Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Hugos 2012: the novelettes

The Best Novelette category of the Hugo awards is a bit of a funny one for me. I really love novella-length fiction, and a good short story is a beautiful thing, but I find it hard to get excited about the novelette. It just sort of hangs around in the middle there. Sometimes good ones come along*, but more often I struggle to muster any enthusiasm.

That's largely the case this year. I didn't hate any of the stories, but I only really liked one of them. Here's the way I'm intending to vote**:
  1. "Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders
  2. "What We Found" by Geoff Ryman
  3. "The Copenhagen Interpretation" by Paul Cornell
  4. "Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky
  5. "Ray of Light" by Brad R Torgersen.
If I were feeling less charitable, I might consider voting No Award ahead of "Ray of Light" by Brad Torgersen and "Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky. Neither left much of an impression on me. I was particularly disappointed not to like the Swirsky story, given how much I enjoyed her novella on last year's Hugo ballot. I just couldn't figure out what "Fields of Gold" was supposed to be about. If it was intended to be funny, it didn't really succeed, and I felt it lacked any emotional punch.

I also wanted to like "The Copenhagen Interpretation" by Paul Cornell, an alternate reality tale of spies and embassies and delicate relations between Great Nations in a universe where spacetime can be folded for all sorts of interesting purposes. Unfortunately, I found it a bit confusing. I thought the terminology used to describe the science-fictional element was a little hard to parse, and I'm fairly unfamiliar with the historical period that the story is altering. Those two things in combination left me a bit lost.

It was also the science-fictional element in "What We Found" by Geoff Ryman that tripped me up. It's a well written story about a Nigerian scientist and his family, told in a very realist mode. The SF element concerns the decline effect, wherein the statistical significance of a scientific result is seen to decline with repeat experiments. There are lots of good reasons why this might be happening, but Ryman takes the idea that the act of observation is causing the laws of nature to unravel.

Under ordinary circumstances, I think I'd find that an interesting artifice. It's clearly not hard sci-fi, but that's no problem. The thing is, I felt the fantastical SF element clashed with the realist mode of the rest of the story. The main character's family life was compelling and believable, and that just made his science seem ridiculous to me.

I thought "Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders was the real standout of these five stories. It's about a relationship between a couple, both of whom can see the future. He sees a single path, fixed and unchangeable. She sees a wealth of possible futures from which she can choose. It's a beautifully told story about predestination and choice and the way in which we are changed (or not) by our experiences. The protagonists are utterly believable, and the fantastical element handled so delicately that despite being central to the story, you barely notice it's there.

My prediction: anyone's guess, but I'll say "What We Found" by Geoff Ryman.
Dark horse: "Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky, because I've got a feeling it's a very American story.

* I seem to remember enjoying a few in 2010: "The Island" by Peter Watts and  "It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith were both excellent.

** Huh. Turns out I've put the stories in exactly the same order as Nicholas Whyte, although I've been a touch more forgiving on "Ray of Light".

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