[Update: added review of final story, “An End to All Things”.]

Like last year, I undertook a project to read the short fiction nominees for this year’s Nebula Award. Only two of the nominees were not available online this year. One of those (Michael A. Burstein’s “Sanctuary”) I read in Analog, the other (“An End to All Things” by Karina Sumner-Smith) I couldn’t get a copy of, so it was not reviewed. (If I manage to get my hands on a copy, I’ll update this post.) [Update: See review below.]

Once more, I thought this was a fun project as it makes me feel like I’m keeping in touch with the best that the current short fiction landscape has to offer. Or is that a fallacy? Although I enjoyed immensely all of the novella nominees, some of the shorter works were considerably less than stellar. In their defense, those tended to be the fantasy stories; my partial indifference towards that genre couldn’t bode well for them anyway. Nonetheless, I remained hopeful, expecting – perhaps naively – something special from stories that are nominated for awards.

I’m not sure if it’s a trend or just something I notices because, in this age of Internets, looking up the information is so darn easy, but it seems that more and more short fiction that I read draws upon history and mythology to tell their stories. This year’s nominees initiated Wikipedia lookups for Helen of Troy, Henry David Thoreau, Narcissus, Walpurgis Night, Erwin Schrödinger and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Science fiction is nothing if not cause to brush up on history. Apparently.

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

NOVELLAS

“Sanctuary” by Michael A. Burstein (Read a preview)

Burn” by James Patrick Kelly

The Walls of the Universe” by Paul Melko

Inclination” by William Shunn

NOVELETTES

Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle

Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre

The Language of Moths” by Chris Barzak

Journey into the Kingdom” by M. Rickert

Walpurgis Afternoon” by Delia Sherman

SHORT STORIES

Henry James, This One’s For You” by Jack McDevitt

An End to All Things” by Karina Sumner-Smith

The Woman in Schrödinger’s Wave Equations” by Eugene Mirabelli

Helen Remembers the Stork Club” by Esther M. Friesner

Echo” by Elizabeth Hand

Pip and the Fairies” by Theodora Goss.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow….


“Sanctuary” by Michael A. Burstein [2005 novella]

  • Source: Analog, September 2005 (Read a preview)
  • Synopsis: An insectoid alien aboard a space station seeks sanctuary in the Catholic chapel because her laws pose a serious moral dilemma.
  • Review: There are two things that science fiction can do that makes for such appealing reading. First, it can act as a mirror to our own culture, removing our frame of reference so that we may focus on the issue at hand. Second, it extrapolates some idea and poses the “what if?” question that makes it thought-provoking. Burstein accomplishes both of these in “Sanctuary”. It’s hard to talk about the exact nature of the alien Zwaren’s moral dilemma without spoilers; suffice it to say that science fiction provides an excellent canvas on which to paint our own controversial quandaries. To his credit, the author expertly balances all sides of the issue, leaving the reader to make their own choices and draw their own conclusions. This is exemplified by the character of Father Wickham, a man forced to question his own ethics and who stands by his beliefs no matter what external pressures he may endure from the station’s captain, the Church and threatening aliens. His steadfastness provides a way for characters to discuss their differing points of view and they do so logically and rationally. This story is largely dialogue driven, but action fanboys won’t mind because the story is so engrossing. From the initial scene of Zwaren’s intrusion into a Catholic mass to the final confrontation – there are actually several confrontations, each one drawing up even more tension – Burstein’s engaging prose moves this superb story along quite nicely. Well done.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novella.

“Burn” by James Patrick Kelly [2005 novella] [I read this back in June of 2006. What follows is what I said then

.]

  • 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 Spur’s 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 Nebula Award for Best Novella.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.

“The Walls of the Universe” by Paul Melko [2006 novella]

  • Source: Asimov’s website.
  • Synopsis: Farmboy Johnny Rayburn meets an alternate, parallel-world version of himself who has plans to become rich by borrowing ideas from previously visited universes.
  • Review: This was a fun story. Naturally, farmboy John doesn’t believe “John Prime” is from another universe, but John Prime knows too many intimate details about farmboy John’s life – even though the worlds differ slightly in politics and minor events. John Prime schemes to make lots of money with pop inventions (like the Rubik’s Cube) that don’t exist in farmboy John’s world. Eventually, the lure of an alternate – and hopefully better – life lures farmboy John since, like many kids, his lack of perspective makes it hard to see how well off they are. John Prime lets him try the world-hopping device. a flat disk affixed to harness worn under his short – vaguely explained away as alien technology. But ulterior motives are at work. Here, the story diverges as both Johns independently try to make better lives for themselves. The lesson learned is that what comes around goes around, though not in the way you might think. Watching the turn of events reminded me in some ways of Ken Grimwood’s Replay since in both stories the protagonist strived to live a better life. Like that novel, Melko’s story takes what could have been a worn out sf trope and turned it into something engaging and fun. Well done.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novella.

“Inclination” by William Shunn [2006 novella]

  • Source: Asimov’s website.
  • Synopsis: On a space station there are two clashing social classes. Jude, a young member of the underprivileged Machinists, gets a job with the Sculpted and comes to learn the way of the world.
  • Review: There are some really interesting world building aspects here. The Machinsists have a religion and culture based on mechanics. For example, when something is wrong it is “out of true”. In the Machinists part of the station there are six wards, each representing the six fundamental machines set forth by The Builder, their god. Jude is from the “inclined plane” ward and, when money gets tight, his father, Thomas, gets him a job working as a stevedore with the “heathen” Sculpted. Surely this will be a test of his faith as he will be tempted by the unholy ways of the “Wrecker”. Unlike the Machinists, the Sculpted have embraced technology and their society has evolved in ways we would expect, at least in science fiction. The differences that evolved between the two cultures are almost unbelievable considering they all live in the same space station, but the contrast is effectively dramatic nonetheless. Religion was their dividing wedge – the wedge being another of the six fundamental machines (the others are wheel, lever, pulley and screw). Some additional dramatic elements – like Jude’s strict father, his dead mother and his confused feelings for another boy – round out a fine story. Shunn’s prose shows noteworthy skill and embodies the sense of wonder and extrapolation that make science fiction appealing.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novella.

“Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle [2005 novelette] [I read this back in June of 2006. What follows is what I said then.]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF website.
  • 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: Winner for the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

“Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre [2005 novelette] [I read this back in August of 2006. What follows is what I said then.]

  • Source: SCI FICTION
  • Synopsis: In a female society where each female lives aboard (and is bonded with) their own sentient ship, Yalnis is betrayed by a now ex-lover.
  • Review: There’s some serious world-building in this story, right from the get-go where we learn that each member of this society accepts offspring “companions” from other members, companions who manifest themselves as faces that appear on their abdomen, complete with personalities and a set of sharp teeth. (The companions can apparently also act as in-body lovers for their host parent.) Eventually, these offspring are birthed into the world when they are ready. After Yalnis is betrayed, she undergoes a thousand-year sleep to awaken in time for the launching of her (and her ship’s) daughters, but her pain of loss remains leading to some feelings of anger left to resolve with her ruthless ex-lover, Seyyan, who has taken a new lover and aims to get others to rally to her side. Yalnis’s ship and their relationship was cool; it reminded me of Peter F. Hamilton’s sentient ships in his Night’s Dawn universe, except here, the ship was less of a character.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

“The Language of Moths” by Chris Barzak [2005 novelette]

  • Source: Taverner’s Koans website
  • Synopsis: A family takes a summer trip to a mountain cabin where a teenager and his autistic sister learn than language is not the only means of communication.
  • Review: This is a quiet story that alternates viewpoints between the angry kid Eliot and his autistic sister Dawn, and in doing so portrays the variety in which they communicate and perceive their surroundings. Cynical teenager Eliot, confused and angry over his parents’ lack of attention, spends his summer with the local, cigarette-smoking Roy, a generic Bad Influence who introduces him to the seedier side of life. As far as Eliot’s is concerned, his older sister Dawn talks in nonsensical sentences. But from Dawn’s point of view, spoken words appear as silver bubbles. It is difficult for her to communicate with them, yet she can hold intelligible discussions with insects and even uses her abilities to lure an elusive moth near the cabin to assist her father’s research in hopes making him and the family happy. Despite the communication gap, Eliot and Dawn have transformed their relationship by the end of the summer, but somehow the emotional impact of the moment doesn’t quite gel. It’s not that the reader does not feel for either of them – on the contrary, the good-kid-turned-bad and the misunderstood savant create the intended reader/character connection – but the expected emotional impact felt somewhat diluted by the “love thyself” message.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

“Journey into the Kingdom” by M. Rickert [2006 novelette]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF website.
  • Synopsis: A girl named Agatha meets a widower named Alex who is convinced Agatha is a breath-stealing ghost.
  • Review: My indifference towards fantasy left little hope for this story, which is interesting since, at one point, it seemed as if this were not a fantasy story at all. The reason is due to some creative story construction. Alex, hanging out in a coffee shop, reads a story written by the artist of the pictures hanging on the wall. We read Alex’s story right along with him and learn about the girl named Agatha, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter whose father becomes a ghost and brings other ghosts home to meet the family. Agatha falls for one of them, becomes a ghost herself and ultimately suffers heartache. Alex then learns that the author of the story, Agatha, works at the coffee shop in which he sits. He proceeds to woo her, fully believing her fiction is a memoir. This is where Rickert’s story seems to be a fantasy bait-and-switch. The fantasy was self-contained within Agatha’s written word. It seemed as if Alex’s desire to be with Agatha negated the fantasy setup of the first part, thus precluding the need for a story at all. By this point, I was becoming a bit frustrated. Then the story somewhat redeemed itself in the last twenty percent when Alex’s intentions reveal themselves to be on the wrong side of normal.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

“Walpurgis Afternoon” by Delia Sherman [2005 novelette]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF website.
  • Synopsis: The literal overnight appearance of a Victorian house owned by witches causes a stir in the neighborhood.
  • Review: Told from the point of view of a botanist named Evie, the reader learns a little about the everyday lives of the witches named Ophelia and Rachel, who move into the neighborhood for a reason other than their impending marriage. This story relies heavily on its creation of a “magical feel”, which is the main reason why it did not appeal to me. My preference for sf over fantasy is illustrated by Evie’s thought, “Even though I didn’t know how the magic worked or how to control it, I couldn’t ignore the fact – the palpable, provable fact – that it was there.” This casual acceptance of magic just f lies in the face of believability.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

“Henry James, This One’s For You” by Jack McDevitt [2005 short story]

  • Source: SFWA
  • Synopsis: An editor discovers an amazing new writing talent and is confronted with a decision when he learns the reason for his abilities.
  • Review: McDevitt’s straightforward writing style makes this a quick and interesting read. While the science fiction element doesn’t come into play until the final scenes, the premise is sound and perhaps not too far-fetched after all.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.

“An End to All Things” by Karina Sumner-Smith [2006 short story]

  • Source: Sent to me by the author who is working diligently to make it freely available for everyone.
  • Synopsis: In a magical city, Xhea helps rid people of the ghosts that follow them. Her latest job, to break the link between a man and the ghost of a young girl, goes far beyond what she expects.
  • Review: This story takes an interesting Sixth Sense premise and builds upon the idea I like most about it: using the ability to “see dead people” and help them. The story plays with themes of opposites and balance. Xhea, who sees in black and white, uses lower-city-level “dark” magic and is not considered normal, whereas “normals” from the upper city wield light magic. I got the feeling that this is part of a bigger setting waiting to be explored. The City seems to be burgeoning with magic (which is used as a form of currency and allows Xhea to see in color – more opposite and balance) and is somehow segregated between light (up) and dark (down). The writing evokes a nice, serene mood which makes its poignant ending all the more effective.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.

“The Woman in Schrodinger’s Wave Equations” by Eugene Mirabelli [2005 short story]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF website.
  • Synopsis: Concerns a physicist and the relationships he has with two women.
  • Review: Largely uneventful but commendable in the way the scenario mimics that of Erwin Schrödinger‘s life. Amy meets inexperienced physicist John and becomes a source for inspiration, much like Schrödinger’s mistress was for him (according to an in-story reference). As John and Amy become more serious, John’s other relationship with amateur artist Heidi becomes less so. There is some reference made to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle about fate and the vagueness of events, but it is tenuous at best. The science was nice…but I guess was hoping for a little more science fiction.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.

“Helen Remembers the Stork Club” by Esther M. Friesner [2005 short story]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF website.
  • Synopsis: Helen of Troy, now in her old age and living in New York City, begins to feel the sting of age.
  • Review: This one gets points for imagining the life of an elderly immortal (three thousand plus years since her supposed abduction launches the Trojan War) in modern times. Her hired escort has no idea of Helen’s powers; she is the daughter of Zeus, after all. (Daddy? Can I borrow some lightning bolts please?) When he screws her over, probably as a means of payback for having to listen to the old crone droning on and on about The Good Old Days, it’s payback time. Friesner, known for her humorous writing, layers on a level of sentimentality here that leaves both less effective: it’s not as funny as her story “The Shunned Trailer“, but neither is it sentimental enough to be all that memorable.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.

“Echo” by Elizabeth Hand [2005 short story]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF website.
  • Synopsis: The lone survivor of some unexplained catastrophe pines for her lost love, or more accurately, an unrequited love.
  • Review: This is essentially a science fiction version of Ovid’s Narcissus/Echo myth. While the story is beautifully written with flowing, eloquent language and scenes of serenity and calmness, the overall narrative of the story is of more importance to the character and not so much to the reader. This might be fitting considering the self-absorbed nature of the myth, but the effect killed the dramatic aspect of the unspoken catastrophe.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.

“Pip and the Fairies” by Theodora Goss. [2006 short story]

  • Source: Strange Horizons.
  • Synopsis: The daughter of a children’s fantasy writer buys the house where she grew up, where the characters to her mother’s “Pip” stories were real.
  • Review: There is some interesting storytelling technique here in that the picture is painted by hopping between an interview with the daughter (on whom the in-story character of Pip is based), flashbacks to conversations with her mother and excerpts from the Pip stories. Even so, this story, which mixes the line between fantasy and reality in much the same way as Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, is simply not my cup of tea.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Short Story.

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