Wednesday, August 12, 2015

2015 WSFA Small Press Award Voting

As a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association, I may vote on the WSFA Small Press Award. Voting closed on July 31st, and my votes are locked in. Although the stories are identified by author here, they are presented to members of WSFA anonymously, so all of the members vote based solely on the text of the story, as uninfluenced by the identities of the authors as possible. Nine stories were nominated this year, and although I ranked them one through nine, I will note that every story here was better than every story in the short fiction categories in the 2015 Hugo Awards. If any one of these stories had appeared on the Hugo ballot this year, it would have been my first place vote.

1. Cookie Cutter Superhero by Tansy Rayner Roberts: At the outset, this story feels a little reminiscent of the movie Sky High, as the protagonist, an Australian high school girl named Joey, prepares to head off to become a super-hero. But as the story progresses, the story transforms into something much more unique, as it is revealed that the superheroes that populate the world are manufactured by mysterious machines of unknown provenance that allow each nation a set number of super-powered beings drawn from the populace by a lottery and transformed. Through much of the story Joey and her friends speculate about what her powers might be, going through the various precedents while also assuming that she will replace Astra, the current female member of the team, because the team has always only had one female member. Tiny notes like this poking fun at the tropes so common to super-hero stories are one set of elements that make Cookie Cutter Superhero such an interesting story. The other major point that sets the story above the typical is that Joey is disabled - born with just one hand, the other arm ending in a stump just above where her wrist would be. As she goes through the process that will lead to her super-hero status, Joey encounters the sexism that she expects, but also unexpected support from Astra, and finally finds herself in the machine, where she realizes that she has at least some control over the form she will take. It is in the brief span of space that Joey is encased in the super-hero machine that an amazing amount of character development takes place, and Joey doggedly refuses to allow the fundamental nature of her status as a disabled person to be altered and still becomes a full-fledged superhero, highlighting the falsity of the "cookie-cutter" portion of the title. Much of the story is about the compromises Joey refuses to make: In addition to refusing to be cured of the disability she has lived with her whole life, she refuses to be referred to by a superhero name that includes "Girl", "Woman", or even "Ms.", and, in a way, she refuses to be relegated to the position of being the sole female super-hero on the team, which although that wasn't entirely her decision, seems to have been at least partially driven the machine's acknowledgement of the selection of someone with her contrarian personality in the lottery. One mark of an excellent speculative fiction short story is that it tells a satisfying tale but at the same time leaves the reader wanting to know more about the universe the story is set in, and on that score Cookie Cutter Superhero reaches excellence with a comfortable margin to spare.

2. Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon (actual finish 1st): Told in a way that feels like a story told by an old woman to a rapt audience sitting in the light of a campfire, Jackalope Wives is about the wild skin-changing part-rabbit, part-antelope women who dance in the desert and are lusted after by young men. The plot gets moving when Grandma Harken's foolish and smitten grandson tries to catch one of the titular jackalope wives, seizing her rabbit skin and throwing it into the fire, but her screams so unnerve him that he foolishly pulls it out of the fire, whereupon the jackalope wife does an even more foolish thing and tries to put the half burned pelt on. Desperate, her grandson turns to his grandmother, who takes the scorched half-woman half-jackalope in, and tries to heal her as best she can. After much consternation, Grandma Harken reluctantly decides she must seek more powerful help, and sets out with her clumsy half-rabbit charge in tow. As the pair travel, the story throws in tiny touches, deepening the mythic underpinnings of the story as Grandma Harken steers away from help from coyote, javelina, and raven, pinning her hopes on one of the "patterned people". She also encounters the Father of Rabbits, who serves up a tempting offer to the old woman that makes the story take on an almost entirely different meaning. One interesting element is that other than the Father of Rabbits, none of the male figures mentioned in the story are referred to by their names: Not Grandma Harken's grandson, nor either her first or second husbands, and not even the patterned man who bargains to help the unfortunate jackalope wife. Only Grandma Harken and her daughter Eva have real identities, and Eva only barely does. This, combined with the mythic nature of the storytelling gives Jackalope Wives an almost dreamlike quality, allowing it to sit on the edge of possibility, such that it feels not so much like a story that was made up, but like a story that actually happened in one of the wild corners of the desert where everyday reality breaks down.

3. Careful Magic by Karen Healey: With a hint of Moorcock, a hint of Modesitt, and more than a hint of Rowling, Careful Magic tells the story of a misfit teenager named Helen who happens to be the only Order worker in her high school. With a life bound by rituals and routines that seem pointedly OCD-like, Helen maneuvers through her days tapping doorknobs, twirling pens, and apologizing to each of her classmates when she is late. She also has to walk widdershins around the building and bless a particular tree before she can enter her school. This makes her an oddball in a society that is made up almost entirely of Chaos magic practitioners, but things begin to look up when Gilbert Hill asks her to help out his pretty and popular sister Rosalind who has had a love spell cast upon her by fellow classmate Kinai Hayashi. Things aren't what they seem, and the best laid plans go awry, helped along by some rather chaotic and impulsive juvenile delinquency, but in the end Helen solves the problem and saves the day. The story creates an interesting magical world for the characters to inhabit and populates it with believable teens - most notably Helen, whose status as a neuro-atypical individual is what provides her with her power, but also serves as a source of embarrassment that she must come to terms with. A subtle touch in the story is that every character of note is dark-skinned, and everyone inhabiting the story finds this mostly unremarkable. Despite being a story about teenagers dealing with what starts out as a teenager-sized problem, it contains excellent writing, engaging characters, and a plot that has just enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.

4. The Magician and Laplace's Demon by Tom Crosshill: This story is built around a big and weird idea - what if magic does exist, but it only exists in ways that cannot be proven. Told from the story of an emergent and hidden A.I. that benevolently seeks to control humanity, the story also imagines that there are secretive magicians who live in the seams in the fabric of what is known, manipulating probabilities to make the improbable a certainty. Disturbed by the implications, the A.I. sets about hunting down and either killing the magicians or getting them to "spike", that is use up their entire affinity for magic in one big life-saving event. This sets up a confrontation between the last remaining magician and a tiny sliver of the A.I. as they face one another on a spacecraft in the far reaches of human occupied space. The story has something of a disturbing tone, as the A.I. holds all of the beliefs that one would normally expect a typical science fiction reader to have: That science always follows the same rules, no matter where one is, and no matter who one is. But it is presented as an inhuman perspective here, and contrasted with the human magician's view of how the universe works, and with how one might hope that the universe works. The story ends on a slightly ambiguous note, with the reader not completely sure if the A.I. has emerged victorious - as it believes it has - or if the magician has fooled its opponent, which the story gives hints that she might have. In an odd way, this story covers much the same ground that The Three-Body Problem does, but in a much truncated and as a result, more perfunctory manner. Further, while the characters in the story are reasonably well written, they aren't particularly fleshed out, serving mostly as expository props for the author to outline and contrast the opposing viewpoints. As a result, while this is an interesting and enjoyable story, it is just short of being a great one.

5. Vanilla by Dirk Flinthart: This story deals with alien assimilation and xenophobia from two angles. The tale is told from the perspective of Kylie Howard, a Somali teen whose family emigrated to Australia, and is about her friendship with the !gontok students from another planet who have taken up residence on Earth. Kylie occupies an odd position in the book - she's not quite regarded as an Australian by her classmates, despite her father's hope that she will blend in with their adopted homeland both her skin color and her father's conservative restrictions upon her behavior mark her as separate. But she is at least human, which makes her different from her !gontok classmates, who are hairy and purple, with joints that don't work the same way human joints work, eat live food, need vitamin supplements to live on Earth, and identify each other mostly by smell. The story moves along mostly predictably, with Kylie, who doesn't fit in with her Australian classmates, making friends with the !gontok students, who also don't fit in with their Australian classmates. There are a few hints of xenophobia from the other students, but the story mostly focuses on the displacement felt by the immigrant children, and how they find common ground in the fact that they are regarded as oddballs by their peers. There is something of a unexpected and biologically improbable twist at the end that changes the nature of the story somewhat, but doesn't alter its fundamental nature. Overall, this is a good story about teenagers who don't fit in with their peers, and the unlikely relationships that can result, but it isn't substantially more than that.

6. N Is for Nanomachine by C.S. MacCath: A story about the death of a people, N Is for Nanomachine confronts the question of what happens when a civilization knows it is going to die and there is simply nothing they can do about it. Set on the planet Vardigen, originally a prison colony populated by humans altered to live on its harsh, volcanic surface, the story details the last days of its inhabitants as nanomachines inexorably change the landscape they depend upon to live into a terraformed Earth-like world suitable for settlement by "organics". Unfortunately, this terraforming will inevitably kill those currently living on Vardigen, condemning them to slow, painful deaths from what amounts to poison and starvation. The Vardigen response is to preserve their art and culture: Opera, sculpture, poetry, and painting and store it so that those who come later will know exactly who they destroyed. Told in the form of a series of voice mails, e-mail messages, and news broadcasts, the story follows one of the hundred couriers sent across the planet to collect artwork from masters of their craft, giving a brief window into how each one reacts to the looming disaster: One with despair, another with anger, another with defiance, and finally, one with love. As the populace faces their extinction, they also react with inchoate rage, with resigned acceptance, with doomed but heroic schemes. The role reversal in the story, with terraforming the planet to make it habitable for normal humans being the harbinger of death, makes it all the more interesting, as does the fact that the rest of humanity seems entirely indifferent to the suffering of the Vardigen denizens, placing the reader into the ranks of the silent villains of the piece. N Is for Nanomachine could have been nihilistic and depressing, but it is instead stirring and almost lovely, as a dying people find meaning amidst the wreckage of their world.

7. The Lesser Evil by Day Al-Mohamed: A horror tale about a Mexican of Indian descent named Arturo and his obsession with saving a young girl named Jenny from her miserable life, this story starts off creepy and then moves from there to being very slightly creepier. This isn't the only problem the story has, but it is the most severe - starting off with a creepy thin man sitting and watching a small child play from afar serves to make the reader uneasy right off the bat, and leave the story without much of anywhere to go from there emotionally. In any event, Jenny's life is beset with problems the foremost of which is a foster mother who is interested in drugs, men, and the money that caring for Jenny brings her, in that order, but also include a drug dealer who supplies Jenny's foster mother with narcotics, and a vaguely defined life-threatening ailment that is only kept at bay by regular treatment. As the story progresses, Arturo worms his way into Jenny's life while stripping away the sources of Jenny's woes. As Arturo does so, it is made clear that living with Arturo is not a good solution for Jenny: Even a lesser evil is still evil, and Arturo is clearly only the lesser evil. Unfortunately, this story is not well-executed in several places. There are a couple of scenes that seem entirely extraneous to the story, and the oft-repeated mantra of "you can't save them all" is never really explained. One minor point that bothered me from a technical perspective is that human flesh is reckoned to taste like pork, but the story continually references it as "steaks". The central problem though, is that the story starts in such a creepy manner that there is no build up of tension, and no real climax. The Lesser Evil does paint a fairly compelling portrait of necessary evil, or at least rationalized evil, but it doesn't create a lot of tension because it starts and ends in mostly the same emotional place.

8. Qasida by Rosaleen Love: A quirky tale about an unlikely seeming Martian trip, Qasida is told from three distinct but interlocked perspectives - Del, a hoarder who figures out how to get stuff from and eventually go to Mars, Bronnie, the declutterer Del leaves behind on Earth, and finally Livia, the Edwardian-era British woman who had been a member of the Imperial expedition to Mars to try to communicate with the natives. In the opening paragraphs we are told that the Mars rover Curiosity has discovered something amazing, and Bronnie thinks she knows what it is. From there the story wanders between Bronnie, Del, and Livia, first showing how Bronnie deals with the junk and debris that has shown up at her house from Mars, then discussing Del's modest explorations, and interspersing both with Livia's account of her experiences trying to communicate with her Martian servant Ylle. The story is built on a moderately interesting idea, but feels oddly incomplete, as if the story was originally longer and then truncated to reduce it to short story length. Or possibly the story was too short, and sections were added to raise its word count - most of the sections told by Bronnie seem to be little more than exposition, and her portion of the plot is simply dropped in the middle of the story never to return. That said, the sections of the narrative that involve Del and Livia are interesting, and the Martians who are obsessed with dust turn out to have a story remarkably full of pathos. Despite the handful of problems it has, Qasida is an interesting story that could have been a really good one if it were either just a little longer or a little shorter.

9. All of Our Past Places by Kat Howard: Telling the story of two childhood friends who bonded over a shared love of maps now having grown to adulthood, All of Our Past Places examines what happens when someone wants to get away from their present life so badly that it becomes a almost dangerous obsession. Aoife is obsessed with maps. She loves them so much that she makes maps by slicing up other maps and creating new maps of nonexistent places. Miren is Aoife's best friend who accompanies her as she journeys to imaginary places via her maps, wandering their neighborhood using Miren's house as their starting point. And then Aoife becomes obsessed with St. Patrick's Purgatory, and one day, Miren discovers that her friend has gone missing and all of the maps she had collected showing St. Patrick's Purgatory as a location have a hole burned in them in the exact spot that it had been shown. Much of the story is told in flashback as Miren rummages through Aoife's map collection, trying to assemble the right combination of map pieces that will bring her friend back. The story is well-written, but a fairly short shrift seems to be given to the motivations of the primary character. Miren states that Aoife wants to escape her life because she comes from an abusive home, but there is no real reason given for her obsession with St. Patrick's Purgatory, and no inkling of what she expected to get out of going there. By the end, all is well, and the entire story is just ambiguous enough that all of the events in it might just be the fantasies of two young women, but they simply aren't fantasies that are engaging enough to compete with the best stories on the ballot.

Note: Ursula Vernon's story Jackalope Wives won the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.

2014 Nebula Award Winner for Best Short Story: If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky (reviewed in 2014 Hugo Voting - Best Short Story)
2016 Nebula Award Winner for Best Short Story: Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong

2014 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma by Alex Shvartsman
2016 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: Today I Am Paul by Martin L. Shoemaker (reviewed in 2016 WSFA Small Press Award Voting)

List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Short Story

2015 Locus Award Nominees
2015 Nebula Award Nominees
2015 World Fantasy Award Nominees

2015 WSFA Small Press Award Nominees     Book Award Reviews     Home


  1. I loved Ursula Vernon's *Jackalope Wives* and am looking forward to her appearance at Chessiecon.

    *The Magician and Laplace's Demon* looks interesting (thinky), though thanks for the warning about the characters.

    Here via your comments on Pretty Terrible.

    1. @selki: If Vernon is going to be there, I might have a reason to go to Chessiecon. As one can see from my voting, I liked her story quite a bit.

      The Magician and Laplace's Demon was fairly interesting. If Crosshill expands the idea into a longer work I think it could be even better.