[This was originally posted at Jim Bailey's Short Fiction Roundup site in May 1997. Jim's site is on hiatus for now, but perhaps he will find the time to revive it. It was an admirable effort to summarize the short Science Fiction being published, including reader comments when available. This particular very brief piece was an off-the-cuff summary by me of what I liked best at the time, and it wasn't really intended to be a full-blown essay. But I still think it works as a memory prod for 1996 short stuff. Comments added in November 1999 are in brackets.]
Here is my current "Hugo Nomination Ballot" for short fiction published in 1996 (it differs both from my Locus ballot and my real Hugo Nomination ballot, but that's because I'm writing today and not last week or last month. <g>)
I have to admit I found the novella "crop" for 1996 a bit disappointing. Here are my current favorites:
Bellwether, by Connie Willis (which I thought was a novel, but Locus lists it as a novella). A lot of fun, with a serious point. Only barely SF, but who cares?
"Abandon in Place" by Jerry Oltion. An intriguing and different "science-fantasy". One of several recent stories to reconsider our recent history of lunar exploration. [Admittedly a wish-fulfillment piece, and certainly a "preaching to the choir" effort, but still fun.]
"Immersion" by Gregory Benford. Human consciousness implanted in chimpanzees. A lot of interesting speculation about the basis of intelligence, consciousness, agression, sex-differences and so on. The story itself falls a bit short as to plot, however. [I believe it became part of Benford's "Foundation" novel, Foundation's Fear].
"Chrysalis" by Robert Reed. As usual with Reed, the central ideas are neat, and the story well-done. (He reminds me of another Robert (Silverberg), in his prolificity and his range, as well as an occasional "coldness" of approach, and the careful use of SFnal ideas: not an originator, but a very skilled synthesizer.)
And I can't really pick a fifth: "The Cost to be Wise" by Maureen McHugh, "Human History" by Lucius Shepard, "Primrose and Thorn" (if it had an ending) by Bud Sparhawk, all have taken turns in my mind.
[The eventual novella Hugo winner was "Blood of the Dragon", an extract from George R. R. Martin's Fat Fantasy Novel A Game of Thrones. I thought that was an OK story, but clearly a novel excerpt. "Abandon in Place" won the Nebula for Best Novella.]
This was the fullest category for me, this year. I came up with a list of 18 possible stories. Three stand out:
"The Spade of Reason" by Jim Cowan. This was published in Century #4, and probably hasn't been widely read (yet). It's very good, very different, an SF story about mathematics, in a sense, also about insanity. Definitely seek this out. [From the perspective of 1999: I still think this is a wonderful, underappreciated story. Cowan has published just a couple other stories: "Alderley Edge" in an earlier issue fo Century, and a new story in the January 2000 Asimov's. I don't think he's the same James Cowan who has published two somewhat historical novels, A Mapmaker's Dream and A Troubadour's Testament.]
"Seven Guesses of the Heart" by M. John Harrison. A pure "character" story, yet proof that for some "character" stories a fantastical setting is the best way to illustrate a fully human (even if he is a wizard) character. And just beautifully written.
"Erase/Record/Play" by John M. Ford. Ford is a remarkable writer: one of those who (following Tiptree's dictum) "starts the reader out 5000 feet underground in a dark hole: and doesn't tell him!" (I hope I have that approximately correct.) This story is built around a strange performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" following a near-future war and some associated atrocities of a psychological nature. We come to a slow (and perhaps not complete) understanding of the fact and nature of these "atrocities".
Other notable novelettes, in no particular order: "The Copyright Notice Case" by Paul Levinson, "Galley Slave" by Jean Lamb, "Martian Valkyrie" by G. David Nordley, "Beauty and the Opera or the Phantom Beast" by Suzy McKee Charnas, "Bicycle Repairman" by Bruce Sterling, "Pyros" by George Ewing, "Bettina's Bet" by L. Timmel Duchamp, "The Miracle of Ivar Avenue" by John Kessel, "The Flowers of Aulit Prison" by Nancy Kress, "Generation Zero" by Michael Cassutt, "Flying Lessons" by Kelly Link, "Yesterdays" by Mary Rosenblum, "The Crear" by Barrington J. Bayley, "The Weighing of Ayre" by Gregory Feeley, and "Tea" by Esther Friesner. Of those listed, I'd point special attention to the Kelly Link story, mainly because I think she is a new writer of considerable interest, based on the grand total of two stories of her's that I've read. [1999: Link's work continues to impress. She has since won a World Fantasy Award and a Tiptree Award for her short fiction.]
[The Hugo went to "Bicycle Repairman", not at all a bad choice.]
I thought the best short story of the year was "Gone" by John Crowley, a fable-like story about aliens who send some people odd little helpers. The protagonist is a divorced woman who seems to need to learn trust. A strange, really moving, story.
Others I really liked:
"The Spear of the Sun" by Dave Langford. A dead-on parody of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories: and a decent locked-room mystery set on a spaceship. Very funny.
"Counting Cats in Zanzibar" by Gene Wolfe. A mysterious woman is chased and finally caught by a cop in the future. But why? and why does she want so much to escape?
"Cider" by Tom Purdom. A chilling story about a new "achievement" for future sociopaths.
"Breakaway, Backdown" by James Patrick Kelly. Faces the personal costs of life in space with real honesty. Oddly reminiscent of "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith, one of the best SF stories of all time.
"A Crab Must Try" by Barrington J. Bayley. Different. Totally different. I don't think it means anything much, but it's strange enough to be worth the ride.
"The Drowning Cell" by Gregory Feeley. A teenage American, visiting Holland, relives the terrible experiences of some historical individuals, and her own life begins to seem equally terrible.
[The short story Hugo was won by Connie Willis' Emily Dickinson story "The Soul Selects Her Own Society ...". The Nebula was won by another Emily Dickinson story, "Sister Emily's Lightship", by Jane Yolen. I thought both stories OK but not outstanding. The Yolen was more accomplished, perhaps. I did rather wonder if Mike Resnick was editing an Alternate Poets anthology. (Indeed, Paul di Filippo featured Emily Dickinson in his novella "Walt and Emily" at about the same time. Maybe the anthology could have been called Alternate Emilys. It never materialized, though.)