The closest this year's novelette shortlist comes to a bad story is Greg Egan's "Dark Integers," and even in this case the story is not so much bad as not to my taste. A sequel to Egan's 1995 story, "Luminous," "Dark Integers" catches up with that story's mathematician protagonists a decade later. During that time, they've been acting as clandestine defenders of the Earth, maintaining the peace in a mathematical cold war against a parallel universe in which mathematics is underpinned by different axioms than ours. Each universe has the power to assert its own math in the other, and thus destroy it. Or, at least, so Egan tells us. "Dark Integers" is very high density hard SF, with a great deal of math talk that quickly went over my head and left me scrabbling desperately through incomprehensible paragraphs in search of the one or two sentences that actually advance the plot. Though I'm sure that readers with a more thorough grounding in mathematics will have a field day with "Dark Integers," the ratio of gobbledygook to plain text was too high for my enjoyment. I was left with too much time to notice the paucity of Egan's prose, and though "Dark Integers" by no means shortchanges its characters--the story is primarily about the conflict between their acknowledged inadequacy as representatives of and warriors on behalf of the entire planet, and their distrust of what government and big business might do with the weapon they've discovered--Egan's treatment of these issues is almost perfunctory, especially when compared to the care and attention he lavishes on the science portions of the story.
Far more impressive is Egan's other nominated novelette, "Glory" (PDF). It starts off with what is quite possibly the most enjoyable sequence I've read in some time, and, in sharp contrast with "Dark Integers," an effective and exciting use of science-speak, as Egan describes the method by which two representatives of a vast intergalactic empire arrive at a planet tens of light years away from their home. (Niall Harrison goes on at greater length about the neatness of this sequence, and of Egan's use of science in the rest of the story, here.) The two, Anne and Joan (and isn't it nice that both are women, and that Egan is so matter-of-fact about this fact?) have taken the form of the local species and presented themselves to the two major (and warring) governments in an attempt to gain access to the relics of an ancient, extinct alien species, who may have achieved some important and revolutionary mathematical proofs. The actual story of "Glory" never quite lives up to the pyrotechnics in its opening paragraphs--though Egan's writing is a great deal better here than it was in "Dark Integers," he ceases to strive for the gosh-wow-neat effect in the body of the story, and both his characterization of Anne and Joan and his descriptions of the alien culture they've arrived in are on the mundane side. The dilemma that ends up driving the story, and the choice that Joan ends up making, are also comparatively dull. Nevertheless, "Glory" is a good, meat and potatoes piece of SF writing, and the opening segment is spectacular enough in its own right to set it out from the herd.
David Moles's "Finisterra" drips, all the way through, with the neatness that characterizes "Glory"'s opening paragraphs. It's a dense, wordy, almost intoxicating piece, a marvel of SFnal invention and description, so intricately detailed that I found myself doubling back and rereading some of its segments in order to gain a proper appreciation for Moles's worldbuilding. "Finisterra" takes place on Sky, an artificially constructed gas giant with a breathable atmosphere that is home to the 'zaratanes'--living creatures the size of mountains that float on internal hydrogen sacs, and are host to vegetation, wildlife, and sometimes people. The protagonist is Bianca, an aeronautical engineer hired by zaratan poachers to find a way to lift the largest and oldest of these beasts--the title character--into space, where it can be sold to wealthy offworlders. The plot that follows is entirely by the numbers--Bianca is horrified by both the butchery of the zaratanes and the proposed death or displacement of Finisterra's inhabitants, but chooses to bury her head in the sand because she has problems of her own and needs the money this job will bring her, until she sees one atrocity too many and can't look away any longer. Most of the blood in this story is flowing towards its worldbuilding (not just Sky--Bianca's life on Earth, bound by tradition and restricted by her gender and religion, is also lovingly detailed), and the result is so spectacular that the predictability of "Finisterra"'s actual events hardly registers--we just want more time to spend in its setting.
Daniel Abraham's "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" is very nearly "Finisterra"'s opposite. Like Moles's story, it is beautifully told and takes place in an imaginative setting (in this case, a quasi-parallel-universe fantasy world with elements of the Renaissance, the 19th century, and the present day all mixed together), but Abraham concentrates the bulk of his efforts on plot, and on turning a familiar story into a fresh and exciting one. The title's cambist (money changer) is Olaf Neddelsohn, a gray yet good-hearted man who crosses paths with Lord Iron, a bored and amoral aristocrat who tries to turn Olaf into his plaything, and forces the little man to use all his wits and courage to outsmart him. "The Cambist and Lord Iron" was one of my favorite stories from 2007 (along with Susanna Clarke's "Mr. Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower"). In my year-end short story post, I wrote:
Both of these stories are variants on the folk tale convention of a simple, unimportant person triumphing over a great and powerful ruler. They struck a chord with me because in both cases, the protagonist is slightly geeky person living a quiet, perhaps even dull, life, who triumphs over adversity not by rejecting either their geekiness or their dullness, but by embracing it--by using their brains and the knowledge they've accumulated. ... It's not just good that triumphs over evil in both stories, but ordinariness coming face to face with wonder and making a compromise with it--one that leaves both Mr. Simonelli and Olaf Neddelsohn altered, but still fundamentally geeky, quiet, and utterly admirable.A new Ted Chiang story is a hotly anticipated event among genre readers, not least because they are so rare, and yet no matter how stratospheric the expectations from it, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" must have demolished every single one. It's a time travel story, a sub-category where the pieces that work tend to be cunning and elaborate, impossibly clever works that encourage multiple readings and a careful puzzling-out of their non-linear plots. Chiang, instead, has written an elegiac, mournful (though at the same time somehow hopeful) story about the inevitable consequence of time travel that most stories try to ignore or get around--predestination. His choice to tell the story in the style of a tale from One Thousand and One Nights at first seems like a distancing device, a way of signaling to the readers that this is just a fairy tale, but it soon becomes apparent that Chiang is using it to get around the sharp cleverness that tends to characterize time travel stories, and get in touch with the very real pain that drives his characters to travel into their pasts and try to change it. Their realization that they can't do so might, in another story, have been played for a tragedy, but Chiang undercuts it with the characters' own (religious-tinged) acceptance of their fate, and with the compassion that they learn to feel towards one another and themselves because of it. Though it presents itself as a simple, albeit SFnal, fairy tale, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is so much more, and like Chiang's best fiction it continues to resonate long after we've finished reading it.
There isn't a single author on the novelette shortlist whom I would be sorry to see win the Hugo, though I wouldn't like "Dark Integers" to take the prize. All of the other pieces have done enough to earn their spot on the shortlist and maybe even a win, but in the end "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is in a league of its own. This isn't just the best novelette of the year, but one of the best pieces of genre short fiction in several years, and probably destined for classic status alongside Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (and John Crowley's "Great Work of Time," another contemplative time travel story which "Alchemist" strongly reminded me of). I have no doubt that Chiang, who has already gathered up a Nebula for "Alchemist," will triumph at the Hugos as well, and this win will be an even greater credit to him for being over such a strong and impressive field.