Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hugo Nomination Thoughts: Best Novella (Revised)

[This post is a revised version of my previous post on potential novella nominees, reflecting questions about the eligibility of a couple of my suggestions, as well as reflecting my reading three more highly recommended novellas.]


The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson (Tor.com Books)
“The Vanishing Kind”, by Lavie Tidhar (F&SF, July/August)
“Lazy Dog Out”, by Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s, April/May)
“Maggots”, by Nina Allan (Five Stories High)
The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds (NewCon Press)
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle (Tor.com Books)
The Last Days of New Paris, by China Mieville (Del Rey)
Penric’s Mission, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency) [technically just slightly too long to be eligible in the Novella category]
Technologies of the Self, by Haris A. Durani (Brain Mill Books)
The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde (Tor.com Books) [technically a novelette at some 16,900 words, though also eligible in Novella]

In this category, there are only two stories included in my book – that’s always the way, with novellas – they take up so much space that I can only fit a couple per year. The top five stories listed will almost certainly be on my Hugo nomination ballot. That said, there are a few significant novellas I have not yet read, so there is some room for change.  But to quickly cover my putative nominees:
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a truly lovely story, taking its inspiration and setting from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, but more importantly, written as well as the work of the writer Lovecraft was under the influence of when he wrote his story: Lord Dunsany. The title character is a professor at a women’s college who must chase after a student who has foolishly run away with a man from our world.

“The Vanishing Kind” is dark noir set in an alternate England, under the sway of a Nazi government, having lost World War II. A German screenwriter comes to London partly in pursuit of an actress who had briefly been his lover, only to find her involved in some very scary things – drugs, sex-trafficking, murder – not to mention hidden Jews.

“Lazy Dog Out” is traditional SF adventure, and lots of fun, about a space tug pilot on a moon of a colony planet, who gets stuck in the middle of a nasty plot involving framing some unfortunates for the murder of some visiting aliens.

“Maggots” is a long story about a young man from the North of England who becomes convinced that his Aunt, after a mysterious disappearance and reappearance, has been replaced by something alien. This ends up messing up his relationship with his girlfriend, and he ends up in London, tracking down hints of other people who’ve had similar experiences as his – which leads him to a spooky house where he encounters something really scary, as well as learning a lot about his Aunt that he hadn’t known.

The Iron Tactician is the latest Merlin story from Alastair Reynolds, set in a far future in which humanity is threatened with destruction by Berserker-like robots called Huskers. This story, set more or less to the side of the main action, has Merlin encountering a ship destroyed by the Huskers, with one survivor, who leads him to a system riven by war, which may have a syrinx to replace Merlin’s decaying one. The story truly turns on the nature of the AI which one side of the war has used to plan their campaigns, the Iron Tactician, and on its real nature and motivations. The story starts a bit slow but is resolved really effectively.

I’m not a horror fan, not a Lovecraft fan, which is one reason I resisted Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom. And it is Lovecraftian horror, though with a distinct twist. Still – not my favorite stuff – but I have to say this is a pretty strong story regardless. It’s set in New York in the ‘20s, about a black man, a bit of a con man, who becomes involved with a rich white man who believes he can summon the Old Ones from the depths – and so perhaps he can, but if he calls them will they do what he wants? And will Black Tom care? Solid work, and really well written in spots, but in spots written a bit carelessly, as if it needed one more draft.

The Last Days of New Paris is subtitled “A Novella”, so I list it here. Its main part is perhaps 39,000 words, which qualifies it as a novella, but there is a long section of endnotes, which brings it to well over 45,000 words, so I’ll leave the question of its eligibility for the Best Novella Hugo to others. But it’s very interesting, set in an alternate Paris during and after World War II. In this Paris a curious weapon has brought Surrealist art to life, with ambiguous effects, and Thibaut, the main character, along with an American spy named Sam, negotiates the city and the Nazis’ efforts to use their art as weapons in an attempt at, perhaps, escape – or, perhaps, an encounter with some arguably more threatening than the Nazis. As I said, it’s pretty interesting, but I thought it perhaps a bit too much a really neat idea looking for a story and not really finding one. (To be fair, there really is a story here, just not one I was entranced by. But, the central idea is very cool indeed.)

I ought to say something as well about the other two novellas I mention. Technologies of the Self is about Joe (real name Jihad), a Dominican-Pakistani-American growing up in New York, and a faithful Muslim in post-9/11 New York, also an engineering student, a young man a bit shy around woman, proud of his Dominican heritage and his family’s long history of exile. The SFnal part concerns his Uncle Tomas, particularly his repeated encounters with a creature he thinks is a demon called Santiago (but who might be a strange time traveler, or a person from a parallel world, or all of the above). Cool and involving work about the main character’s identity (or identities). And The Jewel and Her Lapidary also has a cool central fantastical idea: a valley protected from outsiders by powerful jewels that are wielded by the ruling family (“Jewels”) but controlled by Lapidaries who each bond to a single Jewel. This story concerns the betrayal and fall of the valley, leaving one surviving Jewel and her Lapidary, both fairly insignificant young women. They must find a way to resist the invaders, and at least to prevent them using the valley’s mines to supply jewels to allow them to cement and extend their conquest.

[I had previously mentioned Penric’s Mission as a potential Novella nominee, and my favorite so far of Bujold’s three self-published novellas set in her World of the Five Gods. Penric is a young man who in the first story became the host to a demon (that he calls “Desdemona”), which makes him a sorcerer. In this story he travels to another country to try to recruit a popular General for the Duke he’s working for, and ends up enmeshed in local politics, with the General blinded, and Penric trying to help, and falling for the General’s widowed sister in the process. Fun stuff, with some interesting magic. However, I am told that this story is 300 words too long to be eligible for Best Novella.]


  1. How long is the Penric story? I thought Hugos had a 10% allowance for overrun.

  2. Somebody at File 770 counted, and said Penric's Mission is 45300 words long. I always thought the Hugos had a 10% allowance, but it's actually 20%, except with a maximum of 5000 words. So, short stories can range to 9000 words, novelettes from 6000 to 21000 (!) words, and novellas from 14000 to 45000 words. (And novels from 35000 words up.)

    I have all kinds of issues with those limits, but they are, I guess, the rules. 20 years ago, I suspect, all anyone would have said about "Penric's Mission" would have been: well, it's about 45,000 words, close enough. Nowadays, it's easier to get an exact count, and it's 300 words too long.