This was a disappointing crop of nominees, even without the Wright story throwing off the curve. Sadly, none of the works on my nominating ballot were finalists in this category, but I do find Jemisin’s and Wong’s respective stories to be award quality works, and plan to place them on my final ballot. The stories by El-Mohtar, Vaughn and Bolander are not without merit, but not enough for me to consider them award worthy. If the crop of stories were stronger this year I would be happy to drop “No Award” in place of Wright’s utterly vacuous, self-important drivel, but the other three stories I’m leaving off the ballot don’t deserve that dishonor.
Rating Scale: 1 [godawful]-10 [godlike]
“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016) 8.8
In Jemisin’s short fantasy adventure, cities that have grown old and large enough get to live, if the chosen midwife succeeds in birthing it. A homeless man is given this role for New York City, and he races to sing the city to life against an ancient enemy that wants to stop him.
This story is a little too compact for its grand premise, and maybe a bit heavy-handed at times, but is still a riveting read thanks to Jemisin’s stellar prose and rich imagination.
“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016) 8.0
Alyssa Wong is probably the most gifted prose writer to emerge in recent years on the SFF scene, and this story is a sterling example of why. Hannah and Melanie are sisters who have the power to bend time; Melanie’s death sets Hannah on a grief-stricken cycle of reliving the events just prior to her death and trying to change the outcome. The story itself is scattered – intentionally so, but scattered nonetheless – but the atmosphere, the imagery, the raw emotion, leaves you thoroughly wrung and hung out to dry.
“The world hiccupped, warping violet, legs of electricity touching down around me, biting at my hair, singeing anything still alive beneath the water. I barely felt it.
‘Why did you come back?’ were the last words she said to me before she went up in flames, taking the rest of the universe with her.”
“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press) 7.2
This clever tale has two young women involved in two completely different fairy tales accidently run into each other and help work out the other’s problem. Beautifully written, with engaging dual protagonists in an imaginative setting. I was able to work out the underlying theme of the story before it turned into a hammer that treated me like a nail, and I think I engaged with it much more on an intellectual level than an emotional one. Still an entertaining story from start to finish.
“That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016) 5.9
A pleasant SF story from Vaughn, in which a POW teaches her captor to play chess, then later both resume the game during a ceasefire. The hitch is that her former captor, like all his people, is telepathic, while her race is not. The game becomes a metaphor for how the war was fought and eventually “not lost” despite one race being able to literally read the minds of the other.
A creative, Outer Limits style tale that doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but it is well paced and there are some nice details about the psychological costs of war.
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016) 5.3
There is some solid, memorable writing here (“I was playing at being mortal this century because I love cigarettes and shawarma, and it’s easier to order shawarma if your piercing shriek doesn’t drive the delivery boy mad” is one of my faves) and the story touches on some very important and powerful themes, but it didn’t quite come together for me. It came off as a coarse rape-revenge drama, and though I appreciate the emotion that went into it, I didn’t think it worked beyond the visceral.
“An Unimaginable Light”, by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House) 1.7 Tone deaf prose and one-dimensional characters weigh down this abysmal tale from the once promising Wright. It quickly becomes clear that the author is using this story to air out his laundry list of grievances against the horrible horrible SJWs who are ruining science fiction and everything else in the world, puffing it up with a lot of pseudo-philosophical word salad designed to make him look superior. Boring, dumb, pointless; there is little to recommend here beyond a few fleeting moments that reminded me this guy used to know how to write.
I had four short stories on my nominating ballot: Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station/Hours Since Last Patient Death: 0, Caroline M. Yoachim; Things with Beards, Sam J. Miller; Terminal, Lavie Tidhar; and The Story of Kao Yu, Peter S. Beagle. Of course, I prefer these four to all of the finalists listed above, but that’s how it goes sometimes!