2018 Nebula Nominees: Best Novelette

One step shorter than the novellas; you can read four out of this year’s six novelettes for free online.

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.

2018 Nebula Nominees: Best Novella

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.

2018 Nebula Nominees: Best Novel

The 2018 Nebula nominees were announced on Thursday, and for once I have actually read all of the Best Novel nominees before the announcement. (Not the case for the short fiction; I’m hoping to track all of it down before Hugo nominations close, but we’ll see.) Accordingly, some quick thoughts. Big spoilers are encoded via ROT13, although I’ve left some vague points about endings in the clear so if you want to read these books blind, stop reading now.

First of all, this list definitely skews more fantasy than science fiction, and series fiction is still big:

  • The Calculating Stars is alternate history, about an accelerated space program developed after a meteorite wipes out much of the Eastern Seaboard and sets in motion some unpleasant climate effects. I called it “SF-adjacent alternate history” on Twitter; the genre has always had a soft spot for anything related to the space program even if going to the moon is more science fact than science fiction. First in a series (at least from a novel perspective), although it stands alone fine.
  • The Poppy War is secondary-world fantasy inspired by China. More specifically, the second part is specifically inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War, but with more gods. First in a planned trilogy; the main plot is resolved but the consequences of such are mostly left to the sequel.
  • Blackfish City is the only novel on the list that I’d really describe as science fiction.  It’s dystopian SF, set post-climate catastrophe, set in a floating city where the breaks are beginning to show. Actually stand-alone!
  • Spinning Silver is Russian fairy-tale inspired fantasy. The other stand-alone; the cover art invites comparison to Uprooted, but they’re only connected insofar as they’re both fantasies based on Eastern European fairy tales.
  • Witchmark is secondary-world fantasy in a Western setting reminiscent of Edwardian Britain. It’s also a (m/m) romance. First in a series, and I’m not sure that it stands alone particularly well given gjb snpgvbaf ba gur oevax bs tbvat gb jne jvgu rnpu bgure as you turn the final page.
  • Trail of Lightning is post-apocalyptic urban fantasy set in the Navajo Nation. It’s the first in a planned four-book series, and stands alone reasonably well plotwise (although it also ends with gur znva punenpgref abg fcrnxvat gb rnpu bgure, so yeah).

Climate change is also one of the obvious themes running through this list; it’s directly featured in both Blackfish City and Trail of Lightning, and there’s an alternate version in The Calculating Stars. Given that it’s probably the biggest crisis we as a civilization face, this seems only appropriate.

Half of these are first novels, and Blackfish City is a second novel. There’s a lot of exciting new talent in speculative fiction and this list does a good job of highlighting that.

Is this particularly similar to my Hugo nominating ballot? Not really. There’s a little overlap, but while I enjoyed most of these enough to want to read the sequels when they come out my socks generally stayed on. I’m not sure there’s much of a takeaway here other than “SFWA’s tastes are broadly different than mine”, but unfortunately “I liked this but didn’t super love it” is a zone that I find particularly difficult to write about. I will try to have a better post on the Hugo finalists once that is timely.

I don’t want to dig too deep into issues of representation as I suspect I am not the best person to talk about them, but we did have some notable Jewish representation in two of the novels listed. First the one I liked: the protagonist of The Calculating Stars is a Jewish woman from South Carolina. Her Jewishness is a core part of who she is, but at the same time doesn’t feel overwhelming in a way that might feel stereotypical. And I expect for many readers the existence of a large Southern Jewish community might come as a surprise. (If that’s you: read a history book.)

That brings us to Spinning Silver. The Russian Jews in this novel might be closer to my actual ancestors, but unfortunately, while their portrayal is positive (and a lot of people liked it! YMMV), this ended up really detracting from the book for me. First off, one of the main characters (and our first narrator) is a Jewish moneylender; this is historically accurate for, well, the reasons stated in the book, but “Jews are good with money” is so tired of a stereotype at this point that it’s really hard for me to get excited about reading something where a main character is, in fact, a Jew who is good with money (and centrally so), even if no disrespect is intended and it’s not presented as a universal truth.

Second, Spinning Silver is set in a secondary-world Russia with all the names changed a bit, except Jewish people are still the House of Israel and use real Jewish prayers. So does the Land of Israel exist in this setting? Does Egypt? Did the Jewish population actually come over from a portal that got opened up on our Earth early in the Diaspora? (I’d read that.) The typography doesn’t help either, with the prominent descender on the capital “J” making every incidence of the word “Jew” seem like a shout in my head.

Finally, the ending specifically involves na npghny Wrjvfu oyrffvat orvat hfrq sbe zntvpny rssrpg, at which point I pretty much had to put the book down to “yikes”. There is no implication anywhere earlier in the book that Wrjf ner zntvp va guvf frggvat, and sadly jr ner abg zntvp va erny yvsr either. I’d probably be a bit annoyed at gur qrhf rk znpuvan anyway but I was extremely put off by the way it was invoked. While I can see why people liked Spinning Silver (and I really liked Uprooted, for that matter), I found the above just too annoying to ignore.