It’s awards season again, and I’ve found the SFWA’s Nebula Awards a nice snapshot of the science fiction and fantasy community’s perception of quality writing, and a concise sample of themes and topics within the SF&F genres that are resonating with readers. My reading time is limited, so it helps to have a list of good stories already filtered from an increasingly noisy literary environment.
I focus on the shorter forms, as the novels have usually been reviewed to death a long time ago, and I think you’ll find more up-and-coming writers—versus established heavyweights—writing short stories, novelettes, and novellas. I also believe good (or bad) writing stands out more in shorter tales, because there’s simply nowhere to hide—you can’t rely on intricate world building, obsessive historical research, or byzantine political intrigue to distract the reader from two-dimensional characters or weak storytelling.
The best short stories seize the reader by the lapels, deliver a headbutt to the nose, and depart with graceful alacrity. If I emerge from a story wondering muzzily if somebody got the license number of that truck that just ran over me, it’ll probably make my list.
I had high hopes for this year’s crop of short story nominees, but most of them left me unsatisfied in one way or another. GalleyCat has provided a helpful list of links to the nominated stories. Here’s how I think they stack up. These are my reactions as a reader, not a critique of the art and skill employed by writers well out of my league:
1. “Immersion,” by Aliette de Bodard - I reviewed this story last August when it first came out. It floored me then, and I think it’s the best of the nominated short stories this year. In a far-future setting, it mingles the fallout from advanced information technologies, colonialism, and inter-cultural relationships into a heartbreaking tale of a woman slowly losing her identity as she struggles to fit into two fundamentally incompatible societies. Read it, and don’t forget to jot down the number of that truck that just ran over you.
2. “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes,” by Tom Crosshill - This one began as a fairly conventional story about grown children coping with their parents’ mortality, but evolved into a keen and poignant commentary on the price of both life and afterlife in a society well on its way to transhumanism, though it waited almost too late to deliver its devastating punch line. Good stuff.
3. “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream,” by Maria Dahvana Headley - Magical realism in a wistful little story about betrayal and broken relationships. Clever work, very original and creative, but I thought it became a bit too infatuated with its own metaphors as the story progressed, and it strayed from raw soul-baring into some crass imagery that felt more gratuitous than honest.
4. “Nanny’s Day,” by Leah Cypress - A sort of “puzzle” story where the protagonist was maneuvered into a corner by a society that failed to appreciate the consequences of what seemed like a harmless and evolutionary change. My problem with this one is that it felt too much like an intellectual exercise, breaking through that detachment only near the end of the story. In a scenario where emotion was such an important factor, I wanted my emotions engaged sooner than later. Still, it was a solid story that grappled with the chilling ramifications of an issue that we’re beginning to confront in real life: whether biological ties, versus purely emotional and/or associative connections, should have primacy in human society.
5. “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” by Cat Rambo - A sad story about infatuation, obsession, and the meaning of love, transpecies and otherwise, on one of many alien worlds in a multiverse of infinite variety. I had a sense of unrealized potential as I read this one—the emotional connection was muted by a story that couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be passionate memoir or dispassionate metaphor.
6. “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” by Ken Liu - A surprisingly dry offering from Ken Liu, who won last year with “The Paper Menagerie,” a story I loved and rushed to recommend to anybody who would listen. I’m not a big fan of “encyclopedia” stories, in which we get a clinical account of some alien world’s taxonomy or sociological structure. This one was framed in a bit of poetry, and it was clever—I’m all for clever stories, and it was chock-full of beautiful imagery and fascinating alienness, but it made no emotional connection whatsoever with me. I’m sure there was plenty of subtle, embedded metaphor about the human condition, but absent a plot or characters to serve as a touchstone, I didn’t feel any compelling reason to go digging for it.
7. “Robot,” by Helena Bell - Obscure metaphor and rambling soliloquy seem to be in vogue now, and they took center stage in this story, which was equal parts bitter retrospective on a disappointing life and resentful direction to the titular domestic robot, all written by a poet enamored of free verse. Eloquent, but it didn’t speak to me.
I’ll post another day about the novelette and novella nominees. Until then, read a few of these, and if you’ve got a few moments, tell me what you think.