I wasn’t able to put the best novella of 2015 on the top of my Hugo ballot, because that story, The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T. Malik, didn’t make the finals. That said, I can’t complain too much about the choices I had: the novella can be an awkward length, but most of this year’s entries carried it off and some were very good indeed.
There’s a clear winner and a clear loser. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric’s Demon is what a fantasy novella should be. It’s a coming-of-age tale with considerable depth, well-drawn characters and tight, vivid storytelling. The titular “demon” is a fascinating character in her (their?) own right, and though she’s not very demonic, it’s easy to see how she could be, and one of the best things about the story is that it’s also something of a coming-of-age tale for her. Penric’s Demon is everything I’ve come to expect from Bujold, and it easily tops my ballot.
Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, on the other hand, is half-baked. It’s full of narrative that interrupts the flow of action and dialogue, chapter breaks that make no sense, and backstory presented through infodumps rather than flowing naturally into the story. The author takes much too long to introduce the characters and is too slow to get where he’s going. There’s the kernel of a good story in there, which puts it above No Award, but the flaws in the writing are too great to ignore.
The other three entries are closer together, which surprises me, because I initially expected Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti to stand out as much as Penric’s Demon did. I really wanted to like Binti. It’s an Afrofuturist space opera, which pushes pretty much all my buttons. There’s a mythic quality to the storytelling, which I also favor, and the author handles the cross-cultural themes very well (an Igbo author writing a Himba character is roughly equivalent to a Spaniard getting into the head of a Ukrainian). The protagonist’s moral growth through adversity and coming to terms with her aspirations are universal. In some ways, Binti is a gem.
But it’s a flawed gem. Too much of the writing, especially in the first part of the story, is clumsy and repetitive: it gets better as the story moves along and the action picks up, but never entirely goes away. The protagonist’s shift in sympathy toward the alien Meduse happens much too quickly to suspend disbelief, especially given what the Meduse had done to her friends a short time before. The Meduse’s motivation to attack the ship was weak and not fully realized within their culture. These flaws weren’t as overwhelming as those of The Builders, but they were enough to detract from my enjoyment of the story.
Brandon Sanderson’s Perfect State, on the other hand, was better than I expected. It’s a virtual reality story, and I usually hate virtual reality stories. I’ve never been a cyberpunk fan, and virtual reality is too often used as a device to gloss over the moral implications of the characters’ actions because their victims aren’t real. When I saw that Perfect State was set in a universe where every “liveborn” human was master of his own mini-universe, Nine Princes in Amber-style, I expected the worst.
Instead, the story addressed the moral implications of virtual reality head-on, and its conflict arose precisely from the protagonist’s belief that “machine-borns” were people whose lives mattered and who were worth fighting for. There’s also some interesting exploration of how “real” the liveborn humans are in comparison to the simulated ones, and how similar are some of the forces acting on them. Unfortunately, the protagonist flinches at taking his beliefs to their logical conclusion, and the moral weight of the story is compromised by the likelihood that the conflict zone’s population were, in fact, robotic constructs. But the writing is tight, the action is exciting, and I don’t regret the time I spent reading.
Binti and Perfect State ended up very close in the rankings: at the moment, I think the Sanderson has a narrow edge over the Okorafor, but I’ll probably change my mind several times over between now and July 31.
That leaves Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets. I’m not a Reynolds fan: when he’s good, he’s very good, but most of his work falls flat, and he sometimes takes thought experiments well past the point of collapse. Slow Bullets did nothing to change my opinion. There’s nothing bad about the story – it’s lucid and competently written – but also nothing particularly good. The reason why military records are kept on “slow bullets” and why the bullets are so important to the story is never satisfactorily explained. Nor is there any real reason why the enemy torturer chose to become the narrator’s nemesis, why they ended up on the same lost ship, or why, once they encounter one another again, the torturer suddenly loses much of his importance to the story. And Reynolds does little to make us care about the characters, so when the plotlines are (mostly) resolved, I didn’t care much about that either. It’s well ahead of The Builders, but behind Binti and Perfect State.
- Penric’s Demon
- Perfect State
- Slow Bullets
- The Builders