2006 Hugo Awards: The Annual Mega-Meta-Review, Part 2: The Short Fiction

Continued from this post.


Abigail Nussbaum and Evelyn Leeper have blazed a trail here by reviewing all the nominated novellas. Their rankings are completely different from mine. Go have a look.

5) “Inside Job” by Connie Willis. Story of a sceptic and debunker in today’s California who has to deal with the ghost of H.L. Mencken and a glamorous assistant. Willis can do funny, and do interesting characters, and do wacky concepts, but the intellectual foundations of this story were too slender to sustain something of this length before the essential contradictions kill your suspension of disbelief. Also not especially funny. In Jonathan Strahan’s anthology, Best Short Novels: 2006. Shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best Novella and the Sturgeon Award.

Mike Kozlowski: “the story’s actually less irritating than I was expecting. But then, I was expecting something pretty damn irritating, so that’s not saying a whole lot.” Abigail Nussbaum: “simply dull”. Evelyn Leeper thinks it has “a major underlying flaw“. was underwhelmed. Amber Taylor: “ultimately unsatisfying“.  Vardibidian: “terribly light“. But Rick Kleffel liked it (and again). So did Leona Wisoker, Katey Knapp, here, Jeff Youngstrom, Alohatiki, lislemck, L. I. Rapkin, Anne K.G. Murphy, Mark R. Kelly, Cabell Gathman, here, here, here, here, here, here, and Emily Reich. : “adorably funny“. Carol O liked it with reservations, as did Cap’n Neurotic.

4) “Identity Theft”, by Robert J. Sawyer. I actually nominated this one, a Sawyer story that for once I found acceptable, taking the absurd premise of last year’s dismal Hugo nominee “Shed Skin” and putting it into a film noir setting on Mars. The ending is a bit too pat but it is otherwise enjoyable. But really, the other three nominees are all far better. Full marks for imagination and genre combination; unfortunately let down a little in the execution, as we the readers can see the plot coming from miles away. Shortlisted for the Nebula (which is why I read it).

I found surprisingly few other on-line comments on this story. Abigail Nussbaum is suitably caustic. John DeNardo is a little more positive. Joe Karpierz liked it.

3) “Burn”, by James Patrick Kelly (PDF, text, RTF). Lots and lots to like here, planet at the edge of the universe trying to revert to Thoreau-style union with nature against the wishes of the original inhabitants, complex hero, society disrupted by contact with the galactic mainstream, all pretty absorbing. I still think the other two stories are better, but this is a good long read and would have been a worthy winner in a different year. In The Year’s Best Science Fiction #23 edited by Gardner Dozois. Shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best Novella.

Cory Doctorow: “I can’t recommend it enough“. Jeff VanderMeer: “intelligent, thoughtful, and provocative“. Cheryl Morgan: “very thoughtful“. Jonathan Strahan: “extraordinary“.  felt it was too short. Also positive: Mark Watson,  here, Wally Conger, Tom Easton.

But : “well written but really didn’t have a satisfying conclusion“. Niall Harrison/: “rather average and quite predictable“. Evelyn Leeper: “impenetrable“.  was utterly unimpressed.

2) “The Little Goddess”, by Ian McDonald. Set in a similar time and place to his superb River of Gods (runner-up for last year’s Best Novel Hugo), this is the story of a little girl who becomes a Nepalese goddess. So far, so Tombs of Atuan. But South Asia in the mid-twenty-first century is very very different from Earthsea, and we get a gripping narrative of growing up while nanotechnology messes (literally) with your head. Very very good. In Jonathan Strahan’s anthology, Best Short Novels: 2006 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction #23 edited by Gardner Dozois. Shortlisted for the Sturgeon Award

Russ Allbery: “one of the best short stories I’ve read“. Kate MacLeod: “Every detail is perfect, but unlike in many scifi stories, the technical details are not the point” and “I liked it immensely“. Evelyn Leeper puts it top of her list. Also positive: Dawn Burnell/Brittany Marschalk. Abigail Nussbaum has the peculiar objection that it is too similar to River of Gods (though she liked the novel too). The “mundane sf” crowd claim it as one of theirsdisagrees.

1) “Magic for Beginners”, by Kelly Link. I have to say that I really don’t have the faintest notion what was going on in this story, but I simply loved reading it. I can’t begin to describe it other than to say that it is about teenagers, fandom, families, and magic, and that doesn’t seem to come near capturing its essence. A true classic which will keep people puzzled for years. In Jonathan Strahan’s anthology, Best Short Novels: 2006. Shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best Novella and the Sturgeon Award. Won the Nebula and the BSFA Award.

Abigail Nussbaum: “a better written, more intelligent, more imaginative piece than any other on the shortlist, or for that matter any other I’ve read this year, and great fun to boot”. : “This is beautiful. It’s brilliant. It’s not perfect–to be perfect it would have to continue on and on; it’s not nearly long enough, as long as it is.” Dennis Lim: “heartbreakingly perfect“. : “breathtakingly wonderful“. : “it really blew me away“. : “absolutely sublime“. Also very positive (in most cases reviews are of the collection with the same title): Cory DoctorowClaude Lalumiere, Geneva Melzack, Laura Miller (and here), Missy Schwartz, Lev Grossman, Miriam Jones, Alan Williams,  here,  here, Phyllis Fong, Carol OSteven Shaviro, Jenny Spadafora here, Sean Melican, Peter Bebergal, Kim Hollis, James, Paul Jessup, and Nina MacLaughlin (who seems to have the wrong photographs).

However  is baffled,  “didn’t like it at all“, and  was not completely convinced. Russ Allbery: “Where’s the rest of the story?” Evelyn Leeper: “It seemed fairly pointless and uninvolving to me.”


Abigail Nussbaum and Evelyn Leeper have also written up the nominees. All three of us agree on which is the worst story of the bunch, but differ on the rest. Interestingly, two nominees (my favourite two), “The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi and “Two Hearts” by Peter Beagle, were both published in the same issue of F&SF.

5) “Telepresence”, by Michael Burstein. Burstein’s one really memorable story is “TeleAbsence”, published in 1995, which probably helped get him the 1996 Campbell Award for Best New Writer. That story was about a future society in which education for the privileged few comes via virtual reality “spex”; a kid from an impoverished background gets hold of a pair of spex and his life is (of course) transformed. This year’s nominee, “Telepresence”, takes the same central character, but grown up now, and trouble-shooting a nasty incident involving the latest virtual reality educational software. It is a huge disappointment. The prose is clunky, the plot unengaging.

Sam Tomaino liked it, as did Brit Marschalk/Douglas Hoffman, and here. Abigail Nussbaum and Evelyn Leeper did not. Mark Watson found it “cheesy” and poorly paced.

4) “i, robot”, by Cory Doctorow. Written as part of the author’s plan to “pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf’s classic narratives”, this story “describes the police state that would have to obtain if you were going to have a world where there was only one kind of robot allowed and only one company was allowed to make it”. Unfortunately, though well written and tightly plotted, the story pushed several of my “blah” buttons. I hate most stories about intelligent humanoid robots, and I am not at all fascinated by Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics (these two facts are probably related); and on top of that, though I agree with the political point Doctorow is making, I thought it was done much too heavy-handedly. In Jonathan Strahan’s anthology, Science Fiction: The Very Best of 2005. Shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best Novelette and the BSFA Award.

Rave reviews from Elf Sternberg, Ian Spray, Bill Kerr. Peter Hollo/ here, Dolemite, here, Jiri Baum, Vhata Vas Hyah, Aaman Lamba, Alexandre Lemieux, Jordan, and Mark Watson liked it too. But Matt Arnold shares some of my reservations.

3) “The King of Where-I-Go”, by Howard Waldrop. This is a nice story about the Fifties, telepathy experiments, and alternate realities, in Alabam and Texas. It didn’t pack quite the emotional punch that I would have liked such a story to include, but is generally OK. In Jonathan Strahan’s anthology, Science Fiction: The Very Best of 2005, and Rich Horton’s anthology, Science Fiction: The Best of the Year. Shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best Novelette.

Sam Tomaino: “wonderful“. Mark R. Kelly, “evocative… though its change-the-past story is fairly routine”. James Palmer: “a nice, quiet, little nostalgia piece“.

2) “The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi. In a future energy-starved Mississippi valley, a petty criminal is sucked into a plan to subvert the laws on genetically modified crops. Neatly and competently done, but without the emotional spark that some writers would have included. In The Year’s Best Science Fiction #23 edited by Gardner Dozois, and Jonathan Strahan’s anthology, Science Fiction: The Very Best of 2005.

John Knouse: “nothing short of brilliant“. Niall Harrison/: “elegantly built“. E. Sedia liked it. So did David Roy. Sam Tomaino: “very good“. Abigail Nussbaum rather grudgingly thought it “probably the best of the bunch”. Mark Watson: “not quite up to the standard of [Ted] Chiang, but close enough“. Russ Allbery thought it “rather straightforward”.

1) “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle. Back in 1968, Beagle published his classic fantasy novel, The Last Unicorn. I have never read it, nor have I seen the film made some time back (apparently very successful, though Beagle did not profit much from it) and so I expected this follow-up novella (written almost four decades later!) to leave me pretty cold. In fact, it had entirely the opposite effect: I was totally captured by the lyrical and moving story of a king’s last quest, told through the eyes of a young girl, in a fantasy world where Bad Things Happen but you can hope for Good to have a partial victory at the end. Perhaps I am just getting sentimental in my old age, but I loved it. Will look out for The Last Unicorn. In Jonathan Strahan’s anthology, Fantasy: The Very Best of 2005. Shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best Novelette.

David Roy and Mark Watson have similar takes to me. David Roy: “the story is wonderful, the setting is interesting, and Beagle’s prose (especially as told through Sooz’s eyes) is masterful”. Jed Hartman, Eugie Foster, Russ Allbery and Tom Mula loved it. So did and here, here, here, and here, here. Sam Tomaino: “a true gem“. See also Tasha Robinson.

On the other hand, was a little disappointed and rather more so. Abigail Nussbaum didn’t like it much but expects it will win. I am really puzzled by Abigail’s description of Sooz as “Mary-Sue-ish”. In my innocence, I thought that Mary-Sue characters are generally considered to be stand-ins for the author, and it seems to me unlikely that the sixty-something Beagle secretly thinks of himself as a nine-year-old girl.

Short Stories

Abigail Nussbaum, Wally Conger and Evelyn Leeper have posted their thoughts on the whole short story category. I quote from their reviews, and from others’, below. I must say I found this category much the easiest to rank; for me there was a pretty clear ordering between two very bad stories, two decent ones and one that is outstanding and destined to become a classic of the genre.

5) “Down Memory Lane”, by Mike Resnick. This is quite simply awful. Bloke discovers that his wife has Alzheimer’s and voluntarily has the treatment to give it to himself. This makes such a mockery of the awfulness of the real experience of such illnesses that I found it quite offensive.

Abigail Nussbaum: a “seventeenth-rate Flowers for Algernon rip-off”. : “unrealistic and cloyingly patronising”. Russ Alberry: “I really would have preferred something else”. Wally Conger: “sweet but ultimately forgettable”. Evelyn Leeper: ” I just cannot get enthused about it”. But Dave Truesdale in Tangent Online loved it, and Mark Watson thought it clever.

4) “Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A Burstein. Flat prose, plot is both obvious and unconvincing – Senator’s ex-wife in the year 2098 works out his secret personal motivation for a particular piece of legislation. Dismal.

Abigail Nussbaum: “this year’s worst story” (implictly, of those on the ballot, not of all stories published.) David R. Williams (): describes it as “quite literally an awful, terrible story that displays all the literary flair of a five year old writing a ‘what I did on my holidays’ report on his first day back at school”. Wally Conger: “an extremely lightweight attempt at political and social commentary”. Evelyn Leeper: “a fairly obvious ‘twist’, and was heavy on the ‘message’ element”. Atara Braun: “boring”. Nick Mamatas fears that it will win the Hugo, “The SFnal equivalent of that Norman Rockwell print your mother has hanging opposite the commode in her bathroom”. But Sam Tomaino: “very good”.

3) “Tk’tk’tk” by David D Levine. Rather charming tale of huckster seduced by alien culture. The aliens are, however, rather like Asians in rubber suits (as someone else pointed out). And the ending was a bit too hasty. But fun all the same.

Wally Conger: “a clever and entertaining story”. Abigail Nussbaum gave it rather a mixed verdict. Evelyn Leeper: “a premise that seems very “Golden Age”…but [with] a very 21st-century sensibility.” Russ Allbery: “didn’t make psychological sense to me.” But Sam Tomaino: “very good”.

2) “The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green (pdf). Brilliant combination of horror and humour, set in an international peacekeeping context in a not-too-distant future central Africa. Really good, entertaining stuff. In The Year’s Best Science Fiction #23 edited by Gardner Dozois.

Wally Conger: “will get my top vote” – and Evelyn Leeper’s as well. Jeff Spock gives Green “great credit for originality”. Sam Tomaino goes beyond “very good” to “exceptional“. Lavie Tidhar: (with mild reservations): This is the kind of stuff I want to see more of”. But Abigail Nussbaum: “very nice, but not remarkable in any way”

1) “Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan. Has already won the World Fantasy Award, two Aurealis Awards and the Ditmar Award; the Nebula voters, to their discredit, shortlisted it but failed to give it the award. Well, now we are cooking on gas. When I first read it, I thought it was “a beautifully written, intense, powerful and surprisingly short piece that will probably win any award for which it is nominated”. To say that it is a story about a ritual execution would give entirely the wrong impression and yet be technically accurate; it’s really a story about family, society, youth, the loss of innocence, all very densely packed – I think it may be the shortest of the nominees. And yes, on reflection, I completely accept that it is a genre piece; apart from anything else, I don’t know of any society, past or present, which uses that particular method of execution. Heartily deserves to win.

Australian teachers and pupils rave about Black Juice, the original collection in which “Singing My Sister Down” was published. Cheryl Morgan, Dominique Hecq, Colin Greenland, Gwyneth Jones, Robin Osborne, Saxon Bullock, Scott Fabirkiewicz, Roz Kaveney also positive.

On the story itself: Lila (): “fresh and powerful”. Josephine Crowley: “beautifully written … disturbing and horrific and not for everyone” Stephanie Burgis: “it totally lived up to all the hype”. Abigail Nussbaum’s first choice (see also here). Tero Ykspetäjä’s local group ranked it first (though I’m not quite sure which story they put second). Katherine Nabety: “Very nicely done with no over-sentimentality.” : “hands down[,] the eeriest short story I’ve EVER read”. : “really fantastic“. : absolutely astounding“. Nick Mamatas thinks it should win the Hugo. : “wonderfully and horribly compelling” (and more). loved it.

Dissident voices: Wally Conger: “been there, done that”. Evelyn Leeper: “while the idea showed some creativity, I did not find the story itself particularly engaging”. liked it more on second reading. Dan Hartland’s (aka ) praise is a little fainter than some.

Asked to name the “authors moving science fiction forward”, Harlan Ellison names Lanagan (and nobody else) on the basis of “Singing My Sister Down”. And reminisces about how it was written.

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