2011 Hugo Nominees: Short Stories

April 30, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments

Thanks to a little-known rule requiring short stories to receive at least five percent of the nominations to make the shortlist, there were only four stories nominated this year. I think that’s probably indicative not of a decline in quality but the continued fragmentation of the short story market. Only one of the four stories was published by what was once the Big Three magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF). The other three come from online venues, two of which (Tor.com and Clarkesworld) pay more than the old guard do, at least at this length.

When doing this in the past I’ve just run down the stories, but this year I noticed a thematic connection between all four stories. It’s probably just a coincidence but all four, it seems to me, are in some way about coercion of individuals or small groups by a larger group. This isn’t the foremost idea in every story, but each at least has this as an element.

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn, published in Lightspeed Magazine, is set in what is by now the familiar confines of an energy-starved society. Instead of cities and spring power, however, the emphasis is on a small, sustainable community. The village employs what we would call oppressive rules to avoid depleting their fragile resource balance, restricting the amount the main characters can fish and even allowing reproduction only via rare permits.

It’s a nice enough story, but “Amaryllis” just doesn’t have enough substance for my taste. I feel bad criticizing stories like this, because the setting is interesting, the prose is good, and the characters are well done. Unlike many insubstantial mood pieces that have shown up in past shortlists, this even has a beginning and an end. The story employs a structure familiar from television, setting up an external conflict the characters must face while coming to grips with an internal conflict within the group. But both of these conflicts are resolved smoothly, without the characters really seeming to try very hard.

Although it’s my least favorite story of the four, I think it’s interesting to note that the characters in “Amaryllis” are happier than those in the other stories despite being at the lowest technology level and under arguably the most restrictions. They never question the justice of the rules that govern their society, merely the honesty with which they are enforced. But then, I guess it’s easier to be happy when the problems the author has set in your path are easily surmounted.

“Ponies” by Kij Johnson, published on Tor.com, is as different in feel from “Amaryllis” as you could imagine. This is a very short story about peer pressure. Like the protagonists of “Amaryllis”, Barbara doesn’t question the rules of the society she’s trying to live in, but in this case these are the rules not of reasoned government but of mean little girls. Maybe I’m stretching this too far to even say it’s like the others, but I think the fact children enforce these arbitrary rules is a useful reminder that not every regime is quite as reasoned and calculated as it claims to be.

I didn’t remember the author’s name nor did I recognize anything about the style, but just the emotion “Ponies” inspired was enough for me to guess (correctly) it was written by the author of “Spar”, nominated last year for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Like “Spar” this is an extremely effective story, and of the nominated 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 disagree. “Spar” was horrible, yes, but it was also an examination of the boundaries of human values as well as the difficulty, even futility, of understanding a truly alien being. Today I’d say it used the tools of horror to make a science fictional point. I can’t really say the same thing about “Ponies”. It feels a little more subtle than “Spar” in that it relies less on the shock value of words, but ultimately it’s making a simple point about human nature. The talking, flying unicorns are fantastic, but they aren’t treated that way in the story, and Johnson goes out of her way to tie the setting to our present. It’s also debatable whether “Ponies” has an interesting enough point to justify the distaste it so capably inspires in most readers.

“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal, originally published by Asimov’s, portrays another society that, like the village in “Amaryllis”, is severely resource constrained. This time, it’s because they live on a generation starship. Once again there are draconian laws to keep everything in balance. Unlike “Amaryllis”, however, there is a genuine conflict here. Someone has broken the rules and covered it up electronically, but Rava, an AI “wrangler”, stumbles on to the scheme and eventually discovers the truth.

I liked this story quite a bit and thought it was my favorite of the nominated stories when I had finished. It was a little odd that the difficult maintenance the protagonist performs on the AI involved plugging a cable into a hard to reach port, but overall the story has some interesting things to say about AI and forces the reader to consider whether or not the restrictions on the ship’s passengers are ethical or not.

Although by most definitions Peter Watts’ story The Things, published in Clarkesworld, is basically fan fiction of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1980) and/or the John W. Campbell story the movie was based on, Who Goes There, it also strikes me as the most original of the four stories. Alien viewpoints are difficult to achieve, but Watts does a good job placing us in the alien’s shoes and allowing us to understand its very different value system. In Watts’ interpretation, the alien is convinced humanity is broken, in pain, and in need of dramatic alterations. The alien feels it should inflict the cure on us, and in fact feels morally required to do so. Once again we have the idea of coercion, but this time from a completely external entity (representing, if its memories are accurate, a galaxy-spanning civilization) who sees humans as closer to cancer than what it considers life.

When I originally read this I liked the story but found it all a little predictable. Reading far more enthusiastic reviews since then left me thinking I was more down on the story than I actually was. I was going to say I thought “For Want of a Nail” was the best story, but after giving “The Things” a quick reread, I was less impressed by the last sentence but more satisfied by the story itself. Its ideas are as interesting as those in “For Want of a Nail” and it’s told with more style and novelty, so when it comes down to it I think “The Things” is the best story on the shortlist, even if I’m still not quite as big a fan of it as a lot of other people are.


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  1. I just read “ponies”, thanks for linking it, excellent short story! I believe the main topic is much more about childhood’s end than peer pressure, tho.

  2. Hi Matt, I have linked to this post from http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/1786958.html for comparative purposes!

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