Hugo Novella Review 2014

written by David Steffen

And the last of the shorter categories for the Hugo this year, covering stories from 17,500 to 40,000 words. The longer categories are often misses for me because I feel they have a lot of word bloat, but when I do like one of them they have so much space to grow.


1. “Equoid”, Charles Stross (, 09-2013)
This story is part of Stross’s Laundry series, wherein Bob Howard works as an agent for the secret British government organization for known only as “The Laundry” which serves the purpose of investigating and handling invasions of Lovecraftian monsters. This particular story involves an outbreak of outbreak of unicorns which are not the lovely pure animals we’ve been led to believe and even most of the people in the Laundry aren’t aware that they’re real.

This story is awesome, scary like few stories are, and simultaneously hilarious. Cosmic horror from the POV of a cynical career buraeaucrat. Even the smallest details are filtered through the funny point of view, so that even the recurring descriptions of a character’s beard had me rolling. I also loved how the story made HP Lovecraft part of the story, but not as the prophet you might think they’d make him considering their role, but rather of a crackpot who occasionally stumbled across something real, and knew just enough truth to be a dangerous idiot. I highly recommend this story and now I want to read more of the Laundry series.


2. “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
In the previous story “The Chaplain’s Assistant” the eponymous chaplain’s assistant forestalled the annihilation of humanity at the hands of the technologically superior mantis race by provoking in them an interest in religion. The mantises have no religion of their own and they decided to study this strange phenomenon before destroying their opportunity to do so. Now it appears that the mantes may be growing impatient, feeling they’ve learned everything they can learn, and hostilities may recommence. Humans have now had time to prepare defenses against mantis attacks and the war might begin anew, but perhaps not as one-sided as before. Now the chaplain’s assistant is meeting with the Queen of the mantes and desperately needs to prove to the mantes that humans still have something to offer.

I thought this was a solid story. I appreciated it giving a fair shake to religion which traditionally SF doesn’t do. I admit I found the particular form of the mantes a little hard to take seriously (tiny flying saucers fused with giant praying mantises) but the story was good enough to overcome that as the chaplain’s assistant did everything he could to prolong the peace, and maybe even form a permanent truce. Good action, good characters, well told. This and the previous story are going to be repackaged as a novel published by Baen so I imagine that will be a solid offering as a package deal as well.


3. “Six-Gun Snow White”, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
A wild west retelling of the Snow White story, in which Snow White is the daughter of a wealthy landowner Mr. H in the Montana Territory and his Crow wife. Snow White is the name given to her by the second Mrs. H, her cruel stepmother to mock her native heritage. Snow White is a crack shot with a gun but is otherwise naive to the ways of the world, but she runs away to make her own way.

I liked the character of Snow White. You’ve got to admire the guts it would take to be a woman gunman in a world that doesn’t exactly reward that and makes you fight for it every step of the way. I really liked the early chapters of the story where all of it was told by Snow White in first person. I found her character voice as interesting or more interesting as the stuff that was actually happening, so I was disappointed when it dropped into a distant third person partway through the story. I’m not sure if the only difference was the voice itself or if the story itself was just weaker but after that point I didn’t feel like I was emotionally invested in the character anymore.


4. “Wakulla Springs, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (, 10-2013)
This story spans most of a century, mostly taking place at Wakulla Springs a beautiful natural wonder in Florida, a real life place that was used as a jungle-like setting for some twentieth century movies like Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This story follows a series of colored characters from a time when Jim Crow laws were the norm to the present day.

I reviewed this story in greater detail as a followup to my usual Nebula award reviews. To sum up, I thought that the characters felt very real, and it certainly had plenty going for it in terms of theme, but I didn’t rank it higher among the novellas because I didn’t feel that it had enough of a cohesive plot arc or character arc to really hold it together for me.


5. “The Butcher of Khardov”, Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
Orsus Zoktavir is a warcaster for the Khador army, one of those rare few who can control the powerful mechanical warjacks by his mind alone. As if this weren’t enough, he is a giant of a man wielding a deadly axe so that he is almost as deadly as a warjack itself. This story follows Orsus (in time-jumping fashion) from when he is a young boy through the events of his life that gave him the name “The Butcher of Khardov” where he is sentenced for slaughtering an entire village, and what happens after.

It’s no surprise that this story didn’t really enthuse me. It is the second book in a series based on Warmachine, a model-based tabletop roleplaying game that’s been around for ten years but which I haven’t played nor followed. Presumably the target audience of this story are players of that game who want to know more backstory for the characters they’re moving around the battlefield.

I decided to give the story a try anyway, on the chance that it might stand on its own. I didn’t have any trouble understanding the story. The concept of warjacks is simple enough and the story explained other concepts to my satisfaction. I didn’t think the time jumping did the story any favors, whiplashing constantly from past to future and back again with no apparent design. I didn’t feel convinced that the events in the story would actually transform a violent but basically sane young man into the psychotic war machine that he becomes in his more recent years. He kind of struck me as a rabid Perrin Aybara from the Wheel of Time series. In his older incarnation I didn’t care for him at all, and frankly thought the world would be a better place if someone did execute this rabid wolf before he turns on those he claims fealty to.

Review: Wakulla Springs by Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan

written by David Steffen

This was originally going to be a review of the Nebula-nominated novellas of 2013. But my time ran out while I was still reading Wakulla Springs, the first of the novellas I grabbed, so instead this is a review of just that one story.

The Nebulas are one of the two big awards in the SF community, this one voted by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You can find the list of all this years Nebula nominees here.

Wakulla springs is the story, or perhaps the stories, that spans more than half a century from (I think) the 1940s to the present day. Most of it centers around Wakulla Springs in Florida, the largest and deepest freshwater spring located near Tallahassee, and the Wakulla Springs Lodge, a real life hotel.

The first section’s protagonist is Mayola Jackson, a fifteen year old colored girl who gets a job working as a maid at the segregated lodge, in a hiring rush when a Hollywood film crew visits the area for taping the water scenes for a Tarzan movie in and around the springs. The other stories follow along with her family members as the decades pass, and as the American society changes around them from the era where segregation was the norm up to today.

The characters in this story were very believable. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was based on a true family because they felt so real, especially since the location and at least some of the characters were real people of the time, such as Johnny Weissmuller who played Tarzan, and Edward Ball the owner of the lodge.

The story certainly had a lot going for in the way of theme, with the recurring incidents of Hollywood affecting this family’s lives.

It had plenty of conflict. Any story written empathetically in the time of segregation is going to have conflict, of course. The conflict here wasn’t violent, but was ever present nonetheless.

What it really lacked, though, was a cohesive plot arc or character arc. It doesn’t help that it’s split up into four separate stories that are sequential and each person’s story relates to the last, but it makes the story overall come off quite uneven. Even within each individual chapter that follows a single person, I didn’t feel like each one even had a real character arc or plot arc that would take the events or the person from one place to another fully rounded place in the way that I expect a story to take me. Things happened. There was conflict, but it wasn’t that the characters were really major actors in these events, things happened, and then the chapter ended. The parts never felt like a cohesive whole, and each part never felt complete on its own either.

It also really lacked a speculative element at any point in the story that I could discern. There were a couple hints at it, but one was likely a fatigue and stress induced hallucination, and the other was pure imagination on the part of the character. For a story published on, and a story that’s nominated for the Nebula, I really am looking for a speculative element.

I enjoyed reading the story. The story was well-written, the characters were very strong, and it had a lot going for it, but I didn’t feel like it really held together as a unit the way I expect a story to hold together. It was good, but not as good as I thought it could be.

Review: Nebula Novelette Nominees 2012

written by David Steffen

On to the next category of the Nebula awards, the Best Novelette, which covers fiction between the word counts of 7,500 and 17,500 words. Generally I’m not a big fan of novelettes because to me they feel like short stories that have overstayed their welcome. Even though they can be more than twice as long as a short story I rarely feel like they have more meaningful content than a short story and so the story is just diluted in a larger space. It’s an awkward length, I think, not enough room to spread into more plot arcs like a novel would do but too long for the appealing conciseness of a short story.

But if I’m going to read some novelettes, I may as well read the ones that other people nominated for the Nebula award. They’re supposed to be the cream of the crop, after all. So, here goes. I’ve read all 7 of the nominees and rank-ordered them based on preference.

Nebula Award for Best Novelette

1. The Waves by Ken Liu (Asimov’s 12/12)
Maggie Chao is a resident of a generation ship headed for a distant colony that will take 400 years to reach its destination. She’s settled in for her leg of the journey, raising a family that will take her place, when they receive a message from Earth with the formula for eternal youth. Eternal youth, while attractive, poses its own difficulties in an enclosed environment where all of the resources have been scheduled and rationed precisely to allow them all to survive to their destination. And this isn’t the only major change to their lives as they continue and as they land to make their colony. Technology has been developing on Earth while they traveled, and a singularity has already passed by the time they land, and it may not be the only one.

This story had a very Golden Age feel to me, in the best way possible. There were characters, and I liked those characters, but what really made it memorable to me was the progression of technologies from start to finish, each one being kind of its own stage of worldbuilding. It evoked a really nice sense of wonder that kept me interested and happy to be reading it. The main story is interspersed with Maggie telling different mythical Creation tales, each of which ties into events in the main story in interesting ways.


2. The Pyre of New Day by Catherine Asaro (The Mammoth Book of SF Wars)
Hypron is a telepath with withered legs who lives with his brother Oxim on the bleak muddy landscape of a frontier planet called New Day. They’d come here with other colonists to this terraformed world to make a life for themselves, but were abandoned by the founders of the colony when the terraforming failed, and the atmosphere turned more and more toxic. As more and more colonists died, Hypron’s telepathy proved a major weakness for him as he was forced to live through each person’s grief as their loved ones died. But he and his brother have survived, eking out a life here by working together. Until the day that Oxim is killed by pirates, leaving Hypron alone on their tiny home in the middle of the mud sea and with no way to get food, to call for help, or transport himself away.

Meanwhile, Soz Valdoria finds him by chance. She is a Jagernaut, one of a class of technologically enhanced human rumored with a vicious reputation as monstrous killers. Her ship needs maintenance after battling a monster in the mud sea, and she needs a place to dock it. She too is a telepath, and she follows Hypron’s grieving thoughts to his home and docks her ship there to do her maintenance. She befriends Hypron. Soon the pirate ship that killed Oxim returns, and Hypron and Valdoria have to work together to survive.

I liked both characters in this story quite a lot. I really wanted them to survive. The worldbuilding was interesting, and the story well written. The main flaw I saw in this story was the power-balance didn’t lend itself well to providing the story with tension. At the beginning of the story when Hypron realizes he is alone and without any conceivable way to survive, there is absolutely nothing he can do but contemplate suicide to make his end more quick. While I felt for the guy, there wasn’t much tension in that inevitable fate from which he has no power to escape. When Valdoria shows up at just the right time, she of course turns Hypron’s chances completely around, but she is so capable that when the pirates show up again I never had the slightest doubt that she would take them out. So again, I never felt a lot of tension.

But the story has plenty of good things going for it.


3. The Finite Canvas by Brit Mandelo ( 12/5/12)
Molly is a medical doctor on the barely habitable old Earth, which has been abandoned by most of humanity. Her clinic is supported by a donor, but she’s barely scraping by to get herself in food and clothes. A woman walks in to her clinic, named Jada, hard in body and mind, a wanted assassin and member of a crime syndicate fleeing pursuit here. Her body is covered in stylized scars, each marking one of her kills. Off-planet she would have an artist do the scarring for her, but there is no such luxury here on old Earth. She is here to ask the doctor to give her a new scar to commemorate Jada murdering her partner. In exchange, Jada will pay her money that Molly sorely needs for medical treatment, and give her a story.

I enjoyed this story. I really felt that both characters were real people, who find common ground despite all their differences. Jada tells her story as Molly adds to Jada’s scars. I really was enjoying this story until the ending, where it takes a sudden turn that for me came out of nowhere. Judging by the story’s text, this turn was meant to be understandable and justifiable, but I didn’t find it that way. The ending made me wonder what exactly I had missed in everything that came before it that made that ending work, wondering if I’d missed the point entirely.


4. Close Encounters by Andy Duncan (The Pottawatomie Giant & Other Stories)
This story tells of events later in the life of Buck Nelson, one of the cheerful and vocal alien “contactees” of the 1950s and 1960s. Once very vocal and happy to share his stories, he’s withdrawn from the public eye over the years. A reporter, Miss Hanes of the Associated Press, knocks on his door and tries to get him to talk again. He rebuffs her, but she’s persistent, and eventually she talks him into talking with her about his stories about alien contact with the alien who called himself Bob Solomon and their travels together to the moon, Mars, and Venus. He’s been telling stories for so long after the contact that even he doesn’t remember which ones were true. The date is nearing of the annual picnic which he used to invite people to join him in stargazing in the hopes of Bob Solomon coming back.

I liked Buck a lot, a colorful salt of the earth kind of guy. His interaction with Miss Hanes was very entertaining. Likeable characters are a definite plus, but though there was an ending that tied things up, I felt like the story in general was kind of meandering and too slow to get where it was going.


5. Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia by Rachel Swirsky ( 8/22/12)
Renn never learned great skill in art, but she did develop a skill in magic that allows her to paint things perfectly at the cost of destroying the artistic subject. Her former teacher, the great artist Lisane de Patagnia is dying–she has not given Renn her estate, but she has insisted that Renn paint her with magic. This is a practice forbidden due to the fatal consequences, but she wants to leave something behind that will become her legacy and Renn’s when she and Renn are both gone.

Lisane collected student lovers like trinkets, using them and discarding them when they disinterested her, always in pursuit of someone. Renn was one of her lovers, but so were others, including Orla who is receiving Lisane’s estate.

This is a story of loss and of grieving, and of finding your own place in the world. It was well-written, but I found that I couldn’t relate to any of the characters enough for the story to really have an impact. Lisane is selfish to the point of sociopathy, pursuing her art and her carnal desires in the most selfish possible way, with utter disregard for the well-being of those she tears apart in the process. And the students who flock to her become such doting doormats with utter disregard for their own well-being that I couldn’t relate to them either.


6. Swift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron ( 1/4/12)
Sisters Brigid and Sinead are mourning their brother Ian. Ian was a fan of pulling pranks, and now that he’s gone the sisters have started to pull pranks on each other in escalating fashion. They begin to see visions of their brother, and they realize that he always manifests during an act of a prank. Does he manifest because they are evoking his spirit in pulling pranks the way he would have? Or is he trying to stop them? Or something else entirely?

I didn’t really care about what seemed to be the central questions of the story, why the pranks brought their brother around. And in the end I didn’t really care about any of the characters. A story about grieving is a great way to emotionally connect with me, but mixing it with childish and malicious pranks leaves me not liking any of the characters. By the end I didn’t care what happened to any of them.


7. Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld 8/12)
Joseph McCarthy has become President of the United States and life is good for everyone. Yes it is good, as defined by the goodness measures laid down by President McCarthy, everything from the war effort to the structure of the family unit. Never mind the radiation and the widespread impotence or the government choosing your occupation. The story is told as alternating propoganda videos by the McCarthy administration and two children who are trying to find their place in this world.

I felt like I should like this story. For those who may not know, Joseph McCarthy was the US Senator who singlehandedly started the Red Scare, lying his ass off to convince people that Communists were infiltrating us, thousands of spies acting as normal American families. Anyone could be a Communist spy, and you had to keep vigilant and report the slightest odd behavior. But McCarthy never showed any evidence of this in our world, and eventually was disgraced because everyone came to the conclusion he was lying.

McCarthy as President is a great premise for a dystopian future. Even I (who generally doesn’t have interest in politics) can’t help but extrapolate from that basic premise to something really terrible.

I generally liked the sections of this story that were told as editing notes on propoganda tapes. I’ve always liked stories that felt like “found” documents, and this had that feel. The propoganda feel gives an uneasy overpatriotic ring to this part of the story, very creepy.

But the “honestly” told parts of the story bothered me. I mean, bothered me in a way that meant I didn’t like it rather than the seat-squirming involvement in the propoganda sections. I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly why, but it meant that I didn’t like the story in the end. The closest I’m able to put it to words at this moment is that the “honestly” told parts of the story felt somehow even less genuine than the things that were clearly meant as propoganda. The over-the-top propoganda videos seemed to have been meant as a cautionary tale, and these other sections were meant to show the real life behind the propoganda, a life that isn’t so great. But to me these other sections didn’t ring true, to the point that they feel like propoganda directed at me and authored by Valente, using the obvious propoganda to try to drive me toward believing the other part is authentic when it really just felt like a more subtle propoganda to me. And, I mean, the main message I can detect there isn’t a bad one, that McCarthyism is a scary thing and that it’s a good thing that it didn’t sweep the American mindset and stay there. But the way that it’s told makes me want to distrust every part of the story as more propoganda, and that means that everything is so disingenuous to my gut feelings that there’s nothing of meaning here to me. In the end, this story just ended up just leaving me irritated.