The Hugo nominees are due in a few weeks, and I’m going to try to vote for the short story nominees this year, as this category is often decided by a few votes and is too often populated with sub-standard stories. The Locus list of the best short stories for 2006 includes 45 entries, which I’ll try to survey as much as possible before the deadline.
Here’s the first 5:
“In the Abyss of Time”, Stephen Baxter (Asimov’s 8/06)
Baxter in full Stapledon mode, outClarke-ing Clarke in his description of a quick trip through time to the end of the universe and back for the purpose of finding out which of the many theories about the future evolution of cosmology are correct. The story is told from the point of view of a reporter who is for some reason railroaded into coming along (rather than just being asked) on the first human trip into the far future with a couple of retired entrepreneurs with money to burn and an urge to explore. Susie the narrator throws up a lot, but survives the trip, with some vague particle physics driving the time machine that is probably what relegated this story to Asimovs instead of Analog. But beyond just going for the record of the longest elapsed time in the space of one story, Baxter wisely chooses to embue his characters with different motives for their actions, making them at least marginally interesting in their own right and not just the golden age cut-outs you would typically expect in this type of story. One of Baxter’s more compelling short stories in recent memory.
“Eight Episodes”, Robert Reed (Asimov’s 6/06)
Reed masterfully executes a brief but complex narrative centered around a mysterious tv show, and the eponymous eight episodes that are the only ones broadcast. The show turns up out of the blue, develops a cult following in spite of telling a drawn-out, disjointed tale about a flawed scientist and his discovery of ancient visitors to earth. The conclusion reached is that the aliens that were out there have sent a message to humanity not to bother with interstellar space travel. But is what they’re saying true, or do they just want to keep us where they can see us? The blurring between the show and reality comes to light later on, when the origins of the show come under more scrutiny and people start to wonder exactly who was behind its creation and its message.
“Chu and the Nants”, Rudy Rucker (Asimov’s 6/06)
The mind of Rudy Rucker is an unsettling place to be, and this story does nothing to diminish that notion. Chu is the young son of Ord, who somewhere in the future has helped to develop the nants, nanomachines that eventually run amok and start consuming the planet. Ord figures out first how to protect himself and his family, and ultimately how to reverse the entire process. That’s about it, plotwise, what makes the story more compelling is the surreal attitude Ord and Chu have toward such fundamentally transforming technology. It would seem that Ord hasn’t really thought through the personal implications of what has been unleashed until it is nearly too late, and his solution, a computer virus of sorts, requires allowing the nants to completely consume Chu in order to start its effect. Not a standout, but suitably weird.
“Life on the Preservation”, Jack Skillingstead (Asimov’s 6/06)
Relatively new writer Skillingstead impresses with this post-apocalyptic tale of a girl who tries to go back home again. Kylie returns to her hometown of Seattle, or at least the part that’s been preserved under a bubble as something of a museum or nature preserve after the rest of the world is wiped out by aliens. The people who live there repeat the same day over and over and don’t seem to know it. She meets a guy, develops a quick crush, he takes her back to his place, and there’s some good conflict set up between her original reasons for coming there and the feelings that develop upon living inside this closed environment for a while. The few characters are well-realized and while the premise may be a bit of a stretch, it’s told with enough conviction to overlook its shortcomings, with a nicely ambiguous ending.
“Tin Marsh”, Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s 8/06)
Swanwick reappears after an extended absence with an unusual story for him, one that actually has a plot and a purpose, and is relatively hard sf to boot. It features only two characters, a man and a woman who are prospectors on Venus. During their extended isolation on the planet’s surface, they driven each other crazy, but their life-support suits prevent them from doing themselves or each other harm. Until an earthquake of sorts somehow allows the man, MacArthur, to chase his companion Patang over the face of the planet hellbent on killing her. It’s only the discovery of the eponymous tin marsh during the course of this stalking, plus the realization that while he can hurt and terrorize he still can’t actually kill, that causes him to regain enough sanity to accept a truce and allow them to be rescued with their new mother lode, which will make them both rich. Considering the drivel that typically gets Swanwick nominated anyway, this can’t miss.