Saturday, January 21, 2017

Hugo Nomination Thoughts: Short Fiction: Novelette


“Everybody From Themis Sends Letters Home”, by Genevieve Valentine (Clarkesworld, October)
“Project Empathy”, by Dominica Phetteplace (Asimov’s, March)
“The Visitor From Taured”, by Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s, September)
“The Bridge of Dreams”, by Gregory Feeley (Clarkesworld, March)
“Told by an Idiot”, by K. J. Parker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 4)
“Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshipers of Yul-Katan”, by Maggie Clark (Analog, April)
“Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, by Jason Sanford (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, July 31)
“Fifty Shades of Grays”, by Steven Barnes (Lightspeed, June)
“The Plague Givers”, by Kameron Hurley (Patreon; Uncanny, May)
“Alone, on the Wind”, by Karla Schmidt (Clarkesworld, August)
The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde ( Books)

Again, the top five listed here will likely make up my ballot, though any of the others I list would be wholly worthy nominees.

Quick word count note to begin – according to my word counts a few short stories on my (upcoming) list are also eligible in novelette, and a couple of them are right at 7500 words – the boundary between short story and novelette. So those stories may well be listed as novelettes in other’s lists. (Actually, I’m planning a post on the whole notion of word count boundaries for award categories, and on the history of designating stories as “short story” vs. “novelette” vs. “novella” vs. “short novel” etc.)

Apropos to some extent of that, I’ll note that two of the novellas I had listed in my previous post on potential novella nominees technically fit in other categories, and I thank Greg Hullender (and others) for bringing this to my attention. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric’s Mission is just barely too long for the category (300 words – such a small margin that I bet a Hugo Administrator could get away with letting the nomination stand if that were to happen, not that I’m advocating that – just note that in the pre-digital era voters would very likely not know the word count to such precision), and The Jewel and Her Lapidary is technically novelette length (though close enough (16900 words) to novella that it could be listed in that category). I have also been reminded (as I had already acknowledged) that there are some pretty worthwhile novellas I hadn’t yet read – so I’m reading some more novellas, and I’ll make a revised post sometime soon.

Anyway, to the novelettes:

“Everybody From Themis Sends Letters Home” is a really moving story about a group of “beta-testers” for a new virtual reality game who think they are the first colonists on a planet of Proxima Centauri. The braids of the story encompass their experiences on this fictional planet, their experiences “back home” (especially as they have been recruited from the prison population), and the corporate ethical missteps (to put it mildly) surrounding the whole project – and, too, behind it all, is a sort of paean (or so I read it) to the love of story. (I really love Genevieve Valentine’s work, which I find consistently as emotionally engaging as that of any writer.)

Dominica Phetteplace is a fairly new writer, who has been impressive from the getgo, but “Project Empathy” is the first story from her that really wowed me. It’s the first of a series of stories (all so far in Asimov’s, all with titles beginning “Project”) that are going to be a “braided novel”. This story concerns a high school age woman from the economically depressed suburbs of San Francisco who gets a sort of commercial scholarship to a school in the city, in the process agreeing to host an AI that will make her a better worker at the coffee shop/restaurant sponsoring her scholarship. The AI, we soon learn, has its own agenda … and the agendas of various AIs turn out to be a significant narrative impetus in the larger novel.

“The Visitor From Taured” is about a man who is obsessed with proving the existence of parallel
worlds. The story is told by his college friend, a woman who becomes an expert in 20th Century books (books not being a thing anymore in this future), enough so that (fortuitously) she ends up being able to help him finance the necessary experiment. The story is told beautifully, and resolves to a certain bittersweet melancholy but not at all despairing mood that (to me, anyway) seems characteristic of MacLeod. It’s in a way another story about the SF dream, and its failure. But that might be me imposing my personal obsessions on it. Anyway, it’s really fine work.

“The Bridge of Dreams” is very far future exotic hard SF story, intriguingly Norse-flavored, with a pair of posthumans summoned from the outer planets to the “Sunlit Realms” (the Inner Solar System, particularly Venus) to intervene in a political struggle between “kobolds” and latter day Earth people. This is SF at its weirdest, legitimately strange and convincingly not just contemporary people in funny suits.

“Told By an Idiot” is set in a perhaps slightly alternate Elizabethan England, and is stuffed with neatly turned Shakespearean allusions, in telling of a lucky man (owner of a playhouse), who happens to acquire a bottle that just might have a demon inside it. As clever and knowing as we expect from Parker, and of course as cynically funny, and bitterly logical.

I mentioned the useful weirdness of Greg Feeley’s “The Bridge of Dreams”, and in that context I ought to mention some other stories on this list that are really weird – “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, “The Plague Givers”, and “Alone, on the Wind”, particularly. All, to some degree or another, might be called “Science Fantasy”, in that they use both SFnal and Fantastical imagery. (Mind you, “The Bridge of Dreams” is most definitely SF, while “The Plague Givers”, I would say, falls on the Fantasy side of the divide, with the other two stories perhaps straddling the border.) I think there’s something there – perhaps a Clarke’s Law derivation – a really useful way of depicting the far future is to acknowledge that to us in its distant past the far future will probably really seem like fantasy.

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