A tale of 9 novellas – Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula reading, 2009

First off, thanks to Jeff for letting me continue these guest posts even though he hath returned. This is the end of my nebula posting series, so I’ll be toddling back to the corners of the internet where I usually post — Big Other, Alas a Blog, Ambling Along the Aqueduct, and my livejournal.

Now, novellas. Well, first things first — novellas are long. Anyone else notice that? I guess I always knew they were long, but it didn’t really strike me until I compiled a list and started to read. You can’t get through 9 novellas in a day. Or at least I can’t.

Secondly, novellas are hard to access. I went through the SFWA list of nominations, and then through the SFWA boards, and ended up with a grand total of… 7 novellas that I had free access to. Seven? And I was supposed to nominate from that? So I went back through my list and picked out a couple more novellas that weren’t available for free access, but which I thought I might be able to get the author or publisher to send me. Both requests were answered in the affirmative, and I ended up with two more novellas — bringing my read-for-nomination total to nine.

Nine is still not enough novellas to make an informed reading list, I think. However, given the length of the pieces, and the fact that I have run out of the time I allotted for this project, I’m going to swing with it.

But I’m not going to compile a list of nominees and recommended reading as I did for the other two categories, because it doesn’t seem like it would be as helpful. Instead, I’m including a few brief reviews. (I read one that is not listed here, but had nothing to say about it.)

#1 – “Sublimation Angels” by Jason Sanford, Interzone

This was the first novella I read, and the one I liked best — although it’s possible that my appreciation for it was inflected by the fact that I didn’t have to read it off of my ***ing computer screen, since I had a copy of the magazine in hand. I don’t mind reading off my screen for most purposes, but after about 70-100 shorts, 55 novelettes, and 9 novellas — my eyes are strained, my headache is pressing, and I’m considering buying a damn kindle.

You, however, can read it online as the author makes it available in PDF form.

This hard SF adventure tells a complex story about alien encounter, the travails of living on an inhospitable alien world, hierarchies enforced by resource control, filial love, romantic love, evil artificial intelligences, morally ambiguous artificial intelligences, and more. It deals with some old SF tropes in ways that were new to me, which kept me intellectually engaged. And the action is consistent and interesting, keeping me emotionally engaged through swift turns, reveals and reversals.

I could muster criticisms, but I won’t bother — this is an engaging read, both intellectually and plot-wise. I will definitely be nominating it.

#2 – “Palimpsest” by Charles Stross, Wireless

There’s a conversation that happens in MFA programs and sometimes other workshops that I don’t really enjoy. It begins, “What’s the most important element of a story?” and ends with lots of people saying, “Oh, the language,” and talking about it in a vaguely eroticized way. I usually try to look at this another way — different things are important to different stories. There are character stories, and language stories, and voice stories, and mood stories, and world-building stories, and idea stories, and plot stories, and whatever stories. Ideally, these work together in some harmonious way, so that the mood-driven story also has characters and dialogue and voice. Many/most stories can’t be described as “a ___ story” because they are working in many different ways. But it’s kind of obnoxious to look at an action-driven story and say “I don’t think the characters are up to Alice Munroe’s standard” because, you know, the story’s not trying to do psychological realism, so it’s not a very good axis for critique.

A parallel conversation involves the question, “What kind of traits have to exist in a story before you can begin to enjoy it?” I mind this conversation less because it’s a question of personal preference not official standards. Here, I might answer “language” and then talk about it in a vaguely eroticized way. More particularly, I require a sharp, well-controlled voice, or I’m just not interested in continuing to engage with a piece.

You know, usually. Unless you put “Palimpsest” by Charles Stross in front of me. Because I enjoyed this piece, but man was it a muddle.

And I didn’t care. The ideas were just that cool. Screw the voice; this was good times. I’ll probably nominate it.

Vague, incomplete summary: A teenager from our time is told that he’s about to die — but instead of dying, he can go back in time to murder his grandfather and then join a secret team of awesome time travelers whose duty it is to save humanity from going extinct by going to apocalyptic end-points, grabbing small groups of humans, and taking them through time gates to new points in time where they can regrow the human population. (The first section is oddly told in second person, and I wasn’t particularly engaged by the repurposing of the grandfather paradox, which I think would have been best left out of the piece, but whatever.) As part of the Stasis time traveling group, the main character can access billions of years of human civilization, which we are told about, often in awesome info-dumps — no sarcasm there, the info-dumps are awesome. This story struggles at the points when it gets too mimetic — the revolution was okay, the handling of love interests pretty poor — but it dazzles when allowed to revel in info-dump glory.

#3 – “Arkfall” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Fantasy & Science Fiction

“Arkfall” is definitely more controlled than the Stross. It has what I consider the Fantasy & Science Fiction voice, which is all about control — and also a sort of old-fashioned, retrospective distance, which works better or worse for me depending on the subject matter. In this case, I thought the coy distance of the voice suited the main character, who is from a society which favors masking emotions. Unfortunately, I thought the handling simultaneously disconnected me from events that were supposed to be dramatic — and ultimately, I think I’d have liked to see the voice balance distance and drama a bit more effectively.

“Arkfall” takes place on an undersea world which has been colonized by humans who are terraforming it for their purposes, very gradually, over generations. Every individual in the society is responsible for contributing to this society-wide, generations-long project. One gains prestige by being part of the larger goal, not by accomplishing personal goals. In broad, somewhat misleading anthropological terms, this is thought of as a collective identity instead of an individual one.

I say misleading because sometimes people take the concept of ‘collective identity’ and think that it means people don’t have individual feelings, wants, or goals. This isn’t true, and Gilman doesn’t go there. Her protagonist, a young female colonist, wants to contribute to the terraforming effort, but also chafes at her duties — in particular, caring for her elderly grandmother who has Alzheimer’s.

A foil appears in the form of space hero Jack Halliday who ends up locked in a biologically-powered ark alone with the protagonist and her grandmother, embarking on a lonely journey through the deep.

Halliday is a libertarian, boot-strappin, loud-talkin, Heinlein-esque individualist adventurer — the kind of man these stories are usually about. It’s a lovely change of pace to read about what happens from the perspective of a duty-respecting, non-individualist, caretaker woman, the kind of person who always would have been relegated to secondary character status.

There are lots of neat science fictional, undersea ideas here. And if science fiction is really supposed to be the romance of watching a world unfold, then this is that kind of story — there’s lots of pleasure in watching new things emerge on the journey.

The characters are well done and the Alzheimer’s plot unexpectedly tender. I still wanted something a little more than this — or possibly less — I wondered whether it wouldn’t pack more emotional punch if it were trimmed down. Still, a worthy read, and one I’ll likely nominate.

#4 – “The God Engines” by John Scalzi, Subterranean Press

A science fantasy in which one god has gained dominion over all others, which allows his followers to enslave the conquered gods and use them for tasks like propelling starships. The main character, the captain of such a starship, ends up embroiled in events that lead him to question the virtue of his god.

The best character in this, hands down, is the enslaved god. His dialog rang pretty true to me, especially at the points when he was trying to manipulate his captor.

#5 – “Act One” by Nancy Kress, Asimov’s Science Fiction

Sometimes, I don’t like a story much while reading it, but then I put it down and it grows on me. Sometimes, I enjoy the process of reading quite a bit, but when I set the story down, I realize I didn’t like it much as a whole. Unfortunately, the latter happened to me with “Act One.”

I started this with the assumption it would be a shoe-in for my nomination, because I have loved every piece by Kress that I’ve ever read (or listened to — thank you, Escape Pod). She’s deft and smart and her pieces are sharp. Like most of her pieces, this one has a sharp voice and some interesting ideas. Unlike most of them, I thought this was sloppily structured, too long, and suffered from uneven characterization.

“Act One” is a contemplation of genetic engineering in the near future. The viewpoint character is an Achondroplasic dwarf — which, in combination with the topic, made me go, “Oh, god, please tell me you’re not going to use the Achondroplasia ethical dilemma” — which, of course, she did.

The “ethical dilemma” is one I learned in college, and was told they use (or used to use) in training genetic counselors. It goes like this. Achondroplasia is an inheritable, dominant condition. Two Achondroplasic dwarfs have a 50% chance of having an Achondroplasic child (Aa), a 25% chance of having a child without Achondroplasia (aa), and a 25% chance of having a child who inherits both dominant genes (AA) — which is a fatal. Achondroplasic dwarfs, therefore, have a vested interest in making sure that they don’t have an AA child.

OK, so now the genetic counseling “dilemma.” Pretend you’re a genetic counselor, and two Achondroplasic dwarfs tell you that they want help picking embryos. OK, fair enough, they don’t want an AA child. But they want to distinguish between healthy embryos too — okay, fair enough, you’re supposed to think — but then comes what is supposed to be a shocking reversal! They don’t want to select for aa, “normal” children, they want to make sure their child will be Aa! They want to kill “normal” embryos in favor of “non-normal” ones! Aren’t you shocked! What do you do! And etc.

Obviously, I am not enamored of this as a proposed dilemma. I am less enamored of its entrance into fiction, even with a twist. The character felt like a stand-in for the ethical question. Even other aspects of his characterization, like his fascination with a beautiful movie star who is revolted by his touch, felt… eh, pretty cliche. I mean, I can imagine a treatment of sexuality and disability and revulsion that would be nuanced and awesome, but this wasn’t it for me.

I might have been able to shove some of that discomfort to the side if the rest of the story had been tight, but I didn’t feel like it was. The pro-genetic engineering, shadowy, conspiracy Group felt undefined and unbelievable. The plot developed at an uneven pace, and I didn’t believe the turns that propelled it.

Again, good points: some of the proposed genetic engineering was very interesting, particularly since it focused on things that aren’t the usual fare of these kinds of “is genetic engineering good or evil?” scenarios. There was less worrying about whether we’d see super-humans with blonde hair and blue eyes, and more worrying about how it would change personalities. Can humanity be improved with genetic adjustments to our priorities? It’s an interesting question.

And I really like what appears to be the story’s thesis — which is that genetic engineering will be somewhat unpredictable, subject to vagaries that we can’t currently control, like how individual biology will incorporate or resist changes. It seems to propose a nuanced view in which genetic engineering is neither good nor evil, and I can get behind that.

But was this story an attempt at psychological realism that failed? A spy adventure with a lumpy plot? Hard SF that didn’t come through with the hard? I’m not sure. But I found it disappointing — though a lot of fun to read.

#6 – “Open Your Eyes” by Paul Jessup, Apex Book Company

Intensely sensory and imagistic, this science fiction piece seems to be carried by style.

#7 – “Centuries Ago and Very Fast” by Rebecca Ore, Aqueduct Press

A time-traveler locked in some kind of loop goes to the past where he becomes entangled with the boys in a “molly house,” a brothel for homosexuals. He knows from the future that the molly house will be raided and many of its inhabitants killed. He saves one, and stands as witness to the others.

I did not read all the stories in this collection, just the titular one. “Centuries Ago and Very Fast” does not seem to work as an independent piece, so I wonder if the stories in the collection are linked. Anyway, some vivid descriptions of sex here — potentially erotic, I suppose, though I found myself wanting to scream at the narrator to stop because he was fucking someone I thought of as a child — and some nice writing. Ultimately, even though the writing was nice and the situation dramatic, I didn’t care much about the story because I didn’t think the characters were developed as individuals.

After the story, the book contains an essay on slash writing and how it is an undervalued women’s form — which I found interesting given the current debates about M/M slash happening elsewhere on the nets.

#8 – “True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow, Fast Forward 2

I have nothing useful to say about this novella because I didn’t get far into it. I can’t say for sure why I didn’t get into it — it’s entirely possible it was just eye-strain or burn-out, both of which would be curable if I were to take some time off reading and come back to it fresh, but I need to move on to other projects now. I like Rosenbaum’s work a lot, and I’ve liked some Doctorow (though I haven’t read much), so I may take another shot at this post-award-season.

However, “True Names” is one of the few novellas that’s available to the public for free reading online. So if you’re Hugo or Nebula nominating, or just looking for novella-length reading, start here.

#9 – “Wives” by award-winning Australian author Paul Haines is available online for award consideration. It originally appeared in the anthology X6. It doesn’t seem to be Nebula eligible (though if anyone knows otherwise, let me know), but I will be taking a look at it sometime in the next week or two when I start nominating for the Hugos. After I’ve read it, I’ll try to review it on my own blog — or at least plug it — but in the meantime, check it out.

3 comments on “A tale of 9 novellas – Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula reading, 2009

  1. Kirrily Robert says:

    In re: “Centuries Ago and Very Fast”, ummm, it’s not a collection of stories, it’s one continuous story, and I think you just read one chapter of it. If you missed the bits about Stonewall and mammoth-hunting then you didn’t read the whole thing, just a snippet. So that would be why the characters seem undeveloped.

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