The Hugo-nominated novelettes are, as a general rule, better than the Hugo-nominated short stories. As was true of the short stories, however, none of the nominees is a story I would place among the best of the year.
“Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner is a fragment of something more, not a stand-alone novelette. It opens well, with a repairman traveling a billion klicks to see why a roboship broke down; he has no one for company except an artificial intelligence, which beats him at game after game of chess. Lerner uses his first chapter to explain that robots are not powered by artificial intelligences, which remain bodiless by design, suggesting that this story will be about artificial intelligences struggling for autonomy. But the repairman disappears after the first chapter, as does the suggested theme. Instead, this becomes the tale of Hunters (an intelligent species in the Barnard’s Star system) and humans, a collision of species caused when Hunters attempted to conquer our solar system. Now the remnants of the invasion force live under the supervision of the United Planets (“UP” for short) on Ariel, one of Uranus’s moons.
Hunters — otherwise known as Snakes — are not content with these circumstances, however, and a plot of some sort is hatching. Carl Rowland, the liaison between the UP and the Snakes, is trying to figure out precisely what the Snakes are up to and how to stop them. He has the help of a journalist who seem to be a covert officer of the UP. His principal opponent is Glithwah, the Foremost of the Snakes, who is trying to figure out the cause of a rash of industrial accidents; she can only attribute it to sabotage by the UP, which itself is suspicious of the accidents as possible insurance fraud. Glithwah and Rowland occasionally play a game of b’tok, like chess but more complicated, played in four dimensions, and impossible to play with physical pieces. Rowland has gotten good enough that the pair has upgraded their play to championship b’tok, which requires playing with numerous distractions. It’s obviously an extended metaphor for the game of diplomacy the two are playing, not to mention the journalist, a Snake artist, the species known as the Boaters, robots, artificial intelligences, a spy with a cover as an insurance adjuster, and possibly others who haven’t been introduced yet.
When the novelette ends, there are many balls in the air and not a single one of them has come down. There is no subplot that is not a part of a bigger plot that is yet to be resolved. Complexities are piled on complexities, and none of them is untangled. This isn’t a complete story with a beginning, middle and end; it isn’t even a good entry in a series, because it is in no way self-contained. A novel involving these issues might be fascinating, but a novelette dealing with only pieces isn’t.
Much as I enjoy weird fiction, “The Day the Earth Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt did not work for me. The trouble begins with the premise: gravity no longer pulls one down to the ground, but up to the sky. We’re left with one sentence in the story’s third paragraph to explain it all: “Scientists lucky enough to survive the event said that it wasn’t so much that gravity had disappeared, but that it had flipped over, as if our planet had suddenly lost all of its mass and was surrounded by some colossal object.” Weird fiction doesn’t require an explanation for weird occurrences, but there’s so much wrong with the attempt to explain that I was immediately thrown out of the story. How could gravity flip like this, and what would cause it? If everything falls up, how do the scientists communicate with each other and the public? Is there a surface surrounding the earth now? By giving a partial explanation for the calamity, Heuvelt fails to help his readers willingly suspend their disbelief.
It’s plain that Heuvelt intends his story as an extended metaphor of how one feels when the love of his life leaves him, as happens to the narrator of the tale, Toby, just before the gravity inversion. He tells his story in the second person, addressed to the woman who broke off their relationship, explaining how he came to find her after the catastrophe — to return Bubbles, her goldfish. (I hated beyond description the baby talk of their farewell — another moment that threw me out of the story.) Toby explains all the effort he takes to save Bubbles’ life, and again, the practicalities of the matter don’t suit the weirdness of the situation. Toby has plenty of weird adventures as he makes his way across the city, but he also has plenty of moments of practical solutions to problems of physics, too. The blend simply doesn’t work well; the reader’s imagination never has the opportunity to take flight.
“The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn is another novelette that is really an excerpt from a longer piece or an entry in a series; it makes little sense standing alone. Teodorq sunna Nagarjan the Ironhand and Sammi, members of two different plains tribes have traveled to the Great Escarpment that edges the World along its northern margin. They are on a mission from the star-folk, who have sent them out to discover what happened to the settlements of Iabran and Varucciyamen, which were settled long ago.
There is a narrow waist in the bluffs that allows passage to the east or west. Not surprisingly, a stronghold is nestled against the flank of the escarpment, and soldiers determine who may pass through. And for the sake of the story, Teodorq and Sammi can’t be allowed to pass through, of course; in fact, they are captured while reconnoitering for a means to get by the checkpoint. They are caged and then dragged before the leader. After some crafty avoidance of painful death, they are made soldiers, and taught how to use swords instead of the short knives that are more often wielded on the plains. There is a fair bit of talk, which one realizes is a relief only when coming upon a literally blow-by-blow description of a sword find that devolves into a knife fight. That’s pretty much the story, with some mystery thrown in about the star-folk, though it was evident that the advanced civilization that had settled the planet had devolved into the many tribes that make up the present population. I could be wrong about that, but this story fails to clear up that suspicion. Once again, there is no real beginning, middle and end to the story, but merely the telling of a particular few days in the life of the questing plainsmen, who, at the end of the tale, are simply moving onward in their quest. The writing is clunky and to the extent that there’s a story, it’s predictable.
My favorite of the five novelettes nominated was “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Gray Rinehart, though it, too, suffers from not being a complete story. The viewpoint character, Cerna, accompanies his dying friend, Phil, to the studio of a Peshar artisan. The Peshari arrived on the planet Alluvium after humans had begun to colonize it, and conquered them. It is now eleven years later, and the Peshari have systematically deprived the humans of their technology — which is why Phil is dying (the medical technology that could have cured him has been confiscated). Phil wants the artisan to prepare a memory-stone, what we would think of as a gravestone, for him. The artisan refuses, regardless of the massive sums Phil offers, and is outraged when Phil explains that his remains are not intended to be part of the monument. But Phil is playing a longer game, one that will continue long past his death, and Cerna is to play a role in it. The trip to the artisan is just Phil’s way of explaining his plan to Cerna.
Either the novelette form is too short for this story, or this story is part of a series. Orson Scott Card’s Intergalatic Medicine Show, where the story was first published, doesn’t allow me to search for other stories by the same author; the author’s blog gave me no guidance, either. But this story left me wanting so much more! I wanted to know about the trip to the planet, and why these people (or their parents) chose to take it; I wanted to know about the invasion by the Peshari, and how and why the humans lost the ensuing war; I wanted to know why the Peshari couldn’t simply coexist with the humans; I wanted to know why the Peshari were confiscating advanced technological equipment that would seem to have no warlike adaptations (such as a cure for cancer); I wanted to know what happened after the story ended. There isn’t enough here to tell the whole tale unless it’s nothing more than a teaser for a full novel. It’s a well-written piece that piqued my interest, but it’s not a full story.
The final nominee, “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” by Rajnar Vajra, begins: “A silver Venusian, a golden Martian, and an Earthling walked into a bar.” Sounds like a joke, right? Nope. Actually an unfunny blunder the three of us made that Friday evening.” It’s a stale opening for what is intended as a humorous piece, and the funny never gets funnier. The three referred to in the first sentence are three raw cadets of the Exoplanetary Explorers, all humans, though the Venusian and Martian have been extensively altered for survival on their planets. The Earthling tells the story in the first person, leading us through the inevitable bar fight to its equally inevitable ending in which the three triumph over the vastly greater numbers arrayed against them, to the even more inevitable intervention by the military police, and ultimately to the supremely inevitable punishment of transfer to a hugely ugly planet for their first assignment.
The tale stays as trite throughout. Of course aliens show up and cannot be understood. Of course one of the cadets takes no time to unravel a problem that has puzzled experts in the field for decades. Of course the cadets wind up in a pickle. Of course they disobey all relevant orders in order to achieve victory. Of course victory comes only with immense mental and physical effort. Of course, none of the “science” on which the story is based makes any real scientific sense. The best thing I can say about this novelette is that it, at least, is a story that is complete in itself.
It is difficult to believe that these stories were genuinely the best the science fiction and fantasy field had to offer last year, even if one wished to stick solely to “hard” science fiction (though there is little decent science to be found in any of these novelettes). I’ve provided links for each of the novelettes; if you read them, please don’t hesitate to tell us all in the comments why you consider any of these stories to be among the best published in 2014.