Like last year, I started my journey through the Hugo Awards with the Best Short Story finalists. Also like last year, two of the finalists were on my own nominating ballot, so whatever became of the pieces I hadn’t previously read, I was guaranteed to have a pair of strong choices at the top.
Every entry is available free online, so in addition to providing thoughts about the stories, I’ve also included links to each piece. So let’s get to my first ballot of the year.
Seventh Place: Tangles by Seanan McGuire
Even if a Hugo finalist doesn’t appeal to me personally, I can almost always still find standout elements explaining how it made the shortlist. “Tangles” is an exception. Admittedly, I’m working at a disadvantage reading a tie-in story for a franchise (Magic: The Gathering) with which I have no prior familiarity, but I found it difficult to latch on to any aspect that would catch my interest. The characters and plot were intensely forgettable. There was nothing particularly striking about the structure. The prose was professional enough—as I’d expect from such an acclaimed author—but professional prose can’t carry a story. Perhaps Magic fans will have better luck, but I do not understand what other readers appreciated about this story, and I’m placing it below No Award on my ballot.
Sixth Place: No Award.
Fifth Place: The Sin of America by Catherynne M. Valente
“The Sin of America” is beautifully written and thematically hard-hitting, so it’s easy to understand the appeal. There’s more than a bit of resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Lottery.” But whereas Jackson gave broad brushstrokes and let the reader fill in the details, Valente leans into the grotesque and painstakingly brings every single detail to life with her customary vivid prose. I can’t say it’s a bad story, but I much preferred Jackson’s take on the theme. Valente clearly meant to disgust, and she succeeded. But it made for a story that was difficult to read, and the thematic work wasn’t good enough to send it to the top tier in spite of that difficulty.
Fourth Place: Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte
“Proof by Induction” uses an interesting sci-fi premise to explore difficult relationships with one’s parents, desire for closure, the meaning of legacy, and how easy it is to recreate the same unhealthy dynamics in the next generation. It does solid work, and there were a few individual passages that I especially appreciated. But I thought some of the themes could’ve used a bit further exploration, and there was no element that felt truly exceptional, keeping it in my middle group.
Third Place: Unknown Number by Blue Neustifter
A heartwarming multiverse story told as a series of text message screenshots and originally published on Twitter, “Unknown Number” is a lot of fun and uses the form well. But while the verisimilitude and the exploration of gender dysphoria are standout elements, neither was particularly ground-breaking—and indeed, “Unknown Number” is not the first 2022 Hugo finalist to come to mind for either use of creative formats or exceptional exploration of gender. It’s a story that knows what it’s about and executes it well, but there’s no element that takes it to another level. As such, it lands at the head of my middle tier.
Second Place: Mr. Death by Alix E. Harrow
You know coming in that “Mr. Death” is going to pull on your heartstrings, and somehow the advanced warning doesn’t reduce the effectiveness a bit. It’s a touching tale about death and childhood with a couple truly hard-hitting passages and an exceptional first-person narrative voice. There was one frustrating passage that skipped over difficult issues in favor of the lead patting himself on the back, but it was a small aside that didn’t materially affect the story as a whole, and the rest of it is good enough to have been in my first tier last year–the only reason it isn’t this year is because it’s going up against the best finalist in this category since 2019. But given Harrow’s popularity with the Hugo voters and the broad appeal of the story, I think “Mr. Death” is the favorite to take home the prize, second place on my own ballot or not.
First Place: Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker
But while I expect “Mr. Death” to win, and while it would’ve been good enough to be tier one in another year, “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” is one of those stories that demands its own tier. It makes excellent use of a wildly creative format—being told in the comments of a fictional lyrics explainer web page dedicated to a fictional English folk ballad—and manages to create a delightfully creepy atmosphere at the same time. The mystery element is strong, and the group of internet commenters have remarkable personality for such a short piece with a large cast. There’s just not much to criticize here. It goes above and beyond and is not just my favorite 2021-published story but my favorite 2020s-published story to date. Unusual formats can be polarizing, and I think the ranked choice voting may keep “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” from a first-place finish, but if anything has a chance to unseat “Mr. Death,” it’s Pinsker’s tremendous short.