In the past five years of reading Hugo nominated short stories, I think I’ve enjoyed about 2-3 of the stories quite a bit. That’s… not a very good batting average. For whatever reason, I always find that this category just fills up with stories that don’t work for me. True, several puppy trolling nominations made the cut, which didn’t help (for example: they nominated SF-themed erotica two years in a row, and then another that was a bad parody of a bad story, etc…), but even the stories I liked weren’t that great. I’ve always chalked that up to this category having the lowest barrier to entry. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time or effort to seek out a bunch of short stories (mostly available for free online too), so the nominations are spread far and wide. There used to be a requirement that a finalist had to have at least 5% of the nominations in order to be considered, which often resulted in a small category because most stories couldn’t clear that bar. So basically, the stories that do make it here rarely have wide appeal. That being said, this year’s nominees are actually a pretty congenial bunch. I don’t actually hate any of the stories, even if a few don’t quite tweak me the way I’d like (even those are pretty good though). I do still find it hard to believe that these are the actual best short fiction of the year, but I’ll take this over the past 4 years’ worth of nominations. However, I do think it’s telling that at least one story on the 1942 Retro Hugos ballot, Proof by Hal Clement, is far better than any of these nominees, which I think says something (I’d have to read/reread a couple of the other 1942 finalists to be sure, but I suspect that ballot is more my speed). Anyway, let’s get to it:
- “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad – A 1950s era robot named Computron lives its life out in a museum answering questions from tourists and whatnot. One day, someone asks him if he’s seen some random future anime show. He gets kinda obsessed with the show and discovers fan fiction, eventually finding someone to collaborate with. It’s a delightful little story, perhaps a little too light-hearted to be the best of the year, but it’s quite enjoyable. It’s sorta like this year’s “Cat Pictures Please”, in that I suspect Computron is really just a sorta standin for the author. But it’s a lot of fun. Might fall down a peg or two in time.
- “Sun, Moon, Dust”, by Ursula Vernon – Neat little story about a farmer who inherits a magic sword that houses three barbarian warrior souls. Or something like that. The barbarians want to teach the farmer in the ways of war, but he’s a farmer in what appears to be peacetime, so he has no need for battle. As it turns out, one of the barbarians might be able to learn something from the farmer. Short and sweet. Not exactly my genre, but nice.
- “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™”, by Rebecca Roanhorse – Guy runs a VR simulation of Native American vision quests, but instead of being authentic, it’s more like a shallow experience derived from the movies. I was a little taken aback by the fact that this guy references the Johnny Depp performance in the Lone Ranger, but then I realized that this is just another indication that our main character is a bit of a dope. It’s got a decent twist, but in the end this feels like a rehashing of an idea we’ve seen a million times, only this time it’s from a Native American perspective. It fits, for sure.
- “The Martian Obelisk”, by Linda Nagata – The earth is dying and humanity is on its way out. In an act of defiance, an architect and her patron attempt to erect a giant monument on Mars that will last far longer than humanity. Then a rover from a human Mars colony thought to be wiped out by disease shows up at the monument. It’s an interesting idea and I like the shape of the narrative, but the execution feels a bit off. It’s worth a read, though.
- “Carnival Nine”, by Caroline M. Yoachim – Told from the perspective of little wind-up toys, this ends up being a sorta parable about parenting a special-needs child. It’s fantasy, but my dumb engineering brain kept wondering about the physics and metaphysics of these beings; nitpicks which are usually a sign of something deeper. Touching, but a little on the dour side, even before the child shows up.
- “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, by Fran Wilde – A story about someone who visits a museum and is disturbed by what they find. Or something. It felt a lot more like a tone poem than a narrative, and it just sorta washed over me, leaving me with only a feeling of mild unease and pretty much nothing else. Like, I forgot everything about this about five minutes after finishing it. This is the only thing I’d be tempted to put under No Award (and it’s pretty much the only story that is guaranteed not to move in my rankings), but I’ll be generous and keep it here.
Honestly, I could probably move around the top five of these quite a bit, though I think the top three are likely to remain the top three (though there might be some movement between them). A pretty solid ballot this year.