Thursday, June 21, 2018

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

It's time for another entry of Reading the Hugos: 2018 Edition! Today we're going to take a look at the six stories up for Best Novelette.

Novelette is inherently a weird category. There's not really a substantial difference between a short story and a novelette, except that a novelette is just a little bit longer (but not as long as a novella, which really is a different form).

One thing that I find interesting about the Novelette category this year is that it contains two stories that are spun off recent novels. "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" is part of Aliette de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen series and "Extracurricular Activities" is from Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire. Fortunately, for both stories, no previous knowledge of the books is required.

Shall we take a look at how the stories stack up against each other?

Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)
Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (, February 15, 2017)
The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)
A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time: We've all read vampire stories and they're a dime a dozen. Whether they can walk in the daylight, are public about their identity, live in fear of being found out, or any variation that you can think of, you've probably read the story. Or, so I thought. On the surface, this can be any other vampire story, except for one thing. Finley, the victim about to transition to becoming a vampire is a transman.

"Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time" excels in exploring the intersection of Finley's transition to male with his transition to vampire. This is what science fiction and fantasy is all about - the exploration of different ideas and identities. What does the transition to vampire do to a body who has undergone gender transition? "Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time" is a sexy story of identity, belonging, heartbreak, and complication. It happens to be a vampire story. Szpara's story pushes boundaries and is an exceptional piece of fiction.

Children of Thorns, Children of Water:  I'm not sure if I can or if I even should attempt to separate my appreciation for "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" from my appreciation of de Bodard's excellent Dominion of the Fallen series of novels. If you've read the second of those novels, The House of Binding Thorns, you know that Thuon is a primary character and you can read this story as prequel. If not, or if you just don't remember, "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" is "just" a very good story of clashing cultures and an attempt to infiltrate another organization that runs not unlike a mob family.

It's good, people. You should expect this if you've read Aliette de Bodard before. She never disappoints. "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" tells the story of Thuon, a minor dragon prince (this is a literal statement) attempting to infiltrate House Hawthorn, one of several "houses" comprised of fallen angels (again, literal) ruling over Paris. It's complicated, risky, and there are problems in the house.

Because I have a poor memory, I spent half of the story thinking "this Thuon seems very familiar" - but that did nothing to lessen my appreciation for de Bodard's skill in telling a very good story.

The Secret Life of Bots: Suzanne Palmer is telling two stories here, though they are very much intertwined. The secondary story is that of the last gasp fight of humanity against an alien that has been winning the war and eradicating every human ship and outpost it can find and has launched a desperate attack in a derelict ship to hold the enemy back. The primary story is that of the titular "bots", which are used to do any number of menial task. The ship's AI is using bots to keep it operational, but sends one of the oldest bots, a now defunct model, after a rodent of sorts that has been damaging the ship.

The little robots are programmed to follow commands, but they have just enough AI to be able to interpret and figure out the best way to accomplish a task. It's that AI that gives the little robots fantastic personality. Palmer's story is charming, though coupled with the impending extinction of humanity perhaps charming shouldn't be the right word. It's tense, but the robots are the real heroes of this fight. I use this description a fair amount when talking about stories, but I wanted a whole lot more of this story while recognizing Palmer told it at the right length. "The Secret Life of Bots" isn't missing a thing and I was delighted the entire time I spent reading it.

A Series of Steaks: Since I've already written about the Short Story category, this is Vina Jie-Min Prasad's second story on the Hugo ballot and it is a real standout. Besides everything, what I really enjoy about "A Series of Steaks" is the framing of forgery and what makes a good forger. Ultimately, that's what "A Series of Steaks" is about. Helena semi-legally fabricates meat for restaurants that is otherwise undetectable for not being the real thing (ultimately, a forgery). She is offered a contract that she can't refuse because it comes with a threat to expose her.

The rest of the story is a tense game of Helena (and her new assistant) trying to fulfill the order and somehow protect herself. Prasad's writing is clear and pulled me right in. It's a damn fine story and I'm going to be looking for much more from Vina Jie-Min Prasad.

Extracurricular Activities: This is the second story on the ballot that is related to a novel. This one is set well before Yoon Ha Lee's novel Ninefox Gambit. "Extracurricular Activities" is a story of one of Shuos Jedeo's early missions well before he became a legend and a mass murderer, though already he had a reputation.

"Extracurricular Activities" will work perfectly well if you're not familiar with Shuos Jedeo from Ninefox Gambit or Raven Strategem. In one sense, this is a fairly straight forward story. It's an undercover mission to rescue another undercover crew that might be capture or otherwise in trouble. On the other hand, even if you're unfamiliar with Jedeo, there is a strong sense that Yoon Ha Lee is building a legend while showing what he was like as a man and an officer. Effective. Passionate. Creative and unconventional. Yoon Ha Lee's writing is on point and top notch. This is either a bite sized slice of a much larger story or it's a perfectly compact and excellent story that stands on its own. It's both, and it's exceptional.

Wind Will Rove: Though I don’t read nearly as much short fiction as I used to, it is becoming quickly apparent that Sarah Pinsker is one of my favorite short fiction writers and that her name on a story tells me that not only do I want to read it, that it is also likely to be exceptionally good. “Wind Will Rove” is one of two stories from Pinsker on this year’s Hugo ballot and, like “And Then There Were (N-One)”, it is fantastic. I want to use the phrase “top notch”, but I’m afraid I’m beginning to overuse it to the point that “top notch” has lost some of its meaning.

“Wind Will Rove” is a story of history, music, and a generation ship. I’m a sucker for a generation ship story. I almost always want more and more from the story, and that includes this one. With so much lost to a virus that destroyed databases worth of knowledge and culture, the residents of this particular ship have clung to what they can recall and what they were able to recreate – even knowing that so much of it is only partial truth mixed with imperfect memory. Depending on who you ask, of what generation, the culture of the ship has either stagnated or it is focused on remembering where they’ve come from. Sarah Pinsker asks important questions about what cultural identities are important to bring along untouched into the future and what culture should shape and reform around who the people are at that moment and in that place. What relevance does a song of an “Oklahoma Rooster” have for people several generations away from ever having even seen a rooster or a barn or the feeling of natural air on a planet? What meaning does learning the history of a long departed planet have for children who will live and die on a ship speeding between the stars?

Pinsker examines history and culture through the lens of “oldtime” fiddle music and through the passage of time on a generation ship. She doesn’t offer an easy answer but does suggest a way through. Perhaps she’s looking at a unique situation of a particular generation ship, but there are still things to consider in how we respond to changing culture today. Sarah Pinsker’s easy storytelling pulls you in, takes hold of your hand, and guides you on a journey. I don’t play music, and I know Pinsker is a musician, but the traditions and the art of music really comes through here. It’s a wonderful story.

My Vote
1. Wind Will Rove
2. Extracurricular Activities
3. A Series of Steaks
4. The Secret Life of Bots
5. Children of Thorns, Children of Water
6. Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time

Our Previous Coverage
Short Story

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.