The first of the novellas I refer to is “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu. This story concerns the Pingfang District in China and the infamous Unit 731 maintained there by the Japanese for biological and chemical weapons research before and during World War II. I had never heard of Unit 731 before reading this novella, and was shocked to learn of its existence and the role of the United States in hushing it up after the war in order to profit from the research. It sounds so innocuous to refer to “the research”: in fact, the Japanese used Chinese peasants for their research, including amputating limbs, infecting them with syphilis, and vivisection without anesthesia. But Liu hasn’t written a simple history. His story posits that it is possible to travel through time to see precisely what happened in Unit 731, as documentary evidence is sparse and victims few and old. The mechanism for this time travel involves the way light travels and the nature of Bohm-Kirino particles and quantum entanglement. Understanding the made-up physics isn’t necessary to feel the power of this story, however, because the real subject is how we understand and experience history, and how enmeshed history is with politics and power. Liu’s novella is a fascinating extrapolation about how the world would react to an ability to actually view an historical event, and how easily the world would blend its standard political reactions into the new reality posed by this technology.
The other extraordinarily good novella among this year’s nominees is “With Unclean Hands” by Adam-Troy Castro. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because two weeks ago I said that his short story, “Her Husband’s Hands,” was my pick for the best short story of the year. “With Unclean Hands” is part of a series Castro has been writing about Andrea Cort, a member of humanity’s diplomatic corps in a time when humanity is but one species among many that populate the galaxy. There are numerous species that are technologically advanced far beyond humans, but the Zinn are one of the most, and had previously spanned the galaxy with an empire beyond anything seen before or since. But the Zinn now occupy only a single city on the species’ home world, having retreated as other races grew more numerous and took more territory. The Zinn, in essence, surrendered their empire without a fight. Murder is unknown among them; war is a horror in which they have never indulged. Now, they seek to acquire a human murderer to study evil up close. This murderer is not intended as a slave, and his quarters on the Zinn home world are far more luxurious than the maximum security prison in which he could expect to spend the rest of his days as a human prisoner. Andrea Cort’s job is to sign off on the transaction, for in return to turning the murderer over to the Zinn, with his enthusiastic consent, the Zinn will share with humans technology that is a good millennium more advanced than anything the humans presently have. Cort struggles to understand why this transaction so troubles her. The reader figures it out as she does in this gripping story of life, loss and sacrifice. There are other novellas and novels regarding Andrea Cort, but this is the first in her personal chronology. I was so taken with this novella that I’ve gathered the other novellas and purchased the two novels presently available regarding this character. I recommend keeping a close eye on Castro, who strikes me as very much an up and comer.
I wrote about Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Kiss Me Twice” when it was first published in Asimov’s in June 2011. This accomplished work is a smart science fiction mystery about Metta, an artificial intelligence who works with the Portland, Oregon police department. Her personality is her own, because she is a true artificial intelligence. One particular police officer, Huang, is one of her favorites, and he cares for her, too. The mystery turns on the kidnapping of Metta; that is, according to the cameras in the central station, masked intruders burst in and grab Metta’s chassis. Huang is the only officer who thought to ask Metta to show him a picture of the intruders, but even that is so limited that the best he can testify to is that there were three of them. Huang also quickly comes to the conclusion that Metta has been taken in order to affect one of the investigations going on at the time of the kidnapping — and it becomes clear that it is Huang’s murder investigation that was the target of the intruders. The mystery unwinds from there. Huang is aided in his work by a rebooted Metta — not the original Metta returned, but a sort of new person with a few hours’ less memory, an interesting complication when one considers the nature of true artificial intelligence. “Kiss Me Twice” is thoroughly enjoyable, ranking very high in the ranking of science fictional mysteries. It plays fair with readers and manages to disguise clues without hiding them in high tech. When I first read it, I expected to find it nominated for awards, and I’m glad to see that it is on the Nebula list.
Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is another excellent novella. It is set in a world in which there is a river of mist (presumably with water underneath the mist, but no one has ever seen it) that divides a country neatly in two. Engineering has advanced to a degree that it is now possible to build a bridge over the mist, an undertaking that will bring enormous changes to the country and especially to the two cities on either side of the mist, which were previously open to one another only through an extremely dangerous ferry ride over the mist. This mist isn’t like the mist you and I experience here on Earth; it is thick, burns the skin, and is the home to a sort of fish, ranging in size from (apparently) your average trout to creatures so large that they seem to outdo whales. It isn’t always safe to cross, and the family that traditionally ferries people and goods across the river has a sort of feeling for when it is possible to cross without becoming fish food. The man who arrives to take charge of the bridge project at first finds this ferrying business enormously frustrating, but as the years go by and the bridge grows, he comes to a deep understanding of the dangers of the mist and the height of his accomplishment. It is a quiet, slow story told from the point of view of the bridge builder. It builds in resonance just as the bridge spans the water over time, ultimately leaving the reader with a sense of awe.
Catherynne M. Valente writes more beautifully than anyone else working in science fiction, fantasy and horror today, with a control over language that makes virtually every sentence a separate work of art. Her novella, “Silently and Very Fast,” seems like a counterpoint to Ted Chiang’s “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” which was nominated for a Nebula last year. It concerns Elefsis, an artificial life form that came into being when a child inadvertently integrated it with her own brain. The enduring question posed by the story, and, by design, not completely answered, is how this entity is different from the individuals in which it resides over the centuries, whether it has an independent existence, and whether it experiences emotions – an extension of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. Elefsis is the narrator of the tale, and we learn of his/her/its reasoning by metaphor and how that led to an existence almost completely defined by fairy tales. It is gorgeously told.
The last of the six novellas nominated for the Nebula is Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “The Ice Owl.” This novella is about a teen who is, by some measures, well over a hundred years old, but by more conventional measures still a teenager: she has traveled widely throughout the galaxy, trips taking decades but during which she is in a sort of suspended animation, her molecules diced up and reassembled at the other end of the trip. Her mother is an irresponsible sort, taking up with men for as long as they’ll have her and then moving on to another man, another world, dragging her daughter with her. At the time this story begins, the mother and daughter are living on a planet called Glory to God. A group called the Incorruptibles appears to be attempting to gain control of the planet, and it has some strange ideas; for instance, it appears to be opposed to the education of the young, for it destroys the girl’s school. She seeks out a private teacher, a man who appears to know something about the Gmintan Holocide, which she begins to consider more closely herself. The two form a bond over art and history that culminates in his gift to her of an ice owl, a creature that lives most of its life in frozen suspension – much as the girl seems to live hers. The story is charming and entertaining.
There isn’t a bad choice in this entire lot of novellas. This seems to me to be the strongest of the short fiction categories of Nebula nominees this year, perhaps because the novella is such an ideal length for a science fiction or fantasy tale: long enough to build and populate a world with interesting characters, short enough to have the punch of a single idea fully explored. Still, as good as all of these pieces are, the Liu and the Castro are the stories that rise to the top like cream. The Liu is available online and is linked above; the Castro appeared in the November 2011 issue of Analog, and is worth the cost of the magazine all by itself. Read them!