I'm not sure whether Charles Stross's "Overtime" left me so cold because I'm not a big fan of his writing, or because it's a comedy about subjects--Christmas and the British civil service--that don't resonate with me. Probably a little of both. "Overtime" is one of Stross's Laundry stories, which take place in "that part of Her Majesty’s government that deals with occult technologies and threats," and is narrated, as were the other stories I've read in this sequence, by Bob, a junior-but-rising member of its bureaucracy. Bob has drawn the short straw for the Christmas holiday, and has to remain on duty during the long weekend in case some Earth-shattering catastrophe should occur. He's just settling in for four days of reading and playing computer games at triple pay when, of course, an eldritch monster from the beyond interrupts him. What little plot there is is in thrall to the story's Christmas theme--I'll give you three guesses who the monster of the week pretends to be, and the first two don't count--so the appeal of "Overtime" is presumably rooted in Stross's juxtaposition of bureaucratic obtuseness, office politics, and workplace culture with Lovecraftian horror. It's a rich seam that better comic fantasists like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams have mined for material funny enough to cross the cultural divide separating me from much of the experiences described here (the tradition of the Christmas party, for example), but Stross's jokes are leaden--"when you stare into the void, the void stares also; but if you cast into the void, you get a type conversion error. (Which just goes to show Nietzsche wasn’t a C++ programmer.)"--and his attempts to inject horror and urgency into the story are crushed by its jokiness. "Overtime" comes off like a bit of seasonal fluff, a Christmas gift for the fans, and it's a bit sad to see in on the Hugo ballot in June--though given that this is the same fandom that keeps nominating and even awarding Connie Willis's Christmas stories, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.
Like "Overtime," Paul Cornell's "One of Our Bastards is Missing" (PDF) is part of a series, following up on "Catherine Drewe," from Fast Forward 2. The two stories take place in an alternate universe in which post-singularity technology has been developed in a feudal, vaguely 19th century setting. The protagonist of both is Jonathan Hamilton, a soldier who also moonlights as bodyguard, assassin, and spy, and whom Cornell has quite obviously envisioned as a sort of Great Game-era James Bond. I first read "Bastards"--in which Hamilton, working as part of the British crown princess's security detail, starts an investigation when a foreign diplomat disappears into thin air from the princess's engagement party--before reading "Drewe," and was sure that I was missing details provided by the previous story. It's an enjoyable piece--more for the details of the alternate universe, which include space-folding technology whose uses are as mundane as corsets and as sinister as secret hideouts for kidnappers, and a very rigid and stratified social structure against which Hamilton, who is in love with the princess, struggles not to rebel, than for the plot, which is actually pretty simple once you get a sense of where the story is happening and what the rules of the world are. But there was clearly a lot of missing information--the full nature of the entanglement between Hamilton and the princess, a cryptic comment made to him by a priest. It turns out that "Catherine Drewe" doesn't answer any of these questions, and Cornell's comment on his website that he hasn't yet revealed the jonbar point between the Hamilton universe and ours but will in an upcoming story confirms me in my feeling that these are pieces that will make a lot more sense, and have a lot more weight, as a fix up novel than as individual works. It's hard, therefore, to know just how to rate "One of Our Bastards is Missing." It suggests a lot of potentially interesting avenues of story, but doesn't go down any of them.
Rachel Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape," and Eugie Foster's "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" are both stories that have gotten a lot of critical attention and praise (Foster has already won the Nebula award for her story), and have both generated lively discussion. They also both leave me a little cold. "Eros, Philia, Agape" is well-written (though for my money not as nicely done a story as Swirsky's other Tor.com publication from 2009, "A Memory of Wind") but also somewhat on the unexciting side. It tells the story of Lucian, an android purchased by the rich and damaged Adriana to be her lover and companion. After his personality has molded itself to suit hers and to love her, Adriana decides that she wants a free partner. She marries Lucian and gives him the freedom of his personality-editing capabilities as a wedding present, after which they also adopt a child. As the years pass Lucian has a growing sense of how much of himself is defined by Adriana's needs and desires, and decides to exercise his freedom. My ambivalence towards "Eros, Philia, Agape" is probably rooted in the fact that its every plot twist feels obvious and foreordained--in one sense, literally, as the story begins by telling us that Lucian leaves his family and then flashes back to its beginning, but also by hammering in Adriana's blinkered self-centeredness and Lucian's emotional dependence on her (for example, the slightly trite parallel drawn between Lucian and Adriana's pet bird, who believes himself to be her mate, and is heartbroken, and later dies of his grief, when she replaces him with Lucian). The only part of the story that doesn't feel signposted is Lucian's decision to not only leave Adriana but leave humanity entirely and learn what it means to be a robot. It's an interesting idea, but nowhere near sufficiently set up. The result is a story that feels stately, like a dance with carefully laid out steps, but that is nowhere near weighty enough in its subject or central ideas to justify that stateliness.
The Foster story is an entirely different matter. It is anything but stately or predictable, and may feature one of the most inventive fantasy premises I've encountered in some time. In the story's world, people literally wear their personalities in masks, choosing a new one every morning that determines who they are and what story they will be playing out. It's a richly, vividly described story, which seems appropriate for one in which personality is determined by props. The protagonist gets a peek behind the curtain when they're invited to be the consort of the day to their queen, and even more so later when an unmasked woman teaches them about the history of their way of life. "Sinner, Baker" is one of those stories that are remarkable more for their worldbuilding and its inventive central concept than for anything that happens in them. The second half of the story, in which the protagonist learns the truth about the origins and purpose of masks, is a little underwhelming, following too closely in the footsteps of other stories about rebellion in restrictive, closely-regimented societies. The unexpected twist ending saves the story a little, though at the same time it also feels unearned--it's meant to be a revelation of who the protagonist is without their mask, but up until that point they are such a blank, reactive character that their sudden emergence into brutal action isn't really believable. Much as I admire the flight of imagination that drives "Sinner, Baker," and Foster's evocative writing, I can't help but wish that the story had a bit more substance to it.
One of the reasons that I was underwhelmed by Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape" is that I read it after reading Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two," (PDF) which touches on many of the same subjects in a way that is, to my mind, much more exciting and thought-provoking. Like the Swirsky story, "It Takes Two" deals with the artificial creation of emotional attachment, with the protagonist, Cody, hacking her own brain and paying to have the brain of a stripper named Susanna similarly hacked so that they can fall in love at first sight. As I wrote in my 2009 short fiction roundup in Strange Horizons, the story's premise doesn't quite work, particularly Cody's motivation of wanting to seem like one of the guys when a prospective client takes her to a strip club.
Even leaving aside just how convoluted and tenuous a method this is of securing a deal (are there really executives, even Atlanta good ol' boys, who will sign a deal with someone because "I like the way you handle yourself . . . no boasting, no big words, you just sit quiet then seize the opportunity"?) the structure of the story is off: story, story, story, exposition, exposition, exposition, dilemma—as Cody has to decide whether to take what Griffith rather cleverly dubs "RU486 for the brain" and destroy her artificial feelings for Susanna, or embrace them.Peter Watts's "The Island" (scroll to chapter 2) feels almost like the odd story out on this shortlist. It isn't the only piece of science fiction on the ballot, but it is the only space-set, hard SF story on it, and it feels almost quaint besides Swirsky's semi-allegorical future or Cornell's steampunkish one. The premise, as I wrote in my post about 2009's best short stories, is a familiar one: road crew discovers that they are about to pave over a rare lifeform. In this case, the road crew is on a spaceship that left Earth hundreds of years ago to seed the galaxy with hyperspace gates. Watts does a great job of making us feel, through the voice of the narrator, Sunday, the disaffection and ennui that this kind of life breeds--long stretches of cryosleep punctuated by brief builds, short, low-maintenance relationships with people who may not be awake or even alive the next time you're defrosted, and most of all a sense of disconnection from humanity, which has changed and evolved in the years that Sunday has spent frozen. Complicating that is the fact that the ship's crew are engaged in a centuries-long cold war with its semi-deranged AI, who resents their unwillingness to conform to its rigid protocols, and has set about creating a second generation of engineers under its thrall. Into this messed up dynamic comes the titular island, which Sunday believes is an intelligent alien life form but which the AI insists is just a piece of space junk. A lot of the pleasure of this story comes from watching Sunday learn about the alien, trying to communicate with it and demonstrate its intelligence, in the process waking up from her emotional stupor, becoming, for probably the first time in her life, an explorer rather than a glorified road-cutter. Of course, this being a Watts story, a happy ending is not on the cards, though not in the way that one might expect from the story's premise, but rather in one that reinforces the typically Watts-ian ethos that people, be they human, AIs, or weird aliens, are all shits. Despite this, "The Island" is too exciting and interesting to be a downer story. The sheer pleasure of learning Sunday's world and discovering the alien with her outweighs the shittiness of that world.
Why then, do I still think that "It Takes Two" is a brilliant story? Because it is just so damnably creepy. We all know, even if we don't like to be reminded of it, that even the loftiest of emotions are chemical fluctuations in our brains, and that those chemicals can and are being manipulated on various levels and with various degrees of finesse. What makes "It Takes Two" disturbing is not so much that it adds love to the list of reactions that can be externally, medically controlled, but that it takes the obvious next step of assuming that once that ability is achieved it will be commodified, that the next step in prostitution will be whores who really do mean it when they say "you're special, I wouldn't do this with anyone but you" (in that sense "It Takes Two" covers much of the same ground as Joss Whedon's recently cancelled Dollhouse). "It Takes Two" doesn't shy away from the fact that Susanna has sold herself in the most profound way possible, and that Cody has bought her, but at the same time it encourages us to root for a romantic ending. The resulting tension between romance and revulsion is what makes the story, what makes it possible to ignore the problems in its premise and structure, and what makes its ending simultaneously satisfying and horrifying.
I'd be happy with either Watts or Griffith taking the Hugo, and, despite my ambivalence towards their stories, not deeply saddened by either Swirsky or Foster's victory. I suspect that the actual winner will come down to either Stross or Watts, with personal associations bolstering both their chances--Stross is a perennial Hugo nominee but an infrequent winner, and Watts has gained a lot of attention and sympathy from genre fandom due to his infuriating tangle with the American immigration and legal system last year. As I say above, it's hard not to be underwhelmed by a Hugo shortlist when you've already read most of the nominees, but if I set that disappointment aside there is the usual pleasure to be had from this year's novelette ballot, and even more so from the fact that, though I wouldn't have nominated all of the stories on it, there are no pieces here that were an actual chore to read. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but given how uncommon an event it is when it comes to the short story or novella ballots, I think it's something to be celebrated.