2014 Hugo short story ballot

The four 2014 Hugo short story nominees are the following (click the titles to read):

I found this spread of stories disappointing, with the exception of Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” which will be receiving my vote this year. (It’ll be my and Kakaner’s first time voting for the Hugos!)

From most to least liked, here are my reactions to each of the four stories:

Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” is far and away the best-written of the four. (It’s also one of two stories this year with a queer protagonist, the other being Chu’s “The Water…”) Samatar presents a compelling voice and point-of-view, and, with a beautifully light hand, weaves folklore together with her characters’ family traumas into a taut yet elusive narrative. That playful elusiveness, and the room that it creates for narrative and interpretive possibility, reminded me of Kelly Link’s work, as did the wry distance that the narrator tries to maintain from her own pain.

I have read a lot of selkie stories; Samatar’s makes the familiar themes of loss, departure, and home-seeking feel cuttingly fresh, urgent, and necessary. I believed in her characters.

I’m now looking forward even more eagerly to reading her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, a copy of which has been waiting on my bookshelf since December.


Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” has fun stylistic aspirations, but Heuvelt’s prose isn’t precise enough to carry off the arch effervescence that the story aims for. I was mildly charmed and amused by its portrayal of Thai villagers busily scheming amid a wish-granting festival (somewhat reminiscent of Barry Hughart’s sly, manic style in the Master Li & Number Ten Ox series), but ultimately I felt stifled by sentiment and whimsy, and unconvinced that the story had any substantial convictions.


I found John Chu’s “The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere” stilted and ungainly, but did feel that some of its emotional stakes came across authentically. In terms of narrative construction, I appreciate the little twist that the parents, typically the fulcrum of a coming-out story, are here rather a McGuffin. Sometimes our fear of how others will react is exactly that – a construction; sometimes we get to be beautifully surprised by the generosity of our families. As another queer Chinese-American, I have, in fact, been outrageously lucky in this way, and I feel acutely grateful to John Chu for exploring that hinge between fear and action, and fear and actuality, in a specifically Asian-American context.

That said, though some of the moments of anguish in the story feel piercingly real, from sentence to sentence I found it very difficult to take the story seriously, on account of the many lurches of adolescent language – “Watching him suffer is like being smashed to death with a hammer myself,” for example. But I very much look forward to seeing what John Chu writes in the future.


Finally: Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” feels simply contrived. The story has to do the hard work of moving from its farcical title and playful opening towards a revelation intended to be devastating. My experience of it stalled in the vicinity of “farcical,” and ended at “mawkish.”


Would love to hear others’ thoughts on the nominees this year, if anyone else has been doing Hugo reading!

– E

Go to:

Rachel Swirsky: bio and works reviewed
“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia,” by Rachel Swirsky (2012): review by Emera

7 thoughts on “2014 Hugo short story ballot”

    1. There sure are! It seems to be a moderately popular body of folklore for reinterpretation. (The animal/beastly bride, or husband, is my favorite trope in folklore, so I’ve always been pretty selkie-obsessed, though constant exposure means I’m also pretty picky now.)

      Most of the retellings I’ve seen tend to be by female writers, and from the point of view of a selkie girl or woman, since the seal-wife story speaks so well to feelings of entrapment and displacement in the context of family and marriage. Samatar’s deals with the human daughter a selkie left behind, though; likewise, I’ve read a really funny, sad one from the perspective of a selkie’s husband – this was by a Cornish writer (he wrote dialogue in wonderfully thick Cornish dialect) who’s unfortunately long since removed his writing from the Internet. And there are a couple selkie films floating around (sorry) out there – the classic Secret of Roan Inish, and Neil Jordan’s pretty okay Ondine from a few years back. Oh, and there’s an animated one upcoming from the same Irish studio who did the stunning The Secret of Kells.

      Let me know if you’d be interested in any story recommendations! Obviously I can talk about this rather a lot…

  1. Have you read Margo Lanagan’s BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND, Emera? I’d be very interested in your thoughts.

    This post is pretty timely as I just listened to a podcast about the Hugo short stories. I like Chu’s story better than you did, but I agree that Samatar’s is the best. One of the people on the podcast pointed out that Swirsky’s story loses a lot of its potency because she can’t decide on one insult but tries to stick them all in there, which robs the whole thing of any reality. On the other hand, the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie structure is an interesting one, especially considering it’s an adult sff story (though where the speculative element is, I don’t know).

    Purely from the speculative point of view, Chu’s is the best, I think, since it’s clearly fantastical and a lot of the story relies on the concept of the rain. Swirsky’s and Samatar’s are questionably speculative, which isn’t something that bothers me a lot, but I can see bothering some of the Hugo voters.

    Justin Landon says that Heuvelt’s story left him admiring but cold and I agree. It relies too much on the mythic and not enough on characters as real people.

    I didn’t flat out love any of them, but I do think Samatar’s and Chu’s are the stories that will actually stick with me for awhile.

    1. To my shame, I haven’t read any of Margo Lanagan’s work yet, though I’ve wanted to ever since word about Tender Morsels started circulating. Thank you for the tip-off about Brides – always more selkie stories!!

      she can’t decide on one insult but tries to stick them all in there
      I did find that exceptionally perplexing; it seemed to turn the narrative into a kind of hypothetical exercise/bland ideological statement about hate crime. And as you say, given typical Hugo voting dynamics, I was also surprised at the lack of a definite speculative element. (From that perspective, I was also intrigued that all the nominees this year were fantasies with real-world settings – no secondary-world or sf stuff.)

      a lot of the story relies on the concept of the rain
      Yes, the scene I found most interesting was the barbed exchange the narrator has with his sister in the kitchen – that moment when he pulls away the hot pan so she’s not scalded after saying a cruel untruth. That was pretty dramatically effective, and their wrangling with and over the physical environment (rain included) there rang more true to me than most of the rest of the story.

      Are you reading the whole Hugo pool? I’m giving one of the novels a try presently (Mira Grant’s Parasite), but will probably break from it to check out the novellas…

      1. it seemed to turn the narrative into a kind of hypothetical exercise/bland ideological statement about hate crime.

        Ooh, yes, that’s a great way to put it.

        I am not reading the whole Hugo pool and in fact I think the only other nominated title I’ve read was Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which I really liked. Oh, and on the non-fiction side, Hurley’s essay “We Have Always Fought” which is really good. I refuse on principle to read Correia or Vox Day, and haven’t had the personal interest in Stross or Jordan. I’ve heard mixed things about Parasite, which has made me hesitate to invest the time. (Also I was burned on Grant’s Feed series, because the first book was amazing and the second two were ret-conning disasters.)

        1. Ancillary Justice just came in from the library for me – can’t wait. I’m rereading Kameron Hurley’s essay right now: I had only skimmed the opening when it was first circulating, so thank you for redirecting my attention. This is pretty terrific – a clear-sighted mix of reflection, history, and exhortation.

          re: Correia – I read a few paragraphs just so I could say I did. Highlight line of dialogue, stated by a warrior on a demon (or whatever)-ravaged battlefield of ancient China: “You seem particularly intense this afternoon, my lord.” Mm-hm.

          What did you enjoy about the first Feed novel? I’ve seen the books around loads, of course, but I haven’t actually talked to anyone who’s read them. And my condolences about the last two – !

          Parasite was very missable; writing a review for it shortly.

          1. As far as Feed goes, I liked the fact that Grant made more of an effort at a scientifically plausible explanation for her zombies. But really it was mostly the emotional effectiveness of the end. As a standalone, it’s beautiful and elegiac, and gutsier than most popular sff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *