The 2011 Hugo Awards: The Novella Shortlist

And now we come to the last of our shortlist reviews.  After the disappointing and even infuriating short story and novelette ballots, it would be nice to report that the Hugo-nominated novellas are an exciting and worthwhile bunch of stories.  Instead, the shortlist (minus Alastair Reynolds's "Troika" which is not online) is solid, by no means a slog to get through and at some points quite good, but hardly enough to save this year's short fiction nominations from the condemnation that should be heaped upon them.

On the other hand, there's only one stinker on this ballot. Geoffrey A. Landis's "The Sultan of the Clouds," (PDF) a pulpy wannabe adventure whose narrator, David Tinkerman, travels with his employer, the brilliant terraforming scientist Leah Hamakawa, to Venus at the invitation of the title character, the heir to a vast fortune.  "Sultan" is one of those stories that puts most of its eggs in the worldbuilding basket, so it spends a lot of time explaining how the ruling clans of the solar system developed by essentially cornering the market on spaceflight, how human beings can live on Venus by constructing flying cities, and how the societies of those cities function.  Unfortunately, Landis has a bit of a tin ear for description, and David is the guy who needs to impress you with how much he knows, so far too much of the story is taken up with flat, almost aggressive infodumps.  Despite the pulpy setting, there's almost no wonder in David's voice, not even the wonder of a technophile examining an impressive and innovative use of technology, which the Venusian cities are full of.  The best he can manage is to make constant references to how expensive everything around him must be.  And when he discovers social customs that flummox him, such as the Venusian "braid marriage," in which an older partner marries a much younger one, whom they raise, train, and initiate into sex, and who will, in their turn, take their own younger partner to do the same to, David's reaction is a blanket condemnation and, in his own bland, affectless sort of way, disgust.  With no indication in the narrative that we're meant to see David as unreliable or question his reactions, "Sultan" seems to expect us to sympathize with a narrow-minded, unimaginative, judgmental character and, when it turns out that Leah, with whom David is in love, has been invited to Venus so that her host can propose to her, to root for him.  Once the proposal scheme is revealed, the story treats Leah as an entirely passive creature who must be rescued, despite the fact that she is neither being tricked nor forced into marriage, and in fact chooses on her own to say no.  David's complete inability to consider that Leah might be fully capable of considering a marriage proposal and making an informed decision to accept or decline it is only one of the ways in which Landis--entirely unwittingly, it seems--paints him as a creep, and his triumphant ending is thus a bitter pill to swallow.

Elizabeth Hand's "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" is the sort of low-key story, naturalistic but with the faintest hint of the fantastic, that I've come to associate with her, going all the way back to "The Least Trumps" in Conjunctions 39, my first encounter with her writing.  As in that story, the narrator of "Bellerophon" is middle-aged, banged about by life, and uneasy in the company of others.  After the death of his wife, Robbie crawled into the bottle and lost his job, and though he seems to have reached a point of equilibrium, his life--and that of his teenage son Zach--is rather joyless.  When two old friends from Robbie's days as a young security guard at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum (which Hand, for some reason, calls the Museum of American Aviation and Aerospace) contact Robbie to help them recreate the title film, the footage of a failed, pre-Wright attempt at manned flight, as a gift to one of the museum's former curators who is dying of cancer, Robbie agrees mainly for lack of anything better to do.  Which rather describes the tone of the entire story, in which Robbie is mostly carried along by others' plans and desires, an observer rather than an active participant, because he's still too crushed by grief and alcohol to break through his passivity.  Though I can respect Hand's decision not to write "Bellerophon" as the story of Robbie and Zach's miraculous healing and return to life--they experience some moments of joy and closeness as they help to recreate the footage, but whether they can hold on to those feelings and build on them is not only left ambiguous but is not truly central to the narrative--that choice leaves the story a little inert.  It seems to rely too much on our sharing a fascination with the Bellerophon and the entire early history of manned flight, in a way that is all too reminiscent of the nostalgia that scuttled my enjoyment of so many of this year's nominated novelettes, and the touch of fantastic that is introduced near the story's end feels a little too disconnected from its tone and events.  "Bellerophon" is well written, and though its melancholy tone overstays its welcome that is also well done, but it feels less whole and less affecting than other Hand stories I've read.

I read Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects a little more than a year ago, while on holiday in Wales with a large group of friends.  As the week wore on and each of us got our turn with the book, you could see the same reactions playing across the face of each reader: first excitement, then dismay, then disappointment, and finally a sort of resignation.  It's not that Lifecycle is bad, we all agreed at the week's end, but it's certainly not up to the quality we've come to expect from Chiang.  A year later, I find that Lifecycle's strengths linger more than its weaknesses.  As an exploration of that quintessentially SFnal theme, the effect of technology on humanity, it is unlike anything I've ever read, and yet an entirely relevant, even necessary approach to that subject that too many other writes ignore--the fact that so much of technology is used for silly, mundane things like hobbies and entertainment, and that economics and market forces play a huge role in how technology develops.  Lifecycle's protagonists, Ana and Derek, are employed by a company that makes digital pets, called "digients," for users of a Second Life-style virtual environment.  As part of their efforts to make the digients more lifelike and interactive Ana and Derek adopt their own copies and become attached to them, developing a friendship in the process.  When the company shuts down, they and other devoted digient owners form a community to help their pets survive and continue developing without technical support.  The story spans a period of more than a decade during which the technological landscape around Ana, Derek, and the digients changes--fashions fade away, the virtual environment the digients were written for shuts down--making the human characters who scramble to find a way to keep their digients running the equivalent of Atari enthusiasts, but with an added weight of emotional attachment and almost parental responsibility, and, of course, the central question of the story--are the digients genuine artificial intelligences or simply sophisticated pets, and is Ana and Derek's investment of time, money, and emotional energy in their well-being justified?

Chiang handles these questions with his typical deftness, but where Lifecycle fails, the reason that so many of us on that vacation found it, ultimately, disappointing, is in its handling of the human characters.  Over the course of their acquaintance and friendship Ana and Derek fall into and out of relationships (which often fail because their partners don't share their enthusiasm for digients) but eventually Derek falls in love with Ana.  The story's conclusion hinges on his belief that he needs to choose between her and the digients.  Unfortunately, Chiang never sells Derek and Ana as people, and there's a flatness to Lifecycle's prose that leaves them inert even as it sharply dissects the story's technological themes.  Their story is rife with clichés--Derek's wife's resentment of his devotion to digients, which she suspects is a blind for an affair with Ana, Ana's boyfriends' belief that they come second to the digients--and Chiang doesn't overcome them.  It's hard to know which aspect of The Lifecycle of Software Objects--the brilliant approach to technology or the indifferent handling of characters--wins out.  Though, as I said, it's the former that has stayed freshest in my mind, the latter keeps me from being able to unreservedly praise the story.

Rachel Swirsky's "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window" feels almost like Lifecycle's mirror image.  Like the Chiang, this is a story told in brief installments over a long period of time (though in Swirsky's case this period spans eons, not decades) during which one observes the development of a certain branch of technological know-how.  On the other hand, "Lady" is a fantasy (and the "technology" in question is actually magic), beautifully and almost poetically written, and features some very well drawn characters.  The narrator and title character is Naeva, a sorceress in the court of queen Rayneh who, at the moment of her death, is bound by magic and kept from oblivion.  She's recalled into the world by the queen, her heirs, the people who overpower her nation, and representatives of the civilizations that follow in order to give advice and help create powerful spells.  Swirsky does a good job with Naeva, who is proud and ruthless, as well as with the settings she visits and the gradual change of the societies within them.  On the other hand, what bothers me about "Lady" is the absence of a strong common theme to tie these interludes together.  There are a lot of different themes that "Lady" touches on--Naeva's society is strongly matriarchal, even dividing women into full citizens and "broods" whose job it is to bear children, and her disdain towards men and disgust and the notion of their learning magic is challenged at first when she is summoned into patriarchal societies, and later when a female scholar she befriends tries to stop a plague with a cure that will require teaching magic to men and women alike; another challenge to Naeva's worldview is the perception that later generations have of her people as being harsh, while she thinks of them as "lawful" and "unflinching," and compares their cruelty to the barbarism she's exposed to by her later summoners; finally, there is the question of what Naeva is and what destiny she's bound for as she traverses centuries and millennia.  It doesn't, however, delve deeply into any of these themes, and ends up feeling a little bitty--another way in which this story and The Lifecycle of Software Objects feel like mirror images.  I walked away from "Lady" feeling satisfied by its parts but a little dubious about its whole.

If I had to choose this year's novella winner, I'd have a hard time picking between The Lifecycle of Software Objects and "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window."  Both have profound strengths and equally profound flaws.  In the end I think I'd pick the Swirsky, though I suspect that Hugo voters will choose the Chiang.  It's interesting to note that unlike the short story and novelette shortlists, this year's novella ballot has no dominant theme or prevailing mood.  It features pulp SF, an almost naturalistic character piece, near-future technological speculation, and high fantasy.  This might be taken as a reflection of the strength of the field, or of its weakness--with fewer novellas being published, there's less room for authors or fandom to express their current preoccupations.  The fact that the resulting ballot is, as I said, solid but unexciting leads me to suspect that the latter is true, so that despite being the strongest of this disappointing year's three short fiction Hugo ballots, it still leaves me feeling rather dispirited.


etranger said…
The Lifecycle of Software Objects felt to me rather slight and almost more of a romp than a serious story until about the last third. After that point I thought it had a lot of interesting ideas about life, happiness, self-determination, and the interplay between technology and society. But overall, the first two thirds of the story felt much longer than they needed to be, and the end seemed to come too early-- just when the story was becoming profound.
Anonymous said…
Your comments about the similarities in structure between Chiang's story and Swirsky's are spot on -- I notice the same thing and attributed it potentially to the fact that each story is the author's longest (by a fair margin).

As with seemingly everyone, I was disappointed with The Lifecycle of Software Objects. I rate Landis's "Sultan of the Clouds" much higher than you do (for one thing, I am quite sure we are to notice that David's relationship with Leah is a bit unhealthy, and we are also, I think, expected to find the social arrangements on Venus (the braided marriages) at least intriguing, even if David does not). And I thought the parade of SFnal ideas in the story rather neat.

I also rate Hand's story more highly than you do -- for me, the choice of first place is between Landis, Hand, and Swirsky, and I'm probably leaning toward Hand.

I read "Troika" quite a long time ago (the anthology was delayed, and I read an advance copy that turned out to be WAY in advance), and I don't remember it well, but it wasn't my favorite story in its book -- I think I'd call it solid but not exceptional.

I'd have liked to see K. J. Parker's BLUE AND GOLD (though it came out very very late in 2010, perhaps not even until 2011); Robert Reed's "Dead Man's Run"; and Paul Park's "Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance" on the list. But that said, the eventual shortlist is the best by far of the three Hugo shortfiction categories, and a win by Hand, Swirsky, or Landis would be, in my view, quite worthy.

Rich Horton
Michael Straight said…
I also feel like you've captured a lot of how I felt about Lifecycle of Software Objects.

The other disappointment I had with it is that the ending was weak. So many of Chiang's other stories have really excellent endings. Lifecycle presents some puzzling ethical issues, has some characters choose one way, some another, and just sort of leaves us to imagine how it might turn out. I found it unsatisfying.
Unknown said…
Good post. As an English major, I love reading your analysis of books. I have yet to get into the novella genre (I'm a fan of the great big lengthy types), but you have convinced me to pick up a few. :)
Rob Matysiak said…
I love your post. It's like reading a good book. Your blog is an inspiration to all who read it
Anonymous said…
Hi Abigail - I have linked to this post from for comparative purposes!

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