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?

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.