Continuing the march through the Hugo finalists, we come to the awkward middle-ground between short stories and novellas that no one else uses but SF people: Novelettes. Fortunately, this is a pretty decent bunch of stories (especially compared to the lackluster short story ballot), even if none of them really stands out as truly exceptional. For me, they are all flawed in one way or another, making it pretty difficult to rank them. As such, this ranking will probably shift over time.
- “Obits” by Stephen King – A modern-day journalism student who naturally has difficulty landing a real job creates a snarky obituary column for a trashy internet tabloid. One day, frustrated, he writes an obituary for a living person. This being a Stephen King story, I think you can pretty much predict what’s going to happen from there. Admittedly, this is a bit on the derivative and predictable side, but King’s got the talent to pull it off with aplomb. He ably explores the idea at it’s core, taking things further than I’d expect, even if the premise itself doesn’t quite allow him much room. King has a tendency to write himself into corners, and you could argue that here, but I think he just barely skirted past that potentiality. It’s comforting to be in the hands of a good storyteller, even if this is not his best work. Still, its flaws are not unique in this batch of novelettes, so it ends up in first place for me.
- “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander – Rhye is a former military cyborg, now streetfighter and freelance security agent, whose boyfriend and hacker Rack is in hot water with some gangsters. It seems Rack’s virtual security system is a little too good at it’s job, and when the gangsters destroy his body, Rhye most go into virtual reality to finish off the mission and maybe save Rack’s consciousness while she’s at it. Cyberpunk comfort food, I guess. It doesn’t really extend the genre at all, and its gratuitous cursing and violence feel a bit tacky. There’s a decent enough story at the core here, and it’s well executed, but it’s even more derivative and predictable than Obits, even if it remains satisfying enough in the end. Still, I could see this falling in the ranking by the time I submit my ballot.
- “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu – Beijing is separated into three spaces, and the city literally folds and unfolds, making each space active for a limited time. Lao Dao is basically a third-space trashman in need of a quick infusion of cash so that he can afford his daughter’s tuition. He takes on a mission to illegally travel to first space to deliver a love letter. Along the way, he gets a glimpse into the economic and social forces dividing the spaces. It’s an interesting prism with which to view class struggle and unlike the other stories, it’s not predictable. The problem is that it doesn’t particularly feel satisfying either. It’s a very literary exploration, and as such, the speculative elements are mostly just window-dressing. The storytelling feels a bit flabby and uneven, with multiple loosely-related threads that are explored, but not particularly resolved. Of course, they don’t need to be resolved, but this sort of approach makes it feel less speculative and more flat, which drops it down a peg on my ranking… and it could potentially fall even further, though I’m betting it will remain where it’s at.
- “Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai – Commander Hoshi Tenzen of the Japanese Space Self Defense Force is on patrol near Titan as China launches a gambit to take over the system (is it China? No, yeah, it’s definitely China.) The result is basically space battle porn, and it’s well conceived and executed. This is the only real hard SF story of the bunch, and as such, the practical matters are the compelling force here (rather than, say, characterization), from the physics to the economics. Alas, not much else to say about it than that, though it does seem to be aging well in my head.
- “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke – Vango is a fighter pilot who finds himself in some sort of virtual reality system, reunited with various comrades, even including his long dead ex-girlfriend. As time goes on, they’re given more and more advanced tasks, and their simulation gets more and more detailed. Once again, we’ve entered derivative and predictable territory here, and while the ending twist is easily guessed, it does leave you with some tricky moral questions. Not questions that are particularly well explored, mind you, but it does give this story enough of an edge for consideration. I liked this one a lot when I first read it, but it has been falling in my estimation since then…
All finalists ranked, no need to deploy No Award this time around, which seems to be my pattern with Novelettes. However, I’m having a lot of trouble ordering the list, such that almost all of the finalists could move around dramatically when I submit my final ballot…