Nebula winner Eric James Stone's "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" is a story that seems of a piece with stories like Michael A. Burstein's "Sanctuary" (Nebula nominee, best novella, 2006) and Mike Resnick's "Article of Faith" (Hugo nominee, best short story, 2009). Like them, it's a story told from the point of view of a religious officiant in the future (in Burstein and Stone's stories, on a space station) who must decide what to do when an alien (or in Resnick's case, a robot) becomes a member of their church, and how to reconcile alien culture, human incomprehension of that culture, and religious edicts. Another point of similarity between the three pieces is that they are all very, very bad, their indifferent prose and cardboard-thin characters outshone only by their dodgy politics. The narrator in "Leviathan" is the leader of the Mormon mission on a space station in the sun, where plasma-based aliens called swales have been discovered. Much to the aggravation of the local anthropologists, the Mormons have been proselytizing to the swales, and when the narrator discovers that swale society has no concept of bodily autonomy and that smaller, weaker members are routinely raped by larger ones, he sets out to try to convert the largest and most powerful of the swales.
What's wrong with "Leviathan" isn't just that it's badly written and that all its characters seem to have been created either to spout talking points (the titular Leviathan just happens to say something that echoes the book of Job) or act as straw men (the anthropologist who, against her better judgment, ends up helping the narrator, and along the way lobs softballs at him and acts like a stereotype of a disdainful atheist; interestingly, the one good point she makes--pointing out that the only reason the Mormon swales care that they're being raped is that their new religion has taught them to view sex as a sin--is completely ignored by both the narrator and the story). Worse than these is the fact that it's not a story so much as a thought experiment that posits a situation in which none of the negative associations of Christian missionary work are applicable--the swales are aliens so there's no issue of racism or colonialism; they appear to have no culture or religion of their own for Christianity to destroy; they're technologically powerful so the role of missionaries in enabling slavery and economic exploitation is negated; the swales' leader is cruel and inconsiderate of her followers, some of whom want a change, so the missionaries aren't barging into a situation where they're not wanted--in order to lead to the conclusion that, under these conditions, it's totally OK to impose Christian values on aliens. This is a little like the way that creators of war movies have been gravitating towards the alien invasion premise (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles, the upcoming Falling Skies) as a way of getting around the fact that it's no longer acceptable to use the Russians or the Chinese as faceless hordes of evil invaders, or the way that the creators of Avatar tell the utterly familiar story of a white man who not only saves the Native Americans but is better at being Native American than actual Native Americans, but insist that they're not being racist because the story is set on another planet and among aliens. Except worse, because the creators of those works are trying to have a bit of fun without thinking too much about politics, whereas politics is really all that "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Has Made" is about. The premise of proselytizing to aliens raises a lot of questions, but Stone is more interested in giving definitive answers, ones that shut down all objections to missionary work, among humans and aliens alike.
Allen M. Steele's "The Emperor of Mars" seems rather unobjectionable when compared with "Leviathan," and in fact "unobjectionable" is a good way of describing the story, a sort of club piece in which the director of a Martian colony describes how one of his "Mars monkeys" (as the story has it, the futuristic equivalent of oil rig workers--lots of hardship, lots of risk, lots of money) suffered and then recovered from serious mental trauma. Anyone who follows SF awards will know that the suffix "of Mars" in a story title, especially when preceded by any sort of royalty, indicates a reference or an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars. Personally, I find SF fandom's Burroughs-philia--or at least award-voting fandom's determination to repeatedly reward it--rather tedious (see also H.P. Lovecraft) but Steele comes up with a relatively novel approach--the contrast between Burroughs's romantic, pulpy version of Mars, and the harsh reality of a barren planet whose only signs of civilization are the unlovely, utilitarian installations plonked down by the colonizing humans. The story's subject, Jeff, retreats from this ugly reality, in which his family on Earth has been killed in a senseless accident, into Burroughs's fantasy, and eventually declares himself Emperor of Mars. Apart from the fact that this feels a little too much like a retread of the Sandman story "Three Septembers and a January," the problem with "The Emperor of Mars" is that what little substance there is to it is dedicated to nostalgia--to the celebration of Golden Age writing about Mars, not just Burroughs but Zelazny and Van Vogt and others. Parts of the story read like potted reading lists of famous Mars-centered stories (the narrator and Jeff's psychiatrist both just happen to be erudite SF fans who can rattle these titles off at a moment's notice), a sentimental trip back through the red planet's different representations in literature. There's a long tradition of the Hugo celebrating stories that celebrate SF, and even more than Burroughs-philia I find this tendency hard to sympathize with or even understand. Of all the things that science fiction should be, nostalgic and backwards-looking is surely at the bottom of the list.
A slightly different form of nostalgia informs Sean McMullen's "Eight Miles," in which a 19th century aeronaut is hired to build a hot air balloon that can travel the vertical distance in the story's title--which is to say, into space. The purpose of this exercise is a creature discovered by the narrator's patron in the Himalayas and dubbed Angelica, a fur-covered woman whose mind seems to be addled by the rich, humid atmosphere at sea level. The narrator ends up building a hydrogen balloon and fashioning oxygen tanks in order to converse with Angelica, who turns out to be a Martian, the exiled military leader of the losing faction in a recent war. The setting of the story makes it easy to categorize "Eight Miles" as steampunk, but the further I read, the less that tag seemed to fit. The science in "Eight Miles" is--to my admittedly untutored eyes--plausible for its era, and in fact one of the key points of the plot is that the narrator is only one of a relatively large community of balloonists, and that the technology, though esoteric, is by the time the story starts so unremarkable that he's been reduced to renting his balloon out by the hour to sightseers. A similar lack of romanticism accompanies the invention of oxygen tanks. McMullen is careful to show us how the narrator builds on known scientific phenomenon--a chemical reaction that releases oxygen--and available technological know-how to make something that is only slightly different than what existed before. There is, in other words, no sense in "Eight Miles" that technology is beautiful, magical, or particularly cool, none of the "Check it: Gears" attitude that I associate with steampunk. What it reminds me of, once you strip away the Victorian set decorations, is the famous Golden Age trope of the triumph of the engineer, the story whose heart is in showing us how a Competent Man uses knowledge and skill to solve a problem or overcome an obstacle. Burroughs, meanwhile, rears his head again in the psychic visions Angelica sends the narrator of her former empire on Mars. The combination of these two approaches to science fiction--pulp adventure and hard SF--and the Victorian setting that is overlaid on both, give a gloss of newness to the story, but it's not quite enough to obscure the familiarity of its component parts.
Aliette de Bodard's "The Jaguar House, in Shadow" is the only story on the ballot that isn't set in or about space, and which is not permeated by the Golden Age nostalgia that seems to afflict the other pieces (it may or may not be a coincidence that de Bodard is also the only woman on the ballot). It's part of a sequence of stories set in an alternate history dominated by China and the Aztec empire (de Bodard has also written two books,
Back into space we go with James Patrick Kelly's "Plus or Minus," a sort-of retelling of "The Cold Equations" that reconsiders and modernizes that story's core assumptions beautifully, and shows the rest of the ballot how to have a conversation with your genre's past without getting swallowed up by nostalgia and sentiment. The protagonist is Mariska, a low-ranking maintenance worker on a long-haul spaceship several months out of port. The first half of the story is a closely observed and extremely uncomfortable portrait of the relationships that develop among the ship's crew, and particularly Mariska's troubles with her boss, Beep, who resents her for being the daughter/clone of a famous space explorer. Beep harasses and bullies Mariska, whose intelligence and strength of will aren't quite enough to compensate for the fact that she is completely under Beep's power and has no way of escaping him until the ship arrives at its destination. These segments are tense and horrifying--the claustrophobia of space travel magnified and made so much worse by the claustrophobia of sexual harassment. In the second half of the story, an accident leaves the ship without enough oxygen to make it to its destination. Where "The Cold Equations" treated this scenario as one of blinding certainty--a simple mathematical calculation that yields only one result--"Plus or Minus," as its title indicates, performs a more fuzzy calculation. The answer, in both cases, is the same--the ship's remaining supply of oxygen will suffice to bring some of the crew home but not all of them--but in Kelly's story there are many more variables--how long will the rescue ship take to arrive? How much oxygen can the crew conserve by sleeping and performing as little physical activity as possible?--and a recognition that a margin of error of even a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death. A few elements of the story don't quite work, mainly Mariska's resentment of her mother and her determination not to go into deep space, which feels like part of another story--presumably 2009's "Going Deep," which also features Mariska--that Kelly doesn't quite have the room to properly elaborate on here, but the ending is so perfect--simultaneously recreating the harsh brutality of "The Cold Equations" and complicating it with human compassion and guilt--that these seem like minor quibbles.
So, two bad stories, two OK ones, and one very good one--not the worst novelette ballot I've ever read, but not far from it either. Especially when you consider that the novelette shortlist is often the compensation that we shortlist reviewers look forward to, the one category where quality tends to win out over fannishness and logrolling, this is very disappointing. Even more dispiriting is the fact that I'm by no means confident that "Plus or Minus" will win the day. "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" has already, and inexplicably, won the Nebula, and the general nostalgic tone of the shortlist suggests that this year's Hugo voters are looking to be comforted, not challenged. They might opt for Stone, or the Golden Age enthusiasm of "The Emperor of Mars." A membership that produces a shortlist this poor certainly can't be trusted to recognize the only worthwhile story on it.