Unlike short stories, novelettes often feature fully contained tales. They may still fit into a larger universe, but the author has the freedom to expand the world in the story, and still leave the reader happy with character development. And I must admit that I was left very satisfied with this year’s selection of stories. Half of them were superb, a fun to read and stayed with me for a long time until I finished reading them. Here are the reviews for all novelettes nominated for the 2018 Hugo award, ranked from my most to least favorite.
Wind Will Rove (Sarah Pinsker)
Generational ships are a dime a dozen in science fiction. One of my favorite books, Non-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss, is set in a generational ship, and that story is already sixty years old. I was thus very pleasantly surprised to find a very original twist on the old trope. This is a story about the changing of the guard on a multi-generational ship. The journey would take multiple lifetimes, and most people who left Earth are already dead. Even the youngest children on board will not see the end of the trip. To make matters worse, during the early years of the journey, information containing all knowledge of life on Earth, its cultures and history, was maliciously wiped from the databases.
This story, which feels very personal, features a protagonist who is among many who try to preserve the cultural memory of Earth. She is a member of an ensemble that plays old music on fiddles and other instruments that are more common in a pub in rural Ireland than on a spaceship. They are but one of many such groups: there are people who try to re-shoot old movies, recreate Shakespearean plays or rewrite books. Our hero also teaches Earth’s history to children. Against her are her own students who see no value in learning the old stuff and want to focus solely on items needed to complete their trip: engineering, hydroponics, and such.
The story ends with a stalemate. Our protagonist doesn’t convince the children that history and culture are important, but instead follows the example of her mother and her daughter, and starts to improve on the titular song, which she was charged to preserve in memory. While her mother went off to create new art instead of recreating the old one, her daughter had also incorporated old music into new formats. The narrator is old and cautious; she barely changes the song and then hides the resulting recording. She is content with her life and the solace that her music offers.
This is a very soft sci-fi story. You won’t find any engineering challenges to maintain a closed habitat here. We don’t know where the ship is going. And we know next to nothing about the catastrophe that wiped the database records. The passengers on the ship do some maintenance, but spend most of their time teaching, studying (there are occupations as “theoretical farmers” who pass down the know-how of farming, so that a future generation can apply it on their new home planet), and recreating (or creating) and preserving culture. And it works perfectly here. The story is emotional and full of believable, human characters. I’m currently reading Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, and while there is stark contrast between these two works, they seem to be complementary. I feel that Wind Will Rove is an essential work in the generational ship subgenre.
Children of Thorns, Children of Water (Ailette de Bodard)
This is an urban fantasy, taking place in a future Paris. From what I understood, the world had gone through an apocalyptic event and magic has returned. Paris is ruled by a number of Houses: families of fallen angels (demons) and their cohorts, each occupying a large mansion. They lead territorial expansion and possibly wars, and minor mythical groups, such as water dragons (in the case of our protagonist) feel crowded out. Humans are reduced to homelessness and starvation, or backbreaking factory work with very low life expectancy.
In this story, which is evidently part of a larger upcoming work, two dragons assume human disguises to infiltrate one of these houses. This house, led by Lord Asmodeus, is holding open-door trials for homeless people, where the best ones may become helpers and eventually retainers in the family. The two dragons are teamed up with a human girl and given a cooking challenge. This doesn’t go as expected, though, as malicious magic begins to take over the wing of the house where they are located. The two dragons are separated, one is captured by the house’s magic, and a rescue operation ensues.
I found the story to be very inventive and detailed. I relished the description of rot and decay in the mansion, as the world kept falling apart and nobody had the energy to care. The worldbuilding is solid, and just enough is revealed to tickle my fantasy. The characters have a deep background, and a surprising amount of development for such a short story. I’ll be definitely looking out for a full book set in this world.
The Secret Life of Bots (Suzanne Palmer)
To me, this read like a space adventure of Wall-E. Humanity’s last hope to stop the destruction of Earth by aliens lies in a derelict, abandoned spaceship. It got a new crew, which brought on board a bomb that would obliterate the (somewhat conveniently) single enemy spaceship sent to destroy our planet. The spaceship’s A.I. activates a small army of maintenance drones to repair damage caused by neglect.
One of the activated drones, number 9, is too small and obsolete for maintenance work, and is instead tasked with finding and killing an alien critter that likes to chew on wire insulation. The rest of the drones are of a much newer vintage, with serial numbers in the four and five digit range. They are more advanced, but look up to the old-timer with something of a reverence. Ultimately, our little bot captures and neutralizes the critter. However, the ship is too damaged and breaks down before the enemy ship approaches.
As an unintended consequence of being obsolete, Bot 9 also has an improvisation module, which was removed from the newer models. He uses that little independence to come up with a plan to deliver the bomb to the enemy spacecraft as it zooms past, destroys it and saves Earth.
This is a very well written story, switching between the bot’s and the humans’ point of view. It creates an effective contrast: where humans are scrambling to engage the enemy, the bot, largely oblivious to what’s going on, is happily pursuing the critter. Some small elements are also unique: bots reciting mantras instead of executing software commands, for example. The entire story has a good feel to it, and in my opinion is clearly in contention for the Hugo award. However, I felt it was a little inconsequential. The entire setting was a vehicle for the adventure of that small bot, and it contained several highly unlikely elements that served no other purpose than to string together a successful path for the protagonist.
A Series of Steaks (Vina Jie-Min Prasad)
In a near future world, anything can be printed, and many things can be faked. In this story, the faked product is meat. The main protagonist has a shady past and has to work clandestinely in fake meat production. She’s good at it, making sure the texture is not too repetitive, and the “meat” looks and tastes as it should. She has a steady clientele and is working towards the moment when she saves up enough money to change her identity and move to a more legitimate business.
One day, however, she receives an anonymous call ordering a very large quantity of steaks, to be delivered in a very short time frame. The caller threatens the protagonist with revealing her identity to the family of a man she was framed for killing. She reluctantly agrees to the order, and has to hire a young woman to help her. With the woman’s help and unique previous experience, she is able to find the identity of the blackmailer and embarrass him with the final product.
I really liked the idea of printing food and forging high quality meat. The entire ecosystem was very well developed – restaurants advertised specials, and instead of hard to obtain meat they resorted to our forger. The technique of designing a slab of meat to make it look like the real thing was very detailed and well thought out. However, I didn’t find any of the characters believable.
The protagonist is a subservient woman who does everything she’s told, and never once tries to get out of the blackmail on her own. The blackmailer is essentially a slave driver and doesn’t balk at sending someone to hurt the protagonist when the process seems slow. He’s driving her to the edge, showing no concern for the final product, even though he’s heavily invested in getting his delivery in time. And the helping girl, with background in pastry baking, turns out to be a street brawler who can take down a hired thug, a hacker and someone with a criminal background who can trace people down, plan a scam and help the protagonist escape. While the first two characters were very one-dimensional, the last one was wearing too many hats and conveniently revealed every new facet of her personality when necessary. And none of them had any obvious motives for the way they were acting.
Extracurricular Activities (Yoon Ha Lee)
This story is fairly straight-forward. A veteran agent is asked to infiltrate a space station, where one of his former classmates from the spy school disappeared. His task is to find his friend, the crew of his ship, and liberate everyone. As is usually the case, though, things go sideways from the start. His vessel is attacked by special forces from the station, but he manages to overcome them, dress like one of the enemy soldiers and get onto the station. There, however, he finds out that his friend was not who he seemed to be. He was an infiltrator who spied on his nation, and now returned home for his just rewards.
This novelette is just plain weird. The first issue I’ve had with it is that the author throws in a confusing amount of worldbuilding. There are several nations, all with names I struggled to remember. Space ships have their own terminology. Languages are confusing even for the reader, not to mention the protagonist. Cultural norms and differences play a major part of the plot, and it’s difficult to keep track of them. I personally spent way too much time trying to figure out what was happening, who was who and why people acted in a certain way, to enjoy the story.
The second problem was the very inconsistent writing. The story begins like a light-hearted romp, John Scalzi style. It soon slows down and becomes overly serious and technical, only to lightly skip over some of the action, and the style never settles down. The main character is just as confusing. He is portrayed as a world class assassin and agent, but half of the people treat him like an imbecile, and he bumbles his way through most of the action with more luck than skill.
Finally, I was left deeply dissatisfied with the antagonist and his fate. From what I understood, he was from the enemy nation and infiltrated the protagonist’s nation even before they met in the spy school. Upon his return home, however, he was kept in a gilded cage, where he was so dissatisfied that he agreed to return to the protagonist’s country to stand trial. As the returning successful agent, he should have been treated differently at home. Moreover, he is whisked back to the country he infiltrated, accused of treason. This didn’t compute with me: he wasn’t a citizen of that country, so he couldn’t betray it. The story doesn’t mention any crimes he actually committed in that country. And he was back, presumably free, in his home country. This sounded more like kidnapping than justice to me.
All in all, I might have enjoyed this story if its world was simpler, characters more consistent and their actions somewhat logical. As it stands, I found it so difficult to read that I forgot all about it once I finished it. In fact, when I went back to write this mini review, I couldn’t even remember what it was about and had to reread parts of the story.
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time (K. M. Szpara)
This story is so vile I felt dirty having read it. I don’t dispute anyone’s right to write and publish any stories, but I personally would prefer not to be exposed to such filth too often.
This is essentially a vampire story. In the indeterminate future or parallel universe, vampires live freely in our society, and humans may request to be turned. Vampires are prohibited from attacking humans, and without an approval they can’t turn anyone. A very old vampire, however, is bored and turns the protagonist into one of his kind. What follows is a gradual change from human to vampire, filled with descriptions of sexual acts between the two and later an innocent bystander.
The least issue I’ve had with the novelette was that it was a vampire story. Maybe one day vampires will become attractive as fictional characters again, but recently they have been so heavily overused that there is almost nothing original here. The only original element dealt with the rapid healing factor of vampires: the protagonist had her breasts surgically removed, and now they are growing back so fast, she can almost observe the change. Unfortunately, this is dealt in an offhand matter, almost like an afterthought in a few short sentences.
A much larger issue for me was the protagonist. From the opening paragraph she came at me like such an asshole that I couldn’t care the least what she was doing. In addition to very crude and unnecessary language, she behaved like a hyper-aggressive spoiled brat, hurting people for no reason and even trying to kill one for refusing to have sex with her.
The entire sex thing was my major problem with this story. I found it completely unnecessary. In a science fiction or a fantasy story, I expect the focus to be on technological (magical) changes and how characters used them, or the society at large dealt with such elements. I wouldn’t expect to find a Fifty Shades knock-off among the list of Hugo nominees.
On average, I enjoyed reading the novelettes that were nominated for the 2018 Hugos. The three listed were superb and I’d be very happy to see either of them winning. The next two straddled average on each side, and only one story was awful. Unlike short stories, where I have a clear favorite and would be disappointed if it didn’t win, here I’m looking forward with a degree of suspense who would grab the prize.