2009 Nebula Nominees: Novellas

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

2008 Nebula Nominees: Novelettes

April 14, 2009 at 2:10 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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The novelette length is much more to my taste than short stories, so it’s no surprise that as with previous years I found a lot more to like here.  As before there are no spoilers in my comments.

The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner (Asimov’s) — As with so many stories these days it’s written in that slightly effected, beating you with the charm stick folksy narration.  But Gardner does a good job with it.  This stands or falls based on the character portrait it is painting, and that is done quite well.  Unfortunately, I didn’t buy the ending (to the main character’s story)…too out of nowhere, not enough (any?) evidence in the story up to that point.   But the main character was done well enough I can forgive that.

Dark Rooms by Lisa Goldstein (Asimov’s) — A very strangely structured story.  Although it’s basically a fictionalized biography of a real early filmmaker, the plot and dramatic arc concerns the underwritten narrator.  Since the point of the story is the focus on the filmmaker, I didn’t really care much about the narrator, which completely sabotaged any interest in the story itself.  The fantastic element that stamped it into genre felt unnecessary and even out of place in what was really a biography.

If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes (F&SF) — Unusual paranormal story, but even though this is novelette length and full of seemingly authentic details about life in upper class Massachusetts, the whole thing feels kind of insubstantial.  There’s really only one idea here, so it feels like a short story padded out to a longer length.

Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel (F&SF) — Jane Austen meets Frankenstein.  I’m not very familiar with either, but I enjoyed the story.  I’m not sure that in the end the story really says anything the original Frankenstein didn’t already, but it was engaging.

Kaleidoscope by K.D. Wentworth (F&SF) — I’m always accusing short fiction of being mere vignettes, and this is a great example of that.  The central idea here, perception of alternate universes, is pretty neat.  There isn’t much a plot, though, and the resolution is unconvincing and feels unearned.  The feel of the main part of the story is interesting enough to be worth it, but I wish this worked better as an actual story.

Baby Doll by Johanna Sinisalo [translated from Finnish by David Hackston] (The SFWA European Hall of Fame) — I suppose this is science fiction, but it’s a story that would be at home in a mainstream anthology and it feels like horror.  It’s basically an extended “kids these days” rant that ties in a very ugly anticipated youth culture from 2015 with a fairly standard school story.  While I think there’s a lot of disturbing trends in the way kids act and are marketed to I found the extrapolation to be a little overwrought.  Having this come via translation from Finland was helpful, since I didn’t know what of the slang and culture was invented and what is already current there.  (Note my link for this story is to an anthology that collected it…”Baby Doll” is the first story.)

I couldn’t find Mary Rosenblum’s “Night Wind” online, so I can’t speak for that one.  Of the ones I did read, “The Ray Gun: A Love Story” was my favorite despite the weakness of the ending.  “Baby Doll” and “Pride and Prometheus” were also quite good.

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