If you make your way through the short fiction Hugo nominees for long enough (which is not very long at all--I've been doing it for maybe five years), you'll start to learn what to expect. The short story ballot will be a mixed bag. The novelettes, generally strong. At least one nominated story (usually a short) from either Mike Resnick or Michael A. Burstein, for our sins. Connie Willis, if she published that year. Ted Chiang, if he published that year, though this is, sadly, less likely. Not a lot of women, and usually the same names (Willis, of course, and Nancy Kress is also a frequent nominee). The overall quality fluctuates, of course--we've yet to see another dip to the depths of 2005, happily--but in broad strokes there are rarely any surprises. Though I have yet to read this year's nominated novellas, the one shortlist whose overall quality can go either way, the short story and novelette ballots have lived up, and down, to my expectations. This is not exactly a bad thing--we have other awards, after all, to stir up controversy and debate--but when I look back at the white-hot rage that fuels my review of the 2005 short story nominees (which was written some two months after I first read those stories), I have to admit that I'll probably never feel that kind of enthusiasm, positive or negative, for a Hugo shortlist again. C'est la vie.
Still, surprises are still possible, even if only on the micro level, and so I must report that Mike Resnick's nominated short, "Distant Replay," is, well, not good, because that would be a sign of the coming apocalypse, but surprisingly decent, for what it is. It's short, for one thing, and the prose, though hardly beautiful, is less awkward and sophomoric than the kind Resnick usually delivers. Most importantly, though this is yet another story about an old man pining for his dead wife and finding some fantastic way to be with her again (what is this now? Three, four iterations of the same premise on the Hugo and Nebula ballots alone?), Resnick's trademark sentimentality is kept to a respectable minimum. Narrated, as usual for Resnick, by the male protagonist, "Distant Replay" describes a chance meeting with a young woman who is the spitting image of his wife, who died several years earlier, an old woman. Further encounters reveal that this woman has the same name, same occupation, and same likes and dislikes as the narrator's wife, and to the surprise of absolutely no one the narrator ends the story by steering her towards the second coming of himself, thus perpetuating their love story. Apart from the fact that it's one of the better Mike Resnick stories I've ever read, the greatest compliment I can pay "Distant Replay" is that it manages to downplay the downright skeevy aspects of its premise--that two completely different women can have precisely the same personality, and exist solely to be matched up with two versions of the same man.
For all that, Resnick's is still the worst story on the ballot, especially when one considers how little substance there is to it. A man meets a woman in a restaurant, notes her resemblance to his wife, and fixes her up with a man similar to him. The end, and with no explanation for either doppelganger except for a misty-eyed romanticism. I'm by no means an unabashed fan of every other story on the short story ballot, but there isn't a single one of them that doesn't strive to do so much more than "Distant Replay" does--inventing new worlds and civilizations, coming up with neat and reasonably detailed SFnal premises, relating their events in a distinctive and imaginative voice or manner. I've said, again and again and again, that Mike Resnick is a bad writer, whose constant presence on awards shortlists is an embarrassment, but with "Distant Replay," for all that it is a not-too-horrible story, he seems to have reached a new low--being nominated for a story that is only barely a genre piece.
Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact" is not much more stylish than "Distant Replay" (like Resnick, Baxter is at best an indifferent prose stylist, though he's certainly better at writing plainly and transparently), but it is undeniably a work of science fiction. It describes a series of encounters between a middle-aged woman and her mother, who has retired, post-widowhood, to a cottage in the country, and is eager to discuss its renovation and her gardening plans with her daughter. The twist is that the daughter is a scientist who has just proven that the world is going to end very soon, and in between planting tips and serious discussions about where to put the gazebo, the two women matter-of-factly discuss their impending demise and the breakdown of civil order that precedes it. It's very clear what Baxter is trying to do here--tell a low-key story about an enormous and momentous event--but in the end he's simply trying too hard. A more subtle writer might have been able to achieve the effect that "Last Contact" is clearly aiming for--breaking our hearts with its descriptions of two ordinary women desperately clinging to their ordinary lives in the face of an unavoidable catastrophe--but in Baxter's hands the story comes to seem cynical and manipulative.
Michael Swanwick's "A Small Room in Koboldtown" (PDF) is an extract from his recent novel The Dragons of Babel, a fix-up of stories about the character Will Le Fay and his adventures in the industrialized fairyland first introduced in Swanwick's novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I reviewed another such extract, the novella "Lord Weary's Empire," in last year's Hugo write-ups, and was not at all impressed by it. "A Small Room in Koboldtown" is much better, especially when it comes to its prose--there are no instances of the gratingly bad high-falutin' dialogue that made reading "Weary" such a chore here. The story's setting is also a great deal more interesting than "Weary"'s. It takes place in the fairy city itself, where Will is employed by a 'haint'--a racial minority looked down upon by the city's other denizens. Will's employer is an up-and-coming politician, and when a haint is arrested for murder he assigns Will to prove--or fake, if necessary--his constituent's innocence. What follows is basically a Law & Order episode of the 'racial tensions in the big city' variety--you could replace every mention of 'haint' in the story with 'black' and you'd have what is pretty much a by-the-numbers naturalistic crime story. That Swanwick was clearly aiming for just this effect doesn't make the resulting story any less clompingly obvious, and the story is further undercut by the fact that locked room mysteries just aren't that mysterious in a world where magic exists and the writer can invent a magical creature to get around any physical restriction. Though it makes for a pleasant and quick read, "A Small Room in Koboldtown" doesn't do much that's worth noting.
Unlike the Resnick, Baxter, and Swanwick stories, Elizabeth Bear's "Tideline" takes its simple, well-worn premise--in this case, a boy and his alien (or rather, sentient war-machine) and, though it doesn't do much that's new with it, tells it so well and with so much heart that it comes to seem new. Told from the point of view of Chalcedony, a damaged robot hanging on to her last power reserves after the death of the rest of her platoon (and possibly the end of the world, as the story is set in a bleak and perhaps post-apocalyptic landscape), the beginning of "Tideline" finds her combing the beach for shells and flotsam and encountering Belvedere, a boy scavenging for food. The two develop an impromptu family, with Belvedere helping Chalcedony with her beach-combing, and Chalcedony protecting Belvedre, teaching him to survive, and imparting to him her memories of her lost platoon, through which we learn the purpose of her activities. This is an incredibly sweet, kind-hearted story, and a truly great example of how a slight SFnal buff can rejuvenate even the most familiar tropes.
Ken MacLeod's "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" has been showing up on best-of-year lists for months now, and boy does it ever deliver on all those promises. Written for the collection The New Space Opera, the story more than lives up to that title by featuring a far-future, post-singularity, post-scarcity, post-mortality human civilization underpinned by a massive shift away from one of our core paradigms. At least half the story is spent circling around this crucial difference between the story's society and our own, and the rest of it, naturally enough, describes what happens when someone decides to bridge that gap. It's all far too clever and far too much fun for me to spoil here (much like MacLeod's Clarke-nominated novel The Execution Channel, to which the story is, I believe, superior because in a shorter work there's less time for that cleverness to become hollow, as it does in the novel) but I will say that, alone among this year's Hugo nominees, MacLeod's story feels properly SFnal--not just set in the future and in space but actively concerned with trying to imagine how we might get from where we are to that future, and what might happen next. Add to that some fantastic storytelling, and an intriguing framing story, and you get an utterly delightful piece.
Unsurprisingly, I'd like "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" to win the short story Hugo this year, though I would also be happy with a win for Elizabeth Bear. I suspect, given both the story's SFnal content and the praise that's already been heaped on it, that I'm going to get my wish, which allows me to close this year's shortlist review on a happy note in spite of the fact that most of the nominated stories are not very good. Which, I suppose, means that this year's short story ballot performed better than expected.