Continuing my review of Hugo nominees this year, I’m tackling the novelettes today. Ranking them, once again, in reverse order:
6. “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day.
Easily one of the worst pieces of fiction I’ve read lately. The “world-building” consists of thinly veiling the Catholic Church by inconsistently swapping out the names and terminology and then slapping in some magic-wielding elves. (You might think that magic-wielding elves would have some sort of meaningful impact on the beliefs or teachings of the Church, but they don’t.) The “plot” would be stretched thin on a very short story, but it takes a truly prodigious amount of “talent” to stretch it over the length of a novelette: An elf shows up at a not-Catholic monastery and says, “I killed your missionary. Now I’d like to stay here and study your God.” He decides to stay for several decades while he single-handedly illuminates an entire copy of the not-Bible by himself. This is interrupted by a single scene in which he asks the head of the monastery a question about his religious faith, prompting the head of the monastery to respond by literally cribbing Thomas Aquinas at interminable length. No one in the monastery has their faith or their lives remotely affected by the elf. The elf leaves for a bit and everyone in the monastery is brutally killed by some other elves. Then the elf yells at a statue of not-Jesus Christ.
It’s not so much a story as it is a train wreck of bad writing, bad plotting, bad world-building, and bad characterization.
5. NO AWARD
4. “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen.
The premise of this story is that cartoon Chinese Communists from 1950s propaganda pamphlets are brought to life, travel through time to the 2030s, and assume control of the future Chinese People’s Republic. Zany hilarity ensues.
… okay, not really. It is, however, the only way I can explain how the anachronistic cartoon Chinese Communists ended up in this story.
If you can look past that bit of nonsense, however, the rest of the story is a decent little bit of pulp adventure: Military space-jockeys with remote control exo-suits have to defend the red, white, and blue of their All-American Space Station(TM) from the terrible scourge of Cartoon Communists.
This clears the “No Award” threshold for me, but just barely. (And I’m having second thoughts about that even as I type this.) It would have benefited tremendously from the solution to the Cartoon Communists being in any way clever or thoughtful or unique.
3. “The Waiting Stars” by Alietta de Bodard.
It was really hard to rank the top three stories in this category. “The Waiting Stars” is a beautiful tone poem of transhumanism mixed with a pleasing tinge of space opera. Of all the Hugo stories I’ve read so far this year, this had the strongest and most interesting and most nuanced handling of its characters. In fact, I think the story would have benefited tremendously from giving the characters a little more room to breathe: A bit too much of the story was pushed into a past-tense summary. I would have preferred to actually experience the growth of the characters instead of being so frequently told about it.
The story was also injured for me because one of its central speculative conceits didn’t quite make enough sense. (Keeping things fairly vague in an effort to avoid explicit spoilers: I buy a culture believing that they would benefit from having their AIs go through that experience. But I’m unclear on why they would build them so large as to be dangerous and painful.)
Those quibbles aside, however, I do recommend this story. And it can be read freely on Alietta de Bodard’s website, so you have no excuse not to!
2. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal.
Another well-crafted character piece with strongly woven themes. Kowal uses alternate history to evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia and then uses that nostalgia to create a strong empathetic bond between the reader and her protagonist. She then capitalizes on that bond by forcing her character to make tough, complicated choices that Kowal refuses to simplify or trivialize in any way.
1. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang.
My one quibble with “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is that I feel it would benefit from more fully developing its central character arc with the great success that, for example, Kowal does in “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”. The reason it edges out “The Lady Astronaut” to receive my #1 ranking, however, is that Chiang expertly invokes an immensely complicated psychological depth around a near-future technology. What I initially thought was going to be simply a polemical text suddenly drops away into a stunningly fractal depth of expression and thought.
“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a modern day version of True Names (a fantastic short novel from Vernor Vinge which I’ve reviewed here). But whereas Vinge fired a bold cannon of transhumanism into the heart of the industry, Chiang works subtly within a well-developed theme and pulls out something that feels powerfully and transcendentally real. Reading this story feels like stepping into your life circa 2025. There’s a fervent power to that kind of clear, speculative vision when it is executed with such effortless belief.