2009 Nebula Nominees: Short Stories

February 26, 2010 at 12:28 am | Posted in Short Stories | 7 Comments
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Another year has gone by and award season is underway again, and that means it’s time for me to sample the (theoretically) best stories science fiction and fantasy have to offer. I’m very tough to please when it comes to short stories, and nowhere is this more evident than the shortest award category, which I’ll be discussing in this post. At that length, there’s very little time to tell an effective story, and apparently most people are content with meager pieces that set a mood but little else.

Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela by Saladin Ahmed (Clockwork Phoenix 2) – Narrated by the court physician of a Muslim caliphate, this story has great atmosphere.  I may be biased here, as this sort of Muslim narration reminds me of Ted Chiang’s fantastic “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”.  Alas, beyond its somewhat unusual setting this story doesn’t have a lot to offer, telling a simple and fairly predictable story about the narrator’s brief contact with the supernatural.

Non-Zero Probabilities by N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld) – What would it be like to live in New York if, for some unspecified reason, within its limits the laws of chance function more like those of a movie or fairy tale instead of the real world? You probably haven’t ever asked that question, but this story answers it pretty well. It’s not a bad idea, although I feel like Star Trek has done something similar at least once. The author does a couple clever things with the concept, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. I would have preferred a more thorough extrapolation: some hand waving toward people coming for cures, New York sports teams winning, and canceling the lottery made it seem like there was a real human story here, but instead it’s just a sketch.

Spar by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld) – Wow. This is actually a horror story, despite a science fiction setting. I don’t particularly like horror, so it’s hard for me to evaluate, but I think this is a really good horror story. If you want to be disgusted and disturbed by a story, this is for you. I’m impressed with the writing, certainly, but I think I probably could have done without being disturbed. I also wish the ending was a little more concrete.

Going Deep (PDF) by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s) – This story is a strange but pleasant mixture of cyberpunk ideas about neural connections to the net and very traditional SF stories about going to space. The world is fairly interesting and the teenage protagonist seems reasonably believable. As is so often the case with stories of this length, however, I thought the actual plot didn’t really amount to anything and was therefore left feeling unsatisfied.

Bridesicle by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s) – Has there ever been a science fiction idea with more disturbing implications than cryogenically freezing people? I always wondered why anyone would pay to thaw out someone, and over the years I’ve read stories with a variety of scenarios. This one may be the most creepy, envisioning it as operating along lines similar to mail order bride services. While it’s nothing amazing, it’s a very solid story, and for once one suited to the short length, since it focuses on a single idea and doesn’t aim too high or too low.

There’s one more nominated story, “I Remember the Future” by Michael Burstein from an anthology with the same name, but it isn’t being made publicly available online and according to the author will not be. Something about wanting to sell books. I can certainly understand that. However, given my apathy towards short stories in general, I almost never get anthologies.

Of the stories I read, the most effective is definitely “Spar”, although I’m not sure I actually liked it. Probably my vote, if I had one, would go to “Bridesicle” as the most complete story of the bunch, and therefore the one I most enjoyed.

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7 Comments »

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  1. it isn’t being made publicly available online and according to the author will not be.

    You aren’t missing anything, ‘I Remember The Future’ is absolutely dreadful.

  2. “What would it be like to live in New York if, for some unspecified reason, within its limits the laws of chance function more like those of a movie or fairy tale instead of the real world?”

    Just for the record, I’m pretty sure the reason she’s asking this question is as a response to 9/11.

    Thanks for posting these; I love reading other people’s thoughts on short stories. (I enjoyed your novella reactions, too.)

  3. Martin: I thought I had read Burstein before and not liked his work, but thankfully I looked him up before saying so and realized I was confusing him with Michael Resnick. But it sounds like Burstein is similar.

    Rachel: Hmm, you’re probably right about 9/11. I guess as an SF fan I prefer engaging speculation at face value instead of hunting around for metaphor or allegory, but that does explain why the story did relatively little, well, speculation. At the risk of sounding insensitive I think it’s a little overwrought to write a story like that about New York, though. Baghdad on the other hand…

  4. “At the risk of sounding insensitive I think it’s a little overwrought to write a story like that about New York, though.”

    Hmm. I guess that does feel insensitive to me; tragedies don’t obliterate each other. The existence of tragedy in Baghdad doesn’t obliterate the existence of tragedy in New York.

    It was a really major trauma for people who lived there. It’s something I only understand the edges of, having lived just outside NYC at the time.

    It’s not like there are no anti-war stories, or stories processing the racism of America’s reaction to 9/11. It’s not even like there are no such stories by N.K. Jemisin.

  5. (BTW, I’m not offended or anything. Just responding. 🙂 )

  6. I guess “overwrought” was the wrong word. I didn’t mean that authors are only allowed to write tragic stories about the most tragic experience possible. I was trying to say that the situation in Baghdad, with years of near-daily civilian deaths, seems like it’s a much better fit than 9/11 for the daily dangers and corresponding lifestyle changes described in “Non-Zero Probabilities”. I wasn’t in New York either so I don’t claim to know what it was like, but hopefully that’s not required to understand the story.

  7. […] stories it is by far the most successful at achieving its goals. I’m disappointed to see that writing about “Spar” about a year ago I said it was horror, not science fiction, because looking back I completely […]


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