Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review - The 2008 Hugo Award Novelette Nominees

Continuing with the 2008 short fiction nominees we have the novelette category. Tomorrow I'll wrap it up with the novellas.

"The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics" by Daniel Abraham

This is the only nominee in the short fiction categories that I'm not reviewing. It may be good, it may be bad, it may be brilliant, but it hasn't been posted online as far as I can tell. In this day and age if you do not make the nominees for the short fiction available to be read you will not get votes for the Hugo. There can be a lot of reasons for why the story has not been made available but I hope for their sake that they can straighten it out soon.

"Dark Integers" by Greg Egan

I found this sequel to Egan's "Luminous" to be on the weak side. The build up was interesting as it deals with a handful of mathematicians keeping an uneasy truce with another universe that has a different set of mathematical laws. Performing certain calculations can make other axioms in either universe behave differently and could allow someone on either side of the universal divide overwrite the other universe. Ten years after almost wiping each other out and becoming aware of the other universe's existence someone from our universe may be accidentally starting hostilities again.

The problems come when this aspect of the story is resolved and it gets back to inter-universal relations. Then the story has all of the interest of watching someone typing at a computer. One of the major rules of any fiction is "show don't tell" but there's not a good way to show mathematics and so there's a lot of telling. It makes the narrative in the second half just fall apart.

"Finisterra" by David Moles

On a gas giant with an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere (the reason for it is magi-teched away) people live on the backs of giant flying animals. A woman fleeing her family signs on with a group of poachers who kill the smaller islands. They want her to figure out a way to ship the largest of the islands off world intact.

This story features heavily one my big literary pet peeves. The characters do not speak English, they're speaking either Spanish or Arabic. For the most part the characters speak the same languages. The story was written in English so the majority of it is in English except occasionally random words and phrases are in Spanish or Arabic, often with the English equivalent nearby in the text. It's a sloppy narrative method to make things "foreign" which only succeeds in breaking the readers immersion.

Besides that the story is obscure. I'm not clear how poaching the little islands is supposed to be affecting the other ones since there is no description of how the creatures interact. As a major plot point the planet is poor despite having certain obvious resources that are not being used. For some reason spreading out the population is supposed to help this.

This is about as long of review as one of these short stories is going to get because there are so many negative things about "Finisterra". It left me bewildered as to how it got on the ballot.

"Glory" by Greg Egan

This story opens with a technical sequence which might just be the most insanely awesome method of interstellar travel ever conceived of. Since it's Egan again naturally mathematics comes into play as two mathematicians travel using this extreme method to a solar system which does not have interstellar travel. What they do have is the remains of a civilization that existed on their planet before them which dedicated themselves to a complete understand of mathematics before suddenly dying out. The world is divided between two superpowers and each lands in one hoping to just be able to pursue research but find themselves caught in their politics.

This was a very effective story by Egan since the characters waver between supreme competence in some areas and naivety in others. It makes the situation and the complications feel very natural and the story was entertaining.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang

This story, on the other hand, was brilliant. It's not just my favorite of the nominees in this category but of all the nominees. An alchemist in medieval Baghdad has created a door that when a person passes through it they travel through time twenty years. Chiang tells the usual time travel stories of unintended consequences, manipulating history, and trying to recover lost love. The trick is he does it as a set of Arabian Nights style fables. The story reads like the Burton translation of the classic stories and features nested framing sequences, morals about Allah's will, and characters that move in and out of related stories. Stylistically and narratively it's perfect. This is not a story to miss.

As you may guess here's how I would vote:

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"
No Award
"Dark Integers"
"The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics"

No offense intended toward Abraham by putting him last; I just couldn't vote for a story which I have not read.