Category Archives: 20booksto50k

Nebula Novelettes: Summing Up

Six longer short stories or shorter novellas with a cornucopia of ideas. I thought one was a stand out piece and another was pretty good but the others much harder to rank in quality.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander was a tour-de-force (my review). Packed full of ideas and emotional gut punches, the story looks at how we exploit both people and animals. It’s also an excellent example of how to write an alien intelligence, even if in this case the non-human minds are those of terrestrial elephants. On re-reading the ending feels muddled but overall this is a bit of a masterpiece.’s approach to short fiction gets another strong entry with Tina Connolly’s The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections (my review). Mixing food and memories with more conventional fantasy/Ruritanian tropes, this is a movingly crafted story.

Much, much harder to pick between the others. They all had things I liked and certainly they form an interesting set of stories.

  • “An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan (my review): Fascinating premise but the story just didn’t give me enough. I wanted something longer that gave more insight into the protagonist.
  • “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte (my review): This is a great set-up for a supernatural thriller with past lives and a man framed for murder. However, restricted to a novelette, the story is over before there’s any real sense of mystery. Rather like Agent of Utopia, I’m an ungrateful reader who wants this served to me as a novel 🙂
  • “The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen (my review) The ideas really stick with you long after you’ve read it. I found the initial set-up a bit rushed and the actual core concept disturbing. Yet a good rejection of the idea of aliens being like us except with better gadgets.
  • “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (my review). Some great visual ideas – I’d love to see this as an animated short film. The beginning suggests it is going to be one kind of story but it quickly takes on its own character.

What I would say about these other four is that there are qualities to each of the stories that would make me want to read more by each of the writers.

I talked in the short story round up about the extent to which we should at least be able to see with award contending stories, what makes them exceptional — i.e. how the stories stand-out from others. That’s not the same as saying a story is perfect or even of the highest quality but it does me it needs some elements that explain why that story in particular would get singled out by voters or a jury. I think each of these stories had aspects of that.


Nebula Novelettes: Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi – Messenger

A soldier returns home from war, hoping to reunite with his family only for disaster to strike.

“WE LOOKED TO OUR NEIGHBORS in times of war to be our enemies. It was the wrong place to look. We should have turned our gaze upward, to the sky—to space. In our preoccupation with ourselves, we missed them—the others. Picture this, if you will. One moment, I was checking out of three years of reserve duty in the Indian Army, putting down my rifle and walking up the old beaten path to the house. My little one shrieked and bounded towards me. The wife, eight months pregnant, looked on fondly. ”

R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 11-15).

The asteroid Oumuamua (aka ‘Messenger’) was simply a first scout that heralded the arrival of an invasion. A second, similar but smaller asteroid arrives a year after the mysterious messenger and crashes into the moon. Then something drops from the moon and crashes violently into Bangalore. The impact destroys houses and kills many, including the soldier’s wife and family.

“THE ORDERS CAME THE next day as I lay empty-eyed at my friend Bhanu’s place, thinking of her. Thinking of my Divya and my Anisha. And the unborn child. In the background, the TV blared. An overly made-up news anchor blabbed on and on and on about lights in the sky. Bhanu came shaking his phone at me. “Arjun-ji! Arjun-ji! There’s more coming! They’re calling us up! They’re fighting!” My fists clenched. My knuckles cracked. “Let’s go,” I growled. “Let’s show them what all seven hells look like.”

R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 44-49).

And so we launch into a story of giant mechanoid soldiers fighting giant alien monsters. Arjun volunteers for the Shikari programme and becomes a hundred metre tall cyborg/mecha called “Vishnu’s Vengeance” designed to hunt the creatures landing from space. Armed with a huge gun and capable of crushing buildings with his mechanical hands, Arjun is bent on revenge against the alien monsters.

“It was not easy, becoming what I am. They only took those of us with nothing to lose. Not all of us who went in made it out. Those who didn’t die went crazy. But I held on. My anger grew with time. I screamed their names in the darkness—Divya and Anisha, Divya, Anisha—until the words turned into a mantra and became my will. And by the time the neuro-doctors strapped me in for processing and gave me the final contest forms, my hands shook so badly with anger that I snapped the pen and stabbed the paper. Maybe I was already insane. “

R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 59-63).

After the set-up for a Pacific Rim style giant robot versus alien kaiju conflict, the story takes a different course. The Shikari are regarded with reverence by their support staff and the human minds inhabiting the massive mechanoid soldiers also begin to take on divine delusions.

“Babaji , the Enemy is a Spider-class,” says Bhanu in my ear. I can vaguely hear the roar of helicopter blades underneath the crackling audio. “Five legs, low center of gravity. I think we see a tail.” Babaji. My crew call me Father. I am their Head, their Commander…their god.

R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 66-68).

This feeling of god-like status is not helped by their names. Arjun may be technically called ‘Vishnu’s Vengeance’ but he is either addressed as ‘Babaji’ (i.e. father) or simply as Vishnu. To add to the issue with his mental state he is beginning to suffer from doubts as to who and what he is.

Matters come to a head when Arjun has to intervene with another Shikari. Named after the goddess Kali, the four-armed giant has “de-synced” and is convinced that they are the god they are named after. Brutally killing her support staff/devotees, Arjun is forced to intervene and stop her. Yet he himself is beginning to feel drawn down the same path as her.

What starts with a well worn premise follows its own course and becomes a distinctive take on giant battling robots/mecha. Rather than the human/alien struggle, the story shifts to the internal struggle for the central character’s own humanity and sense of purpose. This is coupled with a arresting images (giant mechanoids fashioned after Hindu gods in conflict).

In my round-up of the Nebula Short Story finalists I talked about exceptional stories. Whenever we consider awards we are necessarily singling out particular stories from others. Tastes vary, and even award worthy stories can have flaws but it stands to reason that to single out a story for particular mention is to say that this particular story is exceptional compared with others. In that regard Messenger is exceptional — it does stand out from other stories in the anthology it is in. There is more to it than an angst filled soldier killing alien monsters in a big robot.

It is weakest at the start, where the death of Arjun’s family and the arrival of the aliens is explained but the story gathers in confidence as it progresses and rapidly finds its own voice.

Nebula Novelettes: Lawrence M Schoen – The Rule of Three (Future Science Fiction Digest)

An American-Chinese man receives a tantalising video — evidence of an alien visitor near his grandmother’s village in China.

“My mother had called me at noon. She passed along surprisingly good video shot by a local child on the blind neighbor’s cell phone. I could hear the kid’s laughing commentary as he panned back and forth capturing some trees along the riverbank before moving on to show the water and what looked like an enormous pearl floating there. The trees provided perspective. The pearl had to be at least two stories tall. It looked like nothing on Earth, and certainly nothing that had any business being in my grandmother’s backward village. Except that’s where it was. Not the place where an alien visitor, or an alien invader, would set down. There was nothing significant there, nothing of value, just a handful of people who—a lone cell phone notwithstanding—had never joined the modern world. Nothing but my grandmother.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

The narrator’s grandmother is part of the Miao ethnic minorities in China and lives a simple agrarian life in the hills. The narrator’s initial puzzlement about why an alien would choose his grandmother’s village for first contact is answered as he discovers the alien has its own intriguing philosophy.

“It nodded at me and smiled. “If I make a thing, I am one and the thing is full of the life that I gave it. If I pass that thing to you, you are two, and the thing still feels its connection to me and so retains that life. If you give the thing to another, that person is three. The thing still holds the link to me, my life still resonates within it. The distance does not matter, but the number does. Three is the limit. Pass the thing I made on to a fourth person and it can no longer detect me. The connection is broken. Unlife rushes in to fill the void. As a result it cannot be easily perceived. It is dark, inert.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

The alien’s “Rule of Three” is not simply a preference against mass manufactured goods or modern consumerism but something that literally shapes its* powers of perception. It can barely perceive the narrator when they first meet and only then because a bout of food poisoning had meant the narrator had only eaten his grandmother’s food recently.

As well as limiting the alien’s powers of perception (rendering things ‘dark’ that hadn’t been made within the rule of three) the rule also is at the root of the alien’s power. Coming from a society where all things must have small personal chains of creation, the aliens have developed fantastical powers of creation. Even the alien’s pearl-like spaceship was personally crafted by the alien itself.

“There was no falling back on the classic trope of taking Foom to meet with world leaders. It wouldn’t be able to perceive them. Whether it was foie gras or prime rib, a fast-food cheeseburger or a cup of insta-noodles, antibiotics or cholesterol-lowering meds, there wasn’t a president or king or diplomat on the planet that wouldn’t appear dark to the alien. And even if they deliberately purged themselves as I had unwittingly done, if they ate my grandmother’s soup or dined on fish caught and cooked by their own hand, still the things they placed the most value on, computers and air conditioning and cars and smartphones and hospitals and organ transplants and electrical grids and highway infrastructure and missile defense systems, all the things we’d accomplished as we moved from the agrarian world through the Industrial Age, past the Atomic Age and into the current Information Age, all of it was dark. Unlife.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

Instead, the connection between the alien and human worlds is made by the narrator’s grandmother who teaches the alien her traditional skill of batik dyeing of cloth using the distinctive indigo dye of her people. This craft and art form is sublime to the alien who is entranced by how the patterns made by the wax are retained in the patterns of the dyed cloth even as the wax is lost.

Unfortunately, the alien has other plans for humanity as whole, who it regards as being largely consumed by unlife.

According to Schoen, his story was inspired by a sponsored visit to China in 2018.

“In June of 2018, the Future Affairs Administration** flew me and three Canadian authors to participate in a workshop co-funded by the Wanda Group*** which was running a poverty abatement program in Guizhou Province, traditionally one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse regions in the country. We picked tea, made paper, learned batik, visited historic sites, and spoke with many people. I don’t have enough superlatives to describe the trip. When it was over, FAA asked us to write novelettes inspired by our experiences there. “The Rule of Three” was my result, the words coming to me without effort as I daydreamed about the places I’d seen.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 201

There’s a vague genre of alien contact where the alien provides broader spiritual wisdom to humanity. Stranger in a Strange Land technically has a human in the alien prophet role but is effectively the holotype for the genre. By using the perspective of an alien, the reader is given a radically different view of their own world and society. In addition, the alien is granted a privileged perspective by virtue of either technological or spiritual powers (or both or they are the same thing). So it is not simply an outsider commenting on modern society but an outsider who is framed unarguably by the story as being from a more advanced state.

Here, the alien rejects the loss of personal connection in modern society with the things we own and use. The alien rejects our own alienation from our possessions and our lack of personal connection with what we own and consume even down to our clothes and food.

It’s a clever critique and you could pull it apart or point at Schoen and say that he hasn’t retreated to a pastoral life weaving his own clothes but that would be misunderstanding the role of fiction. This story isn’t a polemic or a manifesto but rather a way of turning our perception of what an alien society might make of us. The narrator explicitly points to the tropes of first contact and rejects them and instead the story asks us to imagine what if the aliens we meet are an extrapolation not of of current late-stage capitalism but rather an extrapolation of one of the many (but dwindling) other ways of living in the world.

On the other hand it is necessarily a shallow perspective on the lives of ethnic minorities in China. Nor is the critique of mass production done in any depth — it is simply granted by the alien as being not merely ethically wrong but also inimical to life and a danger to the rest of the universe. Yet, within the confines of a novelette there are obvious limits in how deeply such things can be explored.

Personally, I didn’t warm to the story, perhaps because of my pro-technology biases (and despite the interesting idea of being able to sweat beer) but it is hard not to be impressed with the consummate skill of the story. I was worried by the initial exposition of the character’s background that the story would follow a similar tone as the first couple of paragraphs but overall it is a deftly done and original tale.

*[“it” is the pronoun used for the alien in the story]

**[The ‘Future Affairs Administration’ is apparently a Chinese media group who co-published the magazine this story appears in. There is a Pixel Scroll entry on the venture here: ]

***[The Wanda Group is a major private company in China and internationally (e.g. they own the Hoyts cinema chain in Australia. ]

Nebula Novelettes

Time is ticking and Bob the Panic Blob is getting twitchy in his box. Hugo nomination deadline is nearly upon us and what am I doing? Still talking about the Nebulas, an award I don’t vote in? Well, I still have some novelette spaces to fill and there are some tiny doll’s house sized novels to read. Will I read and review them all before the Hugo deadline? Seems unlikely.

One review was done a long time ago Complete with the adjective reversal in the URL that I keep doing when I write the title.

That leaves:

The biggest issue I have with novelettes is that they are published as little tiny books for fairy folk and my giant hands cannot hold them and so I have tried a mouse to turn the pages for me as I read through a magnifying glass.

[Links from JJ’s super useful ]

An anthology map

This is a second attempt at something. I’ve playing with Gephi, a tool for visualising network topology such as social networks. I’d originally attempted a kind of social network of authors in the wider Hugo related kefuffles based on book collaborations, writing in the same series and anthologies (e.g. John Scalzi has written with John Ringo who has written with Larry Correia who has written with Sarah Hoyt etc). However, I hadn’t thought through how to get the data together in a sensible way or in a way that would help me keep track.

With some lessons learned, I’ve started a more sustainable mapping. This time I’ve stuck with anthologies and kept the anthologies as nodes along with authors. For data this time, I’ve used some anthologies connected with recent discussion about 20booksto50K and related authors. I should add this is NOT a map of authors in that group! It is just a few anthologies that either some of the works we discussed appeared or had some authors in common. There’s no deeper message here as it’s just a bunch of anthologies I picked out without any real methodology. I also didn’t distinguish between authors of a story, editors of an anthology, illustrators or other contributors. The names are just what Amazon gave me with a bit of tidying up for name variations. Just proof of concept stuff but I thought people might be interested.

Elite commentary provides an Elite style star map

Nebula Shorts: Summing Up

Six short stories which together were entertaining and some of which were exceptional. ‘Exceptional’ though, is the more relevant word for an award. A story can have many positive qualities, entertaining, engaging, readable but if it isn’t in some way exceptional why single that story out for special recognition from all the other stories that are entertaining, engaging, and readable.

There really isn’t a way past this point. There are some excellent arguments against exceptionality as a quality of works but those arguments all point to rejecting the idea of literary awards. There are excellent arguments against literary awards and the recent emotional pain generated around the Nebulas can’t be ignored when considering if awards do more harm than good. However, EVERY literary award by necessity divides works into two camps: a huge camp of works that don’t get recognised and a proportionally tiny camp of works that do. Rationally, every award nomination and finalist is making a claim of some degree of exceptionality about the nominated work. So every award finalist raises a question ‘why this one and not that one?’ There are many legitimate answers to that question but the validity of the answer depends on the nature of the award.

I’d contend that there are three clearly exceptional short stories in the Nebula short story finalists. There is a fourth I can see an argument for, there is another that I don’t get but others clearly did and there’s a sixth which, while having many positive qualities, probably shouldn’t be a finalist.

The top three, I think are clear (in order I reviewed them):

Of those three I enjoyed the first one the most but if I had to rank them we’d be getting much deeper into how I felt at the time or about personal quirks (e.g. I love structural play in prose but its not everybody’s cup of tea).

Looking at the others:

This didn’t really work for me but I can see how others found it notable. It has an interesting premise and the use of contrasting genre conventions is clever.

Then we have:

Technically a movie trailer is a short film but it would have to be a particularly special trailer to win a generic short film award. Going Dark is essentially a taster for Fox’s novel series. That’s a more than legitimate and reasonable reason to write an enjoyable story and it’s also a reason why a story may have fans. It’s hard to see how this story stands out on its own though. Having said that, the story was picked out for the notable Baen anthology The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF, Volume 5. So within that space, it did stand out from the crowd for some people. I’m not seeing it though, and it didn’t strike me as being as good as some of the other stories in the anthology it was published in. I’m not infallible, I miss stuff.

I know the standard advice would be for authors not to comment on reviews (e.g. see ‘Going Dark’ comments…) but Rhett Bruno gave me some useful insights into his story that I had missed or misunderstood. In the end though, this story just doesn’t work in isolation. I get why fans of Bruno’s other books would enjoy a glimpse into the back story of a longer narrative but for an award a story needs to be able to stand in isolation. Again, I don’t see how this story is particularly notable or exceptional.


I’m sorry to post a link to the Federalist of all things and to an article by Timothy’s erstwhile client and infamous litigant Jon Del Arroz but this is just way to funny not have here:

“The establishment became angry. Several of the elite commentator class posted blogs, such as one by Hugo Award-nominated Camestros Felapton—a left wing troll known for antagonizing right-wing authors—who criticized 20Books for alleged rigging of the awards. His evidence was a post by one of the members in the Facebook group listing dozens of works by the group that were eligible for the current year. He calls it a “slate”—a term the establishment used to rile up their ranks against the Sad Puppies with the Hugo Awards controversy, where right-leaning authors tried to break the lockstep nominations of extreme political works.

The Sad Puppies produced slates of recommended nominations to make it more likely for readers to coalesce around certain books, which would then have better odds of succeeding. Martelle takes exception to the claim applying here, however, saying, “There was no slate or violation of the rules.”

The targeted blogs and social media posts are a coordinated effort by traditional publishing’s elites to diminish 20BooksTo50K’s credibility among establishment publishing and brand them as a political organization to fight. In 2019, being apolitical has become akin to declaring your politics to the extreme left. Much of the left has taken an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude to try to harm people who don’t want to take sides in the culture war. It’s a dangerous view to take, as writers have been blacklisted and banned, and now even worse.”

Archived version

As you can imagine, this is causing some tension in the house as Timothy has always wanted a column in the Federalist and now I’m there before him.