The Hugo ballot is officially open, and the time has come to perform the laborious task of deciding among excellence. And, while much of the attention of the voting community tends to concentrate on the Best Novel finalists, we at Tor.com all felt that this year’s short fiction field was exceptionally strong. I’ve decided to help guide readers through the short story, novelette, and novella finalists in preparation for voting.
This week I discuss the novelette category. While there are a number of very strong candidates on the novelette ballot, the inclusion of one story has made it controversial. I cannot claim that this will be a complete look at the category, as I have not and will not read one of the candidate stories.
Please keep in mind that I am an acquiring editor at Tor.com. While I didn’t acquire any of Tor.com’s Hugo finalists this year, I do possess an inherent bias. I will try to mark that bias as best I can, but you should take my suggestions for what they are.
“The Exchange Officers”
Written by Brad Torgersen
Published by Analog
While Torgersen writes a convincing action sequence, “The Exchange Officers” didn’t succeed at engaging me. I didn’t find myself caring particular for the characters or the plot. Perhaps it was the fact that the main characters were projecting into robot bodies that prevented me from feeling the stakes of their situation. I can only recommend that you read this story for yourself, and see if it does more for you than it did for me.
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars”
Written by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published by Tor.com
The novelette that will not be put down! “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” was a finalist for this category in 2013, but it was disqualified at the last moment due to a peculiarity in the rules. You see, in 2012 “Lady Astronaut” was published as an audiobook anthology. Because it had no print publication, and because that script included stage directions, it was ruled ineligible for the novelette category. Tor.com subsequently gave it an official ebook publication, and it has now found its way back onto the ballot.
While that’s a lot of history to have to deal with, I can say gladly that Mary Robinette Kowal’s quiet but powerful story of an aging astronaut with one last chance at space exploration is more than strong enough to make the ballot twice. Kowal displays an unflagging mastery of her character’s voices, and the conflict her protagonist feels between once more fulfilling her life’s passion and staying with her husband through the final years of his terminal illness is devastating and enduring.
“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”
Written by Ted Chiang
Published by Subterranean Magazine
While this is my first Ted Chiang story (please don’t throw eggs), I’ve long been aware of this titanic figure in the short story scene. Across his fourteen stories he’s received four Nebulas, three Hugos, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, three Locus awards, and many more. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is his first story since 2011. In it his main character attempts to write a thinkpiece about an emergent technology that might completely replace organic episodic memory with technological memory, paralleled by a story of the adoption of writing by the Tiv, an ethno-linguistic group in West Africa.
The first time I sat down to read “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” I bounced off it. While Ted Chiang’s prose is compelling, I wasn’t in the mood to read the protagonist’s self-satisfied ludditism in regards to this potentially useful technology. Had I read a page or two further, I would have reached the emotional hinge of the story, and been fully captivated. Chiang takes his story in surprising and intriguing directions, while skewering a certain brand of weary-making tech journalism. I’m glad I returned to “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” Its journey is well worth taking.
“The Waiting Stars”
Written by Aliette de Bodard
Published in The Other Half of the Sky, by Candlemark & Gleam
“The Waiting Stars” has already won the Nebula for Best Novelette, making it a strong successor to “Immersion” her Nebula-winning and Hugo-nominated short story, and On a Red Station Drifting, her Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella. All three works are set in her Xuya universe, an alternate history in which China and the Aztecs become serious imperial powers. “The Waiting Stars” examines the life of Catherine, a young Dai Viet girl who was institutionally raised in a Galactic (Western) orphanage. De Bodarduses her two backgrounds to show a culture clash. While I at first found the Galactic claims on Catherine’s sympathies unmoving, I was surprised and convinced by her reluctance to leave this adoptive prison home.
“The Waiting Stars” is an excellent entry to the Xuya universe. Having seen these cultures in conflict, showing us that neither is a perfect monolith of good or evil, it is easy to want to engage more fully with the world. Aliette de Bodard is establishing herself as a constant presence on award lists.
The three stories I most strongly recommend are each excellent of examples of different kinds of stories. I suspect that voters will find themselves voting purely on preference. If you favor science fiction that is still in love with exploring the vastness of space, pitting human concerns against the wonders of the infinite, than you cannot fail to be satisfied by “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” If you want a gripping space opera battle for a soul caught between two cultures, “The Waiting Stars” is the story for you. If what you prefer in your science fiction is a carefully wrought contemplation on the impact of technology on the human soul, a story that plays effortlessly with memory, language, and culture, then Ted Chiang has once again delivered with “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” This is truly a ballot that shows the heady variety of the science fiction genre.
Carl Engle-Laird is an editorial assistant at Tor.com, where he acquires and edits fiction both for the Tor.com Originals program and for Tor.com: The Imprint. You can follow him on Twitter here. If you ask nicely he might even tell you how to find his Brooklyn Nine-Nine podcast.