The Short Story Nominees

I am usually underwhelmed by the Hugo short story nominees. I accept that my tastes are out of step with the pool of Hugo voters, as I am not a big fan of Michael Burstein’s short fiction, and the less said about most of Mike Resnick and Robert J. Sawyer’s previous nominees the better, but the one time I voted in the Hugos I put No Award first as a protest against how uniformly terrible the stories on that year’s ballot were. So it’s pleasing to report that the short stories, while not all great, range from pretty decent to really pretty damn good. Here’s my ranking:

Bottom of my ballot I would put Mike Resnick’s ‘Distant Replay‘. It’s the best Mike Resnick story I have ever read, and that’s why it wouldn’t end up below No Award, but the appeal of his work remains a total mystery to me. Yet another story about science fiction being used in some way to reunite a man with his love, (in this case, a man meets a young man and woman who are exactly like him and his (dead) wife, and hooks them up), it’s less cloyingly sentimental than usual and has a couple of nice ideas, and that’s about it.

‘A Small Room in Koboldtown,’ by Michael Swanwick, is a locked-room mystery noir in a fantasy setting. The internet informs me it’s a universe he’s written in before, and the setting is interesting, but then it uses the fantasy setting to pull a big cheat. I like mysteries, and they work best when they are clever enough that you can’t work out exactly how it was done but all the clues are there. When the resolution of the mystery is a magical solution I couldn’t predict, I feel cheated out of my ending.

Having dispatched with the bottom two, we get to two stalwarts of the UK SF scene who are harder to separate – Ken MacLeod’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?’ and Stephen Baxter’s ‘Last Contact.’ Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? is space opera from Ken MacLeod, in the same setting as his BSFA-award-winning Lighting Out. Proper hard SF, it has AIs and seedships and lots of future civilizations, I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I expected. I think it could do with being longer, to flesh out the events around the ending, and give us more of the central character. There’s just nothing which particularly grabs me, so I put it at number three.

Last Contact is a very English disaster story – the big SFnal idea is the end of the world, but the story is about two women preparing for the end in Oxfodshire, planting flowers that will never grow and sitting in the garden drinking tea while they wait for the ground to be ripped apart under them. It’s a cosy catastrophe, with a much lower degree of looting and general chaos and anarchy than what I think would actually happen if you announced the world was going to end in six month’s time, but I found it rather charming. I don’t think Baxter quite pulls it off, but it’s in second place for me.

My pick of the short stories is Elizabeth Bear’s ‘Tideline,’ which is a great example of how a small SF idea can turn into a lovely story. Lovely is the appropriate word, as it’s a heartwarming little tale of a shipwrecked war-machine, alone on a beach mourning her lost compatriots, and the human boy she meets and takes care of. The hints of worldbuilding fit around the well-drawn characters, filling out enough of the background to satisfy but leaving parts of it unknown, and Bear’s prose is probably the best of all the stories, bar maybe the Swanwick. It pulls off beautifully what Last Contact can’t quite do.

So I’d like the Best Short Story Hugo to go to Elizabeth Bear, but I won’t be upset if it goes to MacLeod or Baxter.

Other views:
Abigail Nussbaum mostly agrees with me, but doesn’t like Baxter as much. Nicholas Whyte doesn’t like the MacLeod at all, but agrees with my top pick. Karen Burnham agrees with my top two, but hasn’t read any of the others. John at SF Signal also isn’t fond of the Macleod, and likes the Resnick much more.

9 thoughts on “The Short Story Nominees

  1. I liked the Stephen Baxter, but it doesn’t really cover any new emotional territory for him.

    The MacLeod was a bit meh – quite funny, but fundamentally an old-fashioned (late 50s?) gotcha story with a theory about social organisation demonstrated through interstellar war. I think the final line may even be a reference to In A Good Cause – .

  2. The only nominees I’ve read, the Swanwick, Baxter and MacLeod all struck me as being sub-par for the writers. The Swanwick too reliant on his audience knowing the tropes he was playing with, and making no attempt to do anything fresh with them. The Baxter and MacLeod both failing to develop or fully resolve their stories. Please tell me these aren’t really the best stories of the year.

  3. Yes, I certainly think Baxter and MacLeod have done better (I’m not familiar enough with Swanwick to know), and if these are really the 5 best stories of the year then I would be disappointed. Compared to recent Hugo shortlists, though, which have usually contained only one or two stories I like, and on some occasions have contained nothing good at all, having three stories I think are OK and one which is really good is a step up.

  4. The Baxter and MacLeod both failing to develop or fully resolve their stories

    Paul, could you expand on that with reference to “Last Contact” specifically? I’m lukewarm about the story, but I have difficulty seeing it as underdeveloped — it’s clearly meant to be a brief piece — and the ending is about as unarguably resolving as any ending could be.

  5. Niall, the world ends, but all that does is bring it to a full stop, it doesn’t actually resolve the story. You can imagine Baxter’s thinking: how about an end of the world story that concerns two ordinary women in an ordinary garden, contrasting the minutiae of their lives with the magnitude of events that are about to overwhelm them. And it is a nice idea, but that’s all it is: ‘Last Contact” is an idea but not really a story, it’s too thin for that.

  6. Paul, if your objection is that the basic concept is untenable in a short story, that either the relationship or the sfnal unknown (the alien signals) or both demand expansion into a longer work, I see where you’re coming from, though I’m not sure I agree. I think such a story could work; I just think this one happens not to because it’s a bit too obvious about its emotional button-pushing. But if you’re fine with the basic concept, I guess my question is, what would count as resolution?

    The end of the story suggests both a new affirmation of the bond between mother and daughter and an answer to the question of the alien signals. It doesn’t confirm either — in that sense your point about the end of the world being a full stop is correct. But the ending does neatly draw together the various elements of the story, speculative and human, and surely does so in an appropriate way — the end of the world would interrupt everything, even if you knew it was coming.

  7. Niall, obvious emotional button-pushing is exactly what I mean when I say it is not fully developed as a story. It is, to put it in fairly broad terms, a description of an idea for a story rather than the story itself. I felt it needed more to make it complete, to tie it all together, to make it work properly as a story. Yes the various elements are drawn together at the end, but when you say ‘neatly’ I read ‘too neatly’; it’s too tidy, too schematic. There is nothing dramatically wrong with that, there are many perfectly serviceable stories that are just as schematic, but if a story is to be considered one of the best of the year surely we should expect rather more from it?

  8. OK, so we’re talking about the same things using slightly different language — more or less. Good to have that cleared up. (Although the devil’s advocate in my wants to argue that “schematic” stories can sometimes be year’s best-worthy; some of Egan’s work springs to mind…)

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