Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hugos 2011: ettes and las

I have now devoured the Best Novelette and Best Novella Hugo nominees, and so I thought I might talk a bit about them. I'm not going to go through all ten of them in detail. That would probably be boring for you, and then I'd feel guilty for boring you and I'd apologise too much and you'd get angry at me for all the apologising, and that's not a situation from which I'm particularly good at recovering. So I'll try to avoid it by sticking to some more general comments.


It's probably true that I've read less classic science fiction than I should. Nevertheless, hang around long enough and you'll pick up a few things, and so even I spotted just how nostalgic this year's Best Novelette nominees are. Both "Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen and "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele pay obvious homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels*, and "Plus or Minus" by James Patrick Kelly is clearly a response to Tom Godwin's classic "The Cold Equations". Nostalgia isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not particularly exciting. And that's pretty much sums up how I feel about this year's Best Novelette nominees.

I wanted "The Jaguar House in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard to be my favourite, because it seemed the newest. It is set in a future where a powerful Mexican empire dominates Central (and South?) America. Unfortunately, it felt like a fragment of a larger story. I think a lot of the interesting aspects of the setting were unexplored for no other reason than de Bodard had done it somewhere else.

In the end, I think I'm going to pick "Plus or Minus" for the award -- it's a fairly interesting story, and I think it works as a modern response to a classic. "The Cold Equations" (and, arguably, classical physics) is all about absolutes, whereas things get fuzzier in "Plus or Minus" (and, I suppose, modern physics). My second choice would be "The Emperor of Mars". Sure, it's just a love letter to classic sci-fi, but it's whimsical enough to make me smile.


Two of my favourite authors appeared among the Best Novella nominees this year, writing in two of my favourite sub-genres: Ted Chiang, with the hard SF "The Lifecycle of Software Objects", and Alastair Reynolds with the space opera "Troika". Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself falling instead for "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window", a high fantasy story by Rachel Swirsky.

I have an idea that Rachel Swirsky is a writer of sort of romantic sci-fi and fantasy. If I were being uncharitable, I'd call it faeries and unicorns sort of stuff. I think maybe that's an inaccurate assessment -- my sense of her writing may have been coloured by her tenure as editor of the fantasy fiction podcast PodCastle. The premise of "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" seems to fit the bill, though: a sorceress from a matriarchal society, where only women can perform magic, is bound to linger after death, conjured up through the ages by all manner of people seeking wisdom and power.

Thing is, the characters in this one (especially Naeva, the narrator) are so well drawn I got quite swept up in it. The writing is really lovely, and I'm a fan of stories told in snippets across generations. I think Swirsky was writing about prejudice, amongst other things, but I really appreciated that the story wasn't heavy-handed with its themes. So many of the shorter works on this year's Hugo ballot seem kind of obvious, but Swirsky's story was much better than that.

As it happens, I really enjoyed reading through the Best Novella list this year. I do think it's a great length for sci-fi. It's particularly interesting to me that the two novellas I had the most fun reading -- "Troika" by Alastair Reynolds and "The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis -- were the ones I ended up ranking fourth and fifth (second-last and last), but I think I'll ponder that a little more and maybe talk about it later.

So there you have it. I'm confident I have now read enough to submit informed votes in all of the (non-visual) fiction categories. Nevertheless, I'm still planning to tackle Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn, and hopefully some of the Best Graphic Story entries. I'll let you know how it goes!

* It's right there in their titles: "… of Mars" was the pattern for the titles of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom stories, and the word "Barsoom" means "Eight[h] Planet" in Burroughs' fictional Martian language.


  1. Did you skip "That Leviathan" on purpose? It seems to be provoking the strongest reactions in the novelette category so far. I think it's a very interesting story, but I can see why some people detest it.

    Otherwise, I agree with everything you said, especially the love for the Swirsky story, which I think is my favorite Hugo nominee this year from any category.

  2. Hi Ryan -- thanks for commenting! "That Leviathan..." is an interesting one, left out largely because I wasn't sure I could concisely unpack my feelings about it. I've got it down as last on my list, I think for reasons I can defend (one-dimensional characters, an unconvincing ending).

    Missionary work with aliens is a challenging idea, but I don't think it was handled with nuance here. Malan was Right, and that was that. By choosing rape as the point of disagreement, I feel that the author absolved himself of any genuine need to have Malan defend his position.

    The question I can't answer is if I thought it a poor story because of these technical problems, or if I've inflated those problems to justify my disagreement with its religion.

  3. You're the third or fourth reviewer I've seen with that reaction (out of maybe five reviews read). I also have major reservations about missionary work in this context, and I can see how it'd look like Stone is stacking the deck, but I read it as much more even-handed. I thought Stone let both sides make good points, and left the central ethical questions on the table for further thought/debate. Maybe I was being overly generous in my reading though.

  4. I think I disagree with you about its even-handedness, but I can't say with confidence whether that's just me projecting my own biases on to the story or not. I suppose that's why I shied away from talking about it in the main post. You've encouraged me to give it a second look, though. Perhaps I'll read it differently if I'm prepared for its themes?

    That there's something worth discussing (and thinking about) here suggests maybe number five for "That Leviathan..." is a little unfair. I wonder: does a strong negative reaction make a story more worthy than one which doesn't provoke much of anything at all?

  5. Hi Nick, I have linked to this post from for comparative purposes!