The 2016 Hugos: Novella
By Rich Horton
I’m going to write a series of posts on the short fiction categories for the 2016 Hugos, now that I’ve read them all. I’ll rank them in the order I intend to vote.
A quick word on my voting philosophy: I am not planning to reflexively rank Rabid Puppy entries below No Award. I am of course disgusted by the Rabid Puppy antics, and I feel that many more worthy stories were kept off the ballot by the Rabid choices. And if a story is bad enough, it will certainly be off my ballot, with No Award the last choice. (That’s always been my approach.) But, this year in particular, many of the nominees supported by the Rabid Puppies were either unaware of that, or aware and quite clearly not happy with that. Also, I don’t want to reduce the meaningfulness of the win for those worthy winners – if they finish first and No Award is second, to my mind it to some extent delegitimizes their wins, through no fault of their own. Better to have been chosen the best with every voting on merit than voted best simply because all the other choices were automatically rejected regardless of quality.
So, novellas first. The 2016 Hugo nominees for Best Novella are:
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)
Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)
Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)
I’ll go ahead and show my nomination ballot:
The Two Paupers, by C. S. E. Cooney (Fairchild Press)
“Gypsy”, by Carter Scholz (Gypsy plus …, F&SF)
“The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred”, by Greg Egan (Asimov’s)
“The Bone Swans of Amandale”, by C. S. E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
“The Boatman's Cure”, by Sonya Taaffe (Ghost Signs)
With these four also contenders:
Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand (Open Road/PS Publishing)
Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Penric's Demon)
Teaching the Dog to Read, by Jonathan Carroll (Subterranean)
Sunset Mantle, by Alter S. Reiss (Tor)
So you can see that none of my personal nominations made the ballot. Three of my choices were somewhat obscurely published, so I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t make the cut (these are the Cooney stories, and the Taaffe story (which may be a long novelette anyway)). By all means seek them out to read! I was quite bothered that the Scholz and Egan stories, two of the very best hard SF stories of the last few years, and both published top magazines, didn’t get a nod.
Oh well, that’s enough about my choices. It does give you a hint as what will come first on my ballot, though!
- Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Here’s what I wrote in the November Locus: “It's set in her Chalion universe (or, more properly, The World of Five Gods). Penric is a pleasant young man, the younger son of a not terribly prosperous noble family, whose life is turned upside down when, while helping a woman stricken on the way, he unwittingly agrees to take on her demon. This marks him as tied to the fifth god, the Bastard, and it's also potentially a very dangerous thing. The rest of the story is about Penric learning the nature of demons, his in particular (he names her “Desdemona”, cleverly enough), and learning to navigate the dangers posed not just by his possession, but by the jealousies and fears of those around him, particularly those in his new Order. The depiction of demons (which remind me a little bit of the (science-fictional) Aspects in Gregory Benford's Galactic Center future) is pretty neat, and Desdemona is an interesting character (or characters). Nice story, though not spectacular, but I'd be glad to see more of Penric and Desdemona.”
So you can see that I liked the story, but wasn’t over the moon about it. Still, best of this list, though I will say it’s pretty close over the next couple stories.
- Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds
I also wrote about this in the November Locus: “pure SF, told by Scur, a veteran of a sectarian war that seems to have engulfed human space. After the ceasefire, and an encounter with a vicious enemy soldier who tortures her leaves her for dead, she ends up on a prison ship with a number of war criminals. But when she wakes, with the bulk her fellow passengers, and the ship's crew, they realize that something has gone terribly wrong – they seem to have reached the right planet, but centuries late, and the planet seems unrecognizable. Also, her enemy is also on board. The story blends a couple of mysteries – why is Scur on the ship? What happened to it, and what happened to human civilization? – with a tale of revenge and possible redemption. Parts of it stretched my suspension of disbelief, and at times it drags a bit, but the ending is moving and there are some neat revelations.”
Again, I wasn’t over the moon about it, but it’s got some pretty good and powerful ideas.
- The Builders, by Daniel Polansky
I just read this story. It’s a caper story of sorts, following the usual structure: the leader of a gang assembles all the varied members, sometimes reluctantly. Then the plot is set in motion, and the caper is executed. The first twist in this story is that all the characters are animals: the leader, called the Captain, is a mouse; and there’s a rat, a badger, a snake, an owl, a stoat, an opossum, and a salamander. The plan is to try again something they had tried years ago, which we come to realize is a political coup of sorts. We also realize that they were betrayed the last time by one of their own … All these plot details aren’t so much the point, though – the story is all style, offhand black humor, anthropomorphic descriptions of the characters, cutting dialogue. And, eventually, lots of violence. This is pretty fun, I have to say. It’s not really that interesting from an SF or Fantasy point of view, and it’s really not all that deep (and doesn’t want to be). Fun, though.
- Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
Binti won the Nebula for Best Novella, which may make it the frontrunner for the Hugo. But I have to say I found it disappointing. It tells of Binti, a mathematical prodigy from the Himba people (a Namibian group), who gets a scholarship to go to University on another planet in what seems a Galactic culture with multiple alien races. This first part is kind of interesting, as Binti meets a number of other, more privileged, students, starts to make friends, and we start to understand her culture. But that’s not the story Okorafor is telling – because suddenly aliens attack and kill everyone but Binti. Binti is important, perhaps, because she carries an ancient artifact that helps her communicate with the aliens (jellyfish like creatures called Meduse). The aliens, without her permission, modify her so that she can better understand and communicate with them, and they use her to help them recover a significant artifact that was stolen from them and housed at the University to which Binti is going. I was put off by the wild jumps in the story, by the implausible and too often magic tech, by the lack of apparent consequence or concern about the atrocities committed by the Meduse, and by some slack prose. Against that I should point out that it has more exotic ideas than any of the other stories, and appears to be trying to engage “deeper” issues – just not, to my mind, quite successfully.
- Perfect State, by Brandon Sanderson
Perfect State concerns Kaironimas, who is God-Emperor of his own little domain. He has conquered his world after three hundred years, and is providing for his people pretty well, and he’s getting kind of bored. There is the problem of Melhi, ruler of another world, with robots, who wants to fight him … and then there’s the summons he has received, from the Wode – he needs to find a mate an contribute his DNA to create another “Liveborn”. And we realize that he’s really a “brain in a jar” – and he knows it. He’s been given his own virtual reality, to make of what he will, with limited contact with other domains. Everyone else in his world is a simulation. And he must go to a Border State and meet a woman and … And so he does, and she’s intriguing, and very different from him, and a bit cynical, and he starts to fall for her. Well, there’s a twist of course, and it involves his unwanted enemy, Melhi, as well as the nature of these virtual lives. And it’s really not bad, coming to a real if slightly trite resolution. None of the ideas here are terribly original, but this story is pretty well done in that context. A fine story, not a brilliant one.
So there you have it. No story I would have nominated for a Hugo myself, but also no truly bad stories. So I won’t leave any of these off my ballot. Indeed, while this isn’t a great Novella shortlist, it’s really not too different, in overall quality, from many previous shortlists. I just regret the significantly better stories – in what was a very good year at the very top of the novella list – that didn’t get nominated.
I’ll note something else: all 5 of these stories were published as standalone novellas, either slim books or ebooks. So too were many of the other stories I recommended, such as The Two Paupers, Wylding Hall, Teaching the Dog to Read, and Sunset Mantle. This seems unusual, but it does seem to reflect the state of novella publishing these days.