I’ve been reviewing the Hugo and Nebula short fiction nominees for a few years now. (See: Reviews of Hugo Award short fiction nominees for 2006 and 2007; and reviews of Nebula Award short fiction nominees for and 2005, 2006, and 2007.) The recent trend of making award-nominated short fiction available for free online reading makes it easy. In most cases, that is. I have little use for PDF and proprietary formats. Even so, thanks go out to the publishers and other folks who make this possible.
Historically, these reading projects involving award-nominated fiction, while enjoyable overall, usually lead me to a few stories that aren’t to my particular tastes. However, this year’s Hugo ballot has a significantly larger number of stories that I found to be quite good. The short stories were particularly strong, offering perfect, bite-size portions of that single conceit that makes short fiction fun. Perhaps the high quality of the nominees is bolstered by the small number of them that are considered fantasy, a genre I meet with seemingly variable success. Whatever the reason, this year’s Hugo (and Nebula) short fiction award ballot offers a strong set of stories.
Here is a summary of the ratings each story received, reviewlettes follow:
“Stars Seen Through Stone” by Lucius Shepard
“Recovering Apollo 8” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“The Fountain of Age” by Nancy Kress
“Memorare” by Gene Wolfe
“All Seated on the Ground” by Connie Willis
“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang
“Finisterra” by David Moles
“The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham
“Glory” by Greg Egan
“Dark Integers” by Greg Egan
“Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter
“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s June 2007)
“Distant Replay” by Mike Resnick
“A Small Room in Koboldtown” by Michael Swanwick
“Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” by Ken MacLeod
[The following story was originally reviewed as part of the 2007 Nebula Awards reading project.] A fine example of how science fiction can be Literary can be found in “Stars Seen Through Stone“ by Lucius Shepard, though you wouldn’t know this was anything other than mainstream fiction until halfway through the story, and even then in a downplayed manner. Seen through the eyes of its narrator, Vernon, comes a story of how a small Pennsylvania town named Black William experienced an artificial culmination of creativity and genius. Vernon is a small-time record producer who, for his part in the rapture, finds renewed love with his ex-wife Andrea. His latest project is a surprising new musical talent: a twentysomething named Joe Stanky whose predilection for sexual perversion needs to be kept in check lest it foul up the music career that Vernon is trying to launch for him. It eventually becomes evident that something is amiss with the townsfolk as people experience bursts of one emotion or other; an occurrence that coincides with the appearance of strange stars that appear out of nowhere only to disappear once again. This is an oddity which dates back in the town’s history to the days of its nogoodnick founder. As interesting as this alien harvest was, Shepard chooses to focus on the people and it works. Through detailed characterizations we see a range of human relationships and feelings that are no less captivating than the science fiction that loiters in the background. Like in his story “The Arcevoalo“, Shepard makes lyrical prose look easy: conveying multitudes of depth and insight with few words; creating a quiet story with serious implications; and writing a fascinating story without the easy trappings of science fiction. Well done.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s novella, “Recovering Apollo 8,” is ultimately a story about one man’s hope. In this case, it’s the hope of recovering the Apollo 8 capsule which, in this version of history, never returned home after its launch in December 1968. Richard Johansenn was a child then and the launch filled him with wide-eyed wonder. The recovery of Apollo 8 became a lifelong obsession of his, superseding anything else in his life. This story recounts his efforts to locate the capsule, a goal that has driven him to become the world’s first billionaire, amassing the resources one would need to embark on such a complex undertaking. (There’s more that happens, but talking about it would be to give away some surprises.) Although Richard’s story is a personal one, the author infuses it with the awe that one gets when thinking about space travel. You feel like you are there and are filled with the same sense of wonder that Richard has as a youth. Despite a final plot point that was distractingly too coincidental, this story captures your attention and holds it throughout.
[The following story was originally reviewed as part of the 2007 Nebula Awards reading project.] The setting of “Fountain of Age“ reminded me at times of another Nancy Kress story I read recently: “Inertia”, published in John Joseph Adams’s Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse anthology. Both stories are set in a near-future world plagued by social unrest and environmental issues, with people huddled under domes. And both stories offer a rich backdrop to tell a story. Here we meet elderly protagonist, Max Feder, a resident in an assisted living facility – but don’t expect a story involving some lovable old codger; Max is a shameless crook. He made his fortune from insider information and shady dealings. He’s even been in jail and is consistently hounded by the feds. The thrust of the story is Max’s desire to once again see Daria, the woman he met during the war and with whom he fell in love. The story jumps to different points in Max’s life until we get the whole picture: his strained relationship with his wife and son; his dangerous business relationship with Stevan, a shady gypsy who will one day get a visit from Max looking for secret passage to the rejuvenation satellite where Daria lives; and how Max unexpectedly found Daria after so many years apart. The one thing that kept me from enjoying this story to its fullest was Max’s negative reactions when meting Daria after longing after her for so many years. I would have expected him to be overjoyed. Even so, there is plenty of richness in the setting and plot to maintain a hugely enjoyable reading experience.
[The following story was originally reviewed as part of the 2007 Nebula Awards reading project.] Gene Wolfe’s “Memorare“ is an incredibly textured and involved story. March Wildspring is making a documentary about the asteroid memorials littering space and which pay tribute to those who died there. Some sects believe that the souls of visitors who die on these memorials are sent to serve those who are to be remembered – so some of these memorials are often loaded with fatal traps to further that goal. (This has the same Big Dumb Object coolness factor of “Diamond Dogs” by Alastair Reynolds, and the opening scene of “Memorare” is correspondingly filled with Indiana Jones-like adventure. I would have loved to see more of that element.) March’s ultimate goal is to document the biggest memorial of all, which he dubs Number Nineteen. He would love for his sometime flame, Kit Carleson, to narrate and, fortunately, he meets Kit near the memorials of Jupiter. But Kit has someone in tow – a woman from March’s past named Robin. Furthermore, Robin is being pursued by her violent husband, Jim, who hopes to win back Robin’s affections. As you can guess, there is plenty of human drama playing out alongside the memorial documentary thread. The early parts of the story expertly balanced the two storylines, each one engrossing enough to temporarily forget the other. The resulting narrative – though somewhat unnatural in the dialogue department with some questions seemingly left hanging – was simply excellent. Yet when the four central characters finally arrive on Number Nineteen, the story seems to lose some of its steam. Instead of some real dangers, there’s a “what is reality?” vibe that permeates and interrupts the flow, taking away from the overall impact of the rich setting. The story is still very good overall, though, an impression that is solidified by some realistic characterizations and portrayals of love and uncertainty.
“All Seated on the Ground“ by Connie Willis is a tongue-in-cheek Christmas story about the first visit of Aliens on Earth and our attempts to communicate with them. They sit motionless (and scowling) for months with no communication at all and eventually fall out of the public eye. By that time, the specialists assigned to work with them have succumbed to their intense scowling and quit the project. The narrator Margaret Yates (a columnist) is enlisted to help and a fateful trip to the mall during Christmastime finally yields results. The remainder of the story details the events if Margaret and Mr. Ledbetter (a choir teacher) to figure out exactly what the aliens respond to, which gives the author a chance to show off the results of an incredible knowledge (or exhaustive research) of Christmas song lyrics. The lighthearted tone and humor is effective – I loved the bit about Ledbetter’s students constantly asking annoying questions at the worst moments – but the premise does perhaps drag on for a bit too long.
[The following story was originally reviewed as part of the 2007 Nebula Awards reading project.] Ted Chiang is often regarded as an excellent short story writer and with his wonderful story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the story of a Baghdad merchant who learns of the existence of an amazing artifact: a gate that acts as a wormhole allowing time travel across the space of 20 years. Chiang, using a “stories within stories” approach, has the Alchemist who owns the gate teaching the merchant about the rules of time travel – all while being firmly planted in Arab culture and mores. The author also treats the theme of time travel head-on by using cool time convolutions that are integral to the story. Meticulously tight plotting, excellent storytelling and great uses of time travel mark this story as a winner.
“Finisterra“ by David Moles takes place in the meticulously constructed world of Sky, which is populated by massive floating/flying creatures that are large enough to serve as island homes for the thousands of humans and aliens that live upon them. (These finned creatures are so big that they have forests and mountains that sit atop their flesh.) Such detailed worldbuilding, which is both foreign and wondrous at the same time, reminds me of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Larry Niven’s Ringworld. The core story concerns Bianca, an aeronautical engineer who takes a job with an illegal band of poachers bent on taking down the biggest creature of all: Finsterra. Bianca wrestles with the consequences of her actions and things come to a nicely done dramatic finish.
Like its title suggests, Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics“ reads like a fairy tale. (And despite having “economics” in the title, this is far from a bore-fest.) The story is a series of encounters between the selfish Lord Iron and the commoner Olaf, who toils at the postal authority exchanging currency. Olaf suffers the whims of Lord Iron who first threatens Olaf’s job and then his life. Olaf puzzles through these challenges using his cambist skills – but are those skills enough to save him? The fun is in watching Olaf figure out how to beat Lord Iron at his own game. Lord Iron is immediately dislikable and Olaf is the underdog the reader will be rooting for. The ending might have been a bit predictable, but the ride was still fun.
“Glory“ by Greg Egan starts with a head-expanding, hard-sf treatment of space travel, and then settles comfortably into a story about two visitors (Joan and Anne) to an alien planet interested in learning the advanced mathematics of an extinct race. Joan and Anne use technology that gives them the appearance of the natives, which allows each of them to contact one of two dominant species: the Ghahari and the Tiran, who are at war with each other. The story mainly follows Joan’s interaction with the Ghahari, specifically acting as an archaeologist at the site of some buried stone tablets that (hopefully) detail the extinct aliens’ answer to a unified theory of mathematics. The politics between the races proves a decent source of drama, but I have to admit that the ending lacked any of the spark promised by the slam-bang beginning.
In Greg Egan’s high-concept story, “Dark Integers,” a trio of mathematicians serves as our universe’s only defense against beings in a parallel universe. The weapons at their (and our) disposal consists solely of mathematics; specifically computing certain high-order math that alters the boundary between worlds, affecting one side or the other in such a way that causes destruction and death. This is a mind-blowing concept that, unfortunately, never seems to achieve any believability because it is never explained exactly how a mere computer calculation can affect the real world. Maybe that explanation was giving in Egan’s 1995 prequel, “Luminous,” which I have not read? I must also note that the geeky likability of the main protagonist, Bruno, somewhat suffers when he leaves his in-the-dark wife stranded in the Australian desert when the mathematical shoe drops. But even so, there is some enjoyment to be derived here as our heroes (who enlist the aid of a fourth mathematician who stumbles upon their well-kept secret) surf the mathematical landscape of political confrontation: cards are played, an uneasy balance of power is trifled with, and things escalate with dramatic flair. All told, a good read.
[The following story was originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction.] In “Last Contact“ by Stephen Baxter, an astrophysicist and her mother wait for the end of the world. Pensive, creepy, frightening and sad are all words could be use to describe this well-written story. Caitlin is the astrophysicist who blames herself for the impending “Rip” that threatens the Earth, even though she was just the one to discover it. Maureen is her recently widowed mother who is partially coping by pretending life will go on, even though she’s fully aware that this is the end. Knowing exactly when it is going to happen and being completely helpless about it throws a beautifully gloomy shadow over the story. Seeing society’s behavior, which ranges from sheer panic to quiescence, is downright creepy. Well done.
“Tideline“ by Elizabeth Bear could be considered a small-scale post-apocalyptic story — there’s no definite description, as such, but the clues are there — and that serves as a great background for a personal story of a dying sentient machine named Chalcedony and a young boy named Belvedere. Chalcedony is a military machine that has lost her entire platoon during battle and who builds necklaces in their honor (hopefully before she expires) out of shipwreck leftovers. Her attachment to Belvedere (which can only be described as one of motherhood) is both believable and touching. Despite being a machine, Chalcedony is such a well-drawn character that I couldn’t help but feel sadness as her condition worsened – a reaction that can only be attributed to Bear’s superb storytelling skills. Well done.
In “Distant Replay“ by Mike Resnick, widower Walter Silverman thinks he’s losing his mind when he meets a woman who looks strikingly like his dead wife looked forty years before. The similarities don’t end there – and there are some differences – but it’s easy to see how Walter is smitten with her. Walter eventually looks for the reason for her appearance in his life and his answer gives this story its heart. Resnick’s conversational writing is perfect for the personal nature of the plot and that helps make this story touching and memorable.
The world of Michael Swanwick’s “A Small Room in Koboldtown“ is strange indeed. It feels like our present day world but this one is populated by ghosts (also called haints, but derogatorily called spooks), trolls and other fantastical creatures. This plot involves a locked-room murder mystery that must be solved by our righteous, haint hero, Will le Fey. Will works for an alderman who wishes to prove the accused murderer’s innocence because, hey, he’s a voter. Along with his partner, Ghostface, Will sets out to solve the mystery via a series of formulaic leads. Despite its fantasy setting (a genre with which I have a love/hate relationship) this story was quite enjoyable. No wonder – it takes place in the same world as previous Swanwick stories like the superb “Lord Weary’s Empire” and the also-excellent “King Dragon“. Although this one didn’t impress me as much as those, it’s still a worthy addition to this setting.
Ken MacLeod’s “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?“ was, in some respects, disappointing. It involves a man who, as penance for his adultery, agrees to “clean up” Wolf 359, a star system with a newly-discovered planet created as a social experiment that ultimately failed. (The political/economic lesson being that a government cannot be run like a corporation. Yawn.) I know the definition of space opera is both fluid and subjective, and, to be sure, this story does offer a grand scale of events (interstellar travel; terraforming; AI; post-humanism and singularities, which they call a “fast burn”), but this just felt less like the advertised space opera and more like a political/economics lesson – two of my least favorite things to find in science fiction.