Hugo Novella Review: “Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

written by David Steffen

“Flow” by Arlan Andrews Sr. was published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.  Analog published it free to read online as part of the Hugo season.

Rist and Cruthar live with their people in the Tharn’s Lands where the world exists in unending hazy twilight.  They make their living by riding icebergs that break off from the greater ice mass to sell them to warmlanders further south.  In this story Rist takes his first berg-riding trip to the south, where the sky is blue and the light burns brightly in the sky.  They are only meant to take the iceberg as far as the ice broker, but Rist gets the idea to ride the iceberg further south, and so he and the more experienced Cruthar go on to the strange lands of the south for an adventure.  People from different lands have lived separately long enough to gain differentiating racial features, including extreme farsightedness so that none can see things clearly up close in favor of far vision.  The people of the Tharn’s Lands used carved figurines for writing, and Rist keeps a journal of everything he does, and everything he learns to share with his family (both on a philosophical level and things that might have applications in their merchant business).

For me this story brought a lot of the good old “sense of wonder” of golden age science fiction.  Both the Tharn’s Lands and the warmlands are foreign and interesting, and because the character is learning about the warmlands as the story goes on and contrasting it with his home, the story gets a lot of this comparison in.  As the story goes on Rist keeps his journal, and I find his insights about the other world interesting, to reinforce his worldview that is very different from mine–even considering the sun and the moon to be foreign concepts because of the haze of the Tharn’s Lands.

The only part that got a little bit annoying was that Rist repeatedly went on about the breasts of the women of the warmlands–it makes sense in some fashion because apparently the Tharn’s Lands women don’t have prominent breasts (another genetic differentiator like the eyesight, though it wasn’t clear why this particular thing would differentiate while leaving the two races sexually compatible) but it felt rather random and distracting in a story that I otherwise thought was quite solid.  It also struck me as unimaginative in an otherwise imaginative story that, of course a man who has never seen breasts would find them attractive, when really there could be a variety of reactions that would be more interesting–concern about her health, wondering if they hurt all the time, or being put off by their strangeness since to him they may not seem natural.  But, really, that was the only sour note in the whole thing for me, and a pretty minor one at that.

A note at the beginning of “Flow” indicates that the characters were first seen in “Thaw, which was previously published in Analog.  I could definitely see the shape of that other story, with some references to past experiences together in this one, but I thought this story stood well enough on its own, and I always felt like I had enough information.

I quite enjoyed this story and I recommend it for those who like a little longer stories with a sense of adventure and exploration of one fictional culture from the perspective of another fictional culture.  It has my top vote in the Novella category.

Hugo Novelette Review: “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” by Rajnar Vajra

written by David Steffen

“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” by Rajnar Vajra, published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, is nominated for the Hugo Award this year in the novelette category.  Analog has posted this story for free for the voting period.

The protagonists of this story are a trio of Exoplanetary Explorers: an earthling, a silver Venusian, and a golden Martian.  They get in a bar fight, which puts them on thin ice with their commanding officers.  Their punishment is to be assigned to a mission doomed to fail–there is a planet on which they wish to establish a colony, where they have learned that the residents are intelligent but have failed to establish true contact with them.  Priam, the Martian, raises the stakes by promising that they can establish contact and offering up their jobs if they fail.

I am not the audience for this story.  It does evoke a sense of golden age SF, but not in a way that I found appealing.  The conversational tone of the narrator only came across as irritating to me, right from the first lines: “A silver Venusian, a golden Martian, and an Earthling walked into a bar. Sounds like a joke, right? Nope. Actually an unfunny blunder the three of us made that Friday evening.”  I didn’t care about the fate of any of the characters, and Priam who is portrayed a the smartest of the trio, I found particularly annoying in his thoughtless raising of the stakes for all three of them based on his own arrogant assessment of his own intelligence which, because this harkens back to golden age SF, is of course completely justified in the end because the smart character always wins the day.  It was kind of interesting to try to figure out the mystery of the intelligence, but as tends to happen when a story tries to put together a puzzle that is set up as being unsolveable by most people, it didn’t actually succeed in convincing me that it wouldn’t’ve been solved before this point.  The stakes of the story were entirely unimportant to me, or rather I was more rooting for them to be kicked out of the Exoplanetary Explorers but also had no doubt whatsoever that smart Priam would save the day because the shape of the story was so familiar.

So, as I said, I’m clearly not the target audience for this tale.



Hugo Novelette Review: “Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner

written by David Steffen

“Championship B’tok”, written by Edward M. Lerner, published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, is nominated for this year’s Hugo Award in the Novelette category.  Analog has posted this story for free online as part of this Hugo season.

I generally start these stories with a synopsis, to give a sense of what the story was about.  For me to be able to write a meaningful synopsis I need to be able to get some cohesive sense of what the story was about.  I had trouble discerning that for this particular story, so this is not so much a synopsis as a list of story elements.  The story starts with pilot Lyle Logan playing chess against his ship AI, and then the scene ends very abruptly in a way that’s never adequately explained and these characters never appear again in the story, nor have any other appreciable effect.  We’re introduced to an alien race known as Snakes, among other things.  There are also a mysterious race of beings (Interveners) that can apparently mimic the appearance of either humans or Snakes–these beings are not at all well-understood but they believe that the beings sparked the explosion of life in the Cambrian Era and that they steered the social/technological development of the human race.  The story mostly circles around two characters: a snake named Glithwa and a human named Corinne, and a human Carl.  Glithwah represents the ruling Snakes, digging for information about what might be human sabotage.  The titular game, b’tok, is played during the story, which is supposedly as much more complicated than chess as chess is more complicated than rock-paper-scissors.

As you might’ve gathered from the scattered, rather long and directionless synopsis, I apparently did not really get the point of this story.  What was that first scene there for?  What do the Snakes have to do with the Interveners?  Who am I supposed to root for?  Why do I care about any of this?  I found some references on the Internet that this might be part of a series of stories involving the InterstellarNet. If so, maybe I’m just missing some important information, but there was no information attached with the story that suggested it wasn’t a standalone, so I’ve got to judge it on its own merits.

One of the issues with the story was that it claimed that B’tok was so incredibly complicated, but it seemed like a pretty straightforward battle simulator, something we have many variations on even now.  Not only that, but some of the reals were just nonsensical, that rather than making it incredibly impressively complicated like it was apparently meant to be, it just came across as a poorly designed war sim.  That’s the trouble with trying to write a story about a game that was so complicated humans wouldn’t grasp it well, I guess.

I thought this story was all over the place.  I was not interested in any of the characters, or what happened to them, and the point of major reveals was often not particularly clear–the throwaway initial scene certainly did not help any of this.

Hugo Novelette Review: “The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn

written by David Steffen

“The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn, published in Analog, is nominated for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novelette.  Analog has posted this story as a free read as part of the Hugo season.

This is part two of the Journeyman series of stories.  I have not read the first part of the story, so I am extrapolating a bit.  Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand and Sammi o’ th’ Eagles are in the midst of  a journey that began in the previous story, where they were sent on a quest by a ghost that resided in a crashed vessel from the sky (presumably an AI residing in a starship) to find particular settlements for the star-men to salvage from the remains.  As well as the quest, they are also trying to stay ahead of Kalakaran Vikaram who is looking to avenge his brother that Teodorq killed.  As they are trying to cross a territory toward their destination, they stop to examine a stone building and they wonder how it was constructed (the technology level of the setting is mostly like a Medieval level, but with the remains of higher tech scattered about it’s clear that this occurs in the future after a technological collapse of some kind).  They, as well as their pursuer, are captured.  To continue their quest they must somehow escape their imprisonment.

The most interesting thing about this story was the use of language.  The two protagonists are from different cultures that speak different languages.  This means that to communicate directly with each other they have to speak in a broken pidgin dialect.  Each has vastly different views of life and death and everything that surrounds it, and this comes out in various conversations throughout the story.  At the same time I found some of the dialect rather distracting because, well, I just wasn’t all that interested in the outcome of the story, and the dialect was more absorbing than the events.

Maybe I would feel more absorbed if I had read the first story in the series.  Maybe if I had seen the conversation with the AI I would have a clear idea of the stakes at hand here, and I’d be more emotionally invested.  As it was, I was never confused by what was happening, I didn’t feel like it left out too much detail at least to explain events, but I didn’t really care what happened either and the story dragged as a result.  The characters could succeed, they could give up and go home, they could die in the attempt, and it wouldn’t make much difference to me–not that I really had any doubt that they’d make it through this alive.  When I read a story I want to feel connected to it, either an emotional connection with the characters, or at least some kind of thematic or intellectual connection.  I want to understand the stakes, what will happen if they fail in their mission, and I didn’t really feel like I got any of that.

And then the story just kind of ends at a pretty much arbitrary point, clearly just leading on into the next one, but without any kind of satisfying tying off.  Maybe these stories as a whole make a compelling story when combined together, but when a story is up for a Hugo as a standalone I’ve got to judge it based on what I see, and to me this is a not-very-compelling story fragment with some interesting dialect.  Maybe I would’ve liked it better if the Journeyman series as a whole were nominated for a novella or novel award, rather than this segment being nominated for the novelette award (that’s no longer possible with this nomination, a part of a whole cannot be nominated and then the whole also be nominated).  So this one was a miss for me.


Hugo Novelette Review: “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

written by David Steffen

“The Day the World Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelte (translated by Lia Belt) was published in Lightspeed Magazine.  It appeared both in text and on the Lightspeed podcast.

Toby’s world turned upside down, figuratively speaking, when his girlfriend Sophie left him, with only a promise to pick up her goldfish the next day.  But, before she can fetch the fish, the world turns upside down, literally.  No one knows why or how, but gravity suddenly reversed.  Many people don’t survive, many from head injuries, many others from falling down into the endless sky.  Toby survives.  The goldfish survives.  Did Sophie?  He has to find out.  And also give her the fish back.  And maybe, just maybe, they can reconnect in this world gone wrong.  As Toby makes his way across the dangling undersurface of the Earth, he meets other people trying to survive.

I enjoyed this story.  It was on my nomination ballot because I thought it was fun (admittedly, I don’t read nearly as many novelettes as I do short stories so the pool of my potential nominees is quite a bit smaller).  When I was a kid I played games like that, imagining how I would get around if the world turned upside down, so probably part of my like is that it tapped into that childhood sense of wonder about reimagining everyday scenarios.  Some of the dialog felt a little bit odd, but I’m assuming that’s an artifact of the translation, and only lent to the dreamlike quality of the story.  I can’t say that I entirely related to the quest in the story to return the goldfish and try to rekindle the relationship, because she had made it pretty clear she wanted it to be over, it didn’t seem likely that was going to change, but I found the overall scenario and the interactions with other characters along the way to be plenty to keep me interested.  I gave this my second-rank vote for the Hugo novelette category.

Hugo Novelette Review: “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Gray Rinehart

written by David Steffen

“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Gray Rinehart was published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.  The story is posted here for free to read.

Alluvium is the name of a human settlement and the planet its on, a place close enough to Earth in habitat that colonists can live with just nano-infusions to balance out the few chemicals that are toxic to humans.  Life is as good as it can be, until the Peshari (a lizard–like alien race) landed and conquered the human settlements.  Cerna is one of the settlers still living under their oppressive rule.  His friend, Keller, has become sick, since the Peshari took away their all-important nano-fabbers.  Keller has taken an interest in the death rituals of the Peshari and how it differs from human death rituals.

This story was slow to start.  The beginning scenes didn’t grab my attention very strongly, but I wanted to give the story a chance, to see if it picked up.  I’m glad I did, because a scene or two later it did grab my interest, when the death rituals start to take more of a focus.  I’ve said before that I would like to see more science fiction that features religion but neither preaches nor demonizes it, and so admittedly this story hit a sweet spot for my personal tastes with its focus on human and alien death rituals and how the effect of ritual and symbol can have on the world.  After the slow beginning, the rest of the story held my interest to the satisfying end.  Usually I go for stories that connect to me more on a personal level than this one perhaps did, this had more of a golden SF feel to it, but I thought the social and religious ritual aspects of it more than made up for that.  This story has my top vote in the novelette category.

Hugo Short Story Review: “On a Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli

written by David Steffen

“On a Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli, published in Sci Phi Journal, is nominated for this years Hugo Award in the Short Story Category.  Sci Phi Journal has posted the story for free for the voting period, which you can find here.

The story takes place on the alien planet Ymila, devoid of any useful resources apart from being close to a wormhole.  Ymila has a single sentience species who practice a single religion based around the journey of the soul.  The biggest thing that’s different about Ymila is that it has a much stronger electromagnetic field which keeps dead souls from dissipating quickly as they apparently do on Earth.  Another major thing is that the Ymilans have developed specialized sensory organs that allow them to see and communicate with dead souls.  A human dies for the first time on the planet, and his soul visits the human chaplain–visible only under certain conditions but unable to communicate clearly.  The chaplain sets out on a pilgrimage to the pole of the planet where the magnetic field is weaker to allow the soul to dissipate.

I thought the core idea here was interesting, the concept of a intelligent-life-supporting planet which has different properties that will keep a soul in place, and the intelligent lifeforms there evolving with sensory equipment to communicate with them.  I can see how that sensory equipment would give an evolutionary advantage–allowing a multigenerational learning/mentoring culture.  I would love to see more stories that include religion as an important element without either preaching nor demonizing them.

But I never really felt any tension as I was reading.  At the beginning of the story they set out on a journey, they take the journey with no significant obstacles, and then the journey is over.  A lack of tension might be made up for by some interesting philosophy, something deep to mentally chew on, and that would certainly make sense in a publication that styles itself a journal of philosophical science fiction.  The chaplain had the opportunity to speak to Joe (the dead soul) through native translators, yet for most of the journey Joe is not aware of what the purpose of the trip is.  Why is the chaplain undertaking this journey without even speaking to Joe about it?  Does he think that he knows what’s best for Joe better than Joe himself–why not just ask Joe what he wants to do?  It seems to me that a chaplain’s role in such a situation would be to be a counselor for the dead, to help Joe come to terms with what has happened and to help Joe come to his own decision about what Joe wants to happen next.  The impression I got, which is probably not what the author intended, is that the chaplain wanted Joe’s ghost to go away because it would raise awkward questions among the congregation to have a ghost hanging around.  If he simply wanted Joe to go on to the afterlife, why rush it?  The pilgrimage could be taken at any time whenever Joe felt that he was ready–the native souls usually moved on after six generations, as a natural progression of their relationship to the living populace, so I would expect Joe to eventually decide to do the same if he weren’t rushed into it.  If the answer to these questions wasn’t the rather negative conclusion I jumped to, then I felt the story could’ve supported whatever was intended more strongly.


Hugo Short Story Review: “Totaled” by Kary English

written by David Steffen

“Totaled” by Kary English was first published in Galaxy’s Edge magazine, edited by Mike Resnick.  Galaxy’s Edge posted the story for free after the announcement of the Hugo ballot so you can read it for yourself if you like.

The story is told from the point of view of a disembodied brain extracted from a woman’s body after her body is “totaled” in a car accident.  Before the accident she had been a member of the research team that made this possible.  A rider on her insurance dictated that if she died or got totaled her tissues would be donated to her research lab–including her brain.  At first she can only sense from the outside nerve by feeling vibrations in the vascular tissue, but as the experiment advances she is connected to more peripherals, including sensory apparatus, and she can find ways to communicate outward as well because they are scanning her brain.  She tries to communicate with her research partner Randy, who doesn’t know that the brain he’s using was his partner’s.

I enjoyed this story.  The character is thrown directly into a difficult situation where she literally has only her brains as an asset and has to figure how to get through this situation with nothing on her side.  To me it felt kind of like a golden age science fiction story where it’s all about a scientist pitted against a brain problem, but with the un-golden-age characteristic that the protagonist is an intelligent woman scientist, so that’s a bonus.

There were high stakes and a difficult problem to solve, but although the stakes have plenty to keep the tension up, I didn’t feel emotionally connected to it the way that I really want to connect to a story.  I don’t know exactly why that was–perhaps the focus on the intellectual problem over other factors, or I just wasn’t feeling the personal stakes for personal reasons, I’m not entirely sure.  So, in the end I enjoyed the story but it didn’t blow me away the way I really want from an award story.


Hugo Short Story Review: “A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond

written by David Steffen

baenbookmonsters_“A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond was first published in The Baen Big Book of Monsters published by Baen Books.

In this story a mountain-sized kaiju has arisen in Japan, rising from beneath the land itself where the landscape had built up around it.  The monster is moving across the countryside, crushing everything in its path.  A samurai has survived its uprising where so many others haven’t by riding the kaiju as it rose up and climbing up its back even as the soil and trees and rocks shift off the kaiju as it walks.  To save Japan he has to finish his climb and find some way to kill the monster.

This was my favorite of the category, and earned my vote.  I am not well-versed in Japanese culture, so I couldn’t say how authentic the viewpoint was, but from my layman’s eye it worked well enough for me.  The story is very short, and doesn’t overstay its welcome–it kept me interested from beginning to end.  The resolution made sense in retrospect but I didn’t see it coming.  The story is so short and the premise is relatively simple, so that there’s not a lot else I can say about the story without spoiling it.

The Hugo packet included the entire collection, but this is the only story in the collection I read, so I can’t comment on what I think of the volume as a whole–if you didn’t register for WorldCon and get the Hugo packet, I think that the collection is the way to get the story.

Hugo Graphic Story Review 2015

written by David Steffen

The Hugo Graphic Story category is the one that I look forward to the most, because I enjoy the medium, but I don’t really keep up with them on a regular basis, so the Hugo packet catches me up on some of the popular comics of the previous year.

I only read the stories that were included in the Hugo packet, so did not read Zombie Nation #2, which was not included.

msmarvel1.  Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt, (Marvel Comics)

Kamala Khan is a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim living in Jersey City with her family, trying to figure out how she fits into the world, at least when she’s not reading comics or gaming.  She doesn’t feel that she fits in with her peers who she has trouble relating to, but she also doesn’t feel in place at the mosque and she doesn’t feel comfortable in some of her family’s strict traditions.  One night she sneaks out of the house to go to a friend’s party and begins to exhibit strange abilities after she passes through a strange fog.  That first night she takes on the appearance of Carol Danvers in her old Ms. Marvel costume (Carol Danvers is now Captain Marvel), and she saves someone’s life.  She experiments with her newfound abilities and finds that she can alter her body’s size and shape in a variety of ways.  Taking on the name Ms. Marvel, and with a new costume built from a burkina (a traditional swim garb her mother bought for her which she has been too embarrassed to use)  In this first volume, she tries to decide what to with her abilities as she hones her skills.

Kamala Khan is one of Marvel’s most memorable characters in their recent push to diversify the stars of their comic lines.  Most of the original lines were made in the 1960’s and mostly star white men as the stars, so it’s a refreshing change to see more women, more varied ethnic backgrounds, and (for me at least) particularly interesting is to see a character with not only a religion, but a non-Christian religion–even in fiction in general it’s too rare to find religion as an element which is neither preached nor villified.  To see religion (and, again, a non-Christian religion especially) as an element in a comic book in that fashion is wonderful.

But I don’t like it merely for its diversity.  I found Kamala to be a very interesting and compelling character.  She’s a gamer and a comic fan, just like me, and I had my share of social difficulties at that age.  In some ways her situation remains me a young Peter Parker–with the split between high school social things and the superheroing, the reason that I think Spider-Man proved as popular as he has.

There are lots of fun little in-jokes for long-time science fiction fans to reward careful reading and examination of background art, as well as just some other jokes such as the cereal brand “G-M-Oh’s!”

I highly recommend reading this, whether you’re a long-time comics fan or new to the medium.  This is a rare comic that has made me want to get my first comic book subscription.


sex-criminals-vol-01-releases2.  Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick, written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky (Image Comics)

Suzie is a librarian who discovered at a young age that she is different than other people in one important and secret way–whenever she experiences an orgasm, for a while afterward the world around her freezes and she is the only moving thing in this shimmering and immobile place she calls “the quiet”.  As an adult she finds another like her, a man name Jon, only realizing after they have sex and he is not frozen like the rest of the world.  This first volume covers both of their sexual histories, their meeting, their experimentation with the connection they’ve found over this strange shared ability, and their choice to rob a bank–the bank that is foreclosing on her library, the bank that he works for.

I enjoyed this quite a bit.  Because of the lewd subject material, it’s a hard book to make a blanket recommendation for.  It’s not a book that I’d bring up at a family reunion, for instance.   But I found the frank discussion of sex from both a woman and man’s point of view to be refreshing, including the discovery of sex when they were younger–a topic that is often near-taboo even though it’s a natural thing for children to discover masturbation long before they reach sexual maturity.  Some elements of it are pretty corny, but I thought they were corny in a good way–they hung a lantern on it and used it for laughs instead of trying to take everything too seriously.  I thought the volume was funny, refreshingly honest, and entertaining to read.  I found the choice to rob the bank a bit of stretch, but maybe not considering the powers that they have.  I’m curious to see where the series goes after this volume.

I really wish they’d chosen a different title, though.  I see what they were going for, since their bank-robbing relies on their sex-triggered ability, but usually “sex criminal” means a rapist or a child molester, not exactly what you’d consider the hero of a comic book.


rat-queens-vol-01-releases3.  Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery, written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch (Image Comics)

The Rat Queens are a quartet of women adventurers hailing from the town of Palisade.  The group is made up of the elven mage Hannah, the dwarven warrior Violet (who has shaved her beard), atheist human cleric Dee, and the halfling thief Betty.  When they’re not out adventuring, they spend their time carousing, doing drugs (and candy in the case of Betty) and having large-scale destructive bar fights.  The town of Palisade has a bunch of mercenary/adventurer teams that are assigned tasks from time to time by the city government–after a particularly damaging barfight, the Rat Queens and other merc groups are all sent out on simultaneous missions but the missions turn unusually deadly–somebody has set ambushes to take out the mercs.

This comic was inspired by D&D games, and it shows–there’s a lot of fun, a lot of humor.  An all female fighting cast is refreshing, and it’s good to see a variety of body types of both men and women characters.  The characters were interesting and I liked to see the mix of men and women characters who treated each other as equals without sex having to be an element between them (but of course sometimes it is).  I liked some of the humor, other of it was a miss–I guess I’m not much of a carouser myself so that angle didn’t really interest me as much as the comic seemed to be aiming for.  The fight scenes were pretty cool to a degree but they often dialed up the violence to the point that it got to be a bit much for me at times, it felt a little bit like a Tarantino film here and there.


Saga_vol3-14.  Saga Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics))

Volume three, as with the earlier volumes, mostly focuses on Alana and Marko, a husband and wife of warring extraterrestrial races, and their newborn daughter.  They are fugitives from both bounty hunters and from the Android known as Prince IV of the ruling android royalty.  In this volume Alana and Marko and their ragtag crew take refuge at the home of revolutionary novelist D. Oswald Heist.

I read Volume 1 in the Hugo packet a couple years ago.  Volume 2 wasn’t in last year’s Hugo packet and I didn’t seek it out, so I’m sure I’m missing some important background for this story.  I was a little lukewarm on the first volume, but this one I warmed up to a little bit more.  There’s certainly some real personal stories told here, with Alana and Marko trying to figure out practical things like caring for a baby and trying to find an income stream when they are traveling fugitives, as well as having some more action-packed elements when different hostile groups cross paths.  I liked the art design of most of the characters, incorporating people we would recognize as varying races, but giving them further inhuman embellishments like horns, wings, single cyclopean eyes, etc.  The androids I still found rather hard to take seriously with their cathode-ray-tube TV heads, a design which is already outdated in our present, let alone in any future.