2009 Hugo Best Novella Spotlight

The nominees for the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Novella are: 

* “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008)
* “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
* “The Tear” by Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
* “Truth” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
* “True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)

I always have trouble reading novellas. The length is just enough for many a writer to get trapped in their setting without an adequate resolution. Sometimes, the format of the story isn’t strong enough to sustain itself for novella length. Or, the story becomes more and more complicated and you can tell by the slim number of pages left that it just won’t resolve satisfactorily.

But a well-written novella, well, that leaves you wanting some more time with it. You get to the end and you hope it isn’t really over.

Be forewarned, if you have not read these stories, it’s likely I will spoil something for you. Proceed with caution.

The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay (originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction August 2008 issue)

“The Political Prisoner” does not have a complicated story structure. The title character, Max (from 2002’s story “The Political Officer”), has found himself on the wrong side of power. Whereas in the first story Max was the one who wielded power and intimidated people, this time around it’s Max who’s in chains. It seems all his wheeling and dealing, all his double agent, has run its course.

Or has it?

As Max tries to convince Willem Mallove that he has no idea who Inspector Drozhin’s double agents are, everything falls apart. Mallove is assassinated, and Max is captured and sent to a prison camp to assist in the terraforming of Jesusalem. After inadvertently speaking out of turn, Max gets thrown in with the Adareans, people who have genetically combined with plant life. The Adareans do the worst work at the camp, and Max has trouble keeping up.

Finlay is making some pretty obvious parallels to Max’s work at the reclamation camp to those of the prisoners in concentration camps in World War II. Max and the Adareans’ working and living conditions are terrible. The Andareans are handling it slightly better than Max due to their plant genes, but it’s not a place any of them expect to survive.

And still, akin to some recent popular movies of the concentration camps, there is a spirit of survival and attempts at normalcy among the Andareans. An attempt to ignore/forget their surroundings and focus on the good things they have. Sure, these good things amount to being alive and memories of better times, but they make an effort.

Finlay isn’t breaking any new ground with this story. The story is one we know well. The characters are familiar to us. The action, while not exactly predictable, isn’t so radically unusual to shock anyone. I wonder if Hugo voters will see this as a detriment when compared to some of the other nominees. Nonetheless, what Finlay presents here is a well-crafted adventure. I blazed through this story, enjoying every bit of it.

The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress (originally appeared in Asimov’s October/November 2008 issue)

Talking about Kress’ “The Erdmann Nexus” will either be a slipshod affair that reduces the story to its most simplistic view or gets lost within the richness of it. The thing that struck me immediately about this story was how fully crafted all of the characters were. Kress creates ten or so assisted-living elderly people as well as a handful of ancillary characters.

While the plot centers around ninety-year-old former physicist, current physics professor Dr. Henry Erdmann, it’s not as if the other characters aren’t important. The residents of St. Sebastian’s are suffering through a shared series of temporary blackouts.

In the framing device for the story, a ship light years away is racing towards Earth to aid the birth/creation of a new being. As the story progresses, the reader should be able to determine that blackouts the characters are experiencing are directly related to the new being.

For most of the story, the reader knows more about what’s going on than the characters. This can be a difficult trick to pull off since there is the danger of a character making a leap of logic that doesn’t make sense, i.e., the characters need to learn what’s going on only through what’s happening around them rather than some sort of intuitive move.

Also, there is an equal danger of the reader getting bored with the travails of the characters as they work to solve the problem before them. The search/resolution needs to be interesting enough to captivate the reader while not moving the story too fast or illogically.

I’m not sure if I wanted the framing device of the ship traveling to Earth to happen more often than it did. In some ways it felt unnecessary to the story, but I don’t know that I would have understood what was happening without it. And if I had gotten more details about the ship I suspect that I would have felt it was too much.

For me, the strength of this story lies in its characters. I loved that they all had different interpretations of what was happening. There’s a scene where they gather together to discuss the events and they end up arguing since no can agree on what it is. And in the end, it doesn’t matter what they think it is, there just needs to be enough of them answering the call. My big takeaway from this story is that I haven’t read enough Nancy Kress.

“The Tear” by Ian McDonald (originally appeared in the Science Fiction Book Club original anthology Galactic Empires)

I really liked the concept of how the people of Tay went from one to eight Aspects upon reaching puberty. This meant that each person housed eight different people. Not personalities, but people. Each Aspect might be married to a different person, or to be technically correct, to a different Aspect from another person. Each Aspect was used for different instances in a person’s life. One might be more thoughtful and be used for problem solving, one might be more aggressive and used in dangerous situations and so on. I also liked the flip side of this with those who were Lonely and only ever had one Aspect.

Ptey, the story’s protagonist, and his best friend Cjatay simultaneously look forward to and dread splintering into multiple Aspects. They look forward to adulthood, but wonder if they will be able to remain friends once they are multiple Aspects. Even worse, Cjatay ends up being Lonely and therefore regulated to a stunted life by society. If both boys had splintered properly, there would been a chance for them to remain friends, but with Cjatay as a Lonely, it all but confirmed that the two young lives would never cross paths again. At some point Ptey decides to go up into the Anpreen ship and continue his studies there.

Floating above the surface of Tay are the universe-traveling nanoprocessor motes Anpreen who are taking on water from the planet to refuel so they can continue on their journey. Even though the Tay people are split into eight Aspects, they have a mistrust a society comprised of millions or billions of individual members.

In fact, the Anpreen are the antithesis of the Tay people. The Anpreen consider themselves one mind, sort of a giant hive of nano-motes. While different parts of the Anpreen performed different tasks, they all shared the same thoughts, knowledge, and experiences.

Too late, the people of Tay learn that the Anpreen are on the run from the Enemy who seek to eradicate them. Ptey (I’ll use this version of his name to simplify things) decides to join the Anpreen rather than return planetside. He is taken apart by the nanoprocessors and becomes part of the Anpreen.

Here, the story lost me a bit. Ptey flees with the Anpreen into the stars, leaving his homeworld behind. Things do not go as planned, and the Enemy is able to catch and eliminate a lot of the Anpreen. What happens next is a centuries long chase through the stars. This section felt a little over-long for me, and given that there was not much happening compared to earlier parts of the story, it really dragged for me.

Ptey returns home and finds that his planet was not spared by the Enemy so many years ago. The memory is still fresh enough that when he tries to hail the planet, they fire upon him. To my surprise, Cjatay appears to talk to Ptey. It seems Cjatay had also been converted to nanobits. He continues to blame Ptey for the destruction of Tay.

There’s a lot to this story that I’m either simplifying or leaving out entirely. It’s hard to do the novellas justice, particularly one as dense and far-reaching as McDonald’s is. At its core, the fact that story was about friendship and how it mutates and how it doesn’t mutate over the chasm of time was pretty cool. It won’t surprise me at all to see McDonald’s name listed as winning the Hugo this year.

Truth” by Robert Reed (originally appeared in Asimov’s October/November 2008 issue)

I like time travel stories. However, I also know that many people do not like them as it is difficult to write one without introducing events that would seem to prevent the time travel in the first place. If I go back in time and kill someone, how does that affect the future, technically my present?

It’s all spoilers from here to the end.

In Reed’s case, we’re working with multiple realities. As is stated in the text, there’s one reality that discovers and builds the time machine. But every trip back is into another reality so anything changed in that world does not affect the ‘master’ world.

In the reality in which this story takes place, Ramiro and a small army travel back in time into a new reality to enact justice. A sort of temporal terrorist group come back in time to right the wrongs of the past, and so what if it was only one reality that was going to get wrecked, the point wasn’t the permanence of the act, but that the act happen at all.

There’s a lot that Ramiro knows, and it’s up to Carmen to learn as much of it as she can. She was recommended to the job by Collins, the former interrogator who took his own life because of the things that Ramiro told him.

There’s something different about Carmen, too. Both she and Ramiro are holding secrets. It seems that Reed is setting up that whomever can hold on to their secrets longest will emerge as the victor, a sort of metaphysical game of poker where the stakes are all of our lives. Ramiro et al are in an underground bunker and as the story progresses, the world above falls apart.

Reed is a true craftsman. If you aren’t reading his fiction, particularly his short fiction, you’re missing out. I still remember his story “Like, Need Deserve” that originally appeared on Sci Fiction that consisted only of the dialog between two people; it’s extremely difficult to create a plausible narrative with only dialog and yet Reed did it. You can never get comfortable in a Reed story. Just when you think you know where you’re going, he pulls the rug out from underneath you.

In this case, it’s a sucker punch to the gut. You learn that Ramiro came back alone but had convinced everyone that he was part of a team. Ramiro also provided the plans for the time machine so that people could back in time (or travel to another reality, however you want to think about it) and try to stop Ramiro and the resulting destruction. But he also fed out information that was true enough to be believed, but in the end was really just something mislead people.

Collins was excited at the prospect of being able to send teams out into other realities to save them from the horrors that our reality faced, but Collins committed suicide when he learned that the false information Ramiro fed him had caused all sorts of death and destruction around the world.

And just when you think that you’ve been thrown for enough of a loop, Reed pulls another carpet out from under you: Carmen faked the planet’s destruction as a way to face Ramiro into giving up the plans for the time machine. When Carmen takes Ramiro up to the surface under the pretense of pushing him out into nuclear winter to slowly die, Ramiro sees that the world is fine and he was tricked. This isn’t the first time Carmen’s done it either.

For some people it might feel like a cheat to change the story so drastically in the final few pages, but I thought it was handled with great skill. However, I think the McDonald piece, or the Rosenbaum & Doctorow piece will grab the Hugo voters attention.

True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (originally appeared in Fast Forward 2)

I know this will make many a person shake their head in disbelief (if you’re even still reading my posts) but I didn’t care for this story at all. The opening paragraphs were almost impossible for me to get through. In fact, I only liked the parts of the story that were more figurative, the parties, weddings, etc., rather than the more literal parts with nanomachines, asteroids, and comets. I’m not sure if that reflects the work that the different authors did.

I found that I had trouble mustering reasons to keep reading. There were no characters that I could identify with to want to see how the story resolved for them. I couldn’t understand why I should care if the Strategy Nadia took over Beebe or they lost their battle with the Demiurge or if Brobdignag destroyed the universe. The story folded on itself so much that I was unsure at the end who I might consider rooting for.

The fact that the characters were able to propagate multiple instances of themselves made it even more difficult for me to understand what was happening. I do have to say that I am impressed how the authors seemed to keep everything straight as different instances of the same character would have different experiences and might not know the same things as other instances did.

Also, some instances lived within simulacrums and those parts of the story somehow impacted other parts of the story, even though the simulated environments could not escape their simulacrum. But the experiences in the simulated environments could be uploaded back into the ‘real’ instance of the character. I will admit that I think the concept of sending out multiple selves to accomplish tasks and then assimilating everyone back together is pretty cool.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole thing was taking place in a simulated environment, which felt very cheap to me. I don’t believe it was, but when you set up layers of simulation, I think it makes sense to think the reader might assume that every part of the story isn’t happening ‘for real.’

The authors used many of the tropes typical to a novel of manners wherein certain social codes must be followed depending on the individual characters social class; which is an interesting analog to how software works and how certain types of codes behave in certain ways although a clever programmer can often co-opt things to work in an unexpected manner (think structured programming versus literate programming for a very basic example).

But I guess that’s at least one of the reasons why I’m not a programmer anymore. Spending time chasing through code to find subroutines and instances and triggers and other whatnot has no appeal to me. Reading this story felt like work to me, and I wasn’t able to shake that and let the story develop on its own. I suspect, unlike me, this is a story that many Hugo voters liked quite a bit, but that’s part of the reason why we vote, isn’t it? I think it’s big competition is the McDonald piece, with which I also had issues. Regardless, I expect one of the two to win the Hugo this year.

John Klima is the editor of the Hugo and World Fantasy nominated magazine Electric Velocipede. He works full time as a librarian at a small college in the Midwest.


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