I’m pleased to announce that The Shark God’s Child, another story from the universe of Abere and the Poisoner, ran today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I always have a good time writing in this universe – a mashup of Austronesian cultures in which every island is a god in stone form – and I hope you enjoy the story.
It’s nomination season again, and this year is an exciting one, because it’s the first in which I’m eligible to nominate for the Nebulas as well as the Hugos. Nevertheless, my nominations this year will be narrower than the last two: I’m planning to nominate in the short fiction categories only. Short fiction is what I write, so I feel more qualified to judge it than to judge novels, and I also didn’t have much time for book reading last year. Many SFF novels were published in 2016 and I have little doubt that some of them are great, but I haven’t had a chance to read enough of them to weigh the field.
I’ll start with novelettes rather than short stories, because that way I can start with my favorite story of 2016: Polyglossia by Tamara Vardomskaya (GigaNotoSaurus, March 2016). GigaNotoSaurus doesn’t usually get much attention from reviewers and critics, but this is a rich, multi-layered story that is well deserving of an award.
Polyglossia is a story of linguistics, cultural survival, family and resistance to oppression – not necessarily in that order – set in a low-magic fantasy world that suggests the early twentieth century. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of good world-building, and the world of this story is intricately detailed and plausible; more than that, the world-building is integrated into the plot and informs the characters’ actions such that no detail is wasted. The linguistics are also tightly integrated into the plot – the author is a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics with an interest in the philosophy of language, and it shows – and the politics of language and cultural preservation come to play a key part in its resolution. At the same time, the story calls into question what we call family, what duties we owe to our ancestors, and how to balance those duties against the exigencies of politics. Polyglossia is rewarding on several levels – thus far, I’ve never failed to get something new out of it with each rereading – and if I had to pick one story that defined speculative fiction for me in 2016, it would be this one.
Second on my novelette list is The Dancer on the Stairs by Sarah Tolmie (Strange Horizons, November 2016), the story of a woman from our world who is swept into another and who must learn to navigate and ultimately preserve its society. I hadn’t expected to like this story – tales of mannered societies usually leave me cold, and the palace world within The Dancer is exquisitely mannered – but here, the reasons underlying the manners and the way in which they shape the protagonist’s life are absorbing, and her slow process of learning, adjusting and ultimately realizing her role in that world are both fascinating and emotionally affecting. Again, my taste for world-building, and the intricate way in which the details of this story unfurl, made it one of my favorites of the year.
Rounding out my novelette short list are A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djeli Clark (Tor, May 2016) and Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, Feb. 2016). The former is a lush, beautifully written mystery set in an early twentieth-century Egypt in which supernatural creatures have helped to throw off the colonial yoke but are dangerous in themselves; the latter, a story of music and discovery (recurring themes of Pinsker’s) set amid a post-apocalyptic landscape and seasoned with longing for companionship.
Turning to short stories, my favorite of the year and the first on my nomination list is And Then, One Day, The Air was Full of Voices by Margaret Ronald (Clarkesworld, June 2016). In the near future, Earth has received signals from an advanced and accomplished alien civilization… which then slowly fade, and we realize that the civilization died many years ago and that the records of its decline and death are only now reaching us. The breadth of time and space between Earth and the alien world means that we can do nothing to prevent their demise, and the story is about the spiritual effect that this realization has on humanity. The story is heartbreakingly human, the narration lyrical, and the resolution satisfying to the soul.
Touch Me All Over by Betsy James (F&SF, January-February 2016) is second: the story of a young woman exiled by a magical curse who must learn to turn it into a blessing. This story has been told before, but the way James tells it is intimate, lyrical, and emotionally affecting, and the story is told with a visual richness and an eye for small detail that takes it well above its subject matter.
Life in Stone, Glass and Plastic by Jose Pablo Iriarte (Strange Horizons, June 2016) is a story of memory: how it can be both painful and healing, and how what is lost might be regained at least temporarily. This is another intimate and compassionate story, dealing with dementia on the one hand and horror on the other: the trauma of memory and the trauma of its loss. This isn’t a lyrical story like James’, but it is a forceful one: its dialogue and description are contemporary, gritty and powerful, and its imagery is lasting.
Between Dragons and Their Wrath by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld, February 2016) is an allegory of contemporary West Africa in which a refugee child earns a meager living by harvesting dragon scales, dreams of a better life in the capital city, and is both grateful and resentful toward the foreigners who provide aid. This returns to the lyrical style of storytelling, of which both Owomoyela and Swirsky are masters, and it tells of a haunting that is all too literal in much of the world. And Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2016) is another lyrical and powerful story of the child of a fair-folk race who is stunted so she can be used as a weapon, and the effect of her awakening on her caretaker and ultimately her society.
Finally, my nominations will include three novellas, all from Tor and all, to some extent, out of character for me to like. Runtime by S.B. Divya (Tor, May 2016) is a cyberpunk story – a genre I usually hate – but Divya gives it humanity through the striving of the protagonist, the tense excitement of a cross-country race, and a satisfying conclusion. The Cthulhu mythos also usually leaves me cold, but The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor, February 2016), set in 1920s Harlem, is a fortunate exception – the storytelling is a blend of Lovecraft and the Harlem Renaissance, and the irony of a black protagonist in that particular world isn’t lost on either author or reader. And A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor, October 2016) is a high fantasy that begins in a royal court – yet another thing that’s usually a turnoff for me – but which is set in a rich African-based world (something I’m a sucker for) and turns into a powerfully told romance. Again, I’m a fan of world-building, and this is what all three novellas on my list have in common: each of them will transport you as they did me.
Hopefully this year, I’ll have time to read a few novels between my writing, my day job and all that’s going on in the world. But 2016 has still been immensely rewarding and inspirational – we’re living in a golden age of short SFF fiction, and some of the best of it was on display throughout the year – and with stories like those above, I have no regrets about my year in reading.
[after a burst of gunfire from the Mystery Woman, Jake climbs to his feet, covered in mud from the tunnel floor]
Jake: It’s good to see you, sweetheart.
Mystery Woman: You contemptible pig! I remained celibate for you. I stood at the back of a cathedral, waiting, in celibacy, for you, with three hundred friends and relatives in attendance. My uncle hired the best Romanian caterers in the state. To obtain the seven limousines for the wedding party, my father used up his last favor with Mad Pete Trullo. So for me, for my mother, my grandmother, my father, my uncle, and for the common good, I must now kill you, and your brother.
[Jake falls to his knees]
Jake: Oh, please, don’t kill us! Please, please don’t kill us! You know I love you baby. I wouldn’t leave ya. It wasn’t my fault!
Mystery Woman: You miserable slug! You think you can talk your way out of this? You betrayed me.
Jake: No, I didn’t. Honest… I ran out of gas. I… I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!
[Elwood covers his head in anticipation of more gunfire, Jake removes his sunglasses to make a wordless appeal, and the Mystery Woman visibly softens]
Mystery Woman: Oh, Jake… Jake, honey…
[Jake embraces the Mystery Woman and they kiss]
Jake: [to Elwood] Let’s go.
[He drops the Mystery Woman and walks off]
Elwood: [to the Mystery Woman as he steps past her] Take it easy.
This scene, and the final journey of the Mount Prospect police car, are what made this movie epic in my mind. Oh, and the sunglasses quote. Carrie Fisher doesn’t channel Leia here at all – she channels someone dark, vengeful, corrupted, a force of nature. There’s something just right about her carrying a gun, even though it’s a different character. Again, her character is softened by a scoundrel, and she shows her humanity too, but there’s nothing weak about her, even when she falls for it. She did, however, have the firing accuracy of a Stormtrooper. No one’s perfect.
I will now toot my own horn shamelessly and announce that The Starsmith, a story set in the same universe as last year’s First Do No Harm (albeit about a thousand in-universe years earlier), is up at Escape Pod.
Coming up on September 15 in Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Abere and the Poisoner, a fantasy set in a different world altogether.
This is another alternate history vignette, originally posted here and centering on Abdelkader El Djezairi, one of the most fascinating and heroic characters of the nineteenth century. The story takes place some years after the end of his resistance to French colonization in Algeria, and after an incident in Damascus which ironically made him into a friend of France. Those who know what happened there might have some idea of where this story will go… or maybe not.
Beit Hanina, 1866
Baudouin rode into camp and found that he was late.
“He’s looking for you,” said the sentry as Baudouin swung down from his horse, pointing to the tent at the center of the camp. “The sayyid needs to see you,” said a Taibeh man who recognized his face. “The emir – he’s been asking for you,” said one of the Syrian officers two tents down. And Raymond, his fellow French lieutenant, put down his bottle long enough to say “get in there, because the king is about to send out a search party.”
The Frenchman needed no more warning, and he ducked into the command tent without stopping for breath. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw that all the staff officers were sitting around the table. They were an even more motley assortment than the last time he’d seen them: some from the great families of Damascus and Aleppo; Bedouin sheikhs who led troops of scouts; mountain Druzes; Algerians; one or two of the other officers who led his five hundred Frenchmen. Men from the local tribes and towns had come to join them: their fathers had rebelled against Mehmet Ali thirty years ago, and now they’d rallied to a new banner in exchange for the promise that they could rule their own affairs.
And at the head of the table was a bearded man in a hooded cloak. He was nearing sixty, but his hair was still black and his features strong; his burnoose was unadorned and he had a bandolier of ammunition over his shoulder. He looked more like the fighting man he still was than the prince he had become, but still, every eye around the table was on him: Abd-el-Kader, these past ten months King of Syria.
Once, in Algeria twenty years ago and more, Baudouin had fought this man. Now, he called him lord.
“Ah, my brave Baudouin, at last you are here,” the king said. “Have you been in the city?”
“I have, lord.” The words came easily, but there was something fearful in them: now that Baudouin had gone to Jerusalem and returned, he realized what a hideous risk he had taken. Pilgrims still came in and out even with Abd-el-Kader’s army approaching, and the garrison still hesitated to molest Europeans, but if anyone had realized why Baudouin was in the city, he’d have died… eventually.
“I suppose it’s too much to expect that the tunnel is still open?”
“It’s closed, and the Turks are guarding its ghost.” The peasant rebels had used the Dung Gate tunnel to break into Jerusalem in ’34, and when Mehmet Ali’s soldiers had retaken the city, closing it had been nearly the first thing they’d done.
“Then what did you see? More than that, what did you hear?”
“The mutasarrif is in the citadel with the regulars. There are men on the wall, but most of them are conscripts, and they’re complaining that they’ll be the first to die.”
Abd-el-Kader leaned in intently. “They don’t think they can win?”
“The officers promise them victory. The men don’t believe. Even the regular troops – in the coffee-houses, all of them say they want to go home.”
“And the people?”
“They have no love for the Turks. They won’t fight, but they’ll welcome you in: the Muslims know the local tribes are with you, the Christians know what you did in Damascus, and the Jews remember how you treated them in Oran.”
Abd-el-Kader’s face broke into a smile. “Then we’ll sweep the Turks out, Baudouin. You and Raymond and Godfrey will enter Jerusalem with me.” The smile, in turn, became laughter: Abd-el-Kader was endlessly amused that his French officers had the names of Crusader kings, and he lamented that Bohemond had gone out of fashion.
“But there’s the Citadel, sayyid,” said Ibrahim Barghouti: he was from Bani Zeid, the newest of the king’s lieutenants, and he knew the city well. “With forty thousand men, we can sweep the Turks from the walls, but the mutasarrif has cannon and his soldiers are well-armed. We’ll have to lay siege to him, and we don’t have time.”
Baudouin nodded involuntarily. The Sultan was gathering another army, and Abd-el-Kader would soon have to guard his northern marches. If Syria’s borders were to meet Egypt’s as its new king intended, he would have to finish the campaign quickly, and that left no time to besiege David’s Tower.
“You’re right, Ibrahim ustaz. I’ll have to consider this. But Jerusalem will be mine.”
Outside the tent, Baudouin went to find a meal. The rush of his escape from Jerusalem was behind him, as was the staff meeting, and he felt strangely drained.
The smell of cooking came from the Ta’amirah men’s encampment, and the route there took him past the artillery. Godfrey was there, in the uniform of a French captain: unlike Baudouin and Raymond, he was still a serving officer, and the cannon were a gift from the Emperor. He saw Baudouin and gave him the briefest of acknowledgments: he said nothing, but his opinion of Abd-el-Kader and the Frenchmen who followed him was clear.
He may call himself a king, but he will be the Emperor’s man, was written on his face. Baudouin, as he’d done before, shook his head. He knew enough of Abd-el-Kader by now to know that, while the Algerian honored his debts, he was no one’s puppet. He might take Napoleon’s aid, but he would be a king in truth.
Once, the thought might have given Baudouin pause, but his loyalty was no longer to France, whether empire, kingdom or republic.
It had been in Damascus, in 1860… There was fighting between Druze and Maronites in Mount Lebanon, so of course there was fighting in Syria, and Baudouin saw flames and smoke as the mobs rampaged through the Christian quarter. Man, woman and child were put to the sword and driven into the fire, and the air echoed with screams. Baudouin huddled in a small church with his Marie and their six-year-old Thérèse, knowing there was nothing he could do to protect them.
But then Abd-el-Kader and his men had come, driving away the mobs and leading the Christians to shelter. The emir had been exiled by a French government that feared what he would do if he returned to Algeria, but that didn’t deter him: he took French citizens under his wing just as he did the Christian Arabs, and that night, Baudouin’s family had slept in his house protected by his soldiers’ guns.
Baudouin owed Abd-el-Kader three souls, and when the zu’ama of Syria had offered the emir a throne, the Frenchman’s life was his for the asking.
Night had fallen and Baudouin stood at the edge of the camp. The hills of Jerusalem stood in the shadows, and on them, he could see the outline of the city.
There were holy places within. Thérèse had dreamed of coming here: she’d so wanted to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land. But business, and Baudouin’s diplomatic post, had never allowed…
He felt the touch of a hand on his shoulder. “Are you thinking of them?”
“I know what it is to miss a wife and child.”
Baudouin nodded but said nothing. The lives Abd-el-Kader had saved, God had taken three years later when the fever came. That was the other reason why there was nothing tying Baudouin to France, and why he had nothing to live for but the man he’d chosen as his king.
“I will make you whole, Baudouin. We will find a Melisende for you. Maybe in Jerusalem, maybe somewhere else, but she will be there.”
There it was, the Crusades again. Abd-el-Kader’s joke grew old sometimes. But Baudouin understood what was behind the words: it was something that neither of them ever said, but that the Algerian was wise enough to know and that the Frenchman admitted to himself in his moments of clarity. Having only one allegiance was a sickness, and a man needed more than a king: he needed a family.
His answer, when it came, was oblique: “We might both die tomorrow.”
“We might, but with God’s will we won’t, not if the Turks do as I hope.”
“You have a plan then, lord?” asked Baudouin. The staff meeting had been inconclusive.
“Yes, I have decided. You will get your orders in the morning. Now find your tent and go to sleep.”
The King of Syria had commanded, and his French lieutenant gratefully obeyed.
Baudouin rode out at dawn, Raymond mounted next to him and his men at his back. His orders, given minutes before, were to advance through the villages west of Jerusalem and invest the city from the south. A Druze cavalry troop rode with him: they, too, were to take the high ground above the Hinnom and Kidron valleys while others garrisoned the western villages themselves. The main body of the army was stirring, and it would soon advance from the north.
“It will be a siege after all,” said Raymond.
“It looks that way.” Baudouin wondered what Abd-el-Kader was thinking. Did he truly think he could reduce the citadel so quickly? Had he decided to use artillery after all, even if it put the holy places at risk? That would go against everything Baudouin knew of the emir’s character, but what other explanation could there be, especially with him leaving a gap in the line to the northeast…
A bullet whistled and cracked past Baudouin’s head, and more gunfire erupted from the Turkish patrol that had hidden itself just south of a village. Men and horses fell, and for a second, Baudouin was paralyzed. But it was only a second, and then he drew his saber and kicked his horse into a gallop.
His men followed and the charge went home. Baudouin was face to face with an officer, trading saber strokes: he narrowly parried a cut at his face and pressed forward in a flurry of strikes. The Turkish captain fought back fiercely, shouting curses and battering at Baudouin’s guard, but then he broke off and fled as a Bedouin troop came to the French soldiers’ aid. The rest of the patrol broke off with him, a few turning to shoot backward at their enemy but most fleeing pell-mell up the valley.
Baudouin called a halt to regroup. He counted five of his men dead and several others wounded, and he told off a squad to carry the injured ones to the rear. A troop of townsmen from Jenin rode past him and their officer called out to see if anything was wrong, but he waved them onward.
There was gunfire elsewhere as other troops encountered the enemy, but none of it seemed to be slowing the investment of the city. “We should advance that way,” Raymond said, pointing at Abu Tor and the ill-named Hill of Evil Counsel. There was a small Ottoman garrison there, but if they took it, they would command the heights that guarded Jerusalem from the south.
Baudouin nodded and saw that his troops had regrouped and were ready to ride. He began to shout an order but trailed off as he saw a scout riding up at the gallop.
The man was from the Fawaghrah tribe – the foie gras, as some of the Frenchmen called them – and his horse was lathered. “Stop the advance!” he called. “Stop the advance! The Turks are leaving the city!”
Baudouin looked and saw that it was true: soldiers were evacuating the citadel and the conscripts were leaving their positions on the walls. Suddenly he understood the reason why Abd-el-Kader had left a gap in the northeast. He hadn’t wanted to surround the city: he’d wanted the Turks to see that they were about to be surrounded. Backed into a corner and ordered by their commander, even demoralized soldiers would fight, but if they were left a path home, they might force their officers’ hand, especially if the officers were uncertain themselves…
“Without a battle,” Raymond said, and for the first time since Baudouin had met him, there was something like awe in his voice.
“Does the king want us to pursue?” Baudouin asked.
“No,” said the Fawaghrah man. “He said they won’t come back. We might need to chase them out of Abu Tor if they don’t leave on their own, but that’s for later – he wants you and the other commanders with him when he enters the city.”
“Think of that, Raymond – we Crusaders will ride into Jerusalem at last.” But this wasn’t a Crusade, Baudouin realized: here was Saladin come again, and this time the Franks would be at his side.
The French lieutenant rode north at the command of his Saladin, the king he had chosen. But later, as he passed the gate of Jerusalem, it was Thérèse’s face he seemed to see.
Following the articles about the D.C. Holocaust museum’s reaction to Pokémon Go, it struck me how very differently game-theory people and other people react to what’s going on with this game. The spots in the museum have been targets in another game (Ingress) for a few years, apparently without incident. Hundreds of thousands of people play that game, and many have played it inside the museum. But Pokémon is a very different sort of game. It is much more popular, and appeals to younger people, and unlike a game that is essentially a game-ified version of Geocaching, Pokémon is lighthearted and people are excited about it because it is new.
The original game was intended to get people out, walking, seeing things they might never otherwise see in their communities or around the world. It has worked that way for me. I’ve spent time looking at art, and buildings, and historical places that I never knew existed because first Ingress, and now Pokémon Go have drawn me out to do those things. I know people who have lost weight, met friends, and improved their mental health playing.
The spots that appear now in Pokémon Go appeared first in Ingress. Most of them have been submitted by players, people exploring their world and wanting to draw particular attention to meaningful places. That’s how the spots inside the Holocaust Museum came to be. I would warrant that the museum has benefited from visitors seeking those game spots, and they are apparently so benefiting now.
But the important difference I’m seeing is that the challenge the museum is facing made me think “great! People are visiting a place with so much to teach them because of the game! Now, how should they take the next step to encourage appropriate behavior from those visitors?” In other words, “how could the museum gamify getting the behavior they want from visitors instead of the behavior they don’t?” Quiet, respectful behavior and attention to the exhibits presumably.
When I was in Milan, one of the official pamphlets from the Duomo had information for Ingress players about a mission there. One of the most famous cathedrals in the world, a historical wonder intended for silent, respectful contemplation of God, used a game to get more people to visit and to get them to see the best parts of the church. That surprised and impressed me, of all of the places I would expect to clamp down on frivolous things or modern things, instead they embraced the possibilities.
Right now HORDES of people who are friendly, interested, and monumentally willing to learn and be influenced to positive behavior are available to the Holocaust Museum (and every other significant site on the planet from the North Pole to the South). “Get out” isn’t going to work. “Don’t play” won’t be a thing. The only way to make that happen would be to ban cell phone use, and even that would be iffy. (Do they know about smartwatches and glasses and rings and every other morphology of technology that people will employ to achieve their objectives? Have they MET people?) But “if you are respectful and appropriate we will reward you with a path that gets you your game objectives” would work beautifully. It would get them more visitors and get those to pay attention to the museum’s educational objectives. Win-win. The game-theory holy grail.
Thinking through that, in their place I would contact Niantic and ask them to stop spawning Pokemon in the exhibit areas. The main problematic behavior seems to be people “chasing” (probably slowly turning and stepping in odd directions) Pokémon. Stopping the spawns would make that stop. Instead, spawns in a gathering area where people wait for their friends, or in the gift shop, would benefit the museum, and would benefit people waiting.
The game points inside (Pokéstops) I would leave. Those attract people to see parts of the museum that they might otherwise miss. They have information about those spots. And they aren’t disturbing anyone (because they are not different than the Ingress portals that have not disturbed anyone for years).
Regardless of Niantic’s approach, or willingness to help (I wager they will be eager to help), the Museum could still give visitors a reminder of appropriate behavior. It’s not about the game, people have presumably been using their phones in the museum all along, it’s about the behavior. Unfortunately people do need reminding sometimes to behave appropriately. But “we welcome you to use your phones in the museum, but please be mindful of the people around you and their experience in this important place.”
When I was young, my parents went to enormous lengths to expose me to culturally and historically-significant places. If Pokémon Go had existed then, I would have appreciated that so much more. I had (and still have) what others might describe as “a short attention span.” (It’s long enough to do what I need to do, just not long enough to tolerate wasted time). Having a game on hand to absorb minutes or more waiting for other people to finish their experience keeps me from getting grumpy. Children everywhere work the same way. I personally prefer to visit museums in which people are not grumpy (especially children, and especially me). I understand the reactions of people who think that playing a game is disrespectful. I disagree, of course, but I understand. But I also know that neurodiversity is a thing. That people experience life differently. That all of the “put your phone away and experience life” in the world doesn’t create a positive response or a meaningful experience. Has anyone NOT been that sullen child forced to “experience” what we are told to?
I just sat last night at a Pokéstop in a place I see every day. That stop is a sculpture I’d never seen before, tucked away in back of a building. I would not have experienced it but for the person who submitted it as a “portal” in Ingress because they loved it, and but for Pokémon Go and the “lure patch” some other player applied to that stop. Those people invited me to experience something they found meaningful, and I was delighted to share in that. I was very able to calmly and quietly play my game and appreciate the moving work of art. That has been my observation of Ingress, and if Pokémon gets more people to see their world more thoroughly, (plus the other positive benefits,) I’m going to frown hard at “don’t play here” responses based on non-players assumptions about what players are thinking. I am sorry for people whose peaceful reflection can be disrupted by someone else silently looking at their cell phone, but I don’t feel at all obliged to put mine away for their comfort. If that phone has drawn me to a place, I am entitled to my experience. My experience is not “disrespectful.” That is other people’s mistaken interpretation of what is happening in my head. If a place chooses to forbid me to use the thing that probably got me there in the first place, then I will pass along to the next place. Washington D.C. is a deeply rich city that I could not experience all of with years to do it.
To each their experience. If Pokémon Go players are being inappropriate, then they should stop, and the Museum should certainly ask them to behave properly for the benefit of others there. I think that the Museum could find ways to benefit, as so many other places of cultural significance have done. This is a new kind of thing, and clearly not going anywhere. We have the opportunity right now to find ways to cultivate it positively and set expectations. It is a VERY exciting time. I hope that most places faced with the dilemma we’re hearing about will find ways to make a win-win out of it.
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