I don't normally get to pore over Nebula or Hugo Award nominees before the awards are given, but this year Starship Sofa put audio recordings of all seven Nebula short story nominees on podcast. So I listened to them during my commute. What a pleasure!
If I were in the position for voting for "best short story," I'd be hard put to it. First of all, there was a great variation in styles, from spare to lush, from first- to third- to second-person voices. A horror story, two magic realism tales, three straight SF, one fantasy. Two of the non-horror works were ghost stories. But apart from that, there's so much raw talent and fine-polished skill that I'd really be at a loss.
I am filled with envy. I dream of the day when I can pull off the sort of grace, passion, verisimilitude and epiphany that these seven authors demonstrate.
But for what it's worth...
On balance I'd probably vote for Kij Johnson's 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss because I was sniffling at the end of it, and emotional impact is the most important aspect of a story to me. It was told in a beautifully simple but evocative style -- not a detail wasted, and you felt you knew the character from the word go. And it encompasses the whole, great, tragic world we live in (*sniff*), on that one tiny stage.
But Ruth Nestvold's Mars: A Traveler's Guide is a work of genius, especially in the deployment of indirect voicing. Everything you want to know, about the story, everything, you learn indirectly through what the narrative voice does not tell you. And the emotional dissonance between the the narrative voice and the situation is excruciating. I said "Wow!" aloud several times while reading it.
I found Nina Kiriki Hoffman's Trophy Wives to be beautifully textured; I could taste, feel, smell the world she was describing, I could imagine the lives her characters lived. I got indignant and angry on their behalf; I was 100% committed. So it, too, is a very close 2nd or 3rd, because it made that impact in me -- but the ending didn't wow me as much as Johnson's did.
Gwyneth Jones's The Tomb Wife was fun, but struck me as fantasy masquerading as SF. I don't normally care
Mike Allen's The Button Bin is a horror story, not my usual cup of tea. BUT it was what a good horror story should be -- the true horror was not the creepy thing the antagonist was doing, but the awful thing in the protagonist's own history. It was gripping and awful, and by the time you knew the awful thing the protag had done, you were already drawn in and liked him; very skillful. Also the metaphor of the horror-fantasy aspect was perfect for the grief/shame/atonement thing that was at the story's emotional core. I don't know whether Allen's use of the second person voice is responsible for how badly implicated the reader feels in the protagonist's life, but this may be one of the few instances where 2P isn't simply a flashy distraction.
James Patrick Kelly's Don't Stop was also beautifully textured, although many of the details concerning running shoes were wasted on me. The overall metaphor between running, haunting and trying to escape the past was well done. But unlike Allen's, Johnson's and Hoffman's stories, where the protagonists' dilemmas is rooted in things that have happened to him/her that might (one way or another) happen to any of us, Kelly's protagonist's central problem is that she's got this supernatural thing happening to her. I was hoping that it would turn out to be a metaphor for her feelings about her father's death and her survival, but it didn't feel that way.
Jeffrey Ford's The Dreaming Wind uses magical realism to try to make a statement about normalcy, uniqueness and the imagination. It was entertaining and, again, well executed, but it was a bit too self-consciously literary for my taste. Johnson achieves more, with less. Also it reminded me a bit too much of Kevin Brockmeier’s "The Year of Silence".