Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Review - The 2008 Hugo Award Short Story Nominees

While I don't read enough current novels to even touch on the nominees for the novel category (my early money is on The Yiddish Policeman's Union in a Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell style win but that's just a guess based on which book has gotten popular acclaim outside of science fiction) almost all of the short fiction nominees are available online and I've read them all. There are some that are pretty good and some that left me scratching my head wondering why that got on the list. So let's start with the short stories and over the next few days I'll move up to the longer categories.

The nominees are:

"Distant Replay" by Mike Resnick

An old man finds a young woman just like his departed wife and strikes up a friendship with the her. She's uncertain about her fiance and he offers advice from his own past before trying a different solution.

There's nothing really wrong with this story but to me it never elevated past being cute. I just wasn't interested in the characters and there was nothing else to the story other than them.

"Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter

The universe is rapidly coming to the end in this story which features it from the point of view of a woman reconnecting with her mother in the last year of the Earth's existence. As the fabric of the universe crumbles the world is receiving many signals from deep space indicating intelligent life.

I have some problems with the universe wide disaster as presented in the story but the real point is the human interaction and the behavior in the face of inevitable destruction and so I didn't mind that. Baxter tells this story well in brief, staccato chunks and as a result it doesn't overstay its welcome by wallowing in the breakdown of society. I wouldn't call the story brilliant but I found it to be a particularly fine bit of work.

"A Small Room in Koboldtown" by Michael Swanwick

This is a fairly generic locked room murder mystery that relies on the protagonist stumbling onto a key fact about the victim that I would hope that anyone doing a basic investigation would realize immediately. It's set in some kind of modern fantasy world and is apparently part of a series.

This story is weak presumably because it's starting from an assumption that readers are familiar with the setting which I was not. This is particularly bad for a locked room murder mystery because they're puzzles for the reader and in this case it was obvious from the start that the puzzle wasn't even approachable unless you had the background. So the mystery was a bust but that's the only major story element worth mentioning; the characters all meant nothing to me but were written like I should know who they were.

"Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear

This story of a boy and his dying robot war machine is schmaltzy but not completely ineffective. A severely damaged mech after civilization has fallen walks a beach gathering debris to turn into necklaces as a memorial to its fallen comrades. While doing this it befriends a child and teaches him about life. While they didn't have to take the mech behind the barn and shoot it this wasn't a very original story. It was told reasonably well from the point of view of the war machine.

"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken MacLeod

A man has to go to a star system where a previous colony collapsed and determine what happened. When he gets there he finds something radically different from what he expected and has to deal with the possibility of genocide. There were a lot of very interesting ideas in the story but for some reason the prose never grabbed me. It might have been that the smarmy narrator was a bit too insufferable or it might have been that the pacing just felt off but I couldn't connect with the story at all.

So based on that my ballot would be:

"Last Contact"
No award
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?"
"Distant Replay"
"A Small Room in Koboldtown"