My reading in preparation for this ballot consisted mainly of online venues--partly for reasons of convenience, and partly because I knew that I would publicize my choices and wanted to have easily accessible links to offer anyone who might be interested in sampling my recommendations. One of the effects of this emphasis is that when I sat down to review the stories that had caught my eye at the end of this process, I found short stories (under 7,500 words) disproportionately represented. Possibly because of financial considerations, and possibly out of the belief that people reading online have a short attention span, most online fiction falls in this category, with few novelettes and very few novellas published online. When you take that fact into consideration, however, and take a look at this year's Nebula ballot, it becomes clear that online venues are the future--the short fiction category is all online fiction, which also well represented in the novelette category. As online venues become secure enough--in their finances and their audience--to publish longer lengths, I expect that we'll see them taking over the entire ballot.
On that note, I'd like to commend the short fiction editors at Tor.com for leading the charge. They published more than half a dozen novellas this year, several of very high quality. Especially with Subterranean magazine, until 2013 the only online venue to regularly publish novellas, closing its doors this year, it's gratifying to see Tor.com carrying the torch. At the very other end of the scale is scrappy upstart Giganotosaurus, a bare-bones operation that only publishes one story a month (though often at the novelette and even novella length) but whose ratio of quality to quantity is one of the highest in the field.
Without any further ado, then, my provisional ballot for the 2014 Hugo short fiction categories, sorted by author's surname:
- Spin by Nina Allan (TTA Press, nominated for the BSFA award) - Having just got done praising online fiction, my first choice is traditionally published (albeit available for Kindle for a very reasonable price as part of TTA's interesting novellas series). But Spin really is much too special to let issues of format cloud the discussion. This retelling of the myth of Arachne builds its alternate world so lightly and so subtly that you hardly even notice it happening until you're standing in a fully realized setting, and the story of its main character--an artist who struggles with the meaning of self-expression, a tangled family history, and the possibility that her talent may be a literal gift of the gods--is moving and thought-provoking. Spin is a perfect illustration of why the novella is a vital, necessary form.
- "Martyr's Gem" by C.S.E. Cooney (Giganotosaurus) - Far more traditional, and even a little sappy, is Cooney's tale of love, revenge, and adventure. A young man from an impoverished family is selected as the husband of a noblewoman who wants him to act as a beard while she pursues her sister's murderer. What makes this story work is first the world, a post-collapse, quasi-fantastical setting that is complex and interesting, and second the characters, who are all--not just the main lovers but their friends and extended family--drawn with intelligence and compassion.
- "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, nominated for the Nebula award) - This four-part story centers around the titular location, in the Florida panhandle, where in the 1950s a segregated resort played host to the shooting of several Tarzan films and the underwater scenes of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Duncan and Klages beautifully capture the setting, with all its natural beauty and social ugliness, and the changes it undergoes throughout the story's four time periods.
- "One" by Nancy Kress (Tor.com) - Kress isn't usually my cup of tea, so I was surprised by how moving I found this story, in which a self-involved, self-pitying, misanthropic young man gains total empathy and is nearly destroyed by experience. Rather than using her premise to teach her protagonist a simple lesson, Kress shows us the full horror of his situation, and slowly follows as he learns to be a better person through his experiences, not via some magical force.
- "Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU" by Carmen Maria Machado (The American Reader) - Many people have commented on the problems with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and its reliance on lurid violence against women and children, and at first glance that's also what Machado's story seems to be doing, albeit in a particularly funny way. But soon she creates an entire fantastical world constructed around the show's scaffolding, complete with alternate versions of Benson and Stabler, recurring characters who may or may not be magical, and interludes in which the characters become aware of their fiction nature. As much its own thing as a commentary on SVU's problems, this is one of the most original and interesting stories I've read this year.
- "A Window or a Small Box" by Jedediah Berry (Tor.com) - Berry's absurdist tale follows a young couple who were kidnapped into a surreal alternate world on their wedding day. The worldbuilding here is very fine, creating a sense of an unseen logic that lies just under the illogical surface, but the story works because of the main characters and their relationship, which is sweet without being saccharine.
- "Bit-U-Men" by Maria Dahvana Headley (Lightspeed, originally appeared in The Book of the Dead, edited by Jared Shurin) - In an interesting twist on the mummy story, Headley riffs off the legend of the "mellified man" to imagine a 20th century confectionery magnate using such a mummy--who is, of course, still alive--to sell candy. The central relationship is between the confectioner's son, his father's secretary, and the mummy, and falls somewhere between romantic and gluttonous.
- "A House, Drifting Sideways" by Rahul Kanakia (Giganotosaurus) - Kanakia's neo-feudal world, in which economic inequality has run rampant to the point that the very rich are more powerful and more influential than any historical aristocrat, is not a new concept, but the slant of his story makes for some tricky reading. The heroine, a debutante who buys into the feudal mindset, clashes with her father, who wants to offer workers more rights and freedoms but is, to her mind, selling them to bankers. It's a scary portrait of, at one and the same time, "let them eat cake"-level privilege, and a clear-eyed take on a world that has gone completely upside down.
- "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters" (PDF) by Henry Lien (Asimov's, nominated for the Nebula award) - This funny piece lives and dies with the voice of its narrator, an unrepentantly self-absorbed, spoiled princess who has been sent to the titular school but only cares about a vendetta against a schoolmate. The over the top teenage narrator's voice is deliberately grating, but works mainly because she doesn't spend the story learning a lesson, and ends it just as selfish and short-sighed as she started it.
- "Boat in Shadows, Crossing" by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, nominated for the BSFA award) - I wrote about this story at Strange Horizons, and a year later it is still one of the most interesting stories of 2013. Truslow's creation of a setting in which words--and the things they signify--don't mean exactly what we think they mean is deft, and the gender-swapping love story she constructs in that world is moving and sweet.
- "Two Captains" by Gemma Files (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - Files's cheerful story, about a pirate captain who captures a wizard and falls in love with him, is uncomfortable precisely because of that cheerfulness. It tells a rather uncomfortable story in a light, humorous tone that makes it a pleasure to read and yet also not, and only shows its hand in its final paragraphs.
- "They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Glass" (PDF) by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Asimov's, nominated for the Nebula award) - Johnson's post-apocalyptic story clearly has an agenda--to tell a story about a woman seeking an abortion who isn't swayed by the sudden realization that she wants to keep her baby. But, leaving aside that that's a worthy agenda, the world of the story is vivid, and the relationship between the heroine and her pregnant sister is compelling. An interlude in the story's second half with an invading alien who clearly doesn't grasp why the heroine hates and fears him is particularly well done.
- "Let's Take This Viral" by Rich Larson (Lightspeed) - Most of the stories I've selected here have been fantastical, which is as much a reflection on the tastes of online venues' editors as my own. This piece, a post-singularity SF story set in a hedonistic party future, is an intriguing exception. The protagonist discovers disease, which to him and his post-human friends is nothing but a fashionable affectation, and it's left to the readers to sense the looming catastrophe that leads us to the story's shocking ending.
- "The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars" by Yoon Ha Lee (Lightspeed) - Lee's "Effigy Nights" seems to have amassed more awards buzz this year, but I prefer this piece, a worthy addition to the sub-sub-genre of invented, futuristic games with the fate of the galaxy at stake. The two main characters are nicely drawn, and the trick that one plays on the other in order to achieve her goals and win the much larger game that she's been playing is nicely built up, and fun to work out.
- "Inventory" by Carmen Maria Machado (Strange Horizons) - This was the first Machado piece I read this year, before the SVU novella, and when I saw that it was both a post-apocalypse story and a list story I groaned. But Macahdo finds a new angle on the former trope, and executes the latter flawlessly, resulting in a story that is unexpectedly moving.
- "Selkie Stories are for Losers" by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, nominated for the Nebula and BSFA award) - If there's a better first line in genre short fiction from last year, I haven't seen it. The story that follows is pretty damn good too, tying the Selkie myths to a story of parental abandonment, and of young people trying to work out (or escape), their family history.
- "Sing" by Karin Tidbeck (Tor.com) - A scientist studying an alien backwater becomes involved with a woman who is the local outcast. The conflict between the scientist's fascination with, and increasing fondness for, the society he's studying, and his lover's more jaundiced take on it, is really interesting, and the aliens themselves are also really well done.
- "Never Dreaming (in Four Burns)" by Seth Dickinson (Clarkesworld) - An engineer working on revolutionary spaceship engine design receives a diagnosis of progressive, fatal dementia alongside an invitation to travel to a fantasy world where her illness can be cured--but only by changing the kind of person she is. A lot has been written about the conflict between the SFnal and fantastical worldview, and this story literalizes it through an interesting, appealing main character.
- "Difference of Opinion" by Meda Kahn (Strange Horizons) - The angry narrative of a non-neurotypical person in a world that is increasingly compelling her to conform. This story teeters just on the edge of being preachy, but what pulls it back is the relationship between the narrator and a workplace consultant who is trying help her but doesn't understand her anger. The currents of distrust and misunderstanding between the two characters, alongside genuine affection, make for an interesting relationship.
- "A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill" by Elizabeth Knox (Tor.com) - Nina Allan wrote at greater length about why this opaque, creepy story works so well. Though slightly overshadowed by the novel to which it acts as a preamble, "Terminal Hill" stands very well on its own, as a pitch-perfect portrait of an oblivious, officious government lawyer stumbling into horror and not even realizing what it is--because his own monstrousness is so great.
- "Our Daughters" by Sandra McDonald (Apex Magazine) - A nicely creepy story about rape culture and the responses to it, in which the latter end up as terrifying as the former.
- "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, nominated for the Nebula award) - The main reason that this story isn't definitely on my ballot is that I suspect it's a shoe-in without me, and I'd rather give my votes to stories that need them more. But this is an excellent piece, one that starts out seeming like a silly gimmick and then ends up punching you in the gut with its final revelation.