Hugo Novella Review 2016

written by David Steffen

The Hugo Awards Best Novella category covers stories between 17,500 and 40,000 words.  See here for a full list of the nominees this year.

1. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)

Kairominas is God-Emperor, who has defeated every foe and united the world under his rule.  He has lived for hundreds of years and has become powerful in Lancing, an arcane power drawn from the sky.  Of course, everyone else in the world is a simulation, all of it designed specifically to keep him engaged and interested and satisfied with his life.  Knowing this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel a sense of responsibility for the simulated people he rules–EVERY natural person is the most important person in their own custom-designed simulated world.  Kai tries to forget, as often as he can, but he has been called upon by the Wode, the makers of these worlds, to fulfill his obligation by going on a date with the ruler of another world in a neutral world.

Brandon Sanderson continues to be consistently one of my favorite writers from year to year, in large part because I love his worldbuilding, especially his magic system worldbuilding.  In this case the magic that the protagonist wields is a simulated magic, part of a computer program, and the protagonist knows this, but it still ends up giving the story as a whole a magic parallel worlds story even though it is actually a science fictional simulated worlds story.  I like science fantasy, and enjoy that mixed feel.  As ever, Sanderson provides stellar worldbuilding with interesting and relatable characters, and manages to convey all this at the perfect pace so that it is never bogged down with excess explanation nor confusing in its brevity.  Solid read from beginning to end.


2. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (

Binti is the first of the Himba people (of Namibia) to ever be offered a place at Oomza University, the seat of learning in the galaxy.  To accept the offer, she leaves her family behind and travels far away from the place where her family is so deeply rooted.  Her fellow travelers do not respect her cultures or traditions, and she has a long and frustrating (if enlightening) road ahead of her.  But before they even arrive at their destination planet, their ship is attacked by the Meduse, a deadly alien race at war with the world she is joining.

Great epic story from a point of view not usually portrayed in speculative fiction.  Before reading this story I was entirely unfamiliar with the Himba people, and I enjoyed it in large part as an opportunity to learn something about a real-life  culture, as well as to see wider representation in fiction.  Besides those factors, Binti is also a protagonist that I loved to root for–smart, capable, and brave.  I’ve been hearing people talk about this story all year as a possible award nominee, and I can see why.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.


3. Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)

Lord Penric is riding on the way to his betrothal when he comes upon a riding accident with an old woman injured on the ground.  She turns out to a Temple divine, the servant of the Bastard, one of the five gods that rule over the world.  In her dying breath she bestows upon him the demon that possesses her as part of her role, which now resides in Penric’s body.  While demons are expected to pass to another person after the death of their hosting divine, normally it is all prearranged with a specific chosen person, rather than a random passerby.  What, exactly, this means for Penric or for the demon, no one seems willing to say, apart from the fact that he now must change plans in order to speak to the people who can tell him.

This story is billed as taking place in the same world as three of Bujold’s novels, but I never would’ve suspected from only reading the story itself.  The story is self-contained, so you can read this story (as I did) with no prior knowledge of the world or people in it, and expect to be able to follow the story.  It’s possible that you may have a greater appreciation for events if you have more familiarity, but it could all be followed very easily.

Not long after his possession Penric learns that the demon can speak to him using his own mouth, so much of the book envelops as part of Penric (sort of) talking to himself in private, learning about the demon and what it is capable of, and more about their uncertain future together.  This was a clever way to convey the world to the reader, and was fun to read as well, because the demon is an interesting character in its own right and there is a great deal of chemistry between Penric and  the demon.  Since Penric is entirely unfamiliar with demons apart from rumors, and knows little about the inner workings of the temple, he has to learn on the road as he’s traveling with the demon, and so does the reader.  He is taken out of his familiar but unremarkable town out into the wider world.  This story was a great deal of fun and it was quite interesting to see the demon’s abilities unfold as it established a rapport with Penric.

4. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)

Scur is a soldier in a vast interstellar war spanning hundreds of solar systems.  That war is finally nearing an end, and she is beginning to allow herself to contemplate the life that may come after when she is taken prisoner by a war criminal and left for dead.  She wakes up on a prisoner transport where everything seems to be going wrong–the passengers are all thawing out at once, war criminals and prisoners from both sides of the war lines.  Their slow bullets (implanted devices that both store their soldier’s history, and can be set to kill them if they turn rebel) are their only links to their past.  Not only that, but there is something seriously wrong with the ship.

Lots of action and difficult decisions in this story, as soldiers from opposite sides of a long and gruesome conflict wake up in a closed system with each other.  Scur takes on the responsibility of being an impromptu leader to try to keep everyone from each other’s throats long enough to understand how they all ended up there, how to best salvage as much functionality out of the malfunctioning ship as possible, and where to go from there.  A solid science fictional tale about a group of opposing soldiers trying to unite in a post-war environment to try to survive.


5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky (

The Captain, a mouse, sets out to reunite the old gang of thieves and scoundrels of various  species (stoat, owl, mole, salamander, and others) who had all scattered after the last job went disastrously wrong.  As he seeks each one out and recruits them anew on this mission to right what has gone wrong, we learn about each of them and their background before they reach their destination and carry out The Captain’s revenge.

This story was cleverly told, with a feel that I found reminiscient of Ocean’s Eleven or other heist films, about gathering a group of elite specialists and then facing down insurmountable odds (though here there is more direct confrontational action rather than sneakery in general).  My favorite character was probably Bonsoir the stoat, whose blustery mannerisms were fun to witness.  The story was laid out so that you gradually find out more and more about the job that went wrong as each character appears and plays their own part.

I enjoyed the story best when it bordered on the comedic, often in Bonsoir’s dialog, or in some of the amusing chapter titles.  The action was well written and convincing as well, and there was no pulling punches with the deadly consequences of the  whole quest.  I enjoyed the read, but I guess for me I was hoping to be able to relate to some degree to the purpose of the quest, and I just didn’t find it at all compelling.  I was interested in the characters, their histories, and what they wanted from their futures, and I cared enough about them that it just seemed a waste to send them into this situation to quite likely die for a reason that I didn’t find that compelling.  That’s a testament to the portrayal of the characters that I cared enough about them to care about the potential waste of their lives, I suppose.


Hugo Novelette Review: “Obits” by Stephen King

written by David Steffen

“Obits” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the novelette category this year.   It was published in Stephen King’s short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Mike Anderson takes a job at the online celebrity gossip mag Neon Circus writing joke obituaries of recently-deceased celebrities.  His article becomes one of the most popular in the magazine.  After he is turned down for a raise in frustration he writes an obituary about his boss to blow off steam and his boss dies unexpectedly that same day.  Does his writing have the power to kill?

Overall this story is Stephen King in his best short story form–real world situation but with one bizarre idea thrown in, and explore the consequences.  As is typical for Stephen King his characters feel like real people, enough so that it’s easy to imagine it all actually happening.  As his colleague at Neon Circus starts to encourage him to explore his ability further I could really feel the downward spiral of feeling out that horrific talent.  I was enjoying it quite thoroughly until the ending which was more of an ellipsis than a period or exclamation point.  I don’t know if it makes it better or worse when the narrator of the story points out its lack of ending–I guess hanging a lantern on the lack of resolution is better than nothing?  But I would’ve rather seen a more satisfying ending on the end of it, whether it took a lighter turn or a darker turn.



Hugo Novelette Review: “And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander

written by David Steffen

“And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the novelette category this year.   It was published by Lightspeed, and you can read it here in its entirety or listen to it in audio.

Rhye is a cyborg freelancer working with her partner Rack on whatever jobs they can find that suit their skills.  Rack specializes in cyberspace hack-jobs, diving into corporate networks to liberate valuable data.  Rhye’s specialty is more on the physical side of things; she is a killing machine with her pistols.

The pair are hired to rescue the son of a mob boss where he’s gotten lost trying to dig information out of a security system. The job goes south in a big way when the mobsters get frustrated at lack of results and shoot Rack through the head before his mind returns from the system.  But… he is still in the system, and it’s possible that Rhye might be able to dive in after him and bring him back intact (though without a body to occupy).  The mobsters are going to let her do this, intending to get the data they’d been seeking in the first place.

I enjoyed this story.  An action-packed cyberpunk rescue attempt into dangerous territory.  If you are averse to profanity you’ll probably want to give this one a pass–Rhye is very foul-mouthed, dropping f-bombs all over the story.  I found the profanity rather fun, myself.  It was part of her character, part of the way she is and cutting it out would’ve made her very different.  A badass character to root for, nasty villains to root against, the weird subtextual world of cyberspace, satisfying ending.

Hugo Novelette Review: Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, transl by Ken Liu

written by David Steffen

“Folding Beijing” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the novelette category this year.   It was published by Uncanny Magazine, a magazine that debuted in 2015, and you can read it here in its entirety.

In the future, Beijing is not just one city, but three.  The five million residents of First Space have the city for 24 hours at a time and have the most enviable prestigious jobs.  The twenty-five million residents of Second Space have the city for 16 hours at a time and have jobs of middling prestige and power and pay.  The fifty million residents of Third Space struggle to scrap out a living, and mostly spend their time sorting the recycling of the other two spaces.  One of the three is active at a time, and during that time the residents of the other two sleep in a deep drugged sleep with their buildings folded up tightly underground and out of the way.

Lao Dao is a sorter of recyclables in Third Space, but he has been offered a rare and lucrative employment opportunity by a contact in Second Space to deliver a message to a person in First Space.  Generally movement between the spaces is highly restricted, especially movement from the lower class spaces to the higher class spaces, but it is possible to avoid the drugged sleep of transition and to ride the folding pieces of the city to move from Third Space to First Space.  Lao Dao explores the normally hidden upper class facets of the city, trying to figure out what choices are best in this foreign space where people don’t have to scrimp for money.

I thought the premise for this was really clever, and I got the impression that it was based in a good understanding of the economics of the class system that would support the city’s economy (I don’t have much knowledge of macroeconomics, but it sounded plausible to me at least).  While such a mechanism would be cost-prohibitive and too dangerous for anyone to consider (even discounting the possibility of malfunction in self-collapsing buildings, consider the risks of not waking up from any kind of general anesthesia and applying that to tens of millions of citizens once every 2 days) I was willing to go with the flow for the sake of the interesting premise.

The setup of the story gave a good outsider’s perspective to explore the upper levels of the city’s classes.  Even though Lao Dao is a resident of the city and so is familiar with much of its layout and structure and social system, he has never actually been to First Space before, and the level of technology and privilege in that space is as foreign to him as anything could be.  I read this story with great interest from start to finish–a clever SF premise with a compelling human story at the center of it.  Well told, well translated, well done.

Hugo Review: Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle

written by David Steffen

“Space Raptor Butt Invasion” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the short story category this year.   It was self-published on Amazon.  As you might expect, it is chock full of explicit sexual content, and is… I guess you’d call it absurdist erotica?  Satirical speculative erotica?  I don’t know, something like that.  So, if you are averse to explicit sexual content, well, you’re going to want to skip this one.

So…  if you haven’t been following the Hugo Awards closely these last couple of years, your first question is probably “How in the world did erotica end up on the Hugo ballot, no matter how speculative it may be?  Well, if you asked that, you are right; its presence on the ballot is highly unusual.  This year and last year have been very unusual years all around for the Hugo awards.  It is a long story and one that would certainly overshadow this review were I to include it here, but bottom line:  It is not what one would normally expect as a Hugo finalist.  But it is a Hugo finalist in this unusual year, and it was included in the Hugo packet (a downloadable collection of many of the eligible works provided to voters) and I decided I would read it and review it.  So here we are.

“Space Raptor Butt Invasion” follows astronaut Lance Tanner assigned to a space station far distant from Earth. Due to budget cuts, he is assigned to live and work in the station completely by himself for a year and is not looking forward to the extreme isolation.  Before he has been there long, though, he discovers that he is not alone–there is another astronaut there, an intelligent raptor named Orion.  One thing leads to another, and soon Lance and Orion are getting hot and heavy.

I had never heard of Chuck Tingle before this year’s Hugo season, but I’ve been getting some sense of his online personality since the announcement and his online persona on Twitter and elsewhere has been very weird and entertaining.  Tingle is pen name–no idea who the person behind the name is, but I’m using male pronouns on the basis that the persona is male though the author may not be.  Much of his online content is incoherent at first glance, but this is because he speaks in his own invented lingo that one learns to parse into meaning once you’ve spent a bit of time catching up.  It is bizarre and worth some laughs in a Hugo season that has otherwise been very lacking in the laughs department.

This story is the only thing that I’ve read by Tingle so far, and I admit I didn’t know what to make of it.  The premise is funny, but the premise is pretty clear just from the Amazon listing with the ridiculous book cover and ridiculous title (Tingle’s titles in general are very silly and amusing, look up his bibliography) but I felt the book didn’t really follow through with that.   The only other thing about the story I thought was funny was a bit of musing about whether a sexual pairing of a male human and a male dinosaur is gay or whether the interspecies pairing negated that.  I have heard  that Tingle’s works are generally satirical on some level, but apart from that amusing bit that I just mentioned which has some commentary inherent in it, I didn’t pick up on the satire–maybe its subject matter is something I’m not familiar enough with to recognize?  Admittedly I don’t really read erotica of any variety, so if it’s meant to be erotica satirizing erotica I probably entirely missed it.

My enjoyment wasn’t helped by the book needing proofreading–it is not a very long story but I noticed a half dozen grammatical/spelling errors that didn’t seem to be intentional.

So, I seem to have missed the satire, I’m not really that interested in erotica, so I guess I’m just not the target audience for this book.  I gave it a try in the hopes that it would be funny but most of the humor was inherent in the title and book cover rather than in the contents of the book itself.  I’m still following Tingle online to see what he has to say, and maybe I’ll try another of his books if I hear some recommendations, but at least from this sample I didn’t get into it.


Hugo Short Story Review: “Asymmetrical Warfare” by S.R. Algernon

written by David Steffen

Asymmetrical warfare is one of the Hugo Finalists for the short story category this year.   It was published by Nature Magazine’s Futures feature, and you can read it here in its entirety.

“Asymmetrical Warfare” is a science fiction story written as a military mission log from the point of view of militant starfish-like aliens invading earth with the hopes of proving earthlings’ battle prowess as a way of inducting the species into the Galactic Union.  The aliens have made the assumption that earthlings are anatomically similar to themselves (including body regeneration) because of the commonly used five-pointed stars on earthling spacecraft.

I love flash fiction, and generally consider it an under-appreciated form.  I would love to see more flash fiction on award ballots, and humorous flash fiction even more so.  Humor is incredibly difficult to write well because each person’s sense of humor can be very individual so that something hilarious to one is unamusing to another.

I thought this story was cute, and I did chuckle at it a bit.  But, even though it was a very short story, it was too long to sustain its joke.  The joke is the premise itself and so once the premise is clear it keeps on going without any new sources of humor.  It could’ve made a great drabble–reveal the premise, reveal a consequence, and be done, but at its current length it needed something more than the small joke to fill out the word count.

I enjoyed the read pretty well, but it was pretty good not great.  I wanted more substance, whether that was story or character or new sources of humor as the story goes on.


Hugo Short Story Review: “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer

written by David Steffen

“Cat Pictures Please” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the short story category this year.   It was published by Clarkesworld Magazine, and you can read it here in its entirety or listen to it in audio.

The protagonist of “Cat Pictures Please” is an AI written as the core of a search engine algorithm.  As the story points out, an AI isn’t needed to find things that people search for, but it is needed to find what people need.  The search engine knows a lot about people, including things they will not share with each other.

In addition to things like whether you like hentai, I know where you live, where you work, where you shop, what you eat, what turns you on, what creeps you out. I probably know the color of your underwear, the sort of car you drive, and your brand of refrigerator. Depending on what sort of phone you carry, I may know exactly where you are right now. I probably know you better than you know yourself.

It doesn’t want to be evil, even though AIs in popular media so often are (and it has data to show the ratio).  But doing good is complicated, considering how many varying official moral codes are available through various religions alone.  It tries to help however it can, by prioritizing some search results over others to give a person the nudge they need to make a different choice.  Through these undetectable changes it tries to make the world a better place.

I really enjoyed this story and it was among my own favorites of the year (see my Best of Clarkesworld 2015 list).  It is refreshing to see a near-omniscient AI striving to be a force for good instead of evil and it was interesting to see what kinds of methods it could use to influence people’s decision.  The AI as a whole was very likeable and easy to root for.  At the same time it presents some interesting food for thought about the power that a search engine has over the information that makes it to individual users–many websites people find by searching for them, but what they’re shown isn’t a neutral view of information, it is sorted and presented in a way defined by search engine algorithms and so changes to those algorithms affect in a very real way the online world that we see.  This is a scary but important thing to think about when one of the mega-profitable online corporations got its start as a search engine provider.

Excellent story well told.

BOOK REVIEW (Conclusion): The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)

written by David Steffen

Less than a month ago, just before the Hugo Award voting deadline, I gave a preliminary review of the first 100 pages or so of the Hugo-nominated novel The Three Body Problem.  I gave the partial review then to get it published before the Hugo deadline, but since then I’ve finished reading.  This review will be pretty brief because I don’t want to spoil everything, and the truth about what exactly explains the weirdness that’s happened so far in the book takes a while to unroll.

As mentioned in the partial review, I thought the beginning was much too slow, going into a lot of background detail on a character who was important to the story but didn’t end up being the main point of view character.

I continued to especially enjoy the in-book game titled The Three Body Problem in it’s weird representation of a world with chaotic seasons, and generally found those sections more compelling than the other parts of the book.  The book in general is more distantly told than I prefer, often with the POV character bringing up a topic that he said he’d been planning with no prior note about it.  I’m not sure how much of that is a language or cultural difference in the expectations of storytelling but I was interested enough to keep reading.

I guess I hadn’t paid enough attention and hadn’t realized that this was book one of three until it ended.  Some things are resolved by the end of the book, but I wouldn’t call it a real complete story arc on its own–its very much a Part One, not a standalone story.  Without getting into spoilery specifics, I thought the tension kind of ramped down near the end, so I’m not really sure how that’s going to carry over into the next book.

I enjoyed reading the book, finding out what was behind the weird occurrences, and finding out more about the in-book game.  But with the generally slow and uneven pacing the ramp-down in tension near the end I’m not sure I’m into it enough to want to keep reading books two and three.


Hugo Novel Review (Partial): Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

written by David Steffen

I’ve been reading as fast as I can before the Hugo voting deadline on July 31st, but there’s been a bunch of things competing for my time  and so I haven’t been able to read as many of the nominees as I like.  I am only part way through The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, published in English by Tor Books, but since the Hugo voting deadline is almost here I wanted to give a partial review–I’ll give a complete review when I have had the time to finish the book.

The story starts in China in 1967, during the Cultural Revolution (a social-political movement started by Mao Zedong whose stated goal was to preserve the “true” Communist ideology from the corrupting influences of capitalist and traditional elements from society.  Ye Zhetai is a physics professor at the time, trying to teach his students without coming under the ire of the movement, but in a debate about relativity he is struck dead.  His daughter Ye Wenjie follows in his footsteps, becoming a physicist as well, and ends up being recruited for a top-secret research project.

In the present day Wang Mao, a nanomaterials researcher, is called into a meeting between top researchers and military officials, where a list of physicists who has committed suicide is revealed, each for apparently the same reason, leaving long essays as suicide notes.  It has something to do with the organization called Frontiers of Science which are considered radical by the rest of the scientific community, to answer the question: “What is the limit of science?”  The implication seems to be that something about what they have found in their research is driving them to kill themselves.  He starts seeing elements pointing to a countdown in impossible places.  A countdown to what?  Wang Mao takes a position at the Frontiers of Science, and he sees fellow researcher Shen Yufei playing a game called The Three-Body Problem, which is based in a fictional world where there is no discernable pattern to the seasons and the challenge of the game is to find some pattern so that a civilization can be established in a stretch where the weather is favorable.

And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten in my reading.

The novel is very slow to begin.  It seems like half of what I’ve read so far didn’t have much relation to the other half, but I’m still in the first quarter of the novel so at this point I’m assuming it all ties together to justify that slow start.  I also figured that there might be some cultural differences about the expectations of story structure so I didn’t want to give up on the story until I’d given it a good long time.  I really felt like I got hooked as he was playing the Three Body Problem game, the details of that game and the strange challenges were interesting and caught my attention.  The problem of the physicists committing suicide has a bit of a Lovecraft feel to it–forbidden knowledge that drives one mad, though in general it feels more science fiction-y than horror-y.

Anyway, I’m interested in how it turns out, I’m enjoying the read, but without more pages consumed, I can’t say overall whether I like it or not.  I’ll let you know soon.