2009 Hugo Best Novelette Spotlight

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

* “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
* “Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel (F&SF Jan 2008)
* “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)
* “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner (Asimov’s Feb 2008)
* “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Jan 2008)

My first impression on the nominees for Best Novelette is how uniformly strong they are. There is no story that stands out above and beyond the others (unlike Short Story and Novella). However, it seems to me that this is not unusual for this category. It’s a nice length for the author to stretch a bit and give the storyline some nice development, but not so much length so that the author can hang themselves with their own creation. Like Short Story, I saw a common theme among the nominees: a single person struggling with their beliefs and in the end making some tough decisions.

I noticed, while reviewing these stories (and I use story to generically refer to something not novel-length) that I refer to science fictional elements when discussing a piece’s chance at winning the Hugo. I do know that the Hugo is for the best science fiction or fantasy work in that particular category. But I always feel that the awards typically go to science fiction work over fantasy work. And, there always seems to be a bigger outcry over the victor if the work is perceived as a fantasy. While it should not matter, and the award is for either, I still feel that the feeling of the voter is overwhelmingly towards science fiction pieces.

Having noted that, I do know that the short fiction awards are where there seems to be more exceptions made for fantasy over other categories. And I think a lot of this comes from that slippery speculative fiction designation where something isn’t outright high fantasy nor is it hard science fiction, but it combines small elements of either or both into a new thing.

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

The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi (originally appeared in Fast Forward 2)

My God I loved this story. I don’t think it has a chance in winning the Hugo, mostly because its science fictional elements are incidental to the real story, but I was really moved by Ong’s plight in this story. And maybe it doesn’t matter that the science fiction portions of the story (and there are really no fantasy elements) are not what drives the story. The story is extremely well-written, and to me, an incredible step in Bacigalupi’s process of growing as a writer. Bacigalupi is known for writing stories that make people uncomfortable, and that’s not what’s on display here.

Bacigalupi takes us inside the head of young Ong, who escaped from Laos before the country was thrown into technological invisibility. He works for a news agency that thrives on glitzy, gossip-ridden celebrity stories. But Ong wants to write about butterflies going extinct and flowers disappearing from Walden Pond. A conversation with his boss (that had spine-tingling familiarity for me) leaves Ong with the onerous task of improving his numbers drastically. Which means he’ll have to leave behind the type of story he feels he was hired to write.

The perfect opportunity falls in his lap: an interview with popular Loatian pop singer Kulap. Not only will Ong potentially save his job but he gets to do it by spending time with an attractive young lady.

The interview is almost painful. Ong does not want to lose his job, he needs it to be avoid being sent back to Laos, but he feels he is betraying himself by doing the kind of nonsense journalism the interview entails. I can only speak for myself, but I know that making decisions based on what I believe to be right instead of making decisions solely on financial concerns is not easy. Ong is clearly struggling with what to do. As a reader, Bacigalupi has done an excellent job putting me in Ong’s seat. And I never had to make a decision with the repercussions that Ong faces.

Despite the fact that the story is about people, the near-future world that it’s set in feels very real. Bacigalupi has created a place with just enough technological differences that you know it’s not now, but isn’t so far-fetched as to be implausible. Also, he sets up just enough so that all the technology ephemera that he doesn’t describe feels like it’s there, too.

Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear (originally appeared in Asimov’s March 2008 issue)

Leave it to Elizabeth Bear to weave so many through-provoking and charged images into a Lovecraftian story. As I re-read this story I couldn’t help but think of recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates. There are no direct parallels to Gates and Professor Harding in Bear’s story, but I thought the choice of an African-American professor doing research in Maine shortly before the United States entered World War II gave the story some nicely charged subtext and imagery.

Harding is certainly careful of what he does and says in his pre-Civil Rights world. The Northerners he interacts with don’t seem sure what to make of him. But, there seems to be some respect given to him due to his position as a professor and the fact that he wants to investigate the shoggoths that bloom out in the bay.

Still, it takes Harding some time to find a fisherman willing to take him out in his boat. I like that Bear makes this ambiguous enough that the reader isn’t sure if it’s due to Harding’s skin color or the fact that the people are so superstitious about the shoggoths.

Like any good Lovecraftian/Cthulhu story, Bear sprinkles in enough real details to make the whole of the story sound real. When Harding goes to the library to read an 1839 monograph and finds the library’s copy vandalized, I half-believe the monograph exists. And perhaps it does, minus the shoggoth sections (which are physically missing from Bear’s copy in the story). Bear even adds the detail of an Audubon plate of a shoggoth in the monograph.

Major spoiler warning.

Harding eventually learns some secrets of the shoggoths and finds that they are looking for a new master. He considers what it might mean to take a veritable shoggoth army into World War II and how it might quickly, and almost painlessly (certainly for the Allied side of the conflict) end the war.

Harding is then faced with the dilemma of saving the world from an enormity of pain and suffering through enslaving a race of creatures, even creatures as alien as the shoggoths. Harding’s own grandfather was a slave, and he is understandably repulsed by the idea of slavery no matter whom or what is made a slave. But, Harding feels he must make a utilitarian decision and put the world before his own ideals.

Bear sets Harding with an awful dilemma of conscience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen morals play so strongly into a Lovecraftian story. In Harding’s mind, he has two difficult choices he can follow, and he has to decide whether to put himself first over his country.

End spoiler warning.

This is quite a unique take on the Lovecraftian tale. Bear has turned some of the traditional tropes on their head, which is why I suspect that people nominated this work. The moral decision Harding faces at the end of the story is quite interesting and I like where Bear took the story.

The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner (originally appeared in Asimov’s February 2008 issue)

This is my pick for the winner. It hits all the right buttons: coming of age, aliens, advanced technology, lust, violence, and questioning of morals that impels the protagonist through his life. Sad and lonely teenager Jack finds a ray-gun in a forest. He decides that he, and not someone else, found it for a reason. And that reason is so he can become a hero.

He takes the responsibility of the awesome destructive power of the ray-gun very seriously. He begins to train himself physically and mentally how he imagines a hero should train. Jack lives in self-delusion.

And then he discovers girls.

At first, girls distract him from the ray-gun and his training. In some ways, this disappoints him, but he believes he has a higher purpose to serve. He heads off to college and graduate school and a PhD in electrical engineering. He can’t decide if he’s trying to understand the ray-gun or if the ray-gun is somehow influencing him.

There is a feeling of addiction and compulsion here. It’s almost as if Jack can’t help but do what he’s doing, that he has no choice in the courses he takes and the choices he makes. And seeing the story from the limited perspective of Jack, there’s no way for the reader to know whether the ray-gun is influencing him or he’s just fooling himself.

I really liked how Jack compared himself to superheroes in his, but also could see how he fell short of what those superheroes were able to do. Jack was uncomfortably aware of his humanity. The ending doesn’t wrap up as nicely as you might like, but sometimes life doesn’t wrap up nicely and I really liked where the story stopped.

Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel (originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction January 2008 issue)

Like the Bacigalupi, I think this story is fantastic and has a difficult row to hoe in order to win the Hugo. Other than the fact that Dr. Victor Frankenstein (yes, THAT Frankenstein) is one of the characters, there is not much in the way of science fiction. In fact, if you hadn’t figured it out from the title, the story owes much more to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice than to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The two novels were published in the same decade, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone try to combine them together.

Kessel nails both authors perfectly. Having studied both works multiple times, it read to me as if Austen and Shelley had collaborated on the story. I am not afraid to admit that I am a fan of Austen and the novel of manners in general. I still enjoy it when her work is co-opted by someone to tell their story. And Frankenstein is one of my favorite novels of all time and I was thrilled to see Kessel, unsurprisingly, hit all the major points of the novel in his story.

It was quite fun to see the two novels mashed together and watch how the Bennet family reacted to the enigmatic Dr. Frankenstein. The action centers around Mary Bennet and how Frankenstein draws out more personality than what she typically shows. The story takes a gruesome turn at the death of Kitty Bennet (one wonders if Kessel was getting rid of a disliked character or merely using the person who made the most sense) whose corpse goes missing.

The modern reader dos not wonder what has happened to the body, and Kessel does an admirable job of keeping us in the eyes of Mary, who obviously has never read a novel named Frankenstein.

In fact, this is my only issue with the story. The two novels are so well known to me (and I suspect the same is true for many modern readers) that it’s difficult to not foresee the story’s end. It is a testament to Kessel’s skills that story works at all.

Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick (originally appeared in Asimov’s January 2008 issue)

This story shows the tricks and skills that Resnick hides up his sleeves. Unlike his nominated short story this year (which I felt was well-written but disappointed me in the end) this story had me hooked from beginning to end. I always love a story that can evoke nostaglia without getting all gloopy, and Resnick’s tale of the long life that friends Nate and Maury shared together does just that.

The two men met as boys at the titular emporium. The two boys were held in thrall of the wonders that filled the shop, some of which were perhaps more than they appeared. They soon left it behind as they went off to war and then came home to run a series of businesses together. You get the sense that Nate held the place in his memory fondly, but only as a place to remember. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that it meant something much more to Maury.

Living together in an assisted living facilities and both in their nineties, the two men agree to make one more trip to the store. Of course, the two men find the store has been replaced with a women’s shoe store. A nearby security guard asks if they need help and is able to guide them to the store’s new location.

Nate is not expecting much, since it has been 75 years since they last set foot in the store and yet, Maury seems to be driven to find it. Once there, they are astonished to find Alastair Baffle looking much the same as he did the last time the two men saw him. Nate struggles to comprehend what’s happening, but Maury dives in head first, believing that it’s the same store owner from their youth.

Instead of showing the men parlor tricks and sleight of hand, Baffle reveals some astonishing items to the men, including songs they never wrote and unwordly creatures. Nate grows more annoyed and demands to know how Baffle accomplishes his tricks while Maury continues to buy into everything Baffle is selling. On their way out the door, Baffle shakes Maury’s severely arthritic hand . . . which seems to cure Maury of arthritis. This leads to a growing rift between the life-long friends as Maury’s obsession with the Emporium becomes more than Nate can stand.

Needless to say as life improves for Maury, it worsens for Nate. Resnick is making some biting commentary on the frailty of the human body, healthcare, and faith. Should we accept our fate and let our bodies do as they may as we age? Should we do everything in our power to make ourselves better? Nate and Maury represent opposite sides of the argument, but are crafted by Resnick to be nearly equal in all other matters. They could almost be read as a representation of an internal dialog over the question of mortality, which is pretty cool I think.

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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