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.

“We just like to talk about stories”

The alternate titles that I considered for this post were “The Purpose of ‘Other Worlds'” and “I just like to talk about stories.” The first was boring and the second, while true, misses the crucial point of talking about stories with other people who read and appreciate fiction. I went with “we” in the title above because I see the blog as a conversation.

I have a co-worker — let’s call her “Felice” — who’s crazy about cats and loves to tell about the latest humorous behavior and misbehavior of her felines. I gave her a copy of Fritz Leiber’s “Space-Time for Springers,” thinking she’d love it. The weekend passed… On Monday, I asked Felice how she liked the story. She said, “Oh, I read the first two pages and then I gave it to my Mom so she could read it and tell me what happened. She liked it.”

I’m afraid my mouth may have hung open for a minute. Her answer (P. G. Wodehouse, come to my aid) seemed to take me into a different and dreadful world.

So, just to be clear: “Other Worlds” is not for Felice.

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 (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 (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.