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Next week brings the opening of the 2012 Worldcon in Chicago, and with it the Hugo Awards for best science fiction and fantasy. In anticipation of this event, I will be reviewing this year’s nominees for Best Short Story. This year’s nominees, in no particular order:

The Paper Menagerie, Ken Liu
The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees, E. Lily Yu
The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, John Scalzi
Movement, Nancy Fulda
The Homecoming, Mike Resnick

Above are links to the stories which have been available by the publisher or author. Definitely worth a read if you have time (and you won’t need much). A fuller review of each nominee will be presented in its own blog post over the next week or so. I’d love to discuss them in the comments of their respective posts.

From Shadow War of the Night Dragons to The Homecoming, the stories fall across a spectrum ranging from solid fantasy to essentially soft sci-fi. After a quick read through all five, I’d have to say that they were all a joy to read. However, my biggest problem with the nomination list is that the balance is tipped solidly towards fantasy and Bradbury-esque magical realism. In my opinion, there is no “real” science fiction among these stories.

Since I’ve made a statement about “real” science fiction, I suppose I now need to explain what I think “real” science fiction is. I think it’s a very hard to define exactly, and my definition would probably depend on the story. Allow me to provide an example: Movement is a story about a girl who is presented with a treatment that could “cure” her autism. The method by which this can be done is through a machine that may or may not work. While the machine itself is definitely a science fictional device, in the context of the story, it serves as little more than an object which forces the main character to meditate on her condition.

Surely, you may argue, the presence of science fiction elements in the stories would mean that the stories are science fiction, no? I feel that if this story had been “true” science fiction, the machine would have been used at some point during the story. It is in the use or non-use of the science fiction device that determines whether the story is science fiction or a “realist” character sketch with science fiction elements. In Movement, it seems that the focus on characterization utterly overwhelms the science fiction elements, of which there is little seen and even less made use of.

Now, the focus on characterization has been the focus of New Wave sci-fi from the start, to make stories more interesting than one-dimensional characters serve the purpose of illustrating scientific or future-political/military concepts the author was trying to develop. However, it seems that the New Wave is nearing the logical conclusion of its efforts – characterization with almost no discussion of scientific or political/military concepts at all. The efforts of the New Wave are distilling down to an end product: expanding the field of science fiction into the void created as “mainstream” literature embraced realism. Perhaps some of the recent developments in New Wave sci-fi are the refugees from literature created by this turn, now moving with gusto towards what was previously considered science fiction.

Science fiction is definitely a lot more mainstream now than it has been through most of its history. I think the Hugo nominees this year are reflective of that fact. However, I am a little disappointed that the nominees are arrayed more towards the fantasy and magical realism end of the scale of “science fiction and fantasy”, and wish there was a little more acknowledgment of the harder end of the science fiction spectrum.