Reading the Hugo-nominated novellas every year always feels like a chore before I start. It’s the same way I feel about the novels. It’s not something I’ll get done quickly, and more likely than not, it will take longer than I’d like to get into the stories. However, I almost always find that to be not true. The novellas are engaging, swift-paced, and entertaining.
This year we have six novellas on the ballot, and it felt pretty strong to me. It was difficult to determing my voting ranking, and there wasn’t a lot separating the novellas from each other in my mind. Unlike the short stories, there doesn’t seem to be any artifical theme I can force upon the novellas.
As always, read on with caution. I don’t actively look to spoil stories, but I inadvertantly always do.
“Act One,” Nancy Kress (Asimov’s 3/09)
Every time I read Nancy Kress, I think to myself, “I should read more Nancy Kress.” Thankfully, there is a good deal of work out there that I can dive into and enjoy. “Act One” is what I would consider quintessential Kress. An intriguing concept, strong characters, a little twist, and a satisfying ending.
From the little I’ve read of Kress, she’s dealing with people who are often looked down upon by society, or treated differently. In this case, we have Barry, a dwarf. He manages Jane, a former actress, who is interviewing children who have been modified by The Group to carry Arlen’s Syndrome. These children have increased empathy. For most people it seems like the children can read minds when they can only read moods. Sad to say, these little empathy machines aren’t looked upon as saviors but more as freaks. Part of the problem is having a child know how you feel.
And then things go horribly awry. This is a spoilery part. Unhappy with the progress of modifying individual children, The Group decides to release oxytorin—a drug that opens up empathy receptors in the brain—into the water supply. Since the group is essentially an invisible corporation, the public lashes out at the modified children.
In addition to all this meaty plot, Kress explores Barry and his family. We learn about his ex-wife Leila, also a dwarf, and their normal-sized son Ethan. Barry attempted to “fix” Ethan in utero so that he would also be a dwarf, but the procedure didn’t work. Lelia took Ethan away from Barry and they rarely speak to each other. Leila has excluded Barry from Ethan’s life. It’s a very interesting conundrum. If (when?) there’s a point where genetic modification of unborn children becomes a mundane process, what happens when the parents disagree about it? It very much carries a lot of the overtones of Frankenstein, except in this case the child is not shunned by the father, it is the other way around.
This is another dense and highly interesting story from Kress. In my opinion, there are stronger contenders for the Hugo, but the difference between them is negligible.
The God Engines, John Scalzi (Subterranean Press)
John Scalzi creates a world where interstellar space travel is possible through the harnessing of gods into spaceships, hence the title: god engines. The gods are able, much like Herbert’s Guild Steersmen, to bend/fold space and move enormous distances very quickly. And in a world where gods are engines, their fuel is faith. If faith wavers, the gods are less compliant, which can have disastrous results.
The gods do not like their human captors. There is one true Lord over all the gods that fly ships. Captain Tephe is in charge of a ship called the Righteous. The ships have priests who help keep the crew faithful and run ceremonies that enable the gods to perform their space travel feats. The priests often employ iron to control the gods as iron burns them. There are three levels of iron: first-made, second-made, and third-made, which work in decreasing power on the gods.
Beware spoilers after this point...
On a stop at a home planet, Tephe receives a new misson to travel to a planet that does not have any existing belief system based on gods, i.e., they have no faith. It’s explained that if he can convert them to their true Lord, their faith will be first-made faith and will strengthen their Lord in his fight against the other gods.
The religous overtones are a little heavy for me. The whole conflict between faith and science isn’t set up as much of a conflict, as it seems clear that the faith effort is not working, nor is it worth the effort. Scalzi tries to keep Tephe of pure faith and does several things to shake it, but the evergrowing enormity of those challenges put my suspension of disbelief to the test. It’s like Scalzi wanted Tephe to lose his faith, but only after some really bad stuff happened. True, if someone is truly faithful, it would take pretty extreme circumstances for them to lose their faith, so perhaps I’m being unduly harsh. All the same, the story ends so bleakly I have trouble enjoying it.
“Palimpsest,” Charles Stross (Wireless; Ace, Orbit)
Spoilers from the get go.
This is the type of story I think of when I think science fiction. Now, some people may want to call it space opera, but I’m not sure that actually works since all the action takes place essentially on Earth. And of course, since that’s not exactly true, perhaps space opera works just fine.
All of Stross’s considerable talents are on display here. Smart characters doing intelligent things and explaining it so the audience can follow along; a timeline that spans trillions of years; and occasional steps out into what I can only call metafiction. Let me go into those points.
The people in the story are smart, really smart. Because of that, they’re doing things that are complicated and difficult. And yet, Stross is able to have the characters describe what they’re doing without it feeling like an info dump or the dreaded “as you know bob...” I’ll admit I haven’t read everything Stross has written, but everything I have read features hyper-smart characters. And they’re interesting, which I think shows an amazing level of talent. It would be very easy for intelligent characters to be boring or annoying, and Stross’ characters are rarely either.
The timeline. What can I say about the timeline? It boggles my mind. I have trouble keeping straight what I did last week and what I need to get done for tomorrow. While I suspect Stross keeps notes of some sorts, I’m quite impressed. While much of Stross’ oeuvre works in shorter timelines than “Palimpsest,” it does trend towards stories that take place over a significant amount of time.
As for the metafiction... There are parts of this story that Stross writes as if giving a slide persentation. It is a deliberate step out of the story in order to look at it from an outside point of view. This could be very disconcerting. Typically when I’m thrown out of a story, it’s a bad thing, but in this case, it works.
You may be surprised to hear that I’m not picking this as my top novella. I gave it much debate (see below for the complete list) and the difference between the top two is so small that I could be persuaded without much effort to vote for one over another.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon)
The biggest issue I had with this piece was that I disliked the protagonist. I disliked him so much that it wasn’t that I wanted tragedy to befall him, but that I didn’t want anything to happen to him. Nothing good, nothing bad. I simply wanted him to cease existing.
He goes from an annoyingly egotistical, wise-cracking actor (are there people who are unable to see the danger they are in so they continue their sarcasm even though it’s putting them in further danger?) whom I found implausible to a morose, guilt-ridden has-been that I found whiny and unsympathetic. While I think he’s supposed to rub people the wrong way, I doubt that Morrow had such a strong reaction in mind.
Set in 1945, Syms Thorley, our actor, is hired by the U.S. Navy for their efforts on the Pacific front of World War II. Thorley will don a rubber lizard suit and crush a minaturized Japanese city. The intention is that the Japanese will see the destructive power of the lizard creature and surrender. You see, the lizard things are real.
The Navy actually has three gigantic beasts it keeps under sedation. If Thorley can’t do his job and convince the Japanese that the lizard things are real, then the Navy will release the real thing on Japan.
At the same time, another project is developing the atomic bomb. The Navy hopes that their project will be successful so that the bomb does not need to be used. There are all sorts of secret histories, plots, and conspiracies in this story in addition to the obvious allusion to Godzilla. In all, this should add up to a compelling read, but I couldn’t get past Thorley.
It should surprise no one that I’m ranking this story last among the nominees. It was hard for me to judge it impartially, as it was clearly well written.
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus,” Ian McDonald (Cyberabad Days; Pyr, Gollancz)
An amazing story about the genetically engineered man Vishnu (as opposed to the god Vishnu) and his family, particularly his older brother Shiv. Shiv, the eldest, was the pride of his parents’ eyes until a friend came over with her modified baby who was better in every way than Shiv. Shiv couldn’t possibly compete with this engineered baby, so his parents had a second child, Vishnu, who was given every available modification.
From the beginning it was clear that Shiv was unhappy at being unseated. But, one of the vagaries of Vishnu’s life was that he was given an extended life span, which meant it took him twice as long to develop physically. Vishnu and his fellow modified children are considered the future of India. Whether they want to be the future of India remains to be seen.
Akin to some small aspects of Kress’ “Act One” and in larger ways Shelley’s Frankenstein, Vishnu and his fellow Brahmin don’t act as expected and aren’t treated as non-modified children would be treated. As the monster in Frankenstein is rejected by his creator the Brahmin are rejected by their families and treated more like commodities than family members. Many of the Brahmin—and typically their best and brightest—reject the genetically engineered ambition within them and choose to seek joy and fulfillment instead.
In the meantime, it is Vishnu’s brother Shiv that uses his unmodified ambition to drive him and prove that he is still the chosen one, the golden son. The main thrust of Shiv’s plan involves AI computers the size of dust mites. Once ingested, your mind becomes a part of the internet. Everyone shares each other’s thoughts. A true democracy.
Shortly after the AIs, or “aeis” as they’re called in the story, are unleashed on the world, people learn how to upload their consciousness into the internet and leave their physical bodies behind. Vishnu rejects this life and travels across India, learning everything he can about the people and places of his home country. He eventually returns home when it becomes necessary for someone to intervene with his brother’s plan.
Oh, the cats? They work as a framing device. When we first meet Vishnu he is in the guise of a man running a cat circus. We come back to this conceit time and again and then dive back into Vishnu’s story.
For my money, this is the strongest novella nominee on the ballot. As I said though, it wouldn’t take much for me to place “Palimpsest” ahead of this. They are both incredible stories.
The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean Press)
This novella features Baker using all of her formidable talents. Best known for her novels about The Company (time traveling art thieves), this steampunk novella is set in 1844 London and features Nell Gwynne’s, a house of ill repute, and the women who work there.
I hope that the steampunk aspect doesn’t make some people turn away from this story, as it is very entertaining and well written. And the steampunk is more than window dressing, it serves a point in advancing the plot.
You see, Nell Gwynne’s is funded by the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society (GSS), an organization that, among other things, builds extraordinary devices. In return, the women of Nell Gwynne’s feed secrets from their high-powered clientile to the GSS (which is itself a predecessor to the Company).
When a member of the GSS goes missing while investigating Lord Basmond, the ladies of Nell Gwynne’s are hired to follow up on the situation. Lord Basmond is throwing a party for severl dignitaries and wants entertainment for his guests. He gets more than he bargained for when our ladies arrive.
Baker employs her vast knowledge of the Victorian era in creating this novella. It almost appears that Baker spent more time on the setting than the plot, which is fairly mundane, but the story is engaging and doesn’t necessarily need a layered plot. A murder ensues, and the story becomes a type of locked-room mystery. None of the individual pieces of this novella stand above any other, but put together they make an entertaining piece of fiction.
This is one of the last pieces of fiction that Baker was able to publish before her untimely passing early this year (there are two novels set to come out this year). Whether or not that matters to the voters remains to be seen. The novella has already won the Nebula, which can sometimes backfire for the author where the Hugo Awards are concerned.
My final voting order for the Hugos:
1. “Vishnu at the Cat Circus,” Ian McDonald
2. “Palimpsest,” Charles Stross
3. The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker
4. “Act One,” Nancy Kress
5. The God Engines, John Scalzi
6. Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow
John Klima is the editor of the Hugo Award winning Electric Velocipede.