This week I turned my eagle eye toward the Nebula-nominated novellas, and when that didn’t work I actually read them.
My thoughts (or whatever you want to call them) below the jump. First a general observation that, again, may not be terribly original: the novella ought to be the perfect length for an sf/f story. It’s long enough to admit of a fair amount of world-building, while also giving time to unfold a few characters and tell a story. I’m not sure most of the nominees exploited the form to its full advantage; several of these stories don’t really have enough content to justify their length and might have been more effective if they’d been told with more economy.
On the other hand, I’d say that only one of them suffers from the “genre-lite” syndrome I referred to in my last post, so maybe I was generalizing from too small a sample. In short, Hic Spatiales Calamarii Loquentes (“Here there be talking space squids”).
Catherine Asaro, “The Spacetime Pool”
This one has a great opening line: “The hiker vanished.” The situation is intriguing: a woman is plunged into a dynastic struggle in a parallel world where Britain and something like the Ottoman Empire have divided America between them (and perhaps other powers). The POV character has been abducted from her own world to marry one of two Othman princes: it’s been foretold that she will marry one and kill the other. I felt like the heroine resigned herself to her fate too passively to awaken my sympathy or affection. On the other hand, this looks like a piece of something bigger which might merit some attention.
Gregory Benford, “Dark Heaven”
From the anthology Alien Crimes, this is a near-future or even alternate-present murder mystery which involves amphibious aliens from the Centauri system. The aliens are slow to appear, but it’s pretty clear from the beginning that they’re implicated in the deaths. When you know who did it from the beginning of a mystery story, the interest usually lies in the process by which the detective connects the points of the murder-plot (whether the detective is Oedipus, Dr. Thorndyke or Columbo). That’s where this story falls down: lots of the procedural stuff felt overfamiliar to me, like a standard CSI episode. Where the story excels is in the details along the way: the ingenious explanation of UFOs, the linking of intelligence with dark energy, the Chandleresque observations of the viewpoint character (e.g. of some new houses on the shoreline: “They were pricey, with slanted roofs and big screened porches, rafts supported meters above the sand on tall stilts. They reminded him of ladies with their skirts hoisted to step over something disagreeable”), etc. The parts are greater than the whole, here.
Kelley Eskridge, “Dangerous Space”
This story has minimal fantastic content, which is a problem for me (given that it’s being nominated for a genre award). The setting is a romanticized version of the rock music scene, which is a problem for me (since the milieu doesn’t interest me). Much of the text is devoted to verbal descriptions of the effect of music, which is a problem for me (because description of effect does not equal effect; it’s like using “And then something funny happened!” as the punchline of a joke). And guess what? The viewpoint character and the Jaggeresquely trampy-but-charismatic lead singer of the band fall in love. Did you see that coming? From the first page you saw that coming; you can’t kid me.
For those who don’t find these things problematic, this might be a good story. It’s certainly well written: even the lyric KE includes (in blatant violation of Rule 17: “Thou shalt not transcribe the brilliant verse of thy brilliant versifier-character into the text of thy story, for it is an abomination in my sight”) is not cringe-to-read awful, so kudos for that. (The best thing about the rules of fiction is their successful violation.) But to my mind this was one of the weaker stories on the list.
Charles Coleman Finlay, “The Political Prisoner”
This is hands-down the best story nominated in this category. A sequel to “The Political Officer” of a few years ago, it follows the title character as he falls afoul of a political struggle in a society which reads like some strange crossbreed of Soviet Communism and fundamentalist Christianity. Speculative fiction at its best–because it is speculating about people making choices constrained by a radically unfamiliar type of society. There are no vegetarian Vikings here, sporting anachronistic attitudes to comfort the reader. But it’s not an utterly grim and hopeless story, either. Cleanly written with some very nifty lines (e.g. “Those who do study history are doomed to see the repetition coming”).
Vera Nazarian, “The Duke in his Castle”
Of all the stories on the list I found this the hardest to read: it struck me as a textbook example of the ineffectiveness of over-writing.
The Duke raves. Words flow in a stream now; he is unstoppable, and he uses language high and low, an interwoven entity fleshed out of anger, ragged barking elements that echo in the chamber, pound in dull torpor against the fabric insulating the walls and ring in clean violence against the exposed stone of the lofty ceiling.
Then we get what he actually says in the next paragraph, so I don’t think this is any stronger than, “The Duke swore” or something like that. Generally when VN piles up words to make an effect I feel said effect diminishing.
There is, however, an actual and intriguing fantasy story lurking in the thickets of this verbiage: long ago, the Just King (for reasons that make sense in context) condemned the nobles of his country to live within their castles. They can never be free of them–unless one of them finds out the secret power of each of the others. (They all have secret powers.) Then the noble who finds all this out will be free–but only that one noble, it seems. One day a visitor comes to the Violet Duke, an emissary from the White Duchess. She proposes to find out his secret and the story proceeds from there.
I didn’t feel like the story resolves itself in a satisfying way, unfortunately. VN retcons her own premises too much. The nobles can never leave their castles–only it turns out they can. Person A turns out to be Person B–no she’s Person C–no she’s Person D–no she’s not a person at all, there never was a person D. The impact of fantasy depends upon being convinced, somehow, of the validity of all the impossible things the writer presents, and the shifting premises in this story made it difficult for me to suspend disbelief.