The 2009 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot

The deadline for submitting Hugo nominations is this Saturday, and at this point my ballot is more or less complete. I'm hoping to get the chance to finish reading Matter before I have to send in my nominations, though at this point that seems unlikely, and of course any short fiction that suddenly gains great acclaim (and is available online) will warrant a glance (so by all means make your suggestions if you have any). These aren't all the categories I plan to nominate in--for example, I've only read one book that qualifies for Best Related Work this year, Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, and though I do plan to nominate it I hardly think a field I'm so poorly read in is worth talking about much.

Still, in the major fiction and A/V categories, my nominees are:

Best Novel:

I've only read a few of the novels eligible for this category, and of them only one, Anathem, excites me and feels worthy of the Hugo. Which in itself is unexciting as this is probably the most unoriginal choice this year, and I sincerely doubt that Neal Stephenson's place on the ballot hinges on my vote. Still, Anathem is a good novel and worth acknowledging. As for the rest of my nominating slots, I may end up using them to nominate some or all of a group of novels--Nation, Tender Morsels, The Other Side of the Island--that I found problematic but interesting.

Best Novella:
  • "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum (Fast Forward 2)
  • "Gunpowder" by Joe Hill (PS Publishing)
  • "Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF, September 2008)
  • "Truth" by Robert Reed (Asimov's, October/November 2008)
Because of their length, novellas are relatively thin on the ground in genre publishing--none of the online fiction sources, for example, publish them. Which is why I'm short one nominee in this category, and why, though I like each of the stories on it very much, I have reservations about most of them--"Arkfall" is very engaging when it describes the joy its characters take in exploring the unknown, but those characters are flat, verging on stereotypes; "Gunpowder" has a tense and intriguing premise, but its ending is weak and slightly muddled; "Truth" held me spellbound while I was reading it, but left very little residue, and only a week or two after finishing it I couldn't remember a single detail of its plot. Still, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of these stories, and most especially "True Names", which combines its authors' strengths and their distinctive voices and favorite themes to create an utterly engrossing and completely original work. I am sorry, though, not to have been able to track down copies of either Kelly Link's "The Surfer" or Ian McDonald's "The Tear", which were both extremely well-received.

Best Novelette:
  • "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" by Daryl Gregory (Eclipse 2)
  • "How the Day Runs Down" by John Langan (F&SF, December 2008)
  • "Legolas Does the Dishes" by Justina Robson (Postscripts 15)
  • "Days of Wonder" by Geoff Ryman (F&SF, October/November 2008)
  • "Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues" by Gord Sellar (Asimov's, July 2008)
As usual, the strongest stories showed up in this category, and it's the one in which I had the hardest time narrowing down the field of potential nominees to five. I've spoken warmly about the Ryman and Gregory stories already. Robson's piece is a pitch-perfect Shirley Jackson homage; Langan's a shocking twist on the zombie story; Sellar's combines music, aliens, and a really great period voice into an eerie, unforgettable story. I wish I could also have given nods to Stephen Baxter's "The Ice War", Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom", John Kessel's "Pride and Prometheus" (available here) and Meghan McCarron's "The Magician's House", but this is a fantastic bunch of stories.

Best Short Story:
  • "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2)
  • "Running" by Benjamin Crowell (Strange Horizons)
  • "Tokyo Rising" by Lynne Hawkinson (Strange Horizons)
  • "The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy)
  • "Linkworlds" by Will McIntosh (Strange Horizons)
I tend to get less excited about short stories than I do about novelettes and novellas because it's a rare author who manages to spin a story in only a couple thousand words. Most stories of this length are mood pieces or vignettes. The Chiang and Lanagan stories on my ballot are these kinds of stories, but exceptionally good examples of them--Lanagan's a terrifying glimpse into the mind of an abuse victim and Chiang's the kind of mind-bending thought experiment that only Ted Chiang can write. The other stories, however, got their spots because they managed the arguably tougher job of building a world, peopling it with characters, and, most importantly, spinning a tale on a very small canvas.

Putting these three ballots together has been an interesting experience, one which required me, for the very first time, to read through entire runs of print magazines and entire archives of online fiction sites, and allowed me to develop a broader understanding of the genre short fiction scene and a greater appreciation of the differences in tone, topic, and, of course, quality that characterize the different venues within it. The most intriguing observation I made during this process was that whereas online fiction sites like Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld reliably published likable, well-written stories, the standout pieces--for better and worse--came from print magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction or Asimov's (the latter made for an almost schizophrenic reading experience--without fail, every issue I read contained one story I loved and a whole bunch I could barely stand to finish). I think that this is once again an issue of length. For what I assume are reasons tied to their precarious financial model, sites that offer free online fiction tend to publish stories that, at best, tickle the underside of the novelette category, and though as I've said it's possible for a short story to be more than an exercise in tone, generally that is exactly what they are. It's in the print magazines--and in the original story anthologies, which are well-represented on my ballot--that longer, more engaging pieces tend to appear.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  • Wall-E by Pete Docter, Jim Reardon and Andrew Stanton
This isn't the only genre film I was excited by in 2008, but as I'm already and preemptively annoyed by the debate over whether The Dark Knight is a science fiction film and belongs on this ballot, I can't bring myself to vote for it.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  • Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog by Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Joss Whedon and Zack Whedon
  • Doctor Who, "Midnight" by Russell T. Davies
  • Pushing Daisies, "Oh Oh Oh... It's Magic" by Kath Lingenfelter
  • The Middleman, "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown" by Tracey Stern
  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles, "Samson & Delilah" by Josh Friedman
Pushing Daisies, Middleman and Sarah Connor are tough series to nominate in this category. In the latter case, I chose "Samson & Delilah" because, though it stresses the characters' angst and their strained relationships, it also has a well-paced, exciting plot. "Oh Oh Oh... It's Magic" was the first episode in Pushing Daisies's second season in which the show seemed to regain the indefinable combination of wit and sweetness that made it so irresistible in its first season, and also features some immortal one-liners and great moments for all of the main cast (except for the aunts, unfortunately). "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown" isn't actually my favorite Middleman episode--that would be the vampire puppet one--but it's a close second, and to my mind more accessible to newbies (I should know, as it was the first episode I watched and it completely won me over to the series). The problem with all three of these series is that they don't have true standout episodes, in the vein of "Company Man" or "Once More With Feeling", and I suspect that in each of their cases fans will split their votes between different episodes and make way for things like Lost's "The Constant". I'm also guessing that my Doctor Who choice will prove unpopular, but Stephen Moffat has three Hugos already and delivered something of a dud this year, whereas "Midnight" was completely different from anything either Davies or Who have done before. At any rate, these are all academic quibbles--Dr. Horrible has had the Hugo sewn up for months.

So, that is (part of) my Hugo ballot. It's been a lot of fun putting it together, though I'm glad this isn't something I do every year. If you'd like to argue with my choices or make alternate suggestions, you have until midnight on Saturday to do so.


Anonymous said…
Was reading through all the eligible short fiction as traumatizing at it sounds? I like short fiction in theory but most of the stuff in Asimov's and Analog is, ah, lacking. Even back in the good old days of SciFiction I thought most of the stories were trifles, inoffensive but not really worth even the brief time required to read them.

I've always assumed the answer working harder at tracking down good stories, maybe in year end anthologies or something. Reading everything never even occurred to me.

Most of your readers probably are already familiar with them, but I'd love a post describing your views on the quality and tone/topic of the various venues.
Standback said…
Seconding Matt's request :)

I loved "Gunpowder"; it'd be great to see it on the ballot. I haven't read any of the others you've mentioned, and I envy you such a list of pieces you've enjoyed, even if it did cost you some cramming. :P
Frank said…
There was at least one science fiction novella published online: "Wreck of the Grampus" at Lone Star Stories.
Jed said…
Thanks much for the plug for the SH stories!

I have to disagree with you about short fiction in general, though. In fact, I disagree with you so strongly about it that I've gotta chalk it up to basic difference in tastes.

You wrote:

it's a rare author who manages to spin a story in only a couple thousand words. Most stories of this length are mood pieces or vignettes

I strongly disagree with this, or maybe just with your definition of "vignette." Most of the published stories I encounter, even down in the 2k- to 3k-word range, have complete plots, with beginnings, middles, and ends. They often have compelling characters in emotionally difficult situations, making hard choices, and finding resolution of one form or another.

I do see occasional published stories (and more unpublished stories in the slushpile) that I would characterize as mood pieces and vignettes, but they're in a small minority.

Except, perhaps, for flash fiction; in (say) the sub-800-word range, I guess a lot of what I see are mood pieces and vignettes. But it doesn't sound to me like that's the length range you're referring to.

For what I assume are reasons tied to their precarious financial model, sites that offer free online fiction tend to publish stories that, at best, tickle the underside of the novelette category

Different sites have different constraints. Sci Fiction used to publish novellas, and I think Baen's Universe has done so as well. SH generally doesn't go over 9k words (though we've published a couple of 12k-word stories), and yeah, that's primarily for budget reasons (though our budget isn't so much precarious as just small). Though there's also some question as to how long a story readers are willing to read online; a few years ago, a fair number of people were saying that they wouldn't read anything over about 5k words from a computer screen.

and though as I've said it's possible for a short story to be more than an exercise in tone, generally that is exactly what they are. It's in the print magazines [...] that longer, more engaging pieces tend to appear.

I think that this must just be a matter of taste. It sounds like to you, longer pieces are inherently more likely to be more engaging. Nothing wrong with that; I think it's true of the majority of sf readers and editors. (Look at the lengths of stories in the Year's Bests.) But for me, almost the opposite is true. I tend to find shorter stories much more engaging than longer stories. I rarely read novellas, and for a long time wasn't capable of getting through a novel over 400 pages long. I find most novels to be weirdly overlong and digressive, full of stuff that doesn't contribute to the main story.

Anyway, I won't belabor the point any more than I already have--I recognize that my view is in the minority, even among sf readers. It just surprised me to see you saying that most shorter fiction is an exercise in tone or mood, 'cause that hasn't been my experience at all.

In case you do want to see more of my views on short fiction, I wrote an SH editorial about it shortly after we launched: "Brevity Is the Soul of Fiction: A Paean to the Short Story."
Anonymous said…
Abigail, too bad you didn't get to see Ian McDonald's "The Tear". That's one story in particular I thought exceptional. "The Surfer is strong work as well. (My Hugo nominations are shown at my livejournal -- we don't intersect much ("Truth", "Exhalation", "Shoggoths in Bloom", "The Magician's House", and that's going to both of our extended lists) -- but I think your list is full of excellent work. (Similar to Niall's in both degree of intersection with my nominations and how good I really do think the lists are.)

I'm particularly happy to see some love for "Linkworlds", which I liked a lot (and am reprinting), though it didn't make my ballot.

As for online novellas, you do seem them, as Jed noted, at places like Baen's Universe and Intergalactic Medicine Show (both "for pay" sites, which may mean something!). And "The Wreck of the Grampus" from Lone Star Stories is quite good, too. I should also mention the site Shadow Unit, sort of a "TV series (in prose) online" site, with stories in various forms of solo and collaboration by Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, Emma Bull, and Will Shetterly (and Amanda Downum) -- their pieces, all episodes of a sort of CSI meets X-files "show", are all long novelettes or novellas (or in one case a short novel). And they're quite good.

Traumatizing is going a bit far, but I did feel a little burned out towards the end. I think there are probably stories that didn't get a fair shake, or at least as generous a reading, out of me as they would have if I'd read them individually. At some point certain themes, tricks, or even an emotional tone start to repeat and you find yourself dismissing stories that feature them more harshly than they probably deserve.

I don't think I'm ready yet to write a post about the differences between short fiction venues. What I saw was what I'd expected to see - a spectrum that runs from plotless, language-intensive stories to plot-oriented, indifferently written ones with venues like SH falling closer to the former end and Asimov's closer to the latter (obligatory caveat that not all SH stories are plotless and not all Asimov's stories are poorly written). What surprised me, as I said in my post, was that despite this and despite being a bit of a language snob I ended up selecting more magazine stories than online ones, and that led me to the observation that magazines tended to hit the highs and lows, whereas online venues tended to hit the middle.


As you say, this is probably a fundamental difference in taste between us. That said, I am being reductive when I say that short stories are generally mood pieces or vignettes. What I'm trying to do is puzzle out the surprising fact that overall, I enjoyed reading the SH archive very much, but found few of the individual stories memorable, whereas the experience of reading through magazine issues was almost punishing but also yielded some genuine gems. This is one possible explanation, but probably not yet the correct one.

Maybe a more accurate way of putting it is that I rarely find that a short story, even if it does try to do more than evoke a feeling or create a tableau, succeeds in doing so memorably. You're right that stories that manage to condense plot, character and world into a few thousands words are to be treasured, but in my experience they're rare. There's something confining, I think, about the shorter word count that forces authors to resort to familiar tropes and settings, or sacrifice plot for other elements. If I look at SH stories that I found original or surprising, such as Ramsey Shehadeh's "Jimmy's Roadside Cafe" or Sarah Thomas's "Ki Do", it seems to me that their freshness doesn't leave much room for plot (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, though it can get a little tedious in large amounts). Again, though, that's probably drawing too broad a generalization, and this is a subject I'm going to have to think about some more.


I draw some satisfaction from the small overlap between your, Niall's, and my lists, or more precisely from the fact that despite it I think both of your ballots are quite strong (though like Niall I found Gardner's "The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" underwhelming). It reminds me that despite my carping about the long slow search for these stories (and, of course, the constant laments about the imminent demise of the genre short story) there's a lot of good stuff out there, too much for any single person or single ballot to cover. That said, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want your job.
Anonymous said…
I'm going with Jed here. I guess it must be question of taste, or else you just haven't read the best short stories being published.

I'm bewildered that you think short stories (up to 7500 words) are mostly vignettes and mood pieces. I've been editing them for almost thirty years (along with novelettes and novellas) and think that short-shorts (under 1,000 words) could be characterized in that way.

To me, the "ideal" length for a short story is about 6,000 words. Much of Howard Waldrop's best work has been that length.

Also, just for the record, I don't consider "The Goosle" either a vignette or a mood piece, but that's me.

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