2009 Hugo Best Short Story Spotlight

The nominees for the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story are:

* “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
* “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Jul 2008)
* “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two)
* “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick (Baen’s Universe Oct 2008)
* “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Feb 2008)

For me, the short story is the place to experiment. The author can try something new and doesn’t need to feel obligated to keep it working for more than a few thousand words. At the same time, you should actually tell a story. There’s no point just transcribing a scene (even an exciting, action-packed scene) if there’s no story behind it. And while that sounds simple, it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s no surprise that the five candidates this year for 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story all tell a story.

With only one exception (the Ted Chiang story), the 2009 Hugo short story nominees deal with how humans interact with another race/species. All the stories talk, without exception, about what it means to exist. While these are fairly universal story devices, I found it unusual to see such broad similarity among the nominees.

Be forewarned, if you have not read these stories, it’s likely I will spoil something for you. Proceed with caution.

Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (originally appeared in Eclipse Two)

I always assume that everyone knows who Ted Chiang is, but perhaps that’s a mistake. He’s not published a novel to date, and over the course of almost twenty years of publishing, he’s only published some 11 stories. However, of those 11, seven of them have won an award, and three of those have won at least two awards. And while I do tend to over-focus on awards, I’m looking only at award-nominated fiction here so I feel the award percentage is relevant. You can see a complete listing of Ted’s awards here. I can only imagine the amount of pressure one could feel that every story should be at least award-nomination worthy. Is it even possible for someone to write at that high a caliber? Of course, taking the care and time to write award-nomination caliber fiction might explain why there are so few Ted Chiang stories (i.e., it takes that much time to write a story that good).

“Exhalation” takes us to a closed-system universe. The inhabitants seem to never leave their system, but in all other ways, they’re like us. Well, they also have tanks for lungs and those need to be replaced once they are empty. The story focuses on the fact that lungs and air drive the way of life for these people.

When it’s discovered that the source of the air is slowly diminishing over time, I couldn’t help but see the parallel with our own overuse of natural resources. Chiang very cleverly uses his story as an allegory of our own lives and how we are using resources without thinking about the fact that the resources are not endless. Still, I had a lot of difficulty with this story. I kept feeling like I was just missing something in its telling. Like there was some other allegory going on that was completely beyond me.

This is where the power of a Ted Chiang story works against a Ted Chiang story. Do I expect more from a Chiang story than I do from a story by another writer? I can say without a doubt that I do. So can I fairly judge this story? I honestly don’t know. Is it that this story doesn’t work as a story, or is just that the story doesn’t live up to the standard of something like “Hell is the Absence of God”? Is that even fair to this story? I’ve outright loved so many of Chiang’s stories that I felt let down when I found this one merely good instead of excellent.

If someone else wrote this story, what would I think of it? Then again, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a writer and having pre-existing expectations of that writer’s craft when heading into new work. That’s exactly what all writers are trying to achieve: a core audience that will seek them out.

And of course, the more time I spend away from a Chiang story, the more it dwells in my brain and keeps me thinking about it. Now that’s power. For a piece of short fiction to stay with someone and keep them thinking about is pretty amazing. The subtlety of the piece continues to impress me the longer I am away from it. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this story win the Hugo.

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (originally appeared in Asimov’s July 2008 issue)

This is easily my favorite of this group of stories, however I don’t know how it will resonate with Hugo voters. There are essentially no science fiction elements to this story, but it is extremely well-written. The story of a woman who bought a “circus” monkey act wherein the titular monkeys climb into a bath tub and disappear as the close of their act was very moving for me.

With minimal description, Johnson created the emotions and personas of the 26 monkeys and their handler. The set-up was nothing short of brilliant: where did the monkeys go? They always came back, often with strange objects, but what happened in between?

Huge spoiler alert.

While we never learn how they disappear, we do learn where they go, and I found that resolution very fulfilling. Part of me still wants to know more about how the disappearing works, but I think that would wreck the story.

End spoiler alert.

My preference would be for this to win the Hugo, but this is just different enough from a typical Hugo short story winner (is there such a thing?) that I think Johnson will have to settle for the honor of being nominated. I hope the story can get onto the World Fantasy ballot as I think it has a good shot of winning that award.

Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal (originally appeared in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two)

The shortest story of the nominees, “Evil Robot Monkey” tackles what it means to be human and how perception of a person is often based solely on their physical appearance. While that mirrors the major theme in the Resnick story (see below) it wasn’t so much the focus of this story as it was a component.

The real story is the interaction between the evil robot monkey (an enhanced monkey in a zoo) and the zoo staff. There is one person on staff who seems unperturbed about the state of this monkey whereas many of the others (and the zoogoers) feel the monkey is an abomination.

The ending is very sweet and touching. It’s almost an optimistic look towards a future where non-human (inhuman?) beings are treated as equal to humans. And I think this is where the story works for me: the fact that we live in a time where we can’t even treat each other with respect, the thought of giving that respect to something not human was very powerful for me.

However, as I’ve noted several times, the story’s length was a detriment for me. I would have liked more. And at the same time, I don’t know that the underlying structure is strong enough to bear the weight of more story. I also don’t know if the length was something set by the market the story went to, but I don’t think that was the case. The characters are so complete and so well-realized in so succinct a story that I just want more of them.

I don’t think the story is strong enough to get past a few of the other stories on the ballot to win, but I think we’re seeing the beginning of wonderful career.

Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick (originally appeared in Baen’s Universe, October 2008 issue)

When I started reading “Article of Faith,” I was disappointed. It felt like a topic that’s been covered in many other stories and novels over the years. The story is well-written, and the character of Jackson the robot feels very real to me. It just didn’t cover any new ground. I was disappointed by the outcome of the story, and just wanted more.

I don’t mean that I wanted the story to be longer; I wanted it to cover new ground. I did like the interweaving of religion into this storyline. I also liked the way in which the Reverend worked to explain a complicated subject (faith) to Jackson, his maintenance robot.

I actually did not expect the ending; I was hoping for something more optimistic. I was disappointed that Resnick took the easy, ugly side of faith/religion to resolve his story. It felt very convenient that the Christian masses would react so hysterically. It almost felt like the old movie trope where the man with a goatee is automatically the villian. One would hope that intelligent minds and cooler heads would exist and perhaps prevail, even within religion. Certainly the Reverend was a man who held an open mind.

The story is very well-written. I actually liked it quite a bit heading into the angry mob section. And the last few paragraphs are a nice coda on top of the story, but at that point I was let down enough that it didn’t change my opinion of the story overall.

Still, what will the Hugo voters think of it? I think there are stronger pieces that will bring home the prize, but we’ll have to wait and see.

From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick (originally appeared in Asimov’s February 2008 issue)

In my opinion, “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” should win the Hugo. It has excellent world creation, fantastical aliens, other worlds, space ships, advanced technology, conflict between races/species, and more. There’s a lot packed into this short story. And the important thing for me is that it didn’t feel overburdened.

The story is told from the point of view of a artificial intelligence hosted in a space suit. Humans have come to a planet inhabited by giant, intelligent millipedes. The millipedes’ society is based on trust and trust is used as a commodity/currency except it’s shared across all Queen-mothers and their cities.

The story starts off with the destruction of the mille city Babel. Europan Carlos Quivera is saved by his suit, which is currently inhabited by a simulacrum of his lover Rosamund. As he surveys the destruction, a mille named Uncle Vanya comes along and the two reluctantly agree to work together in order to slip past the invading army and get to a place of safety.

Uncle Vanya is carrying a copy of Babel’s library, and Quivera agrees to help carry it to Babel’s sister city Ur, for a price. Their relationship, already tenuous as the milles don’t trust the humans, starts off with distrust. Uncle Vanya believes that Quivera’s way of life is despicable, and he often insults Quivera as they talk, but as the two travel they realize in some ways they are not so different.

This story has adventure, it has emotional conflict, it has history, it has so much that I was surprised it wrapped itself up so nicely and succinctly. I’m always impressed by how well-realized Swanwick’s non-human entities are in his fiction.

John Klima is the editor of the Hugo and World Fantasy nominated magazine Electric Velocipede. He works full time as a librarian at a small college in the Midwest.


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