Hugo-Nominee: The Tomato Thief

I’m somewhat biased against the Hugo awards. My own reintroduction to science-fiction and fantasy in the past few years was by means of the various puppy campaigns (wikipedia, infogalactic). I skew, on paper, heavily conservative (well, integralist…), so I’m a pretty easy recruit for fisking liberal awards. And the Hugo’s, in the past few decades, have definitely been a liberal award.

Still, I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Ursula Vernon’s “The Tomato Thief”, published in Apex Magazine’s January 2016 issue, is pretty good. A Magical Realist story, the tale depicts an old grandmother discovering a cursed girl stealing her tomatoes and the adventure to help free the poor girl. Along the way, we are introduced to a world of train-gods, talking coyotes, road-runner boys, gila monster dragons, and well-mannered stable boys.

Vernon’s prose is solid, with a penchant for plain descriptions that help to give a sense of normalcy to the fantastic, one of the hallmarks of good Magical Realism. There are some odd tonal movements in the story: the title and first quarter seem overly mundane compared to the rest of the tale; the middle skirts moments of epic-fantasy; and its final climax wobbles between a sword-and-sorcery style heroic ending and magical realist dream-logic. It also forgets a major plot thread set up in the beginning – the whole title of the piece really.

What the story does really good is easing you into the fantasy. It starts with a rather humdrum argument between mother and daughter:

Grandma Harken lived on the edge of town, in a house with its back to the desert.

Some people said that she lived out there because she liked her privacy, and some said that it was because she did black magic in secret. Some said that she just didn’t care for other people, and they were probably the closest to the truth.

When her daughter Eva asked her to move into town, to be a little closer, Grandma Harken refused. It got to be a regular ritual with them—“Mother, won’t you move in a little closer? I worry about you out there alone.”

“What’s going to bother me out here?”

“You could step on a rattlesnake,” said Eva.

“I’d rather get bit by a rattlesnake than the neighbors,” said Grandma Harken.

Grandma Harken is a tough old woman, fiercely independent but very aware of her own age and weakness. The story begins when she notices her tomatoes, the pride of her garden, disappearing in the night. We see the old woman set herself up with a shotgun full of rock-salt and after a few evenings of trying to stay awake, finally confronts the thief – a mockingbird.

After a few moments of standing there, glowing like anything, the mockingbird dropped into the center of the bushes. Light splashed over the garden, briefly turning the squash and beans into a fantastic landscape of black and white … and then the light was gone.

In the dimness, she could see a figure standing up. The figure bent down, and came up with something in its hand.

Grandma Harken cocked the shotgun. The noise was like a crack of thunder across the desert.

The figure froze.

Grandma Harken looked down the barrel and said, “Don’t move. And don’t you drop my tomato.”

I actually really, really like Grandma Harken. She’s a desert-hardened old bird, with aspects of Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey and the usual crotchety old-man with a heart of gold.

Grandma Harken’s hand didn’t waver on the shotgun, but her mind was off and running like a jackrabbit.

She was never born a shapechanger, not looking like that. Whatever she’s done or had done to her, it came from the outside in.

Huh.

Can’t imagine why anyone would try to turn herself into a mockingbird, but there’s strange people in the world and no accounting for taste.

At least she ain’t a kachina, or anything that looks like one. She’d been a trifle worried about that. Grandma Harken’s relationship with the people up on the three mesas was distant but cordial and she wanted to keep it that way.

This does a good job of setting up Grandma Harken’s own skill and ability in working in this world without a bunch of exposition. Small little asides, like the comments on kachina, also help to give some subtle world building. It’s in this way that we are introduced to the fantastic working of the world. It’s a slow, subtle movement that helps one accept the final shapeshifting, dragon-summoning climax because, of course, that’s what would happen. You don’t blink an eye at being told the first and second world are being folded – it’s bonkers, but you just go with it, because the story has slowly brought you into the wonder-land. Without this slow build up, the fantastic elements would appear like a bunch of rule-breaking or Lewis Carroll absurdism.

I rather appreciate this move and the eschewing of Brandon Sanderson style magical-engineering. There’s a place for that, but there’s also a place for just saying “the train-gods woke up” with a nod as if this is the most obvious thing in the world. Crazy things happen and Grandma Harken takes it in turn, responding in similarly crazy, almost deus-ex machina fashion. There’s something fun about it really.

The one glaring issue may have been that the story got away from Vernon, and this is seen in the dangling plot thread – the importance of the tomatoes, built up in that early mundane section, is completely forgotten. In the climax, they aren’t even mentioned. Why did the big bad want them? I’d have, by this point in the story, been pleased with him just saying he was hungry for one – it’d fit with the simple folklore-fantasy of the world. But it feels like, in the writing, the story grew larger than Vernon intended and thus became, not so much about stopping a tomato thief, or even saving the tomato-thief, but Grandma Harken traveling about the world. There’s a clear end it’s working toward, but this is one story where it’s the adventure getting there that’s the real meat of things.

As for some of the virtue-signalling present in most Hugo works, there isn’t really any here, at least to my reading. There’s an opportunity with the Native American folklore themes, but the closest it gets is with the train-gods’ embracing the various foreign peoples that built the railroad, but this isn’t dwelt on much. I’m thankful for that.

I don’t know terribly much of Vernon’s thought space, though some trolling on Twitter implies we wouldn’t be friendly in matters political and cultural. That this didn’t come out as much in her story was pleasant.

The story, in general, isn’t my cup of tea, but I can appreciate it and definitely enjoyed elements of it. So far, my frontrunner for the Hugo.

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About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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