Hugo Awards: Best Novella (2nd contender)

Next is Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “The Ice Owl” from F&SF. It has not been made available online.

Adolescent Thorn lives in a domed city that is located in the twilight region of a planet where one side perpetually faces the sun, and the other is in eternal darkness. She lives with her mother in the Waster enclave of the city — “waster” being the term for immigrants who travel vast interstellar distances. The journeys can take decades, and Thorn and her mother have made many journeys, as her irresponsible mother bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend and world to world. Thus:

What do you know about the Gmintan Holocide?” the old man said with withering dismissal.
Thorn smiled triumphantly. “I was there.”
He stopped pretending to read and looked at her with bristly disapproval. “How could you have been there?” he said. “It happened 141 years ago.”
“I’m 145 years old, sequential time,” Thorn said. “I was 37 when I was five, and 98 when I was seven, and 126 when I was twelve.” She enjoyed shocking people with this litany.

Wasters are out of synch with sequential time, and a friend of the same age who is left behind when a traveler leaves on a journey can be a generation older, or more, when the traveler reaches his or her destination. Interstellar travel leaves relationships and lives, as well as worlds, behind.

The city’s corrupt government is being challenged by an opposing movement of religious Incorruptibles, who disapprove of art and music and education as well as governmental corruption. When her school is burned by Incorruptibles, she finds a tutor, Magister Pregaldin, who makes a living as an art dealer. Thorn is engaged by his challenging instruction and dazzled by the beautiful objects that he owns.

Pregaldin shows her a living antique of a sort, a bird stored in a freezer unit, an “ice owl,” native to a planet where winters last a century or more. When the temperature rises, it comes out of hibernation to mate. It may be the last of its kind, he tells her.

This is an engrossing story as Thorn and Pregaldin develop a deepening relationship and the city teeters into revolution and chaos. Thorn senses a mystery about her tutor, and harbors suspicions that he was involved in some way with the Gmintan Holocide, because of his secrecy in some matters and also because he is a Vind, one of the races that was systematically killed by the Gmintans (essentially, Nazis under a different name). Unfortunately, the promising beginning fails.

Suddenly, Magister Pregaldin gives Thorn the precious ice owl. I had a sinking feeling when, a little past the story’s midpoint, I read:

“You’re giving me the ice owl?” Thorn said in astonishment.
“Yes. It is better for you to have it; you are more likely than I to meet someone else with another one.”

Really? I would have thought a young girl who spends more time in pointless travel between worlds than in conscious life, currently living in a politically failing city, tied to a ditzy mother, would be a rather poor bet to care for a near-extinct bird. And her opportunity for meeting another ice owl owner virtually nil. But the author states it is so, and the characters carry on as if something highly unlikely did not just happen; and the reader recognizes the owl for another guise of the redshirt. It will die so that the main character can have an emotional experience.

Gilman even makes it harder to swallow by having Pregaldin state that, if the power goes out, the frozen owl will be fine for three days. After three days, it will begin to thaw. Thorn’s mother unplugs the unit to use her curling iron, and for three days Thorn doesn’t notice… even though the machine is right under the dinner table where they eat. Oh, strix ex machina.

If I sound harsh, it is because of the promise of the story, and my disappointment in its resolution. The great dynamic heart of this story is Thorn and Pregaldin; but alas, Pregaldin simply disappears and there is no resolution of his tragic background and ongoing story. Suddenly it is all about Thorn’s emotional crisis with her mother and her eventual realization that “Maya was not a perfect mother, but neither was Thorn a perfect daughter. They were both just doing their best.” And if we don’t quite get the point yet:

“I hate this,” [Thorn] said, but without conviction. “Why do I have to be responsible for her?”
“That’s what love is all about,” Clarity said.

It is a trifling insight for a story that begins with well-drawn characters and issues, and then goes sentimentally, fatally astray.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (1st contender)

First in the novella category is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Kiss Me Twice,” a futuristic police procedural, from Asimov’s. Read it here.

Detective Scott Huang is investigating the murder of Neil Patterson, a developer, found dead on the roof of one of his buildings, his body lying near a table set for tea. Huang is assisted by the police department AI, called Metta, physically located in a chassis at headquarters, but present simultaneously with all the police officers wearing communications electronics: an earbud for hearing Metta’s communications, some unspecified means that allows an officer to “subvocalize” to Metta, and glasses that are a means of seeing a persona that Metta creates. In Huang’s case, Metta presents herself as Mae West.

A second mystery is introduced during the first scene: while Huang is investigating the murder scene, Metta gives an alarm that there are intruders in the police station, two officers have been shot, and the assailants have entered Metta’s chassis room. Then communications from Metta cease: the chassis has been disconnected and taken from headquarters, the three assailants having made a successful retreat with their prize.

The two mysteries, of course, turn out to be related: the same party is responsible for both crimes.

I have to wonder if some people are better at reading mysteries than I am. Although I enjoy them, I usually end up muddled by the final third of the story, having lost track of some of the suspects and investigatory threads. In any case, I suspect that many readers, like me, are successfully carried along by other aspects of the story — suspense, of course, but also interesting characters and their personal problems.

In “Kiss Me Twice” what’s going on outside the crime investigation storyline is a conflict, in society at large and on a smaller scale within the police department, about whether AIs are “living.” This problem is a popular SF notion, but it can be a challenge to breathe life into. Take, for example, the android Data on Star Trek: Next Generation. A number of fine episodes were devoted to asking and answering questions about Data’s rights and humanity. And the episodes succeeded in being convincing in large part, I think, because Data was an android being dramatically portrayed by a human being. Of course he garnered our sympathy. On the page, it’s a lot tougher. Kowal tries to elicit the reader’s sympathy by having Huang feel resentment on Metta’s behalf if she is referred to as a machine, or insist that the AI was “kidnapped” rather than “stolen.” The effect is more to make Huang a niggler than to make Metta alive. Kowal misses her best opportunity when, at Huang’s house, Metta has a girl-to-girl conversation with his Chinese-speaking mother:

She gestured at his bathrobe. “Have guest in house. Show respect.” She looked back at Metta and smiled, “Besides, we still have much to talk about.”

Huang chuckled and headed for the bathroom. He paused in the doorway and looked back at his mother. She was having an animated conversation in Mandarin with Metta.

What are they talking about? I cannot imagine. But I would have liked to have known, because that conversation would have gone much farther in making Metta seem like a real being than any number of Mae West guises and looks of fear on her computer-generated faces.

I will mention one other weakness — an awful writerly tic of having characters chew their lips to show thought or indecision. How many times in one story? Once is enough, two should be the limit, but I lost count… I think it happens at least six times, maybe more.

There are some good things here, and the unveiling of the murderer is simply wonderful: he appears in a form you would never imagine, both funny and menacing. I wasn’t converted to the AI IS LIFE camp, but I did get a kick out of the mystery’s solution, and a satisfying conclusion is worth the price of entry.

My choice for Best Novelette

Five choices: and, this time, it’s hard to choose. “The Copenhagen Interpretation,” “Fields of Gold,” “Six Months, Three Days,” “What We Found,” or “Ray of Light”?

One possible test is: Is there any chance I’ll want to re-read any of these stories? (I have actually read each story twice already, because I think it’s the second reading that really tells you what a story is made of.) And that narrows it to three. And maybe, whatever its merits and terrific entertainment value, a science-fictionalization of James Bond isn’t quite prize material. That leaves “What We Found” (which won the Nebula earlier this year) vs. “Ray of Light.”

And now, I’m just going by how each story speaks to me personally, and I’m going to choose “Ray of Light” by Brad Torgersen. This is not a prediction of the winner, by the way. Just my choice, the one I’m rooting for.

We’ll find out the real winner in three weeks.

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?