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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

OMG, Hugo novellas! (Novellae?)

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

I reviewed this on Goodreads.

"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.