For the first time in a while the Nebula short fiction list completely disagreed with the Hugos. This doesn't become a common occurrence until the late 90's when suddenly years where at least one story was selected for both awards becomes rare. Looking back at the 1986 Hugo winners (the Nebulas are dated to the year of the eligibility period while Hugos are dated by the year the ceremony occurs in) I have to conclude that it was a very good year for short stories. The only Hugo winner I didn't care for was Fermi and Frost and I liked all three of the Nebula winners.
"Sailing to Byzantium"
by Robert Silverberg
1985 Nebula Winner for Best Novella
In a distant future the few humans on Earth live in a state of perpetual tourism. Ideal forms of cities from the past are revived for a few months at a time and they journey among them to see the sights. They live in decadence and seek out novelty. Traveling among them is a man from the mid-80's. The experience with the malleable world is giving him an existential crisis. This comes to a head when his traveling companion leaves him.
For a story about aimlessly drifting from city to city Silverberg puts together a tight package. It helps that the narrator recognizes the complexities and implications of his situation. This means he spends a lot of time brooding but when the time comes for him to confront reality he is able to seize it. His concerns mirror the reader's concerns about the stage scenery world he inhabits and at the same time is not so weighed down by them to stop living among the delights.
Silverberg confronts a lot of philosophical questions in "Sailing to Byzantium" but he never confronts the reader with most of them. The questions are there as part of the setting, unspoken implications of the narrator's concerns. They help texture the story and add one more layer to it.
The setting may only make sense from a metaphorical context and the characters might be more direct than is strictly necessary but this was a fairly good story. I was uncertain where Silverberg was going to take his ideas until it ended and even then I'm not certain where things will go. I enjoyed "Sailing to Byzantium" a lot and strongly recommend it.
"Portraits of His Children"
by George R. R. Martin
1985 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette
An author who has found success by basing his characters on real people has driven his daughter away from him. She starts sending him portraits of some of those characters and after each arrives he is confronted by the character come to life.
Martin paints a portrait of his own in this story of an author who is one of the most dispicable characters I've ever encountered. A character who had a chance for one moment of redemption and bled it for his art. It's really easy to hate the protagonist.
And yet the situation is compelling. Is it a complex revenge? A attempt at reconciliation? An intervention? This is a text book example of how to take an unlikable character and make them the center of the story. I hated him and I still wanted to know what would happen to him in the end.
While I can't say much about it I also really appreciated the ending. There's a dramatic shift in tone about two-thirds of the way through the story and then one more twist at the end. The first not only goes to a place that the reader is probably expecting but takes it one step beyond that. The other throws the conclusion into ambiguity in just the right way to make it stick with you. All of that makes "Portraits of His Children" well worth seeking out.
"Out of All Them Bright Stars"
by Nancy Kress
1985 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story
This was the weakest of the three Nebula winners for short fiction in 1985. On the other hand that still means it's really good.
Aliens have recently arrived on Earth and life goes on. One of them breaks from his handlers and wanders into a small town diner to order a meal on his own. The waitress serving him gets to observe first hand how things have changed.
Kress's story is a theme that was old even when she wrote it though she tells it very well. Our perspective on the universe may have changed but people are still people. That's the real heart of the tale: life goes on just as wonderful and terrible as it did before. What made Kress's spin on this interesting was that she captured the personality of that waitress trapped in a life of quiet desperation perfectly. That narrow human focus made the story greater than its peers and interesting to read.