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REVIEW: 2009 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees

Continuing the tradition of previous years (see the entries for 2006, 2007, and 2008), and just like I did for the Nebula Award short fiction finalists, I ventured forth and read the short fiction finalists for the 2009 Hugo Awards. Most of the stories fared well as they aligned well with my personal taste…which is to say that there were more sf stories than fantasy stories on this year’s ballot.

In a nutshell, 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. Story titles link to online versions, where available.

NOVELLAS
NOVELETTES
SHORT STORIES

Individual story reviews follow…

NOVELLAS

Robert Reed’s “Truth” is a claustrophobic take on time travel and terrorism. Most of the scenes are interrogations between Carmen, a top-level CIA agent, and Ramiro, the prisoner who claims be to one of a large group of terrorists from the future. Ramiro’s claim bears out; his biological makeup uses unexplained tech and he is able to predict astronomical events and horrendous catastrophes. Carmen’s job is to learn about Ramiro’s fellow temporal jihadists and their mysterious unseen leader, Abraham. It’s a tough job since Ramiro has already withstood years of torture. The story’s claustrophobia stems from the setting: a secret underground government facility with multiple layers of tightened security. It’s here that the story unravels, as experienced interrogator and crafty prisoner play what they see as a game – one person hiding the truth, the other looking for it. In a sense, the observing reader gets to play along as well, making this story an engaging mystery, though a bleak one to be sure.

Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” (originally reviewed in Galactic Empires edited by Gardner Dozois) presents a water world culture that encourages multiple personalities – specifically eight- upon entering adulthood. At that time, its members relocate to a “Manifold House” where their other identities are born. This story follows the life of the protagonist born as Ptey, a male identity that is eventually replaced by eight others over the course of the story. Ptey’s passage to adulthood includes dealing with girls, a friend who cannot become multiple (Cjatay, a so-called “Lonely”), and – perhaps more prominently – the alien Anpreen that orbit the neighboring world for fuel. Ptey learns a terrible and dangerous secret of the Anpreen and their reason for emigration – a secret that forces him, against cultural taboo, to assume a ninth personality so that he can join them in their travels. Things only get worse for poor Ptey when the Anpreen situation comes to a boil. This is a very brief skimming over the central story, which itself is brief in comparison with the mind-numbing ideas being tossed about like balls in a lottery machine. Too many ideas may have taken the edge off this story, but it definitely has a most epic feel to it, the scope of which still has my mind reeling in wonder.

“True Names” by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum (originally reviewed in Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders) appears to be a nod to the Vernor Vinge story with the same title (which I have not read). The story focuses around several characters: Beebe, a collection of autonomous sprites and sims; Paquette, Algernon and Alonzo, 3 entities who are sub-parts of Beebe; Demiurge, an entity existing at a different scale that runs Beebe as an emulation (I think); Firmament – the offspring (a messiah, of sorts) of the forbidden union between “strategy” and “filter” entities and who also houses a fragment of their assumed nemesis Demiurge. All of the characters here seem to be artificial intelligences that reside in an emulation — and by characters, I mean sentient entities called sprites, or more specifically classified as strategies and filters (and adapters, monitors, registries or synthetes) in the Standard Existence. But what does this mean? Are they posthuman intelligences? Are they simulations? The AIs, I suspect, seem to be the only survivors of the Singularity. So, characters can spin copies of themselves and merge them back again, or they can decant themselves into multiple forms, including sock puppets — but characters traits and actions remain: parental sacrifice, tantrums, jealousy, etc. If all this sounds a little confusing, it’s because the authors are always several steps ahead of the reader. It’s the kind of story where you kinda know what they’re talking about…and you get the gist of the environment. While playing catch-up-to-the-author is fun, to a certain degree, it shouldn’t do so at the expense of the story, which in this case desperately needed a more concrete handle to hold on to. But the end result is still a satisfying story that is sometimes thrilling in its mysteriousness but sometimes annoyingly abstract.

“The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress concerns a group of elderly residents is an assisted living facility and their sudden sharing of memories. Imagine that the cast of Cocoon took part in a Vulcan mind meld and you’ll get the idea. This is an interesting premise, but the story is way too long and stuffed with lots of extraneous details about characters who really seem to be secondary. The main character, semi-retired Physicist Henry Erdmann, is the most sympathetic of the group, and the most level-headed about the strange goings-on. Meanwhile his caretaker, Carrie, gets superfluous background information like an abusive relationship and awkward attempts at romance. There’s also a researcher who makes amazing leaps of deduction to arrive at the idea of “emergent complexity”. Even the good ending can’t fully justify the long wait that came before.

Charles Coleman Finlay’s novella “The Political Prisoner” (originally reviewed with the 2008 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees) is a sequel to his 2002 “The Political Officer” (reviewed here). It’s about political officer and double-agent Max Nikomedes, embroiled in the battle between the departments of Political Education and Intelligence on Jerusalem, a terraformed Christian planet. Max is taken prisoner and subjected to much cruelty. Despite some memorable and horrifying scenes of civil rights violations, I can’t say I enjoyed this one much more than the earlier one. It seemed about twice as long as it needed to be. It was, however, interesting to see the tactics used by the guards from the point of view of Max, himself an expert in breaking the human spirit.

NOVELETTES

“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi (originally reviewed in Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders) is the type of story that reinforces my love for short fiction. It’s such a well-crafted story; simultaneously engrossing and thought-provoking. Ong is a Vietnamese refugee in near-future America working for an online media conglomerate, writing stories about social and environmental issues. His work visa is in jeopardy because his ratings are low. Ong’s colleague, on the other hand, is securing huge bonuses writing about the latest celebrity gossip. The message here is that nobody really wants to read about depressing issues, no matter how important; collectively, we’d rather read about Paris Hilton than global warming. Ong’s desire to raise social awareness in a media orgiastic society is in stark (and fascinating) contrast with his father’s desire to express discontent with the tyrannical government, a rebelliousness that ended with him being taken from his family when Ong was a boy. Bacigalupi also prognosticates a likely future of media giants, not only technically (where hit rates are visually tracked in a “maelstrom” of living blobs of color), but also at a meta-level, where the information is a living, breathing thing that is tailored to the lowest common denominator of interest. Powerful stuff and, in Bacigalupi’s capable hands, a marvel to experience.

If you could smash together Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein you would get John Kessel’s wonderful story “Pride and Prometheus” (which was originally reviewed with the 2008 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees). It uses characters from both novels, most prominently Mary Bennet (the black sheep daughter of a well-to-do family that is most interested in seeing their daughters married to established gentlemen) and Victor Frankenstein (a visitor with some dark secrets). Mary forms a fondness for Victor, being intellectually drawn to “philosophical sciences”. Despite a slow start, I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the middle of the story, when Victor’s past catches up with him. I was hoping for a better ending, but I guess the interesting parallels between Mary’s and Victor’s lives will have to suffice.

Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” is a clever historical take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, placing the immortal shoggoth creatures under the attention of a black scientist in 1938. A few boat trips out to where they are located (with the help of a white fisherman) helps the scientist learn more than he bargained for, and enough to put him in a position of import regarding the shoggoths themselves. What could have merely been a simple horror story is instead turned into something more substantial when the author places the shoggoths’ genesis in pitch-perfect context with the personal experiences of the scientist, particularly regarding racism, and with the treatment of Jews in pre-WWII Germany.

Mike Resnick recently said in an interview that “a good story is any well-written, well-characterized story that elicits an emotional reaction”. That certainly holds true in “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders,” the story of two ailing old men, longtime friends who live in a retirement home, and who reminisce about the mysterious magic shop they frequented in their youth. An outdoor excursion leads them back there. Although the shop’s location has changed (and keeps changing), the proprietor, the enigmatic Alastair Baffle has not; he hasn’t aged a day. The narrator, Nate Silver, is skeptical about the man and his purported magic, but Nate’s friend, Maury Gold, hopes it will lead him to eternal youth. OK, sure, this is another “be careful what you wish for” story, but Resnick’s naturally flowing writing style is so engaging it’s hard not to be pulled in and feel something for these characters. The story’s only shortcoming was an ending that seemed to need a more dramatic impact to match the caliber of everything that led up to it.

“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner (which was originally reviewed with the 2008 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees) is a simple story, simply told, about Jack, who finds a Ray Gun that has fallen from space. Jack treats the ray-gun with respect, training himself to be a hero, and along the way gets a girlfriend or two. Soon Jack suspects that the ray-gun might be controlling some aspects of his life. Gardner’s straightforward prose makes this read like a children’s fable. Accordingly, the story seems to be lacking any significant element that propels this above simple plot-driven fiction.

SHORT STORIES

Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” (originally reviewed with Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan) is perhaps best described as a mechanical man’s notes on the scientific method used to discern the true nature of life: that it is predicating on changing air pressure. The setting is a self-contained world totally unlike our own, in which the mechanical men draw air from an underground well, replacing their lung tanks daily. Reading this, I am reminded of the wonder I felt when I first read “Surface Tension” by James Blish. Chiang’s story is equally enjoyable and just as wondrous. Well done.

“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (which was originally reviewed with the 2008 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees) is a seemingly superficial story about a traveling fairgrounds monkey act run by a woman named Aimee. The monkeys can perform amazing feats, including vanishing into thin air, only to return some time later carrying trinkets from wherever they’ve been. As the story unfolds, though, it reveals layers of surprising depth about life and Aimee’s in particular. It’s about loneliness and how she came to fill her life with meaningless things (like her boyfriend). And it’s about healing and moving on. Serious topics for a monkey act, eh?

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” (originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 edited by George Mann) is an affecting snapshot in the life of a chimp with an implant in his head that increases his intelligence. Unfortunately for him, that lands him in the “hellish limbo” of being “too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans.” He becomes the subject of ridicule of children in what is presumably a school where he spends his time behind a pottery wheel. The interesting premise is delicately overlaid with emotion by having a single human show the chimp some compassion, resulting in a quick-and-dirty sf short story that is both charming and memorable.

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick starts with a meteor strike on a human city on an alien planet of millipede-like creatures. The human named Quivera is guided to safety by his armor suit AI, which is based on Rosamund, the woman with whom he had an affair. Quivera’s trek through the dangerous steam jungles of the planet with “Uncle Vanya” (a native millie with low social status) leads to several interesting discussions about their two economies: the humans based on information, the millies’ based on trust. As much as I usually dislike economics in my sf, I have to say this didn’t bother me a bit, as it offered up a nice contrast to the two characters whose relationship begins as one of mutual utility, but evolved in the face of their predicament and adventures.

Mike Resnick’s “Article of Faith” concerns a subservient robot that works in a church and begins to question the pastor about religion. I’ve heard lots of griping about this story but I’m not exactly sure why. The worst that could be said about is that the “robot wants to be human” theme has been done numerous times before — even by Resnick himself in his wonderful story “The Big Guy” – but even that assessment depends on one’s personal reading history. As it is, Resnick’s dependable easygoing style delivers a story that doesn’t disappoint.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

5 Comments on REVIEW: 2009 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees

  1. Looks like a great bunch, but no Chiang in Dozois’s Years Best.

  2. Rick York // June 9, 2009 at 7:25 pm //

    John,

    Wasn’t there some one ho posted the full tets of everything but the novels?

    Rick York

  3. John Scalzi organized a 2009 Hugo Voter Packet for members of Anticipation, the 2009 World Science Fiction Convention, so that they can make an informed voting decision.  It included short fiction nomineed and novels.

  4. What about the novels? I am almost done with the Novels section, just one more left. This is my first time voting, and everything seems pretty good to me.

  5. >>What about the novels?

    Do you mean the Hugo Voter Packet?  It also contains the novels.

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