Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hugos 2012: the novellas

Even as I sit down to write this, I have no idea how I'm going to choose between Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente, and "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson. I may just have to toss a coin. In fact, I really enjoyed most of this year's Best Novella Hugo ballot. There was only one story I actively disliked, and three of them were outstanding. Here's the part of my vote that I'm sure about:
  1. "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu
  2. "The Ice Owl" by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  3. "Kiss Me Twice" by Mary Robinette Kowal
  4. No Award
  5. Countdown by Mira Grant
Countdown is a prequel to Mira Grant's Feed. It suffers from a failing all too common in prequels: everything happens simply because it must. That made for a boring -- and occasionally silly -- story.

"Kiss Me Twice" by Mary Robinette Kowal is a noirish sci-fi mystery. I generally find that sort of thing quite enjoyable, and for most of its duration this story was no different. Unfortunately it stumbled at the end, with a dully conventional culprit. That left me less able to forgive earlier plot contrivances that I might otherwise have overlooked.

I really enjoyed "The Ice Owl" by Carolyn Ives Gilman while I was reading it, but now that I come to write about it I find that little of it has stayed with me. It's a coming of age story for a young refugee girl in an interesting space-operatic future, but I felt that the ending was too convenient. The snap, immature choice made by the main character was without consequences, and so had little impact.

My third choice is "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu, but on a slightly weaker ballot I would have been very happy to put it first. Written in the format of a documentary, it uses a remote-viewing time travel device to explore a range of complex issues: cultural appropriation; post-WWII relations between China, Japan and America; political and societal responses to ethical and scientific issues; the immigrant experience, and a bunch more besides.

Like "Paper Menagerie", Ken Liu's other 2012 Hugo nominee, I think that "The Man Who Ended History" is a bit blunt. This may be deliberate -- Liu certainly doesn't pull any emotional punches -- but my feeling is that the story could have benefit from a touch more subtlety. Although it is extremely well executed, I'm also not a huge fan of the documentary-style format.

That brings me to my two favourite stories on the ballot: "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson, and Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente. There are a whole bunch of reasons why it feels unfair to have to choose between them. They are both excellent, sure, but they're also quite unlike each other. It's hard to know how to compare them. I wish they could both win.

Kij Johnson had short stories on the Best Short Story Hugo ballots in 2011 ("Ponies") and 2010 ("Spar"). Both were sharp, angry stories. See was also nominated in 2009 for "26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss". My memory of that story is hazy, but I think I found it sad. In contrast to all of this, "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" is a gentle story. It's about a man who comes to a pair of small towns to build a bridge. 

In some ways, it feels like a fantasy story, with the mysterious Mist and the strange creatures that dwell in it. And yet it also reads like a science fictions story, in which engineers bring progress that changes everything. It's deeply immersive, with richly drawn characters. It's both resigned and hopeful. I really loved it.

If the Kij Johnson story was a joy to read, Catherynne Valente's Silently and Very Fast was much harder. Valente writes rich, folkloric prose that I am quite unable to read quickly. Make no mistake, though -- this is a science fiction story through and through. It's probably even fair to call it hard science fiction, although I suspect few lovers of traditional hard SF would agree.

Silently and Very Fast is a story about the birth and nurturing of artificial intelligence, told from the point of view of the first AI. I think it's about identity, and mythology, the way that we understand ourselves, and the way that an artificial intelligence may come to understand itself. It's also about prejudice and fear and even, amusingly, a brutal dismissal of the common 'robots will kill us all!' plot. But it's so dense, I'm willing to admit that I might only be scratching the surface. Or even missing the point entirely.

Last year's Hugo Award for Best Novella went to Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects, which was also about the creation of artificial intelligence. The two stories are really interesting companion pieces, because Chiang and Valente are quite unlike each other as writers. Strangely enough, despite Chiang's talent for rigorous scientific SF, there's something about Silently and Very Fast that feels more true to me.

Alright, I think I've finally figured out how I'm going to vote:
  1. Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne M. Valente
  2. "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson
Oh, but I wish I could vote for both!

My prediction: Countdown by Mira Grant, because the Hugo voters seem to love that series.

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