Short stories often get short shrift when it comes to reviews. This year's nominees for the short story category at the Hugo awards were all stellar. If you haven't read them yet, here are some links and reviews to whet your appetite:
“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)
Wong’s story is a heart-wrenching theme and variations on desperate grief. The narrator, Hannah, bends time and space, trying in vain to find the timeline where, Melanie, her sister lives. Melanie tells Hannah time after time that she has no business trying change something that was never hers to control, but the narrator will not let go of the belief that she could have done something:
“Not my fault, not my fault. I’d tried so hard, first to knit the cycle closed and then to slash it to pieces. But still the end danced away from me, the world bleeding into its next cycle.”
The sisters are gifted with abilities to manipulate the elemental forces of the universe. Lightning crackles from their fingertips. When they are playing as children Melanie casually says “Here, Hannah. Pay attention, and I’ll teach you how the future works,” and then spins out daisy chains of possibilities. Hannah goes to NYU and studies acting. Melanie stays home and dies and dies.
Melanie is a trans woman, and subjected to multitudes of violent acts, physical and emotional. As Hannah goes further and further back in time, there is one permutation where their mother shares the sad news with Hannah over the phone. The pronoun ‘he’ in the mother’s mouth jars the ear as much as image of Melanie’s body, drowned in their pool.
The beauty of this story is in Wong’s masterful and searing use of metaphor to physicalize the persistent pain of loss. By the end of the story the impossible weight of grief will make your own heart ache.
“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)
Jemisin’s lively lyrical love note to NYC jumps off the page with singing poetry and driving rhythm. It is a story chock-a-block full of references in conversation with: contemporary culture, ancient heroic birth traditions, and the personalities of the diverse neighborhoods and constituencies that together combine as the entity that is the five boroughs plus Hoboken (honorary membership via the Port Authority connection). If you have never been a New Yorker, some notes would enhance the enjoyment of the clever and deeply apt descriptions of various aspects of the living breathing city and its birthing. A passing familiarity with Lovecraftian tropes will enrich your appreciation of the monstrous attacker who seeks to consume the infant entity of NYC as it enters into the world.
My favorite moment in the story comes at the moment of birth. It is the where the story turns and instead of the harried expectant parent hiding and running from threats the hero child confronts the monstrous assailant and calls out a challenge:
“The tether is cut and we are here. We become! We stand, whole and hale and independent, and our legs don’t even wobble. We got this. Don’t sleep on the city that never sleeps, son, and don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here.”
It is the story of a city attacked that turns and defends itself with the tenacious resilience of its many parts. The most joyous and hopeful note to be sounded from the midst of Manhattan in years. Whitman and Hughes would be in raptures at hearing the voice of Jemisin’s song.