REVIEW: Best Short Novels: 2006 edited by Jonathan Strahan
REVIEW SUMMARY: More hits than misses.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of nine novellas from the year 2005.
PROS: 6 stories ranging from good to excellent, the best being a fantasy piece.
CONS: 3 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: A good assortment of stories from 2005, 3 of them award nominees.
Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels: 2006 aims to collect the best science fiction and fantasy novellas from 2005; whether or not it meets that goal is left up to interpretation, of course. While I can say there were stories from 2005 that I enjoyed better than some of the entries, there are still quite a handful of really enjoyable stories in this volume. As with any anthology, your mileage may vary.
The least enjoyable stories for me this year were hovering in the realm of fantasy. This is not surprising, really, given my preference for science fiction. As I mentioned with last year’s volume, the varied genre selection turns out to be a double-edged sword for readers like myself who may not find a particular genre suitable to their tastes.
That said, I was absolutely blown away that the most enjoyable story was indeed a fantasy: “The Cosmology of the Wider World” by Jeffrey Ford. This story worked on so many levels for me and really made me think hard about why I sometimes do not enjoy fantasy. That fact alone makes it a stunning achievement.
Statistics-wise: Three of the stories in this volume turned out to be award nominees; two for the Hugo (“The Little Goddess” and “Inside Job”), one for both the Hugo and Nebula (“Magic for Beginners”). I had already read all of these as part of my Hugo and Nebula Award nominee reading projects.
Reviewlettes of the stories follow.
STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:
- “The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald [2005 novella] (I read this in June 2006, what follows is what I said then.)
- Synopsis: In future India, a young girl becomes a goddess, falls from god-status and becomes a courier of illegal AIs.
- Review: Set in the same culturally rich future as his novel, River of Gods, McDonald paints a touching and thoughtful picture of innocence lost, shifting social status and redemption. The Kumari Devi is just an innocent child when she is chosen to become the goddess; eligible because she is one of few who bears “the thirty-two signs of perfection”, chosen because she alone passes a series of traumatic tests. As she learns to follow the strict and required ways of a Devi, she is guided by two surrogate mothers who she calls Tall Kumarima and Smiling Kumarima. Out of love, Tall Kumarima secretly gives the goddess a forbidden portable AI palm device. The discovery of the device leads to the Devi’s fall. She eventually meets Ashok, a dataraja – an illegal AI dealer. (AI tech is legally forbidden above certain levels of intelligence.) Ashok hires her as a courier using her assumed status as potential bride. The ex-Devi is implanted with an unprecedented five AIs for one final run, but the Krishna cops close in and she must act fast. What was interesting about this story is the same thing that was interesting about River of Gods. The story is steeped in culture that provides a wonderful atmosphere and vivid imagery. At the same time, you feel for the ex-Devi who, as much as we all are to some degree, is a victim of things beyond her control. Good stuff.
- Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.
- “The Gist Hunter” [The Archonate] by Matthew Hughes [2005 novella]
- Synopsis: A detective of the supernatural encounters a plan to control the universe by manipulating the component “gist” of which everything is made.
- Review: It took me about a third of this story to get into the flow (curse you, late-night reading!), but once I did, man, was it fun. The story is written with a nineteenth-century Sherlockian flavor, although the “discriminator” hero Henghis Hapthorn lacks Holmes’ deduction skills. Nor is his partner, the cat-like ape “interrogator”, a direct parallel to Watson as the creature was heretofore a mechanical creation until an unfortunate, pre-story journey into the dimension of demons. This is one of those stories that openly skirts the line between science fiction (gist is described as “the underlying substance of the universe” that “bounds together all time energy, matter and the other, less obvious components into an elegant whole.”) and fantasy (black magic, spells and incantations). The language of the story is wonderfully fitting to the setting and really lends to the story’s enjoyment. And it’s funny too, in a Niles Crane sort of way. The crass barbs between characters are thrown in the Queen’s upper-crust English.
- Note: Some of Hapthorn’s past adventures are mentioned in this story – perhaps they are those that are recounted in Hughes’ other Henghis Hapthorn tales which are available in his collection The Gist Hunter and Other Stories.
- “Human Readable” by Cory Doctorow [2005 novella]
- Synopsis: Profiles the relationship between a techie – who supports the current national emergent network that’s based on simulated ant colonies – and a lawyer – who supports a simpler “human readable” network because the country is too dependent on a network that causes so much trouble when it experiences downtime.
- Review: This is the usual stomping ground for Doctorow and people who like his other stories that use the backdrop of copyright law, networks and social mores will like this, too. For me personally, while I find it interesting, it lacks the sense of wonder that I like in my science fiction; it reads more like a cautionary tale than a sf story. Still, the writing is sharp, crisp and shows great skill. I loved the banter between Rainer and Trish, especially during the first half of the story when they are a couple and he takes her to meet his family. This is where we first learn of the country’s dependence on the simulated-ant network; the country is thrown into chaos with serious repercussions during downtime. The second half of the story has Rainer and Trish split up and on opposite sides of legislative action. This is where the technological backdrop takes center stage.
- “Audubon in Atlantis” by Harry Turtledove [2005 novella]
- Synopsis: In and alternate 1843, artist and naturalist John James Audubon and his partner Edward Harris take a riverboat to the island of Atlantis to hunt the elusive honker bird.
- Review: The plot, if you can call it that, recounts Audubon’s efforts to find a rare bird. Audubon was known for his desire to find and paint all the birds of North America, which he would accomplish by shooting them and propping them up with wires in natural poses. (Anyone else find that true fact on the wrong side of creepy?) This is all well and good, but the story reads like a slow-moving documentary on the Nature Channel. I suppose some parallels would be drawn by the near-extinction of the honkers (thanks to the predatory nature of man) and Audubon approaching his later years, but – wow- I was hard-pressed to find anything interesting in the story’s content. One positive thing I could say about this is that the writing does a fine job of creating a 19th century feel, not only in writing style but also in dialogue.
- “Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link [2005 novella] (I read this in April 2006, what follows is what I said then.)
- Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Jeremy and his four friends (Elizabeth, Karl, Amy and Talis) are hooked on a randomly-airing fantasy television show called The Library. Or, are they part of cast of the show?
- Review: I should re-iterate that I am not a huge fan of fantasy. Even so, this story went to such lengths to blur the line between reality and in-story fiction that I felt lost – or at least detached – from the characters. It starts by saying Jeremy is a character on the show, then goes on to say how he and his friends watch the show. OK, I can handle levels of indirection, but why introduce that aspect at all? The bulk of the story tries to portray Jeremy’s relationship with his friends and his apparently-separating parents (a kleptomaniac writer for a father and a librarian for a mother). This is a sad situation for a young teen, to be sure, but one whose emotional impact is lessened by the nebulousness of what the reality is. Adding to the confusion is the franticly changing, seemingly unrelated – and tedious – details when describing the characters. (Describing the characters and their backgrounds, by the way, makes up about 80% of this story. Plot doesn’t rear its head until the last twenty percent, when Jeremy and his mother travel to Las Vegas in search of the mysterious phone booth and the wedding chapel.) I suppose one could derive parallels between “real life” and the TV show, but the blurring of the two makes that a chore at best. As it was, I had to struggle to find the semi-interesting (non-genre fiction) life story of Jeremy. As I said, I’m not a big fan of fantasy, but it still surprises me that this was nominated for so many awards.
- Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.
- Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.
- “Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie” by Steven Erikson [2005 novella]
- Synopsis: A nine-year-old boy recounts his summer vacation adventures with his magical grandmother.
- Review: The fantasy stories I like the least are the ones that ask you to suspend your disbelief the most. Unfortunately, this story did just that. As the essay-narrative recounts, there are three mini-adventures that young Jock Junior has with Matchie, his grandmother who lives at the bottom of the lake. The first one deals with the rescue of Jock Junior’s sister, kidnapped by One Armed Trapper. In the second one, Matchie must pit her storytelling power against Trapper’s mother, Lunker. In the third, the villain is the Devil Himself. As adventures go, the story asks you to believe in canoes that stay afloat with holes in the bottom, underwater breathing, traveling underwater by sea turtle, skiing on lampreys, giant sea snakes and rats and other hard-to-believe points. My belief sunk lower than Matchie’s basement. On the plus side, the story, as told by Jock Junior, is written in the suitable voice of a nine-year-old boy with version of words that aren’t quite true and assumed capitalization of Special Words. Ultimately though, this story just wasn’t my cup of tea.
- “The Policeman’s Daughter” [Queendom of Sol] by Wil McCarthy [2005 novella]
- Synopsis: Carmine Strange Douglas, attorney at law, takes a case protecting his former roommate from being killed by a younger duplicate of himself.
- Review: Very good story that shows many of the legal issue that would arise from the ability to create multiple copies of oneself; near-immortality, for one. The ability is done through “fax machines” that archive the person for immediate or later retrieval. Mostly people don’t do this, but Carmine uses the technology to cerate copies to run errands and perform tasks. His ex-roommate, Theodore Great Kaffner, has created a younger, angrier version of himself that thinks the older one should cease to exist. Meanwhile, Carmine is persuaded into creating a younger copy of himself to defend the younger Theodore. This younger version was copied from the time in his life when he was madly in love with a policeman’s daughter, Pamela Red. With multiple copies and legal ponderings, this story offers a bit more than standard fare. Again, like Robert J. Sawyer’s Mindscan, I am reminded of The Resurrected Man by Sean Williams.
- Note: Read an excerpt.
- “Inside Job” by Connie Willis [2005 novella] (I read this in June 2006, what follows is what I said then.)
- Synopsis: A professional debunker and his ex-Hollywood actress partner try to expose a charlatan who convincingly appears to channel world-famous skeptic H.L. Mencken.
- Review: An engrossing and entertaining story, for several reasons: Willis’ engaging writing style, infused with frequent pop-culture references in its present-day California setting; a story line that immerses you in the world of those who fool a gullible public; smart characters who rely almost completely on logic but who are human enough to be swayed by emotion; and mostly for the educational information surrounding the real-life Mencken, who became famous for his take on the Scopes Monkey Trial. This story should, in fact, be required reading for anyone wishing to study Mencken as he is brought to life beautifully (well, at least compared to what I gleaned from Wikipedia. And if it’s there, it must be true, right?) I did think that the logic-driven skeptic, Rob, was a little too willing to believe that Menken had returned from the afterlife which, by the way, is the only science fictiony element in the whole story – an element that is never proven as real or hoax. As such, this reads as light sf at best. Also, some plot points were seen in advance but thankfully not saved as surprise endings. Not that those nits matter; this is still a very good story.
- Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.
- “The Cosmology of the Wider World” by Jeffrey Ford [2005 novella]
- Synopsis: A fable in which a Minotaur named Belius, an outcast freak born of human parents, struggles with loneliness; first in our world, then in an overlapping dimension known as the Wider World where intelligent animals live in harmony.
- Review: As a marginal fan of fantasy, I was a bit worried when approaching this monstrous 135+ page fantasy novella. Mix in the fact that talking animals are involved and I’m darned close to unfair prejudgment. How wrong I was. Belius is a Minotaur born to human parents who run a farm. His parents shelter him from what they know will be a life of ridicule and pain, but of course they can only do that for so long. Eventually Belius makes his own way and befriends Dr. Grey, the man who delivered him and the only one besides Belius’ father that does not fear him. Belius lives a life of loneliness until he meets Nona, Dr. Grey’s niece. Unfortunate tragedy leads Belius to seek the land of the Wider World, a dimension that co-exists with our own, where all animals are intelligent, speaking beings and live in peace. There, Belius befriends a tortoise and an owl who take it upon themselves to cure Belius of his unfortunate malady; the loneliness which has followed him his entire life.
This story worked on so many levels for me, not only for story content, style and symbolism but also on a meta-level that caused me to think about what I usually puts me off on fantasy. I’ve long held the impression that unexplained phenomena are usually fantasy story-killers for me. Yet here we have a fable with talking, civilized animals and living, breathing mythical creatures. What makes the story work is that these characters are decidedly human in their emotions thanks to a narrative that goes into amazing depth to accomplish just that. (It’s not news that what makes fiction enjoyable is how a reader relates to its characters and themes, but it’s quite another thing to see that done in a genre with which you have a so-so track record.) The reader gets to see the lengths to which Belius’ overprotective parents try to protect him from the human townsfolk who don’t understand him. We feel for his predicament as he wrestles with his half-human, half bull nature. There’s also Dr. Grey, the only human to accept Belius in the Lesser World, eventually drinking himself into a state of forgetfulness for reasons of his own. Dr. Grey nurtures Belius’ love of reading and it is through his vast library that Belius learns of cosmology, the doctrine that deals with the nature of the universe. There is also Dr. Grey’s niece, Nona, who does come to understand Belius out of the pain emerging from her own life. Once Belius is in the Wider World – indeed the narrative starts there and we learn of Belius’ origins in our world through flashback sequences – we meet Belius’ friends. There’s Pezimote, a tortoise who is unhappy with his current mate, seeking the shell of a much younger tortoise during the night, if you know what I mean. Vashti the owl quickly sees that Belius’ sadness can only be cured if they create another like him, summoning the magic of the Wider World. Then there’s Thip the flea, who blackmails Belius for his blood using the leverage of a dark secret of his human-world past. And, adding some heft to the story’s symbolism, there is Belius’ attempt to write a Cosmology of the Wider World, an effort that eventually manifests itself as a separate being. (Side note: when discussing cosmology, there was a great passage of how man’s articulation of how the universe works is his own undoing – Understanding leads to demise.)
My worry in approaching this story stemmed from the number of fantastical elements within it. But the story appeals not for its fantastical nature, but because of its human elements. Some of the scenes in the book play with the reader’s emotions and it was hard to not respond to one situation or another, specifically because the characters were so human-like in their portrayal. When Belius kills a bull – the first creature he meets with horns similar to his own – that scene is effective because of the tragedy of a lost opportunity for Belius to understand his identity and perhaps ease his suffering. It’s powerful stuff that rises above the need for fantastical explanations. And that made this an engrossing and hugely entertaining read. A job well done.
- Note: Read an excerpt at Infinity Plus.
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