As part of my ongoing short fiction review series, I read the 2011-2017 Nebula 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 Nebulas, 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.
2017: “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar
Length: ~ 5,700 words
Sometimes the worst punishments are those we choose for ourselves.
In this story, two women are each suffering from decisions they made, but are not necessarily their fault. Tabitha must walk until she wears out her shoes and Amira must not move from her glass throne atop a glass hill. Imagine the classic story of gallant knights trying to win a fair maiden’s hand in marriage, and turn it around to show just how messed up it can be. When women are victimized by men, how can they stand up for themselves?
This was a delight to read. I quickly went from being confused about what was happening to rooting for the main characters to overcome their difficulties. It’s a story of duty, love, and friendship, and it asks us to take a step back and consider what each of these mean.
2016: “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong
Length: ~ 6,600 words
For a story that starts out with a casual dinner date, things get weird pretty fast.
You know that show Dexter, where the main character’s a serial killer that only hunts other serial killers? This is a bit like that, except the main character’s a vampire. But not really a vampire, more like a psychic who sees others’ thoughts rather than hearing them.
Okay, so maybe there’s not a lot of similarities, but this story is hard to compare with anything else. It’s full of twists and turns, leaving you constantly reevaluating your expectations. And it drip feeds information to you, keeping you wanting more and never quite fully understanding what’s going on.
There’s a twist in the first couple paragraphs that instantly hooked me. When you get there, you’ll see what I mean. The rest of the story is a wild, weird ride, and I loved every moment of it.
2015: “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon
Length: ~ 5,000 words
Reading this reminded me of an animal folktale, where the animals slip out of their skins and dance around when nobody is looking. Of course, in this story, everyone intentionally looks away, since interfering with this dance is bad luck.
Naturally, the story explores the consequences of this. Sometimes, cruelty is kinder than good intentions.
I thought for sure I could see the end coming from a mile off, but I was pleasantly surprised with the direction the story took. This was an enjoyable read (especially if you like myths and fairy tales), but it didn’t particularly stand out to me.
2014: “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky
Length: ~ 1,000 words
Remember that children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, the one where one act leads to another and things spiral—in a kid-friendly way—out of control?
This is basically that, but completely nonsensical and utterly soul-crushing. It takes a little while to figure out what exactly the story is about, but once you do…those feels.
2013: “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard
Length: ~ 5,400 words
This was a beautiful story that included just the right amount of character, worldbuilding, and emotion.
Somehow, this ties together an Asian-inspired science fiction setting, a story about the dangers of technology, and a slice of life plot about a family-owned restaurant planning a large banquet. Sound intriguing? It is.
There are two POV characters. One is the daughter of a restaurant owner who failed an important exam and is trying to make the most of her life in the face of limited prospects. The other is a woman who married into a radically different alien culture and is struggling to understand her husband’s society.
2012: “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
Length: ~ 4,900 words
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
A young boy grows up in Connecticut with an American father and a Chinese mother. His mother has the extraordinary ability to breathe life into her origami creations, forming a “paper menagerie” of toys for the child. As the boy grows older, he starts to reject his Chinese heritage because he wants to fit in with his friends.
Hang on, let me just get this thing out of my eye.
I think I made it about a third of the way into this story before it really started to resonate with me. It doesn’t slam you with a wall of emotion, but gradually ramps things up. Watching the main character’s relationship with his mother evolve is beautifully tragic and compelling. There’s a reason why this story won so many awards.
2011: “Ponies” by Kij Johnson
Length: ~ 1,300 words
So, after reading this unusually short story, three things were immediately apparent:
A world full of rainbow flying ponies is trippy as hell. Cliquey teenagers are the absolute worst. I’m never eating cotton candy again.
Also, what the fuck did I just read.
2011: “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” by Harlan Ellison
Length: ~ 20 minutes (story starts around the 4.5 minute mark)
Wouldn’t it be interesting if it were possible to create a living, breathing, miniature man? In this story, the narrator does exactly that. Some people are intrigued (see title), and others are…not so much.
The main character is compared to Dr. Frankenstein, and the story has some similarities. However, instead of driving his creation to become a monster, this narrator is unjustly accused of being a monster by the public.
Overall, I thought this was an enjoyable short story. I would have rated it higher, but something about Ellison’s stories don’t quite click with me. He tends to focus on a bit much on the “what if” factor and not enough on the storytelling itself.