My journey through the 2021 Hugo Award ballot continues with an evaluation of the finalists for Best Novelette. While the Best Short Story finalists were very engaging but not especially ambitious, the novelettes saw more variation in quality and a pair of finalists with aims far beyond mere entertainment. While I saw a couple finalists that didn’t come much beyond mediocre, there were none that I disliked enough to rank No Award, so this ballot will have just six entries.
Sixth Place: “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard.
I don’t believe de Bodard specializes in fantasy noirs, but this is the second work of hers that I’ve read, and both were fairly forgettable fantasy whodunnits. “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” takes place in a world with modern technology but dotted with—often unstable—fallen angels who retain great inhuman power. When Sam de Viera, a witch who regularly rubs shoulders with Fallen, learns that Fallen are being killed in gruesome and mysterious ways, she sets off to solve the mystery and protect her friends.
“The Inaccessibility of Heaven” isn’t a bad story by any stretch, but there’s nothing about it that’s particularly gripping either. The characters are well-drawn, but they don’t stray too far from archetypes, and, as is common in stories of this length, they don’t have enough screen time to become truly memorable. The mystery itself is interesting for a while, but once it becomes clear who is involved in the plot, it feels a little bit like playing out the string. Overall, it’s a story that’s not remarkably good or bad. I’m not going to actively vote against it by ranking No Award, but I still have five others ahead.
Fifth Place: “Monster” by Naomi Kritzer
“Monster” follows Cecily, a renowned geneticist traveling to a remote tourist town in China in search of the titular monster. The story alternates between her present-day attempts to push through the language barrier to make progress in her search and flashbacks to her relationship with her high school friend Andrew, who is revealed to be more and more monstrous as the story progresses.
I’ve now read three works of short fiction by Kritzer, and there isn’t a one that fails to display her talent as a writer. “Monster” engages the reader quickly in Cecily’s journey to China, even before it’s understood just what she’s doing there. And the cuts back and forth between timelines keep the story feeling fresh even when the plot isn’t making much progress. But ultimately, “Monster” runs just a little long, and there aren’t enough unknowns to keep the engagement level high throughout. There’s a lot to like here, and I definitely plan to read more of Kritzer’s, but the pacing holds “Monster” back from joining my second tier.
Fourth Place: “Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A.T. Greenblatt
This novelette is another in the “superheroes actually cause a lot of trouble and have a major PR problem” subgenre, but from a different perspective than I’ve read before. The Incredibles is an obvious example from the perspective of superheroes subject to unfair critique, and Hench is from the perspective of the villains who are fueled by the destructive tendencies of heroes. “Burn” is from the perspective of a low-level prospective hero who is ostracized by most of society as soon as his powers manifest. So by joining the heroes, Sam wants both community and redemption in the eyes of the people who see him as a danger.
As the title suggests, “Burn” is told episodically, with Sam’s character arc taking center stage and the plot being limited to loosely connected vignettes. But the vignettes are compelling, as is Sam’s overarching journey from wanting to be heroic in the public eye to realizing that the heroes need his accounting background more than his ability to create fire. I find the ending a little bit trite, but the journey is intriguing and well-constructed. It may not be in my top tier, but it’s a good read.
Third Place: “Helicopter Story” by Isabel Fall
I definitely missed the controversy about this novelette when it was released, but apparently the backlash was enough that Fall requested the story be taken down. But it impressed enough people to garner a Hugo nomination, and archived versions are still readable online, so I was able to check it out while we wait to see whether it will be included in the Hugo Packet.
The story in “Helicopter Story”—an attack on a group rebelling from a dystopian future America—is pretty forgettable. But the concept is a fascinating response to a common transphobic meme. The main character leads by stating her gender identity as “attack helicopter.” From there, a combination of flashback, present story, and conceptual musings motivate the initial claim. The story sections are unexceptional, but the discussions on the social construction of gender and how thoroughly it affects the way people perceive the world? Thoroughly compelling. For example:
Many of you are veterans in the act of gender. You weigh the gaze and disposition of strangers in a subway car and select where to stand, how often to look up, how to accept or reject conversation. Like a frequency-hopping radar, you modulate your attention for the people in your context: do not look too much, lest you seem interested, or alarming. You regulate your yawns, your appetite, your toilet. You do it constantly and without failure.
You are aces.
Look at a diagram of an attack helicopter’s airframe and components. Tell me how much of it you grasp at once.
Now look at a person near you, their clothes, their hair, their makeup and expression, the way they meet or avoid your eyes. Tell me which was richer with information about danger and capability. Tell me which was easier to access and interpret.
The gender networks are old and well-connected. They work.
The story’s original title was provocative enough to generate plenty of controversy on its own, and I suspect that many of the criticisms didn’t get past the first paragraph. Because it doesn’t read at all like the conservative stereotype of gender studies that it has been accused of being.
A mediocre narrative combined with a fascinating concept makes it a little hard to place on my ballot, and I ended up sticking it in the middle. It’s conceptually interesting enough to be remembered among the most thought-provoking stories of the year, and that’s enough to pull ahead of narratives that are good but not great, but not enough for my top tier of novelettes.
Second Place: “Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker
From a story perspective, “Two Truths and a Lie” was by far the most gripping of this year’s group of finalists, and I feel a little bad for not putting it in my top spot. But whether I rate it first or second, I’d be very happy to see it win. The novelette follows Stella, who returns to her hometown to help a childhood friend after the death of his brother. But sorting through his possession brings up memories of a local TV series that they’d watched as children, and the more they find, the more unsettling the memories become.
“Two Truths and a Lie” feels a bit like a creepy urban legend—there’s no real effort to explain all of the mysterious events, but the atmosphere builds slowly through the novelette into truly edge-of-your-seat tension in the final third. The narrative is enthralling, and it builds to an ambiguous ending that could not fit more perfectly. This isn’t a novelette that’s out to send a message, but if you’re looking to get sucked in to an atmospheric tale of a creepy small town, you’ll not find much better than this. It’s exceptional.
First Place: “The Pill” by Meg Elison.
“The Pill” is not a fun story, but it is powerful. It’s a near-future dystopia in which a miraculous weight loss pill delivers supermodel figures to 90% of the people taking it. . . and kills the other 10%. But society hates fat more than they worry about mortality, and so taking the pill quickly becomes a social expectation for anyone even a bit overweight—plus size clothing disappears, health insurance stops covering anyone with a BMI over 25, and the few remaining holdouts are seen as curiosities at best and more often as freaks.
This story is a hard read. Elison spares none of the gory details about how the pill functions, and the dystopia is real enough to be absolutely horrifying. The numbers are exaggerated to make a point, but a society eliminating an undesirable trait—one that is perfectly compatible with a happy and fulfilling life, mind you—even if it kills them? Not just plausible, literally already happening! There are entire countries who have all but eliminated Down syndrome, never mind that the method of elimination is just social pressure for prenatal testing and abortion of fetuses that test positive. Does it matter that people with Down syndrome consider their lives worth living? Does it even matter that there is a staggering five percent false positive rate? It does not.
“The Pill,” of course, is about fatphobia and not ableism, and Elison draws on plenty of real life material to motivate her specific dystopia. And her story is compelling for more than just the concept, with a gripping and personal dive into the character of one of the few who resist the pill. But it’s the echoes of real life horrors that make this story so terrifying, and the combination of such an intense narrative with the timely and powerful cry against very real prejudice make this one well worthy of the title of best novelette of 2020.