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Doing the Hugos, Part 3d

I was a bit busy last week, with four deadlines all landing on the last day of the month. So I didn’t get the chance to read, or write about, the next novella on the Hugo 2009 shortlist. Which is ‘The Tear’ by Ian McDonald. This was published in Galactic Empires, edited by Gardner Dozois and published by the Science Fiction Book Club.

I actually have a problem with stories from SFBC-published books being eligible for the Hugo Award. You have to be a member of the club to buy the book. It’s not freely available, it cannot be bought in your local Borders, Waterstone’s, Walden Books, or Internet retailer of choice. Hugo Awards should only be given to fiction which can be purchased or read by all.

Even more worrying, for a novella such as ‘The Tear’ to have been nominated, it suggests that SFBC members cast sufficient votes for it to appear on the shortlist. The intersection of Worldcon members and SFBC members must be therefore be disproportionately large. Or the number of nominations disproportionately small.

But that is all – for the moment – irrelevant. And, I suppose, somewhat ironic, given that ‘The Tear’ is best of the novellas I have so far read from the shortlist.

‘The Tear’ shares it setting with ‘Verthandi’s Ring’, McDonald’s story from 2007’s excellent The New Space Opera anthology. It is baroque space opera, full of big numbers, big vistas, and big ideas.

The water world of Tay has been visited by the 800 shatterships of the Anpreen Commonweal, post-humans who have taken the form of nano-motes. A human from Tay, Ptey, learns that the Anpreen are fleeing an enemy. And when that enemy appears on the outer edges of Tay’s planetary system, he leaves his world aboard one of the Anpreen shatterships. He returns alone millennia later to discover Tay has been incinerated. The story then takes an abrupt swerve as it explains the reason why the Anpreen were being hunted.

Looked at from a great height, ‘The Tear’ appears somewhat thin on plot. Ptey leaves, Ptey comes home again, Ptey works out why it all happened. It’s tempting to compare ‘The Tear’ to a painting by an Old Master, rich in colour and detail, but depicting only an old man sitting in a chair. Some have said there’s too much detail in it for a novella, that it would be better-suited to novel-length. I disagree: the story is the details…

Which in turn leads to ‘The Tear’s one major failing. McDonald has created so rich a background he can’t help but stop his plot every now and again and unload exposition on the reader. In that respect, ‘The Tear’ is even moreso heartland sf than it actually presents: it displays in full the unique vision of the genre, yet fails to overcome its greatest handicap.

In other words, ‘The Tear’ full of eyeball kicks. For instance, in the Anpreen shattership, Thirty Third Tranquil Abode, there is a waterfall: “Feet down to world-sea, head up to the roof, it was a true fall, a cylinder of falling water two hundred metres across and forty kilometres long.” This is not true of the other novellas I’ve read from the shortlist.

There’s also some lovely writing in it – “… the catboat ran fast and fresh on a sweet wind across the darkening water” on the very first page, for example. There is also writing which is somewhat over-ornamented, which only just manages to avoid falling flat on its face. But then that is McDonald’s skill as a writer: taking his prose to the edge of ostentation, and then pulling it back from the brink before it collapses into a jumbled heap of over-written prose.

‘The Tear’ is one of those stories which reminds you why you read science fiction. Not everything in it is convincing – not just the ideas on display, but also the dénouement – but it doesn’t matter. It is as big as the universe and full of fireworks-explosions of ideas, and that’s what good sf is.

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