Hugo Awards: Best Novelette (5th contender)

Last of the novelettes up for a Hugo is Brad Torgersen’s “Ray of Light,” from Analog. Only a partial extract is free online, but you can buy it for a song (or almost) on Barnes and Noble here, or on Amazon here.

On the ocean floor, a few thousand people, perhaps the last remnants of humanity, live in Deepwater stations situated near thermal vents. Torgersen imagines a frightening catastrophe: an alien ship arrives and stations itself near Earth. No space battle ensues: it ignores attempts to communicate and soon leaves. But the light from the sun begins to dim, and it is discovered that the aliens have placed an enormous cloud of mirror-like objects in orbit around the sun, just inside Earth’s orbit. The objects are absorbing or blocking the sun’s light, and eventually the cloud grows so large that Earth is in complete darkness. Without light, the temperature plummets and Earth begins to freeze over.

At the opening of the story, how it happened is history; the people living in the hastily constructed ocean-floor stations have been there now for over 20 years. And their children, who have never seen the sun, are getting secretive and rebellious.

[In all the previous stories I’ve discussed, I’ve gone on the assumption that everyone has read the story before coming here. I hope that’s the case now, and if you haven’t read it, you definitely should not continue. Suspense is important to the experience of “Ray of Light” and it would be a pity to go into the story already knowing the end.]

Max Leighton, who before the catastrophe was an astronaut, now lives in one of the undersea bases. His only family member is his 15-year-old daughter, Jenna; his wife committed suicide about a decade earlier, depressed and unable to cope with the sunless life. Now Leighton discovers that his daughter, and a number of other teens, have disappeared from the base, taking some of the small submarines that are used to travel between the Deepwater bases. He has to figure out why and where they’ve gone, and the progress from the black depths of the sea to the ocean surface, bathed in the brilliant light of the sun, is convincing and emotional. The cloud has passed beyond Earth’s orbit; the sun is shining again and the ice is melting.

This is a classic what-if SF scenario, and a great experience.

Hugo Awards: Best Novelette (4th contender)

We come to Geoff Ryman’s “What We Found” from F&SF (Sept-Oct 2011). It has not been posted online.

The story is set in Nigeria, in something like present day. Patrick is the narrator, and he is sleepless at 3:30 AM on the day he is to be married. He is dreading marriage. He is writing a description of his youth and his growth to maturity, and the story takes two paths. First, he tells how his father and brother were insane and died miserable deaths. Second, he now works at a university and he tells us about his research on the suppression of a neurotropin that controls memory and emotional balance. Low levels of the neurotropin are believed to be caused by stress rather than genes. But he has found that the stress-related chemical that produces the effect can be passed on in sperm cells. The implication for him is that the madness that struck his father and brother will reappear in his future son. That is the reason he fears marriage.

But there is more to Patrick’s research. In replicating his studies, the effect has grown less, until Patrick can no longer replicate the effect at all. He has discovered other scientists who have encountered the same, inexplicable pattern: “It was as if the scientific truths wore out, as if the act of observing them reduced their effect.” It echoes a remark of Patrick’s grandmother: “The old ways did work…They wore out.”

A mathematician at the university has formulated equations to explain what is happening.

Simply put, science found the truth and by finding it, changed it. Science undid itself, in an endless cycle.
Someday the theory of evolution will be untrue and the law of the conservation of energy will no longer work…
Thomas has calculated how long it will take for observation to wear out even his observation. Then, he says, the universe will once again be stable. History melts down and is restored.

And so, we learn, Patrick is trying to make the phenomenon work for him instead of against him. If observing and examining makes an effect “wear out,” if the mere act of repeated observation changes the real world, then he will observe and examine the progress of his father’s and brother’s madness by writing down how it happened, what it was like. He concludes:

I think of my future son. His Christian name will be Raphael, but his personal name will be Ese, which means Wiped Out. It means that God will wipe out the past with all its expectations. If witchcraft once worked and science is wearing out, then it seems to me that God loves our freedom more than stable truth. If I have a son who is free from the past, then I know God loves me too.

Like “Six Months, Three Days,” this story centers on an idea; unlike it, the strange scientific proposition is bound up with a human problem and human characters. This is a sophisticated story that rewards the reader’s participation and thought.

Hugo Awards: Best Novelette (3rd contender)

Next is Charlie Jane Anders’s “Six Months, Three Days,” from Tor.com. It’s here.

The title refers to the length of time from when two clairvoyants meet and fall in love (they have, of course, foreseen this) until they break up (yep, foreseen this, too). Doug can see the future; Judy sees many possible futures. Judy is constantly making choices. Doug is constantly waiting for what he knows will come next. For Doug, everything is preordained and nothing can be changed. For Judy, the possible futures to choose between are endless.

They both see their love affair ending badly: they will argue, Doug will break his leg in a fall down a riverbank, they will part ways.

Judy thinks Doug has tricked himself into believing he has no choices because he simply doesn’t look for alternate timelines. He thinks she has deluded herself into believing there are choices, and what she really sees is one true future and lots of false ones.

And, repeat. That’s pretty much what the story is about: each phase of their affair is interpreted through these two beliefs. My experience of reading the story was of alternating interest and annoyance, as in watching a time-travel story where the characters fret overmuch over paradoxes and I just want to tell them to get on with the story. The ending is nice–warning, I’m talking spoilers here–Doug doesn’t break his leg, he breaks his arm, proving that the future he sees is not foreordained. But he still believes it is, because as he remembers it, he always foresaw himself breaking his arm. Only Judy can see that the event they foresaw six months earlier has changed. Or perhaps…(you know enough to fill in the blank).

It’s about the idea, not the characters (as their generic names suggest).

Hugo Awards: Best Novelette (2nd contender)

Next in the novelette category is “Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky, published in Eclipse Four (Night Shade Books). Read it here.

Imagining an afterlife as a story device has a long — very long — history. What do the dead do, what should they do, what can they do? Simply exist as sad shades? Endure punishment for wickedness, receive reward for the good they performed? Lament their squandered lives? In treating the subject of death and afterlife, an author almost perforce reveals a part of his or her view of human purpose and responsibility.

Swirsky depicts a tacky afterlife where the newly deceased are welcomed with a party, complete with confetti, party hats, noisemakers, and free-flowing booze. In this case, the deceased is a 34-year-old man named Dennis, who has just died in a diabetic coma. So, now what? Uncle Ed explains: “Hop from party to party… Get together with a girl and play house until the continents collide. Whatever you want.”

But wait, there is an important problem being set up in this story: Dennis was murdered, sort of, by his wife, who didn’t stop him when she saw him messing up his insulin and taking a sleeping pill. She even helped him open the pill bottle when he was too drunk to get it open himself, and watches him take the pill, knowing he is likely to die.

Which he does. She dies, too, soon after. She arrives at the same afterlife. She gets her party. There is a little tut-tutting concerning her misdeed, but whatever. The point appears to be achieving self-knowledge. She is sorry for what she did, and realizes that she doesn’t want to be with Dennis anymore.

Dennis receives a rebuke from Uncle Ed about how he conducted his life: “Not only wouldn’t you stir yourself to make a starving man a sandwich, but you’d have waited for him to bring you one before you stirred yourself to eat.” Upon hearing this, Dennis suddenly achieves a self-understanding: “I just wanted someone to take care of me… I guess I wanted to stay a kid.” And what he does with this self-understanding is — he regresses to eleven years old and goes off to play with his favorite cousin in a fadeout of two children running through fields of grass with their hair blowing behind them.

Enough people found this story satisfying to get it on the Hugo ballot, but it leaves me unmoved. Whether it’s read as drama or comedy (and I think it attempts to be partly both), the story tries to sell readers on the idea that running off to play is the happy culmination, or even salvation, of a human life that couldn’t be bothered to help others or even himself. How many people are buying that?

Hugo Awards: Best Novelette (1st contender)

Turning to the Novelette category, we come to Paul Cornell’s “The Copenhagen Interpretation,” published in Asimov’s. Read it here.

How do you do, Mr. Bond–er, Mr. Hamilton, isn’t it? There is a cold war on, and secret agents work covertly on behalf of their respective countries, with the aim of maintaining the balance between the great powers. Only the balance of power saves the entire world, and solar system, from a final cataclysmic war. A mysterious woman has come to the British Embassy in Copenhagen, agitated, speaking a language that the staff cannot understand. Hamilton is sent to make contact with her quickly and act immediately, for she is believed to be Lustre Saint Clair, who carries a dangerous secret, information that, in the wrong hands, could bring about the collapse of the balance. And she is a woman from Hamilton’s past–fifteen years past, when they had had an affair and Hamilton had learned that she was fatally indiscreet:

Lustre was a secretary for Lord Surtees, but she had told Hamilton, during that night of greater intimacy, that this was basically a lie, that she was also a courier, that in her head was the seed for a diplomatic language, that sometimes she would be asked to speak the words that made it grow into her, and then she would know no other language, and be foreign to all countries apart from the dozen people in court and government with whom she could converse. In the event of capture, she would say other words, or her package would force them on her, and she would be left with a language, in thought and memory as well as in speech, spoken by no other, which any other would be unable to learn, and she would be like that unto death, which, cut off from the sum of mankind that made the balance as she would be, would presumably and hopefully soon follow.

This is an alternate Earth, with strange technology that has strange names: folds, observers, notes (implanted eye devices), embroidery (telecommunications network) and seeds, among others. As in a Bond flick, there is a lot of action, a fiery explosion, and a grandiose villain (actually a pair of them) with designs on the world. Also typical of my experience with a Bond film, I had trouble figuring out exactly what was going on, what with all false information and hidden identities and what-was-that technological marvels. Like James Bond, Hamilton has superb self-control, dedication to the cause, and a touch of panache. (He even gets in a classic Bond wisecrack at the death of a foe.)

The author occasionally has some clunker sentences (see the tangle of the last one in the quote above) and is way too fond of punctuating with “!?” But who cares? Good action and suspense, and a fun read. I’ll be looking for the other stories in this series.

Hugo Awards: My Pick for Best Short Story

Today is the last day to vote on the Hugos, if you need a last-minute reminder (I expect everyone who’s going to vote already has).

I’ve decided which of the five stories I hope will win. It’s “Movement” by Nancy Fulda, for its beautifully unified character, voice, and story. The protagonist is convincing, and the author’s hand is sure but not too heavy (as I felt marred “The Paper Menagerie”). The reader shares a fascinating awareness while the protagonist faces and thinks through a problem that will have a crucial effect on her abilities and her future. Good luck to Nancy Fulda! I will not be attending WorldCon, but will be watching the awards with suspense.

The runner-up, for me, was E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” for its satiric take on human society and government. Poorly executed satire can annoy or bore; her story sparkles. It’s the difference between a bludgeon and a rapier. So I will not be unhappy if this one wins.

Tomorrow, discussing Best Novelette. All the nominees can be found here.

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story Contenders (5)

Fifth and last, E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” from Clarkesworld Magazine. Read it here.

A race of wasps common around the village of Yiwei is discovered to construct nests that unfold into beautiful colored maps of the surrounding country. Once this discovery is made, the nests are taken by the villagers to sell, nearly exterminating the wasp population, but one remaining population flees far enough away to elude the plunderers, and settles to rebuild their society. In adopting their new home, however, they have invaded the territory of a bee community (whose society is termed a “constitutional monarchy”). The wasps are ruthless to the bee ambassadors who arrive with less-than-deferential embassies to their ruling foundress. The choice they present to the bees is “enslavement or cooperation”–specifically, one-tenth of their honey production and one out of 100 of the larvae, who will live among the wasps and serve them. The bees capitulate without a struggle:

“War is out of the question,” another said.

“Their forces are vastly superior.”

“We outnumber them three hundred to one!”

“They are experienced fighters. Sixty of us would die for each of theirs.”

This talking-yourself-into-defeat counsel of the bees simply delights me, it is so wonderfully barbed. (Evidently, the bees lack a Winston Churchill.)

So the bees begin a new, joyless life of “cooperation.” But, in like wise as the wasps descended on the bees in an unforeseen catastrophe, so is a catastrophe in store for the wasps: a girl from Yiwei, ever since hearing about the cartographer wasps, has been dreaming of making her fortune and achieving fame. She finds the remaining nest in the winter, when the wasps are harmless from the cold, and takes it back to Yiwei, planning to breed more wasp colonies and profit from them. For the wasps, then, slavery to (or “cooperation” with) humans.

It’s a playful and satiric story, and I enjoyed it greatly. Another good contender for the Best Story Hugo.

By the way, I do not grasp the significance of the last line of the story.

“Write,” one said to the other, and she did.

Can anyone help me out? It’s always disappointing to reach the end and think “?” Writing is a skill the bees learned from the wasps, but I don’t think that’s the point here.

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story Contenders (4)

Fourth on the ballot for Best Short Story: “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu. You can read it here.

Jack is the son of an American father and a Chinese mother, who was a mail-order bride. The marriage is a successful one, but at age 10 Jack becomes aware of the ethnic differences between himself and his American classmates.

When the family moves, two neighbors come to visit the new arrivals, and Jack overhears them talking about him:

“Slanty eyes, white face. A little monster.”

He begins to resent his mother’s lack of assimilation, refuses to speak to her in Chinese, and asks for “real toys” instead of the origami that his mother makes (animal figures which are more marvelous than the Star Wars toys that he desires, because his mother animates them with life).

The situation and the characters are compelling. But… it may be hard for a reader to believe the extreme coldness that Jack displays toward his mother, unrelenting until he reaches adulthood, a coldness that verges on cruelty when she appeals to him in vain and he rejects the new origami animals that she makes, her overtures to regain his love. Even ten-year-olds are not that easily ruled by peer pressure, or so steadfast in rejecting a loving parent. Nor is it easily credited that neighbors, no matter how prejudiced against a Chinese mother married to an American, would describe the child as a monster. I, at least, began to feel unfairly manipulated.

And this is a pity, because it is a lovely story that doesn’t need the excess. I think it has a chance of winning the Best Short Story award. Comments?

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story Contenders (3)

The third story for consideration is Nancy Fulda’s “Movement,” published in Asimov’s. Read it here. As with the previous discussion, I will not be avoiding spoilers.

This is an impressive story. Hannah, a teenage girl with “temporal autism,” is the narrator. Hannah is highly intelligent and is a talented dancer, but she speaks rarely and is disinclined to make human connection with others. Her parents are considering a new treatment, synaptic grafting, as a cure for her condition.

An interaction with her mother illustrates her condition:

“Would you like that, Hannah? Would you like to be more like other teenagers?”

Neither yes nor no seems appropriate, so I do not say anything. Words are such fleeting, indefinite things. They slip through the spaces between my thoughts and are lost.

She keeps looking at me and I consider giving her an answer I’ve been saving. Two weeks ago she asked me whether I would like a new pair of dancing shoes and if so, what color. I have collected the proper words in my mind, smooth and firm like pebbles, but I decide it is not worth speaking them. Usually by the time I answer a question, people have forgotten that they asked it.

The story title, “Movement,” refers to Hannah’s love of things that do not change quickly, such as glass and stone. Things that are always changing, such as clouds and conversation, make her uneasy. She is keenly aware of the flow of time, and sees herself as living on a different time scale. At the end of the story, she decides she doesn’t want the treatment, but she communicates this by telling her mother that she does not want new shoes–a message her mother will not understand.

Hannah’s perspective is a fascinating one, the story well crafted and unusual. It should be a strong contender for best story.

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story Contenders (2)

Next on the ballot for best short story is Mike Resnick’s “The Homecoming” from Asimov’s. You can find it here. If spoilers bother you, read the story before continuing with this post.

OK. Young man is transformed into insectoid alien creature. Not magically or inexplicably (see Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis“), but through some transformative process that, presumably, is not surgery, because he has metallic silver skin, multifaceted red eyes, stick-like limbs, and a tube-shaped mouth. Philip, we learn, is an exobiologist who undertook the transformation in order to study an alien world. As in “The Metamorphosis,” the family (or at least the father, who provides the story’s viewpoint) reacts with horror and repugnance. Then, estrangement, which has lasted for many  years.

The story follows what happens when Philip returns home to visit his mother, who is suffering from dementia. After some bickering, an admonishment from the mother, and a brief description of the alien wonders Philip has seen, father and son are reconciled.

An interesting situation, but, emotionally, I couldn’t follow where this story tried to lead me, into a sympathy with and better understanding of the son. In fact, I started and ended with the same feeling of horror toward a person altering his body into an alien form, and my final thought at the end of the story was directed at the father–Ah, don’t make everything OK just because the story is telling you to! Perhaps the reconciliation was a shade too easy.

Evidently I am not the best person to send on a space exploration, not being up to the sacrifices required. I’ll continue to mull this one over while I turn to story #3 tomorrow.