Like the previous project to read the 2005 Nebula Nominees for short fiction, I undertook the task to read the short fiction nominees for the 2006 Hugo Award. Once again, all of the nominees were available online this year. Thanks, Al Gore!

Overall, the stories were very good and stronger than the Nebula nominees. Indeed, many of these stories have already been chosen to appear in one “Best of…” anthology or another due out this year. Three of the Hugo nominated stories (“Identity Theft”, “Magic for Beginners” and “Singing My Sister Down”) are also recent Nebula nominees. Besides those stories, a couple of authors appear on both ballots as well: namely James Patrick Kelly and Paolo Bacigalupi. Michael A. Burstein has the distinct honor of having two stories on the Hugo ballot this year.

Most of the nominees’ names are familiar through previous award wins and nominations, so I was expecting some good things. For the most part, I was not disappointed. The two least enjoyable Hugo nominated stories for me were not bad, but somewhat mediocre. This was unexpected as Waldrop is considered as master of the short form (I loved “Calling Your Name“) and, if this is any indication, he’s had 10 stories chosen for the first 23 volumes of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology series. The other mediocre story was by Michael Burstein – surprising since I thought his other story, “TelePresence”, was the best novelette in the bunch and most deserving of the win.

So, in a nutshell, here are my impressions of the stories in each category, sorted from most to least enjoyable. Obviously, the winning picks are the tops ones listed in each category.

Novella

Burn” by James Patrick Kelly

Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer

Inside Job” by Connie Willis

The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald

Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link

Novelette

TelePresence” by Michael A. Burstein

I, Robot” by Cory Doctorow

Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle

The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi

The King of Where-I-Go” by Howard Waldrop

Short Story

Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan

Down Memory Lane” by Mike Resnick

Tk’tk’tk” by David D. Levine

The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green

Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein

Reviewlettes follow…


THE NOVELLAS

“Burn” by James Patrick Kelly [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 06/11/06]

  • Source: Author’s website
  • Synopsis: On the planet Walden – founded by a technophobe who offered its residents a “simple life” alternative to the post-human existence being chosen by most – a firefighter named Spur encounters a group of “upsiders” who set him on the path enlightenment.
  • Review: Kelly has crafted a very engaging story about discovery, fate and choice and set it on a world caught in an interesting predicament. The planet of Walden was intentionally made by founder Jack Winter to be without the technology shared by the post-human Thousand Worlds; it’s an experiment in un-enhanced humanity. Here, Kelly is playing off the anti-tech stance of Henry David Thoreau and even his accidental setting of a fire in Walden Woods. Anything more than the preached simple life is a threat to Walden’s Transcendent State, yet some of residents of Walden still seek the forbidden knowledge. The pukpuks are an extremist terrorist group that deliberately set fires to the voluminous forests of Walden (and themselves) in protest of their forced way of life. Firefighters like Spur, whose real name is Prosper Gregory Leung, are there to patch the damage, seemingly content with the way of things. Spur starts the story after a bad fire in which his brother-in-law Vic was killed, a traumatic event that causes recurring nightmares and puts his already-strenuous marriage with his wife, Comfort, on even shakier ground. In the hospital, Spur uses their advanced “tell” communications device (such an off-putting device to have on a Luddite world!) and catches the attention of off-worlder High Gregory, who soon arrives with a contingent to set things straight in Spurs farming village. Let’s just say altruism is not necessarily their motive and that Walden’s tenet of simplicity is threatened. One of the many strengths of this story is having Spur as the point-of-view character. Through his simple yet inquisitive eyes we see the intended value of Walden. Of course, being science fiction readers we also soon realize that the upsiders are post-humans and so it’s easy to get immersed in Spur’s discovery of the bigger picture. Although there are one or two long-winded infodumps that make this novella seem a tad longer than it needed to be, Spur’s story – complete with discovery, action, intrigue, a few family secrets and heartwarming imagery – is very good indeed.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.

“Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 04/21/06, what follows is what I said then]

  • Source: Robert J. Sawyer’s Blog
  • Synopsis: Alexander Lomax is the only private detective on a domed Mars colony where flesh-and-blood humans can attain immortality by transferring their consciousness into an artificial (and enhanced) body. Recent transfer Cassandra Wilkins hires Lomax to find her missing husband, Joshua – also recently transferred – but instead, Lomax finds him murdered.
  • Review: Steeped in noir-ish imagery, “Identity Theft” provides a fast-moving tour through an interesting future Mars where expensive mind transfers are useful in finding the mother lode of valuable fossil deposits out in the Martian desert. Like any hard-boiled detective story, the first person voice is used to trace the steps of Lomax as he smartly gathers clues to first find Joshua, then his murderer. Lomax is a fun character, but the story’s voice lacks the one-two punch of, say, George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran novels. Some moments, in fact – like referring to coffee as “a cup of joe” – seemed unnaturally forced. The murder mystery itself was based on a good premise and the motive was not obvious, but, sadly, the identity of the murderer was all-too-predictable; that’s rare for me. How could Lomax not figure it out sooner? One scene has Lomax watching one character torture another for an inordinately long time – even when all the clues to the murderer’s identity were plain as day and should have caused him to act immediately. This seemed out of character because Lomax is shown to be relatively bright except for when it counted most. These are relatively minor nits, though; this was still a fast-paced and very entertaining story.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.

“Inside Job” by Connie Willis [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 06/05/06]

  • Source: Asimov’s
  • Synopsis: A professional debunker and his ex-Hollywood actress partner try to expose a charlatan who convincingly appears to channel world-famous skeptic H.L. Mencken.
  • Review: An engrossing and entertaining story, for several reasons: Willis’ engaging writing style, infused with frequent pop-culture references in its present-day California setting; a story line that immerses you in the world of those who fool a gullible public; smart characters who rely almost completely on logic but who are human enough to be swayed by emotion; and mostly for the educational information surrounding the real-life Mencken, who became famous for his take on the Scopes Monkey Trial. This story should, in fact, be required reading for anyone wishing to study Mencken as he is brought to life beautifully (well, at least compared to what I gleaned from Wikipedia. And if it’s there, it must be true, right?) I did think that the logic-driven skeptic, Rob, was a little too willing to believe that Menken had returned from the afterlife which, by the way, is the only science fictiony element in the whole story – an element that is never proven as real or hoax. As such, this reads as light sf at best. Also, some plot points were seen in advance but thankfully not saved as surprise endings. Not that those nits matter; this is still a very good story.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.

“The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 06/07/06]

  • Source: Asimov’s
  • Synopsis: In future India, a young girl becomes a goddess, falls from god-status and becomes a courier of illegal AIs.
  • Review: Set in the same culturally rich future as his novel, River of Gods, McDonald paints a touching and thoughtful picture of innocence lost, shifting social status and redemption. The Kumari Devi is just an innocent child when she is chosen to become the goddess; eligible because she is one of few who bears “the thirty-two signs of perfection”, chosen because she alone passes a series of traumatic tests. As she learns to follow the strict and required ways of a Devi, she is guided by two surrogate mothers who she calls Tall Kumarima and Smiling Kumarima. Out of love, Tall Kumarima secretly gives the goddess a forbidden portable AI palm device. The discovery of the device leads to the Devi’s fall. She eventually meets Ashok, a dataraja – an illegal AI dealer. (AI tech is legally forbidden above certain levels of intelligence.) Ashok hires her as a courier using her assumed status as potential bride. The ex-Devi is implanted with an unprecedented five AIs for one final run, but the Krishna cops close in and she must act fast. What was interesting about this story is the same thing that was interesting about River of Gods. The story is steeped in culture that provides a wonderful atmosphere and vivid imagery. At the same time, you feel for the ex-Devi who, as much as we all are to some degree, is a victim of things beyond her control. Good stuff.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.

“Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 04/16/06, what follows is what I said then]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF
  • Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Jeremy and his four friends (Elizabeth, Karl, Amy and Talis) are hooked on a randomly-airing fantasy television show called The Library. Or, are they part of cast of the show?
  • Review: I should re-iterate that I am not a huge fan of fantasy. Even so, this story went to such lengths to blur the line between reality and in-story fiction that I felt lost – or at least detached – from the characters. It starts by saying Jeremy is a character on the show, then goes on to say how he and his friends watch the show. OK, I can handle levels of indirection, but why introduce that aspect at all? The bulk of the story tries to portray Jeremy’s relationship with his friends and his apparently-separating parents (a kleptomaniac writer for a father and a librarian for a mother). This is a sad situation for a young teen, to be sure, but one whose emotional impact is lessened by the nebulousness of what the reality is. Adding to the confusion is the franticly changing, seemingly unrelated – and tedious – details when describing the characters. (Describing the characters and their backgrounds, by the way, makes up about 80% of this story. Plot doesn’t rear its head until the last twenty percent, when Jeremy and his mother travel to Las Vegas in search of the mysterious phone booth and the wedding chapel.) I suppose one could derive parallels between “real life” and the TV show, but the blurring of the two makes that a chore at best. As it was, I had to struggle to find the semi-interesting (non-genre fiction) life story of Jeremy. As I said, I’m not a big fan of fantasy, but it still surprises me that this was nominated for so many awards.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.

THE NOVELETTES

“TelePresence” by Michael A. Burstein [2005 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 06/15/06]

  • Source: Author’s website
  • Synopsis: Telepresence – the use of virtual reality in education – is under observation by the California government for possible statewide acceptance as the standard for teaching. But when kids start dying in telepresence its future is threatened and Tony Louis, director of the telepresence school system, attempts to find out what is going on before the ground-breaking technology is killed before it even gets off the ground.
  • Review: Excellent, page-turning story. Throughout the fast-paced narrative I found myself suspecting everyone, including telepresence itself, as the murderer. And people get murdered in creative ways in cyberspace. Tony gets to explain some fascinating applications of the technology within the domain of education as he tries to convince the committee to adopt it. There’s also a positive message about cultural diversity.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novelette.

“I, Robot” by Cory Doctorow [2005 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 06/12/06]

  • Source: Infinite Matrix
  • Synopsis: A robot-hating police detective (cumbersomely named Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg) deals with his wayward daughter (named Ada), his defector wife (Natalie) and his job in Social Harmony, an arm of the ever-increasingly dictatorship government which polices illegal tech during a tecnowar with Eurasia.
  • Review: With obvious nods to Asimov and current Digital Rights Management practices, this piece has lots to offer in homage and symbolism. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics play into the story in a major way that ties these two literary handles together. The UNATS robots of Arturo’s country (rife with crime and the need for those to police it) are bound by the Three Laws (think DRM laws). The technologically superior Eurasian robots are not restricted by the Three Laws and yet choose not to harm humans anyway out of “their own sense of morality”. Supposedly we are supposed to infer that the absence of the DRM laws would yield a crime-free state like the fictional Eurasia? Hard to believe, but then again this is just a piece of fiction even with the obvious parallels. So, I was all set to knock off a whole star for the heavy-handed message behind the story, but darn it, I just have to give it some credit for making me think about the similarities. Ultimately, this is a fun and thought-provoking story (with an action-packed finale!) that’s sure to please both casual readers and those looking for some deeper meaning.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novelette.

“Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle [2005 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 06/09/06]

  • Source: Fantasy and Science Fiction
  • Synopsis: A nine-year-old girl named Sooz sets out to seek the help of King Lir to kill the griffin that terrorizes her village. Along the way she meets a mediocre magician named Schmendrick and his companion Molly Grue who both tell Sooz about the King’s lost love Amalthea, who is also a unicorn.
  • Review: Although this story had a somewhat slow start, Sooz’s first-person narrative kept me interested. When she meets Schmendrick and Molly, it is clear there is some history there. (They are major players in Beagle’s fantasy classic, The Last Unicorn.) Sooz becomes close to the King even though he is apparently senile and forgetful, a condition quickly remedied at the mention of the unicorn. King Lir accepts the task of defeating the griffin and tells Sooz that the key is to strike at the creature’s two hearts. There is another obvious parallel here: the two hearts of Lir and Amalthea whose love for one another is evident even though they are apart. Despite the slow start, this was a very good story.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novelette.

“The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi [2005 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 06/13/06]

  • Source: Fantasy and Science Fiction
  • Synopsis: Thanks to some unfortunate side effects of genetic engineering (like an out-of-control weevil that consumed the planet’s crops), the world population – what’s left of it – is starving. But genetic engineering has provided a solution of sorts by way of SoyPRO and HiGro, man-made food substitutes. The food is used, in turn, to feed the animals (also gene-engineered) who convert it into much-needed energy. This story, set in and around the Mississippi river and New Orleans, follows an Indian named Lalji who travels the river posing as an antique dealer, but who is secretly a calorie bandit, much to the consternation of the IP (intellectual property) police of the monopolistic food companies. Lalji and his partner Creo are tasked with transporting “The Calorie Man”, one of the last of the geneticists, so he can bring about the demise of the food monopolies.
  • Review: An interesting story for its setting and situation. The world portrayed seems to be suffering from a mild case of post-apocalypse: hunger and energy are seriously constrained, population is decreasing as people die off – and yet there is enough civilization to maintain a corporation? There is also no real sense that technology is of any use anymore to anyone besides the food companies, unless you count the kink-springs used to power the boats that travel the river. This made for a slightly unbalanced portrayal of an otherwise dark future, but that could be the result of the story focusing on Lalji alone, a choice which did lend much to this story’s wonderful mood.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novelette.

“The King of Where-I-Go” by Howard Waldrop [2005 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 06/08/06]

  • Source: SCI FICTION
  • Synopsis: The story of a boy growing up in the 1950′s with his sister who has polio and possibly Telekinetic powers.
  • Review: This one didn’t do all that much for me. The story is infused with so much minutia from the Old Days (and fleeting glimpses into the Future) that it seemed to choke on its own nostalgia. This was meant to lend some flavor to the time travel aspects of the story (the sister is believed to be sending her brother back and forth through time) but really just felt like padding. Waldrop has done way better than this (see “Calling Your Name“)
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novelette.

THE SHORT STORIES

“Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan [2005 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/17/06, what follows is what I said then]

  • Source: Allen & Unwin
  • Synopsis: A girl undergoes a slow death as a form of capital punishment with her family and tribe in attendance.
  • Review: Wow. This was a beautifully creepy and well-written story. Much like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Frederik Pohl’s “Spending a Day at the Lottery Fair” (reviewed here) this story packs an emotional wallop that centers around death. We don’t know the exact crime, but we can make a guess as we know it involves a wedding, jealousy and an axe. [Shiver.] Great stuff.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best short story.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best short story.

“Down Memory Lane” by Mike Resnick [2005 short short story] (Rating: ) [Read 06/01/06]

  • Source: Asimov’s
  • Synopsis: An elderly man deals with the onset of his wife’s increasing dementia.
  • Review: This is a touching story that show’s both the husband’s love and his pain. The exact nature of the wife’s affliction is unknown but is Alzheimer’s-like, making this story reminiscent of Maureen F. McHugh’s “Presence” ( itself a 2003 Hugo nominee). The sf content here is minor, relegated to a last-minute scientific experiment undertaken to make the couple more compatible.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best short story.

“Tk’tk’tk” by David D. Levine [2005 short short story] (Rating: ) [Read 06/15/06]

  • Source: Asimov’s
  • Synopsis: A third-generation software salesman hopes to score big on a planet where he needs hypno-training to speak the language. Unfortunately, one cultural blunder after another impedes his progress.
  • Review: A fun (sometime humorous) tale but there was some meat missing on these bones of a story. At its center was the journey of a man at an undesirable place (to him) who eventually comes to understand and even embrace their alien ways. The culture of the aliens, who communicate partly via smells, was nicely portrayed except that the overly polite comments made by the amphibious aliens changed from humorous to tiresome as the story progressed. There was frequent use of the alien language, one word of which is given by the story’s title. Its meaning still escapes me. Also, the salesman, who we are meant to empathize with, was rather flat.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best short short story.

“The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green [2005 short short story] (Rating: ) [Read 06/15/06]

  • Source: TTA Press
  • Synopsis: In a post-war near-future Earth, a United Nations weapons inspector in Congo tries to maintain a group of self-contained black holes (leftover weapons from the war) that threaten to destroy the Earth due to mishandling, improper use and ignorance.
  • Review: Some interesting science, but this story did not grab me that way I had hoped. The mythology that he locals attributed to the black holes and the containment vessels (“The demons are in the machines.”) lent a nice post-apocalyptic mood to the story that was also sprinkled with dark humor.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best short short story.

“Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein [2005 short short story] (Rating: ) [Read 06/13/06]

  • Source: Author’s website
  • Synopsis: In 2098, the historian ex-wife of a senator confronts him about his bill to change the moratorium on the release of census data from 72 to 75 years.
  • Review: This one-scene story was not bad but took on too many topical issues (same-sex marriage, copyright-expiration extensions, privacy issues) which distracted from the main premise by making it appear somewhat contrived. I did like the bluntness of the ex-wife, though, even if she did take part in the out-of-place sentimental ending.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best short short story.

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