Before we get started with the ballot, a few more observations on the state of 2016 short fiction. First, if I had to sum it up, I'd call 2016 a normalizing year in this field--my observation that more online venues are developing clear editorial lines feels like part of that. Which means that the quality distribution in the different awards categories is starting to return to what it was five years ago--solid novellas and short stories, but the really exciting work is being done in novelette length. All the stories I'm genuinely thrilled to be nominating this year--including one that felt like a tremendous discovery and which I'd like everyone who reads this post to click through and read--are in the novelette category.
Second, it feels as if Tor Novellas is consolidating its dominance over the field of standalone genre novellas. That's nothing against the line itself, which continues to be strong and to feature a broad array of authors, including some who richly deserve a wide platform--later this year, for example, they'll be publishing novellas from Gwyneth Jones and Dave Hutchinson, and I can't be the only one thrilled to see them getting that kind of exposure. But if I compare 2016 to the last few years, where it seemed that we were being inundated with major writers putting out novella-length work from multiple publishers, it definitely feels as if the field is thinning itself out. That's not a universal trend--Unsung Stories, which specializes in novellas and shorter fiction, appears to be going from strength to strength, and of course China Miéville published two novellas in 2016 (neither of which I've read yet). But it's still a noticeable one, and, for all that Tor are doing good work in this field, one that I'd like to see reversed.
Third, while it's obviously impossible to talk about the short fiction scene's preoccupations as if it were a monolith, certain currents can usually be identified. In 2015 and 2014, for example, there was a sudden explosion of space opera short stories, many of them featuring AIs, sentient spaceships, or people who had their minds emplaced as the governing units of spaceships, all obviously in response to the success of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice. In 2016, meanwhile, the prevailing theme is: retrenchment, surrender, collapse. A large number of the stories I read were set in worlds that were either post-industrial or on their way there. In many of them, human civilization is in the process of winding down due to economic and environmental factors, as governments and industries fade away and nature prepares to take over. Infertility is a recurring theme in these stories, and not often a tragic one--in several, the characters simply accept that they are the last generation of their kind. It's not hard to guess why so many writers are producing work like this, and obviously it leads one to wonder what kind of stories we'll be seeing in 2017 and 2018, in response to the events of the last year.
And now, after all that preamble, my provisional ballot. This is still open to alterations if you have any suggestions in the comments. And, as always, remember that there are more recommendations to be found in the Hugo Recommendation Wiki and the Hugo Recommendation Spreadsheet, as well as the Nebula nominations and the Locus Recommended Reading List.
- The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor Novellas) - Tor published two different novellas last year retelling an H.P. Lovecraft story from the perspective of someone whom Lovecraft himself might have had trouble recognizing as human, much less a protagonist. I liked Kij Johnson's The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, but in the end I think LaValle's take on "The Horror at Red Hook" does a better job of standing on its own. The first half of the story, in which the title character sells mostly-fake occult paraphernalia to clueless white people who assume that he has a connection to the forces of darkness because of the color of his skin, is a little stronger than the second, in which the events of "Red Hook" are retold. But throughout the story, LaValle is very sharp about race relations and prejudices, and how the assumptions of the fantasy genre are rooted in them in ways that we've yet to fully acknowledge or untangled.
- Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny (Tor Novellas) - Penny's novella has a premise--immortality technology would be a social and economic disaster, further deepening the gap between the rich and the poor--that she arguably works a little too hard to sell given how obvious it is. But the focus of her story--a commune of anarchists and anti-immortality activists, seen through the eyes of the undercover policeman tasked with infiltrating them--is unusual and well-handled. Penny walks a fine line between glamorizing her characters and dismissing them as dreamers, and she's appropriately scathing towards her point of view character, whose romantic fantasies about being accepted by the group he's betrayed are suitably punctured. This is a smart, political SF story, with enough details to make its setting ring scarily true.
- "Brushwork" by Aliya Whiteley (GigaNotoSaurus) - Most of the awards attention this year has been lavished on Whiteley's Unsung Stories novella The Arrival of Missives. I liked that story very much, but to my mind "Brushwork" is an even stronger work. Set in a future in which the Gulf Stream has failed and the UK is collapsing into climate catastrophe, it focuses on a group of elderly people employed--though really, they're being paid in room and board and subject to violent punishments and even expulsion--in a greenhouse complex that produces the last few vestiges of fresh produce for the tables of the extremely rich. When the complex is attacked by raiders, the workers need to decide whose side they're on, and whether the old even have a chance of surviving in a world that has become so cruel and unforgiving. Almost alone among the collapse-focused stories I read this year, "Brushwork" focuses on older characters, people who grew up expecting a comfortable, Western-style life and suddenly found themselves, too old and without anyone to protect them, in a world where everyone must scramble for survival. Its take on the generation war is also intriguing--the young hate the old for destroying the world, but the old resent being used as stand-ins for their entire generation--and the conclusion it reaches is surprising, especially given the limited options Whiteley gives her characters.
- A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor Novellas) - The biggest problem with this novella is the forced comparison between it and Wilson's magnificent The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which the Hugos inexplicably slept on last year. And to be fair, the problem is not that A Taste of Honey isn't as good as Wildeeps, so much as that it isn't as big. Instead of the freewheeling, rude, violent excesses of Wildeeps, the story in Honey is intimate and small, focusing on a romance between a young apprentice zookeeper and a visiting soldier. That's still speaking relatively, of course, as Wilson remains one of the most exciting prose stylists working in epic fantasy today, and the emotional pitch of Honey is just as fevered as it was in Wildeeps, and with the same justification--homosexuality is forbidden in the city in which the story takes place, and our lovers are struggling with social disapproval and their own internalized homophobia even as they fall more and more deeply in love. There's a framing story here that has a more distinctive science-fantasy bent, but what it, too, comes down to, is the straightforward but harrowing choice laid before its characters--to be true to themselves and take the consequences, or remain a part of their society and family but lose what they want most.
- "The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan (Tor.com) - The predictably excellent Allan delivers a small but wrenching piece that interweaves a near-future meditation on the costs and dangers of a journey to Mars with the narrator's search for her own identity and family history. As a bonus, Allan quietly peoples the story exclusively with immigrants and the children of immigrants, whose Britishness nevertheless shines through their every word.
- "The Venus Effect" by Joseph Allen Hill (Lightspeed Magazine) - It's not an exaggeration to say that stories like this one are why I keep doing this, rooting through hundreds of short stories on the off chance of happening on one, by an author I've never heard of, that completely blows me away. I don't want to say too much about "The Venus Effect"'s plot, both because it's a surprise worth preserving, and because to describe the story is to make it sound like so much less than what it is--too academic, too gimmicky, too preachy. This is a story about stories, and about who gets to be the hero in the core stories of our genre. It shouldn't work--the tack Hill chooses should come off as glib, and the structure he comes up with should devolve into repetition--and yet, amazingly, it does. If there's one story on this list that I'd like you to read, "The Venus Effect" is it.
- "The Weight of the Dead" by Brian Hodge (Tor.com) - This story starts out a little like Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" (not a comparison that any writer wants to court), but then complicates its world and characters in a way that makes that premise its own. After our heroine loses her father to her community's notions of "justice", she has to learn to cope with those norms herself, and with the fact that she's been left without protection in a world that will punish her for protecting herself.
- "The Dancer on the Stairs" by Sarah Tolmie (from Two Travelers, reprinted in Strange Horizons) - An extremely low-key story that nevertheless packs a hearty punch, as Tolmie constructs an elaborate fantasy world governed by rigid social norms, which our heroine has to learn when she's dropped into it. There's very little at stake, and yet somehow Tolmie manages to creates a nearly overpowering sense of tension out of the byzantine customs of her invented world, in a way that no other author working in the genre is capable of.
- "Polyglossia" by Tamara Vardomskaya (GigaNotoSaurus) - You'll never go wrong with me and stories about fantasy linguistics, especially when you mix in linguistic imperialism, and the way that language, and its suppression, can be used as a tool of colonization. The secret of this story is that it seems very low-stakes--the characters are artists and musicians trying to put on an opera performance--but through that mundane setting and story, it manages to make a powerful point about the strength required to hold on to your heritage in the face of forces who want to erase it.
- "Gracia" by Susana Vallejo (Strange Horizons, translated by Lawrence Schimel) - A rather perfect exemplar of the infertility-in-a-post-industrial-world theme I mentioned above. This one is interesting for its setting, and particularly Vallejo's observation that the rural community the story is set in only got to experience modernity very briefly, and is now falling back into traditional, superstitious habits that stood it in good stead for generations.
- "Her Scales Shine Like Music" by Rajnar Vajra (Tor.com) - Another familiar premise--an astronaut stranded on a deserted planet which may not actually be deserted--but its handling here is refreshingly low-key and elegiac. We get only glimpses of how the future society of this story functions, but these are very interesting, and the relationship that the astronaut develops, in absentia, with her unseen companion is very nicely done.
Best Short Story:
- "The Destroyer" by Tara Isabella Burton (Tor.com) - The cyborg daughter of a mad scientist reveals how her mother destroyed the world, in a cyberpunk-Ancient Rome setting. What's not to love?
- "Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes" by Vajra Chandrasekera (Strange Horizons) - The way that Chandrasekera constructs the central McGuffin of this story--an artwork that is also the stored personality of the artist, or perhaps an AI--reminded me a great deal of Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World. Like that novel, this story is plainly fascinated with art and how it achieves its effect, but it also has a lot to say about the "difficult" women who create that art.
- "Your Orisons May Be Recorded" by Laurie Penny (Tor.com) - If the angel and demon from Good Omens worked at a call center answering prayers, the result would be something like this story, which packs far more of a punch than that jokey description leads you to expect.
- "Things With Beards" by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld) - There's a theme in this ballot, of stories that should come off as glib but somehow end up being deeply resonant. Miller's story is a prime example. Combining the early days of the AIDS epidemic with a retelling of John Carpenter's The Thing sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the resulting story--in which the narrator is carrying more than one sinister epidemic, and is an imposter in more than one way--is completely devastating.
- "Between Dragons and Their Wrath" by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld) - Another premise that shouldn't work--dragons as a metaphor for wars that tear African countries apart and make orphans and refugees of their people--but really does. The effect that the dragons have on the people caught in their path is interestingly imagined, but the real force of the story is in the way that its characters have normalized living in a fantasy world, even when that fantasy is actually a source of horror.
- "Three Points Masculine" by An Owomoyela (Lightspeed Magazine) - An interesting exploration of how gender is perceived in a society that claims to accept gender transition, and yet imposes rigid gender roles on its citizens. All wrapped up in a pretty good war story.
- "The Red Thread" by Sofia Samatar (Lightspeed Magazine) - A typically gentle-but-quietly-powerful story from Samatar, who imagines people whose reaction to the collapse of world institutions is to try to build a new way of life, one that doesn't require the same heavy tread that our civilization requires.