REVIEW: 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees

Like last year, I undertook a project to read the short fiction nominees for this year’s Hugo Award. (I undertook a similar Nebula short fiction reading project this year, too.) All the Hugo nominees were available online for free reading. Hooray for the Internets!

Overall, this was a fun project. However, I am still coming to terms with the fact that my tastes do not always mesh with those of the award-nominating populace. I guess I still have the misconception that award-nominated fiction represents the best of the best. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I expect all the stories to be 5-star knockouts. This just isn’t the case.

That said, all but one of the stories were good or better. I was somewhat disappointed by the McDonald story, especially in light of how much I enjoyed River of Gods, but otherwise this is a strong batch of stories; stronger, I believe, than this year’s Nebula nominees. Coincidentally, two of the Hugo-nominated novellas (by Melko and Shunn) are also 2006 Nebula nominees.

While I’m comparing, the 2007 Hugo nominees contain a much larger percentage of science fiction stories than the Nebula nominees, which is fantasy-heavy. Oddly, my usual indifference towards fantasy seems to have been overruled in the Hugo nominees. The few that are here made quite good impressions. The Nebula ballot had some stories that left something to be desired.

In a nutshell, then, here are my impressions of the stories in each category, sorted from most to least enjoyable, except where ties are indicated by rating. Linked story titles point to the online versions. My winning picks are the tops ones listed in each category.

NOVELLAS

Lord Weary’s Empire” by Michael Swanwick

The Walls of the Universe” by Paul Melko

Inclination” by William Shunn

Julian” by Robert Charles Wilson

A Billion Eves” by Robert Reed

NOVELLETTES

All the Things You Are” by Mike Resnick

Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” by Geoff Ryman

Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth” by Michael F. Flynn

Yellow Card Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Djinn’s Wife” by Ian McDonald

SHORT STORIES

Impossible Dreams” by Tim Pratt

The House Beyond the Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Kin” by Bruce McAllister

How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman

Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed

Reviewlettes of the stories follow….


NOVELLAS

Lord Weary’s Empire” by Michael Swanwick

  • Synopsis: A classic-fantasy/urban-fantasy hybrid in which Captain Jack (really the character of Will from previous Swanwick stories) joins the underground misfit gang of The Army of Night, led by the charismatic Lord Weary.
  • Review: I was already loving this fast-paced-from-the-get-go adventure when I realized – as Will relayed some of his background to a suspicious Lord Weary – that this story took place in the same world as Swanwick’s superb story, “King Dragon“. As before, the blend of modern day references/technology and fantasy was intriguing. Where else can you find things technological and fantastical – like Elven-kings, Pepsi bottles, magic spells, Zippo lighters, the ghost-like haints, motorcycles, furry Wodehouse creatures and subway trains – sharing the same pages? Very cool indeed. The blend made “Fantasy with Elves” tolerable, although to be fair to that label, this was not a quest story. Instead, it was a trial by fire for Will as he tries to find his place in the world. The comfort provided by Lord Weary’s Army of Night suits Will’s skills and he quickly advances through the ranks by outsmarting the surface dwellers that descend down to the depths of the johatsu (“nameless wanderers” who live underground). The final confrontation – part of a war planned by Lord Weary that is either mad or pure genius – was unexpected and made the story a more personal one for Will. A great read all around.
  • Note: Set in the same universe as Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon and “King Dragon“.

The Walls of the Universe” by Paul Melko [I read this in March 2007. What follows is what I said then.]

  • 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: Also nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novella.

Inclination” by William Shunn [I read this in March 2007. What follows is what I said then.]

  • 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: Also nominated for the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novella.

Julian: A Christmas Story” by Robert Charles Wilson

  • Synopsis: Long after war and starvation have thrown society back into feudalism, a noble-born named Julian befriends a lower class stable-hand named Adam during a winter that sees their homeland on the brink of war.
  • Review: Wilson has created an interesting story that reads like a hybrid between post-apocalyptic sf and historical fiction. The story takes place long after the 20th century – “that period of great, unsustainable, and hedonistic prosperity, driven by the burning of Earths reserves of perishable oil, which culminated in the False Tribulation, and the wars, and the plagues, and the painful dwindling of inflated populations to more reasonable numbers.” Society – at least in this recognizable future America – has become one of feudalism with lords leading the masses and with technology no greater than a rifle. Julian Comstock comes from the noblest of families, one that has resided in the President’s chair for thirty years. Julian’s ward and former soldier, Sam Godwin, sees in a lower class stable-hand a friend for Julian. Adam, the narrator of the story, tells how he and Julian narrowly escape the conscription of their town’s citizens into the armed forces on the eve of war with Europe. Around this story float the themes of patriotism, social class and religion. (Christianity, in the form of the Dominion Church, is the predominant religion while others are either legally suppressed or culturally discouraged. In other words, the new Constitution of these 60 States of the Union allows freedom of religion…just as long as it’s Christianity.) The mood of the story mimics the gray skies of the fictional winter in which it is set. Even though the crux of the plot – that of Julian’s attempts to escape conscription at the hands of a suspicious uncle – lacks some much-needed drama, I found the writing to be engaging and easily consumable. But the major appeal for this science fiction fan was the echoing of the near-mythological 20th century. Julian is a Darwinist (Heresy!) who believes legend that man once walked on the moon. He seeks knowledge with a vengeance and, at one point, is agog at a newly discovered stash of ancient texts that includes a biology text and The History of Mankind in Space. This is rewarding in an Omniscient Viewer sense; we know what came before even if the characters are not altogether sure. The Church suppresses the advancement of knowledge, perhaps in hopes of avoiding a replay of past events. But the quest for knowledge remains. We see a replay of history and can only hope that mankind will once again reach for the stars.

A Billion Eves” by Robert Reed

  • Synopsis: A parallel Earths colonization story in which Kala seeks to break the accepted practice of female abduction and start a world that will not eventually be doomed through ecological extinction.
  • Review: This wonderfully crafted story has an unassuming – and seemingly non-sf – start. It concerns a family vacation and the daughter’s (Kala’s) indifference towards it, an unassertive mother along for the ride and a brother, Sandor, who is determined to prove his manliness. While this seems normal on the surface, hints are dropped that something is not quite right; places have names like Mother Ocean and there are references to the First Father, for example. When the car breaks down, the family learns of abducted women missing from the area and they meet a secretive stranger driving a boarded-up bus. What is soon learned about this world is that this man – one of many – is setting out to be a new Adam to his multitude of Eves on a parallel world, thanks to a “ripper” device that transports them there. We learn through some back story that humanity has spread across a multitude of parallel Earths in this way, in hopes of creating a new, perfect world through quite unconventional means. Owen was the First Father who abducted his Eves by activating his stolen ripper device next to a sorority house. Generations later, the cycle is repeated, again and again, with one of these worlds being the world of Kala and Sandor. The entire story carries with it a dark mood as we learn that the culture, while it does not directly condone it, quietly accepts the abduction of women. Kala herself is abducted until Sandor steps in and takes steps that cause people to banish him. Eventually, Kala sets out to change the norm in her own way and, at the same time, address the ecological problems facing all existing Earths. The idea of parallel worlds and personal colonization initiatives is a cool one, but this story seemed to meander a bit, mostly in the middle parts. It was as if it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a parallel Earth story, a colonization story, the story of Kala and Sandor, or a Save the Earth story. The effect is a somewhat muddled story that lacks some focus but is entertaining all the same.

NOVELLETTES

All the Things You Are” by Mike Resnick

  • Synopsis: When war veterans begin putting themselves in mortal danger, law enforcer Gregory Donovan seeks to find out why.
  • Review: The story starts in the middle of a hostage situation where once heroic citizen puts himself in mortal danger. Donovan learns that other people are similarly acting dangerously. The thing they have in common is a wartime battle on the planet Nikita which has been desolate since the skirmish. Donovan follows that trail. This story has Resnick’s trademark sentimental moments and it’s also a fast-paced, well-written story that spins a compelling mystery, even if the reader figures out the reason for the men’s behavior several paragraphs before Donovan. Well done.

Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” by Geoff Ryman

  • Synopsis: The daughter of the infamous Cambodian leader of the Khmer Rouge (the man behind the “Killing Fields“) falls in love with a young cell phone salesman and is haunted by the ghosts of her father’s past.
  • Review: This is really a story about redemption. Sith, a shallow rich girl who has always has everything done for her, falls for Dara and hides from him her true identity. She has little memory of her father and refuses to learn about his past actions. But she is forced to face that past when the ghosts of those murdered in the Killing Fields begin contacting her. This is done through copy machines that print their faces even when they are unplugged, or through cell phones and iPods. Eventually, she must come to terms with the atrocities of the past and finally attempts to atone for the sins of her father. Ryman’s haunting story is powerful for its fact-based background alone, although the repeated reminders that the story is entirely fictional took away from its immersive quality. The prose is clean and to the point. However, Sith’s transition from spoiled brat to redeemer probably took longer than was needed. To Ryman’s credit, he managed to get this fantasy-indifferent reader totally bought in to the idea of ghosts.

Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth” by Michael F. Flynn

  • Synopsis: A series of vignettes in the lives of people affected by a Bermuda-Triangle-like anomaly that appears in a bay off Seattle and causes a passenger ferry to disappear.
  • Review: Flynn chooses an interesting method to tell the story of the disappearing ferry and the thousand people who were aboard. Through a multitude of vignettes, we learn that the anomaly, accompanied by strong winds and currents as well as a thick fog, is the result of magnetic forces that, perhaps, have opened a gateway to another world or plane of existence. One of the vignettes is a scientific paper discussing the conservation of “dynamic manifolds” and it suggests that the Elliot Bay anomaly is a singularity that appeared because of the expiration of another one, possibly the Bermuda Triangle. One vignette, dabbling perhaps a little too far into the experimental, is written as a script, complete with stage directions. Each mini story shows how the people left behind (a scientist, a fisherman, a young brother whose adventure club seeks to communicate through the “hole”, and a host of other characters) are affected by the disappearance of friends and loved ones – a beloved daughter here, an estranged husband here – and they are quite effective. To a point. There is a feeling of being strung along while the reader waits for the story of the passengers – a story that never comes. What happens on the other side? Are we sure there is another side? The varying modes of narrative in the vignettes highlight this avoidance to tell the story of the ferry, the one I wanted to see. Obvious parallels can be drawn with 9/11 and I suppose the waiting on the part of the reader echoes the waiting of the surviving family members, but the end effect is ultimately unfulfilling for that particular plot thread.

Yellow Card Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi

  • Synopsis: In an overcrowded Thailand, a Chinese refugee struggles to survive.
  • Review: Bacigalupi’s story is set in the same future of last year’s Hugo-nominee, “The Calorie Man” (see SF Signal review) where genetic engineering has wiped out all the crops save for those owned by the corporations that hold the few patents on resistant crop strains. The refuges that come to Bangkok were looking for a better future but found instead a life of extreme poverty. The country houses them in high rises without air conditioning, cramped together in unacceptable living conditions. The focus of the story is on Tranh, a Chinese refugee who was once a successful businessman until his people (and his family) were massacred. Now Tranh is left with nothing, struggling to find scraps of precious food. A not-too-promising job lead – which takes the first thirty percent of the story to get to while the narrative loiters with much world building – gives Tranh some slim hope of working his way up from poverty. In this, Tranh is a sympathetic character, a victim of unfortunate circumstance. Tranh also has a table-turning encounter with a former employee, fired in disgrace by Tranh himself but who is now much better off than his former boss. The employee (Ma Ping) shows compassion for Tranh in his time of need and Tranh’s circumstances elicit humility at first, then anger. This is a sign of things to come. Tranh’s situation gets the best of him and the hope of finding a job is overcome by a chance to get ahead at the expense of others. In short, his misfortune turns to desperation and a sympathetic character becomes much less so.

The Djinn’s Wife” by Ian McDonald

  • Synopsis: A famous dancer falls in love with an artificial intelligence.
  • Review: Set as a prequel to McDonald’s fantastic River of Gods, this piece has many of the ingredients that made that novel such a success: an “aeai” who is as much a character as any human one, threatened by the Hamilton Acts that prohibit his growth; a sympathetic enforcer from the Department of Artificial Intelligence (Thacker, a “Krishna Cop”); the political background of a water war between neighboring nations; and a hefty injection of Indian culture. Sad, then, that this story was nowhere near as engaging. The fault lies in the execution. The aeai named A.J. Rao, who is also a major figure in the negotiations for precious water, reveals himself to be a fan of the dancer named Esha. Esha immediately notes how handsome the AI has made himself in his mental manifestation – Esha “sees” him thanks to hardwired brain hardware. A desire for social status prompts Esha to proclaim Rao as her fiancée, a charade to which he readily agrees. Their relationship – and here is where it gets silly – eventually leads to sex in which Rao brings Esha to e-orgasm. Life is apparently perfect for Esha…until the realization hits her that Rao, being the computer simulation that he is, can manifest himself anywhere simultaneously – an ability that is the digital equivalent of unfaithfulness. At around the same time, Esha is confronted by Thacker who is concerned of Rao’s advanced intelligence since impending legislation would make Rao eligible for “excommunication”. Thacker eventually wins the affections of Esha while she plays the part of spy. Of course, Rao finds out, and all hell (briefly) breaks loose in an ending that lifts the enjoyment level of this story to the realm of mediocrity. Another thing that hurt the story was the occasional use of run-on sentences meant, I suppose, to convey the hurriedness of the speaker but instead were longwinded interruptions to the flow of the story.

SHORT STORIES

Impossible Dreams” by Tim Pratt

  • Synopsis: A movie aficionado stumbles into Impossible Dreams, a magical video store from an alternate world that appears only briefly in our world.
  • Review: Pratt’s matter-of-fact delivery makes for quick reading, but it’s hard not to stop and wonder about the Hollywood that could have been…like an Ellison-based version of I, Robot or Ron Howard’s version of the Ender’s Game movie. Pete’s realization that he stepped into a Twilight Zone episode takes a backseat to his love of movies…and Ally, the cute checkout girl. Like Pete, Ally also loves film and she sees movies as vehicles that give her hope to a less-than-perfect life. Even though the alternate universe conspires to prevent Pete from enjoying Hollywood bliss (thanks to modified versions of currency and video standards), goodness prevails and the story, wholly satisfying, comes off like “the feel-good hit of the season”. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

The House Beyond the Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

  • Synopsis: A virtual construct named Mathias must answer to his maker when he begins playing God to creations of his own making.
  • Review: Rosenbaum’s worlds-within-worlds story is simultaneously touching, dramatic and symbolic. Mathias creates worlds, like his own, where the beings eventually evolve beyond their artificial boundaries; they become aware that they are artificial. Mathias elevates them to his own world in the form of birds. Mathias wishes to save one of his constructs, a young girl named Sophie who has abusive parents. But the saved may instead turn out to be savior when Mathias own creator – a pilgrim to Mathias’ priest persona – comes knocking on Mathias door. Heady and mind-bending stuff.

Kin” by Bruce McAllister

  • Synopsis: In an overpopulated future, a 12-year-old boy named Kim wants an alien assassin to prevent the government-sanctioned abortion of his unborn sister by killing the pencil-pusher assigned to initiate it.
  • Review: And interesting premise in an interesting future. In the absence of suitable payment, the threat of the pending abortion forces Kim to learn alien customs in hopes of convincing the Antalou assassin to help him. Although overpopulation is an old sf trope (see Make Room! Make Room! By Harry Harrison, to whom this story is dedicated, or John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar), the idea of population control is still a workable theme that provides sufficient controversy and drama. This story deftly handles that controversy without preaching.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman

  • Synopsis: Two teenagers attend a different party than intended, thrown by girls who are nowhere near what they seem.
  • Review: An interesting premise, but it wasn’t quite clear what the intentions of “tourists” were, at least insofar as to shed light into what happened upstairs between Vic and Stella in the final scene. And I’m not sure that Enn, the narrator, would be so horny that he’d be so oblivious to what the girls were telling him about their origins. Even so, Gaiman’s conversational writing and realistic protagonists made this quick read on the right side of fun.

Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed

  • Synopsis: An episode-by-episode description of Invasion of a Small World, an unsuccessful television series about how an alien spacecraft landed on Earth millions of years ago, may actually be a factual message sent to Earth by those aliens.
  • Review: Reed’s synopsis-story is intentionally as dry as the television series it describes, no doubt aimed at television programming in general. And while it’s fun to try to figure out whether the alien creators who made the show are sending humans an “explore space” or “stay at home” message, nothing else really stood out.