The five stories nominated in the Hugos’ “Best Novelette” category represent science fiction’s mainstream better than the short story category. The three represented presses – Analog, Lightspeed, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show – are all SWFA-qualifying venues with strong histories and plenty of awards among them. Unfortunately, the stories singled out this year don’t represent the best those magazines had to offer.
Analog is best-known as a venerable source of “hard”, or science-focused, science fiction, and, indeed, all three of its stories in this field feature a lot of explaining. To start with, Rajnar Vajra’s “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” (Analog, July/Aug 2014) is a simple story of three irritating cadets assigned to a punitive labour shift that turns into a first contact scenario, drawn out to novelette-length by world-building minutia which is neither unique nor insightful.
Micah Cohen, Priam Galanis, and Emily Asgari are a Venusian, Martian, and Earthling, respectively; all humans genetically modified to suit the cultures and climates of their home planets. This factors only slightly into the story’s plot, but nonetheless pages are spent describing how and why extra-Terrestrial humans are what they are. An ill-advised tavern brawl lands our young heroes on clean up duty, helping to evacuate a colonization attempt which failed because not one of the many trained people on the contact team could figure out how to communicate with planet Abreathon’s only sentient species. Cadet Galanis manages to be so mouthy when they meet their new CO that their routine punishment immediately escalates into a mission to establish contact with these aliens in the space of a few days. If they fail in this mission impossible, they will all be thrown out of the force.
This seems harsh, but okay, maybe the Exoplanetary Explorers are an especially harsh force. At any rate, the mission turns out to be a no-brainer. It is immediately obvious to the reader why first contact has failed so far, and obvious to Cadet Galanis as well (why would they assume the cows are the intelligent lifeform???) How it eluded decades of trained scientists and explorers is a little vague. Our heroes go to their assignment on Abreathon where they are treated by the command hierarchy as abject criminals, and we are treated to more lengthy but ultimately irrelevant descriptions of the planet’s ecosystem. Despite the EE’s best efforts to make sure they fail (if they wanted them discharged so badly, why didn’t they just DISCHARGE THEM?) they solve the mystery, get into trouble, and then we learn how they got out of trouble through an exposition-heavy epilogue.
The plot holes in this piece are gaping. The story is ushered along by bad decisions made by people who should know better, all culminating in an excuse to showcase Cadet Asgari’s mediocre problem-solving skills using standard military scifi technology. Big-thinking, innovative science fiction this was not.
“Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner (Analog, Sept/Oct. 2014) suffers from many of the same weaknesses of the Vajra piece. Carl Rowland is a spy on a remote station on Ariel posing as security staff as he keeps tabs on the station’s alien commander, Glithwah. Glithwah’s Hunter people are up to something, but so is someone else: an ancient conspiracy playing with the development of all known sentient races since the dawn of life. If you remember the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Chase,” you know the drill.
The title refers to a complicated, apparently chess-like game that is indistinguishable from a modern real-time strategy video game. It is meant to represent the tactical and political moves and countermoves made by Carl, Glithwah, the Ancient Conspiracy, and a cast of forgettable secondary characters each given POV chapters. Unfortunately, the plot is not nearly that clever.
Carl suspects the Hunters of building weapons under his nose, and he’s right. When he learns of a more far-reaching conspiracy to hold back technological development, he guesses who the members of this cabal are on his first try despite the fact that the conspiracy has otherwise been kept secret for literally millions of years. He pokes the hornet’s nest, it blows up, and the story ends. Nothing has changed. A war the Hunters sought comes to pass, the conspiracy is not foiled in any way, and Carl has made no ground.
The story is apparently linked to other stories of Lerner’s, and it is possible that knowledge of the universe would give any of the events of this story more meaning. Taken alone, however, the result is a jumbled assortment of vaguely related incidents. Characters are introduced and disposed of once they have fed Carl information (Grace, Corrine, Robyn, Danica,) but the clues they supply don’t add up to much more than an introduction. There’s a conspiracy. So what? The story fails to demonstrate the consequences of any of its events.
“The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn (Analog, May/June 2014) is lighter science fiction that I have come to expect from Analog. Set in a barely-Iron-Age world with hints of a space-faring human past, this is the story of Teodorq and Sammi, two men from Stone Age tribes who are captured by an Iron Age people. When the ironmen discover not only that Teodorq and Sammi are pretty competent, but that they are sworn to serve possibly-defunct Space Age civilization, they are trained as Legionnaires and sent off to fight the “greenmen.”
And the plot? There isn’t one. The story has many threads: Teodorq’s nemesis, Kal, is also imprisoned by the ironmen, so they fight. The spacemen have left behind a washroom door that is venerated as a relic. There may or may not be the remnants of a Space Age city or two somewhere, but we never find out for sure. There is some religious disagreement amongst the shamans of the ironmen. The bulk of the story covers Teodorq and Sammi’s progress from prisoners to Foreign Legionnaires, with a duel at its climax.
This is another story set in a pre-existing world and may, again, have more significance to readers familiar with Flynn’s world. Teodorq and Sammi are skilled warriors and scouts who engage in a lot of banter, so as a chapter in a larger work, this might be an entertaining interlude.
I personally found it hard to like the lead characters. Intentional or not, the piece has problematic racial overtones: the Stone Age men of the story talk like cavemen and lack much of a complex civilization. Only once they are taught honourable war-craft by the more advanced Iron Age men do they start to become heroes. No physical descriptions are given, but the tribal people all have Indian-esque names, while the civilized folk have Slavic ones. There is only one woman in the whole piece – the daughter of the ironmen leader – and our heroes address her as “babe.” When she asks what the word means, they tell her “it is a term of respect for important women,” then snicker behind their hands as she “accepted the translation.” I am not partial to patronizing heroes.
“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show) is a gentler piece of science fiction, the story of two men living under an oppressive alien regime on a faraway world who pick a fight with their Peshari/Pehsari/P’Shari overlords over burial rights.
Narrator Cerna doesn’t know what his old friend Phil Keller is up to when he approaches the Peshari for a gravemarker, but it turns out he has revolutionary ideas about what will happen to his body when he dies – which might be soon. Over the course of the story, Cerna discovers Phil wants to be buried with a gravestone, an idea the Peshari find repugnant for religious reasons. The humans of this small settlement have risen up against the Peshari before, but this is a subtler flip-off and by the time it is done, it will be too late for the Peshari to do anything about it.
The plot is straight-forward enough and might have made a sweet short story, but it is brought up to novelette-length with philosophy and worldbuilding whose meaning is not always clear. The story begins with a trip to the Peshari “Tephrist,” an artisan who makes stone monuments imbued with the remains of the dead. Phil wants the Tepharist to make him a gravestone with no remains in it – but is refused. Cerna offers to fab one for him, but Phil refuses him for no clear reason. Later, Phil says he is “much comforted that [Cerna] agreed to memorialize me rather than having the Tephrist do it,” leaving us wondering why he ever went to see the Tepharist at all. This is just one of the story’s many points of confusion
Eventually Phil tries to explain his plan by drawing an analogy between Noah’s flood and some ancient cave-in suffered by the Peshari – the Peshari fear burial in a deep, cultural way, just the way…. Humans fear drowning, I guess? The analogy is messy, but it hints at Phil’s religious background.
Phil invokes the ideas of a “Suzanne Ettinger,” though we never learn who she is or what significance she holds, then concludes that by having his body buried, the Peshari will be mortally offended – which is his intent. The Peshari might actually fear a burial site. Cerna tells the Peshari that Phil believed in “the resurrection of the body,” which they seem to take to mean humans might be immortal, but I have no better idea what Cerna meant by that than the Peshari did. They do get mad, however.
In short, the story’s a muddle of half-baked ideas, but some of the ideas are cute. The use of older, non-violent protagonists was refreshing.
When I read “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Lightspeed #47) back in April, I was put off it for the entirely personal reason that I don’t enjoy reading about imperiled children. Coming back to it now for my Hugo reading, I found it to be a great relief. The world has been turned literally upside down, right after Toby has been dumped by his girlfriend. Freshly grieving, he sets out to return Bubbles, her pet goldfish, to her, as if that is a better pretext for checking on her than a global catastrophe is.
The concept is so silly and physically impossible, but Heuvelt takes it utterly seriously. Most of the world’s people have fallen off the planet. They are gone. Toby is too shell-shocked by the loss of his girlfriend to really appreciate the gravity (ha ha) of what has happened and turns to obsessing over getting Bubbles to her, because she phoned and asked for it. Along the way, he finds Dawnie, a 5-year-old, hanging from a swing set, and rescues her.
Toby and Dawnie navigate the new perils of an upside-down world with an odd optimism: Dawnie doesn’t understand how catastrophic the flip has been, and Toby is too focused on his quest to reunite with his ex that he doesn’t care. Neither of them is concerned by why the world has flipped or even, really, that it has. Toby’s world was turned upside down before the physical flip and so his new orientation feels appropriate to him. The ending, his resolution, is pitch-perfect, a heartbreak made raw by everything Toby goes through in the story.
I am glad I had a chance to come back to this story and give it a second read. Heuvelt’s story is the only one on this list that is Hugo-caliber. While I’m disappointed that it hasn’t any real competition in this slate, I could vote for it without reservations.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at http://once-and-future.com/.