2009 Nebula Nominees: Novellas

March 6, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment

A lot of years I don’t end up reading any novellas, since the fact that many are not available online removes the satisfaction of completing the set. This year is no different in that regard: three of the six nominees aren’t available. However, I went ahead and read the three that were.

Arkfall by Carlyn Ives Gilman (F&SF) — A pleasantly old-fashioned story about people in a small craft cut off from civilization and becoming reluctant explorers, “Arkfall” doesn’t have especially high aspirations. What it does try to do, it does well, and its conception of a society living on the ocean floor of a colony world is especially good. The colony’s underwater terraforming project involves seeding an isolated canyon with microbes that can feed off geothermal heat. The humans living there are extremely passive and deferential, the better to get along in very cramped conditions. Many go on long voyages within the canyon in unpowered vehicles that simply bob in the currents. This society’s strengths and weaknesses are mirrored in the main character, who feels constricted by the need to constantly care for her ailing grandmother and isn’t confident enough to tackle her problems. However nice the setup, the story itself is very predictable. And while I didn’t notice it while reading the story, upon reflection I wasn’t too impressed by the solution to the protagonist’s old grandmother problem.

Act One (PDF) by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s) — Last year I read Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress’ 1993 novel about using genetic engineering to create smarter children, and thought it was pretty good, but had some reservations about effects the proposed genetic engineering had both on its subjects and on the society around them. I suppose this story represents an update on her thinking, because it too is about changing children using genetic engineering. I’m still not very convinced by how Kress games out the results, personal and social, of genetic changes, but I liked this better than her novel. In any case, the more stories tackling various facets of human gene modifications the better, because it’s something we need to think through a lot more before it actually becomes feasible.

Sublimation Angels (PDF) by Jason Sanford (Interzone) — This was similar to “Arkfall” in that it describes a human colony living in extremely adverse conditions on a planet that’s too cold for them. However, whereas Gilman’s story was interested in the parallels between society and protagonist, Sanford’s is a little more typical in that it is oriented around a slow discovery of the society’s true nature. The narrator begins by establishing the conventional wisdom about his little world, then he slowly learns the hidden truths that underlie it, and armed with this secret knowledge he gains power over his circumstances. This essentially gnostic pattern underlies a lot of SF and has been used by a lot of fantastic stories over the years (for me the prototype is Clarke’s “The City and the Stars”, one of the few Clarke stories I really like). Unfortunately, like many such stories, “Sublimation Angels” proves to be a tease, posing many interesting questions and only answering the least interesting of them, rendering the story unsatisfying despite the many things it does well.

While they are all solidly written, I wasn’t really impressed by any of these three novellas. If I had to pick, I might go with “Arkfall” on the grounds that it’s the most unique, but I felt they were all, in the end, of similar appeal: nice but not quite award-worthy.

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