Best novelette is the most difficult category for me to rank this year. I find three of the nominees outstanding——the Eugie Foster, Rachel Swirsky, and Peter Watts stories——and have trouble selecting between them. The good news is I will be happy if any of them wins the award.
After much deliberation, my top ranking goes to Rachel Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape." It is arguably not quite so ambitious as the Foster and Watts stories, but the execution is flawless. The protagonist of "Eros, Philia, Agape" acquires a male robot programmed to develop a personality that conforms to all her desires, yet somehow this proves not enough for a lasting relationship. I recommended this story when it first appeared, and I stand by my assessment that it is a wonderfully subtle meditation on universal issues about identity and love and marriage and family and parenting.
My second choice by the narrowest of margins is "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster. This is a beautifully written story built on an intriguing premise, a world where each person puts on a different mask every morning and subsumes herself within the role that mask represents. The whole society is thus comprised of individuals lacking, or at least unaware of, individual personalities. Not surprisingly, our protagonist(s) ends up questioning this way of life, but Foster's resolution of the story was not entirely satisfying to me.
"The Island" by Peter Watts is perhaps the most intellectually fascinating of the nominees, combining a provocative first contact scenario with the politics on a starship engaged in an eons-long journey to construct wormholes for interstellar travel. But it didn't grab me emotionally as the Swirsky and Foster stories did. Watts is not entirely successful at conveying his protagonist's despair, and he waits far too long to reveal important things that she knew or should have known much earlier.
"Overtime" by Charles Stross is a Christmas entry in Stross' Laundry series, in which superspies battle Lovecraftian horrors despite the constraints of their Dilbertesque bureaucracy. Their high tech office includes, for instance, a rotary phone, because "the NDO's office budget was misfiled years ago and nobody knows the correct code to requisition new supplies." This is an entertaining story that does everything it sets out to do, but is just not as memorable as the previous three nominees.
Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two" is an engrossing story. Griffith does a wonderful job of putting the reader into the skin of a woman falling in love. Add to that the tension from the reader's suspicion that something is not right about this love affair, and the first half of the story works very well. Unfortunately, we then find out what's not right, and the story abruptly stops working. There is no believable reason for the protagonist to have agreed to the elaborate procedure described, and her stated reason for agreeing (she didn't want to feel uncomfortable going to a strip club) is so flat-out preposterous that the whole story falls to pieces.
Finally, Paul Cornell's "One of Our Bastards Is Missing" is an inoffensive SF locked room mystery, involving a strange disappearance at the wedding of a British princess. There is nothing wrong with this story but neither is there anything award-worthy about it. I can only assume it made the ballot thanks to a certain segment of fans (you know the ones——they talk funny and they nominated every eligible episode of Doctor Who) who are fascinated with the royal family.
Aaron's Ballot for Best Novelette
1. Rachel Swirsky - Eros, Philia, Agape
2. Eugie Foster - Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast
3. Peter Watts - The Island
4. Charles Stross - Overtime
5. Nicola Griffith - It Takes Two
6. Paul Cornell - One of Our Bastards Is Missing