which fit the story so naturally no crude explanations are needed.
And then there is the writing:
“The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure.”
“His skin transforms from cold and clammy to warm and dry. He uses declarative sentences. The truth of each one is obvious. No weasel words or qualifiers. Instead of being soaked in water though, Gus is soaked in disappointment. Normally, his smile glows and I melt in its heat. Right now, he’s wearing a cheap copy.”
All the feels. This story is so beautiful it hurts.
When the time comes to voting, it will be a close call between this one and “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” for my top spot. I wish both could win.
P.S. All the stories are available free online. Click on the links to read.
- “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”, Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, Mar-2013)
- “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com, 04-2013)
- “Selkie Stories Are for Losers”, Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)
- “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)