* "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Jul 2008)
This is a sheer delight. Aimee is the operator of an act featuring 26 monkeys, who perform various stunts, then disappear. The story, of course, isn’t about the monkeys disappearing -- it’s about Aimee, and how she got there, and her boyfriend, and their future, if they have one. I liked the not quite whimsical telling -- the sense that there is much serious matter behind the sweet surface. The monkeys and their act are nicely described, Aimee and her boyfriend seem real. And the ending is handled just right. Sometimes a story simply grabs me, and that's what happened here.
* "Article of Faith" by Mike Resnick (Baen’s Universe Oct 2008)
This story has a quite familiar plot. It's told by a minister who has a robot that cleans his church. The robot shows some curiousity about religion, and the minister tries out his sermons on the robot. Naturally, the robot decides he has a soul, and wants to discuss religion -- and he sees flaws in his pastor's arguments, too. This really is a very 50s sort of idea, and the problem is, it's not explored in an very original way. And indeed, I found the resolution inadequately set up, and quite unsatisfying. For all that we have seen plenty of "robot gets religion" stories before (including such famous works as the SF Hall of Fame story "The Quest for Saint Aquin" by Anthony Boucher, and also Robert Silverberg's "Good News from the Vatican") there's no reason that the theme couldn't still be used for a good story. And as far as it goes Resnick's treatment isn't awful, just unfinished, and too routine. So while I can see the story being published and all, I am rather puzzled by the Hugo nomination.
* "Evil Robot Monkey" by Mary Robinette Kowal (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two)
At less than a thousand words this must be one of the shortest Hugo nominees ever. It's about an uplifted chimp, doing pottery but forced to be on exhibition and thus driven to a rage by the taunts of schoolchildren. Quite simple, but convincing and bitterly moving.
* "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
"Exhalation" is quite as spectacular as last year's Hugo winner, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", and yet completely different. It depicts an utterly unusual artificial world, apparently completely made of metal, whose inhabitants are likewise metal, and who breathe air supplied by replaceable lungs. It is told by one of these people, who discovers how their brains work, as it becomes clear that the supply of air is diminishing. The setup seems to imply some history that other writers might have exploited -- is this a society of robots after humans have left, perhaps? -- but Chiang’s interests are elsewhere, and the story explores deeper philosophical questions, and comes to a very moving conclusion. To make the obvious pun -- it took my breath away.
* "From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Feb 2008)
"From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled ..." is fascinating SF about a human embassy to an alien city. The city is attacked, and everyone killed but one human, who escapes in the company of one of the aliens, wearing a spacesuit whose intelligence is based on his now-dead lover. The story deals with economics, with the biology and culture (and economics) of the aliens, and with the dangers of crossing an unfamiliar planet -- it is intelligent, full of adventure, original, wry. This is really fine smart SF, and I particularly liked the economic slant to the whole thing. It's not a breathtaking story, and I rank it behind most of this ballot, but it's strong work.
All the short fiction categories are pretty decent this year, short story no exception. My ballot will read: "Exhalation", "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss", "Evil Robot Monkey", "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" (those last two pretty much tied), then No Award. Other short stories that I'd have liked to see make the ballot potentially, include first the three I nominated besides the Chiang and Johnson stories: Margo Lanagan's "The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross", Peter Watts's "The Eyes of God", and Rivka Galchen's "The Region of Unlikeness". Others that almost made my nominating ballot included Robert Reed's "Character Flu", Catherynne M. Valente's "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica", Holly Phillips's "The Small Door", and James L. Cambias's "Balancing Accounts".