2014 Hugos: Novelettes

edited by Loncon 3

Publisher: Loncon 3
Copyright: 2014
Format: Kindle

This is another weird "book review" covering the Hugo-nominated novelettes for the 2014 Hugos (given for works published in 2014) at Loncon 3, the 2014 Worldcon. The "editor" is the pool of attendees and supporting members who chose to nominate works, all of which had been previously edited by other editors in their original publication. I received all of these as part of the Hugo voter's packet for being a supporting member, but they all appear to be available for free on the Internet (at least at the time of this writing).

"The Exchange Officers" by Brad Torgersen: An okay, if not particularly ground-breaking, military SF story, ruined for me by the ham-handed introduction of superficial jingoism. The protagonists are doing a tour as remote operators of humanoid battle suits in orbit: not a new premise, but a servicable one. Since this is military SF, they predictably have to defend a space installation against attackers. So we get a bit of drama, a bit of zero-g combat, and the fun of people learning how to remotely operate suits. You've probably read this before, but it passes the time reasonably well.

Unfortunately, Torgersen decided to make the villains the Chinese military for no adequately-explained reason. (Well, I'm being kind; I suspect the reason is the standard yellow peril nonsense, but that's less generous.) So there is snide commentary about how only the military understand the Chinese threat and a fair bit of old-fashioned jingoism mixed in to the story, to its detriment.

If you like this sort of thing, it's a typical example, although it escapes me why people thought it was exceptional enough to warrant nomination. (5)

"The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal: Once again, my clear favorite among the stories also won, which is a lovely pattern.

Elma was the female astronaut in an alternate history in which manned space exploration continued to grow, leading to permanent settlement on Mars. She spent lots of time being photographed, being the smiling face of the space program, while her husband worked on the math and engineering of the launches. Now, she's an old woman, taking care of her failing and frail husband, her career behind her. Or so she thinks, before an offer that forces an impossible choice between space and staying with her husband for his final days.

This is indeed the tear-jerker that it sounds like, but it's not as maudlin as it might sound. Kowal does an excellent job with Elma's characterization: she's no-nonsense, old enough to be confident in her opinions, and knows how to navigate through the world. The story is mixed with nostalgia and memories, including a reminder of just what Elma meant to others. It touches on heroism, symbolism, and the horrible choices around dying loved ones, but I thought it did so deftly and with grace. I was expecting the story to be too obvious, but I found I enjoyed the quotidian feel. It's not a story to read if you want to be surprised, but I loved the small touches. (9)

"Opera Vita Aeterna" by Vox Day: Before the review, a note that I consider obligatory. The author of this story is an aggressively misogynistic white supremacist, well-known online for referring to black people as savages and arguing women should not be allowed to vote. To what extent you choose to take that into account when judging his fiction is up to you, but I don't think it should go unsaid.

"Opera Vita Aeterna" is the story of a monastery in a typical fantasy world (at least as far as one can tell from this story; readers of Vox Day's fantasy series will probably know more background). At the start of the story, it gets an unexpected visit from an elf. Not just any elf, either, but one of the most powerful magicians of his society. He comes to the monastery out of curiosity about the god that the monks worship and stays for a project of illuminating their scriptures, while having theological debates with the abbot.

This story is certainly not the offensive tirade that you might expect from its author. Its biggest problem is that nothing of substance happens in the story, either theologically or via more conventional action. It's a lot of description, a lot of talking, a lot of warmed-over Christian apologetics that dodges most of the hard problems, and a lot of assertions that the elf finds something of interest in this monastery. I can believe this could be the case, but Vox Day doesn't really show why. There is, at the end of the story, some actual drama, but I found it disappointing and pointless. It leads nowhere. The theology has the same problem: elves supposedly have no souls, which is should be the heart of a theological question or conflict Vox Day is constructing, but that conflict dies without any resolution. We know nothing more about the theology of this world at the end of the story than we do at the beginning.

Some of the descriptions here aren't bad, and the atmosphere seems to want to develop into a story. But that development never happens, leaving the whole work feeling fundamentally pointless. (4)

"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang: This is another oddly-constructed story, although I think a bit more successful. It's a story in two interwoven parts. One is a fictional essay, told in a non-fiction style, about a man living in a future world with ubiquitous life recording and very efficient search software. Any part of one's life can be easily found and reviewed. The other is the story of a boy from a tribal culture during European colonialism. He learns to read and write, and from that a respect for written records, which come into conflict with the stories that the tribe elders tell about the past.

The purpose of both of these stories is to question both the value and the implications of recording everything in a way that preserves and guarantees the facts instead of individual interpretations. The boy's story calls this into question; the narrator's story offers ambiguous support for its value and a deeper plea for giving people space to change.

I found the style a bit difficult to get used to, since much of it did not feel like a story. But it grew on me as I read it, and the questions Chiang raises have stuck with me since. The problem of how and when to allow for change in others when we have perfect (or at least vastly improved) memory is both important and complicated, and this is one of the better presentations of the problem that I've seen. It's more of a think-y piece, and closer to non-fiction than a story, but I thought it was worth reading. (8)

"The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard: I keep wanting to like de Bodard's space opera world of AIs and living ships, but it never quite works for me. I've read several stories set in this universe now, and it has some neat ideas, but I always struggle with the characters. This story at least doesn't have quite as much gruesome pregnancy as the previous ones (although there's still some).

"The Waiting Stars" opens with a raid on a ship graveyard, an attempt to rescue and "reboot" an AI starship under the guidance of another Mind. This is intermixed with another story about a woman who was apparently rescued in childhood from birthing ship Minds and raised in a sort of foster institution. This feels like a flashback at first, but its interaction with the rest of the story is something more complicated. The conceptual trick de Bodard pulls here is thought-provoking, but once again I struggled to care about all of the characters. I also found the ending discouraging and unsatisfying, which didn't help. Someone who isn't me might really like this story, but it wasn't my thing. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-12-21

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