I was a little reluctant to continue with this year's Hugo roundup after the remarkable--and, after a years-long drought, wholly unexpected--experience that was the novelette shortlist. It seemed impossible that the other shortlists would stack up, and in fact the short story ballot is nowhere near as exceptional as the novelette ballot. It is, however, a solid bunch of a stories, with no piece by Resnick or Burstein or someone equally unpublishable marring its overall quality.
The closest the short story shortlist comes to a bad story is Tim Pratt's "Impossible Dreams", and even in this case I'd be more comfortable calling the story slight and insubstantial. Pratt's story is a play on the familiar one about a mysterious disappearing, reappearing shop from which the protagonist purchases a magical object (to be fair, Pratt acknowledges the hoariness of his premise--through a Twilight Zone reference, no less). In this case, the shop is a video rental store from a parallel universe--one in which Orson Welles got to make his own version of The Magnificent Ambersons but never made Citizen Kane. For devoted film buff Pete, coming across Impossible Dreams Video is, indeed, a dream come true, and the bulk of "Impossible Dreams" is taken up with his attempts to take advantage of the golden, and fleeting, opportunity placed before him. Pete repeatedly tries to rent The Magnificent Ambersons, or any of the other films that, in our universe, never came into being--Tim Burton's Death of a Superman; Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Kyle Reese; Stanley Kubrick's Artificial Intelligence--only to be defeated by some petty difference between our universe and the one from which Impossible Dreams Video periodically emerges: different credit cards, different money, different DVD encryption. "Impossible Dreams" might have been a more successful story if Pratt had played Pete's increasing frustration for a laugh, but the story is entirely earnest--a loving tribute, in fact, to Pete's fannish devotion to the film medium--and therefore not a little bit tedious, especially when Pratt introduces a rather predictable romance between Pete and the store's unwitting clerk. Nevertheless, the sheer exuberance of Pete's--and, I assume, Pratt's through him--affection for film is winning, even for someone like myself, whose primary fannish energies are directed elsewhere.
When I started reading Robert Reed's "Eight Episodes", I was immediately reminded of Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners", which was a little unfair to Reed, not only because it's a rare story that can stand up to a comparison with Link's exceptional novella, but because, although both stories use the device of describing a television series, they do so with very different aims in mind. Reed isn't playing metafictional games, or commenting on the divide between naturalistic and genre fiction, or observing the fannish experience. The television series at the heart of his story--the short-lived X-Files clone Invasion of a Small World--is actually a message from outer space. It's an interesting play on the first contact story, and I wish Reed had further explored the implications of aliens approaching us through our popular culture, and in particular through genre TV--would we recognize the genuinely alien amidst the ersatz kind? Instead, Reed focuses on the aliens' message--that life in the universe, though abundant, is separated by vast distances and even vaster stretches of time, and that Invasion of a Small World is probably the closest humanity will come to alien contact. Which, in itself, is turning the first contact premise on its head--we're used to fiction that tells us that we are (effectively) alone in the universe, but it's uncommon for first contact stories to make that point. Reed's choice lends his conclusion an unusual poignance, as does his slightly consoling ending, in which the aliens, in the TV show's final episode, urge us to look to one another and to the wonders of our own planet. For all that poignance, however, "Eight Episodes" is completely self-contained, a story that can be summed up in a sentence, that leaves no lingering questions behind it.
I was expecting good things from Neil Gaiman's "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"--the story has gotten a lot of positive buzz and I usually do better with Gaiman's short fiction than with his novels--which might be why the story left me slightly cold. Which is not to say that "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is bad. It isn't. It's a Neil Gaiman story--funny, well-written, mildly original. It is also, however, so thoroughly Gaiman-ish that, three paragraphs in, I was struck by the perverse conviction that it had been written by a clever impersonator, or possibly a Gaiman-bot. It was, I believe, the sentence "While it would be a lie to say that we had no experience with girls—Vic seemed to have had many girlfriends, while I had kissed three of my sister’s friends" that did the trick. That's a Neil Gaiman sentence, I thought. I've read that sentence, or some tonal of stylistic variant on it, several times before. It's an impression that persists throughout the story: here's the shy, clever but socially inept narrator; here's the narrator's wacky friend; here's the not-so-subtle setup ('"They’re just girls," said Vic. "They don’t come from another planet."'--you can write the rest of the story yourself from this point, can't you?); here's weirdness compounding itself around the oblivious narrator; here's the lucky escape back into normalcy. None of it is done badly, and it's not even the lack of originality that is my primary complaint against the story. I just prefer Gaiman when he's writing outside of his comfort zone, actually working to elicit genuine emotion from his audience rather than trying to strike that half-wistful, half-knowing tone that permeates so much of his fiction and usually puts me in mind of a clever teenager whose writing isn't nearly as profound as he thinks it is. "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is smack dab in the middle of that comfort zone, and so, like a great deal of Gaiman's fiction, my reaction to it is a combination of admiration and distaste.
Bruce McAllister's "Kin" is a boy-meets-alien story that hits all the standard buttons of that form. The boy in question--Kim--approaches the alien for help; the alien first refuses but is later won over because it senses something special in the boy; the alien helps the boy and offers him the chance to travel the stars. What makes McAllister's version interesting and highly enjoyable is that the alien is a stone-cold assassin, and that the something special he recognizes in the boy are the nascent skills of an equally efficient killer. At the heart of the story is the interaction between Kim and the alien, whom the boy manipulates by playing on his cultural taboos and conventions, and for whom he feels equal measures of fascination, revulsion, and fear. McAllister could easily have fallen into the trap of making Kim sweet and uncomprehending--gee, Mister Alien, could you help me?--or unrealistically clever and calculating. Instead, he hits the perfect middle ground. Kim holds his own against the alien, but there's always a palpable sense of how close he is skirting to genuine danger, and, more importantly, of how incomplete his understanding of that danger is. One often hears readers complain that it is rare to encounter convincing aliens in fiction, but it's just as rare to encounter convincing--and interesting--children. In "Kin", McAllister manages both.
And then there's Benjamin Rosenbaum's "The House Beyond Your Sky", the only story on the shortlist I've read more than once, not because it's such a good piece--although it is--but because Rosenbaum's story was too rich and too heady for me to fully wrap my mind around it after a single read. After four pieces set, more or less, in our own universe, Rosenbaum's invented cosmology and vertiginous point of view, which hopelessly conflates the virtual and the actual, can bring on a bit of a head rush. The titular house is, more or less (and everything Rosenbaum describes in his story is a metaphor or an approximation--as the narrator is careful to inform us, the real form of the story's characters and events is beyond our comprehension) a library for virtual universes, the plaything of vast, God-like creatures distracting themselves with petty amusements as the heat death of their universe approaches, whose caretaker, Matthias, moved by pity for the inhabitants of his virtual charges--who live, die and suffer without understanding their true nature--creates a new, real universe, which he then has to defend from his masters. Half the fun of "The House Beyond Your Sky" is figuring out what the hell is going on at any given moment, penetrating the layers of metaphor and analogy (the other half is Rosenbaum's wordy, elaborate prose), so it's actually quite impressive that, in the midst of all this complicated worldbuilding there's actually room left over for a touching plot--even if Rosenbaum felt the need to involve an abused kid and her teddy bear to accomplish that effect. Ultimately, what Rosenbaum arrives at is a creation myth--his own trippy, confusing version of one, whose tangled plot is a joy to unravel.
It's commonly accepted that Neil Gaiman will win this year's short story Hugo--as he tends to do whenever he's nominated for one. Despite my reservations about "How to Talk to Girls at Parties", I don't think a win for Gaiman would be a great tragedy, but I'd rather see McAllister or Rosenbaum walk away with the award. The latter, in particular, would make me happy. It's one of the shortest pieces on the ballot, but it accomplishes more with 3,900 words than many writers do with ten times that number. It's rare, these days, to come across a short story that does more than make a simple point or put forward a single, and not particularly well-explored, idea. Short pieces that posit their own universe, with its own rules and history, vastly different than our own--as Rosenbaum does in "The House Beyond Your Sky"--are increasingly rare, and one more often encounters this level of worldbuilding in novelettes and novellas. I'd like to see some recognition of the fact that, in the hands of the right author, a few thousand words are enough to take us completely out of the familiar, and that this is an accomplishment worthy of celebration.