Category Archives: Nebulas

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.

Tor.com’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.

Advertisements

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: http://file770.com/pixel-scroll-12-8-18-science-fiction-is-what-i-yell-zap-for-when-i-throw-at-people/ ]

***[The Wanda Group is a major private company in China and internationally (e.g. they own the Hoyts cinema chain in Australia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanda_Group ]

Nebula Novelettes: José Pablo Iriarte – The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births (Lightspeed)

Jamie is a non-binary teenager living in a trailer park. What Jamie lacks in quantity of friends they make up for in the quality of them:

“I seem to make an outcast of myself every time I’m a teenager. Which is fine, I guess. I’ll take one good dog and one good friend over being a phony and fitting in.”

José Pablo Iriarte – The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births Published in Lightspeed Jan. 2018 (Issue 92)

“Every time”? Jamie has a remarkable secret. They have lived many past lives and (sort of) remember each of them:

“What Mrs. Francis doesn’t know is that I remember every life I’ve lived for nearly four hundred years—not in detail, but like a book I read once and have a few hazy recollections about. In over a dozen lifetimes I can recall, I’ve been male and female enough times for those words to mean little more to me than a particular shirt—not who I am.”

José Pablo Iriarte – The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births Published in Lightspeed Jan. 2018 (Issue 92)

Jamie’s fuzzy memories of their past collide with their present life when the park gets a new resident. The man named Benjamin is a convicted murderer recently released but it is not that which disturbs Jamie but rather that they remember him. That is, they remember him from a recent past life…

The story goes on from this interesting premise into a semi-supernatural murder mystery as Jamie delves further into their own memories and the facts of the case. In the meantime they have to deal with the bullies and surrounding prejudices of their life.

Not unlike Agent of Utopia, I felt this was more of a sketch of a better a story. There’s little space to set up the mystery before it is solved and the solving of it is straight-forward. With no space for alternate twists or any deeper character development everything is resolved before any tension has time to be established. Jamie has to do a bit of digging to work out what is going on but once prompted it’s mainly a matter of them remembering what had occurred in a past life.

The story doesn’t lack positive qualities but it really didn’t engage me. Neither Jamie as a character nor the surrounding mystery they are caught up in had time to develop.

Nebula Novelettes: Andy Duncan – An Agent of Utopia

Sir Thomas More sits in an unusual spot in English literature. His most famous work Utopia (after which the term was coined) was written in Latin and is not widely read although its influence is often noted. The society he imagines mixes a monastic ideal with oddities such as slaves dressed in golden chains. Not unlike its antecedents in Plato’s writing, the depicted society can be seen as both profoundly radical and profoundly conservative. More’s posthumously published biography of Richard III on the other hand became the source document for one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Like Utopia it is an ambiguous work, both as a testament to the dangers of tyranny and also a piece of revisionist history intended to make the Tudors look good and the king Henry Tudor (father of More’s King Henry VIII) look legitimate.

More as a character in literature is himself ambiguous. A man of unimpeachable integrity in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons and as misguided bigot in Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Nor is he a newcomer to the Nebula Awards, appearing as a character in RA Lafferty’s Past Master (which I must confess to not having read).

Andy Duncan takes a different approach with a dark comedy featuring a reversal of the utopian form: an emissary from More’s Utopia comes to London in a bid to rescue More from the Tower of London and his execution for treason.

“I call myself Aliquo,” I replied, “and I bring greetings to you, Thomas More, from your old friend Raphael Hythlodaye, and from my homeland of Utopia.”
I bowed low before him.
“Please give my Utopian friends my best regards,” More said, “and tell them my answer is no.”

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07JK8WRJG/ref=nosim?tag=icowcom-20&pldnSite=1

Aliquo has traveled at the bequest of notable citizens of Utopia to bring More to their homeland. More, obedient in his defiance of his King, naturally will not escape his lawful execution. Which is as neat a way of summing up More as anybody could think of.

Aliquo is left with a dilemma and seeks out More’s daughter Margaret Roper. Which leads us into an area of history that is more rumour than documented fact. According to tradition, Margaret Roper acquirred her father’s head after it had been placed on display on a stake on London Bridge. The head is reputedly buried with her (see http://www.lynsted-society.co.uk/Library/Books/Margaret_Roper_and_head_of_Sir_Thomas_More.html ) Into these events steps Aliquo.

A pertinent fact of Utopia is that it reflects the strict sexual morality of More’s Catholicism:

“They punish severely those that defile the marriage bed; if both parties are married they are divorced, and the injured persons may marry one another, or whom they please, but the adulterer and the adulteress are condemned to slavery, yet if either of the injured persons cannot shake off the love of the married person they may live with them still in that state, but they must follow them to that labour to which the slaves are condemned, and sometimes the repentance of the condemned, together with the unshaken kindness of the innocent and injured person, has prevailed so far with the Prince that he has taken off the sentence; but those that relapse after they are once pardoned are punished with death.”

he Project Gutenberg eBook, Utopia, by Thomas More, Edited by Henry Morley https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2130/2130-h/2130-h.htm

And while those slaves are adorned in riches it is for the purpose of creating a stigma among the rest of the population about the ostentatious display of wealth (to the extent that foreign ambassadors to Utopia often make a faux-pas of appearing richly adorned causing disgust to the citizens of Utopia).

There is at least a novella’s worth of ideas here and I feel Aliquo is under-served as a character in the short space of this story. We only get a glimpse of their own motives and their own relationship with Utopia at the close of the story. The freedoms and risks of London compared to the more monastic Utopia are not really explored. The poverty of the city is clear but perhaps not so much the contrast that Aliquo would experience (aside from a side remark about ‘street debris’ from home referring to a bribe of gems).

I’d happily read further of Aliquo in conversation with More (and there are spoliery reasons why that conversation might well be extensive). As such this novelette feels more like a promise of something longer and better.

Nebula Novelettes: Tina Connolly – The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections (Tor.com)

A tyrannical Duke-Regent enjoys a sumptuous banquet with his courtiers. With him are two food tasters. One tastes the meats and salads but the other is there to taste only the pastries.

“Saffron has been Confection Taster all that time, her husband Danny Head Pastry Chef. Their warm smiles have been perfected as the Traitor King’s power grows, inch by inch, as those who object to his grasp fail and fall, as the printers are vanished, as the daughters disappear from their homes. The little prince still sleeps in his nursery—but for how long? That is the question on everyone’s mind in the last year. Not a question uttered, but a question that stays poised on the tongue, and does not fall.”

https://www.tor.com/2018/07/11/the-last-banquet-of-temporal-confections-tina-connolly/

Saffron’s role is twofold. Firstly she is a warranty against the ‘traitor king’ Duke Michal from being poisoned by her own husband but secondly her role is to describe to the assembled diners what each pastry is and also what each pastry does.

By means of special herbs and arcane baking, Danny has confected the means to evoke emotional memories in his dishes. The banquet takes us through such delights as:

  • The Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth
  • The Fennel Flatbread of Sunlit Days Gone By
  • The Rose-Pepper Shortbread of Sweetness Lost

Each dish is designed to transport whoever eats into personal memories that encapsulate the feeling. As Saffron tastes each one, she recalls events in her life prior from meeting her future husband to losing her sister to Duke Michal’s oppression.

Tina Connolly’s story of regret and resistance takes a clever fantasy conceit and deftly uses it as both a frame to tell snippets of Saffron’s life and play on the theme of food, taste and memory. The arc of the story is neither surprising nor dull but rather takes you to an obvious destination via an unusual path.

“If she had seen a fourth memory, it might well have been the aftermath. For it is a day not long after that when Danny starts experimenting on what he will call the bitter pastries. Not bitter in flavor, necessarily. Certainly deeper in flavor, more profound notes in the tasting. Memories that are both sweet and sour. Memories with a purpose.
The first one has a rose flavor, in honor of her sister.”

https://www.tor.com/2018/07/11/the-last-banquet-of-temporal-confections-tina-connolly/

This is a very nicely constructed story. It rests on genre conventions (the evil usurper who delights in good food and inflicting misery) as a base for a story that could have been whimsical but instead looks at how people can find power out of powerlessness.

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 https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2018/01/28/review-the-only-great-harmless-thing-by-brooke-bolander/ 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 http://file770.com/where-to-find-the-2018-nebula-finalists-for-free-online-2/ ]