The Hugo novelette category is one of my favorites. It consistently features, in my opinion, the best fiction on the ballot. This year, the novellas might have a slight edge in consistent strength across all the nominees, but I feel the strongest stories from all the 2010 short fiction Hugo nominees come from the novelettes.
The six novelettes all deal with identity and what makes something sentient. It’s interesting to see these disparate stories and find a thread that pulls them all together. There’s no reason for a commonality among the nominees to exist, but I’m always pleased when I find one.
As it’s been noted on the other wrap-ups of the short fiction nominees, there are spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read these stories yet and intend to read them at some point, you should probably skip reading this until you get the chance to read them.
Rachel Swirsky is a new writer that I think people should be watching. Every piece I see from her is stronger than the last. “Eros, Philia, Agape” is definitely her best work to date. In this story, Swirsky gives us Adriana who is all alone after her father passes away. She and her father had a difficult relationship and she does not feel sad at his death but does feel empty. She decides to buy herself a companion.
Adriana goes to a store and has them build a robot, Lucian, that will be her companion/lover/friend. It causes quite the scandal when she begins to bring the robot around in public as if it were a real person. The two of them even go so far to adopt a young girl, Rose, to raise as their daughter. The three major players in this story all struggle with their identity and who they are. It’s very interesting to see how Swirsky handles how differently each character tackles the problem of identity.
Lucian abruptly leaves his family so that he can see if he can achieve sentience on his own. Neither Rose nor Adriana deal well with the loss. While Lucian felt like an object, like a thing that Adriana owned, it’s clear that he was much more than that.
I’ve taken Swirsky’s story and ironed it into a flat descriptive piece. Swirsky reveals bits and pieces of this story as the reader travels back and forth in the timeline of the piece. It’s not until the very end that you learn why Lucian decided to take himself away.
If not for the Watts story, I would place this as my favorite to win the Hugo.
“The Island,” Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2; Eos)
This is my favorite story of all the nominated short fiction. The narrator is part of a crew on a deep space journey to seed the universe. She wakes every now and again to see how the ship’s AI, nicknamed “chimp,” is handling the mission.
One time she awakes to the face of Dix, her offspring. Their ship has come upon a star and a potential contact with another lifeform. Neither Dix nor the chimp know what to do about it. The object they are racing towards is definitely sending out a signal, some sort of communication. The problem is, the ship is racing right at this lifeform and will likely destroy it if the flight path is not altered. The chimp does not want to alter the flight path and the narrator does.
As the story progresses, we learn that there was a conflict between the ship’s AI and the crew. The crew voluntarily removed their comm links with the AI so it wouldn’t be inside their heads. They also damaged pieces of the AI/ship so that there were areas of the ship that the AI couldn’t see into. The narrator is the last remaining crew member. The chimp is picking off the crew that rebeled against it and trying to raise a new crew that is more compliant, like Dix.
The genius of the story comes from the communication between Dix and the narrator. Dix was raised by the chimp and is therefore very smart, but has never learned intuition or imagination. The narrator can’t imagine not having these things so the two continually frustrate each other. The two have such different backgrounds and memories that they are almost unable to communicate.
I also like how Watts uses the narrow point of view of the narrator to limit what the reader knows. This lets Watts reveal the story to us more slowly. If the narrator doesn’t want to talk about it, the reader doesn’t learn anything about it. It also clearly biases the reader against the AI, but Dix serves as a great devil’s advocate to make the reader question the motives of the narrator. The chimp and the narrator are more alike than either would admit.
This is my clear pick as the winner of this category. It has everything I could want in a science fiction story.
“It Takes Two,” Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three; Night Shade Books)
I enjoyed reading this story, but I don’t know how well it stacks up against the other nominees in this category. While many of the other stories deal with non-human characters trying to determine their identity and motives—trying to determine whether they are real—the characters in “It Takes Two” have their identities and motives determined through mood-altering drugs.
Richard and Cody are salespeople who see each other regularly on the trade show circuit. Richard, however, has gotten tired of the travel and has accepted a job that will allow him to work a regular schedule. Cody is annoyed, particularly as the next show involves trying to get a contract with Boone in Atlanta. Boone likes to take out the salespeople to a strip club, except that Cody, being a woman, is not comfortable with these trips. If Richard had been there she would have someone with which to pass the evening.
At the club, Cody is taken with a stripper named Cookie. They hit it off and leave the club together. Somehow this leads to Boone giving Cody the contract. But all Cody can think of is Cookie/Susanah. Richard tries unsuccessfully to get in touch with Cody and eventually has to go to her house to talk to her.
It appears that the attraction between Cody and Susanah was due to experimental drugs that Richard is developing at his new job. The story takes a radical turn at this point, but holds together very well. Griffith shows admirable skill in turning the story on its head so close to its end.
The story is well written, I just don’t see it appealing to the Hugo voters in the same way the Watts or Swirsky stories will.
“One of Our Bastards is Missing,” Paul Cornell (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume Three; Solaris)
I was disappointed with this story. I don’t feel that it showcases Cornell’s talents very well. The story itself is pretty straightforward and it doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to know where it’s going.
At the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, a guest literally vanishes in thin air. Jonathan Hamilton is charged with solving the mystery. In Hamilton’s world, people can create pockets and folds in space time and use that to hide objects—think concealed weapons—or even things as big as a person or people.
With these few pieces of data, I determined the outcome of the story without a lot of thought. I was expecting more from the story, and I just didn’t get it. I don’t think the Hugo voters will go for this story either, but I could be way off, too.
If you haven’t read any of Stross’s novels concerning the secret British government agency the Laundry, this story might not work for you. And you should go out and read a few of the books. They are quite good.
“Overtime” offers nothing new to the Laundry line of stories and novels. It’s an entertaining Christmas-themed story, but everything progresses in a straightforward fashion. Perhaps it’s just a reaction after reading Stross’ novella nominee “Palimpsest” which makes this story feel lacking.
In this story, our intrepid agent Bob volunteers to work over the holidays and has to fit off a baddie on his own. There are some clever parts where Bob figures out what’s going on and how he can fix it. All the same, there are much stronger candidates in this category.
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” Eugie Foster (Interzone 2/09)
I was quite impressed with Foster’s story. In her world, the population dons masks every morning. These masks provide personality, memory, and everything else that identifies a person. Each mask is a new set so that no one is the same from day to day. Everything seems to revolve around obtaining an aphrodisiac salve called Queen’s Honey. Characters can die trying to obtain it—you are healed overnight and ready to go again in the morning—and it often leads to wild copulation with no consequences.
In some ways, for the wearers of the mask, it is a utopia. The Queen leads them, and they get to be anything and everything they want to be. Of course, if it looks too good to be true… There is a rebel group trying to overthrow the Queen and her masks. Out story’s protagonist is recruited to join the rebellion.
Foster broke the story down into sections, with each section representing another mask that the protagonist wears. For example “Marigold is for Murder” or “Blue is for Madness.” The structure of the story is as important as what’s told. It sets the reader up for what’s to come next, but sometimes Foster deliberately doesn’t quite deliver on the section title’s promise and takes the reader somewhere else.
If not for the Watts and Swirsky pieces, this would be my clear front runner for the Hugo.
My final Hugo voting order:
1. “The Island” by Peter Watts
2. “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky
3. “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster
4. “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith
5. “Overtime” by Charles Stross
6. “One of Our Bastards is Missing” by Paul Cornell
Illustration by Sam Weber
John Klima is the editor of the Hugo Award winning Electric Velocipede.