The one big surprise on the short story ballot--on any of the short fiction ballots, actually--is Lawrence M. Schoen's "The Moment." Published in Footprints, a small-press anthology edited by Jay Lake and Eric T. Reynolds, as far as I was aware neither the story nor the anthology had garnered much in the way of buzz or critical attention, and its nomination seemed to come entirely out of the blue. It would be nice to be able to report that "The Moment" is not only a surprise but a delightful one, but unfortunately reading the story only deepens my confusion at its presence on the ballot. Footprints's theme is the discovery of the remnants of human civilization by aliens, long after we've died out or left the planet. It's a neat concept, but Schoen's treatment of it doesn't extend much beyond neatness. "The Moment" is made of up of a series of vignettes, each describing a stranger and more advanced form of alien life discovering a footprint on the moon, and at some point discovering the remnants of those who have discovered it before them. There's some potential here, as the story extends to a futuristic setting a known and slightly disorienting fact of archeology--that what's left to us of the vast and complicated civilizations of the distant past is only the faintest and most inscrutable of evidence, which is often obscured by those civilizations' descendants--and Schoen's execution is, for a time, enjoyable, a riot of inventive descriptions as the aliens visiting the moon change and evolve, from a minuscule generation ship populated by identical clones who populate the grooves of the lunar footprint to an empire of sentient plants. After a while, though, the parade of ever-stranger beings starts to pall and Schoen's inventiveness begins to seem a bit twee, and then comes the very ending, in which the purpose of the entire story turns out to be a mawkish paean to humanity's spirit of exploration. Hugo nominated short stories are often not much more than vignettes, meant to capture a single impression or idea--a moment--but Schoen tries to sustain this single note for too long, and for too insipid a reason.
Will McIntosh's "Bridesicle" (PDF) is told from the point of view of Mira, who has woken up after her death in a car accident in a "dating center," where lonely men offer to pay for her resurrection from cryogenic suspension in exchange for her hand in marriage. As I wrote in my Strange Horizons short fiction review, this premise doesn't quite work:
Why doesn't Mira know about the dating centers if she's got cryogenic insurance? Why buy cryogenic insurance at all if she can't afford to be revived? Why, most of all, go to all the trouble of storing and then reviving dead women in a world in which live ones sell themselves into marriage all too often? For that matter, why are there only women in the "dating center"? "Bridesicle" works because it's not at all subtle about paralleling real-world mercenary marriage arrangements, and because, no matter how contrived and manipulative it is, Mira's predicament is too stark and too horrifying to be denied. The bulk of the story is spent in her brief respites from oblivion, which are often decades apart, in which she desperately tries to please her current wife-seeker. Along the way, we learn more about Mira's life before her accident, itself no picnic—guilt-tripped into integrating the preserved consciousness of her domineering, homophobic mother into her own, Mira was unable to mourn the death of her partner or try to find a new one. Again, there's a lot of obvious manipulation going on here, and again, that manipulation is effective despite its obviousness. The story's ending is perhaps a little too neat, with Mira having found a way not only to be revived without selling too much of herself, but to be reunited with her lover, but it's a victory that is just partial and just costly enough to be believable.For the third year running, Kij Johnson is the author of one of the most talked-about genre short stories of the year, and for the third year running, I find myself left out of the party. The difference being that in previous years, Johnson's stories--"The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" in 2008 and "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" in 2009--left me cold because I found them both charming but effervescent, and I certainly can't apply either of those adjectives to "Spar," her story on the 2010 Hugo ballot. The story's first sentence--"In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly."--sets the tone. "Spar" is the story of a nameless woman who is stuck on alien lifeboat with an alien passenger, the sole survivors of a collision between their spaceships, and its entire narrative is the description of how she and the alien--a non-humanoid, boneless, slimy blob--have nonstop sex. But is it sex, or rape, or assault, or masturbation? There is no possibility of communication between the woman and the alien, no way to know if it is responding to her actions, seeking her pleasure or pain, if it recognizes her sentience or even existence, or if it is sentient itself. I like "Spar" a great deal better than either "Dogs" or "Monkeys" because it is such a well-done, concentrated bit disturbing and disorienting writing (Alvaro Zinos-Amaro has a nice write-up of it in Strange Horizons), but like those two stories, I find myself hesitant to join in the near-unanimous praise of it (it has already won this year's Nebula award) because really, there's so little here. I'm honestly of two minds here, because on the one hand, "Spar" knows what it wants to do--to disturb and unsettle--and does that job very well--and on the other hand these strike me as if not modest then at least very narrow ambitions, and I'm more interested in stories whose scope is a bit wider.
N.K. Jemisin's "Non-Zero Probabilities" is the perfect antidote to the creepiness of the McIntosh and Johnson stories. A low-key, deliberately mundane story about a woman trying to live an ordinary life in the shadow of an extraordinary event, the story sometimes seems to go out of its way to be pleasant, an effect it achieves through the character of its protagonist, Adele, a no-nonsense young woman who knows how to protect herself--in this case, from the never-explained transformation of New York into a realm where one in a million chances crop up nine times out of ten--but who is also open to new experiences and new relationships. As I wrote in Strange Horizons,
"Non-Zero Probabilities" is more a character piece, studying Adele's adaptation to her altered landscape, than a worldbuilding piece, but nevertheless Jemisin does a good job constructing that landscape, outlining the dangers and wonders of this new world—Adele waits for an auspicious day to hire a car to go to Ikea, but on the other hand, cancer and AIDS patients have experienced miraculous recoveries. What's most enjoyable and refreshing about "Non-Zero Probabilities" is that despite describing a New York that has reverted to A Simpler Time—no one drives, everyone eats locally because out of town food supplies are sporadic, people know their neighbors—it is decidedly unsentimental about the city's transformation. It ends with Adele weighing both the good and bad aspects of her altered life, and leaves it to us to decide whether a return to normal would be a good thing.Given the attention that both have received, I'm guessing that the Hugo will go to either Johnson or Jemisin. I prefer the latter, but can certainly see arguments for the former. Either way, there's no denying that these two stories, and the McIntosh, make for an interesting shortlist. They're very different--two are SFnal, one a fantasy; two are futuristic, one contemporary; two do a lot of worldbuilding, one is a chamber piece; two set out to unsettle, one to make the unsettling mundane--but all three are women's stories, and all are imbued with an ambivalence towards wonder--be it technological or magical--and with a deep-seated doubt about its ability to better our lives, that I'm not used to finding on Hugo shortlists. I'm not saying that this is the direction I'd like to see the award move in exclusively, but it's a refreshing change, and so long as I can count on Mike Resnick continuing to show up on award shortlists, it's nice to know that other, more thoughtful kinds of genre work also have a place on the Hugo ballot.