2022 marks my second year voting in the Hugo Awards for the best science fiction and fantasy published in the previous year. Today I will be looking at Best Novelette, for works between 7500 and 17500 words.
A full half of last year’s Hugo shortlist for Best Novelette were the kinds of stories you remember years later, and this year’s crop simply doesn’t have that kind of depth, making it pretty easy for me to pick a favorite. But even if I was personally a bit disappointed by this year’s shortlist, I’ve seen enough hype for nearly every story on the ballot that I truly have no idea how the voting will shake out, and I’m very excited to find out!
As with Best Short Story, all six are available free online, and I’ve included links. So let’s take a look at my ballot:
Seventh Place: O2 Arena by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.
“O2 Arena” has impressed a lot of readers—already bringing home the Nebula Award for Best Novelette—but I found it too scattered to be effective. It covers climate change and unfettered capitalism leading to a world where people must literally pay to breathe, while also hitting both gendered violence and constraining social pressures. It’s a lot, and there are passages here and there that really bring its message and its story to life, giving a glimpse into what those Nebula voters must have seen. But the didactic first-person narrative wasn’t enough to carry a story that was more worldbuilding than plot, and it covered so many social issues that it didn’t have the time to generate more than the occasional glimpse of power in any one element. Ultimately, this is a story that I don’t think really worked in its current format, and needed either more focus or more length to be really effective, leading me to put it below No Award.
Sixth Place: No Award
Fifth Place: L’Esprit de L’Escalier by Catherynne M. Valente
“L’Esprit de L’Escalier” is another story that didn’t really hit for me, though the prose was just as beautiful and evocative as it was in my previous experience with Valente. But I think part of this is just a matter of background—it’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and I came in without knowing much about that myth. After discussing it in the r/Fantasy Hugo Readalong, I’ve become convinced that it does really interesting work subverting the traditional presentations of the story and the chief characters. But if you come in without having encountered those traditional presentations, it’s mostly just a lot of poetic imagery about a bunch of horrible people. I suspect there’s some value here when read in context, and I certainly don’t begrudge others voting it much higher, but my own experience with the story makes it hard for me to put it higher than fifth.
Fourth Place: Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer
“Bots of the Lost Ark” is yet another entry in the booming friendly AI subgenre of science fiction, and the sequel to the 2018 Hugo-winning “The Secret Life of Bots” (though it can be read as a standalone). It tells its tale effectively, and the lead character is endearing enough, but it just doesn’t do enough to separate itself from all of the other friendly AI stories out there. The result is a story that works but doesn’t really hit the level that makes it feel like a true contender.
Third Place: Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. by Fran Wilde
Perhaps part of this is just the aggressive social media presence of Uncanny Magazine, but I’m not sure I saw a novelette with more hype in 2021 than “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” And it’s not hard to see why—Wilde creates immediate intrigue by weaving descriptions of magical dresses from past years together with the sudden emergence of an atelier with only the most tenuous ties to ordinary space and time. But the truly magical worldbuilding sets the stage for a Fae story that’s solid but unexceptional. There are no glaring flaws, but the characters aren’t especially memorable and the story goes about where you’d expect, without taking many risks. Much like “Bots of the Lost Ark,” it’s an entertaining story that doesn’t really feel to me like a best-of-the-year candidate. That said, given the reactions I’ve seen online, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a real chance to take home the prize.
Second Place: Colors of the Immortal Palette by Caroline M. Yoachim
If I saw another novelette with more hype than “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.,” it was probably “Colors of the Immortal Palette,” which uses a series of pigments to frame the story of an aspiring artist held back by a society that didn’t respect her and the way her life intertwines with that of a more-famous—and literally immortal—colleague. The atmosphere is absolutely striking from the first paragraph, with easy immersion into a 19th-century Paris that doesn’t have room for a Japanese woman in its art scene. And that atmosphere is joined by some incisive observations about the kinds of voices who are considered authoritative, whether or not they have any claim to true expertise. It was enough to think I may have a contender for my top spot, before a meandering second half lost some of the momentum and broke immersion with a few especially didactic passages. It comes together nicely at the end, and its strengths are enough to put it clearly at the head of my second tier—and will quite possibly be enough to take home the award—but I don’t think it has the consistency to come especially near the level of my top choice.
First Place: That Story Isn’t the Story by John Wiswell
Wiswell made the Best Short Story shortlist last year (and won the Nebula!) with a story that subverted horror tropes in a wholesome direction, and he’s on the Best Novelette shortlist this year doing the same thing in a very different way. While “Open House on Haunted Hill” stayed fairly light and uplifting throughout, “That Story Isn’t the Story” is a heart-pounding tale of a familiar breaking free of his horrifying and abusive master. It’s intense from the first paragraph and doesn’t let up, expertly immersing the reader into Anton’s state of constant fear that his escape will be short-lived and that his friends will suffer the consequences. It’s a gripping tale of the slow and difficult process of healing from psychological abuse, with magical wounds that open as Anton’s master draws near serving as an apt metaphor for the emotional scarring. If I have any complaint here, it’s that the ending is a bit too neat, but it’s a fantastic story and is head-and-shoulders above anything else on the ballot. Wiswell finished just fourth in the Hugo voting last year for a story that won the Nebula, so I’m not sure how the voters will respond, though I do think that being a familiar name will help in an award that seems to favor past finalists. But “That Story Isn’t the Story” is in a tier by itself, and while I’m not sure it will win, I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t.