The Theodore Sturgeon Award will be given to one lucky author at next weekend’s Campbell Conference Awards Banquet in Lawrence, Kansas. The banquet caps both the Writers Workshop in Science Fiction and the Novel Writers Workshop in Science fiction, and is the kick-off event for the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction. Writers mingle with academics, which must make gathering that a studious reader would find pretty lively. I wish I were going to be there myself.
Instead, I’m doing the next best thing and reviewing all of the nominees for the Sturgeon Award. This award is granted to the best science fiction short story, though the length of the “short” story varies widely in this year’s field, from Eleanor Arnason’s “Mammoths of the Great Plains, a long novella, to the tidbit that is Yoon Ha Lee’s “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain.” The stories vary in quality as much as in length, and even though a couple of the nominees are clearly inferior, the awards committee is likely to have a difficult time choosing the best out of an overall strong field.
“A Letter from the Emperor” by Steve Rasnic Tem is one of my favorites among the nominees, and has a strong feel of Sturgeon to it in its hard-edged sentimentality. The story takes place in a universe where a far-flung empire is dissolving much as Rome did, a victim of its own expanded borders and the concurrent difficulties in communication. In the far reaches of the empire, a patrol ship visits outposts that operate entirely independent of the broad arm of the overweening government. As the story opens one of the two men who make up the patrol has committed suicide, and the ship’s computer is trying to figure out why with the help of the remaining crewman, who never claimed to be his shipmate’s friend. The suicide occurred only a short time before the patrol was due to visit a nearly barren planet, an outpost in a neverending war against an alien Tem never describes. The remaining crewman continues with his dutiful visit to the planet, named Joy – whether in irony or because being stationed so far from the war truly was a joy – where an aging officer is nearing retirement, and eagerly awaits his letter from the emperor congratulating him. The officer and the emperor served together in the war a long, long time ago, and the officer is certain that the emperor will not have forgotten him. But in a dissolving empire engaged in a long war, a retirement letter is a nicety that is rarely observed any longer. And thus the crewman is given a choice. The story plays out beautifully and honestly, and I suspect Sturgeon would have loved it.
I didn’t like “Dead Man’s Run” by Robert Reed when I first read it for my very first Magazine Monday column, and it didn’t improve on rereading. The long distance running milieu still feels artificial and unnecessary to the plot. Anyone who doesn’t run would necessarily feel alienated from this story, which depends on an understanding and interest in the pastime. Because I love mysteries, I had hoped for more from the central notion of using the “back-up” of someone who has died to try to solve his murder. But the plot is poorly executed, and the novella length unsuitable for the thin story.
I previously wrote about “The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis, which was a nominee for the Nebula. As I said then, this story is bursting with ideas and innovations. The worldbuilding by which Venus becomes livable seems scientifically sound and is interesting to read about – especially because people don’t live on the planet, but above it, in floating cities. Wouldn’t you love to see that? Landis writes of a society built even more on money than we have going right now, with great wealth buying enormous privilege by a few families who come to rule the planet. This economic structure has as much influence on the events of the story as does the geology and biology. For those who love hard science fiction, this story is for you.
I’m still not sure I entirely understand “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” by Yoon Ha Lee, even after several readings. Perhaps it’s just that I can’t wrap my mind around the notion that “in some universes, determinism runs backwards.” I suspect being able to understand that notion is critical to understanding how the being who wields Arighan’s Flower comes to her decision to begin killing again. Arighan’s Flower is one of four guns created by a prisoner of the empire, each of which has unusual powers. This particular gun is called “the ancestral gun”; it destroys the target’s entire ancestral line. The wielder’s work is requested by an android – a “constructed sentience” – for a specific purpose related to another of the guns, and thereby hangs the tale.
Peter Watt’s story, “The Things,” requires that the reader be at least somewhat conversant with the movie “The Thing,” which was based on the John W. Campbell story of many years ago, “Who Goes There?” In this rendition of the tale, the narrator is the Thing itself, an alien coming to earth as “an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary,” intending to spread “the communion” and help the universe move ever upwards. It crashes into Earth, and is attempting to regroup and adapt when it is attacked by humans who do not understand it – a misunderstanding that is entirely mutual. The Thing figures out that the humans don’t accept integration any more than the Thing can deal with being an individual. The fight between the two species plays out from this alternate point of view in such a way that the Thing seems not just understandable and sympathetic, but downright reasonable and sensible. It’s a great piece of tradition science fiction writing.
I wasn’t equally fond of Lavie Tidhar’s “The Night Train,” which is as referential as “The Things” but to a completely different strain of science fiction, cyberpunk. The story shows its colors from the first sentence: “Her name wasn’t Molly and she didn’t wear shades, reflective or otherwise.” If you’re not already hearing echoes, you haven’t read your Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. And the story plays out much like a cyberpunk tale, though this time with much more of a biological component than I recall in any of the progenitors of the subgenre. For instance, the viewpoint character, Hua Lamphong, is a kathoey — a third sex; from the context, apparently a transgendered female, but very possibly with some differences from the transgendered we know today (many, apparently, grow breasts but keep their penises, for instance). Hua is a bodyguard of sorts, and her job in this story is to keep a train from derailing and killing everyone on it, including the target of the attack, her boss. The train isn’t what you’d expect, and neither is the boss. Everything in this story has a spin, and you’ll feel well and truly spun when you finish it.
Damien Broderick’s “Under the Moons of Venus” isn’t cyberpunk, but it spins just as much as Tidhar’s story. It’s impossible to tell whether the protagonist, Blackett, is crazy or has simply lived through amazing, unexplainable, apocalyptic times. From his perspective, the Earth’s moon retreated from Earth’s sky and became a moon of Venus, along with Ganymede, formally one of Jupiter’s moons. Not long thereafter, almost all of humanity was translated to Venus as well, which had by then formed an atmosphere suitable for human life; the acidic atmosphere by which we know Venus was moved to what used to be Earth’s moon. Can this really have happened? Why were there no geological consequences to the Earth – or indeed, any of its structures – when this took place? And if that’s not what happened, where did the majority of Earth’s population go? Is Clare, Blackett’s patient (he is a psychiatrist, as is she; each thinks the other is his/her patient) correct when she points out that the moon still rises? We see only through Blackett’s eyes, so we never see the moon, and we do see an ocean with no tides. This is a surprisingly enjoyable story.
Perhaps my favorite story in this slate of nominees is Eleanor Arnason’s “Mammoths of the Great Plains.” Taking the form of a grandmother’s story, told to her granddaughter, this story is about how American Indians used to live side by side with the mammoths, rarely hunting them, until they died out. The Indians were respectful of the animals with whom they lived, and the Earth on which they dwelt; the invading white men were not, and their depredations ultimately led to the last mammoth dying of a disease imported with circus elephants from India and Africa. The narrating grandmother’s own grandmother was a scientist, a biologist, raised and educated in the white world, returning to her Indian roots only late in life. Her mission was to preserve mammoths even as they were becoming extinct, in the hopes that science would one day be able to return the species to the Great Plains. Her story is moving and inspiring, and makes one long to see herds of mammoths in the wild. More, it makes me want to learn much more about American Indians. And Arnason’s writing makes everything so real that I felt like I needed to check to make sure that mammoths didn’t really wander the Great Plains as late as the early twentieth century.
I was unable to track down a copy of the final story nominated for the Sturgeon Award, Alastair Reynolds’ “Troika.” I could not find a way to contact Reynolds, and Jonathan Strahan, the editor of the Science Fiction Book Club anthology in which Reynolds’s story first appeared, Godlike Machines, did not respond to emails.
I would have a hard time deciding between Arnason’s “Mammoths of the Great Plains” and Steve Rasnic Tem’s “A Letter from the Emperor” for the Sturgeon Award. The stories are different in almost every possible way, but they have in common some truly excellent writing and deep meaning that goes beyond verbal or scientific fireworks. These stories make it plain that speculative fiction is a healthy field.