In the past, I’ve done full ballot spotlight posts for my four favorite categories in the Hugo Awards for the year’s best in sci-fi and fantasy: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story. This year, I’ve managed Best Novel and Best Novella, but I’ve flat run out of time before the voting is due, which is today. Furthermore, Best Novelette and Best Short Story both have finalists originally written in Chinese that do not have professional translations into English. An AI translation may be enough to give the gist of the story, but it’s not enough to fairly evaluate it.
So instead of full ballot posts, I’m going to take the time here to discuss only my top tiers in some of the short fiction categories.
The 2023 shortlist for Best Novelette honestly might be the best I’ve seen in any category since I started Hugo voting. Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Difference Between Love and Time” is bold and interesting, and John Chu’s Nebula-winning “If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You” provides an endearing queer romance against the backdrop of anti-Asian racism and police brutality. I could only read an AI translation of Hai Ya’s “The Space-Time Painter,” but it was enough to intrigue me.
And those are the stories I’m leaving off my ballot! (Recall: any story left off the ballot is automatically ranked below stories on it. I did not feel comfortable merely ranking the five I had read and relegating “The Space-Time Painter” to a de facto last-place vote). The three in my top tier made for one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my brief time as a Hugo voter. All three were among my five favorite novelettes of the year, and all three have a strong case for the top spot. And the even more mind-blowing thing is that the list could’ve been even stronger! Another of my top five novelettes of the year would’ve made the ballot had the author not declined! I highly recommend checking out “Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold.” But for now, let’s check out tier one:
Third Place: “A Dream of Electric Mothers” by Wole Talabi
This tale of an African country that consults a digitized ancestral consciousness to aid in difficult decision-making has a bit of everything. There’s a very personal story of woman yearning for advice from her deceased mother, one of a country learning to balance their own wisdom with that of those who came before, and some reflections on telling people what they need to hear, all bundled up in a fascinating sci-fi premise. It all comes together beautifully, and would be a worthy winner. Read it for yourself here.
Second Place: “We Built This City” by Marie Vibbert
It’s a sci-fi labor story, with essential maintenance workers in a city orbiting high above the clouds of Venus struggling to respond to layoffs that leave some of their fellows facing deportation and those remaining with twice the work. It’s engaging from the start and does a wonderful job portraying just how difficult it is to make the decision to strike when the stakes are so high. This would be another worthy winner. Read it for yourself here.
First Place: “Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness” by S.L. Huang
This is a very different sort of novelette, written as a long-form article on AI ethics (think something like The Atlantic) spurred by a fictional story of digital harassment. The non-fiction elements are fascinating and timely–especially with the story released at almost the same time as the ballyhooed ChatGPT–but the fictional elements really came out on my second read. The story under consideration is difficult and heart-wrenching, and the narrative allows the reader to sit in complicated feelings rather than feeding them an easy interpretation. All three would be worthy winners, and all three got better on reread, but this one has lodged in my head, and it’s my pick out of three outstanding candidates. Read it for yourself here.
Best Short Story
While this year’s novelette was one of my favorite shortlists in three years, short story was. . . not. I appreciated seeing four finalists from outside the American bubble, but only two received professional translations into English, so it was a light list for Anglophone readers, and nothing on it really captured my attention the way my favorites have in past years. That said, there were still a couple pretty good stories at the top of my list.
Usually, I have a strong second tier of stories that I liked a whole lot but didn’t quite hit the level where I’d consider voting them for best of the year. This year, that tier is my first tier. Neither really comes close to how I felt about the top three in the novelette category, but they’re both quite good!
Second Place: “D.I.Y.” by John Wiswell
This is Wiswell’s third consecutive year in my top tier, after earning my vote for Best Short Story in 2021 and Best Novelette in 2022. I didn’t like “D.I.Y.” quite as much as the other two, but it’s an extremely endearing story about DIY-ing a magical cure for the droughts plaguing the land and striking back against the people hoarding knowledge for the sake of profit. Throw in a couple very likable protagonists, and it’s easy to see why people liked this one so much. Read it for yourself here.
First Place: “Zhurong on Mars” by Regina Kanyu Wang, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu
It’s a story of an AI puttering around Mars after the humans who built it all leave for bigger and better things. In the course of its wanderings, it finds another AI, other organic intelligence, and some significant conflict. So far, so good. It’s an entertaining story, but not necessarily something ground-breaking. But the translator’s note brings out a resonance with Chinese mythology that I would’ve completely missed as an Anglophone reader, and it allowed me to glimpse a level to the story that I never would’ve known existed. That additional context raised the story in my estimate from “good” to “very good,” and it pushed it to the top of my ballot.
Astounding Award for Best New Writer
Wait, I thought this was a short fiction post–the Astounding isn’t a short fiction award! Okay, true, but hold on a second. While the Astounding Award usually has a strong bias toward novelists, four of the six finalists this year have made the ballot based on their short fiction. And among those four is the most exciting new voice I’ve seen in sci-fi/fantasy short fiction since I’ve been following the field. (I understand that’s only three or four years, but to win the Astounding, you only need to be the most exciting new voice in the last two years, so the threshold is met with room to spare).
First Place: Isabel J. Kim
Isabel J. Kim debuted in 2021 with one of my favorite stories of the year: “Homecoming is Just Another Word for the Sublimation of the Self.” It’s a gorgeous and daring story in which immigration literally splits a person into two. She followed that up in 2022 with three separate stories that would’ve forced me to add another tier at the top of my Best Short Story ballot, had they made the shortlist. “Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia Protagonist,” “You, Me, Her, You, Her, I,” and “Calf Cleaving in the Benthic Black” were all best of the year material. And that’s not even mentioning her Shirley Jackson Award winner. Or the fact that she’s written my two favorite short stories of 2023, which I won’t link here because we’re technically not supposed to consider them. Seriously, she has the best case for this award that I’ve seen since I started following it. This is the easiest first-place vote I have ever cast.