The ballot for this year's short story category functions quite well as a snapshot of 2010's short fiction scene, and the Hugo award's interaction with it. You've got one of the most popular, and most talked-about, short stories of the last few years. You've got two of the award's darlings, including one who has had a story on at least one of the short fiction shortlists for four years running. And you've got a story from a new and much-lauded online short fiction venue. Unfortunately, the ballot also functions well as a snapshot of the reasons that the Hugos so frequently disappoint me--its stories prioritize sentimentality over quality of writing or ideas; what little fantastic invention there is in them is staid and predictable; even the one deserving piece is derivative, much to its own detriment.
Carrie Vaughn's "Amaryllis" and Mary Robinette Kowal's "For Want of a Nail" feel like variations--rather similar ones at that--on the same theme. Both are told from the point of view of an insecure young woman who lives in a resource-scarce future and in a society that views wastefulness as the ultimate sin, rigidly regulates consumption and resource allocation, and enforces strict population control (interestingly, though in both stories the thwarted desire to have a child is an important plot point, it's not the heroines, but someone close to them, who wants to have a baby). Surely only one such story on the ballot would have been enough, and Vaughn's is the one that should have gotten the boot. Since its launch nearly a year ago, Lightspeed magazine has received a lot of positive critical attention, and with contributors like Carol Emshwiller, Robert Reed, Catherynne Valente, and Charles Yu it's easy to see why (and why it's also been nominated in the best semiprozine category). As an introduction to the magazine, however, "Amaryllis" is a very poor ambassador. Its heroine, Marie, captains a boat and leads a household in a fishing community. Marie is the product of an unsanctioned pregnancy, a crime for which her mother's household was disbanded, and some in her community view Marie as tainted with the crime of unjustly consuming resources. That resentment comes to a head when Marie is falsely accused of overfishing, an accusation that might cost her her position and household.
This is all explained in bald, inelegant infodumps that do little to convey the drama of Marie's situation--or to persuasively argue that that drama even exists. Vaughn repeatedly tells us that no accomplishment of Marie is ever enough to wash away the sin of her illegal birth, but that's not the world she sketches. The fact is that Marie has achieved her position with relative ease and that she seems to be respected by every character in the story except for the one who tries to frame her. And when she gets off her ass and accuses him of lying, those lies are easily exposed by a leadership that is only too happy to do so (a particularly grating false note--no bully would act so baldly in a situation where they knew they had no backing from the powers that be) and treats Marie as if she were no different from any other captain with a grievance. The point, presumably, is that Marie needs to get over her own self-loathing and lack of self-confidence, but Vaughn's best efforts at conveying these boil down to having Marie tell us, once or twice, that she suffers from self-loathing and lack of self-confidence. We see little or no evidence of this beyond the contrivance that drives the story, and Marie's alleged transformation is achieved in a single sentence that gives no impression that here is a real person making an incredibly difficult leap forward. There's never any sense in "Amaryllis" that Vaughn is working to capture the readers with either her prose or her construction of characters. Instead she seems to rely on her setting, and particularly on the manipulative element of regulated pregnancy, to do the job, but as both of these are rather hoary tropes--as evidenced by the presence of "For Want of a Nail" on the ballot--there's really nothing here to read for.
"For Want of a Nail" benefits from the comparison with "Amaryllis"--it's better written, has a more imaginative premise, and does a much better job sketching in its characters. The setting is a generation ship some way into its journey. Rava has recently been made the caretaker of Cordelia, an AI who acts as a chronicle for the generations of Rava's family who have lived aboard the ship, and is trying desperately to fix Cordelia after a recent mishapa as well as hide the fact that that mishap was Rava's fault. Along the way, Rava discovers that Cordelia's programming has been altered by her previous caretaker, Rava's uncle Georgo, who, while still in the early stages of senile dementia and knowing that if his disease were discovered he'd be deemed unproductive and "recycled," inserted a base command into Cordelia's code to protect him at all costs. Though there is some infodumping in "For Want of a Nail," it's less prominent than in "Amaryllis," and to a certain extent the story does expect us to piece together its setting from snatches of information. For a while, this helps to conceal the flaws in Kowal's worldbuilding, but especially towards the end of the story these become impossible to ignore. Why, despite the fact that the ship has its own on-board computers, is Cordelia a freestanding unit? (I won't ask why that unit looks like a Victorian desk over which Cordelia projects a hologram of herself in period dress because, well, I'm afraid we all know the answer to that question.) Why, despite the existence of those same computers, is it necessary for the family to use a sentient being to record their life experiences? For that matter, why record their every living moment instead of keeping diaries or video logs? Kowal seems to have posited all of these head-scratchers in order to reach the point where Cordelia, whose damaged programming means that she has to be disconnected from the ship's mainframe and thus sentenced to senility herself, is compared with Georgo, but Kowal's emphasis is in entirely the wrong place. "For Want of a Nail" is a story in which a senile old man is euthanized against his will, and neither the characters nor the narrative are particularly moved by this, or feel that it bears discussion. Rather, Georgo's predicament, and its off-page, matter of fact resolution, are a stepping stone to Cordelia's tragedy--the choice between death and living in senility, the same choice that was denied to Georgo. "For Want of a Nail" is a muddled story in several respects, but this failure to notice the implications of its own worldbuilding is a flaw from which it can't recover.
I haven't gotten along with all of Kij Johnson's Hugo-nominated stories in the last few years, but I always came away from them feeling that there was some substance to the story, even if I couldn't quite grasp it. "Ponies," Johnson's nominee this year, is entirely, and almost insultingly, substance-less, a story as unworthy of Johnson as it is of its nomination for the Hugo. "Ponies" is a vignette--and though in theory I suppose it's possible that a vignette could pack enough of a punch to deserve a Hugo nomination, none of the recently nominated ones, for example Kowal's "Evil Robot Monkey" from 2009, have done so--in which a little girl named Barbara is invited to a "cutting-out party" for her pony, Sunny. In order for Barbara to fit in with TheOtherGirls, their My Little Pony-esque ponies have to lose two of their three magical attributes--talking, flying, or their horn. When Sunny realizes that she's actually going to lose all three of her attributes, she rebels, the other ponies kill her, and Barbara is declared "not OneOfUs." The End. No, really, The End. I'm trying to wrap my mind around a voting membership that, on the one hand, gave Johnson a nomination for her disquieting, controversial "Spar" last year, and on the other hand sees anything worth recognizing in this simplistic, old-fashioned piece that seems to be patting itself on the back for saying something that has been said so many times before, and in exactly the same way. It's 2011, for crying out loud--are we really still shocked when someone takes a supposedly benign yet subtly patriarchy-affirming girls' toy and makes something sinister of it? Haven't we reached the stage where pointing out that female hierarchies encourage a destructive conformity is simply stating the obvious? For that matter, haven't we reached the stage where that's no longer entirely true? Even My Little Pony itself doesn't buy into the rigid hierarchy of girls' groups and the tyranny of niceness anymore--the new incarnation of the series, by all accounts, celebrates diversity, features characters who are encouraged to develop their skills and unique personalities, and rejects queen-bee-ism in all its forms. Johnson is too good a writer for "Ponies" not to have some effect, but the tools she uses are so blunt--I found the portmanteu titles like "TopGirl" and "ThisIsTheBestGame" particularly obvious--that I can't believe that so many people found the story genuinely affecting, much less worthy of a nomination.
I first heard about Peter Watts's "The Things" last January, shortly after it appeared in Clarkesworld magazine. If you follow the genre short fiction scene, you'll know that the conversation surrounding it is rather small. There are a few little-read magazine reviews, and the occasional review of an anthology or collection, but outside of award season, an individual story will rarely receive a great deal of attention. "The Things" was the exception. The speed with which it made its way across fandom and even outside of was unlike anything I'd seen before, and the praise for it seemed unanimous. Watts is a good writer whose short stories I've enjoyed in the past, but the reason for all the attention and praise "The Things" received was that it is, as so many of its proponents noted, professional fanfic--a retelling of John Carptenter's 1982 film The Thing from the body-snatching alien's perspective. I didn't read "The Things" until last fall, when it participated in Torque Control's Short Story Club. My reaction at the time was that it was a well-written story that depended too heavily on its source material, and that if, like myself, you haven't seen the original film, much of its attractions will be lost upon you. Upon a second reading for this review, I want to modify that judgment a little. I still think that The Thing is too present within "The Things." There are too many scenes whose purpose is obviously to retell and alter the meaning of scenes from the movie, and whose emotional impact is lost on someone who hasn't watched it. But I don't think that the story depends on the film.
On the contrary, if you lopped off the explicit references to The Thing, the explanations of what was going on under the shed or who was taken over when, you'd have a perfectly coherent story that I would have enjoyed a great deal more than I did "The Things." There's a lot of substance here that is completely unrelated to the movie--the story of an alien to whom all life is a single, infinitely changeable entity, who takes a long time to even understand that life on Earth can function as discrete beings with a fixed biology, and is disgusted and horrified by that realization. It's not a new trope, but Watts handles it with the intelligence and viciousness for which he's become famous, and the story would have worked perfectly well without the film as a framework. I'm sure that people who have seen The Thing enjoy "The Things" on another level that I don't have access to, but that, to my mind, is a flaw. Fanfic is a lot of fun, and it can be used to achieve impressive and meaningful effects, but it has its own place and its own conventions--chief among them, that its dependence on someone else's source material is not a bug but a feature. The Hugo isn't a fanfic award, though, and stories nominated for it should stand on their own merits. I don't think that "The Things" does that.
Despite that flaw, "The Things" is the best in a very poor bunch, and has enough strengths that I wouldn't be scandalized if it won the Hugo. The rest of the ballot, not so much, which is why I'm slightly reassured by the thought that Watts is practically a lock. I rarely expect much from the short story ballot, and after six years of writing Hugo reviews I've reached the point where even a horrible shortlist--and this isn't the worst I've read by a long way--doesn't depress me too much. But as I said at the beginning of this review, this year's shortlist feels like an accurate snapshot of the Hugo's interests and the direction it's been heading in for most of the last decade, and that is something that I find very worrying. Like many people, I've been following Jo Walton's Revisiting the Hugos series at Tor.com with interest, and though Walton doesn't usually spend a lot of time discussing the short fiction nominees, just seeing those ballots comes as a shock--the frequency with which I recognize iconic titles and authors who have stood the test of time. There's a bias here, to be sure--I notice the familiar names more than the ones that have sunk into obscurity--but I don't think that's the only thing going on. I doubt that anyone blogging the 2011 Hugos in a few decades' time will find much to get excited over, or impressed by, in the short story ballot.