The Only Harmless Great Thing is a rare example of a novelette published by itself, as opposed to part of an anthology or periodical. When Tor.com gave it away earlier this year as part of their ebook club program, I snarked about how the e-mail was formatted in such a way to assume that the novelette (rather than the author) was a multiple award finalist before said awards were announced. But snark aside, I would not be surprised to see this on the applicable shortlists. It combines the stories of the Radium Girls and Topsy the Elephant in a world with sentient elephants.
I really appreciated the structure of how the stories are layered here; in particular, we get a lot of details about elephant society and culture while avoiding bare exposition. While the story ends somewhat abruptly, it’s hard to think how it could have been done differently without devolving into destruction porn, and at any rate the ultimate outcome of all of the story-strands is made clear, at least in hindsight, by the very beginning. My biggest caveat is that this is an angry novelette, and one convinced of the validity of vengeance as a response to justifiable anger. How you feel about that may impact your reaction of this story.
For a different look at justice, we turn to “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”. It’s a fantasy novelette, whose protagonist is the confection taster for an evil duke; she is married to his head pastry chef, who has discovered a way to create confections that cause the eater to recall memories tied to strong emotions. Kept as both a hostage against his good behavior and explainer to the duke and his guests as to the function of each dish, our protagonist must try to figure out what her husband is planning while not giving anything away to the duke.
This is obviously a tale about overthrowing an evil ruler, but it avoids cliches and plays on the reader’s expectations to leave one intrigued as to what the chef has planned. Narratively, the confections provide an intuitive way to provide us flashbacks to our couple’s past. I’m not going to give away the ending but I found it very satisfying and thematically appropriate. This is a novelette about justice, not revenge. It will be on my Hugo nominating ballot and frankly reminded me of why I read through the Nebula nominees to see if I’ve missed something great.
Speaking of morality, “The Rule of Three” (a 20BooksTo50K nominee) is the story of a man who discovers that an alien has arrived in rural China. The alien’s philosophy is the titular Rule of Three: anything made by somebody beyond two degrees of separation of the user is “unlife”, which the alien can’t even perceive. The story doesn’t really question this philosophy, and I had a hard time overlooking that it really, really wouldn’t work in real life; I also tend to have a kneejerk negative reaction to anything extolling the virtues of rural simplicity given how such paens tend to be used in American politics these days to devalue the opinions of urban Americans (82.3%, per the Census).
That being said, if you are okay assuming the fictionality of the Rule of Three, this is a very well-crafted, well-done story that is well worth your time. In this universe you don’t need economic specialization because adherence to the Rule of Three makes you self-sufficient and can you fantastic powers, especially if you learn from what others can teach you. Other than “alien expounds philosophy to humanity”, the story avoids falling into standard first contact tropes, and the alien, narrator, and his grandmother are very solid characters whose interactions, with both each other and humanity writ large, are sometimes unexpected but never unbelievable.
“An Agent of Utopia” examines a much older morality; that of the sixteenth century, as found in both London and in Thomas More’s Utopia. Aliquo, the agent of Utopia, is on a mission to invite More back to Utopia and spare him from the gallows; as More refuses, Aliquo is hired by More’s daughter to retrieve his head after his execution. The plot is cleverly executed and worked for me even without knowing that it’s based on a real tradition. (Stick tap to Camestros Felapton for the pointer.)
However I have not read Utopia and as the story nears its conclusion it becomes apparent that it is directly in conversation with More’s work, to the point where I felt that I was clearly not getting as much out of the 21st century novelette as I would be if I was familiar with the 16th century novel. There are a lot of differences between More’s Utopia and what one might think of these days as a utopia (for instance, my mind immediately goes to the Culture). Without the necessary background, the character motivations and contrasts between Britain and Utopia become a lot harder to understand for the modern reader.
“The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” is about a nonbinary teenager, Jamie, who can recall vague details of their previous lives. They’ve got a new neighbor, a convicted murderer, and Jamie can remember him from their last life. This is the story of how Jamie deals with their neighbor, what they remember about how they were murdered, and how they can prove the truth to a society that doesn’t believe in reincarnation, all while dealing with the prejudices and pettiness of current society.
When the Nebula nominations came out, I saw this title and remembered liking it quite a bit but couldn’t remember any specifics. It’s a fun read but might be a bit too short as a novelette; while the premise is strong, the plot ends up being being pretty straightforward and we don’t get to delve too deeply into any of the characters. I’d like to read an expanded version of this.
Finally, we have Messenger, a 20BooksTo50K nominee about an Indian soldier who comes home only for it to be destroyed by an alien invasion. He volunteers for a program that turns him into a “Shikari”, a giant mech based on a Hindu god (in his case Vishnu) to fight the alien intruders. Pacific Rim used the tagline “To fight monsters, we created monsters”; it would have been more appropriate for this novelette than that film.
After a somewhat trite opening, Messenger becomes a more in-depth exploration of what it means to become, essentially, a mechanical god and I thought the middle of the novelette was where it shone the most. The mental conflict of the Shikari and their struggles to stay sane were the most interesting part of this novelette. Unfortunately I felt that the ending went for the most predictable option of how to resolve the protagonist’s inner conflict. I’d have liked to have seen something a bit more innovative.
So six novelettes; two clearly science fiction, two clearly fantasy, and two fantastic alternate histories that I’m never quite sure how to classify. Worth your time to read? I’d say so.