It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Doing the Hugos, Part 3c

Here’s the third of the novellas on the Hugo shortlist, ‘The Political Prisoner’ by Charles Coleman Finlay, from F&SF‘s August 2008 issue. This is the second time Finlay has been nominated for the Hugo – he was also on the shortlist in 2003 for ‘The Political Officer’, which was set in the same universe and featured the same protagonist.

Maxim Nikomedes is an officer in the Department for Political Education on the world of Jesusalem, which was settled by Plain Christians (some sort of back-to-basics fundamentalist Christians). Nikomedes is also an undercover agent for the Department of Intelligence. The latter stages a coup, and there is a purge against Political Education. Because Nikomedes’ cover is a political officer, he gets caught up in the purge and carted off to a “reclamation camp”. Where he has to survive forced labour until he’s rescued when someone from Intelligence figures out where he is.

I don’t get this story; I don’t get why it’s science fiction. Finlay might as well have set it in Nazi Germany. Or Stalinist Russia. Or any totalitarian regime which slaughtered great swathes of its population in the name of something or other. ‘The Political Prisoner’ may be set on another planet, and the forced labour is supposedly part of the terraforming required to make the world more habitable, but that’s as close as it gets to sf. Setting a story on another planet does not make it science fiction.

And when the third paragraph of the story has the protagonist looking at their reflection so the writer can describe their appearance to the reader… well, that doesn’t bode well. ‘The Political Prisoner’ then dives into paragraph after paragraph of back-history, some of which I’m guessing is the plot of ‘The Political Officer’. I’m all for “not starting the story at the beginning”, but if you have to go back and describe that beginning in the narrative, then you’ve done something wrong.

In my comments on Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ (see here), I mentioned the open mechanism which drives science fiction stories. That mechanism is absent in ‘The Political Prisoner’. Its workings do not need to be laid bare because everything is on the surface. Nikomedes is in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nikomedes can’t reveal his secret affiliation, Nikomedes gets sent to a reclamation camp and his past experiences help him survive, Nikomedes gets rescued. There is no idea which needs to be explicated, no idea upon which the plot is carried, no idea with consequences which can be explored.

I’ve not read Finlay’s ‘The Political Officer’, but I can only imagine that those who liked it voted for ‘The Political Prisoner’. Because on its own, there’s nothing in it that’s strikes me as award-worthy. There are enough examples of one group of people horribly treating another in recent human history, without having to go to all the trouble of writing a science fiction novella on the subject. Especially since ‘The Political Prisoner’ doesn’t actually say anything insightful or worthwhile. Nikomedes survives several months in the reclamation camp, then the head of Intelligence turns up and rescues him. Nikomedes asks that the prisoners he had been bunked with, the ones who had been doing the hardest labour, are released. Because, he says, “There’s been enough killing.” Oh dear.

‘The Political Prisoner’ is definitely the weakest of the three novellas I’ve read so far. And, like the Kress, I can’t quite understand why it was nominated in the first place.


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Doing the Hugos, Part 3b

Next up is ‘Truth’ by Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008). I think I might have read this before, but since I don’t subscribe to Asimov’s, or buy copies of the magazine, it must have been online. And yet, as I became more convinced I’d read it before, I still couldn’t remember the ending.

Ramiro is a terrorist kept in a super-secret Gitmo in a Kansas salt mine. He is from 140 years in the future, and he travelled back in time as part of an army of 200 bent on conquering the world. He was caught in 2002 – the car he was driving skidded on black ice and crashed, and the police discovered Uranium-235 hidden under the car’s spare tyre. For twelve years he has been interrogated and imprisoned. As a result of the intelligence gained from him, the US invaded Iraq. And then Iran. Terrorists then set off nukes in the US. Now billions are dead. Ramiro’s original interrogator has committed suicide, and a new one – the narrator – has been sent to make sense of the suicide, and to finally break Ramiro….

I really wanted to like ‘Truth’ but the fact that I’d read it before, and forgotten it, bothered me. Surely a good novella, a Hugo-nominated novella, should be more, well, memorable? And there is plenty to like in it. The central premise is good, and the final twist on that premise is satisfying.

Unfortunately, the narrator is unlikeable – admittedly, she’s a torturer, so it’s not really fair to expect her to be sympathetic – but she’s also too obtuse. It feels like she’s withholding information from the reader simply in order to extend the story. The novella seems longer than it needs to be. I suspect this is partly in order to ramp up the effects of the “temporal jihadists”. The earth has to suffer increasingly worse attacks in order to set up the final pay-off.

‘Truth’ does have something important to say and I consider that a point in its favour. It makes clever use of recent history, commenting on both the invasion of Iraq and the US’s criminal use of torture. It feels a tiny bit out-of-date now that Obama is president, but of course it was originally published before the presidential election so it’s hard to hold that against it.

There’s little doubt in my mind that ‘Truth’ is better than ‘The Erdmann Nexus’, but I still can’t quite love it. Possibly because it feels too long for its contents.


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Doing the Hugos, Part 3a

I had intended to write a single post covering all of the novellas on the Hugo shortlist but, well, a novella is pretty much a short novel. So I’m going to split it into a post on each.

First up is ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008).

I quite like that branch of science fiction which uses the quotidian to explore the extraordinary. But it has to be done right. Sf operates using an open mechanism: the workings of its plot are visible to the reader. Unlike in a crime novel, which must hide those workings so that the final reveal is satisfying to the reader. So for sf, the explanation for the extraordinary has to be presented up front, and then the story should show – or ramp up – the consequences.

In ‘The Erdmann Nexus’, a group of residents at an old folks’ home have been experiencing odd “events”, moments of what seems to be merged consciousness. The story hops between those involved, one of the helpers, a neurological researcher working on a project at the home, and a pair of detectives investigating the mysterious death of the helper’s legally-separated husband. The search for an explanation is led by Henry Erdmann, one of residents, a brilliant physicist who now teaches at a nearby university. It is not until the end of the novella that the reader learns what the events were and what caused them.

Unfortunately, hiding the extraordinary’s explanation, and only revealing it at the end, doesn’t work because it makes for an uninvolving narrative. And, for all its many viewpoints, ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ is pretty dull. (For an example on how to do it properly, see Ted Kosmatka’s ‘Divining Light’.)

Kress throws in a framing narrative, describing a sentient spaceship approaching Earth, but it seems entirely gratuitous. The plot certainly doesn’t require it. And the mentions of split photons, quantum entanglement and emergent complexity just obfuscate. When an author holds the explanation close to their chest, it has to be a damned impressive explanation to redeem the story. Kress’s isn’t. We’ve seen it before, in both science fiction and fantasy. In that respect, it’s not very different, truth be told, to Mike Resnick’s terrible ‘Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders’ on the novelette shortlist (see here); and not just because both feature OAP characters.

The single-note characterisation in ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ doesn’t help either – gossipy granny, bible-basher, ex-ballerina who pines for her past, blue-collar retiree out of his depth…. And detective Geraci – Kress might as well have named him Goren since he’s plainly based on Vince D’Onofrio’s character in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Kress has appeared on Hugo ballots an impressive number of times – 11 nominations and one win, according to the Locus Index to SF Awards. This should not have been one of them. I have to wonder if it was another choice driven by nostalgia….


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Doing the Hugos – an update

Asimov’s have finally put their Hugo nominated story and novellas on their web site. So here’s my thoughts on:

‘From Babel’s Fallen Glory We Fled’, Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Feb 2008)
An interesting story. I can’t decide if it’s taking the piss or a little bit lazy. The meta-fictional framing feels like an afterthought, and the typographical tricks for the alien’s speech feel like Swanwick is having a sly laugh at his readers. There are some nice ideas in the story, but it feels too thin a treatment, as if it should have been longer and more detailed. It’s a great deal better than Resnick’s story, and not as inconsequential as the Kowal, but the Chiang and Johnson still have it beat.

As four of the five novellas are now available, I’ll work my way through those. It might take a while – they’re the longest of the “short” lengths, as long as an old-style novel in fact. Sadly, the missing novella is the one I really wanted to read. For the record, the shortlist is as follows:

The Erdmann Nexus’, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
‘The Political Prisoner’, Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008)
‘The Tear’, Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
‘True Names’, Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
‘Truth’, Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)

Incidentally, a point of order. Mike Resnick’s ‘Article of Faith’ was first published in Postscripts #15 in September 2008. According to the Hugo shortlist, it was published in Jim Baen’s Universe in October 2008. But that would be a reprint. At the very least, the Hugo committee should correctly attribute the magazine in which the story was first published.