Overall, the novella ballot is neither as exceptional as the novelette shortlist nor as uniformly good, but unexceptional, as the short story shortlist. It may, in fact, be the worst of the three ballots, although to a certain extent this is praising with faint damns. Two of the nominated stories appeared on the 2006 Nebula ballot, and I reviewed them last month. To reiterate: Paul Melko's "The Walls of the Universe", about a boy who meets his parallel-universe counterpart, is amusing, but fails to explore the more interesting ramifications of its premise, including the question of how two versions of the same person could have developed completely opposed moral outlooks, as the protagonist and his alternate do; the protagonist of William Shunn's "Inclination"--a young member of a pseudo-Christian luddite cult living on a space station--is exteremely appealing, and his journey towards rejecting his upbringing is compelling, but the story suffers a crucial failure of nerve when it tells us that, once he chooses to reject the belief system he was raised in, the protagonist will be welcomed with open arms into a society eager to cosset and indulge him--I know people who have made a similar decision in real life, and I want to promise you that none of them encountered such kindness and consideration in the secular world, which only makes their choice more admirable and courageous.
Michael Swanwick's "Lord Weary's Empire" appears to take place in the same setting as that of Swanwick's 1993 novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter--an industrialized Faerie in which elves carry credit cards and technology stands side by side with magic as a tool for making life easier or more interesting. I found Dragon's plot aimless and its protagonist unappealing, and this might go some way towards explaining why I was disappointed by "Lord Weary's Empire". Or, it could be that I didn't connect to the story because it is part of a sequence, the second story starring Will, a village boy whose disastrous encounter with a dragon (a kind of magi-mechanical war machine, like a fighter jet with a personality) leaves him homeless and friendless in the wide world. In "Lord Weary's Empire", Will travels underground, into the sewers and service tunnels that lie below a great city. There he encounters the titular character, a fallen aristocrat, and is subsumed into his plan to gather an army of the disenfranchised and overthrow the above-ground ruling class. As it turns out, however, this is merely an interlude for Will, a distraction from his real story, which we don't get to see.
The primary reason, however, for my lukewarm reaction to "Lord Weary's Empire" is that the story is very, very badly written, veering back and forth between indifferent descriptions and cod-epic dialougue ("I have been cast out of my village and ill-fortune has pursued me across Fäerie Minor all the way to the Dread Tower"; "Long have I argued against this course of action as a mad notion and a dangerous folly"; "I fail to understand why you would buy so completely into a fallen elf-lord’s delusions of glory"). I've read enough of Swanwick's fiction, however, to suspect that the godawful purple prose is intentional. A major theme of "Lord Weary's Empire" is illusion--the kind forced on the characters through magic and the kind they force on themselves by buying into myths of nobility and glorious triumph on the field of battle (common fantasy tropes, in other words). It's possible that Swanwick's use--or misuse--of the epic style is meant to draw our attention to the thinness of these delusions, and, on a larger scale, to act as yet another criticism of the fantasy genre, much like The Iron Dragon's Daughter. In the absence of the prequel and sequel stories, and given that the framing segments of "Lord Weary's Empire" are so brief, it is difficult to determine whether my reading is correct, and if it is, Swanwick is still subjecting us to tens of thousands of words of turgid prose and dull story, just for the sake of making a point which he, and other authors, have already made more than once. That's a hell of a lot to ask from your readers, and to my mind there's little in "Lord Weary's Empire" to make up for our sacrifice.
The narrator of Robert Charles Wilson's "Julian: A Christmas Story" (available online through the efforts of Jed Hartman) spends a lot of time telling us about the stories he isn't going to tell. He won't--not at this juncture, anyway--tell us how his boyhood friend, Julian Comstock, became a famous revolutionary and heretic, challenged his uncle for the presidency, and championed the cause of Darwinism through the medium of film. What he tells us, instead, is how Julian's adventures began--how, on Christmas, 2172, Julian became aware that his idyllic exile to a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere had come to an end, and, with the help of the narrator and a loyal retainer, slipped through his uncle's clutches and set out into the great unknown. If this all sounds like a boy's adventure, I suspect that's very much the point. In spite of its futuristic setting, the society described in "Julian" would not be out of place in a 19th century novel--it is carefully stratified, with landed gentry, skilled tradesmen and servants, and peasant tennants each keeping to their own level--and Julian is clearly the plucky protagonist who comes into his own and avenges the injustices done to his family. As I've said, however, what we see is only the first, and least interesting, chapter of this story, in which Julian leaves his childhood home. We don't see what happens afterwards, and although, even more in this case than in that of the Swanwick novella, I am certain that this is an intentional choice on Wilson's part, I have no idea what he is trying to accomplish with it.
"Julian"'s narrator, Adam, whose childhood has been regulated by seemingly immortal customs, routines, and a theocratic government which upholds both, spends the bulk of the story coming to grips with the impermanence of everthing that surrounds him--just as the technologically advanced societies of the 20th and 21st centuries faded away in the wake of the oil crash, so will his civilization one day fade into nothingness. Wilson ties this realization to Adam's growing awareness of science--of evolution, in which Julian believes and which Adam initially dismisses as a myth, or of the technological accomplishments of the 20th century such as the moon landing. It's an interesting character arc, and well executed, but it seems a bit slight for the amount of time and effort Wilson dedicates to it, and is often overwhelmed by Julian's storyline, which, for all that it is predictable, is a great deal more exciting. Although I like it better than the Swanwick novella, I can't help but feel, once again, that "Julian" would have been a stronger story if it had been significantly shorter.
Robert Reed's "A Billion Eves" is the third story on the novella ballot about a young person learning to question, and ultimately finding a way to escape, the dogmas of a restrictive religious upbringing, and if "Inclination" was too simplistic, and "Julian" was too flabby, then "A Billion Eves" is just right. I was initially struck by how effortlessly and intelligently Reed builds a sense of menace, slowly clueing us in to the dysfunction at the heart of his story's society. The protagonist, Kala, is on a camping trip with her family when their car breaks down. A mechanic at the service station the family arrive at assures Kala's father that he has a 'Lady's Room' where Kala and her mother can be safe--a room that can bolted from the inside. Eventually, we learn that Kala lives on a parallel universe version of Earth, and that she is the descendant of 'colonists' who ripped through the fabric of reality to start a new life on a new world. Kala's religion revolves around the glorification of this process, equating the colonists to Adam and Eve, but there is an original sin at the source of this semi-nomadic way of life--the first man to colonize an alternate Earth did so accompanied by a hundred kidnapped women. His choice resonates through the millennia that have followed, and even the most progressive members of Kala's society accept almost unthinkingly the notion that women are, in the end, a commodity, a necessary tool when starting a new life. The kidnapping of unwilling 'wives' is therefore not an uncommon crime in Kala's society, and although it is officially frowned upon, when Kala's brother rescues her from such a fate and maims her kidnapper, the greater blame is placed on his violent actions.
Unlike Shunn and, to a lesser degree, Wilson, Reed isn't telling a story about a single progressive individual surrounded by fundamentalists. Kala's branch of the church is one of the more premissive ones--they don't practice poligamy, and acknowledge the existence of the first colonist's 'angry wives'--and Kala's family stand by her when she is shunned for her brother's actions. Kala herself pursues a career as a biologist, and lives a largely independent life--until a coworker betrays her to another kidnapper. Reed creates, in other words, something like an equivalence to our society, in which women have all the rights and freedoms that men do, but are still vulnerable to male-dominated institutions and prevailing mysoginistic mindsets. Even more interesting is Reed's choice to equate the commidification of women with the ecological destruction that colonists wreak on the worlds they populate, as the weed strains they carry along with them overwhelm these planets' vulnerable native breeds. The same urge to dominate that informs gender relations in Kala's world is also present in the impulse to remake the new Earths in the old Earth's image--a process which, Kala discovers, will inevitably lead to an ecological catastrophe--and it is up to Kala and her brother to find a way to escape their society's destructive attitudes towards gender and ecology alike. Although its characters are not as finely sketched as those in Shunn or Wilson's stories, "A Billion Eves" is by far the most interesting and successful of the novellas on the ballot, and my choice for the win.
I'm sure this came through loud and clear in my reviews, but by the time I finished reviewing this year's Nebula nominees, I was quite despondent--that this collection of bland, sentimental, underwritten pieces might be someone's idea of the best the genre had to offer gave me very little hope for either the future of short fiction or the ability of the field's major institutions to recognize quality when they saw it. This year's Hugo ballot was, therefore, a welcome antidote. In spite of the reservations I've expressed towards some of the nominated stories this is, by far, the strongest short fiction ballot I can remember. That said, the debate over whether the absence of women on the ballot indicates an institutionalized discrimation among Hugo voters continues, and I think that if we look at the history of the award over the decades of its existence, we will see a worrying trend. As this study of gender disparity in genre publications and awards shows, up until 2000 the Hugo was holding steady at a 1:2 ratio of female to male nominees (in itself not something to be overjoyed about), but over the last seven years the number of female fiction nominees has steadily decreased, and although, as I've said, this year's ballot is a fine one, the evidence of previous years suggests that shutting out women is not the same thing as prioritizing quality. For all that I'm happy to finally read an excellent award ballot, I can't help but wonder what these numbers bode for the award's future.