Seven novelettes were nominated for the Nebulas this year and I have to say that apart from one dud they’re a shiny crop of stories. Moreso then the nominated short fiction, I expect to see a few of these novelettes appear on the Hugo ballot.

My brief thoughts after the cut (oh and thanks to Lois Tilton again for her summaries).

The Pyre of New Day by Catherine Asaro

While I couldn’t get my hands on The Pyre of New Day – originally featuring in The Mammoth Book of SF Wars – based on the chunk I read on Facebook I doubt it would have mattered anyway. The deadly dull info dump killed off any enthusiasm I might have had to search out the further adventures of Soz Valdoria. But I’m guessing that fans of the character would have gobbled this up, which is probably why it appears on the ballot.

Close Encounters by Andy Duncan

Old Buck Nelson claims he doesn’t want to be bothered by reporters, even pretty girl reporters, sniffing around after the stories he used to tell about the alien who took him up to Mars and Venus and the dog he brought back with him. No one cares anymore, no one believes him. But now they’re making a movie and people are interested.

I hear that Andy Duncan gives a mean reading. (Well, that’s what Jonathan and Gary say on Coode Street) And I bet that this story sounds amazing coming from Andy. Even without his presence, it’s a fun, if predictable read, that I never felt outstayed its welcome.

The Waves by Ken Liu

A reminiscence on the nature of humanity. Humans first become immortal, then cyborgs, then a Singularity

Have I mentioned recently that I love Ken Liu? What I think Ken does so well is give soul and passion to SF stories that traditionally have been written with a much harder, more detached edge. Lois Tilton might believe there’s nothing new here, but I think it’s Ken’s love for people and for different cultures, while also providing a narrative about cyborgs and singularities, that makes this novelette feel genuinely fresh.

The Finite Canvas by Brit Mandelo

A dystopian future with Earth slowing becoming uninhabitable and the prime real estate of the space stations largely under the control of criminal syndicates. Molly has run afoul of these authorities and been exiled downside, where she survives by running a small medical clinic. Into this life steps Jada, a syndicate hitwoman on the run. It’s customary among her kind to get decorative scarification to commemorate each killing, and Jada is in a hurry. The deal is that she will tell her story and the design will reflect it. As Jada offers a lot of money for this service, Molly agrees. In the course of the cutting, the two form a sort of bond.

I didn’t think I’d like this story. I thought it would get bogged down in its own angst. But the beautiful writing – possibly the best written story, vying with Swirsky for that honour – plus the storytelling / flashback technique made Jada and Molly come alive. Unlike Lois Tilton, I wasn’t worried about how Jada evaded capture (as a hitwoman I assumed this was the sort of thing she did everyday). I was more interested in how Mandelo explores ideas about love, betrayal and the subsequent guilt. Also, given the heavy themes, I appreciated the stories pacing.

Swift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron

Family dysfunction. Eighth-grade Ian’s long dying has exacerbated the fractures in his family’s flawed dynamics, and it quickly becomes clear to his younger sisters that things aren’t going to get better now that he’s gone. Instead, they begin to see the apparition of their brother, who seems to be asking for their help. But they have misunderstood what Ian wants.

I read this story about pranks and ghosts and dysfunctional families sometime ago. I loved it then, I love it now. People have criticised the ending for being too abrupt. Personally, I think it’s perfect.

Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia by Rachel Swirsky

A fantasy-Renaissance setting in which the development of art has incorporated magic. Lisane is a master painter whose school has failed to produce a worthy successor. She has abused, then discarded a succession of apprentices. Renn has mastered the use of magic in painting but otherwise proved another disappointment. Lisane herself rarely uses magic, as her specialty is portraiture. The employment of magic causes the original to disintegrate as its essence is incorporated in the painting; thus its use in portraying persons is forbidden. Now Lisane is dying and summons Renn to paint her deathbed portrait.

While Decomposition is my favourite Swirsky story for 2012 (read it here), Portrait comes close. The writing is gorgeous and Swirsky perfectly captures the frenzy of creativity, the passion of art. The magic is also a nice touch, although it does seem to imply that Lisane’s essence is trapped on canvas, which I would have thought would be a living hell, rather than something she’d desire.

Fade to White by Cat Valente

President McCarthy is waging permanent nuclear war against the Commies [and] we have Martin and Sylvie preparing for their entrance into adulthood, the ritual that will determine their entire futures. Martin wants nothing more than to be a Husband, one of the few fertile males who will father the nation’s children. Sylvie doesn’t particularly want to be a mother but supposes correctly that she has no say in the matter.

If you forced me to pick a winner, I’d give the Nebula to Cat for this funny but disturbing story.

Lois Tilton (I promise I’m not having a crack… given I’ve stolen her summaries) sees the novelette’s main value in its meta and not in the narrative. And yet it’s the narrative that grabbed me. On a pure story level I was horrified and fascinated by this Mad Men-esque world caught in amber that Sylvie is forced to endure and Martin treasures. Yes, it might be a jumble of ‘hoary’ SF cliches, but Valente – like an actor playing the funny lines straight – takes Martin and Sylvie’s story seriously. The moment where Martin discovers that he’s not fertile and therefore only good as cannon fodder, is gut wrenching. As is the realisation that due to an administrative cock-up Sylvie nearly gets matched with her half brother, whom she fancies.

Now maybe I’ve missed the point of this story. Maybe, like Tilton says,the interest lies in the meta, at the creation of a 50s type alternate world that only ever existed in the imaginations of Golden Age SF writers. But fuck that. Valenete is a brilliant writer because she makes you give a shit about her characters and because for a moment I was willing to believe in this crazy radioactive world.

What Story Should Win?

Fade to White. But other than the Asaro I’d be happy to see any of them take home the award.