2009 Nebula Nominees: Novelettes

February 28, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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I usually enjoy the stories in the novelette category a lot more than the short stories and this group is no exception. Normally my exposure to a year’s short stories starts with the award nominees (and often ends before I even read all of them), but this year is unusual for me in that I’d actually read two of the nominees already, and even more surprisingly, had read enough other stories there were a few I wished had been nominated instead.

The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2) — This is one of the two stories I’ve already read, probably when it was nominated for a Hugo last year, although I didn’t write about it here (this is a 2008 story…I thought the Nebulas were switching to a comprehensible eligibility system this year but maybe it’s phasing in or something). It’s an interesting take on globalization and the future of journalism, and while I found it a little dry, Bacigalupi’s writing holds it together. I didn’t quite believe his future, but I believed in his main character enough to roll with it.

Vinegar Peace, or the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage (PDF) by Michael Bishop (Asimov’s) — A strange story about how a near-future version of our society treats parents whose children are all dead (“wrong-way orphans”) and the struggles of these parents to cope with their loss. This is a story that in some ways seems determined to alienate its readers, both with its second person, colloquial style and its symbol-drenched surrealistic plot. As a story, I don’t think it works. On the other hand, as an expression of the author’s grief (Michael Bishop wrote it after his 35 year old son was killed in the Virginia Tech shootings), it’s fairly powerful.

I Must Needs Part, the Policeman Said by Richard Bowes (F&SF) — Like the Bishop story, this seems like another case of an author dealing with a difficult experience through writing. This one is much more conventional, describing in great detail an older man’s time in the hospital as he’s treated for a life-threatening intestinal blockage. In this, it’s reasonably effective, although I wonder how much of the story is, well, true given the overt autobiographical approach taken. It all works well enough, but given the story’s length I thought there was far too much procedural trivia and not enough actual story. I also can’t help but wonder if Bowes and Bishop wouldn’t have both ended up with much more powerful pieces had they traded approaches. Bishop’s heartbreaking loss would have come through clearer in a more straight-forward and autobiographical telling, while Bowes’ difficult experience would have been more engaging and more humorous with over-the-top satire.

Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast by Eugie Foster (Interzone) — This is the other story I’d read already. It’s a very fun story that lets the reader work through an interesting puzzle. I enjoyed it a great deal, but unfortunately the eventual revelations didn’t work for me (for spoiler-heavy discussion of this, see the comments of Niall Harrison’s review at Torque Control).

Divining Light by Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s) — This is one of those stories where a brilliant scientist struggles in the lab and comes up with a shocking finding. I’m really a sucker for this kind of story, it feels delightfully old-school somehow, and I really wanted to love it. Unfortunately, outside of its scientific content the story deals in hoary cliches, from the genius whose research has driven him to madness to the ethnic minority spouting folk wisdom (all the more absurd given the character is actually a hot shot electrical engineer who spends all his time with electron microscopes yet has somehow never heard of the wave/particle duality of light). Still, it’s about as easy to read as it’s possible for a story about quantum mechanics to be, and that’s got to count for something.

A Memory of Wind by Rachel Swirsky (Tor.com) — I guess you could call this a remake, or maybe a re-interpretation, of Greek myth. Iphigenia describes what it feels like to have your father decide to sacrifice you to Artemis. It’s not a spoiler, I think, to reveal the answer: not very good. It’s very well-written, and if it lacks suspense, there’s a certain thrill in seeing the interpretative choices that Swirsky makes regarding the characters in Iphigenia’s life, characters who are actually much more prominent in Greek myth than she is: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Helen, Orestes, Achilles, and Odysseus. The result is enjoyable, if a bit lightweight. My only complaint is that among the mostly unflattering portraits, the gods in general and Artemis in particular seemed like they got off easy. I suppose Iphigenia, virtuous innocent that she is, is too pious to call them out.

It’s pretty tough to pick a favorite from the list. I think “A Memory of Wind” has the fewest flaws, but its ambitions are a little low for my taste. I think I’d pick “Sinner, Baker…” over “The Gambler” and “Divining Light” as the story that I found most enjoyable, but in truth I’d be happy with any of those four stories winning.

That said, my time spent reading short fiction has rewarded me with the ability to offer alternatives to the stories nominated. I read Chris Adrian’s A Tiny Feast when it was featured in the Torque Control short story club and liked it more than any of the nominated stories. But my favorite story from 2009, so far, is Helen Keeble’s “A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc; or, A Lullaby”, which I read after Abigail Nussbaum wrote about it. Oh well, maybe it’ll get a Hugo nomination.

2009 Nebula Nominees: Short Stories

February 26, 2010 at 12:28 am | Posted in Short Stories | 7 Comments
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Another year has gone by and award season is underway again, and that means it’s time for me to sample the (theoretically) best stories science fiction and fantasy have to offer. I’m very tough to please when it comes to short stories, and nowhere is this more evident than the shortest award category, which I’ll be discussing in this post. At that length, there’s very little time to tell an effective story, and apparently most people are content with meager pieces that set a mood but little else.

Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela by Saladin Ahmed (Clockwork Phoenix 2) – Narrated by the court physician of a Muslim caliphate, this story has great atmosphere.  I may be biased here, as this sort of Muslim narration reminds me of Ted Chiang’s fantastic “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”.  Alas, beyond its somewhat unusual setting this story doesn’t have a lot to offer, telling a simple and fairly predictable story about the narrator’s brief contact with the supernatural.

Non-Zero Probabilities by N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld) – What would it be like to live in New York if, for some unspecified reason, within its limits the laws of chance function more like those of a movie or fairy tale instead of the real world? You probably haven’t ever asked that question, but this story answers it pretty well. It’s not a bad idea, although I feel like Star Trek has done something similar at least once. The author does a couple clever things with the concept, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. I would have preferred a more thorough extrapolation: some hand waving toward people coming for cures, New York sports teams winning, and canceling the lottery made it seem like there was a real human story here, but instead it’s just a sketch.

Spar by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld) – Wow. This is actually a horror story, despite a science fiction setting. I don’t particularly like horror, so it’s hard for me to evaluate, but I think this is a really good horror story. If you want to be disgusted and disturbed by a story, this is for you. I’m impressed with the writing, certainly, but I think I probably could have done without being disturbed. I also wish the ending was a little more concrete.

Going Deep (PDF) by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s) – This story is a strange but pleasant mixture of cyberpunk ideas about neural connections to the net and very traditional SF stories about going to space. The world is fairly interesting and the teenage protagonist seems reasonably believable. As is so often the case with stories of this length, however, I thought the actual plot didn’t really amount to anything and was therefore left feeling unsatisfied.

Bridesicle by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s) – Has there ever been a science fiction idea with more disturbing implications than cryogenically freezing people? I always wondered why anyone would pay to thaw out someone, and over the years I’ve read stories with a variety of scenarios. This one may be the most creepy, envisioning it as operating along lines similar to mail order bride services. While it’s nothing amazing, it’s a very solid story, and for once one suited to the short length, since it focuses on a single idea and doesn’t aim too high or too low.

There’s one more nominated story, “I Remember the Future” by Michael Burstein from an anthology with the same name, but it isn’t being made publicly available online and according to the author will not be. Something about wanting to sell books. I can certainly understand that. However, given my apathy towards short stories in general, I almost never get anthologies.

Of the stories I read, the most effective is definitely “Spar”, although I’m not sure I actually liked it. Probably my vote, if I had one, would go to “Bridesicle” as the most complete story of the bunch, and therefore the one I most enjoyed.

Way of the Pilgrim by Gordon R Dickson

February 17, 2010 at 4:25 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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I never thought about it much, but Earth under alien dominion, as a setting, is really underused in science fiction, especially compared to the unceasing barrage of post-apocalypse books, TV shows, and movies.  Not only does it have a visceral punch, it’s useful for examining imperialism, the right to governance, and other themes which are certainly not uncommon.  Perhaps John W. Campbell’s preference for stories that exalted rather than humbled humanity is to blame, but if so he’s exerted even more of a lasting influence than I would have thought.

Anyway, Way of the Pilgrim bucks the trend and is set on near-future Earth a few years after its conquest by an alien species called the Aalang.  Only a few Aalang live on Earth, but their vast technological superiority makes their rule absolute.  The main character is a linguistic savant who is valued for his rare ability to cope with the difficult Aalang language.  He works as a “courier-translator” for the Aalang’s planetary governor.  In this role, he works unusually closely with the aliens and thus, more than just about any other human, understands their culture, respects their strengths, and fears their power.  He also hates them, and this slowly overcomes his fear and turns him to rebellion.

As a psychological invention, Dickson’s Aalang are very interesting, far more believably alien than most.  They see their subject races, including humans, as qualitatively inferior.  Their word for human is invariably translated into English as “beast”.  This is obviously galling, but in their favor, Aalang society has almost no crime, no dissent, and little inefficiency.  Needless to say, they were not impressed with the human society they found on Earth.  Aalang believe their obvious superiority gives them the right to rule, and that their rule is in fact benevolent.  The book doesn’t spend a lot of time on this allegation, though it paints a picture of a very orderly Earth free of the violent and the destitute.  Of course, this improvement was achieved by stamping out much of human culture, as well.  As cattle humans are useful only insomuch as they can meet the Aalang’s prodigious industrial needs, so they have little need of culture.

Despite their technology and social organization, the Aalang are very inflexible and frequently seem incapable of abstraction.  It’s hard to believe such an unimaginative people could have made so much technological progress, but there are intriguing hints that the Aalang weren’t always this way.  Long ago their homeworld was conquered by an alien race, and they have dedicated themselves to its reconquest at any cost.  Over the millennia, it seems, they have purged anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal.  I thought that was a particularly interesting aspect of the book’s world, how this conquered race had weaponized themselves down to their own psychology, so that if they ever reconquered their home they wouldn’t know what to do with it, but unfortunately Dickson isn’t too interested in this.

Most of the book is centered around the psychological journey of the main character, Shane, as he continues working for the Aalang while secretly fomenting rebellion.  And this is where the book runs into trouble.  Shane is, to be blunt, a gigantic jerk.  I initially hoped that this was a result of his close contact with the aliens.  Perhaps his immersion into Aalang thought has cost him his ability to relate to fellow humans?  Alas, no, the book ends up attributing it to his pre-invasion childhood.  Over the course of the book, Shane grows as a person until, by the end, he’s still arrogant and verbally abusive but he feels bad when other people die.  I’m afraid I needed a little more progress than that before I could root for him the way the book expects me to.

Even worse is the book’s approach to romance.  Dickson was born in 1923 and, well, he employs some very old-fashioned patterns.  Shane sees a pretty young woman in trouble and, probably because she’s attractive, risks his own life to save her.  Needless to say, they fall in love.  She spends the book looking nice and serving as motivation, since at the beginning of the book Shane doesn’t care about liberating humanity, but otherwise has little to do.  When they talk, she frequently calls Shane out for being a jerk, which makes it seem like she “loves” him out of some obligation since her life was saved.

At the end of the book, Dickson succumbs to a common SF failing of pulling a totally new and implausible metaphysical idea out of nowhere and expecting this to provide a satisfying ending.  I’ve read so many books whose endings are sabotaged this way I can’t fault him too much for it, but it was still disappointing, especially given how convincing the earlier psychology had been.

If you’re interested in portrayals of alien culture and thought that are successful in portraying non-human thinking, this is worth reading, but most will probably do better elsewhere.

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