That game we played during the war is one of the finalists for the Best Short Story category for this year Hugo Awards.
Recently after the war between the nations of Enith and Gaant ended —the Gaanthians being telepaths—, Calla, an Enithian nurse, goes to the nation of Gaant to see the wounded Major Vaark Lan, a Ganthian she had met during the war. Their relationship is slowly revealed, but the crux of it is that both had been each others’ prisoners during the war. Calla had been Lan’s nurse when he had been captured and, later, she had been a Gaantian prisoner under Lan’s supervision. During those two imprisonments, a peculiar bond between them was born, including the pastime of playing an odd version of chess.
After the armistice, Major Lan sent a telegram to Calla, telling her “I would like to see you, and Bring the game if you can,” and this is where the story starts.
Unlike the other Hugo finalists I have reviewed, this short story is written in a traditional style, and it doesn’t attempt to check any progressive boxes. The protagonist is a nurse, described as empathic and optimist, without any obvious mental disorder or crippling emotional issues. The military is described in a respectful manner as a somewhat rational organization, and telepathy is used as a device to explore Calla’s confused feelings toward the Gaanthian officer (nobody can read your mind if not even you know what you are feeling.) Knowing previous Hugo winners*, I had expected telepathy being deployed as a device to represent the difficulty of coming out as gay, trans, or whatever, or perhaps as a tool of torture (something that is explicitly denied,) but in this case, it’s just a light story about love.
*Like in “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, by John Chu, the 2014 short story winner.
I actually had to reread the story to be sure I hadn’t missed any “message,” but beyond an aversion to protracted conflicts and the fact that love can transcend all sort of boundaries (can those be considered a “message”?), I have been unable to find anything. There is no obvious posturing or ham-fisted message, no fourth-wall breaking soapboxing, and no demonization of whole classes of people for ideological purposes. There is no snark, sarcasm, elitism, bitterness, or tribal mindset. There are no references to hip, contemporary urban culture (in fact, the story gives me a WW1 vibe,) or rants about how evil cops are.
The story doesn’t engage in misery porn or grim descriptions of pointless war atrocities that serve no story purpose beyond inducing feelings of dread and nihilism. In fact, all the “victims” are the soldiers themselves.
I was expecting a telepath to read Calla’s mind and exclaim “oh, my God, you are a man inside a woman’s body! Don’t worry, you’ll be safe here, we share everything and don’t judge people,” but… nope.
True, it’s not a tale of adventure or exotism, and there is no action or swashbuckling here. It’s certainly a “feelings” story with very few traditional sci-fi elements (besides a bit of telepathy) but of the kind that isn’t trying to insult or demean you.
I’m not sure telepathic chess would or should be played as presented in the story (and war-chess analogies are a bit overused,) but the story has a point. It’s not the kind of short story that I usually crave, and it doesn’t leave you asking for “MOAR!!!!1” (the worldbuilding is intriguing, though, and it may merit a full novel) but it’s a sweet, well-written short story with a beginning, a middle, and a good ending.
You can read it at Tor.com