Once again, the novelette shortlist is the first to become fully available online (still missing: Robert Charles Wilson's novella "Julian: A Christmas Story" and Neil Gaiman's short story "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"). 2007 will be the fourth year that I've reviewed the Hugo and Nebula nominees (I posted my thoughts at Readerville before this blog came into being), and this year's novelette shortlist is the strongest batch of nominees I've read in a while. There's only one story I'd lop off the list, and--miracle of miracles--I also find myself at a bit of a loss trying to pick the best story of the bunch. After the infuriatingly mediocre Nebula ballot, this is a welcome and refreshing change.
The sole turkey on the novelette shortlist is, surprise surprise, Mike Resnick's "All the Things You Are." For a Resnick story, however, this one is quite passable. The first half of it is even engaging--set some time in the future, it is narrated by a security officer who notices several instances in which people repeatedly put themselves in harm's way, performing near-suicidal heroics until their luck runs out and calling, from their deathbeds, for a nameless 'she'. A bit of research reveals that the dead men were all veterans, the sole survivors of a brutal skirmish on a remote alien planet. The security officer travels to that planet, is grievously injured, and rescued by a mysterious woman. Up until this point, Resnick's story is merely flat and unaffecting, made up of Resnick's trademark tell-but-don't-show prose--"with each day I became more obsessed with what could have turned otherwise normal men into weapon-charging suicides" is the closest he comes to explaining why his protagonist travels to the alien planet; when the narrator falls in love with his rescuer, we're merely told that "she seemed to mirror my every thought, my every secret longing". Once the mystery lady shows up, however, Resnick starts wasting our time. We've all read this story before (J.R. Dunn's "The Names of All the Spirits" is an excellent variant on this plot), and it is nothing short of infuriating to watch the narrator fail, again and again, to get the point, as he insists that his rescuer is a garden variety human and, in spite of knowing what happened to the other men stranded on this same planet, somehow doesn't put two and two together. It's nothing short of wankery. "All the Things You Are" ends exactly as we had surmised it would end halfway through--with the narrator about to put himself in the path of danger for the sake of another chance at seeing his beloved (which, by the way, is a fairly standard ending for Resnick). Once again, Resnick takes an overused plot and does absolutely nothing out of the ordinary with it, and once again, I am baffled as to how the result should end up on the shortlist of a major award.
Moving away from such unpleasantness, however, we find Michael F. Flynn's "Dawn, Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth" (Flynn is also nominated this year in the best novel category for Eifelheim), in which the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of a passenger ferry off the coast of Seattle is examined through the eyes of many observers--fishermen, would-be rescuers, friends and relatives of the disappeared, conspiracy freaks, scientists, and the disinterested future. It's a familiar concept, and one that has gotten a lot of play in recent years in particular (in fact, given the occasional use of familiar catch-phrases and references to terrorism and New York, it's possible that Flynn intended the story to recall 9/11). Flynn veers a little too close to cliché on several occasions--an uneducated woman whose son was a mechanic on the ferry pours out her poorly-spelled grief on a newsgroup, only to be ignored by posters more interested in spouting conspiracy theories; blue collar workers assembled for a poker game reminisce about their absent friend and wonder who he was philandering with at the time of his disappearance, but the answer turns out to be among them--but for the most part his characters are winningly, and heartbreakingly, human. As time passes, Seattle becomes accustomed to a hole in reality--its own version of the Bermuda Triangle--and life resumes despite the knowledge that it can be disrupted, for no apparent reason and with no rational explanation, at any moment. As I said, this is an old concept, but Flynn carries it off exceptionally well.
Paolo Bacigalupi gets a lot of play on awards shortlists, but I've always been a little hesitant about him. I liked his stories, but couldn't quite love them. "Yellow Card Man" has made me a believer. It's set in a future similar to that of Bacigalupi's "The Calorie Man" (nominated for a Hugo last year), in which bioengineered plagues have all but collapsed the market for natural crops, and Western corporations jealously guard the patents to disease-resistant strains. The protagonist is Tranh, a Malaysian-born Chinese, now a refugee in Bangkok. Once a prominent businessman arrogantly certain of his good fortune, Tranh lost everything when Muslim fanatics massacred the Malaysian Chinese community. In Thailand, his situation is scarcely any better. He and the other yellow card people--named so for the ID cards identifying them as refugees--live in squalor, scrambling for jobs and disease-free food, keeping their heads down for fear of the violent and xenophobic immigration police, and hoping for a chance at citizenship. Bacigalupi's descriptions of the desperation and horror of Tranh's everyday life are nothing short of wrenching. The story opens with a flashback to the massacre of Tranh's family and never lets up, perfectly capturing the ever-present, mind-numbing fear of people for whom one more loss, however insignificant in itself, will mean oblivion. Tranh himself is a very interesting character--from his descriptions of his previous life, we sense that he was never a very good man, and in his present he is almost pathetic, very nearly defeated not only by his physical losses but by the loss of self, the realization that he is a more timid, more frightened man because of the horrors inflicted on him. At the story's end, Tranh does something terrible for the chance of a new life, and Bacigalupi presents that choice in all of its complexity, as a moment embodying both defeat and triumph, despair and hope. It's an ending that guarantees "Yellow Card Man" a place in my thoughts for some time to come.
Geoff Ryman's "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" (PDF) retreads some of the ground covered by Ryman's most recent novel, The King's Last Song. As the title suggests, the story's protagonist is the daughter of the man responsible for the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Cambodians. Of course, no such person exists--as the narrative itself takes care to remind us on several occasions, interposing an extra layer of story-ness between us and the characters, and reminding us that what we're reading is a fable, a fairy tale. Sith is 18, very wealthy and completely, deliberately shallow. She lives by a strict set of rules, most of which are calculated to ensure that she need never acknowledge her country's dark history, and most particularly her own connection to it. Instead, Sith lives her life in malls. She is, as another character tells her, nothing but a credit card. That character is Dara, a cell-phone salesman with whom Sith falls in love, a country boy with death and darkness in his family history, to whom Sith lies, claiming one of Pol Pot's enemies for a father. As Sith's feelings for Dara deepen, her desperate attempts to ignore the past out of existence become ever more ineffectual. The ghosts of the nameless dead print their pictures on her computer printer and call her on her cell phone. Sith has to figure out how to honor the past, accepting it without allowing it to consume her or tarnish her potential happiness. Like The King's Last Song, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is a fairy tale in which a magical balm soothes Cambodia's aching soul. It's easy to sympathize with Ryman's benevolent impulse--his writing, in general, tends towards conciliation--but I find his attitude as problematic now as I did when I read the novel. Taken on its own merits, Ryman's fable is beautiful and touching, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that he intends for it to have real-world implications, for its conciliating conclusion to point towards a possible solution for Cambodia's problems. Those problems, however, are real and hopelessly tangled. They can't be waved away with a few platitudes about forgiveness any more than they can be with a magic wand. That said, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is, both in its descriptions of Cambodia and in its characterization, a beautiful and touching story, and perhaps because of the fairy tale terms in which it is couched (as opposed to The King's Last Song's more naturalistic tone), I find myself wishing that I could buy into its conciliatory ending (and since we're on the subject, check out this discussion of conciliatory fiction over at The Mumpsimus).
Ian McDonald's "The Djinn's Wife" returns, yet again, to the setting of his Hugo-nominated novel, River of Gods. I had reservations about the previous story set in that novel's universe, the novella "The Little Goddess" (which was nominated for a Hugo last year). Fascinating and beautifully written though it undoubtedly was, it felt to me like a retread of the novel, lacking enough fresh material to justify its existence. "The Djinn's Wife" is just as fascinating and just as beautifully written, and also answers my complaint. In the weeks and months preceding the events of River of Gods, as the Indian nation Awadh prepares to battle a years-long drought by building a dam on the Ganges which will effectively cut off its neighbor Bharat's water supply--a project for which it plans to gain American support by outlawing artificial intelligences of equivalent or greater complexity than humans'--the dancer Esha is courted by a program. All that stand between Esha and the slums she grew up in are her talent and her ambition, and the constant awareness of the precariousness of her position, as well as the constant need to please others either as a dancer or as a potential bride, have left her brittle and angry. When the AI A.J. Rao--diplomat and soap opera star--begins to court her, Esha sees him as her ticket out, a way of escaping constant struggle and fear. In her married life, however, Esha discovers that she has opted out of humanity, and when the full contours of Rao's inhumanity become clear to her, life with him becomes unlivable. As he did in River of Gods, McDonald superimposes Indian mythology and folk legends over a hyper-technologized future. The story of Esha's inability to accommodate her husband's alienness is moulded to fit the familiar Bluebeard story of a wife who steps out of the rigid conventions of her society in her choice of a mate and is punished for it, as a way of discussing, yet again, the viability of coexistence between humans and artificial intelligences--or the lack of same. There's an interesting discussion in the comments to this entry about whether McDonald's descriptions in River of Gods fetishize and exoticize India, which is obviously applicable to "The Djinn's Wife" (as well as Ryman and Bacigalupi's stories), but to my mind the novelette further clarifies that McDonald's emphasis on India's fantastic aspects is meant to draw attention to our inability to adjust to change, to accept the truly alien, without casting it into familiar forms.
So who should win? I'm delighted to say that I have no idea. Resnick is out, obviously, and Flynn would probably be knocked off in the first round, but between McDonald, Ryman and Bacigalupi, I am at a loss to choose the worthiest piece. I can't remember the last time I felt this spoiled for choice in a prose fiction category. It's unfortunate that such an excellent ballot should be overshadowed by, perhaps quite valid, criticism over the absence of female and Japanese nominees. To my mind, however, the composition of the ballot reflects not so much an institutionalized racism or sexism as a tendency to go with what the voters know. Of the fourteen authors nominated in the short fiction categories, only three--Paul Melko, William Shunn, and Tim Pratt--are first time Hugo nominees. Out of the remaining eleven, several have multiple nominations and wins to their name--Neil Gaiman, Robert Charles Wilson, Michael Swanwick, Ian McDonald, Mike Resnick--and two--Robert Reed and Michael F. Flynn--have two nominated works on the ballot. As it turns out, the resulting shortlist--in the novelette category at least, although the novella and short story ballots also look promising--is exceptionally strong, but this is not to say that worthy pieces by less known authors haven't been ignored, and that the shortlist's makeup wasn't influenced by a certain degree of insularity, especially when one considers that only 191 convention members nominated stories in this category.