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Apr 08

Reviewing the Nebulas: The Novellas

OK, enough Hugo talk, let’s get back to them Nebula Awards and specifically the Novellas.

Barry’s Tale by Lawrence M Schoen

This is old-fashioned space opera adventure, featuring a traveling stage hypnotist and his extremely cute companion animal, Reggie the buffalito. Buffalitos are animals from a far-off planet – in addition to their unparalleled cuteness, they can also digest pretty much anything. The protagonist wants to entice a reclusive billionaire to participate in a business venue, but events take unexpected turns…

(I stole this precis from Bogi Takacs website – http://www.prezzey.net. Thanks)

One of the worst things you can say about a story is that it’s innoffensive. Barry’s Tale is inoffensive. To be fair, Schoen does a reasonable job in ratcheting up the drama and the world building, though repetitive at times, is genuinely interesting. The Amazing Conroy, with his hypnotism shtick, is your usual fast talking, heart of gold, cookie cutter SF hero. The stories not helped by an ending that has a selfish old man running around trying to brain a small child. But there you go.

The novella is part of a shared world, one that’s likely got a number of fans given the nomination. And maybe Conroy is a far more fascinating character in the longer works. I’m probably not going to find out. But fans of the series, feel free to tell me what I’m missing.

Katabasis by Robert Reed

Back to Lois with this very long plot summary:

Set in the author’s posthuman “Great Ship” universe. Inside the vast body of the ship, high-gravity beings once built a wheel-shaped habitat that is now used by tourists as a test of endurance. The high-gravity environment is so arduous that beings like humans can hardly bear their own weight, so they must employ porters to carry their food and water – and their bodies if they fail during the attempt. Katabasis works as a porter; she is a survivor of the arduous journey her own people once took to reach the ship. When the human named Varid offers to hire her for the trek, she turns him down, suspecting “a fragile will and a foolish nature”. But circumstances change when the other porters in the group are killed in a landslide, leaving the humans to press on with only Katabasis to support them. It isn’t enough, even for the effectively immortal inhabitants of the ship.

I love Robert Reed’s short fiction. I thought his output in 2011 was fantastic, with a story like Purple genuinely blowing me away. But his hard SF has always left me cold. This story is no different. It’s basically 20,000 words of walking and trekking and breaking lots and lots and lots of bones. And because the main characters are immortal, the story lacks drama. Yes, the immortal part of the tale is broken up by the story of Katabasis whose people took a similar trek and suffered for it. But those sections are written with such detachment that I stopped giving a shit.

In the end, it took a massive strength of will on my part to finish the novella.

The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake

Thank you Lois:

Creationism vs science. 6000 years ago, humans were planted on a world they call Earth, where they promptly developed a creation myth and religious institutions supporting it. The society now appears to be at the technological level of the turn of the 20th century and the intellectual level of the Inquisition. Morgan Abutti is this world’s Galileo, bringing unwelcome evidence of the truth of humanity’s offworld origin, known to the Lateran Palace as the Externalist heresy, which it is the official duty of the Revered Bilious [appalling choice of name, what was the author thinking?] Quinx to suppress.

I’m not a fan of Lake’s writing. Generally, I find it hard to parse his stories, it’s something about my brain stumbling over his word choices. I’m also no fan of steampunk. So the fact that I enjoyed this story, that it’s the best thing of Lake’s I’ve ever read, is some sort of minor miracle.

What it comes down to, for me, is a good balance between philosophy and action / adventure. I appreciated that while this is a story about a heresy, Lake didn’t demonise religion. Quinx could have been very much a one note character. And while he is feared – he is an Inquisitor – there’s genuine principle behind his beliefs.

But it’s not a perfect story. The ending is a muddle. The only female character appears in the last third and is barely fleshed out even though she plays an important role in the ending. And there’s some clumsy world building, such as a mention early on about the ‘traditionally inferior white races.’

But overall, this is a steampunk version of the Da Vinci Code set on a planet that’s not Earth. It moves at pace, asks some interesting questions about science and religion, and generally is a fun read.

All the Flavors: A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America by Ken Liu

Take it away Lois:

Historical fiction. Just after the Civil War, a group of Chinese gold miners arrives in Idaho City. Jack Seaver sees them as potential customers. His embittered wife sees them as heathens. But their daughter Lily sees them as fascinating new friends, loving their songs, their cooking [when it doesn’t involve dog] and their stories.

I loved this story. Rachel Swirsky, though, sums up my thoughts perfectly:

The story starts flipping perspective midway through. Honestly, this story is a total mess. It’s not a novella; it’s notes for a novel. The beginning is structurally sound; as it progresses, it fails to sustain itself, and eventually sort of decays into little bits, ends abruptly, and then has an author’s note. But that does’t really matter–it’s notes for a *really cool* novel. The scenes that are fully realized are done extremely well, balancing character and plot perfectly. This could be a really good historical lit novel (it reminds me a bit of Geling Yan’s The Lost Daughter of Happiness) and/or a really good science fictional novel that’s heavier on the characterization than the genre elements (Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse).

After The Fall Before The Fall During The Fall by Nancy Kress

This time I’ve truncated the Book Description on Amazon.

The year is 2035. After ecological disasters nearly destroyed the Earth, 26 survivors—the last of humanity—are trapped by an alien race in a sterile enclosure known as the Shell… Meanwhile, in 2013, brilliant mathematician Julie Kahn works with the FBI to solve a series of inexplicable kidnappings. Suddenly her predictive algorithms begin to reveal more than just criminal activity. As she begins to realize her role in the impending catastrophe, simultaneously affecting the Earth and the Shell, Julie closes in on the truth.

Was this a brilliant novella? No. But what is it utterly readable and a genuine page turner. Fuck yeah. Nancy Kress has been writing SF for nearly as long as I’ve been alive and it shows in the story-telling. This novella has momentum, moving at a pace, filled with drama and tension, without sacrificing character. And while I wasn’t sure about the whole Gaia self-cleansing angle, and while I was annoyed that the time travel and ‘Tesslie’ element was never fully resolved, I’m happy to see this novella both on this and the Hugo ballot.

On A Red Station Drifting by Aliette de Bodard

Another Amazon Book Description:

On Propser Station, the AI that keeps the inhabitants alive is breaking down–its ‘mind’ is being slowly eaten by an unknown ‘disease’. Their lives hang on the outcome of two warring families.

Thank God for Aliette de Bodard and Ken Liu. Providing us with gorgeous, beautiful, touching stories where non Western cultures – specifically Asian – predominate. This is no different.

More then just being an insight into a culture and tradition that I know bugger all about, Red Station is written with a delicate intensity. It’s not an easy read, because the novella doesn’t provide us with a set of sympathetic characters that we can cheer on. Rather, through some gorgeous writing and the complexity of the world building, each character earns our respect. And that makes the ending all the more powerful.

Or to be a whole less pretentious, this is an awesome novella that deserves to win the Nebula for best novella.

Yes, if I had it my way, Aliette would going home with two Nebulas.

2 comments

2 pings

  1. prezzey

    Hi,

    feel free to quote extensively from my site – it’s CC licensed, so the only way to “steal” it is to go against my license requirements, e.g. by selling my reviews or pasting ads above them.

    But I’d appreciate a link or trackback so that I can see it ;] A trackback is good for you too, because my readers will see it and can click on it. (Just putting a link into a post but not making it active – as it is right now – won’t get me notified.)

    1. Mondyboy

      No problems. I’ll do just that. And thanks again.

  1. Aliette de Bodard » Blog Archive » Linky linky

    […] Mond reviews the Nebula-nominated novellas, which includes On a Red Station, […]

  2. [links] Link salad wasn’t fuzzy, was he? | jlake.com

    […] Reviewing the Nebulas: The Novellas — I’m not a fan of Lake’s writing. Generally, I find it hard to parse his stories, it’s something about my brain stumbling over his word choices. I’m also no fan of steampunk. So the fact that I enjoyed this story, that it’s the best thing of Lake’s I’ve ever read, is some sort of minor miracle. Heh. […]

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