Here are my impressions of five of the six Hugo award Novella Nominees for 2011. Although there are normally only five nominees in any given Hugo category, this year the Novella category had six nominees due to a tie in the nominations. However, since I have not read the novel that it follows (and spoils), I did not read the sixth nominee, Deadline by Mira Grant.
Interestingly, all five of these stories were also 2011 Nebula Award Nominees as well, with a sixth story also nominated due to a tie.
Impressions, comparisons and thoughts on the five nominees reviewed follow.
The Ice Owl
In Carolyn Ives Gilman’s The Ice Owl, set in her The Twenty Planets universe, we are introduced to the prickly Thorn, young inhabitant of an world and universe where travel between planets is possible at lightspeed, but ansibles make communication much faster. The story focuses on her and her fellow members of the underclass, the strata of society who migrate or are forced to move from one world to another. The story explores the consequences of remembering and honoring history, especially tragic events, as well as asymmetric relationships between adults and young adults. Its a decently crafted story in an interesting universe I want to know more about, even if this story did not particularly resonate strongly with me.
Kij Johnson’s The Man Who Bridged the Mist is a character focused story about Kit Meinem of Atyar the architect who would be the first to bridge a wide spot in a world where the deadly mists that span this crossing and indeed bisect the empire mean that ferry folk have a lucrative, but extremely hazardous profession. And a bridge would change that forever.
Johnson brings strong literary fiction techniques and style to the piece. Admittedly, the genre nature of the piece is slight enough that it could be read as fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction, or in the polder, the borderlands between genre and non-genre pieces. I wasn’t entirely sold on the political aspects of the worldbuilding of the world the story presents, however.
Kiss Me Twice, by Mary Robinette Kowal is on the surface a police procedural and mystery where the partner of the human cop is the artificial intelligence of the police station. The story starts off as an ostensible milk run of a case for an inexperienced officer being nannied by the police station artificial intelligence (who appears to him in the form of Mae West). However, this soon gets complicated and twisted by a bold gambit where the AI herself is kidnapped, leaving a backup in her place. And there is still a crime to solve…
Digging a little deeper, the story explores issues of identity, self-awareness, volition and much more. I don’t know if the universe of Kiss Me Twice is the same as her Hugo Award winning story “For Want of a Nail”, but while both stories involve issues surrounding an AI, Kiss Me Twice explores issues of AI identity from a different viewpoint. Kiss Me Twice keeps her playful, joyful writing style and this was the most fun (and my favorite) of the five stories.
Ken Liu brings us The Man Who Ended History. A new time travel technique that allows one-time appearances into history is first used by its inventor to explore the circumstances and provide catharsis for the victims of a Japanese medical experiment facility at Pingfang in China during WWII. Every bit as horrific as Nazi experiments and camps, but far less known, the story explores that tragic historical event and place, and in addition brings to the fore questions of what history is and what and who it is for.
I found the story moving, heart-aching and touching, invoking real, tragic, overlooked history I had never heard of to provide an emotional impact that extends from the writing itself into reality.
Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne M. Valente is the story of an AI developed to be the companion of the scions of a family while within the family estate. Over time, as the family develops, grows and changes, the AI, too, undergoes development, die-back and growth in concert. I found the use of myth and mythological themes, resonances and language, a hallmark of the author’s writing, to be haunting and memorable.
Taken as a set, I found many parallels and connections between the five stories. Both Gilman’s story and Liu’s tale deal with the consequences of history, upon survivors and upon those who would dig it up. Kiss me Twice and Silently and Very Fast are very different takes on Artificial Intelligence, the former wrapping issues of A.I. into police procedural, and the latter taking a long, future historical view of an A.I.’s growth and development, shading it into mythology and legend.
Similarly, that looking forward and the permanence and impermanence of constructs, be they social or man-made, connects the Kij Johnson story with Valente’s. Kiss me Twice and The Man Who Ended History both invoked thoughts and comparisons to Asimov, the R Daneel Olivaw for the former, and Asimov’s take on the use of Time Travel to process and deal with history both personal and public in his story “The Dead Past”.
Even without reading the sixth nominee, Deadline, it is clear that this is a strong ballot of stories to choose from. Whether you vote or not, I strongly recommend that you give the stories a try. While novellas and short stories may not be the economic wellspring and heart-spring of the genre community, I still think that in most ways, they are crucibles of innovation, of technique, of theme, of ideas, and of authors themselves.