Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The 2006 Nebula Award: The Novella Shortlist

By all rights, reading and reviewing this year's Nebula-nominated novellas should have been a cakewalk. There are only four nominees, after all, the longest of which, James Patrick Kelly's "Burn", I read and reviewed last year. Nevertheless, I found myself hesitant to start, and not just because one of the remaining three stories was by Michael A. Burstein, he of 'but you can't extend the release date of individual census forms from 73 to 75 years! Think of the consequences!' fame. I like novellas. Done right, they combine the best qualities of the novel and the short story, but what I expected to find on this year's shortlist were stories that had simply been allowed to go on too long, and whose excessive length would exacerbate the flaws--sentimentality, flat characterization, indifferent prose, paper-thin plots--that had blighted the novelette and short story shortlists. It's probably going too far to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this year's novella ballot, but it certainly didn't sink to unrecoverable depths. I rate it a comfortable Not Bad--by which I mean that although I can't find it in myself to root for any of these stories, there are at least one or two nominees whose victory would not offend me as a thinking human being. Aren't low standards a wonderful thing?

I've already written most of what I want to say about James Patrick Kelly's impressive but ultimately unengaging "Burn" (PDF) in last year's Hugo novella roundup: "Kelly is far more interested in describing [his] future society than in telling a story ... having comprehensively introduced us to [its] present, [he] seems to feel no need to speculate about its future." Looking back a year later, Kelly's worldbuilding, and the parallels he draws to Thoreau's Walden, seem even more accomplished than they did when I first read the story, but the characters have receded into nothingness, reinforcing my original assessment of the piece--"a lovely still photo where I had expected a film."

'Not Bad', of course, means different things for different authors. For Michael A. Burstein it means a piece whose publication in a professional market--well, in Analog, at any rate--does not boggle the mind, a standard which Burstein's novella, "Sanctuary", (Analog has only made a an extract available online. Thanks to Chance for providing me with the full story) just barely manages to uphold. So, yes, the prose is indifferent, the characters are paper-thin, the dialogue is stilted, the narrative consists mostly of talking heads having tedious conversations (at one point, a rabbi--"harass, shmarras"--gives a priest a historical overview of the concept of sanctuary; at another, a bureaucrat reads from an official policy statement, pausing after every paragraph of legalese and doublespeak to ask whether her listeners want to hear more, which of course they do) and the central dilemma plaguing the characters is solved off-page, by characters we never meet. By any criteria, "Sanctuary" is a bad story. It does, however, have an interesting SFnal dilemma at its core--on a space station in the 24th century, an alien fleeing religious persecution asks a Catholic priest to grant her sanctuary--which serves to elevate the story, ever so slightly, above the kind of stuff Burstein usually produces. Which is not to say that the handling of this interesting issue is not fumbled. Burstein seems far more interested in the bureaucratic minutiae surrounding the concept of sanctuary than in the potential pitfalls of allowing the mundane and the ecclesiastical to intermingle in a mixed-species environment, and the closest his story comes to offering an opinion on religious activism is the bizarre--or, at the very least, criminally under-supported--assertion that Galileo was wrong to challenge the Church over geocentrism because, had he succeeded, he would have undermined the source of knowledge and learning in Europe and prolonged the dark ages. I'm also made uncomfortable by Burstein's choice to juxtapose a humanistic, tolerant Catholic church ("some in our culture who were opposed to abortion resorted to murder. Some of those, I regret to say, were Catholics") against an alien species who believe in forced conversion, deny women sovereignty over their own bodies, and cling to outdated customs and taboos long after they've outlived their usefulness. By projecting our greatest flaws on an invented Other, Burstein allows his readers an easy out--they can embrace his falsely conciliating fantasy that Things Are Better Now and shake their heads over the foolishness of these Others without ever acknowledging that, in the here and now, it is we who are being foolish.

As it turns out, however, neither its stylistic nor ideological shortcomings make for as persuasive an argument against "Sanctuary"'s presence on the novella ballot as the fact that the story is not, in fact, a novella. The SFWA's Nebula FAQ defines a novella as a story measuring between 17,500 and 39,999 words in length. "Sanctuary," title and author's name included, clocks in at a svelte 16,003 words. It's possible, I suppose, that the FAQ is out of date, but in that case it is Peter S. Beagle's "Two Hearts", nominated for the novelette award and some thousand words longer than Burstein's story, that has been miscategorized (and, to forestall the obvious question: because I am a nerd and I like to know these things). I have no idea what the rules are in situations like this--I'm quite frankly baffled as to how this mix-up could have occurred in the first place--but it's quite amusing to discover an objective, mathematically measurable criteria by which I can argue that a nominated story should be tossed off the ballot.

In Paul Melko's "The Walls of the Universe", Iowa farmboy and aspiring physicist John Rayburn meets an alternate universe version of himself in the pumpkin patch. The other John--John Prime, as he styles himself--has achieved trans-dimensional travel through the use of a device given to him, he claims, by yet another John, and has been traveling for months, observing the many permutations of his young life. John Prime none-too-subtly insinuates himself into John's life, with an eye towards taking it over and using information gathered in other universes to make a quick million or two. He convinces John to use the device without telling him that travel is possible in only one 'direction'--having left a universe, one can never return to it. Despite some decidedly awkward turns of phrase, "The Walls of the Universe" is an enjoyable piece, but like Jack McDevitt's "Henry James, This One's For You" from the short story ballot, it stops just as the good part is about to start. We know almost from the first moment--because he tells us--that John Prime is sizing John's life up for a potential grab, and it's not very difficult to guess why he would find it necessary to steal the existence of another version of himself. A significant portion of "The Walls of the Universe", therefore, is taken up with watching the characters arrive, ever so slowly, at conclusions we had come to many pages ago. As the story ends, John is only beginning the slow, arduous process of figuring out trans-dimensional travel for himself, with the goal of taking revenge on John Prime, which to my mind is by far the more interesting story.

Melko also fumbles--or at the very least fails to properly explore--the characterization of his two protagonists. John Prime repeatedly tells us that he was once as naive and kind-hearted as John, whose upbringing bears a great resemblance to his own, but that, having been tricked out of his own life and forced to fend for himself he finally resorted to the same sort of trickery played on him. John comes close to making the same decision--which would have turned "The Walls of the Universe" into an intriguingly circular story, in which different versions of the same person are fated to perpetually repeat the same crime--but at the last moment turns back, and the narrative is entirely silent on the question of why two virtually identical people, under virtually the same circumstances, should make such different choices. It seems that we're expected to accept that our John is the good guy, and the other John is the bad guy, simply because Melko has given one the white hat and the other the black one. Which to my mind is, once again, turning away from what's truly interesting about the story's premise.

Like Kelly's "Burn", William Shunn's "Inclination" describes a hyper-technological far future through the eyes of an outsider and a luddite. On Netherview space station, the Wheelies--a neo-Christian cult who reject, among other things, genetic and surgical modifications that would allow them to work safely in vacuum or directly access the station's computers--live in their own isolated segment, disdaining the 'Sculpted', who have allowed themselves to be corrupted and made, as the Wheelies see it, less than human. Nevertheless, the guild has debts to pay, and fifteen year old Jude is sent to work as a stevedore in the city of sin. I don't think it's necessary for me to note that Jude has been harboring some decidedly un-religious thoughts towards a boy in his class for you to guess just how this encounter turns out, but Shinn manages to paint his familiar tale with a veneer of freshness. Jude is a lovable, endearing character, and his confusion, the mixture of longing and loathing he feels when exposed to the wider world around him is almost instantly disarming. We want good things for this kid, and we desperately fear that the world is too complicated and too busy to let him have them. Unfortunately, the world Shunn describes is not our world. Against the restrictive, hypocritical, abusive Wheelies Shunn juxtaposes a utopia, a "pseudo-socialist post-scarcity paradise," as an AI information program puts it. Living in Israel, I've had far too much experience with religious fanatics who bind their children to a century-old way of life, denying them the freedom that is their birthright by hiding from them the fact that they possess it, to resent Shunn's crass representation of their fictional counterparts, but by making the world outside the Wheelie compound so perfect, Shunn devalues Jude's dilemma, and divests his story of any real-world significance. The people Jude meets outside the Wheelie enclave are, without exception, kind and welcoming, and there's every indication that once he chooses to leave his old world behind--in real life, a wrenching decision with often terrible consequences--he will be embraced into a life a great deal easier and more comfortable than the one he lived before. At the end of "Inclination", a recording of Jude's mother tells him that he has chosen "enlightenment over ignorance," but can a life of freedom without consequences really be called enlightened? As I said, Jude is an endearing character, and for his sake it's hard to wish for a more believable ending. For my sake as a reader, however, I wish Shunn had erred on the side of rigor rather than sentiment.

As I said at the beginning of this post, there is no story on the shortlist that desperately deserves to win. In a perfect universe, there would exist a happy medium between "Burn" and "Inclination", combining Shunn's compelling plot and characters with Kelly's more subtle moral outlook--his luddite society has a great deal to recommend it, and the choice to embrace or reject its tenets is presented as unique to each individual, some people being more suited to life outside this futuristic Walden and others preferring the simple life. In the real world, either one might be able to hold up the award with pride, although I suspect Kelly will be the winner.

Looking back on this piece, I'm struck by the fact that I took all four authors to task not for writing a bad story, but for failing to write a remarkable one--for choosing not to more rigorously explore their SFnal premises, for staying in the shallow end of the pool rather than asking interesting questions. Which, once again, leads me to wonder whether I'm not demanding too much from the field in general and the Hugo and Nebula shortlists in particular. I have to believe that I'm not, or at the very least I have to believe that someone should be making this demand. Otherwise, the very best we'll ever be able to hope for is Not Bad.

OK, bring on the Hugos.

2 comments:

Gary Couzens said...

Enjoyed your Nebula overviews, though can't comment as I haven't read most of the stories yet myself.

For the record, "Two Hearts" is 16,488 words (text only without title/byline, downloaded from F&SF site, wordcount via MS Word). So it's correctly categorised as a novelette, even if Burstein's "novella" is not.

Rich Horton said...

Abigail, I want to say first how much I love reading your reviews -- even though, or perhaps especially because, I sometimes strongly disagree. (To be sure, I other times heartily agree!)

Now for technicalities: The Nebula and Hugo awards both, as I recall, allow 10% variation in word lengths. So a novella could actually be as short as 15750 words, and a novelette as long as 19250 words.

I believe the main reason "Sanctuary" was nominated as a novella was that it was listed as a novella in the magazine. To be sure, so was "Two Hearts" if memory serves, and it was nominated as a novelette. (And for that matter Burstein's awful short story nominee from a couple of years ago was listed as a novelette in Analog but was only 7300 words or so.)

(I admit that this is a bugbear to my geek-self -- I wordcount everything, after all ... I was somewhat exercised a couple of years back when the Retro Hugo nominees for Best Novella included a couple of full length novels, 50,000 words or more (Sturgeon's The Dreaming Jewels and Asimov's "And Now You Don't"), apparently on the grounds that the Sturgeon story was published in a single issue of a magazine (which obligingly listed the word count on the TOC: 55000!), and I guess everybody knows magazines can't possibly fit full length novels in one issue, and perhaps reasoning that since Asimov's story is only part of a book (Second Foundation) it too could not possibly be a novel.)

Ah well ...

Rich Horton

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