* "Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders" by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Jan 2008)
"Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders" is a thoughtful story about one of those mysterious shops, this on a magic supply store at which a couple of boys meet, leading to a lifelong partnership. And now they are aging, and try to find the store one last time. Inevitably, when they find it, they find that there is real magic on offer. But is such magic really worth the price? This is one of Resnick's better stories, though still not really one to which I'd give a Hugo. In the end, for me, the final revelations weren't intriguing or new enough to push the story from "decent" to "special".
* "The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
Lots of people love this story, but I can't be quite an enthusiastic. Which is not to deny that it's nice work. No question, Paolo Bacigalupi is a must-read writer. "The Gambler" tells of a young man from Laos who escaped his country’s political upheavals and came as a boy to the US. Now he is a journalist, quixotically going after knotty political stories in a culture obsessed with celebrity. Under pressure to up his ratings, he agrees to interview another Laotian refugee, a young woman who has become an international pop star. She’s not quite the shallow person he expects, but she’s still much more of the culture than he is, and he finds himself forced to choose between his principles and the honeypot of great ratings and a potential relationship with a beautiful countrywoman. In the end I thought it good stuff, but a bit too moralistically obvious, and not quite as SFnally intriguing as Bacigalupi at his best.
* "Pride and Prometheus" by John Kessel (F&SF Jan 2008)
This is a story that has grown on me over time, and I liked it plenty on first encountering it. "Pride and Prometheus" marries Pride and Prejudice with Frankenstein, very effectively. The main character is Mary Bennet, grown up both physically and in her character in the years since Elizabeth and Darcy married. She is resigned to spinsterhood, but then she meets a mysterious foreigner: Victor Frankenstein. But despite Victor’s apparent interest in her, any future for them seems hopeless: for Victor is engaged already, and anyway he is convinced that his past moral failures stain him. And there’s the matter of the mysterious hulking stranger ... The story seems at first destined to be a fun romp, a mashup, but it darkens and deepens by the end. Notable too is the way the characters are portrayed: quite true to Austen’s vision (allowing for Mary’s considerable personal growth). This last element is something that sticks with me -- I believed in the portrayal of Mary Bennet, and I found it moving and thematically worthwhile. Victor Frankenstein, and the Monster, are both also well done. I might note as well that some people complain when the Hugo ballot includes fantasies. I'm not one of those, mind you. But it can be noted that while three of the stories on the novelette ballot are arguably fantasies, two of them, including this one, are also arguably SF. In the case of "Pride and Prometheus", the argument follows from the Aldiss argument that Frankenstein is the first SF novel: if so, then surely a Frankenstein derivation, like this one, is also SF. (In the case of "Shoggoths in Bloom", which you will note I chose to reprint in my Best SF volumes, things are still clearer: Lovecraft, for one, seems to have regarded many of his stories as science fiction, and anyway Bear's treatment is very SFnal (in an alternate historical fashion).)
* "The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" by James Alan Gardner (Asimov’s Feb 2008)
James Alan Gardner’s "The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" is just what it says. A boy finds an alien ray-gun in the woods. He is convinced it means his is special, and he works to make himself worthy of it -- but at the same time his relationships with other people, particularly women, are poisoned. The story reflects on the dangers of the power such a gun might confer -- as it notes internally, not entirely in a new way: "he realized he was not Spiderman, he was Frodo". I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and I am reprinting. I acknowledge one weakness -- as Science Fiction, it's a bit lacking, in that (as Gardner announces at the opening) the central Maguffin is not explained at all, and is really not that SFnally interesting -- it is just a device (no pun intended) for stringing a character story on. Fair enough ... and reason enough for me to decide to vote Bear's story ahead of this one on my final ballot. But the story does what it intends to do very well, I think.
* "Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)
"Shoggoths in Bloom", a thoughtful (and quite straight-faced, despite the title) piece about a black scientist in the late ‘30s, investigating the reproductive habits of shoggoths off the coast of Maine. He learns a bit more than be expected -- about shoggoths, their nature, their temptations -- all of which is nicely put in the context of the times -- his own heritage, as a black man; and the state of the world as Hitler threatens. I thought this quite intriguing in its speculations about shoggoths -- for all they are obviously rather silly creations in the original, Bear does not betray Lovecraft's vision (as far as I can tell) but riffs nicely on it. And then she constructs a morally serious character piece around the central idea, with some historical heft. A very strong story, surely one of the best of the year.
So, my ballot will be arranged in the reverse of the order above: "Shoggoths in Bloom" first, then "The Ray-Gun", "Pride and Prometheus", "The Gambler", "Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonder". On the whole, it's another good ballot, with only one story that would bother me overmuch if it won. (That story also being the only out and out fantasy, though as noted that's not why its winning would annoy me.) I did think there were several other novelettes worthy of inclusion -- my nominating ballot included Richard Bowes's "If Angels Fight", Ted Kosmatka's "The Art of Alchemy", and Beth Bernobich's "The Golden Octopus" along with the Bear and Gardner, and I also could have added Meghan McCarron's "The Magician's House" and Robert Reed's "Five Thrillers", and to be honest you could just about throw a blanket over those (and the Kessel story) and pick any one of them and I'd have no argument.