The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
I would be surprised if 'The People of Sand and Slag' was not written, at least in part, as a response to other stories. It is the tale of a trio of miners in a world where technology has made humans independent of the Earth's biosphere. Weeviltech can heal any injury, protect against any disease, metabolise any material as food. This is the stuff of post-scarcity societies, like the Bitchun society in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, but Bacigalupi's take on the implications of this technology is sharply opposed to Doctorow's, and significantly more cynical.
Far from being a utopia, the world in 'The People of Sand and Slag' is a cold, claustrophobic, environmentally devastated place. The sfnal thrill comes from dissonance, the things the narrator does and says and notices--or more significantly, doesn't notice--as compared to the things we expect. The story seems to begin as military sf, with the miners tooling up and rushing out to deal with an intruder. They jump out of their airship without parachutes, and land in a pile of breaking bones without any suggestion that this is remarkable. Shortly after, they eat sand for dinner as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
The focus of the contrast between our world and theirs is the intruder, who turns out to be a dog. None of the miners know what to do with a dog; they've never seen one before, and indeed they were thought to be extinct. They are fascinated and horrified by how fragile a creature it is, 'as delicate as a rock'. An expert is called out--we are told that to be a biologist in this world is to be in a dead-end job, reduced to growing animals from dna to study their behaviours. To all intents and purposes, the dog is an alien, and this is a first-contact story. It is something utterly outside the protagonists' experience, as their world is utterly outside ours.
Bacigalupi's writing here is more pared-down than in either of the other two stories by him that I've read, 'The Fluted Girl' and 'The Pasho'. There are still, however, some excellent passages, as for example when the miners go on holiday to Hawaii. For them, as for us, it is a beautiful holiday destination; Bacigalupi's description is evocative in a few well-chosen words, and almost makes it possible to see it as the narrator sees it, before our perceptions snap back and we recognise the true ugliness of the scene.
Lisa was a good swimmer. She flashed through the ocean's metallic sheen like an eel out of history and when she surfaced, her naked body glistened with hundreds of iridescent petroleum jewels.If the story has a weakness, it is perhaps that it is not ambitious enough. It's a timely counterbalance to some of the more optimistic interpretations of nanotech, a reminder that it might be more than just our biology that makes us human, but it's not new in itself. Though it does everything well it doesn't do anything truly startling. Perhaps its greatest strength is the ending; perhaps many writers would have given in to the temptation to allow their narrator to realise what has been lost, but all Bacigalupi allows is the suspicion that something might have been lost. It's a graceful and appropriate finish.
When the sun started to set, Jaak lit the ocean on fire with his 101. We all sat and watched as the Sun's great red ball sank through veils of smoke, its light shading deeper crimson every minute. Waves rushed flaming onto the beach. Jaak got out his harmonica and played while Lisa and I made love on the sand.
The Clapping Hands of God by Michael F Flynn
There's always a temptation, when it comes to Hugo ballots, to be cynical about the Analog story, because it does seem as though there's always one, and it's often hard to believe that the people that nominated it are the same as the people that nominated everything else. I've certainly been guilty of it; but 'The Clapping Hands of God', though I don't think it's the strongest story on the ballot, puts the lie to the prejudice, because it's a very credible effort indeed.
And, to be patronising for a moment longer, it manages this while still being what you might think of as typical Analog fare. It's a scientific survey story: a team of humans arrive at a distant alien planet, and begin to study the local scenery and life. And it has an explicit moral: the very first sentence tells us that 'How much explorers learn about a world--and what they can do about what they find--depends on how they come to it.'
There are a couple of things that distinguish this from most such stories, the most significant of which is the characters. It's surely not the result of chance that the proportion of stories with Arabic or Muslim protagonists has increased over the past few years, to the point of often being patronising or cliche--an easy way to score political points. Flynn's explorers, however, are credible and thoughtful. They tread lightly, and when they make assumptions, as at times they must, they are entirely understandable. If there is a flaw, it's perhaps that he goes too far in attempting to make them sympathetic; there are no leaps of logic, no incautious rushing in to interfere, and although there is plenty of debate within the team about whether or not they should meddle, it's not the debate of differing ideologies, it's a debate between innocence and experience.
The almost complete lack of contact gives the story an interesting perspective: the narrator is telling us the story of the exploration team, who are reconstructing the story of the people they find as best they can. The aliens aren't the most alien to grace the page, but that's not really the point (or it is, somewhat, but it's not a serious flaw). What's more interesting is how the story interacts with the reader's expectations; the team are so canny at avoiding the usual first-contact idiot plots that you half-believe they had a crash course in sf before they ever left Earth. Right up until the end, you're waiting for some form of involvement, some form of solution, wondering how the mysteries around the aliens will be resolved--but of course none of those things happen. The aliens' story is not the humans' story, and for once the humans are smart enough to realise that.
If the story is a little overlong (it is) and told in a slightly faux-lyrical voice (it is; the word 'younglings' appears, although I may be more sensitive to that than normal at the moment), these are, to me, forgiveable faults. 'The Clapping Hands of God' is a likeable and admirable piece of work.
The Faery Handbag by Kelly Link
Kelly Link's 'The Faery Handbag' is also likeable, thought for rather different reasons; and it pulls a similar trick in having the real story be happening elsewhere. If it were part of a novel, 'The Faery Handbag' would be the prologue. It's the story before the story, a portal fantasy in which our heroine, Genevieve, steps up to the edge but not through into another world. The fantastic (she is rather irritated to realise) is happening to other people, but not her.
Not that we see any of it at first. In fact, in the beginning it's only Genevieve's disingenuous entreaty that we 'promise me you won't believe a word' that makes us believe at all, at first. The faery handbag, it turns out, belongs to Genevieve's tall, eccentric, scrabble-loving grandmother Zofia, and it seems that any magic about it is purely the product of her overactive imagination. To get out of a tricky situation in scrabble one day, Zofia claims to hail from a now-vanished country called baldeziwurlekistan. As the story grows, we learn that the humans of baldeziwurlekistan coexisted with faeries under a nearby hill, until, during a time of threat, the entire village relocated into the handbag, where they reside to this day.
There seems too much coincidence and convenience in this for it to be true, but gradually signs emerge that it is, and eventually the handbag demonstrates its true power in a surprising and moving fashion. In some ways, this is atypical Link; it's more direct and intimate than much of her work (at one point Genevieve asks the reader to bear with her, because 'it's hard work telling everything in the right order'). There's no allegory, just pure story; Zofia is as memorable as any grandmother who stepped straight out of a fairytale ever was.
'The Faery Handbag' was published as part of a young-adult anthology (The Faery Reel, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling), and perhaps not uncoincidentally it's one of Link's more direct stories; but it doesn't lack for the charm and ambition that characterises most of her work. It is probably the most accomplished of the nominees in a purely literary sense, although like several of them it trades on existing genre traditions to achieve its full effect. Nevertheless, it's an excellent story on a strong ballot.
'Biographical notes to 'A discourse on the nature of causality, with air-planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum', by Benjamin Rosenbaum
The tone of 'Biographical Notes...' is set by the title, or at the very least by the opening paragraph, which mentions in quick succession that Our Hero is returning from 'PlausFab Wisconsin [...] the World's Only Gynarchist Plausible-Fable Assembly', that he is travelling on the PRGB Sri George Bernard Shaw (which we quickly learn is an airship), and that he is sharing a compartment with the Raja of Outermost Thule. This is sf at play, deconstructing itself in a setting built from pure pulp.
Benjamin Rosenbaum (in the story) is a gentleman-hero with a dry sense of humour who has been commissioned to write a plausible-fable about a world without zeppelins. What he'd really rather be doing, what he often can't help doing, is building the alternate philosophy and history of his story-world, but Benjamin Rosenbaum (as the author) throws obstacle after obstacle in his way. The Raja is poisoned by an assassin; our hero gives chase, but after a series of thrilling escapades finds himself captured by pirates (who only decide to execute him after discovering that he's not the author of the children's picture-books loved by the pirate captain's son; plausible-fabulists can't get no respect).
Beautiful consorts and flying war-cities also feature; it's that sort of tale, for more than one reason. The excess of coincidence and adventure is the central cliche of the genre Rosenbaum is working in, and this is that sort of tale; but the nature of coincidence and causality is also the subject of the tale, as explored in Our Hero's musings to himself. Story-Rosenbaum lives in a world where linear cause and effect is only the simplest of the Five Forms of causality; where the world is understood as a dream; where he can be hired to write the history of Outermost Thule as it might have been, rather than as it actually was. It is, in other words, a world of speculation; a world where mind is greater than matter; a world of fiction.
Story-Rosenbaum's speculations about the nature of the world-without-zeppelins, his shadow world which is of course our world, are reminiscent of the musings of Diego Patchen, the cosmogonic fiction writer in Paul di Filippo's novella 'A Year in the Linear City'. But Rosenbaum goes further than di Filippo in some aspects. In both stories, the protagonist considers himself above the pulp tradition; Rosebaum has his avatar dismiss plausible-fables that are full of 'extravagant perils, ironic coincidences, suddeny bursts of insight, death-defying escapades and beautiful villannesses', and vow that his shadow-world will eschew such shallow traits for conflcit of 'a rich and subtle kind'. And yet, he also places his protagonist in a story of exactly that kind.
Both author and protagonist, perhaps, are trying to understand their own stories. Faced with the utter improbability of his situation, story-Rosenbaum is forced to wonder how his hypothetical protagonist, a believer in linear cause and effect, would react, and concludes that he would search for a single cause that could explain the seemingly unconnected incidents. This approach saves his life, but does that mean his shadow's philosophy is the correct one? Of course not; what it means is that speculating on other philosophies is a valuable intellectual tool.
'Biographical Notes...' marries form and content to produce an argument for the validity of science fiction as both adventure and philosophy, as a genre uniquely able to explore imaginative space. It does not outstay its welcome, and remains funny and smart throughout; perhaps more tangled than it strictly needs to be to make its point, perhaps a little lazy in the choice of cultures used as background colour, but nevertheless extremely hard to dislike.
The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe
Sometimes, after you've spent months telling people to read a story because it's brilliant, it's hard to come back to it and find specific brilliant things about it yourself. That's not the case with 'The Voluntary State'.
Like 'The People of Sand and Slag', 'The Voluntary State' is a dystopian story. They are of different kinds, however; in both cases, there is extremely advanced technology involved, but where in Bacigalupi's story technology allows a dystopia, in Rowe's technology is used to bring one about through active enforcement. The voluntary state of the title is Tennessee. If you believe the propaganda it's the first fully-realised postcolonial state; in reality it's a playground for an AI, Athena, who seems to like extravagant biotechnoloy and whose understanding of the humans it's ruling is flawed at best.
Not that any of this is immediately obvious. The story opens with a painter, Soma, and his broken-down car. What happens, in fairly quick succession, is that the local authorities appear and agree to arrange repair of the car, that it is determined that the car was damaged by a raiding party from neighbouring Kentucky, and that Soma is kidnapped by said raiding party. But the style in which this is told requires decoding; it is full of distractions. There are mentions of crane-trees dredging the harbour, of bears in the sky and of alligators with babies' limbs for lures on their nose. It is not even clear, at first approach, if you don't already know, whether to read the story metaphorically, as a fantasy, or literally, as science fiction. It's probably a comment on how we see the future that similar stories are becoming increasingly common, even in relatively near-future sf; 'The Voluntary State' is one of the best examples of this approach.
The plot continues at a high rate of knots. The Kentuckians themselves are--to Soma, and therefore to us--wild and random, given to proclamation and song. They claim to be on a mission to kill Athena, and they seem organised enough but they know so much more about the world than us that we're always playing catchup. The leader of the pack, Japheth Sapp, also reinforces the story's parallel to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, first hinted at by Soma's name, when he responds ironically to the painter's incomprehension: "it's the fate of the noble savage to be misunderstood by effete city dwellers." And that, of course, is because Soma, like the inhabitants of Huxley's dystopia, has had their view of the world limited. Soma is actively controlled (and, to double the parallel, turns out to have been an agent that helped enable that control) but doesn't realise it. One narrative thread sees the Kentuckians gradually break through his conditioning, even as they break into the heart of the voluntary state's capital. His gradual awakening and recovery of memory is brilliantly characterised, up to and including his final, dramatic perspective shift.
Meanwhile, other threads proliferate (only to eventually reunite, like a vacuum fluctuation). Jenny, the mechanic called to help repair Soma's car, recurs several times, for reasons initially unclear; and the black feathers left by the Kentuckians turn out to be hiding viral programs which, released into the Tennessee infosphere, make their way to the capital to help subvert various systems. The portrayal of these programs, referred to as 'the math', as strange, thinking entities, is extremely effective and quite often funny; it's arguably in these sections that we best understand the shape of the society we're touring.
And through it all there's Rowe's writing, which is never less than good and is often very striking indeed: controlled but expressive throughout. It matches the setting well. As the Kentuckians penetrate deeper into the state there's a sense of anticipation, wondering what wonder they'll find around the next corner; Rowe manages the increasing reader expectations expertly, and the narrative crescendo is perfectly timed. It doesn't matter that a good part of the imagery is inherited--such as the use of the parthenon in the final pages--because the mix of influences and references is so diverse that Rowe creates something rich and new. That's the single thing that most impresses me about the story: more than any of the other stories, it doesn't feel like the same-old same-old. Although the ingredients--dystopia, biotech, singularity, overthrow-the-government--are familiar, the end product is not.
So how am I voting? I think my first two choices are probably fairly obvious: 'The Voluntary State' at the top of the ballot, closely followed by 'The Faery Handbag'. After that it gets harder, but if you pushed me today I'd put 'Biographical Notes...' third, 'The People of Sand and Slag' fourth and round out the pack with 'The Clapping Hands of God'. It's a hard choice, because I don't have much quibble with the ballot. I'd probably substitute in Judith Berman's 'The Fear Gun' in place of one of those last three if I could, but it would be close call.
I think it's interesting that this is not a ballot with big names on it. Most of them are writers that I think of (perhaps wrongly) as relatively new; at the very least, they are not the writers who regularly appear, and equally regularly win the award. I think that's a good thing, not least because these are writers whose work I like, want recognised, and want to see develop further (I gather there will be a novel set in the same world as 'The Voluntary State', and I think 'The Faery Handbag' may be part of a book as well. I'll be at the front of the queue for both).
But--if I can finish on a parochial note--where are the equivalent British short fiction writers? British novels are going great guns (just look at the Best Novel shortlist), but how is it that in a year of a British Worldcon the only British short fiction nominee is Charles Stross, who in any case has a fairly US-based publishing history? What worries me most is that I have trouble thinking of the British writers I'd want to see nominated in these categories. It may not matter--it may be that the novel now truely is the heart of the genre--but I think it's a shame.