I looked at the Nebula-nominated novels a couple weeks ago. Now, it’s time to turn our attention to their shorter brethren.
Artificial Condition is the second Murderbot novella, sequel to last year’s winner All Systems Red. Our favorite grumpy television-loving security unit teams up with a transport AI and a group of technologists and investigates the mining station where a dark incident in its past occurred. If you liked All Systems Red you will probably like this, and then go on to read Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy as well. And if you haven’t read All Systems Red yet, I’d certainly recommend fixing that when you get a chance.
Unfortunately that leads us to a big problem with this category this year. I love this series. But I’m not sure what I think of Artificial Condition on its own because that’s not how I read it and that’s not how I’d recommend anybody read it. At the same time there’s no real way to say “I think these are worthy of an award but considered as a whole”. In the Hugos you could maybe work around this by considering the Murderbot Diaries a serialized novel (and I’ve seen a fair number of complaints at Tor.com for selling the 2018 Murderbot installments separately), but (1) All Systems Red won last year so it can’t also be nominated as a Part One and (2) without a bunch of people doing the same thing you’re pretty much wasting a nomination slot. At the same time it’s not long enough for the Best Series Hugo, and dropping the length requirement on that to novel-sized is probably not a great idea either. I personally like the serialized novel approach the best but this is a post about Best Novella.
Alice Payne Arrives is somewhat more blatantly a Part One. It’s a time travel story, about a woman in 1788 who is a secret highwayman, her inventor girlfriend, and a burned-out soldier fighting a war for the timeline that she just wants to end. The time travel war is cool and easy enough to grasp, although I do have a few nitpicks as to why some things seem to cause butterfly effects and others don’t. But the real strength of this novella is the characterization of Alice Payne and Jane Hodgson, and I’m looking forward to how they handle the situation they’re in at the end of the novella.
Because Alice Payne Arrives doesn’t end so much as gives you a cliffhanger and an implicit “To Be Continued in Alice Payne Rides“. (Which came out on Tuesday and I haven’t had time to acquire/read it yet.) So a lot of Arrives is, by design, setup and worldbuilding, and while that’s fine as a Part One, it also means we don’t get resolutions to anything. This doesn’t make it bad! But I don’t know how you judge it fairly in an awards context.
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a very different time travel story. The first half or so of this novella introduces us to a well-developed world recovering from a climate apocalypse. It might be a little too slow-paced for some, but I enjoyed getting to know the world and the characters through their quest to get approved for the time-travel project, even if said approval was obviously pre-ordained. Unfortunately the second half, after the characters go back in time, packs in a lot of new themes and questions that I didn’t think it really had the space to consider in a satisfying fashion; on top of the nature of disability in this future, we have a continuing thread about intergenerational conflict (I felt this one in particular would have been a lot more interesting if further developed) and the moral issues about using and abusing the past for the good of the present become front-and-center.
Somewhat frustratingly, the novella ends quite abruptly after bhe grnz vf fgenaqrq va gur cnfg; it’s left unclear what their final fates will be, or just how accurate the model of time travel used as moral justification is. I don’t think this is a terrible ending but it is definitely a “leave the reader wanting more” kind of thing. Per this interview, a sequel is planned.
The Tea Master and the Detective, while set in the author’s Xuya universe, is stand-alone. It’s about a spaceship, recovering from the horrors of war, who makes a living brewing personalized therapeutic tea blends, a detective with a mysterious past, and the corpse they discover. So yes, it’s a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, but it doesn’t rely on the source material to work; this is a story with a lot to say about trauma and healing therefrom, and the motive of the culprit has real resonance. The main characters are enjoyable to spend time with and we learn more about them at a measured yet reasonable pace.
(For those interested in such things: the Sacramento Public Library’s copy is number 348. Also it’s pretty funny to have librarians tell you not to worry about the “marks” on the signature/limitation page when you’re checking out a LINK+ book.)
The Black God’s Drums is also stand-alone, and the only fantasy novella on this list. (Quite the difference from the novels.) Set in an alternate New Orleans, a free city amidst a prolonged Civil War, a streetwise girl to whom a wind goddess speaks seeks a life of airships and adventure. She finds it, but it turns out that entails preventing New Orleans from being destroyed by a mysterious weapon. I’m not always super big on myth-based fantasy but this was superb; the main characters and worldbuilding are excellent, and while I’m quite satisfied with the ending I’d happily read more here. Really this is a good example of what I like about a well-done novella; it’s long enough that you can get invested in everything going on but short enough that there’s little padding. What you lose in complexity you gain in distillation.
Finally, we have Fire Ant, one of the 20BooksTo50K indie-published nominees. I don’t read enough military SF to know all of the subgenre conventions but this seemed to be a perfectly decent example: a woman pilot on a corporate mission makes inadvertent first contact with aliens, and humanity ends up fighting them. There’s a bit more exposition than I’d have wanted but overall there’s not too much here to dig into; the aliens aren’t given any characterization other than “similar tech levels as the humans and hostile”. I wouldn’t describe this as a bad novella, but it’s pretty unexceptional.
Overall? This is a pretty solid reading list but I’m not sure how well it shows off the strengths of the novella form. Only two of the six really work for me as outstanding novellas in and of themselves. Kind of frustrating in a year with “Umbernight” and The Freeze-Frame Revolution, among others.