As part of my ongoing short fiction review series, I read the 2006-2010 Hugo short story winners.
I’ll rate these based on how much I enjoyed them personally, not on how good they are in general. These all won Hugos, so you’re not likely to find a “bad” story.
I’ll be using a scale from one to five cups of joe, which is exactly like the five-star scale, only tastier.
“Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)
Length: ~ 6,400 words
Picture a world where death is not the end. When people die, they can be cryonically frozen and revived at a later date. If that’s not enough, you can also “hitch” into someone else’s mind when you die, becoming a passenger in their head for the rest of their life. What would you do with such technology?
In “Bridesicle” the answer is: run a dating service. Get the name now?
Mira died in a car crash and awakens from cryogenic storage, only to be informed that she is dead. The men who speak with her are searching for potential wives. This whole story reads somewhat like an episode of Black Mirror, minus the soul-crushing depression. In the brief minutes of life Mira gets while speaking to each man interviewing her, she contemplates her relationship with her lover and mother, as well as the moments leading up to her death.
This story brings up some fascinating questions and does a surprising amount of worldbuilding in a few thousand words. I thought it was an enjoyable read.
“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
Length: ~ 6,500 words
Reading this reminded me a lot of Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question.” (If you haven’t read it, you should!) The opening lines set the tone for the story:
> It has long been said that air (which others call argon) is the source of life. This is not in fact the case, and I engrave these words to describe how I came to understand the true source of life and, as a corollary, the means by which life will one day end.
So…this story takes an interesting twist in the second paragraph, which I don’t want to spoil for you. Let’s just say that the story takes place in a world in which air is essential to all life. You’d think that would be obvious, but this story takes a different approach.
I enjoyed this because it made me think. If you’re more logical than creative, I think you’ll appreciate this story. There’s plenty of creativity involved, but you kind of just have to read this to see what I mean. I had a brief moment of intense confusion when I first started reading this, and I don’t want to take that reveal away from you if you give this story a shot 🙂
“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s June 2007)
Length: ~ 4,200 words
This story is pretty unique in that the story that’s left unsaid is equally as interesting as the story on the surface.
Chalcedony is a battle robot that is spending the aftermath of a war collecting shells along the tideline of a beach. She is injured and running out of power, but she wants to make shell necklaces to honor the soldiers who fought by her side. From what little she knows of human customs, this seems appropriate.
Along the way, Chalcedony meets a young boy, and an unlikely friendship blossoms.
I thought this was a good story with an interesting premise. It’s more sweet than emotional, but worth a read all the same.
“Impossible Dreams” by Tim Pratt [Asimov’s July 2006]
Length: ~ 6,600 words
This was a charming take on portal fantasy. There was no alien world to travel to, no magic or monsters. There was just Impossible Dreams, the video rental store that occasionally existed between a gift shop and a bakery.
Pete is just your average guy who loves movies. When a video store suddenly appears from nowhere, containing masterpieces of film that never existed in our world, it’s like a dream come true.
There’s a quote in this story about movies that I think applies beautifully to books, as well:
My life doesn’t make a lot of sense sometimes, I’m hungry and lonely and cold, my parents are shit, I can’t afford tuition for next semester, I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate. But when I see a great film, I feel like I understand life a little better, and even not-so-great films help me forget the shitty parts of my life for a couple of hours. Movies taught me to be brave, to be romantic, to stand up for myself, to take care of my friends. I didn’t have church or loving parents, but I had movies, cheap matinees when I cut school, videos after I saved up enough to buy a TV and player of my own. I didn’t have a mentor, but I had Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Sure, movies can be a way to hide from life, but shit, sometimes you need to hide from life, to see a better life on the screen, to know life can be better than it is, or to see a worse life and realize how good you have it. Movies taught me not to settle for less.”
This story is compellingly written. At 6,600 words, it’s one of the larger short stories, but it went by way too fast. Overall, it was a great read.
“Tk’tk’tk” by David D. Levine [Asimov’s Mar 2005]
Length: ~ 6,500 words
If you like your aliens really different, you’re in for a treat. “Tk’tk’tk” follows Walker, a down-on-his-luck human salesman trying to sell software to an alien businessman on another planet. Unfortunately for Walker, these aliens speak a ridiculously challenging language, write with smells instead of words, and have very different customs from humans.
Walker can usually understand most of the alien language by using his handy dandy translator. The only word it can’t translate is tk’tk’tk. He shrugs it off, but keeps encountering it. What does it mean? Walker has more pressing concerns, though, like winning the salesmen Employee of the Quarter award.
This is a really neat little science fiction story that thrusts someone incredibly human into an even more incredibly alien environment. There’s a lot of worldbuilding in a short amount of time, and it left me wanting more.