Last year I read the short fiction nominees last. This time I'm doing them first. Most of the nominees are available online; Anticipation has a fairly complete set of links on its Hugo Awards page. I can't say often enough how much I like this practice. I subscribe to only one magazine and buy very few anthologies, so if it weren't for the online availability I'd probably never read these works and not vote at all in these categories.
I'm not going to include
detailed reviews, but here are a few thoughts and my order-of-voting
for each category. I'm trying to be more aggressive in my use of "No
Award" the last few years and place only the stories I truly feel are
Hugo-worthy above it on the ballot. That doesn't mean the others are
bad, necessarily, just that they aren't as exciting to me.
What a weird set of stories. Sentient robot. Sentient monkey. Group of sentient monkeys. Race of sentient mechanicals (much like robots). Sentient spacesuit. Do I sense a theme here? At least it's more interesting than last year's midlife-crisis theme of old guys with younger versions of their wives (two novels, one short story). I liked four out of five of these and think three are Hugo-worthy.
1. “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2: New Science Fiction and Fantasy)
Intriguing scientific exploration of some other universe's science, and so well-written that it carried me (not a science person) along easily. Beautiful and ultimately sad.
2. “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Feb 2008)
There are enough nifty worldbuilding ideas in here for several novels, all crammed into one story with a pleasingly ambiguous ending. Alien biology. Alien linguistics. Alien economy. Futuristic human society. It all sparkles with possibility and signals that there's an entire complex background to the story, yet keeps it dialed down enough that I'm not frustrated at the failure to pursue it in a long series of novels. That's a nice balancing act.
3. “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Jul 2008)
It hangs together and resolves just enough of the mystery to satisfy without reducing it to mundanity. It's not as complex an achievement as the first two on the list, but it made me happy.
4. No Award
5. “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick (Baen’s Universe Oct 2008)
I've read religious F&SF before and liked it, but the premise of this one just didn't convince me. My disbelief kept coming down from the ceiling and tapping me on the shoulder. Why is this standard-issue robot not like all other robots? I didn't buy its giant leap into irrationality. I didn't buy the attitude of the majority of the humans in the story. I was just thankful Resnick didn't pursue the heavyhanded metaphor I was horribly afraid was coming.
6. “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2)
It's not that I didn't like this one; I liked it rather more than Resnick's. But it's not much of a story. It's a vignette that introduces interesting characters and sets up an intriguing situation and then, disappointingly, just...stops. Color me frustrated.
And here we have a set of stories that all use real-world backgrounds. No aliens or robots here, though we do have Lovecraftian beasties. These stories range back in history to an alternate early nineteenth century, into the 1930s, all the way through the twentieth century, and into the very near future without once leaving Earth. That's fine by me, since I like historical fiction and alternate history, but not makes it work. I liked two of these a lot, one enough, and was seriously annoyed by two of them (though one makes the cut anyway).
In the wake of the RaceFail storm, I feel I should note that Bear and Bacigalupi both have stories with people of color for protagonists.
1. “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
Nice, nice, nice! Near-future setting; convincing extrapolation of current trends in journalism, celebrity, environmental issues, and technology, with a dollop of southeast Asian politics. Manages to deliver a meaningful, timely, and sad message with grace and style.
2. “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner (Asimov’s Feb 2008)
Despite the presence of an alien ray-gun which is every bit as nifty as an alien ray-gun ought to be, the science in this one is as much psychology as anything else. Fresh and original.
3. “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)
Like the Ted Chiang short story in exploring some alternate-science, but mixed into an homage to Lovecraft. Unlike Resnick, Bear manages to write an effective period piece (1930s) without using the device of elderly guys having flashbacks. If she can do it, why can't he? I didn't get much sense of the character of the protagonist, and it felt like he was black primarily to enable a comparison to slavery that I thought was a little labored. I didn't love it passionately, but it's a decent story with an interesting concept. And I laughed at the not-actually-fictional portrayal of my university library's penchant for misplacing old books that one really needs for important research.
4. “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Jan 2008)
I am really finding Resnick cloying, just as I did with his "Distant Replay" last year. What is it with the stories with protagonists who are old men reminiscing about their youth for half the story and then trying to recapture it for the other half? (Are we trying to work out some personal issues in our fiction, Mr. Resnick?) I'm not exactly a kid, but it's still hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for the creaky-geezer point of view. Why couldn't he have written this story in real-time rather than in flashback, with his characters aging from youth to geezerhood? If we're wondering about why young people might not connect with SF literature, this might be exhibit A. It's a good story, but...sigh.
5. No Award
6. “Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel (F&SF Jan 2008)
Susan's first rule for writing alternate history containing dance scenes: don't muff the details twice in one paragraph barely a page into the story. Careless, careless, careless. Demonstrably shabby research calls the entire rest of the historical background into question for me. There probably ought to be a second (non-Susan-specific) rule against writing Jane Austen's characters without any feel for period language or for the characters. This might have been a mildly entertaining story if it hadn't tried to do that, but all I could think while reading it was "that doesn't sound like [fill in the character]" and "that doesn't feel like a period reaction." It's too bad, since the title and concept are amusing. But the execution fails in the way that high-concept things are prone to. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The first, third, and fifth of these are probably the most mentally demanding trio of stories I've read in years. In two cases, that worked well for me. In the third, not so much. It was a relief to read the Kress and Finlay stories.
1. “True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
It's ironic that a tale of warring computer processes traveling on a comet makes better use of Jane Austen than the Kessel tale above. But it does, and the gender-flip from the obvious delighted me, with the chaste, protected "filters" that enable the "spawning" being delightful young males. As a non-programmer, this story's jargon was almost over my head, but it felt like it was stretching my mind in a healthy way.
2. “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
Interestingly, here's a story that's primarily focused on elderly residents of a nursing home but doesn't annoy me nearly as much as Resnick's, perhaps because a younger aide is also present as a viewpoint character and perhaps because the protagonist doesn't spend nearly as much time dwelling on his physical limitations and clearly has an ongoing life of the mind. And the plot focus is more on going-on than going-back.
3. “Truth” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
Quantum confusion. The idea that time travel creates alternate worlds rather than sending people back along their own timeline is familiar (from James Hogan's excellent The Proteus Operation) but this story takes the complications to a new level, with the main characters trying to deceive each other about what has happened and what they know about it. I was impressed by the intricacy of the interlocking what-ifs, and the final twist really startled me.
4. “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008)
This story felt a little odd. Politics taken to outright warfare, life in a prison camp...the only real plot was "survive and wait to be rescued." But somehow it worked for me; the setup was just interesting enough to keep me reading.
5. No award.
6. “The Tear” by Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
This one was a little much for me. I never got any sense of the protagonist's character, reasons, or emotions, and the character evolved (physically & mentally) in such dramatic ways that I just couldn't stay connected to him or bring myself to care much. I could wish this story had been a little less ambitious in scope; the alien society (based on a sort of standardized multiple personality syndrome) described at the beginning was quite fascinating and could have used further exploration.
Clearly, I need to buy Fast Forward 2, which includes my top choice in both the novella and novelette categories.
On to the novels...