Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The 2006 Hugo Award: The Novella Shortlist

There are two good reasons to start a review of this year's Hugo-nominated short fiction with the novella category. The first is that, as I mentioned in the previous entry, it's the only category that is available online in its entirety (taps foot impatiently). The second is that I've already read and reviewed two of the five nominated pieces. I wrote about Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners" and Robert J. Sawyer's "Identity Theft" when I reviewed the Nebula-nominated novellas, but to recap briefly: Link's story is brilliant, confusing, and gorgeous; Sawyer's is an underwritten mess. The remaining novellas on the Hugo ballot certainly make it a stronger and more impressive shortlist than the Nebula list, although by no means a perfect one.

I resigned myself long ago to being baffled by Connie Willis' appeal. At her best, I think Willis writes cute, enjoyable and eminently readable fluff (To Say Nothing of the Dog, last year's Nebula-nominated novella "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know"). At her worst, she mixes her pleasant but usually overdone and repetitive humor with ill-advised attempts at serious drama, and the result is a grotesque Frankenstein's monster, neither comedy nor tragedy, and usually about six times as long as it needs to be (Doomsday Book, one of the worst books I read last year, or Passage, one of the worst books I've read, ever). But fandom seems to love her, and she's been showered with so many of its major awards that clearly it and I are so severely in disagreement that any attempt at a resolution would be pointless. I had decided, therefore, to say nothing more about Willis' Hugo-nominated novella, "Inside Job", than that it was a Connie Willis story, and if you liked that sort of thing then you would probably enjoy it and if, like me, you didn't, you would scratch your head in bewilderment at the notion that this cheerful but forgettable piece might have a serious chance of winning a Hugo. The only problem is that "Inside Job" isn't cheerful. Nor is it tragic. It is neither the decent kind of Willis nor the atrocious kind. It is simply dull.

Willis' plot--about a debunker of charlatan mystics in Beverly Hills and his former-movie-star sidekick who may have encountered a person channeling the spirit of H.L. Mencken--is paint-by-numbers predictable, right down to the burgeoning romance between the main characters (for about three milliseconds, it seems as if Willis is going to do something bold and not have the male and female leads get together by the end of the story--that the female lead may, in fact, not be on the up-and-up. For a moment there I was actually impressed, and then I remembered that this was Connie Willis, who, to quote Debra Doyle, "has to bring in the Blitz and the Black Death just to keep the girl cooties from crawling out of the gutter margins of her novels and taking over the whole enterprise". Sure enough, the girl proved trustworthy after all, and the story ended with her and the guy in each other's arms). "Inside Job"'s plot is light-hearted, but Willis' humor is nowhere in sight. It's a completely leaden story with not a single joke or chuckle. Take away tragedy and comedy from Connie Willis' writing, and what's left is infodumps--everything you never wanted to know about the life of H.L. Mencken. To be perfectly honest, I barely even knew who Mencken was before reading "Inside Job", but Willis failed to make me care about him, and I can only imagine that readers who are familiar with him will still be put off, and quite likely bored, by the barrage of trivial details about him that make up the bulk of the story. I'm not going to bother wondering why this pointless story is on a major award shortlist--if I did, I would shortly start ranting about Doomsday Book's double whammy--but I find it hard to believe that even Willis' fans will find much to get excited about in "Inside Job".

James Patrick Kelly's "Burn" (scroll down the list of authors for a choice of formats) is strongly reminiscent of Kelly's Nebula-nominated novelette, "Men Are Trouble". Like that earlier story, "Burn" is well-written and compellingly characterized, a fascinating and comprehensive portrait of a complex future society. And, much as he did in "Men Are Trouble", it seems that Kelly is far more interested in describing this future society than in telling a story. "Burn" is a long piece, just barely squeaking in under the wire for novella length, and most of that space is taken up with the culture, customs and history of Walden, the last traditional human enclave in a post-human future. Terrified by the changes that humanity was undergoing (one of Kelly's most interesting choices in "Burn" is to give us very little insight into the shape of human life outside Walden, but there are glimpses of FTL travel and communication, digitally downloaded humans, and sophisticated AIs), Walden's founder established it as a place for humanity to return to a simpler way of life (Henry David Thoreau's life and philosophy are an obvious influence on both Kelly and his characters, and the novella's chapters are prefaced by quotes from Walden and Thoreau's journals and other writings). Simplicity, however, is complicated by opposition from the remnants of Walden's original settlers, who attempt to curb the process of terraforming the planet into a forested pseudo-New England by setting devastating fires.

Our protagonist is Spur, an injured firefighter who, while bored and recuperating in a technologically advanced facility, makes contact with the outside world--specifically, with a potentially psychic boy-king, The High Gregory, who promptly travels to Walden hoping to mediate the dispute between the two warring sides. The kid is a delightful character, and, especially when they first meet, his interactions with Spur are quite funny. As the story winds on, however, the focus shifts away from this meeting between the rustic and the hyper-advanced and back towards Walden-ian society and customs, not to mention Spur's own issues--residual trauma from his injury, a fraught but loving relationship with his loner father, his crumbling marriage. Kelly raises many questions about the value of simplicity as a way of life, about the choice to walk away from technology, and about the rightness of the Walden-ians' war against the original settlers, but they are mostly abandoned by the story's end--having comprehensively introduced us to Walden's present, Kelly seems to feel no need to speculate about its future. "Burn" is written in elegant and assured prose, and Kelly seems to have the rare gift of making his frequent infodumps interesting, and of interspersing them with his narrative without slowing its pace (which is, admittedly, not such an impressive accomplishment when we consider that "Burn"'s plot moves at a rather stately pace). In a way, I suppose "Burn" is classic SF--the examination of how humans will live in the future, of how technology will affect our lives and how we might react to technology. Without an actual plot to energize it, however, I find myself admiring the story but not loving it--it's a lovely still photo where I had expected a film.

I saved Ian McDonald's "The Little Goddess" for last when I read the nominated novellas. It seemed impossible that the story could fail me--McDonald is the author of River of Gods, one of the finest books I read last year, "The Little Goddess" is set in the River of Gods universe, and it revolves around the fascinating Nepalese custom of anointing girl-goddesses. I wasn't disappointed. "The Little Goddess" is a stunning piece, written in prose that is both poetic and energetic. Whether he's describing the dark, blood-stained palace where our heroine spends seven years of her life as a goddess, or funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges, or the thought processes of a human merged with those of several AIs, McDonald transports us effortlessly into another world. As he did in River of Gods, McDonald extrapolates a future India in which tradition and technology come together in strange and unexpected ways--a place where some women are sold into marriage and others have chips installed in their brains that will allow them to carry illegal AIs across the border. McDonald's nameless narrator is clinically insane--possibly schizophrenic--but through McDonald's skilled use of the first person voice, her thoughts and emotional reactions are perfectly understandable. For all her many misfortunes, this young woman never pities herself, or indeed seems to feel much of anything, but we pity her and feel for her. "The Little Goddess" has many points of intersection with River of Gods, and many familiar organization and concepts from that book make an appearance in the novella.

Which is my only real problem with the story. "The Little Goddess" is, essentially, a miniature River of Gods. Apart from the first part of the story, a not-particularly SFnal description of the selection process and life of a Nepalese Kumari Devi, there is nothing in "The Little Goddess" that wasn't present in McDonald's novel, and in fact the novella seems to be made up of River of Gods' leftover scraps of material. Even the main character is basically an amalgam of several of the River of Gods characters. Which, given that River of Gods is a superb book, is obviously a strange thing to complain about, but as much as I enjoyed reading "The Little Goddess", I'm not sure what the point of writing it was if McDonald wasn't going to try to do anything new with it. As an introduction to McDonald's fiction and to the River of Gods universe, "The Little Goddess" is a superb appetizer, but there's very little in it to satisfy readers who have already had the seven-course meal.

I'm very curious to see who walks away with this year's novella Hugo. Will it be Willis, the perennial fan favorite? Will it be Kelly, rewarded for writing traditional, futuristic, space-set SF? Will the fact that River of Gods lost last year's best novel race give McDonald an edge? Personally, I'm sticking with Kelly Link as my choice for the winner (although I wouldn't be disappointed if "The Little Goddess" won). Link's story is still in a league of its own--a better written, more intelligent, more imaginative piece than any other on the shortlist, or for that matter any other I've read this year, and great fun to boot. Both McDonald's and Kelly's stories, however, are literary, well-written, and less confusing than "Magic for Beginners", and I suspect that the Hugo voters will prefer to reward a story that doesn't stray too far out of their comfort zone.

1 comment:

David D. Levine said...

All five of the short story nominees are now available online, though the L.A.con page doesn't yet link to the two Asimov's stories (they were just posted yesterday).

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