After last year’s train wreck of a Novella ballot, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this year’s finalists. But it seems my fears were misplaced, as this might be the most solid fiction category of the year. Novellas can be awkward and to be sure, a couple of these don’t entirely pull it off, but even those manage better than the other categories.
- Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold – No surprise here, as I was one of the many who nominated this in the first place. I’m a huge fan of Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga and it’s very much to her credit that I’ve followed her from my preferred SF genre to her fantasy worlds. This story takes place in her Chalion universe and tells the story of a young man who accidentally contracts a demon. This is both better and worse than you’d expect. Better, because in Chalion, demon possession can grant great powers. Worse, because with great power comes intrigue and scheming by those interested in your new powers. That’s all background though, and the story itself is well plotted and the character relationships, particularly between Penric and his demon, and extremely well done. Easily and clearly tops this list. (Also of note: the sequel to this story is out!)
- Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson – What I know of Brandon Sanderson is that he tends to write epic (i.e. 1000+ page tomes), high fantasy stories, and that he’s extremely prolific. So imagine my surprise when he’s nominated in this pint-sized story category… for a work that is primarily SFnal in nature. Oh, sure, there are lots of fantasy tropes in here too, as this is a virtual reality story and our hero is the master of all he surveys. Almost literally, since he is a “liveborn” living in a simulation tailored directly to him. There are border states and other areas he can cross into to meet (and battle with) other liveborns, but he seems content to live out his little fantasy. Until he goes on a date with another liveborn and his rival engineers a monster attack. Well drawn and executed, with some interesting ideas that stick with you after reading (in particular, I’m curious about how this universe generates and maintains echo chambers – we don’t see much outside of our hero’s perspective, but we get enough to wonder). Would have topped my list in any of the past few years, but falls just shy of Bujold’s story.
- Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds – Scurelya is in hot water. She’s been captured by a sadistic enemy and even though the war is over, her tormentor doesn’t acknowledge such things. After a harrowing escape, she passes out… and then wakes up on a prison ship that appears lost in time. This is a grim and gritty little SF tale. There are some interesting ideas floating around, in particular the predicament they find themselves in and how that happened, but Reynolds never really harnesses them together in a cohesive enough way. The concept of a slow bullet seems rather silly, honestly, especially given how easy it is to hack. Some of the relationships could be interesting, but feel perfunctory. Again, some of the ideas are decent, but they’re too obscured by Reynolds’ insistence on grim and gritty action. As a result, the story hangs together ok, but never really soars.
- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – An interesting little space opera tale that doesn’t quite land, this tells the story of Binti, an ethnic minority (Himba) traveling to a university planet. At first marginalized, she realizes that while her fellow classmates aren’t Himba, they were still her people (because of their love of learning, etc…) Then the Meduse, a Metroid-like alien race, show up and turn everything upside down. It’s the sort of story that kept me engaged while reading it, but whose flaws became immediately apparent in the end. The prose is a little ornate, but the real problems have to do with the Meduse. They’re not particularly well established and even Binti’s relationship with them feels rushed and unbelievable (especially given what the Meduse has done to her friends). Similarly, once she presents the university authorities with the Meduse’s story, their response is even more ludicrous. Finally, there’s a mysterious artifact that the story hinges on that is clumsily introduced and rather poorly explained. Again, an entertaining enough story, but one which falls apart upon reflection.
- The Builders by Daniel Polansky – As H.P. notes: “A mouse, a stoat, a possum, a salamander, a badger, a mole, and an owl walk into a bar…” A neat idea, but unfortunately, I can’t say I was as taken with this story as H.P. The captain is a mouse who was betrayed during a civil war. He’s bided his time and now seeks revenge. He puts his gang back together again and takes on his nemesis. A decent idea, but I found the execution rather lacking. In particular, the opening of the novella is awkwardly paced and clumsy. The stakes here aren’t particularly well drawn either. We like the Captain and his band of fighters mostly just because they’re the ones we know, not because they’re inherently noble or something. In the end, it all feels a little pointless, even though it is fun to hang out with a salamander gunslinger or a possum sniper and whatnot. Not a terrible story or anything, I just didn’t quite connect with it the way I did the others this year (and what’s more is that I liked this much more than any of last year’s nominees, which gives you an additional point of reference here).
All pretty good stuff, no need to deploy No Award. See also: Jonathan Edelstein’s thoughts over at Haibane.info (I mostly agree with his assessments, with only minor differences in ranking). The top two are pretty well set, but the bottom three may shift around a little before I finally submit the ballot… which is due this week? Yikes, where does the time go? I’ve finished all of the fiction categories, and will probably only vote in a handful of others…