Hugo 2019 Novelette Round Up

I was going to start with a comparison with last year’s novelettes but weirdly, I don’t think I read last year’s novelettes. I don’t have any reviews of them and I just had a cryptic comment about them in one post. Why did I skip the novelettes? We will never know. It will be a lingering mystery that future historians will squabble over with ever increasing levels of complexity in their explanations. I have no idea, so I must have wiped my own memory to hide the truth.

As for this year’s Hugo collection of novelettes, the membership have out done themselves. It is an impressive and substantial anthology in itself.

The downside of this crop of short-stories with extra heft, is that they are a pain to rank. Collectively, they carry a common theme of regret, decline and remembrance. Time (and deep time) is a recurring theme.

The most ambitious of the set remains The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander’s passionate story about exploitation, death and the way stories are both warnings and mourning. It’s also the most flawed of the set, which isn’t saying much because they are all very well constructed stories.

The least flawed, but perhaps least ambitious, is Tina Connolly’s The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections. The Ruritanian setting is conventional but the story of pastries baked with emotions tied to times and memories is both clever and effective.

I could mount an argument for any ordering really. So I’ll put aside the Hugo voting until I submit my ballot. I’d be delighted by any of these winning.

Instead, here is a different question. If these novelettes were an anthology, what would the anthology be called and what order would the stories appear in?

I’d suggest that “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” is an apt title for the whole set. Connolly’s story lays out an idea of different courses that evoke memories and emotions attached to them. That theme carries through the other novelettes but is stated clearly. From there a sequence of chapters becomes clearer:

  1. The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly. Chapter 1 in which the theme of the collection is stated and the structure of the anthology (a banquet with a series of courses) is outlined. Naturally, for an appetizer we start in the past.
  2. Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory. Chapter 2 takes us to a time nearer the present, with a salad of growing up amid a slow alien invasion.
  3. When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller. Naturally, the next course after the present is palate cleanser of the future. Exotic and oddly shaped, with pleasing notes of hope amid decline.
  4. The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander. A meaty main course that blends the deep past, the twentieth century and the future. Anger and mourning and the power of stories.
  5. The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer. After the strong flavours of the previous course, a blend of the uncanny with a sense of loss and closure.
  6. If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho. Finally something a bit sweeter to finish the banquet. Love, magic and final fulfilment. Past, present and future join together.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: Nine Last Days on Planet Earth by Daryl Gregory

Nine days over the period 1975 to 2062 in a very slow invasion of Earth. We meet LT as a child in Tennessee. An incredible meteor shower lights up the sky.

“LT was ten years old, and he’d only seen one falling star in his life. Not even his mother had seen this many at once, she said. Dozens visible at one time, zooming in from the east, striking the atmosphere like matches, white and orange and butane blue. The show went on, hundreds a minute for ten minutes, then twenty. He could hear his father working in the woodshop back by the garage, pushing wood through a whining band saw. Mom made no move to go get him, didn’t call for him.”

Each year follows LT through his life as his circumstances changes. His mother moves to Chicago, his father retreats into religion. LT follows new loves, intellectual and physical, and grows up. Meanwhile, around him the world changes in more alien ways.

The events of that night in 1975 brought alien seeds to Earth. Strange, possibly empathic plants begin to multiply and humanity has to adjust to their botanically invasive ways.

There are echoes here of the puply 1960’s movie version of Day of the Triffids or the bleak inevitability of Thomas M Disch’s novel The Genocides. The alien plants are slow invaders, who might defeat humanity through indefatigable progress and our capacity to ignore slow change. These particular plants also have some kind of empathic quality, encouraging people to adopt them as house plants and connect with them.

“The fern man stood in the dark on the coffee table. Its bulb head drooped sleepily, and its stem arms hung at its sides. The torso leaned slightly—toward the window, LT realized. He picked up the ceramic pot and set it on the sill, in a pool of streetlight. Slowly, the trunk began to straighten. Over the next few minutes, the head gradually lifted like a deacon finishing a prayer, and the round leaves at the ends of its arms unfurled like loosening fists. The movement was almost too incremental to detect; its posture seemed to shift only when he looked away or lost concentration. Slow Mo, he thought. That’s what we’ll call you.”

However, the invasion is in the background. The main melody of the piece is the changing family relationships of LT, from child to adolescent, to first romance, to marriage and parenthood himself, as well as the connection (or otherwise) with ageing parents.

The timescale and time shifting sections create a deep picture of LT through his life as well as a map of the invasion of Earth. The effect is like a time lapse film of a plant’s movements which forces us to shift our perspective of the botanical from immobile beings to creatures that shift and react and move, just not at the pace we perceive. That we also don’t see how our relationships change from day to day is an apt metaphor for the “plant speed” timeline. In the 2062 sections LT reflects: “Everything moves too fast, he thought, or else barely moves at all.”

A melancholy story mixing regret and happiness with a sense of the force of slow movements.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try, Again” by Zen Cho

Byam is an imugi, a kind of Korean proto-dragon or water serpent creature. Byam hopes to reach a level of spiritual advancement to fully become an actual dragon and ascend to the sky but this is a difficult path and over hundreds of years, Byam experiences many setbacks in it’s quest.

“If you wanted to be a dragon, dumb perseverance wasn’t enough. You had to have a strategy. Humans had proliferated, so Byam retreated to the ocean. It was harder to get texts in the sea, but technically you didn’t need texts to study the Way, since it was inherent in the order of all things. (Anyway, sometimes you could steal scriptures off a turtle on a pilgrimage, or go onshore to ransack a monastery.) But you had to get out of the water in order to ascend. It was impossible to exclude the possibility of being seen by humans, even in the middle of the ocean. It didn’t seem to bother them that they couldn’t breathe underwater; they still launched themselves onto the waves on rickety assemblages of dismembered trees. It was as if they couldn’t wait to get on to their next lives.”

Byam’s struggles last over millennia and brings them to the modern age, where Byam encounters Leslie, an astrophysicists. At a particularly rough spot in her life, a glimpse of an imugi attempting to ascend into dragon-hood, inspires Leslie to complete her failed Phd and continue her career.

There are no big twists or surprises in this story and the moral (of sorts) is right there in the title. True love (and possibly learning some modern astrophysics) is what Byam has been missing and it’s no spoiler to say that Byam succeeds in the end. It really could have been quite a trite story about having people who care for you and believe in you but without really departing from a kind of romantic comedy-but-with-Korean-sea-serpents template manages to be genuinely moving.

Sweet and melancholy but it is the sweetness, successfully confectioned, that marks it out in this set of novelettes that collectively have a fair share of melancholy.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

Leah is a researcher who collects ghost stories. Not artfully crafted spooky tales but rather the stories ordinary people have of encounters with things that they felt were supernatural.

The most interesting thing about ghost stories is that almost everyone has one.
The other really interesting thing, to me, is that they’re nearly all terrible stories if you try to take them as stories. A good story has a beginning, some buildup, and then a resolution or a twist or something at the end. Ghost stories go, “This creepy and inexplicable thing once happened to me. The obvious explanation is that I dreamed or imagined it; I am certain that I didn’t dream or imagine it.” Or in some cases, “I used to live in this house where creepy stuff happened all the time. Then we moved.” Every now and then you’ll hear a story with a ghost that has a beginning, middle, and end, but those are most often urban legends: “One day we were driving along and we picked up a hitchhiker.” (Beginning.) “As we drove, we had this creepy conversation with the hitchhiker.” (Middle.) “Then we reached our destination and the hitchhiker had vanished from the back seat.” (Twist!) That one’s not a real ghost story. It did not happen to your cousin, no matter what he says.

It is a brave way to open a ghost story with a discussion about how the genuine ones do not work as narratives and how the ones that do work as narratives are inauthentic.

However, Kritzer commits to her opening statement. Much of this novelette is styled as an essay or a personal reflection on its subject matter. An account of the life of somebody collecting ghost stories, the people she meets and the nature of the things she collects. The actual ghost story that is there is approached circuitously, introduced in fragments. Likewise, the thesis of the essay, that ghosts can be about grief and loss and lingering presences of emotional bonds (good and bad) is woven in slowly.

A personal essay, a ficto-critical examination of personal encounters with the supernatural, a story of one woman’s relationship with her mother AND a ghost story all sounds rather too much. When I list it out like that I can’t help think of my whining about novellas being so over stuffed that the story doesn’t fit. But there’s nothing over-stuffed here, it all fits together neatly and leisurely and with generosity.

Moving and clever, the multiple modes of the story (the short vignettes, the personal history, the discussion of ghost stories) all mesh together expertly.

Voting for novelettes this year is going to be a nightmare of indecision. Can we add “All of the Above” as an option as a kind of anti-No Award?

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: When We Were Starless by Simone Heller

In a clouded, toxic and blasted world, a nomadic tribe does it’s utmost to survive. Mink is a scout, looking for the remnants of an old world to scavenge, while the tribe evades monstrous centipedes and ghosts.

“The run-in with the rustbreed had not been my fault. I was a good enough scout—I scoured inaccessible ruins for scarce materials, and I never ran the tribe into the lairs of the befouled crablion or let anyone’s mind become ghost-shifted. But when the heat-baked ground of a salt flat we were crossing was suddenly riddled with burrower holes, a full legion of the writhing, rearing centipedal creatures already upon us, all I could do was to change the gentle hum of the Lope Concord to the jarring trill of the Rush and find us a path out of this trap. The air had been filled with the dry stick sounds of the rustbreed’s milling legs and the sharp smell that went for communication among them. But for all their legs, we were the better runners, and we made it. Barely. The hindquarters of our sole gearbeast were a fused mass of metal and dried fluids from a rustbreed feeder, and I didn’t want to think about Truss’ side, which had been similarly exposed. Others, like Renke, had been burned badly, too, but he had been the only one to suffer a bite and get the corrosive substance under his scales.”

But in her searching, Mink stumbles upon a very different kind of ghost: Orion, some sort of holographic AI set to maintain a museum of sorts. The meeting leads to change and violence for Mink and her tribe as well as a new understanding of the world they are.

The story asks a lot of its readers. It is never clear what kind of creature Mink is but the implication is that she isn’t human. What a ‘weaver’ is needs to be inferred from events in the text and the disasters that have overwhelmed the planet are so ancient as to be forgotten.

The setting and style is reminiscent of Heller’s 2017 story “How Bees Fly’ ( but that featured “demons” rather than ghosts and a more human-like protagonist (with a tail). Perhaps the story is set in an earlier time amid whatever disaster has consumed Earth (e.g. both mention gearbeasts).*

Of the two, When We Starless accentuates the contrast between the desperate lives of the people and the potential for kindness and hope and common understanding. It is a surprisingly up beat story for a world that is a literally poisonous.

It is slow to get into, I bounced off it twice, and demands both patience and thought from the reader. However, once I was in the rhythm of it, there is a dark but hopeful tale of enlightenment and ambition in a very alien setting.

My tendency to dad-jokes makes me want to call this story haunting and atmospheric but the description works unironically.

*[OK, so I should have read the author’s website first before writing that paragraph but I’ll leave it as is because I’m too lazy to reword it. The two stories are directly connected: is my second story set in a world I call the Shrouded Earth. It’s not a direct sequel to How Bees Fly, but they follow a shared trajectory, and WWWS holds some spoilers for things that are revealed in the course of HBF.” Also, apparently Mink’s people are lizard-like which means this one fits into my hugo-dinsoaur project!]

Currently Listening/Reading To: Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky + Hugo Novelettes

I wasn’t supposed to start something new until I’d finished all my Hugo reading and I have the most recent Expanse book sitting right there on my Kindle like an avatar of temptation. But, I needed an audio book because I was doing garden stuff and my finger just pressed the ‘buy’ button.

Anyway, so far the book starts in a similar way to Children of Time. Human terraformers, far from an Earth that is descending into political chaos, some inadvisable experiments in cognitive uplift on animals (and what an interesting choice of animal it is…) and some quirky characters. The spiders from the previous book are set to re-appear in the next section.

Meanwhile, in non-auditory mediums I am reading novelettes. Making use of JJ’s “Where to Find the Hugo Finalists…” post, the links to them are

Just on what I’ve read so far, this is a strong field and a tricky one to rank. There are some really interesting stories here in very diverse styles. Brooke Bolander’s radioactive elephants would be what I would bet on but there’s lots to be said about Tina Connolly’s story and Naomi Kritzer’s is quite strong also.

Hugo 2019 Novella Round-Up

Collectively, we have a set of stories with clever plots, fascinating characters, interesting settings and well-crafted prose. Individually, I’m not convinced that all of these stories are successful novellas. I don’t mean ‘commercially successful’, I mean that some of the stories didn’t really fit into the space they were delivered in.

Of the six finalists, only two did not fit into a broader series but the extent to which the other four depend on previous books was highly variable. The skill and talent between each of these finalists is obvious, as is the ambition within the stories themselves. I’ve pointed out before that I’ve a soft-spot for heroic failures but my top picks in this category are the novellas that delivered a story that was both entertaining and satisfying.

Top 2

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells [my review] enters the fray with buckets of good-will from fans of the emotionally vulnerable killing machine Murderbot. It is appropriate then that the strongest contender is a similar kind of being, the tea-concocting former war ship aka The Shadow’s Child, the Watsonian protagonist of The Tea Master and The Detective by Aliette de Bodard [my review].

Both are entertaining and thought-provoking space-adventures that stretch are ideas of characters and perspective. I’m not sure I can pick between them. Tea Master currently has an edge because I just read it. I suspect if I re-read Murderbot 2 it would go back to the top of my list.

Middle 2

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark [my review] and Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson [my review] have nothing in common other than “god” in their title. Clark’s novella is the more satisfying of the two, delivering an adventure story in an original steampunkish world. However, Robson’s story is the more ambitious of the two and when it fails, it is because of how much it tries to accomplish in a small space.

Just purely in terms of being ‘a good read’ The Black God’s Drums has the advantage but Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach asks more of its readers and pushes the genre more.

The valiant bottom

Structurally Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire [my review] works as a story but the most interesting aspects of it were done better by the previous two novellas in the series. It is an entertaining and satisfying read if you want to read a children’s portal fantasy pitched at adults.

More ambitious is Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor [my review] but much less satisfying. Either I’m completely out of sync with this story or it isn’t coming together as a whole. Perhaps if I re-read the Binti series again from the beginning the story and the central character would click back into place for me but my experience of the story was just a bunch of stuff that happened.

Even so, it’s a pretty good endorsement of the other finalist that I can list popular and accomplished writers like McGuire and Okorafor last in my list.

Hugo 2019 Novellas: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

In P. Djèlí Clark’s short story, The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, we were given glimpses into a panoply of other worlds and alternate visions of America. The Black God’s Drums offers a longer vision of another world: a steampunk New Orleans. Here America is a fractured land, divided by decades of Union v. Confederate conflict. New Orleans is a free, independent city liberated by slave revolts many years ago. The city remains a major port, where airship from the economically and technologically powerful nations of Haiti and the Caribbean bring goods to North America.

Creeper is a thief and pickpocket with a secret: she can commune with the orisha known as Oya, a goddess of storms. Plagued by ominous visions of death, Creeper stumbles upon a Confederate plot with apocalyptic consequences.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of swift world-building to be done in a small word count to get this story off the ground. Potted histories of the USA, New Orleans and Haiti’s independence struggle from France all get an airing to establish the various strategic powers at play in this alternate New Orleans. The story itself is a conventional adventure about kidnapped scientists, doomsday weapons and daring rescues but it is told with charm and interesting characters. Even so, I’m going to repeat my moan about some of the other novellas: this could have been better longer. However, it’s overall more succesfull than some of the other novellas I’ve whined about being too cramped.

An enjoyable steampunk adventure with some novel world-building.

Hugo 2019 Novellas: The Tea Master & The Detective by Aliette de Bodard

I am always on-board for a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. The nature of analogy and structure of ideas is something that fascinates me and the way writers can play on the elements of Holmes to create quite different texts that are nonetheless recognisable parts of the sub-genre. There is a deep aspect of sentience, art and logic revealed in our capacity to create and recognise these patterns that I suspect Sherlock Holmes would have also found intriguing.

The Tea Master & The Detective has its own unique mystery to solve but it initially mirror A Study in Scarlet, bringing its Holmes-analogue together with its narrating Watson-analogue together. The Watson figure is still a war veteran scarred by their experience (and struggling with the emotional repercussions of those experiences — an element that has become common in modern adaptations). The Holmes figure is still a consulting detective driven by a forensic intellectual curiosity. Aliette de Bodard takes those elements and shifts them radically. The Holmes figure, aside from a gender swap, is a conventional Holmes character: hyper-focused, exploiting drugs for cognitive improvements and using tangential deductions to surprise people.

The Watson figure is something else: a huge, former military space craft called The Shadow’s Child. The ship now spends her day as a projected avatar on a space habitat, where she makes a living mixing psychoactive teas, with her ship-self orbiting in space. A traumatic war time experience in a kind of hyperspace dimension called “Deep Spaces” has caused her to reject working as a transport craft but her work mixing tea is barely covering the rent for her office.

An appointment with the scholar Long Chau (the Holmes analogue) pulls The Shadow’s Child into a mystery involving a religious order, all within de Bodard’s existing Xuya universe.

The novella is an entertaining mystery with familiar(ish) characters and a novel setting. The Shadow’s Child is subtle picture of a complex artificial intelligence reminiscent of Iain Bank’s Culture ships or Anne Leckie’s Ancillary series. I particularly like that in a human/AI detective team pairing, that it is the AI that is the humanistic one, and the human is the deductive and often insensitive one.

I haven’t read any of the other Xuya-set works by de Bodard but that wasn’t impediment to enjoying this self-contained story. The background culture is sketched out sufficiently to recognise the mix of space-empire tropes with elements of East Asian cultures without the text having to belabour features of the setting. The pastiche elements are used to efficiently establish the key character dynamic and the kind of narrative on offer but avoid being forced, hackneyed or descending into parody.

A very nicely executed story.

Hugo 2019 Novellas: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

A few hundred years in the future, humanity has retreated underground apart from a small number of people who are trying to reclaim the Earth’s surface via ecological restoration projects. This a world of complex future technology and body modification but also one in which the mundane reality of project timelines, quotes, tenders and convincing sceptical banks you need money is how clever, inventive people have to spend much of their time.

It is also a world where some business adopt disruptive technology that upset existing economic trends. For Minh, an environmental engineer, her life’s work restoring river systems has had its economic impetus sucked away from it by a trendy new industry that is so shiny that it has monopolised all investment: time travel.

Enter a kind of Faustian bargain: a mysterious somebody is running a project to rejuvenate the Euphrates, and they need a team to collect vital survey data from a time when the river system was more alive. This project would mean sending Minh and three others back to the cradle of civilisation with the aid of the trendy but secretive Temporal Economic Research Node (TERN).

Meanwhile, in the ancient city of Ur, King Shugli is having a hard time. There are new stars in the sky and strange beings in the fields. Hs high priestess wants him dead and he knows that it is a heroic king’s duty to slay monsters.

A time-travel, culture clash story with project timelines in which people are people no matter where and when they are from. There is a lot of deep world-building delivered in a short space, with an efficient sketch of a future society of crowded habitats, and generational resentments mixed with high-minded ideals and commercial realities.

Structurally, each chapter starts in the deep past where Shugli and his people try to make sense of the disruption caused by the time travels. These events we won’t see from Minh and her team’s perspective until later in the story, allowing us to first see their intrusion as something more akin to an alien invasion.

The rules of time travel are established early but given TERN’s attitude of NDAs and commercial-in-confidence, patent-protection secretiveness, the reader has no good reason to accept that the explanation given is true. The official account is that time travel is without consequence: a temporary timeline split occurs when travellers arrive, which then collapses when they leave. The only strong confirmation of this is TERN’s commercial frustration that they can’t change the past despite encouragement from the banks.

Consequence-free time travel may sound like a lazy way for a writer to play with time travel but avoid paradoxes of Jeremy Bearimy/timey-wimey plots. However, what Robson does with this premise is present us with a picture of colonialist attitudes, in which future people treat the past with a casual callousness. This neatly mirrors the future societies experience with the decisions of people in our time, who having discounted the lives of future humans have left the people of Minh’s time with a ravaged Earth.

If these seems all too much to fit into a novella, then you’d be right. Packed full of ideas, an interesting set of six characters and three narratives (Shugli’s story, the initial future setting and then the expedition) as well as the surrounding world building, there’s barely room for the story to breathe. I felt I was just getting a handle on the generational dynamics between the characters by the time the story hit its more action orientated section. The ending itself feels rushed and unresolved with the consequences of each of the character’s choices unclear to me. I had to go back an re-read earlier sections more than once to get particular plot points clear in my head (although, its notable that I was sufficiently invested in the fate of these people to do that).

There is a brilliant novel here that just didn’t quite work in this compressed form. Aside from anything else, Shugli’s story and his dynamic with the priestess Susa could have been longer. Yes, obviously we know from the start that the mysterious events Shugli sees must be the time-travel expedition we see being planned in the future but I liked that the people of Ur got to deal with a sci-fi mystery in a way that could be convincingly pre-modern without them being stupid or lacking insight.

I also felt that Fabian and TERN’s attitudes and motives were under-explored and also that there was an unresolved question about who exactly was financing this expedition and why. Early on, it felt like these were being set up as a mystery that the story would reveal but we don’t really get there.

I get the buzz around this story and my dissatisfaction with it really comes from multiple features that I liked and I finished it feeling frustrated by it.