Now it’s the turn of the novelettes. The Hugo Award for Best Novelette is “awarded for a science fiction or fantasy story of between seven thousand five hundred (7,500) and seventeen thousand five hundred (17,500) words”. This year’s shortlist looks like this:
‘Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders’ by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Jan 2008)
Sigh. Another Resnick. He’s one of those authors who regularly appears on the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, but I can’t for the life of me understand why. Clearly he’s popular, but when an award is given for the “best” of a category that’s what I expect it to be. This is a tired old Crumbly Fantasy – two old codgers reminisce about a magic shop they used to frequent as kids. They go looking for it and – big surprise – they find it and…. I think people have been writing variations on this deal-with-the-devil / youth-regained story since Poe. Its appearance on this shortlist is, well, baffling….
‘The Gambler’ by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
At least this is 21st Century science fiction. It’s also very good, with a clever extrapolation of some aspects of current technology. But, more than that, it’s relevant. It’s about our world and our future. It’s not some rosy-tinted reminiscence about the dead past. Science fiction is neither predictive nor didactic, but it should certainly look forward. This novelette does exactly that. And it’s very well-written. It belongs on the shortlist.
‘Pride and Prometheus’ by John Kessel (F&SF Jan 2008)
This one is very good, this one I like. Austen meets Shelley; one of the Bennetts meets Victor Frankenstein. The Pride and Prejudice pastiche is not pitch-perfect (ugh, too much alliteration), although the modern cadences do make it a more contemporary read. And the ending is rushed. But the writing is very good, and Kessel captures the flavour of Regency England quite well. (I’m not so convinced Mary Bennett would have been quite so willing to meet privately with the various men, but that’s a minor quibble.) Frankenstein is a bit wet, but the monster is handled well. Perhaps the story’s impact has been a little spoiled by the recent publicity for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but never mind.
‘The Ray-Gun: A Love Story’ by James Alan Gardner (Asimov’s Feb 2008)
There’s something a little old-fashioned about this novelette too – its style rather than its subject. A boy finds a ray-gun, it changes his life; but not in the way you’d expect a ray-gun to do so. He could have found a leprechaun’s hat or a magic dog turd, it would not have substantially changed this story. Which does make you wonder what the point is. It’s well-written and very engaging, but it’s a little worrying to have so many stories driven by nostalgia on the shortlist this year.
‘Shoggoths in Bloom’ by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)
I wanted to dislike this story. There seemed to be too much in it – 1930s race relations, Nazi persecution of Jews, WWI, and a sudden swerve towards slavery at the end – and I couldn’t decide if the central conceit, the shoggoths, was cleverly done or mishandled. I’m still not sure. But the story grew on me, and by the end of it I did think it was quite good. Not as good as the Kessel or the Bacigalupi, but better than the Gardner.
Definitely a stronger category than short stories. While I prefer stories with a more literary treatment of science fiction tropes, I’d sooner there had been such treatments of tropes closer to the heartland of the genre. You know, like spaceships, or aliens, or AIs, etc. Perhaps that’s because three of the five are from Asimov’s. More variety – in subject, style and source – would have been better, but this is a (mostly) not embarrassing shortlist.
Novellas to follow soon.