My Hugo ballots for 2014

What would I have voted if I’d paid for a membership?

I wouldn’t have, anyway, but if I had this is what I’d have nominated. I’m doing this as a sort of retrospective to 2014, which was much drowned by white supremacists, stalkers, pro-doxing ‘ethical journalists’, attempted con-swatting and all that. I think it’s regrettable generally that yesteryear’s short fiction is stale almost as soon as the year is out, so we could perhaps use more discussion and attention for yesteryear’s short fiction rather than hastily keeping up with their award eligibility dates. I’d meant to do this post last year, but for obvious reasons other things kept me preoccupied. Plus, I’m seeing folks mention their favorites from 2014 now on twitter: cool! So here are mine. I’m skipping the fan categories, which I find fairly irrelevant and mostly indecipherable (What is a fancast? Why’s there a semiprozine and not a pro zine? What is a fanzine? What even is a ‘fan writer’?) and editor categories.

Best Novel

The Race by Nina Allan.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar. This is seeing a US release in 2015 and may be eligible again, who knows.

Best Novella

I didn’t read even one. Oops. I read Nina Allan’s Spin but that was published in 2013 (do recommend).

Best Novelette

‘From the Nothing, With Love’ by Project Itoh (Phantasm Japan, 2014). A Japanese writer remakes the Bond myth, in a way that’s wry, self-aware, subversive, and effortlessly political.

‘Women in Sandstone’ by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2014). Mythical, half-historical, all women.

Best Short Story

Dharmas’ by Vajra Chandrasekera (Shimmer, 2014)

‘Because I Prayed This Word’ by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Strange Horizons, 2014).

On Being Undone By A Light Breeze’ by Vajra Chandrasekera (Lackington’s, 2014)

‘Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)’ by Rahul Kanakia (Clarkesworld, 2014).

Not a Hugo for Best New Writer

Vajra Chandrasekera. Vajra’s a smart writer and far underrated, and while both of these stories are 2014 you can see form his biblio that he’s very much active in 2015. He’s no longer eligible for the Campbell, but his 2015 publications are of course eligible for applicable awards. I’m always surprised when a year’s best TOC is announced and his name isn’t on it.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

Transistor. Duh.

Ghost in the Shell: Arise.

Recent shorts: Mondal, Nuallak, Khaw, Moreno-Garcia

I find you under my bed one night when I am looking for a lost suitcase, curled up and desolate as if you were just a dead tree. You shrink from my reach. I have no idea how long you have been there. I wonder if you can tell.
I stopped dreading you when I was ten. Ten years it took me to get over the unseen monster under the bed who kept me from getting out after lights-off. I wonder what you wanted then; what you want now. I wonder what you eat. I wonder if you will eat me.

But you only want to be.

‘Things to Do after They’re Gone’ by Mimi Mondal (Daily SF, 2015). A magic realist flash: a queer narrator, with a touch of the coming-out arc but not dominated by it. Wistful, lingering, and empathetic.

You sit and are lectured on a self Othered through others’ eyes. Except for one Thai man, the lecturer cites theorists and academics like her, white and Western.

She says, “There are no feminists in Thailand—Thai women don’t really identify as feminists. It’s just not done. People talk about Southeast Asian women having power and ownership, but…” she shrugs.

(It’s never occurred to the lecturer to ask what a Thai woman thinks of herself, let alone a krasue’s view of her own condition.)

‘She Shines Like a Moon’ by Pear Nuallak (Lackington’s, 2015). Easily my favorite of my most recent reads: it is effortlessly political and beautifully told, efficiently making use of the krasue’s immortality as metaphor for diaspora, her place in London defined by solitude and alienation until she finds fellowship with a local witch (there’s a hint of queerness there too, of course). It’s also in second person, which as we know is my absolute favorite POV.

‘To See Pedro Infante’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2014). This is more realist than the previous two, short and elegantly told while being complex on the intersection of class, performativity, and gender. Like much of Silvia’s fiction, it is set in Mexico – and like all insider narratives, the Mexico of this brief but multi-faceted story is absolutely not exotified but rather treated as completely normal: a real place rather than a Hollywood backdrop. It’s entirely mundane, about a fairly mundane woman with an unusual gift but whose concerns are entirely grounded in the every day, the pragmatic. I’m happy for this kind of literary focus. Despite the sparseness of the story (there’s almost no dialogue), this is a more realistic story than many.

I do wish it was a bit less heteronormative (which I also felt with Signal to Noise), but that’s a small aside and not a quibble everyone will share. The story is a reprint, originally published in Love and Other Poisons.

She wore her mother’s bones to the ball.

“You’re getting fat,” hissed the bejeweled skull on her hip.

She hushed her mother. It wasn’t the best arrangement. She had wanted a demure gown, green as limes, not the pale jade silks that foamed over her legs. The electric blues of her kingfisher mask were appealing, true, but they lacked the gravity of a hawk’s cruel smirk. And the slippers? Banana-gold slippers left much to be desired for.

‘Her Pound of Flesh’ by Cassandra Khaw (Mythic Delirium, 2015). This mixes the familiar elements of ‘The Little Mermaid’, Cinderella, and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ then recasts them into something else entirely – and what it is is very rich, pretty, and focused entirely on women: their pettiness, monstrosity, fury, power whether they are immortal witch or mortal peasant-to-princess.

Recent short fiction reads: Das, Mehentee, Miller

I look out over the sea-wall to the grey expanse of the Gangetic Delta. It’s cloudy but bright, dispersed sunlight soaking the clotted clouds and making me squint. The sea-walls weren’t there when I was last in Kolkata. The tide has risen since.

“Do you want to?” I ask Teresa. Her bump pushes against the bright red kameez she’s wearing. It’s not too obvious yet. She looks at the capsule in her hand. It’s transparent, like an oversized pill the size of a phone. I suppress the memory of small bodies looking alien in their stillness, as if Akir’s light had marked them as its own species. The capsule is surprisingly heavy. It holds the remains of our baby, who was born on Akir’s World. We brought the ashes of our children with us, so they didn’t have to be sown in the quartz-dusted soils of their homeworld.

‘A Moon for the Unborn’ by Indrapamit Das (Strange Horizons, 2014) starts with the image of unborn children walking in a single file on an alien world – an image that haunts the protagonist and his wife even after they have returned to Earth. It explores loss, the difficulties in keeping your relationship alive in the face of alien nightmares. It’s also remarkable in that the Kolkata it portrays is depicted as normal, treated as perfectly everyday, showing once again the immense gulf between the insider and outsider view (and affirming that the outsider view is, at best, unnecessary and at worst harmful). This Kolkata is effortlessly real, effortlessly alive, populated by people rather than colonialist caricatures. This is lived culture rather than costume.

The protagonist Vir is a trans man, a facet that does play a part in how he navigates the world, but it’s not played up as exclusively a mark of trauma or otherness. There’s nothing of oppression porn in this story; instead it’s about coming to terms, about nuanced humanity, about being able to continue in the face of trauma. Interestingly I’d say this hovers beautifully between magic realism and hard SF, which is a fantastic – and unique – interstice to inhabit. It’s a subtle, understated piece. I adore it and very much look forward to Indrapamit’s novel The Devourers being released in ebook (I’ve also heard good things about it from trusted sources).

To Reshma, this poor little boy sounded as if he’d been cursed. She and her sisters knew a thing or two about a curse’s power. Since it was believed that the presence of her kind at weddings and births brought good luck, so it followed that a Hijra’s curse brought calamity. It was all that prevented others’ insults from escalating into violence.

‘The Salt Mosquito’s Bite and The Goddess’ Sting’ by Jehangir Mehentee (Strange Horizons, 2015) is a quiet slice-of-life story with the air of a fable: atmospheric, sweet, down-to-earth and like the Das story, it’s effortless in its portrayal of life. It also depicts hijra characters in an understated way, without (I think) othering or making them exotic, or marked only by trauma. It does take into account the difficulties they face but it doesn’t make that the point of their existences. Instead, this is a story that focuses solely on spirituality, religion, and rediscovering faith.

‘When Your Child Strays From God’ by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld, 2015) is a story that requires some background knowledge to contextualize. The basics: parts of the United States of America (also called the USA or simply the States) practice Christianity in a specific way, invoking hellfire, brimstone, and damnation on anyone not strictly conforming to a narrow code of conduct – such as going to church (a house of worship typically marked by crosses – the vertically asymmetrical one, not the one that looks like an X – and benches called pews, not to be confused with pew-pew), being homosexual, and I’m not sure what else; perhaps wearing makeup and using skincare, seeing that the narrator and her community appear to have atrocious skin.

Joking aside, this story uses the conceit of a psychedelic drug to introduce a fundamentalist pastor’s wife to the concept of empathy and understanding her son deeper than the surface of propriety and parental nostalgia. It’s told through absurdist hallucination and I appreciate that despite the setup this doesn’t turn out to be a Coming Out or Queer Trauma story. It’s a perfectly charming, breezy story and I enjoy the narrator’s interiority making her more than a soccer mom stereotype. The gossipy tone fits just right, as do amusing, witty passages like:

I climbed the steps slowly, aware of the sin I was about to commit. I paused at the door to his room.

Let me tell you something about the bedrooms of teenage boys. They are sovereign nations, islands of liberty hedged in on all sides by brutal tyranny. To cross the threshold uninvited is an act of war. To intrude and search is a crime meriting full-scale thermonuclear response: neutron-bomb silence, mutually-assured temper tantrums.

So I did not enter Timmy’s room lightly, and panic seized me in the instant that I did. Fear stopped me in my tracks, threatened to turn me around. The smell of stale laundry made my head swim—the bodily odors that meant my little boy had become a man. I summoned him up as the smiling little boy he had been before puberty caused him to declare independence, defy us as righteously and violently as America spurned its colonial overlords.

(Soccer mom is used in the story, another Americanism I didn’t get but which has been explained to me by Australian, Canadian, and Dutch friends; for which many thanks! Soccer is itself also an Americanism, quaintly to refer to what the rest of us call simply ‘football.’ I’m not sure what a pastor is, but no matter.)

Recent short fiction reads

‘The Deepest Rift’ by Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com). This is a very particular kind of story, I think – it’s quiet (despite the trope of first contact being usually treated as higher-stake), personal, driven by relationship and scientific curiosity. In those areas it excels and the way the story implies at hierarchy and cultural hegemony is something I appreciate, but by and large while I read to the finish and found it quite enjoyable, what didn’t work for me was the relationship between the protagonist and their lovers. Again, it’s gracefully understated:

warm hands brush shoulders on the way to the kitchenette; familiar body language tickles my peripheral vision. We speak rarely. Still, it matters that we are in the same room, on the same world.

But for me I can’t get invested in their need to stay together. At about 7,800 words, it’s not very short (though it did feel much shorter than it is – it’s a pretty smooth read), but I don’t think there’s enough room to establish the protagonist’s partners as distinct individuals. That relationship being so central to the story, the result is a whole that’s missing the middle.

‘Tin Cans’ by Ekaterina Sedia (Weird Fiction Review).

You know that you’re old when your children are old, when they have heart trouble and sciatica, when their hearing is going too so that both of you yell into the shell of the phone receiver. But most often, he doesn’t call — and I do not blame him, I wouldn’t call me either. He hadn’t forgiven and he never fully will, except maybe on his deathbed — and it saddens me to think that he might be arriving there before me, like it saddens me that my grandchildren cannot read Cyrillic.

This is a reprint. I first encountered it in Ekaterina’s collection Moscow But Dreaming (reviewed on Tor.com here), which is absolutely worth reading. It’s a dark magic realism story that, unlike most contemporary SFF, is not infused with inescapable Americana, geek pop culture references, and all the other markers that too often blight that particular sub-genre. This one is infused with real history, real darkness, and haunting imagery: honed like a knife, sharp in its effectiveness. It makes me sad that Ekaterina doesn’t write in genre anymore, because no other writer creates the same kind of short fiction she does.

‘Android Whores Can’t Cry’ by Natalia Theodoridou (Clarkesworld).

Some notes on the translation of Massacre Market

There is some uncertainty about the translation from the local language of what I have called “Massacre Market.” Other possible translations include “Atrocity Place,” “Massacre Fair,” or, and that was the most confusing aspect of this, “Pearl Fountain,” because even though each of the two words means something different, together they create a new compound which, as Dick and Brigitte explained to me, could rather clumsily be interpreted as “a fountain whence pearls flow,” “the breeding ground of oysters,” or even “the plane of sublime imperfections.”

This is an intricate, interstitial story that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Interfictions. It covers memory, identity, uncertainties, haunting imagery – so naturally, I’m all over it. It does rely on contemporary depiction of gendered violence, but then this seems a relatively near-future piece so that’s not out of place at all.

Recent short fiction reads

Li Jing is unique. Even from infancy, it was clear her skin would never be mantled with marble, and that her eyes would never be replaced by glass, her bones wood. At fifteen, no signage inked itself on her flesh, as it did others’, no portent of architectural occupation.

It complicated her relationships, of course. By the time Li Jing was wise enough to court partnership, city-sickness had become pandemic, so widespread that humanity was forced to leaven it into normalcy. One by one, proponents mushroomed from the carcass of fear, oozing grand ideas: why was this disease so terrible? Did it not provide a concrete immortality?

Consequently, few became willing to stomach a lover whose lifespan could be measured in decades. Death was never easy, but it was infinitely harder when you knew you would never walk the halls of your beloved, would never laze on their moon-drenched balconies.

‘In the Rustle of Pages’ by Cassandra Khaw (Shimmer, 2015). Mortality, old age, and architecture as transformative contamination. Also family and generational difficulties. This one’s great.

Jake acquired his target as soon as he stepped into the cafeteria. For the good of the war, he had passed without a trace through forests and mountains to reconnoiter and assassinate. For the good of the subsequent peace, Jake now needed to have lunch with a random stranger and emulate a human being.

The target sat by himself at a table in the corner, staring at his tablet. His lunch sat untouched, his chopsticks clearly unused. Slices of poached chicken breast lay on a bed of brown rice next to a pile of kimchi. The soy sauce and star anise of the poaching liquid and the spicy salty tang of the kimchi no one else seemed to notice hit Jake from across the room. Far more interesting than four slices of cheese pizza. Grease pooled in tiny orange circles on Jake’s slices and soaked through the paper plate onto his hands.

‘勢孤取和’ by John Chu (Lightspeed, 2015). Neat military SF that reminds me a bit of All You Need is Kill, with cool ideas.

The station’s darkness is always warm, always faintly redolent with rubber, charcoal, ammonia. The air is clean, antiseptic despite the rust that streaks the station’s innermost walls, and tonight carries the sound—the voice that is not a voice. It reminds me of whale song, a distant rumble moving through the station as though the station were water; but the station is not water, nor is it submerged beneath any ocean. I unstrap myself from the sleep pocket and float to the nook’s window.

Jupiter, swollen. So orange against the black of space, so large as to almost occupy the entire window. Space is only a slim crescent along the planet’s brightening rim. I have worked on Galileo Station harvesting helium for twelve years, and the view never grows old; Jupiter never grows old with its ceaseless storms, new designs constantly wrought within its cloud layers. The red spot spun itself out in our sixth year, the storm succumbing to another that is the colors of Earth’s seas: teal and turquoise, indigo and lapis. Sometimes, when the sunlight angles across, the storm shines like a great opal, cracked with orange lightning.

‘Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (Third Sound Remix)’ by E. Catherine Tobler (Clarkesworld, 2015). Atmospheric, foreboding, hard(ish) SF that makes me think of Lem’s Solaris.

Reading log, late October

cw_97_700‘Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)’ by Rahul Kanakia (Clarkesworld, 2014). We’re all going to misremember the title of this one, I expect (sorry Rahul! it is long), but not the story itself. It’s clever and charming, and a little sad. It also reminds me of Allison Burnett’s The House Beautiful, for very obvious reasons.

‘Make No Promises’ by Rachel Halpern (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2014). This is one of those stories that’s epic in scope but also very quiet – in a good way. Prescience and the trouble of prophecies, and sisterhood.

‘Here Be Monsters’ by Carrie Patel (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2014). On sea and monstrosity, human-shaped and not. I was surprised to discover the first-person narrator is male! I’m not sure why, but I assumed it was a woman.

Conversely, a child’s hurts exist in a world untouchable by adults. There is no vocabulary for things like the threat of losing a best friend when you are not quite eleven. There is only swinging on the old tire your father hung from the oak in the backyard, twirling round and round, while your little brother tries to push you without getting knocked over, tries to comfort you in the silent animal language you share.

‘Testimony’ by Jennifer Mason-Black (Fireside, 2014). Oh, look at that. This is why I fell in love with Jennifer’s writing, back in 2012. There’s an effortlessness to it and this power of observation – just look at this narration of childhood.

‘Nine Dishes on the Cusp of Love’ by Fran Wilde (Daily SF, 2014). Sensual and delicious (also literally; much food description!).

Read: The Age of Ice and some more stories

The Age of Ice is this very special, very compelling book. It’s got some rather idiosyncratic pacing and I perhaps took way too long to finish reading it, but taken as a whole I think it’s almost meant to be read slowly, savored.


Love becomes an algorithm for living in synchrony with another person.

There must be an etiquette for babbling about stories in anthologies you’re a part of, but… ‘From the Nothing, With Love’ by Project Itoh (Phantasm Japan, 2014) is just really superbly good. It is full of quotable lines full of truth, and it skewers things in this brilliant, understated way. There’s an immaculateness in its observations that I just adore, and a smoothness to its style that does credit to Jim Hubbert, the translator. I’m not going to yell please buy this anthology because I’m in it – buy it for *this* story (and as a bonus, many other translated stories!). Suppose I have a draft Hugo ballot, this would go under the novelette category immediately.

“And your husband, kids—they here in Boston?”

She smiled at the simplicity of the attempt.

“My partner and I live in New York. I don’t have any children.”

His face fell and she felt suddenly very sorry. On a whim, she conjured up two nonexistent stepchildren, girls, in their teens.

‘Big Week’ by Zadie Smith (The Paris Review, 2014). It is very Zadie Smith! Alienation told in delicate description and a touch of the wry.

‘The Hoof Situation’ by Bonnie Jo Shufflebeam (Scigentasy, 2014) does a really interesting thing where an old lady *welcomes* old age as might and freedom, which is wonderfully different and a fantastic perspective; and it has a characterful voice I adore. Horrifying ending though! (Intentionally, I think). Monstrosity and womanhood.

Recent reading from Shimmer, Tor.com, and more

Anna steps into the sleep chamber sidelong, eyes peeled, skin prickling, hands half-curled, ready to bolt. It’s a rush, an undeniable addiction. She loves to be about-to-fight.

The alien, frozen in glass.

No legs. Most of its body a long lash of tail, muscular, serpentine, a naga shape jacketed in scales firm and dark as stone arrowheads. Humanoid torso, slim, kinda ripped, arms shading down from sable to silver-white like long elegant gloves. Four fingers. Two opposed thumbs.

(It’s so—)

Where it should have a neck, a head, it flowers into snakes. Eight coiled snakes, bundled up, knotted tight. Sleeping. Anna imagines them at full extension, a committee of swan-necked vipers, a serpent coronet.

‘Anna Saves them All’ by Seth Dickinson (Shimmer, 2014). First contact, monstrosity, and brutally hard choices. It’s difficult to name my favorite story by Seth in any given year and this will have to fight ‘Sekhmet’ and ‘Our Fire’ at the end of the year for that spot, I think. Stunning precise prose, as always; I think this is his second piece this year that touches on monstrosity.

‘Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land’ by Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com, 2014). This is quiet, pretty, and very charming portal fantasy – brief but full of wonder, and such a comforting joy to read.

‘Little Faces’ by Vonda N. McIntyre (Strange Horizons) is a reprint – the story was originally published in 2005. I think I asked for stories with sentient spaceships, and I got one! This is a universe of far-future posthumans where everyone has a spaceship of their own, sentient but not very talkative spaceships which converse with humans in limited binary language – true or false – though they have other ways of communication. I find this story interesting in the sense that its image of what far-future society is so different from my own; there’s a community but there’s no longer any sense of… cultural identity? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of them, so everyone knows everyone else and meets periodically for parties. I find the take on memory and inheritance interesting, and how it ties into reproduction and love.

‘Moths of the New World’ by Audrey Niffenegger. Yay! Books! Anthropomorphic books! Delightful, adorable humor. This is the most charming thing I’ve read anywhere.

Moths of the New World smiled. “What’s your title?”

He gave her an apologetic grimace. “Workers, Arise! I’m a pamphlet for union organisers to leave with the folks they’re trying to organise. I’ve got pretty snazzy artwork, though. Lots of red and black.”

The idea of getting to write things like ‘Workers, Arise! shook his head’ delights me very much.