Review: Nebula Novella Nominees 2012

written by David Steffen

On to the next category for Best Novella. I find this one another awkward one, covering word counts from 17,500 to 40,000. I like novels because they have room to spread out and really make you care about a broad range of characters in an intricately woven plot. I like short stories because they can really hit you with a story, worldbuilding, or other elements, get in and get out while you’re still excited. Novella I find is kind of awkward length, like a story that wants to be a novel but somehow just doesn’t have the stamina to make it all the way up there.

But, if I’m going to read novellas, I may as well start with the ones that others consider the best of the year, so here goes.

As soon as the Nebula nominees were announced I started reading through each category from Short Story up, intending to get as far as I could before the voting period ended on March 30. Since each category covers fiction that is progressively longer, the rate at which I can read them drops as I move on to each category. Unfortunately, I’m a pretty slow reader, so I didn’t have time to finish them all, and then I’ve moved on to Hugo-nominated works.

There were six nominees in total. I was able to read five of the six nominees, but I ran out of time before I could finish them all, and then the Hugo nominees were announced, giving me another load of stories to read. Katabasis (F&SF 11-12/12) by Robert Reed is the story that I didn’t get to read. Sorry about that, Mr. Reed! I’m a pretty slow reader and the Nebula voting window just wasn’t long enough.

This will be my last of the Nebula nominee reviews for this year, because it’s all that I had time to read in the scant time between announcing the stories and the voting deadline. Coming soon will be the Hugo nominees (some of which overlap with these)


Nebula Award for Best Novella

1. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
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.

This is one of the very few novellas I’ve ever read that worked effectively at its published length. 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, but there’s a good chance that it will garner my Hugo vote for the same category.


2. All the Flavors by Ken Liu (GigaNotoSaurus 2/1/12)
Elsie Seaver is the daughter of a business owner in Idaho City in 1865. Much of the town, including her father Jack’s store have been burned down. Needing the money, Jack rents houses to Chinese miners despite his wife’s misgivings about their unfamiliar way of life. Elsie befriends the miners, especially a distinctive man named Lao Guan who tells her stories about a Chinese god who bears a very close resemblance to Lao Guan himself. They learn a great deal from each other in the time they spend together.

I ranked this story at 2nd because I liked the characters the most of the three that I read. I really liked Elsie and I enjoyed very much her interactions with Lao Guan. The story switches back and forth between Elsie’s time and Lao Guan’s stories, drawing some parallels between Lao Guan and the god in the story but never making the connection entirely concrete. The stories took up so much of the story space I wanted them to mean something, to tie into the main story in some way that was significant. So this story as a whole was either way too long, because it could’ve been split up into two component stories and the one about Elsie and Lao Guan would’ve been all the better for its conciseness. Or the story is way too short, lacking the space to really tie together its halves and making me really care about those other stories.


3. Barry’s Tale by Lawrence M. Schoen (Buffalito Buffet)
This is the story of Conroy, an interstellar businessman and his buffalito companion. Buffalito look just like buffalo but are the size of a dog, they can eat literally anything, and they fart oxygen. he has traveled to a planet called Colson’s World where a single family lives, all the adopted children of Colson himself. Most of the visitors to the planet are there for the barbeque cookoff, but Conroy is there to make a business proposition to Colson, to convince him of the value of buffalito that are Conroy’s business. While he’s there he meets Bethany, a little girl who has dangerous powers that have prompted her mother to keep her sedated for the safety of everyone. Only now the medication isn’t working anymore.

Hey, good to see what the buffalito thing is about–I know Lawrence Schoen was giving away buffalito plushies at his WorldCon reading, and I saw them on people’s shoulders throughout the weekend. Apparently two of his books have been published around buffalito, and this was part of a short story collection.

This story took way too long to get going. The first hook for me was about halfway through, which is entirely too far in a novella length work, where the stakes are finally revealed to try to save the girl from those who want to kill her to prevent her killing others accidentally (stakes that I can care about) that give our protagonist something more interesting to do than trying to sell buffalito breeding rights (about which I don’t give a damn). The second half of the story was action packed and interesting, but it was buried behind that first half.

It seemed, too, like I was supposed to be enamored with Reggie the buffalito and how irresistibly cute he’s supposed to be. And yes he is cute. But not enough to carry thousands and thousands of words on his own. It’s very possible that this story was targeted at people who’ve read Lawrence’s buffalito books, in which case I’m just not part of his target audience.


4. The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake (Asimov’s 10-11/12)
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 those I will read that story eagerly. But this one just didn’t feel all that relevant even within its own context.


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.