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 (Tor.com)
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 (Tor.com)
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.