Thursday, May 21, 2009

2009 Hugo Nominees - The Short Stories

Last year I only discussed the three short fiction categories for the Hugo nominations. I'm going to expand things a little bit more this time around. I'm not going for all of the nominated novels or related non-fiction. I'm also not planning on the short form dramatic presentation category since I'm intentionally behind on two of the shows nominated (maybe as the summer progresses and I catch myself up on Lost and Battlestar Galactica). I have however read four of the six nominees in the graphic story category and have easy access to the remaining two. So I'm going to cover all of the short fiction nominees, the long form dramatic presentation, and graphic story categories.

First up are the short stories which demonstrate to us that if your story starts with any letter greater than "F" people just won't reach it when they're reading for nominees. All of the links will take you to a copy of the story. Here they are in the order which I read them:

“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson - This story is from that school of urban fantasy where something strange happens to give someone's life meaning. In this case it's a set of strange monkeys who perform an impossible disappearing trick. Their owner purchased the act for one dollar from the previous owner when her life was at its lowest point. There are two things that make this story more effective than most along these lines. First the style that it's written in is a disjointed set of notes that carries quite a bit of information. Also the reader gets some answers that add a touch of charm to its conclusion. I enjoyed the story quite a bit.

“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang - This might be my least favorite Chiang story which puts it on the level of good but not spectacular. In it there is a strange world filled with compressed gas driven automatons. One of them recognizes that something is changing within themselves or the world and undertakes extreme measures to understand. Once he does he finds that the nature of the universe is far more cruel than he could imagine. There's some direct global warming parallels in the story but this is not a story about environmentalism beyond the biggest of the big picture. Instead Chiang focuses on how understanding a small thing can change the fundamental understanding of the universe. The problem with this is that it means that the reader gets a lot of exposition. And when I say a lot I mean metric tonnes of it. The concepts raised are intriguing and the narrator's voice carries it well enough but this is not a very tight story and that's due to the quantity of data that has be thrown at the reader.

“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal - This is an astoundingly short story; I haven't done a word count on it but I'd be surprised if it exceded a thousand. Still it's not imposssible for a good story to be told in that space; unfortunately "Evil Robot Monkey" isn't a very good story. There's a smart monkey who scults clay and swears at children who make fun him. That's almost the entire story right there. It comes across as one-tenth of a story rather than something complete. Characters exist only as the broadest outlines and plot is non-existant. There's not even an interesting prose style to give it some strength.

“Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick - For this short story a cleaning robot at a church is inadvertantly converted to Christianity by the reverand. For the first half of the story I thought that Resnick was going someplace interesting with the difference between faith and knowledge. I suppose I should say that I was surprised by the second half but the surprise was that anyone would write a story where robots were standing in as objects of human prejudices today. Those stories were stale in the 1950's when they were socially relevant; today it's just clumsy. Despite being a decent storyteller Resnick can't do much with such a worn out story. I found the initial philisophical questions raised much more interesting than the flat characters and when they vanished for a quick lesson that "Prejudice is bad" they couldn't carry it.

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick - Swanwick's story also uses an ancient SF theme: two seperate aliens that cannot trust each other are forced together by circumstances to join together in order to cross dangerous territory. In this case it's a human from a libertarian distopia joining with an alien from a society that holds trust as the highest virtue. Together they're on the run from the destruction of the alien's city which was betrayed and they carry with them a library containing information beyond calculable value. What makes this story work is the ambiguousness of it; while both character's hold their society's values in great esteem they also recognize the limitations of it even before the story begins. So while it plays with the "learning about other cultures" theme there is an undercurrent that both already know those lessons. It also helps that the story has a unique viewpoint: a ghost AI that runs one a spacesuit. It's a subtle story that has some interesting layers and I appreciated it for that.

So my ballot would be:

“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”
“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled”
No award
“Article of Faith”
“Evil Robot Monkey”