Hugo 2018: Novellas

I will say it again: this category is where the action is. I don’t want to sound disrespectful to the nominees for Best Novel, if anything it is less exciting as a category because of the consistent quality of the work but it is a year of consolidation for Best Novel rather exploring new boundaries (although Six Wakes was a delightful find).

Novella on the other hand is a banner held high for science fiction/fantasy this year. It’s a heady mix of upcoming and established writers, as well as a set of new worlds and potential long-running series to explore in the future. The least good of the six nominees are inventive and novel and push the field further. The very best have clever themes, great plots and characters you want to read more about.

Yes, the novella is emerging as form in part due to its suitability for ebook marketing and digital consumption. Great! Shorter fiction as a way of monetising longer fiction is healthy for a genre – think of the classic sci-fi novels that started off as serialised short fiction. Economics and publishing realities always shape fiction.

To te nominees. I think of them as three groups of two:

  1. Stand out stories: really great stories that definitely impacted on my socks.
  2. Solid sequels: (ok, one is a prequel) well crafted part twos from established writers.
  3. Inventions with the form: quirky, ambitious uses of the novella format to do something challenging.

Obviously the qualities in those groups overlap between the stories. My two top picks are obviously in that number one group: Murderbot and Murder-Sarah really are two of the best things I’ve read this year. The other ranks alternate between two and three.

  1. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing). At first I assumed Wells’s Murderbot was unassailable but Sarah Pinsker’s army of clones was a challenger. Even so, I’ve got to give it to All Systems Red. At one level a classic SF thriller/mystery with explorers facing danger and betrayal on an alien planet. On another level a deep dive into a unique character. Brilliant.
  2. “And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April 2017). What starts as little more than a fun idea becomes a humane and moving murder mystery in which literally every guest is a suspect and potential next victim. Although Sarah Pinsker may find people hiding sharp, heavy objects from her…
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing). I enjoyed this more than I expected and it is has been growing on me since I finished it the other day. There are no surprises but it is a masterclass in how to write from an author with complete comand of words.
  4. River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing). This is the first of my rankings that I don’t think entirely work. The story sort of crashes to a halt and it works much better with its sequel to form a novel sized story. Even so, the inventiveness of the idea caught me even from when I first read about Gailey’s concept for it. Love it, with all its flaws.
  5. Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing). Ah the perils of a set of good nominees! I’ve put poor Binti fifth! I felt this was more of a transitional episode than a good story in itself. Well written but not the high point of the series.
  6. The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing). Sixth in this collection is no shame. A huge original world, a story covering decades, two fascinating characters struggling with power and fate and love and identity – all crammed into a novella. This is a TARDIS of a story, much, much bigger than its gorgeous cover and word count.

Anyway, time is pressing! I’m not sure how many other categories I’ll cover before the deadline! All I have to do is read all* of Best Series starting from scratch tomorrow and I’ll be fine 🙂

*[I’m exaggerating because I’ve read Divine Cities already so its only (a gazillion – 3) books rather than (a gazillion) books.]

Review: Down Among the Sticks & Bones (Novella) Seanan McGuire

A prequel of sorts to Every Heart a Doorway, this novella fills in the backstory of two of the wayward characters in that novel but while Every Heart… was a story about what happens after a more conventional fantasy, this novella is a more straight-forward portal fantasy/contemporary fairy tale.

Jack and Jill are two identical twins, raised by ambitious parents keen to force their children into distinct stereotypes of childhood. Jacqueline (never ‘Jack’) is expected to conform strictly to the role of dainty princess girl and Jillian (never ‘Jill’) to be a tomboy to compensate for the disappointment to their parents of not being a boy. These stifling roles are up-ended when the girls find themselves descending a magical staircase to a windswept moor. The moor is the heart of a world themed around classic horror tropes of the pre-war Universal movie kind. The twins find themselves leading separate lives, one as child heir to a vampire (complete with castle and frightened village) and the other an apprentice to a ‘mad’ scientist (complete with dissected body parts and spooky windmill).

Atmospheric rather than spooky, the story follows the themes of sibling rivalry and finding yourself growing into your own individuality. The first parts manage elements of Roald Dal like satirical misanthropy in the particular way that Jack & Jill’s parents are awful people. The prose flows with the kind of confidence you would expect from Seanan McGuire. It is a well-executed tale and like three other of the Hugo nominees for the novella, it is a story that feels neither too short nor too long for the novella format.

Still, this didn’t knock my socks off. It’s a nicely told backstory and a good addition to the wider set of stories.

Review: The Black Tides of Heaven (Novella) J.Y.Yang

My Hugo reading has been somewhat disrupted by a brief overseas trip and a short shift of location. JY Yang’s novella unfortunately got particularly disrupted by that. I had started reading it, got distracted (it didn’t really grab me initially) and I returned to it a couple of weeks later feeling guilty.

The novella had got a lot better in the intervening time, a stories somehow manage to do even though they are just sitting there waiting for their reader to pick them up again. There is no easy way to distinguish “this book isn’t engaging me” from “I’m distracted”, so either the second half of the novella is better than the first or I became sufficiently focused to appreciate it. But every review can’t be a review of the reader, although in truth every review is of an event that exists between the story and the reader.

The Protector of the Kingdom is a powerful despot of a kingdom – a fantasy land with a Chinese aspect, as well as influences from South Asian and Middle-Eastern mythology. To her surprise the Protector gives birth to twins, causing a minor change in her many and complex plans. Cynical and manipulative, the twins are just chess pieces in the Protector’s many machinations but the story follows them as two people as they grow from infants to adults.

The scope of the novella is huge, and it covers a lot of ground in a short time. We learn about the magic system, aspects of the religious orders, ethnic minority groups, internal conflicts, fantastic beasts, and a broad picture of richly imagined fantasy world. It is probably too much for a novella that also has to encompass the childhood, adolescence and early adulthood of two central characters. Even so, that the novella doesn’t collapse under its own weight is a testament to the efficiency with which all this background is introduced.

As I said above, I found the second half easier to engage with than the first. It focuses more on Akeha, the surpising “spare” half of the twins, who in post-adolesence decides to be confirmed as a male (gender is assigned post-childhood in this world). Fate, prophercy, control and inevitability (whether magical or political) play out as important themes but, again, I think their impact as ideas get lost amid the scale of the story.

The Black Tides of Heaven is the first in a sequence of novellas set in the same world. I haven’t read the sequel The Red Threads of Fortune, which apparently follows the other twin Mokoya after the events of this story. I feel though I would have enjoyed this as a longer novel with a less fragmented sense of time. There were parts were I would have been happier to linger longer with the characters as they were.

Interesting in scope, and definitely Hugo worthy, it felt to me as edited highlights of a deeper story that I’d like to immerse myself in. I’ll definitely read the sequel.

Review: Binti: Home (novella)

Nnedi Okorafor’s young protagonist gets another adventure in her journey. Suffering from the aftermath of the first novella, Binti carries the trauma of a massacre, acquired alien DNA and a degree of celebrity she isn’t prepared for. She takes the only step she can to put her life back in balance and decides to (temporarily) leave the Oomza Uni and travel back to Earth and home. She decides as well to bring Okwu, her friend, with her but Okwu is also a member of the aggressive Meduse…

It’s not a flaw for the central character to be somewhat annoying in this kind of story. Binti is a multitalented young woman who has both natural talents and who has been caught up in extraordinary events. Growing as a person requires flaws and Binti’s are those that follow somebody who achieves academic success and fame early – including a degree of both arrogance and self-doubt. Even so, I found Binti generally less likeable in this instalment.

But maybe that’s just the nature of this particular step in her journey. This is very much a transitionary story. It starts in the aftermath of the previous novella and ends on a cliffhanger. While Binti learns some things about her family, her people and the hidden history of her land, she doesn’t change much as a person (yet). I think this will work better as part of the whole story sandwhiched between the first and third novella but as a story in itself it didn’t really gel for me.

Review: And Then There Were (N-One) Sarah Pinsker (Novella)

The Hugo finalists for Best Novella are an embarresment of riches: droll murderbots, hippo riding cowboys, some sequels to previous favourites and some exciting surprises. Pinsker’s quirky murder mystery (available here https://uncannymagazine.com/article/and-then-there-were-n-one/ ) starts off in a style that I’d call ‘philosophical fiction’ i.e. it feels like the set-up for exploring the philosophical implications of a topic by using a speculative fiction frame. Partly this is because Sarah Pinsker¹ is the main character. Indeed, as we rapidly discover, Sarah Pinsker° is ALL the characters…

“Playful” is the obvious word for the novella but maybe that does it a diservice. Rather than being an exploration of what it would mean to meet your other selves from different timelines, Pinsker uses the frame of a classic Agatha Christie style murder mystery. A hotel full of people attending an unusual convention on an island cut off from the mainland by a storm. Sarah Pinsker¹ is an insurance investigator who is coopted to investigate the murder of Sarah Pinskerº by presumably one or more Sarah Pinskers³. It’s another clever choice that allows Pinskerª discuss her own life and choices against a backdrop of infinity possibilities. (Pinskerª, as in the actual author, is apparently in attendance but doesn’t make an appearance – although the murder weapon is notable.)

The story is complete and satisfying and I think the author made a wise choice in letting the story follow its own path rather than exploring all the possibilities of the premise. Having said that, it is such a gloriously wonderful idea (an invitation to a convention full of alternate-realitiy versions of yourself) that this story only scratches the surface. I’d love to read an anthology in which other authors found themselves invited and the twists of genre that would create.

Great stuff and an excellent read. This whole category will be a hard one to rate.

Hugo Ballot 2018: Short Story

It doesn’t feel that long ago that the talk was whether the SF short story was dead or close to death. The impact of Sad Puppy campaigns and Rabid Puppy vandalism hit the short story category hard. And what an emblematic category it had been for the Hugo Awards and science fiction! American style science fiction had grown out of the short story style and some of the greats of SF were intimately connected with shorter form fiction. Ray Bradbury especially but also Issac Asimov – The Foundation Trilogy being one of many SF classics that grew from connected shorts.

The Hugo finalists this year are a set of entertaining and varied reads. There’s not one theme or style and there are elements of fantasy and science-fiction as well as some classic twists.

It is too early in the process to rank them I think and a couple I only read recently. I’d like to gestate on them a bit longer but I’m also mindful that if I don’t put my thoughts down now then I will have to do a whole bunch of things in a rush. So, some mini-reviews and thoughts but no rankings. I do have an unsurprising favourite but I may shift rankings later. Overall though I enjoyed them all.

Reminder: you don’t need to wait for the packet to read the Hugo Short Stories as they are all available free online. JJ collected the relevant links here http://file770.com/?p=41534 and I repeat them below.

Best Short Story

▪ “Carnival Nine“, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

The story works both in terms of its own world building (with a few unanswered questions) and also as a metaphor about life, parenthood, chronic illness, and death. The setting is a world that might be a house or a bedroom in which small clockwork people live. Each one is wound each night but their mechanisms can only be wound up so much (and some people’s more than others). Eventually they fall prey to entropy as their mainspring becomes unwindable.

The story follows the life of one character from late childhood to bringing up a child and her relationship with an absent mother who lives in a carnival on (or carried by) a train.

Poignant and wistful, the story does a lot of work in a short period introducing a world but also creating deep emotional engagement with a set of characters. It could have easily become overly twee and sentimental but I think it avoids becoming either.

▪ “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand“, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)

The least conventionally story like of the set. A guided tour through a museum (or is it?) of curiosities. Disturbing images and ideas – the curiosities are the voyeuristic medical views of people as ‘freaks’ of body or behaviour. The story attempts to reverse the gaze of the curious and the dehumanising. A story best read rather than described that uses setting rather than narrative to create an effective horror story.

▪ “Fandom for Robots“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)

Elsewhere Murderbot is doling its best to mix genre consumption with themes about Artificial Intelligence but here we have a different style of robot interact with genre fiction.

Computron lives a dull life as an aging exhibit in a museum of robot history. Clunky and classically unemotional, Computron has little to do other than a short performance for visitors. By chance the robot begins to take an interest in a TV show which also features a rather boxy robot as a main character. This in turn leads Computron into the world of fan fiction and a new life.

Nice and engaging but I did feel it more faded out at the end rather than deliver a distinct conclusion.

▪ “The Martian Obelisk“, by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)

The world has gone to shit and humanity’s attempt to colonise other parts of the solar system has failed. With little hope for a better future an architect controls machines remotely from Earth to build a quixotic monument to humanity on Mars. But is everybody really dead on the Red Planet?

More whistful than depressing but not a jolly story to put sunshine in your step. Even so there’s a stronger theme of hope in the story and the importance of doing what is right over grandiose self-indulgence.

▪ “Sun, Moon, Dust“, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)

There is gardening (well, farming) and there is a cranky old woman (briefly) as signatures for an Ursula Vernon story but this is a different style than Jackalope Wives.

Allpa receives a magic sword from his grandmother who had been a famous warrior in her youth. Trapped in the sword are three spirits of legendary fighters: Sun, Moon and Dust. Unfortunately for each of them Allpa’s main concern is his potatoes.

It’s a simple story that subverts the reluctant hero trope. Allpa genuinely would rather farm his land than seek out a hidden destiny as a warrior. The story follows this idea but in a way that feels like you are reading a familiar folk tale of some antiquity.

I was a fan of Ursula Vernon’s writing before I started this blog and this story only reinforces my high estimation of her writing. The story looks simple and effortless but of the six people mentioned (one only very briefly) you are left with a sense of fully formed characters of depth. I guess that is an illusion given we don’t know really know very much about any of them but it is rather like an artist who uses a single brush stroke to imply the more complex features of a face. There is also a sense of a bigger wider world as well as brief details that give Allpa’s world more sense of place.

The story doesn’t have a twist as such, indeed in one sense it has the opposite. The ending feels obvious and natural when you reach it, even though it sits exactly opposite to the initial premise of the story (a young man is given a magic sword). Calling it a subversion is misleading – it just goes where it wants to go rather than where genre conventions demand that it should.

It is masterful in the sense of showing mastery of the form. I really liked it.

▪ “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™“, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017)

What is it like to be somebody else? A neat question and one of those philosophical queries that science fiction can explore through imagined technology. Here a use of mind immersive virtual technology allows people to experience the lives of others.

Told (sensibly and appropriately) in the second person “you” are a Native American who works for a company that provides people with “authentic” immersive experiences. In your case these experiences are corny vision quests in which eager tourists keen to connect with their spiritual side engage with a fantasy of Native American culture. That fantasy contrast with the realities of life and work and relationships.

But one day an encounter goes off track and…well spoilers follow.

This is both original in scope but also a classic style of twisty story in the tradition of the Twilight Zone. Mixing questions of personal identity in the setting of virtual reality with wider questions of cultural identity and personal connections. As with the other finalists, I am amazed at how Rebecca Roanhorse packs in so much into a short text.


Currently Sun, Moon and Dust and Carnival Nine are my favourites and probably Fandom for Robots is my least favourite but it’s a tough choice and I quite like Fandom for Robots!

Hugo Ballot 2018: BDP – Long Form

If BDP-Short was tough because all the choices seemed a bit flawed, BDP-Long is a meaty, populist, movie marathon full of treats and still a tough set of choices.

Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form [full list]

  • Blade Runner 2049, written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Alcon Entertainment / Bud Yorkin Productions / Torridon Films / Columbia Pictures)
  • Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele (Blumhouse Productions / Monkeypaw Productions / QC Entertainment)
  • The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro (TSG Entertainment / Double Dare You / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm, Ltd.)
  • Thor: Ragnarok, written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost; directed by Taika Waititi (Marvel Studios)
  • Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins (DC Films / Warner Brothers)

Reverse order here:

6. Blade Runner 2049 – I’ve watched it but I note that I didn’t review it. When I don’t review things it is either I meant to and events got in the way and then I forgot OR I didn’t have anything to say good or bad. Bad films can be fun to review, even mediocre films can be fun to review. I don’t know with Blade Runner 2049. I didn’t hate it. It did not actually feel superfluous as a sequel. Baby Gooseman was very good and the Harrison Ford cameo was not gratuitous. It, of course, was visually excellent.

But…it just didn’t really engage me. A carefully crafted tribute to an aesthetic.

5. Wonder WomanMy views haven’t changed much on this. It had some good qualities but it was overlong for the story it was trying to tell. Gal Gadot remains the most valuable actor in the DC Universe and is the point from which they should build outwards.

4. Star Wars: The Last JediIf you are going to make sequels and keep franchises continually going then at least do something both new and in keeping with the franchise. Rian Johnson took the palette of Star Wars films and assembled them into something both new and familiar. It was what I wanted out of a new Star Wars film even though I didn’t know that beforehand. Good stuff and a strong contender.

3. Thor: RagnarokI loved this on first viewing and loved it even more on second viewing. Mainly just a fun, disco-coloured romp which underneath has themes about colonisation and the retreat from Empire.

2. The Shape of Water – An excellent film, whose storyline is quite simple (almost overdone) but with a depth of character and compassion that really lifts it. Not a comedy exactly but there is a comedic eye to things that makes it feel lighter than it is.

1. Get Out – Not the most science-fictional of the choices but the most tightly crafted of the set of films. So much packed into this film and I’m still processing elements of it.

Those top four choices are so close that I may well swap the order of them more than once before the ballot closes. I wouldn’t take bets on a likely winner – I can see all six possibly taking the lead (although Blade Runner 2049 is the least likely to win I think).