Having dispatched the Hugo-nominated works for the short story and the novelette categories, I’m now getting into the big guns: novellas and novels. I love long-form fiction, and so I look forward to reading all of these longer works. Here are my thoughts on the novellas. I wrote this post over the course of several weeks as I worked through the novellas while reading other things, so my reviews begin verbosely and diminish as my memory has faded. On the bright side, I reviewed two of these on Goodreads, so you can enjoy some detailed analysis over there.
“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window”, by Rachel Swirsky
In this wonderfully original story, Rachel Swirsky introduces us to Naeva, a practitioner of “woman’s magic” in the Land of Flowered Hills. She has been a companion of Queen Rayneh since childhood, but Rayneh betrays her on some bad advice from her councillors and imprisons Naeva’s spirit in a crystal, preventing Naeva from ever finding rest. She must endure centuries and then millennia of a half-aware stasis during which she is intermittently yanked back into the world of the living, summoned by a parade of practitioners.
Naeva is a difficult protagonist to like. She is argumentative, confrontational, vindictive, and all too quick to jump to conclusions. The Land of Flowered Hills is a matriarchal society. There are women, men, and broods—females who are deemed unworthy of citizenship and exist only to bear the children of men and women. When a woman wants to have a child, a practitioner of woman’s magic mixes the woman’s “seedling spirits” with the fertilizer of a man of her choosing and implants them into the womb of a brood. This description and the terminology made me think of a colony of insects.
Throughout the centuries of her torment, Naeva never surrenders her prejudices about the propriety of men using what she considers “woman’s magic”. This becomes a crucial sticking point at the climax of the story, when Naeva has otherwise won unconditional acceptance in a society that summons and retains restless spirits like herself so that they can share their knowledge freely. I think I speak for most people when I say I would like a more open-minded protagonist, someone with whom I can empathize. However, I admire the way Swirsky portrays Naeva, right up to the end of the story.
“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers” is a paradigm case of what it means to be a character-driven story. Naeva is furious over her state, and she wants nothing more than to be released from bondage and allowed to move on to whatever happens after death. She confronts her impotence in various ways. At first, when she is at the beck and call of Rayneh’s traitorous daughter, Naeva is mostly cooperative—albeit deprecating toward Tryce’s decisions and abilities as a leader. Later, as different practitioners of magic from different civilizations begin summoning her, Naeva resorts to resisting by destroying whatever charms or wards are holding her spirit in the vessel the summoners use. Tired of interacting with anyone, of being summoned only to be questioned or used, Naeva disengages as much as she can. Yet even that does not bring her the peace she wants.
Ultimately, however, it’s clear that Naeva’s relationship with Rayneh underlies all of her interactions in this story. Rayneh’s betrayal cuts Naeva deep not just for the obvious reason but because it destroys the illusion of reciprocity Naeva had constructed: she realizes now what she knew even as a child, that she would also give and give to Rayneh, even after her death, and Rayneh would just take and never give back. This is not Rayneh’s fault per se but a consequence of her role as the queen: it is Naeva’s duty to serve; only her closeness to Rayneh as they grew up would make her expect anything different.
So when the story opens, Naeva is immediately plunged into a very dark place. I’d go as far as to say that “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers” is, in general, dark in tone, but the end is oddly uplifting. Swirsky follows Naeva’s undead journey to its final, logical end, allowing Naeva to witness the end of the universe. There’s an ongoing debate throughout the story about the status of magic; Naeva believes it is a living thing, something organic that one must cajole, persuade, plead to work. The ending and resolution to Naeva’s story fits well with this perspective, for it conveys exactly why I think magic holds our attention as readers: as long as there is magic in the world, there is always hope for change and transformation.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon”, by Elizabeth Hand
This ties with “The Jaguar House” for my least-favourite Hugo nomination so far this year. “The Maiden Flight” just isn’t science fictiony enough. That feels like a terrible thing to say, because I hate running around playing The Great and Terrible Arbiter of What Is and Isn’t Science Fiction. Yet this story, despite its slightly incredible plot details and unresolved questions, just does not evoke the typical feelings I have when I read science fiction. It fell flat for me. Aside from a single, unexplained phenomenon later in the story, there is nothing about this book that seems to distinguish it from works that are seldom called science fiction. So it baffles me that it’s up for a Hugo.
Genre snobbery aside, the story itself is good. The narrator has a friend who wants to recreate the first and only flight of a fantastic flying machine called the Bellerophon. The flight itself is apocryphal, having only been recorded on a strip of film that was damaged years ago. He’s doing this for his mentor/lover, who devoted her life to apocryphal histories of human flight. She’s dying of cancer, and he wants to give her this one final gift. So they recreate the flight, and it’s a labour of love. This story reminds me of a Hugo nominee from last year, “Shambling Towards Hiroshima”, because both sort of exist outside the genre. Yet “Shambling” at least had a decent science-fiction premise underlying the rest of the meta-fictional story.
“The Sultan of the Clouds”, by Geoffrey A. Landis
Excellent story about a technician infatuated with his friend, a well-known geologist. She gets invited to Venus by a fabulously wealthy member of the family that owns Venus in all but name, and he tags along, only to uncover a sinister plot wrapped inside a marriage proposal. Landis combines intrigue with some cool social commentary on the nature of marriage and cultural relativity: on Venus, everyone marries twice. At 21 Venusian years (about 12 in Earth years), one marries “up” to an older person, who then acts as one’s mentor and teacher. Later in life, one marries “down” to a younger person and acts as mentor and teacher to them. Even as he describes these social practices and the amazing floating cities of Venus, Landis never loses sight of the plot. It’s very satisfying.
Troika, by Alastair Reynolds
Alas, not available online, Troika is my pick for the Hugo Award for Best Novella. Read my review on Goodreads to learn why. This is available as a special limited edition from Subterranean Press, or you can find it in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Godlike Machines. Strahan himself is up for a Hugo for Best Editor, so I’ll be reading Godlike Machines later this month.
I continue my reading of this year’s Hugo nominees with the novelettes. As with the short stories, all of these are available online, and I encourage you to read them.
“Eight Miles”, by Sean McMullen
Although I wouldn’t call “Eight Miles” steampunk, it is definitely a cousin of that genre—perhaps we can call it “Victorian chic.” McMullen embraces the sense of wonder and pure flights of fancy that recall the science fiction of the early 20th century—indeed, even going as far back as H.G. Wells and The Time Machine. This is a story that might have been written in that era, for it relies on ideas that run counter to our contemporary knowledge of the solar system—and that’s fine.
I admit to being prejudiced in favour of flashy weapons, super-sleek spaceships, aliens, and robots. However, “Eight Miles” is still an appealing work because it’s a fascinating story. The main character gets drawn into a story that has already begun and must make some tough decisions that rapidly take him outside of his comfort zone. Much like Wells’ time traveller, McMullen’s protagonist, Parkes, is an inventor, and this plays an important role, both in what he chooses to do and how he does it. But even this problem might not have a solution. Lord Cedric Gainsley hires Parkes, an innovative balloonist, to take him eight miles into the sky (hence the title). It is only at this altitude that Gainsley’s “discovery”, a hirsute woman he has named Alice, regains her full faculties. And soon Parkes discovers he is not the first balloonist Gainsley has hired….
“Eight Miles” is a nice little piece of short science fiction. Go read it.
“The Emperor of Mars”, by Allen M. Steele
I never went through a Martian phase as a child. The Red Planet holds no special fixation for me. I think it’s awesome we are sending probes and rovers to it, and I understand its role in science fiction. For those who don’t, however, perhaps Steele and “The Emperor of Mars” can help.
Told from the perspective of the base commander, this novelette follows the lapse of Jeff Halbert into insanity. When some people go insane, they think they are Napoleon. Jeff thinks he is the eponymous “Emperor of Mars”. Distraught over the death of his fiancée and his parents, Jeff withdraws into the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom series. Counselled by the base psychiatrist to humour Jeff, who doesn’t seem to be a danger to anyone, the base commander allows Jeff’s fantasy of being the Emperor of Mars to continue. The story explores how Jeff’s insanity affects the morale of the base in general, as well as giving us a look at how our previous explorations of the planet and our literature of Mars might be regarded one day by the people who live and work on the Red Planet.
“The Emperor of Mars” is touching and moving, and I love Steele’s voice in it.
“The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, by Aliette de Bodard
I read this as part of the 2011 Hugo Voters’ Packet. Until I looked it up on Goodreads, I did not remember that I had previously heard of Aliette de Bodard from her Big Idea piece on John Scalzi’s blog. Now that I’ve made the connection, I am slightly more favourably disposed to this novelette, but only just.
There is very little wrong with “The Jaguar House in Shadow”, but it still failed to impress me, at least compared to its other contenders in the novelette category. It’s not very accessible. Thanks to a friend’s review, I’m aware now that this is set in a larger universe that de Bodard has created, an alternative Earth in which China’s first contact with the Aztecs allowed them to survive the subsequent European “discovery” of the New World. I don’t have a problem when an author decides to make such connections implicit. Unfortunately, there’s very little about “The Jaguar House in Shadow” that tempted me to love it.
De Bodard tells the story in a non-linear order, jumping back and forth between time periods as we learn about why the main character is pursuing a vendetta against her former commander of the Jaguar House guards. There are implications and undercurrents of corruption, of a mad leader who must be deposed, of the possibilities of the Jaguar House being reborn as first among the houses—or event he last house left standing. And some of the action as Onalli stalks into the house and finds Tecipiani and Xochitl is really well done.
This novelette is well written, and I think I can see how it’s brilliant in its own way, but it just didn’t work for me. I look forward to reading some more of de Bodard’s work, and I hope I like it more.
“Plus or Minus”, by Jim Kelly
Mariska Volochkova is a clone of a famous woman, an astronaut in some sense, and Mariska wants to get out from under her mother’s shadow. So she enlists on an “asteroid bucket”, a tub that brings ice-rich asteroids back from the belt. But she doesn’t fit in there, and like any teenager, she is still searching desperately for her identity.
So far, a great deal of the science fiction entries in this year’s Hugo Awards focus on the practical, plausible side of science fiction (what some might call hard science fiction. Clones might or might not fall into this area, depending on how they are done, but “Plus or Minus” hinges on the realities of space travel: in space, you are alone. When Mariska’s ship is damaged thanks to the incompetence of one of her crewmates, the crew calculates how long they can survive on their current oxygen—plus or minus—until they can rendezvous with a rescue ship. Here, Mariska’s unique heritage becomes important: like her mother, she has the ability to put herself in a metabolic stasis that will, among other things, dramatically lower her consumption of oxygen. With this ability, Mariska hopes they can survive longer. What follows is a tale of a girl forced to mature very quickly and get over herself in the middle of disaster.
“That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”, by Eric James Stone
I like this story, probably more than I should, because it reminds me of Sundiver, by David Brin. Both invoke the idea that there might be life inside the Sun in electromagnetic or plasma form. It’s an attractive idea, because it’s not usually the type of alien life one sees in science fiction stories. (There are some others that raise the idea, of course, but Sundiver is what first came to mind.)
Stone’s protagonist is the head of the Mormon chapter on the station in place near the Sun. Some of the lifeforms in the Sun—they are called swales—have converted to Mormonism, interestingly enough, and one of them consults Harry after another swale forcibly engaged in swale sex with it. Harry sees this as rape, of course, but in swale society it’s different. So we have the interesting clash of cultures: some swales have embraced Mormonism, but how can Harry see that Mormon morals are applied to a society where morals are so different from anything present in human societies? To compound matters further, Harry approaches one of the oldest swales, Leviathan, to plead his case—only he discovers that Leviathan considers herself a god to the swales and is not pleased that he has been poaching from her congregation.
Weird and Wonderful, But No Clear Winner
I quite appreciate the diversity of this year’s novelette nominees. There really isn’t a straightforward and simple science-fiction story among them; each is crazy and unusual and wonderful in its own way. So I’m having a difficult time choosing among them. For now, I think it is a tie between “Eight Miles” and “The Emperor of Mars”. I love the writing and the characterization in the former, whereas the latter communicates a love for an era of science fiction that has eluded me thus far, as well as a fascination with the Red Planet and space exploration in general.