Tuesday, June 9, 2009

2009 Hugo Nominees - Best Novella

The last of the best professional artists nominees is picture book illustrator Shaun Tan:

Once again in a category there is one nominee that is unavailable to me. Ian McDonald's "The Tear" has only been published in an Science Fiction Book Club anthology. I'm not a member so I haven't read it. It also has not been made available online like the other nominees have (though one other of them is currently unavailable). As for the rest:

“The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay - The phrase that comes to mind about this story is "average". An intelligence officer is swept up in a coup and finds himself locked away in a prison camp by his own side. There he's treated badly and left to die. Finlay takes this basic story of survival (which you can find plenty of real world parallels easily enough) and tells it well. He captures the feeling of a gulag well. The downside of doing this kind of story is that I was wondering why I was reading it as science fiction; I'd rather read a non-fiction account which would have the same themes and carry more weight. I never connected with Finlay's spy that is at the center of the story and without that it's mainly an account of life in a prison camp. It's not a bad effort; if "The Political Prisoner" was truly bad the real-world resonances wouldn't have bothered me as much.

“Truth” by Robert Reed - I didn't care for Robert Reed's story but I do have to give him credit for one thing: rather than simply giving the reader a "treating prisoners wrong is bad" message he builds a scenario where the more extreme techniques are hard to ignore. A man is found just across the US border with several pounds of uranium. In interrogation it comes out that the terrorist is a time traveler who came back with dozens of infiltrators who are waiting for the right moment. The story is about a replacement interrogator who takes up the job after the previous one committed suicide. I think from those details you can conclude where the story goes. The battle of wills between prisoner and interrogator is a powerful theme that could have overcome that but Reed just isn't able to portray it well. The prisoner is a cipher, the interrogator isn't really that interesting and the bulk of the interaction occurs away from the reader. Instead Reed fills the time in his story by telling the reader how terrible the world is. It's makes for an uninteresting story.

“The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress - Something strange is happening to elderly people around the world. In one retirement home in particular a physicist finds himself having strange attacks and flashes of other people's memories. Eventually he finds that their idle thoughts are changing the world. Kress doesn't bother playing with "What's happening?" to build up tension; she reveals that through an omniscient space intelligence early on. Instead she presents it as a situation where things will get worse and the human characters need to work it out before it is too late. I enjoyed the characters she created to populate the retirement home since none of them were precisely what one would expect.

“True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow - This is the one story out of the novella category that I thought was genuinely terrific. It's the tale of three colonies of self-replicating quantum computer based nanomachines that each have their own design for the universe. One is a fragmented social intelligence that wants to replace all matter with colonies of itself and since those fragments might be considdered personalities they act as the protagonist. Then there is their direct adversary who acts as an solitary mind by only allowing one path of reasoning and how it wants to limit the consumption of the universe to just one percent of its mass. Finally there are a voratious swarm who consume all matter in its path and exist only for that purpose. The high concepts in the story are a lot of fun. The biggest problem with "True Names" for me was that it comes across as two stories jammed together. The climax to the first plot line is a strange deus ex machina that involves not only the reader not being provided fundamental information about the logic systems but for the logic systems themselves to not be aware of this fundamental aspect to their society. Since the story continues on past that point and the rest of it is completely engrossing I can forgive that but it was a stumbling block.

So my ballot for the novella category would be:

"True Names"
"The Erdmann Nexus"
"The Political Prisoner"
No award
"The Tear"

Naturally "The Tear" is only at the bottom since I haven't read it. I happen to like Ian McDonald's work and I want to read it though I suspect it will be a while before I get that chance.