Novellas! Who doesn’t love them? Don’t get me wrong, I love short stories (probably more than any other format, actually) and read a fair share of novelettes, but a novella is always something special. To me, a novelette feels like a short story that’s been given a bit more room to breathe, whereas a novella feels like a novel in miniature: it has just enough space to develop plot and characters fully without taking over your entire backyard. The novella is, in Parks and Recreation terms, the Li’l Sebastian of the literary world.
Here’s a brief look at the five novellas on this year’s Hugo Awards ballot.
“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky
“My story should have ended on the day I died. Instead, it began there.” Naeva, also known as The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window, is a sorceress who dies trying to protect her Queen from an armed rebellion. Her soul is preserved in a magical stasis and revived into a variety of bodies and forms throughout the ages. She sees her country, the Land of Flowered Hills, torn apart, then disappear entirely as the years and centuries pass by while she is unconscious, only to be woken up again and again into a completely changed world. Originally from a society with harshly defined gender roles (men are “worms,” and there’s an underclass of “brood” women just to produce babies), she is forced to deal with changed values that are alien and shocking to her.
This is a gorgeous novella that bears in itself the seeds for a dozen novels. There’s a wealth of material here, and we only get brief glimpses of it as Naeva surfaces for a short while before disappearing again. The mystical ending is perfect. I loved this one.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Subterranean Press Magazine and as a separate chapbook from Subterranean Press. It was also nominated for a Nebula this year. You can read it online here.
Ana and Derek work for a company that’s developing a new class of artificial intelligences called digients. Digients are initially raised and trained like intelligent animals and quickly develop their own human-like personalities and idiosyncrasies. As a result, they’re a big hit with the public… but what happens to these lifelike and completely adorable digital beings once the novelty wears off? What happens when griefers catch on and find creative ways to harm them? When their software platform becomes obsolete? When they want to make autonomous decisions? Ted Chiang’s longest published work to date follows Ana and Derek as they deal with the difficulties of raising and loving a new, digital life form.
As you’d expect from Chiang, this is a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of writing, but to be honest, it didn’t blow me away like some of his previous stories did. That’s probably in part because of my unrealistic expectations based on the author’s previous works, but also because it feels a bit choppy to me. Several times, the plot skips a year or two between chapters, leaving a lot of empty space that could have been used to develop themes and characters. People have been clamoring for a Ted Chiang novel for years, and it’s hard not to feel that, well, maybe this could have been it? Regardless, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a great, thought-provoking novella that raises many interesting questions. On a personal note, if you’d told me last year that a Ted Chiang story would only be my third favorite story in this or any other category, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.
“The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand
This novella originally appeared in Stories: All New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. It can be read online here.
Three former and current employees of the Museum of American Aviation and Aerospace work together on a tribute for an ex-colleague who is dying of cancer: a reenactment, in miniature, of a movie fragment that shows a pre-Wright Brothers aircraft. Their dying colleague’s main claim to fame is an Erich von Däniken-style book called “Wings for Humanity!” about an ancient alien race that supposedly seeded the Earth in the far past, creating isolated locations where human-powered flight is possible.
This is a gorgeous, touching story. All the characters are perfectly drawn, with much more depth and realism than you might expect in this relatively short format. “The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s Bellerophon” is funny at times and emotional at others. The fantasy elements are as subtle and mysterious as something you’d find in a Graham Joyce novel, but even without them this would be one of my favorite novellas on a very strong ballot.
“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis
A scientist is summoned to meet with the Satrap of Venus, who proves to be a young, immensely rich boy with unexpected motives. Her companion, left to his own devices, gradually discovers more about life in the floating cities of Venus and the true goals of the Satrap.
This novella combines a convincing exotic locale with a fast-moving adventure plot. It’s hard not to be excited by the spectacular setting: thousands of floating cities, hovering in the small habitable zone around Venus. This is a fun, old-fashioned (in a good way) SF adventure story, but it doesn’t stand up well against the strong competition in this category.
“Troika” by Alastair Reynolds
Troika was originally published in Godlike Machines, a Science Fiction Book Club anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan, who was nominated in the Best Editor, Short Form category. The novella is also available separately from Subterranean Press. This is the only work in the three short form categories that, as far as I know, isn’t available online for free, but both the novella and the entire Godlike Machines anthology are included in the Hugo Voter Packet.
Dimitri Ivanov is a Russian cosmonaut who, in the past, was part of the crew sent into space to investigate a huge alien construct dubbed the Matryoshka. In the present day, he is escaping from an asylum to meet with the astronomer who was responsible for a controversial theory about that same mysterious object. Troika moves back and forth in time, from the Matryoshka mission to Ivanov’s meeting with the astronomer, and in the process tells a surprisingly deep and complex story. It’s set in the “Second Soviet,” and while Troika emphasizes the repressiveness of the regime, it also shows that this new USSR is the only country that still has a manned space program. There’s much more packed into this high-density novella than I’ve hinted at, including a dizzying finale that will make you want to reread the entire story.
And that concludes this third and final post about the nominees in the three short form categories of the 2011 Hugo Awards. If you haven’t had the chance to read them yet, please follow the included links in the first paragraph of this post to take a look, and let us know which ones are your favorites! You can also still register for Renovation and cast your Hugo votes until July 31st.