Jul 19 2011 6:10pm

The 2011 Hugo Awards Nominees for Best Short Story

The final ballot of the 2011 Hugo Award only lists four short stories rather than the usual five (or occasionally six), because of a 5% requirement in rule 3.8.5 of the WSFS constitution. I’m guessing this hasn’t happened very often in the past. Was the field of nominations so broad that many individual stories received a few nominations, causing only four of them to reach the 5% threshold? I wouldn’t be surprised. Is this in part because of the excellent online markets that are broadening the short story field significantly? Hard to say. Sign of the times: for the first time, the majority of the nominees on the final ballot in this category appeared online first—in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and here on Tor.com, while only one was first published in a traditional magazine.

Here’s a quick look at the four short story nominees nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards.

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn appeared in the very first issue of Lightspeed Magazine. Somehow I missed it that month and instead read it several months later, when it appeared in John Joseph Adams’ excellent Brave New Worlds anthology of dystopian SF. John Joseph Adams is also the editor of Lightspeed Magazine, and both editor and magazine received their own Hugo nominations this year, for Best Editor, Short Form and Best Semiprozine respectively.

“Amaryllis” may be the most bucolic example of dystopian SF I’ve ever read. A coastal society of fishing crews live off the sea and the land. The most advanced technologies that are mentioned are some solar panels and windmills. To all initial appearances, it’s a pastoral paradise. But all of this is the result of an unspecified disaster in the past: overproduction, overfishing, unsustainable growth. As narrator Marie says: “I’d seen the pictures in the archives, of what happened after the big fall.” By now, everything is rationed. Society has been forced to maintain, rather than expand. The fishing crews have quotas: bring in too much and you get penalized for overfishing. And of course, there’s also a quota on the amount of human beings that are allowed. Marie herself is the daughter of someone who “broke quota” with an unlicensed pregnancy. Now running her own fishing crew, she has to deal with an elder still out to take revenge for what her mother did, and a young crew member who wants her own chance to live a complete life. “Amaryllis” is a gorgeous, moving story, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it took the Hugo this year. You can read the story here.


“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal

“For Want of a Nail” appeared in the September 2010 issue of Asimov’s. The magazine’s editor, Sheila Williams, received a nomination for Best Editor, Short Form. The story can be read online here.

The title is the first part of a proverb:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This story uses some of the same themes as “Amaryllis” but in a completely different setting. We’re on a generation starship, and conservation of resources is imperative. Procreation has to be approved, and people who become useless go into the recycler. The story initially focuses on Cordelia, the malfunctioning ship’s AI who needs a spare part to be able to access her memory. This is vitally important because she/it also contains the permanent historical records of generations of the ship’s inhabitants. Eventually it becomes clear that the AI is compromised, reprogrammed to protect an elderly member of the family who is suffering from dementia. “For Want of a Nail” is a beautiful story about what it means to go obsolete, both for technology and for people. It has a lovely, melancholy atmosphere, and it’s also one of those short stories that feels like it could be a chapter in a much longer work. I’d definitely be interested in reading more material in this setting.


“Ponies” by Kij Johnson

And then there’s “Ponies” by Kij Johnson, which won the Nebula for Best Short Story this year, tied with Harlan Ellison’s “How Interesting: A Tiny Man.” If you haven’t read “Ponies” yet, you can find it right here on Tor.com. (Seriously, if you haven’t yet, go check it out now—it’s very short and very much worth your time and attention.)

Kij won last year’s Nebula Award (and was nominated for a Hugo) with the unforgettable story “Spar,” and in some ways “Ponies” is very similar to “Spar.” It’s another short gut punch of a story that conveys more meaning and emotion in a few pages than some novels manage in a few hundred pages. Like “Spar,” it’s hard to get out of your head once you’ve read it, because as surreal as it is, it’s also instantly recognizable. It’s chilling and so intense that it’s borderline abrasive. It’s a concept, boiled down to the bare essentials, presented with an economy of words that’s so stark it’s hard to look away...


“The Things” by Peter Watts

“The Things” was originally published in Clarkesworld in January 2010. Clarkesworld won last last year’s Hugo for Best Semiprozine and is on the ballot again this year. You can read “The Things” here and listen to it here.

Ages before homo sapiens appeared on Earth, an offshoot of an entity that has traveled through space and visited (or maybe more appropriately, “assimilated”) several planets crash-landed on the North Pole. It’s now been awakened and is busy possessing—or as it would say, “taking communion with”—the humans there. The whole story is seen from its perspective (actually various perspectives, as it takes over several humans and animals) and shows the workings of a very alien mind with ruthless accuracy. The alien has trouble comprehending how inefficient the life forms it encounters are and why they would want to resist communion. “The Things” is an amazing story to read because of the way it shows the alien’s gradual realization that humans are static, can’t shape-shift or share thoughts, and are essentially just poor isolated “things” that it must help achieve salvation. I originally wanted to start this write-up by saying that the story is “like the movie Alien seen from the alien’s perspective,” but the more I re-read “The Things,” the more I feel that this would be a horrible oversimplification, because this entity is both a lot scarier and a lot more understandable than H.R. Giger’s famous monster.  (ADDENDUM: Thanks to our intrepid commenters, I’m now aware that the story is actually written from a movie alien’s perspective—just not the one I was thinking of.)

And there you have it, four excellent short stories on this year’s Hugo ballot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed my mind about which one to vote for. You can register for Renovation and cast your vote until July 31st.

Next up: the five novelettes on this year’s Hugo ballot.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. Many of his reviews can be found at Fantasy Literature.

Luis Milan
1. LuisMilan
I originally wanted to start this write-up by saying that the story is “like the movie Alien seen from the alien’s perspective,”

Or you could have written that the story IS John Carpenter's "The Thing" seen from the alien's perpective. Because, it is.
Ben H
2. dripgrind
I originally wanted to start this write-up by saying that the story is “like the movie Alien seen from the alien’s perspective,”

It's more like the movie The Thing seen from the alien's perspective. Really, it's a lot more like that.
Stefan Raets
3. Stefan
Oh, that's wonderful. I obviously haven't seen that movie (yet), but I somehow knew the story felt cinematic. I look forward to re-reading it once I've tracked down the movie. Great story - I loved it even though I was completely unaware of the source material.
René Walling
4. cybernetic_nomad
If you want to be aware of the entire cannon, in addition to The Thing (1982), you'll probably also want to watch The Thing From Another World (1951). not to mention reading "Who Goes There" by John Campbell (yes, the John Campbell)
5. JennyC
I posted my winners picks on my blog but as far as the short stories go, I liked Johnson best and Vaughn close behind. I am definitely going to buy the supporting membership next year so I can vote!
Stefan Raets
6. Stefan
Jenny - you can still buy a supporting membership until July 31st, if you want to vote. There's a link to the membership page in the article.
Steve Taylor
7. teapot7

I haven't been keeping up with the fiction on tor.com, so I hadn't read Ponies before. I feel like I've just been run over by a truck.

It doubtless helps that I have an eight year old daughter and, like any parent, fear for the scars and calluses the world is going to give her.
Alex L
8. Quercus

It's nice to be wrong: I like 50% of the stories. Amaryllis and For Want of a Nail are lovely, compact stories which build a world and leave the implications for the reader to find. Amaryllis in particular is great, with the fall/collapse/disaster alluded to at most, and the after-effects (such as a society built on rationing and punishing offenders by withdrawing their rations) are drawn in such a matter of fact way that it's easy to miss what this means.

Of the other two nominees, I don't find Ponies to have much of an impact - children can be nasty and in the future, their toys will be just as bad - and I profoundly dislike The Things. The Thing from the alien's point of view is an interesting premise, but the sour, misanthropic tone is unpleasant.

So, Amaryllis as the winner and For Want of a Nail in an honorable second place.
Bob Blough
9. Bob
Having read all the stories ever nominated for the Hugo, and having reviewed short stories for Tangent Online for the past year, I am very disappointed by these nominated stories. Only "Things" is worthy of nomination and it was not even in my top five picks of the year. I have to say that these nominations and the nominations for novelettes really discouraged me. There were so many better ones. But I can't really speak - I was not a member this year and so was not entitled tovote. But they are a letdown.
Kyle Motsinger
10. Urstoff
I haven't read Amaryllis, but of the other three, The Things is my clear favorite. Ponies is too obvious, and For Want of a Nail somewhat too gentle. Plus Watts is the only one that's really pushing sci-fi boundaries here, experimenting with different models of mind (and life). In some ways, the thing shares affinities with the aliens in Blindsight: they are nervously and mentally distributed. In this case, though, the thing is conscious and reflective.

Is it a good story? Maybe, maybe not, but with the other stories not being very impressive, it wins on concept alone.

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