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Hugo 2014: Novelette 22 July 2014

These are my thoughts on the Hugo-nominated novelettes in 2014. If you're planning to vote, you may wish not to read these notes until you have done so. There will also be spoilers here.

The Waiting Stars, Aliette de Bodard: Two narratives in parallel. Somewhere in deep space, two humans and their AI ship (also their great-aunt) go to salvage another family ship that had been captured and mothballed by the enemy; meanwhile, Catherine grows up in an institution run by people who want to de-programme the children rescued/stolen from the horrible AI-lovers. The twist is hardly unexpected, and nor is the other twist, but the story is agreeable. One side is just a bit too blatantly unsympathetic for this to work properly. I get the impression the story's set in a universe about which she's written more, and I wouldn't mind reading some of it, so I suppose it's done its job. The official etext can't decide whether the ship graveyard is a yard or a ward, which would be cleverer if it showed any consistency in the usage; I suspect poor editing.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, Ted Chiang: Two parallel narratives again. A modern man ponders on how a new invention will do away with the need for memory, while a Western African indigene is taught to read and write by a missionary. Yeah, as soon as you read that it's obvious where this is going. Surprise me, damn you! I really do expect more from Ted Chiang than this. All right, the ending isn't exactly the cheap moral lesson I'd predicted; it's a slightly different cheap moral lesson. This is a short story scraped out to novelette size. It will probably win because everyone loves Ted Chiang, but I really don't get the spark from it that I've had from other work of his.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars, Mary Robinette Kowal: one of the astronauts who first landed on Mars, now ageing and living in the colony there, decides whether to abandon her increasingly-dependent and dying husband for one last mission. This is another short story plot really, but the padding, the details of life in this Martian future, are rather more agreeable than in the Chiang story.

The Exchange Officers, Brad R. Torgerson: two American soldiers fight, via humanoid drones, to defend an orbital station from a Chinese takeover. Which feels on the surface like the sort of story I'd have been reading in an anthology from the 1980s edited by Jerry Pournelle, except these guys don't seem to have any weapons, which makes their proposed tactics a bit unclear even if most of the defenders hadn't been disabled by an initial EMP attack. (And really, if you expect these things to be able to sit in space for months or years at a time and then be ready to fight, they're already EMP-proof just to cope with the environment.) I get the feeling Torgerson knows a lot about the US military, but rather less about robotics: balance feedback from the human inner ear doesn't help if it's not in the thing that's trying to balance, and these days computers can do it better anyway. And your space station may only be a few hundred miles up, but your control signal still has to get round the world to reach it, a far more significant lag. Characters? We don't need them. And because telling a story in simple order of events is so terribly old-fashioned, that's not what we get. Not entirely unpleasant, but really not Hugo material.

Opera Vita Aeterna, Vox Day: an elf-mage is a guest, for Plot Reasons, at a fantasy-Catholic monastery; in the way of many modern elves, he's better at everything than the humans; when they're all killed in his absence, he spends many years illuminating a beautiful manuscript to commemorate them. The author's hateful politics don't particularly show up here, in a story with no female or non-white characters (those of us who've read certain Games Workshop products are quite able to recognise and ignore the early strains of Alfheim ├╝ber alles). It still has nothing to say beyond that quick summary.

Well, at least these are actual science fiction stories, or at least fantasy (Day, and uninteresting fantasy at that). I enjoyed the Torgerson but it's doing nothing new; the Kowal goes past without leaving much impression; the Chiang feels over-engineered; the de Bodard is imperfect but quite fun. None of them quite gives me the whack round the head that I think of as a characteristic of Hugo material, but I'll certainly vote for de Bodard first.

Addendum: the Hugo voting order was Kowal, Chiang, de Bodard, Torgerson, No Award, Day.

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