Friday, May 29, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Novella Shortlist

This post has been a long time coming, partly because I was waiting to see if Ian McDonald's "The Tear" was going to be posted online along with the other nominated novellas. I waited so long, in fact, that I ended up losing one of the other stories--Charles Coleman Finlay's "The Political Prisoner" is no longer available. Both stories can still be found on the Hugo voter packet, and as much as I like the idea of the packet, and am deeply grateful to John Scalzi for envisioning it and everyone who worked to make it a reality, I'm a little concerned that it so easily enables authors and publishers to make their stories available only to Hugo voters. Now, obviously I am coming to this issue with a distinct bias, as it'll probably be some time before I'm a Hugo voter again. And just as obviously authors and publishers have every right to do whatever they want with their intellectual property, and to make it available to as many or as few people as they like. The tradition of making the Hugo-nominated shorts freely available is just that, and not an obligation. But it is, I think, a fine tradition, one that allows the fannish community at large to keep up with what is supposed to be the cream of the year's crop of genre short fiction, and to remain in touch with and gain a greater understanding of Hugo voters' sensibility (if only so that they can decry it). So I hope that "The Tear" and "The Political Prisoner" are aberrations, and not a sign of things to come.

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:
  1. "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum
  2. "Truth" by Robert Reed
  3. "The Tear" by Ian McDonald
  4. No Award
I can't quite decide whether I think this year's novella ballot is a successful one or not. The excellence of "Truth" and "True Names" is somewhat counteracted by the presence of "The Erdmann Nexus" and "The Political Prisoner" on the ballot, especially as it seems very likely to me that the latter will win (though I think Reed also has a decent chance; Doctorow & Rosenbaum, unfortunately, are probably a long shot). This kind of schizophrenia is fairly common on novella ballots, however, which I suppose means that this year is no worse than many others.

12 comments:

Ian Sales said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one that felt as I did about the Kress and the Finlay, although you - as usual - said it so much better than I did. And you seem to have liked the Reed a bit more than me. I've yet to read the Rosenbaum & Doctorow.

I unfortunately don't have access to Ian McDonald's novella. Which is a shame, because I'd probably like it a great deal.

ecbatan said...

A long time coming ... but welcome as always.

Perhaps I need to reread "True Names", but I confess I didn't really get it. You write, "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." -- and for me I can only say, well, not, I never really did learn that world. Which I freely confess -- without snark, I promise -- is likely my fault. I felt throughout that a lot of interesting stuff was going on, and I was missing too much. Enough came through that I liked it fine, but I can't put it first on my ballot.

I can see to some extent your problems with "The Tear", but they didn't affect me in the same way, quite. I felt McDonald did better than you felt at conveying multiple personalities, and I thought there was a lot more going on in the story than "Ptey leaves home, Ptey comes home" -- I agree more with Gardner's comment to the effect that the ideas in the story could have filled a novel easily. It was by a wide margin my favorite novella of the year.

And it seems to me that it is definitely as "truly and meaningfully SFnal" as "True Names", though one could certainly disagree on which was more successfully so.

(Finally, I might note that McDonald has used the "future history", or future society, of "The Tear", called the Clade, on one or two other stories in the past few years.)

Otherwise I agree with your comments in general, and if I liked "The Political Prisoner" a bit more than you did and "Truth" a bit less, I think your take on the general strengths and weaknesses of the two pieces is quite strong.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree more with Gardner's comment to the effect that the ideas in the story could have filled a novel easilyYou know, that might be true. I think I might have liked the story better as a novel, with more breathing space for the different civilizations Ptey encounters and room for McDonald to develop his theme a bit more. As it was I felt that both were too thinly sketched for the story's length, whereas Doctorow & Rosenbaum - perhaps because of that density of information which, I certainly understand, could be offputting - managed to my mind to bring them off brilliantly.

And you are right that "The Tear" is also truly and meaningfully SFnal, since it and "True Names" touch on such similar topics.

Ted said...

I'm a little concerned that it so easily enables authors and publishers to make their stories available only to Hugo voters.The availability isn't limited "only to Hugo voters"; anyone who bought the books or magazines originally can read the stories, whether they're Hugo voters or not. The packet actually increases the availability, so I'm not sure I understand your concern.

Sure, we all enjoy free stuff, but I don't feel I can complain that I'm not getting enough stuff for free.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Sometimes the Hugo nominated works aren't widely available. "The Tear" was published in an anthology available only to members of the Science Fiction Book Club (and anyway would require someone interested in reading it to buy the entire anthology). Most of the magazines stop selling copies after several weeks on the newsstands, and Asimov's, as I discovered to my great annoyance, stops selling electronic copies of its issues after six months. Someone trying to read all of the Hugo-nominated short works in the period between the nominations' announcement and the winners' is likely to find the task either prohibitively expensive or simply impossible.

Perhaps more importantly, for those people who aren't deliberately trying to read all of the Hugo-nominated short stories, the tradition of making them freely available is a great way of keeping in touch with the award and gaining a fuller understanding of what's happening right now in the genre.

Kit said...

the tradition of making [Hugo nominees] freely available is a great way of keeping in touch with the award and gaining a fuller understanding of what's happening right now in the genre.I agree in principle, but "The Political Prisoner" was so insipid that it's hard to count it as much of a loss to the cheapskate SF community. I read it while it was free, and I'd wouldn't mind getting those fifteen minutes back.

I agree with you completely on "True Names," BTW; it was complex without being hard to follow, and it was awfully clever. It's going to be a horrible miscarriage of justice if it doesn't manage to win.

Ted said...

I don't think it's unreasonable to ask that those who are interested buy a supporting membership to Worldcon; then they'll get the stories in the Hugo voter packet, plus they'll actually be eligible to vote.

If there weren't a Hugo voter packet, then Hugo voters would have a legitimate complaint about the difficulty of casting an informed vote. But I don't see a problem if readers who have opted not to participate in the Hugo process can't get free copies.

As an analogy, it'd be great if all the Oscar-nominated movies were available for free viewing, but I don't mind that they're not. And if I could buy voting privileges for $50 and get copies that way, I really wouldn't mind the lack of free copies.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kit:

That Hugo voters have questionable taste is also something worth knowing, if not necessarily worth spending your hard-earned cash learning.

I'd be shocked if "True Names" won - I think the only story with less of a chance is "The Tear," whose publishers seems to have gone out of their way to keep it out of voters' hands. Rosenbaum's "The House Beyond Your Sky," to which it is very similar, came last in its category last year, and as you say it's a complicated story which might overwhelm some readers.

Ted:

As I've said, my focus isn't on interested but on casual readers. The short fiction categories get less than half the nominations and votes of the best novel and BDP categories. Non-voters who see that work X has won or been nominated for the Hugo usually have no way of knowing what that means until several years after the fact (unless they're willing to shell out 10-15$ for an anthology in order to read a single story). Yes, if people are genuinely eager to follow the Hugos they can shell out money, but I think that the much larger group of people who are only mildly interested is just as, if not more, important.

Niall said...

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 inI think the difference between us on this one is that I did doubt, but when it turns out that he does survive, I felt the sense of betrayal you mention.

"Painstakingly detailed stereotypes" is exactly right for Kress's characterization in "The Erdmann Nexus", as well.

On the availability of short fiction nominees, I strongly agree with you. I take Ted's point that there shouldn't be an expectation that nominated short stories be made freely available to all, but as you say, it's surely a valuable, community-minded and admirable tradition, and I would be sorry to see it pass.

I also think "True Names" has a better chance than you do, largely because I think the fact that Doctorow's name is attached to it means that more people will read it than any of the other nominated novellas.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Doctorow is an advantage, but I think it's the story's only advantage. Meanwhile, Reed and Kress are both past winners, and "The Political Prisoner" has had more buzz than any of the other nominees.

Kit said...

"The Political Prisoner" has had more buzz than any of the other nominees.My god, has it really? Don't people read books anymore? I mean, one wouldn't even have to leave the SF bubble and delve into Solzhenitsyn et al. to realize this is a feeble treatment of the subject- anyone who'd ever read something like Cherryh or even Heinlein should be able to recognize how weak that story was.

Then again people seem to think Jo Walton's Small Change series is some sort of tour de force, so maybe I should stop being surprised when critics shower authors with praise for engaging with totalitarianism on a fourth grade level.

Seriously, though, WTF? I've come to accept the Connie Willis fetish as some sort of inexplicable zeitgeist, like how everyone in England in the 1920s was into A. E. Housman for reasons that will baffle historians forever. But what's behind this? We all want to look hardcore by talking about totalitarianism without investing the intellectual energy to actually say anything about it? It would explain Battlestar Galactica.

Anonymous said...

Well, good buzz for Finaly aside, it seems that this year gives another win for Kress. More than a bit of a pity. This year had some of the strongest stories on the ballot, but it went to a piece in the middle of the pack at best. I see this as rather a missed opportunity, although I'd flip the ranking of Truth and True Names, for my money the second was pretty good while the first was standout.

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