2009 Nebula Nominees: Novelettes

February 28, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment

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.

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