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
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.