Monday, June 6, 2022

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Best Novella

: It’s time to get serious about some Hugo ballot categories!

Because we had the biggest collective head start in the novella category, that’s where we’re starting this readthrough. We’ve already discussed this ballot (and its single publisher origin) somewhat in our overall recommendations, but do you have any more thoughts on the category as a whole?

Joe: Well, Novella is one of two categories I was way ahead of by the time the finalists were announced (Dramatic Presentation: Long Form is the other) so for this discrete moment I’m feeling good about my Hugo reading this year. I’ll feel even better when the Hugo Voter’s Packet is released and I’m quite sure the announcement on that will go live moments after we put this on the schedule for Nerds of a Feather but that’s the way it goes.

Ignoring the Tordotcom of it all since we’ve talked about that already, I’m generally happy with this ballot. There is perhaps less of a sense of discovery here for me, in part because I follow what Tordotcom publishes as much as I can, but also because I’m already reading everything Seanan McGuire, Alix E. Harrow, and Becky Chambers publish. I’ve read a fair amount of Aliette de Bodard and I’m starting to catch up on Catherynne M. Valente. Adrian Tchaikovsky is so prolific that I have a lot of work to do to get a sense of the scope of his work. Which is all to say that everyone on this ballot is known to me to some extent and they’re all great.

Possibly because it hasn’t been that long since I read this year’s A Mirror Mended, which was also wonderful, and I have fairy tales on the brain due to having two small children, but I absolutely loved Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered. I loved how she played with fairy tales, portal fantasy, and I suppose our expectations. It’s very different than Naomi Novik’s Uprooted but if I had to make a comparison, that’s what came to mind and I adored Uprooted. There was a looseness to the writing and it felt fresh like a spring breeze (minus the pollen count).

: Oh good, we get to start with a disagreement! I can draw a line midway through my ballot between “works that I like seeing on a Hugo list” and “works I am indifferent to salty about”, and A Spindle Splintered is unfortunately on the latter list. I enjoyed the writing style, and it’s an interesting, self-aware take on the Sleeping Beauty myth which tries to put some agency back in the hands of the princesses. But to me it felt like an exceptionally shallow story, underscored when half of the “Sleeping Beauties from the rest of the multiverse” characters aren’t even given names. That this includes the only Black character of the novella makes me very uncomfortable, and underscores the feeling that this is a very white feminist fable - sure, princesses should choose their own fate, but that’s a very limited, elite group to be telling empowering stories about, and this story makes Choices about who does and doesn’t get that story.

We’ll talk about short stories in due course, but it doesn’t escape my notice that both Harrow’s stories on the ballot this year are about terminally ill children (well, Zinnia isn’t quite a child any more, but she’s far too young to be facing the fate she is), which is a subject that’s very easy to invoke emotions over. In the case of A Spindle Splintered, I don’t think the novella does anything to move beyond those surface level emotions, and it’s a shame because I think Harrow can do much deeper, more interesting work on this topic.

Joe: Well, I thought it was a delight. I do think that A Mirror Mended is a stronger novella that goes a bit deeper and is more focused, but that’s not the one on the ballot this year. Either way, I think A Spindle Splintered is going to sit pretty comfortably at the top of my ballot.

Adri: Given Harrow’s track record with the Hugos, it feels likely we’ll be having this conversation about A Mirror Mended next year, and I hope we have more similar feelings then.

The other novella I didn’t get on with this year is Catherynne M. Valente’s The Past is Red - which is a shame, because I’ve loved Valente’s work in the past and I specifically really enjoyed The Future is Blue, which forms the first part of the novella and was originally a standalone story.

Both stories follow Tetley, a young woman living on the Pacific garbage patch in a future where sea levels have engulfed all land. In The Future Is Blue, Tetley tells the story of how she came to be ostracised from her community, interspersed with scenes of the abuse she suffers as part of her punishment. It’s an unsettling mesh of whimsy and horror which works great at short length, but the extension in the Past is Red gave me nothing new, and instead seemed to retread the same ground with a lot less subtlety. The low point is the end of the novella, in which an elite character explains, in the bluntest and most unrealistic terms, why he doesn’t care about people like Tetley. The result was a story that I felt overstayed its welcome, and in doing so undermined a lot of what made the shorter form tale so good.

Joe: The funny thing is that the edition of the novella I read had “The Future is Blue” as the opening “chapter”, but I didn’t realize it at the time so I just read everything as one story and then had to later parse out where the change was. Right after that, I was reading stories from Jonathan Strahan’s Drowned Worlds anthology and ran into “The Future is Blue” again - so I’ve had some unexpected encounters with Tetley and Garbagetown recently. Are we considering “The Future is Blue” as part of The Past is Red or a separate story that was collected in the print edition?

Either way, it wasn’t my favorite. I am looking forward to Valente’s Space Opera sequel, Space Oddity and I can’t wait to read her Fairyland books to the kids - but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to read another Garbagetown story.

With that said - I think I liked it more than you. I appreciate the increased maturity of Tetley in The Past is Red and the scene you’re talking about didn’t feel quite as unrealistic to me as it did for you. The biggest surprise is actually that the elite spoke with her at all, but not what he said when he was fully rich and powerful and as isolated from the realities of Garbagetown as can be. The actual conversation felt real to me, with the assumption that he would as kindly as possible say the quiet part out loud.

The part that rang false and awkward to me was the whole sequence where she’s briefly the queen or empress or whatever in the region with the pills / containers.

Since I like everything else on the ballot, I’ll just acknowledge that I really didn’t get Elder Race. It felt like a story that was written decades ago and if you told me I was reading a finalist from 1983 I’d believe you.

: Another disagreement! For me, Elder Race is one of the strongest things here, and I think the use of a classic sword-and-sorcery-but-secretly-science-fiction aesthetic - it put me in mind of both Rocannon’s World and the Steerswoman - was one of the selling points. Adrian Tchaikovsky is pretty prolific and his works don’t always work out for me, but I think what sets Elder Race apart from its spiritual predecessors is the quality of character work on both sides of the technological gulf. Both Nyr and Lynesse are really enjoyable characters to follow, and Tchaikovsky makes the communication gulf between them into something that feels really heartfelt and emotionally affecting. I don’t think I can defend its originality, but Elder Race feels extremely well realised for what it is, and it’s great to see Adrian Tchaikovsky recognised on a Hugo ballot at last.

Joe: I loved Steerswoman, by the way, but with that said - I did very much appreciate how Tchaikovosky worked with the inadequacies in communication between the high and low tech. That part of the story, and the related frustrations, was very effective. I just didn’t dig the rest of it.

: Another novella that relies on the communication between individuals from different worlds is A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers: the first of her Monk and Robot series of novellas. It’s a really interesting take on a post-capitalist world, and while it’s quite a self-indulgent story in some ways - the main conflict is basically “person has a quarter life crisis and has to learn they won’t always love the things they are called to do all of the time - it acts as a great vehicle for the cosy sort of cultural exchange that Chambers is best at.

: My strongest memory / association with A Psalm for the Wild-Built is how a particular segment of the internet reacted towards it in light of the pandemic, which is basically: this is a *nice* story and right now we need nice things in our lives.

There’s a little bit more to A Psalm for the Wild-Built than that - but the quiet decency of the novella worked for me, though perhaps not to the extent of exalting it to the heavens that some have done.

I liked it. It *is* nice and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that, especially right now. I think “cosy” is exactly the right word to describe it. I do look forward to reading more Monk and Robot novellas, so I think Chambers hit the mark with this one.

Also hitting the mark for me is Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields. I found the novella beautiful, heartbreaking, and moving - which is a common response when I read her Wayward Children novellas. It’s not my favorite. I’m not sure anything will replace the discovery of Every Heart a Doorway, and I do think that this year’s novella (Where the Drowned Girls Go) is a far, far stronger entry in the series.

I haven’t re-read Across the Green Grass Fields in more than a year, which puts me in the weird position of checking my review, knowing that I liked it, but also recognizing this is also a story that has slid just a touch in my estimation. Of course, I’m not much of a horse guy, so maybe that plays into it as well.

: I’m also not a horse girl, and as far as I was concerned Across the Green Grass Fields had ground to make up after the previous book, Come Tumbling Down, really pushed me out of love with the series as a whole (more reflections on that when we tackle Best Series, I guess). What I found was a novella that didn’t cause me any deep frustration, but also didn’t do anything that really excited me either. My enduring feeling is one of confusion: there are a few half formed morals around conformity vs. being yourself during childhood, including a rather unsubtle “what if pretty noble unicorn aesthetic is actually controlled by horrible patriarchal old men from behind a curtain” angle, but nothing really comes together. Protagonist and horse girl Regan is intersex, and this plays a big role in the events leading to her finding her door, but the subject is all but dropped the moment she enters the new world (and no, of course her being intersex doesn’t have to be a plot point, but McGuire makes it into one and then ignores it for the remainder of the book, which to me is the worst of both worlds). Her chosen family of centaurs are constantly kind and accepting to her, and sacrifice a lot to keep her safe, but she later discovers that they have bigotry towards other horseland residents - at a point when it’s too late for there to be any sort of reckoning.

So, yeah, in conclusion, I’m not sure what’s going on here, and McGuire’s style and writing skill isn’t enough to carry me through a story that frankly feels kind of phoned in.

Joe: And that’s interesting because McGuire’s style and writing is skill *is* enough to carry me through a story. It’s comfort reading that I tend to find deeply satisfying - even when it isn’t the best of the series. Which is fine, really, it’s just interesting to think about which stories are the ones that linger for me because my voting is going to be slightly different than my initial reactions.

I believe this leaves us with one more novella to touch on before we wrap, and that is Aliette de Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger.

What a lovely, fantastic story this was - it’s a romance with diplomacy and a whole lot of fire (of all kinds) smoldering around the edges. This is such a rich, lush, almost vibrant setting communicated in a relatively small number of pages. de Bodard does a whole lot of work here without overstuffing the novella or getting in the way of the story she is telling.

Fireheart Tiger is right up near the top of my ballot, slotting right behind A Spindle Splintered, not to get back to our disagreement.

Adri: Well, this is a point where we don’t disagree! I adore Aliette de Bodard’s worldbuilding and character work and this is a story featuring both of those on top form. I think this is also a great example of how the novella format can be used to tell a smaller story in a world where a bigger one is implied: we have everything we need to understand Thanh’s past in the hostile country of Ephteria, but we only get glimpses of the full picture. It makes Fireheart Tiger especially effective as a story about the aftermath of abuse, because we can understand the situation between Thanh and Eldris but we have no investment in their relationship while the abuse was ongoing.

Fireheart Tiger is at the top of my ballot this year, closely followed by Elder Race and A Psalm For the Wild Built.

Joe: As we wrap up, one thing that’s been picking at my mind is the less than fully formed idea that I could use a little bit less series work on the novella ballot - in the sense of having fewer repeat finalists from the same series, even acknowledging some of the finalists are quite worthy.

I love seeing Seanan McGuire on the ballot and I’m going to continue to put October Daye and Incryptid on my Best Series ballot until they win the award they so richly deserve. But, at the same time, the repetition in novella *feels* a bit rough given that we’ve just discussed how we expect A Mirror Mended to make the ballot next year and we should assume that the second Monk and Robot novella from Becky Chambers will make the ballot whenever it is eligible.

This isn’t quite saying the category is overwhelmed with repeat finalists because I think half of this is Murderbot being absolutely everywhere for a few years across multiple categories, and before that Binti was on the novella ballot three times in four years, and we do have the annual Wayward Children novella now. Year over year, it’s perhaps not as excessive as I’m making it sound. I think maybe it’s an offshoot of the Tordotcom dominance of the category in five of the last six years along with our solid prediction of two finalists for next year assuming there’s another Monk and Robot story coming our way this year.

I don’t know. Am I off base here?

Adri: I don’t think you are, and I suspect we could have had even more series-oriented vibes this year: Fugitive Telemetry, Martha Wells’ sixth Murderbot book, had enough votes to be a Nebula Award finalist but was withdrawn by the author, and it’s a strong possibility that the same thing happened for the Hugo (we won’t know until the nomination statistics are released).

As it stands, while we’re projecting with A Mirror Mended and Chambers’ A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, the novella ballot is developing this aura of “we’ve seen all this before”. This year, I think that’s also because of the number of authors in this category who are also nominated elsewhere (four out of six). Compare that with the Nebula ballot, which has no authors nominated in multiple categories, and a novella list with several first-time nominees from different publishers, and it becomes clear how focused this ballot is on a very small subset of talent from within the broader field of SFF.

But I’m not sure how the Hugos move away from that, or even if it is something that needs to be moved away from, because sadly the world does not feel the need to rearrange itself just because I personally am disappointed.

Joe: I’ve been waiting for, at the very least, the Hugos to rearrange itself around my preferences for almost twenty years now and that’s not a thing that seems to be happening. Alas.

And with that - I think we’ve said everything we need to say about the Novellas. Next up, Dramatic Presentation! Stay tuned, everyone.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him
Adri (she/her), Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy