written by David Steffen
And here’s the last of the short (ish) prose fiction categories, the almost-a-novel aka Novella, which covers fiction from 17,500-40,000 words. This was a tough category to pick my favorite in, so for this one I’m glad that the Hugo awards use an instant runoff voting system so that if your favorite doesn’t win your lower votes can count towards the result.
Hugo Award for Best Novella
1. The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications)
The Emperor’s wife has been killed and the Emperor has been injured in an attack by assassins, via a crossbow bolt to the head. The best magic of the legal variety can heal his flesh, but cannot heal his mind, leaving him catatonic. The Emperor’s highest ranking officials are the only ones who know of the outcome of the attack. The official mourning period for the Emperor’s wife is one hundred days, at which the Emperor will be expected to speak in public. If he cannot, the Empire will be thrown into chaos. They have but one chance to salvage the situation with the recent capture of the criminal Forger Wan ShaiLu. Various legal branches of the art of Forgery, which can rewrite the history of an object, can be practiced in the Empire. Shai, however, practices the forbidden branch of art which allows even a person’s soul to be Forged into something else. This criminal, this blasphemer, is their only hope, if she can reforge the Emperor’s soul using only journal entries and interviews with his counsel.
Brandon Sanderson is great at inventing new magic systems. I enjoyed Warbreaker, and I enjoyed this. The details are intricate, but logical, so that the magic is more of an alternate-world-science, something which appeals to my engineer mind. Shai is an expert in certain areas of her craft, and she goes at the work with the zeal and skill of an expert craftsman, all while contemplating how to escape before she is inevitably killed to silence her. The situation maintains constant tension while maintaining intellectual curiosity and emotional depth. The art of Forging depends upon understanding the history of a person or thing completely and then creating a manmade branching point to change that history, so to pull of this most difficult of all Forgeries she has to exercise her powers of empathy like she never has before.
Great story, well written. One of my new favorites. Well done!
2. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications)
An apocalypse hits the Earth in 2014, killing most people and rendering most of the planet unliveable. Very few people survived, and those were saved from certain death by boxlike tentacled figures (nicknamed Tesslies) that would appear in a shower of golden sparks, grab the person, and take them somewhere else. These survivors wake up in a building with no doors to the outside, with machinery meant to serve their basic food and sanitation needs. The Tesslies never told them what was happening, but their best interpretation is that aliens have attacked earth and kept some humans as specimens. Many years later a new piece of machinery they call the Grab machine appears in the Shell which periodically makes a window through time to the years before the apocalypse. Whoever goes through, the Grab machine yanks them back to the future with whatever they’re touching, so they use it to grab supplies and to grab children to help repopulate the future (adults die when they pass through). This part of the story follows Pete, a fifteen year old boy who is a child of some of the original survivors.
Meanwhile, back in 2013, mathematician Julie Kahn is working with a police task force trying to determine a pattern to the robberies and kidnappings.
I related completely to both Pete and Julie, even when they did things I didn’t agree with or when their actions were in direct opposition to each other. This story had me interested from beginning to end and it felt neither too long nor too short. Well done, Ms Kress, well done. Unfortunately, I hadn’t finished reading this before the Nebula voting period ended, and Sanderson’s story squeaked past this one for my top vote, but with the instant-runoff system I can still show my love.
3. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Mira Grant (Orbit)
The first outbreak of the zombie epidemic happens during the overcrowded opening night of San Diego Comic-Con 2014. This story is the chronicle of that chilling event, told as a 30-year retrospective.
This story is well-written with believable characters and a strong emotional core. The main reason why this didn’t rank higher on my list is that I didn’t feel that it trod any new ground. Zompocalypse stories have been too common in recent years, probably only second to sexy vampires as overused tropes. I’d rather see an original speculative element, an original setting, or both. This story didn’t vary from the familiar zompocalypse rules, at least not in any significant way, so it’s not an original speculative element. I don’t recall seeing a zombie story set at a convention before, and I suspect that’s why it’s been popular enough to get nominated. But, personally, it just strikes me as lazy, trying to keep the writing in a comfort zone rather than trying something different. Kind of like a Stephen King story about a writer that takes place in a sleepy town in Maine.
Also, the story is formatted as though it’s a documentary, but the story itself admits that much of it is conjecture based on known facts. This in itself wouldn’t be problematic, except that by my reckoning, probably 80% or more of the events have to be either pure speculation on the part of the media because the deathtoll was high enough to make after-the-fact compilation of stories problematic. The story would’ve been better if it had just discarded the idea of using a framing story and just told it as a standard narrative.
4. The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake (Asimov’s, Oct-Nov 2012)
Morgan Abutti, 4th degree Thalassocrete, member of the Planetary Society, has discovered something new in the stars that violates the truths taught by both the Lateran and the Thalassojustity belief systems that rule the world. He has arranged for a public discussion of his findings, which could shake the world. Bilious Quinx, master of the Consistatory Office (aka Inquisition) must find Abutti before he makes his heresy public. Eraster Goins, head Thalossocrete, has very different motives for finding Abutti.
As you might be able to tell from this brief explanation, there are several religious factions which at least to my mind were never clearly differentiated. Maybe that’s an intentional statement about religious schisms, maybe it could’ve been made clearer, or maybe I just don’t get it. I generally liked the Morgan Abutti character who did not consider his findings a heresy but only wanted to share his findings of the universe to expand their understanding of it, a scientist trying to work within a religious government system. But I just didn’t find the stakes all that riveting. Whether or not Abutti’s announcement becomes public, some other scientist will discover the truth anyway (as the story itself points out), so the events of the story feel pretty moot to me. It doesn’t help that the grand discovery has implications for major future changes, which don’t make it into the space of this story. Those major future changes are what I’m really interested in. If Jay writes a story about the events after this story I will read it eagerly.
5. On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
Cousin Linh has arrived on Prosper Station, seeking refuge from the Emperor, whom she has rebelled against in a token fashion. Quyen, magistrate of the station, allows her refuge grudgingly. Linh’s visit causes no end of trouble.
The world of the story takes traditional beliefs and uses futuristic technology to reinforce them. In particular, people in this society are not only expected to honor their ancestors, they also have memchips implanted in their brains that allow their ancestors to give them advice on everything that is happening around them. Very cool idea. The station’s systems are run by the Honoured Ancestress, a being that is sort of a metahuman, with an altered version of a human mind that allows it to run all of the day-to-day affairs of Prosper, and allowing residents of the station to interact with this mind by entering the trance. There’s something wrong with the Honoured Ancestress of Prosper.
I loved the worldbuilding in the story, but I just wasn’t that interested in the main events that took up the bulk of the story. Linh and Quyen’s conflicts didn’t really interest me. I didn’t particularly relate to either one, and it didn’t matter to me which one succeeded or failed in their goals. The state of the Honoured Ancestress was, to me, my biggest interest in terms of plot, but it did not have as much text devoted to it as I would’ve liked, and the solution to the problem was presented without a lot of interesting development to get there.
So this story just wasn’t for me. It was just too long to justify the parts of it I was actually interested in. It didn’t help that the length was such, and my free time segmented enough, that it took a dozen sittings to get through it.