On to the stories themselves. Nancy Kress's "The Erdmann Nexus" is set, like her Hugo-nominated novella from last year, "Fountain of Age," among the elderly and retired. This is a relatively uncommon setting, so it's a shame that "Erdmann," though marginally better than "Fountain," is still a rather unimpressive story--Niall Harrison sums it up quite well by invoking Joanna Russ's RUMIR (routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable). Set in a present day retirement home, and moving between the points of view of the protagonist, former physicist Henry Erdmann, and his fellow residents as they begin to experience moments of transcendence, "The Erdmann Nexus" put me very strongly in mind of Connie Willis. Like so many of Willis's stories, it is overlong and mired in minutiae, achieving characterization by pounding clichés into the wall--the gabby grandmother who simply will not shut up, the born again Christian whose every other utterance is a Bible quote, the hippie who drops terms like satori and trishna in casual conversation and offers her guests green tea. Just about the only multi-dimensional character is Carrie, an attendant at the retirement home, whose tirelessness in pursuit of an explanation for Erdmann's predicament stands in stark contrast to her inability to break away from an abusive relationship, but she quickly becomes mired in a predictable (and, again, rather Willis-like) romantic subplot. And, as in a Willis story (and as many of the reviewers quoted in the Torque Control discussion post have noted) the solution is heavily telegraphed and takes forever to be revealed--or maybe it just seems that way because there are so many painstakingly detailed stereotypes to wade through before we get to it. Obviously, writing a story that recalls Connie Willis is hardly a losing proposition as far the Hugo is concerned, but for my money one of her is more than enough.
Charles Coleman Finlay's "The Political Prisoner" is a sequel to "The Political Officer," which was published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2002 and nominated for the Hugo and Nebula. I liked "Officer," despite the fact that as Niall notes it is essentially a submarine story set in space, with very little that was genuinely SFnal about it. "Prisoner" continues in that vein, but is to my mind a much less successful story. The title character from "Officer," Maxim Nikomedes, returns from his assignment in that story and reports to his boss, an upper-echelon apparatchik in a society that is a hellish cross between communism and religious fundamentalism, just as a major political upheaval takes place, leaving Maxim with no patron. In short order he and other newly designated undesirables are rounded up and sent to work camps, where they are subjected to the by now familiar litany of dehumanizing, grueling treatment. Finlay spares no ugly detail in describing Maxim's predicament, but his efforts pale before the vast ocean of literature devoted to capturing the essence of life and death in work camps, death camps, and gulags. Responding at Torque Control to complaints that "Prisoner" isn't SFnal enough, Finlay suggested that an SFnal setting is the only one in which such dehumanizing enterprises can be lifted out of their historical context and treated as universals, a contention which I find, quite frankly, bewildering, and which is belied by his inability to truly tap into the horror of such places in a way that writers writing about Auschwitz or the Siberian gulag have done so memorably.
What keeps "The Political Prisoner" from achieving the effect created by historical narratives of man's inhumanity to man is not that Finlay isn't as strong a writer as K. Tzetnik or Solzhenytzin, but that he doesn't seem to have been willing to break his main character. Stripped of his not inconsiderable power, starved, beaten, worked to exhaustion, Maxim should be worn to the bone, made monstrous by his deprivation, or humble by the realization that the pain he's caused others is now being visited on him. "Prisoner" gestures in both directions but never commits to either, and Maxim remains fundamentally inviolate--there's even a sense that his ordeal is an improving experience, teaching him compassion towards a group prisoners from a reviled minority group who take him in. As a result, we never feel that Maxim's work camp is, as K. Tzetnik said of Auschwitz, another planet, whose inhabitants "did not live - nor did they die - according to the laws of this world." We never doubt that Maxim will leave the camp, nor that he will leave it more or less the person he was when he came in, and this strikes me as being fundamentally dishonest to the kind of story Finlay was trying to tell.
Ian McDonald's "The Tear" is a major departure from his habit, over the last few years, of writing offshoots to his novels River of Gods and Brasyl. A far-future space opera, it follows the character Ptey from his childhood and early adulthood on the planet Tay and into space, where he is first the guest of an alien race visiting Tay, then a fugitive from their enemies, then the alien visitor of another race, and finally the prodigal son returning to his ravished home world. Except that all of these aliens are humans--evolved or artificially altered into radically different forms--and that Ptey is only Ptey for the first few pages of the story. His people have a tradition of 'manifolding'--creating new, subtly different, aspects of their personality within themselves, different people sharing the same body and carrying on their own, separate lives--and later on Ptey transforms again through exposure to alien technology. The multiplicity of personalities who are all essentially the same person is obviously intended to track with the multiple forms humanity takes in the story, from Tay's socially-mandated schizophrenia to its visitors' virtual existence to the accelerated aging of the inhabitants of a generation ship Ptey hitches a ride on. This is an interesting point, but it seems a little flimsy for such a long story, especially given the thinness of the its plot--Ptey leaves home, Ptey comes home. Even more problematic is the fact that McDonald doesn't quite pull off the feat of making Ptey's different iterations feel like different versions of the same person--they either come off, in the first half of the story, as completely different people, or, in its later parts, as the same person playing different roles in different social settings. "The Tear" is interesting and well written (though McDonald's prose often veers from merely ornate into baroque, which occasionally made for a tough slog) but since the whole story hinges on the device of Ptey's transformations--it is even divided into chapters according to the changes in his aspect--the unconvincing execution of that device renders "The Tear," if not quite inert, then at least seriously underperforming.
Like "The Political Prisoner," Robert Reed's "Truth" uses an SFnal premise to tell a mundane story about present day ills, but with a great deal more success. Carmen, a high ranking CIA interrogator, arrives at a top secret facility deep under the Kansas prairie to take over the interrogation of Ramiro, the US government's most dangerous and valuable prisoner. Captured while crossing the Canadian border with a trunk full of uranium, Ramiro has revealed himself, through knowledge and quirky biology, to be a time traveler, a member of an army of 'temporal jihadists' bent on world domination. The story's action is mainly a series of mind games Carmen plays, not only with Ramiro but with her superiors and underlings, through which Reed paints a portrait of a world in the grips of a terrifying, dangerous paranoia, and which has been driven--in part, but not solely, due to the threat represented by Ramiro--to even greater excesses and atrocities than our own. "Truth" is obviously Reed's reply to the 24 scenario of a terrorist who knows the location of a ticking time bomb, but his answer isn't as simple as decrying torture so much as it is to suggest that absolute truth is inherently unknowable, that neither the most brutal torture nor the most delicate psychological probing can lead to a full comprehension of another person's character and motives (an observation which is nicely, and for the most part subtly, reinforced by recurring references to quantum phenomenon).
Given this obvious bias, the true nature of Ramiro's mission is pretty easy to guess (though the story's final twist took me completely by surprise), but his interactions with Carmen, and her bitter observations about the state of her world, are so intense and well crafted that the inevitable ending is a pleasure to get to. Unlike Finlay, Reed isn't afraid to let his main character be stupid or wrong, and unlike Maxim Nikomedes, or, indeed, her own bosses, Carmen doesn't assume that her experience and jadedness give her a complete understanding of her world--an understanding which, Reed concludes, is impossible. It is probably no coincidence that Carmen is a woman in a male-dominated environment, surrounded by men who believe that they can achieve, or already possess, such an understanding, and who keep hammering away at Ramiro and making short-sighted decisions based on the information he gives them and the belief that they can act intelligently on it, instead of stepping back and looking at the big picture. "Truth" is a clever, and surprisingly vicious, skewering of this illusion of control.
A literary collaboration between Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum seems, at first glance, like a dubious proposition, but I congratulate whoever it was--the authors themselves, or Fast Forward editor Lou Anders--who came up with the idea, because the result of this marriage, "True Names," is a complete triumph. As I said in my Hugo ballot post, it combines both authors' strengths and favorite topics--Rosenbaum's penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story "The House Beyond Your Sky," and Doctorow's fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self (of course, now that I've spelled out which parts of the story I think were contributed by each author, it'll probably turn out that I've got them completely backwards). This, no doubt, is to make "True Names" sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. In what I assume is a sly meta-reference, near the middle of the story one of the characters performs in a play which recasts her life into its canonical form, and has her swinging a cutlass on the deck of a pirate ship.
"True Names"'s actual setting, however, can best be described as, but is probably much more complicated than, a computer. In the vastness of space, two entities, Beebe and Demiurge, fight for dominance and for the raw material they can convert into processing power. Demiurge is monolithic, all its subroutines guided by a single agenda. Beebe is chaotic, with different sub-entities taking on lives of their own and vying for control, spawning new and subtly altered copies of themselves on a whim. And, it soon becomes apparent, both Beebe and Demiurge have the power to model each other, and sometimes the whole universe, in order to predict their enemies' actions. We end up, therefore, with several different iterations of each character, only some of whom exist in the 'real' world. Like "The Tear," then, "True Names" is a story about individuality in a world in which personality is easily edited and copied, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow pull off the trick McDonald wasn't quite up to, and easily distinguish between different versions of their characters while maintaining a coherent core for each one. This is, however, far from their greatest accomplishment with this story, which on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure is both clever and cleverly put together--the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only story on the ballot which feels truly, meaningfully SFnal, telling a familiar story in a setting that is so strange that it forces us to see that story through new eyes.
My votes for this category will be:
- "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum
- "Truth" by Robert Reed
- "The Tear" by Ian McDonald
- No Award