Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review - The 2008 Hugo Award Novella Nominees

Concluding my wrap up of the 2008 Hugo nominees let's take a look at the novellas:

"All Seated on the Ground" by Connie Willis

This story by Willis about aliens coming to earth and comic problems with trying to establish communication with them feels very familiar. It has the standard Willis features: wacky academia, bubbling bureaucrats, and a story that is obvious the reader who has to then put up with characters not figuring things out for the bulk of the story. The aliens do not respond to any stimulus until they happen to hear a phrase in a Christmas carol. One of the people who are helping with the stalled communication efforts gets the assistance of a choir director who noticed the timing of their response to work out exactly what happened. Now given those story elements there's only one way narratively that things will proceed and in fact Willis danced around the subject so much and the fact was that it was so obvious that I started thinking she was going somewhere else with it but she wasn't. Like other similar Willis efforts it is an entertaining story but that pacing just bothers me.

Despite that this is the story that I would bet on to win the category for one reason: it's set in Denver. Since Worldcon is in Denver this year there's going to be a certain amount of hometown votes. Let this be a lesson for all would be Hugo winners - learn what city Worldcon will be in that year and write a story set there.

"The Fountain of Age" by Nancy Kress

A retired mobster wants to pull off one more heist before he dies, this time to get a kiss from the love he lost fifty years before. His lover however is the most important person in the world, an immortal starlet whose body is the source of an age halting process. He recruits the assistance of a tribe of gypsies and work to dodge the federal agents trailing him long enough to get the kiss.

The tone of this story bothered me: there wasn't one. It didn't feel sentimental or suspenseful or exciting or mysterious or... well.. anything. It just sit there, inert. The concept is packed with potential but the story falls flat.

"Memorare" by Gene Wolfe

Conversely a lot of the ideas in this story are well worn but the execution is excellent. In orbit around Jupiter are a series of floating mausoleums for those who have died in space. A documentary filmmaker is exploring them and finding some to be traps designed to ensnare visitors. He invites his current lover out to assist him in his production and she brings along a friend who is fleeing an abusive husband. This friend turns out to be the filmmaker's ex-wife who destroyed his life. His lover is intrigued by the idea of one tomb which many people have entered and none have left. This is complicated by the arrival of his ex-wife's current husband who has arrived to drag her back.

Wolfe builds a story around the strong personalities and none of them descend to the easy caricatures that he could have used. The secrets of the deadly tomb are also a well worn path that Wolfe still managed to make fresh. The whole thing worked very well.

"Recovering Apollo 8" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

In an alternate history Apollo 8 misses the moon sending its crew off into space but a final plea from them before they die keeps the space race running so that regular civilian space travel is a reality by the end of the twentieth century. One of the industrialists behind the development of commercial space travel is obsessed with recovering the astronauts and giving them a proper burial and this story covers the efforts that span his lifetime.

Roughly eighty percent of this story is entertaining but then right at the point where it could have ended satisfactorily it made a sharp left hand turn into badness. The conclusion relies on an astronomically improbable coincidence that the story doesn't earn. It makes the ending very unsatisfactory. Still the beginning is interesting and so I think its worth a look.

"Stars Seen Through Stone" by Lucius Shepard

Yet another case where a strong story is damaged by a weak ending and in this case I think it is damaged to a point where it ruins the story. A small independent music producer in small industrial town has found a new talent but the musician is as unpleasant of human being as you'll find. One evening they witness a strange phenomena and coinciding with it is a burst of creativity in the town, but a story of the towns founder hints that there may be something sinister behind it.

The build up portions of the story are wonderfully atmospheric but the problems arise when the monsters show up. They're so bland and mundane that they can't help but be disappointing. There was no need to have the monsters arrive which just makes the ending seem odd. The ending recasts the entire story in a weak light and damaged what I found to be a very enjoyable and unique take on Lovecraftian themes.

So with all that, here is how I would vote for the novellas:

"Recovering Apollo 8"
"All Seated on the Ground"
No award
"Stars Seen Through Stone"
"The Fountain of Age"