Friday, July 22, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: Novelette Shortlist

“Eight Miles” by Sean McMullen (Analog, September 2010)
“The Emperor of Mars” by Allen M. Steele (Asimov’s, June 2010)
“The Jaguar House, in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s, July 2010)
“Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s, December 2010)
“That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone (Analog, September 2010)

The novelette category is the weakest of the four fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year. (The strongest fiction category this year is the novella, which was discussed here and here.) Two of these stories are poorly written, three do not provide convincing characters, and four have major flaws in structure or logic. There is only one of the five novelettes that I can recommend as worth reading.

“That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” is perhaps the weakest story and has all the flaws just mentioned. The main character reminded me of the hilarious Gary Jennings novelette, “Sooner or Later or Never Never,” (F&SF, May 1972) which is narrated by a naïve missionary sent to convert natives in the Australian Outback. “That Leviathan” is not a comedy, at least not intentionally. It concerns an attempt to convert alien sun-dwelling beings, solcetaceans, or swales, to the Mormon faith. Chief among the story’s flaws are that the aliens are not convincingly alien and the reader learns nothing of their alien culture.

“The Emperor of Mars” is next weakest and exhibits all of the flaws I first mentioned. It concerns a blue-collar worker on a Mars colony in its roughly built early stages, as narrated in unconvincingly “folksy” style by the manager of the colony. The worker, Jeff, suffers a tragic loss that mentally unbalances him. He finds solace in reading early fantastic stories of Mars. Specifically mentioned are Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Stanley Weinbaum, and others. His coworkers indulge him and go along with his fantasy that he is the Emperor of Mars. By the end, the narrator is a transparent stand-in for the author as he heavy-handedly preaches the value of reading and particularly the value of early science fiction. Too bad the sermon doesn’t have much of a story attached.

“The Jaguar House, in Shadow” is hobbled by a structure filled with multiple flashbacks in several timeframes, none of which help the story. It is apparently part of a series of stories set in a high-tech Aztec Empire. It doesn’t stand well on its own. The memorable image that the story offers is that of two former allies, now enemy warriors, each carrying a wounded comrade, who meet in a darkened corridor. Rather than saving this until the end, this would have been a good starting point for the story.

“Eight Miles” is steampunk, set in 1840s England. An inventor on hard financial times earns money as a balloonist for hire. A wealthy aristocrat, Lord Gainsley, retains the inventor for scientific research at high altitudes. Lord Gainsley, the story reveals, is keenly interested in a creature he calls Miss Angelica, who is an alien from another world, exiled to Earth like Napoleon to Elba. She is nearly comatose at sea level and begins to regain her senses at high altitudes. None of the characters are particularly well drawn, and we learn nearly nothing about Miss Angelica, least of all why we should be comparing her to Napoleon.

“Plus or Minus” is the best of a weak group. Mariska is a young adult clone of her mother, a renowned space explorer. Desperate to be out from under the influence of her mother, Mariska finds work on a long-haul spaceship. Onboard ship she is subject to the harassment of her boss, Beep. This harassment and the boredom and escapist activities that make up life on the ship are well done. The story kicks in about midway with the loss of a large ball of ice from which the crew derives oxygen for their life support. In a variation of “The Cold Equations,” instead of surrendering to implacable death resulting from a mistake, the crew struggles to find a way to survive long enough to be rescued. This was stronger than the prior story about Mariska, “Going Deep” (Asimov's, June 2009), and easily gets my vote as the best of the nominees.

Rankings for the SF Strangelove Hugo Awards ballot for novelette:
1. “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s, December 2010) (read the story)
2. No award.

What I said last time about readers looking for better stories than the Hugo nominees being able to find them in any of the best of the year anthologies is even truer of the novelette category. The 2011 Hugo Awards will be presented August 20, 2011 at Renovation, the World Science Fiction Convention to be held in Reno, Nevada.

Related links:
2011 Hugo Nominees
Reactions to the 2011 Hugo Nominees
2011 Hugo Nominations: Novella
The 2011 Hugo Awards: Short Story Shortlist
Renovation, The 69th World Science Fiction Convention: The Hugo Awards

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