Okay, the novellas!
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Myra Grant
The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake
These are all links to Amazon except the one for The Stars Do Not Lie, which is easily findable in free form online, so I linked to that.
Okay, the order I have listed these novellas above? That is pretty much the order in which I expected to like them. I’d never heard of the one by Lake, I haven’t read much if anything by Sanderson, but in contrast I’d heard A LOT about thee ones by Kress and de Bodard.
I was really surprised because this order is (almost) completely different from the order I wound up putting them in. I’m going to work my way up from the one I personally didn’t like at all to the one I tentatively placed first.
The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake. Really did not care for this one. I disliked the first protagonist we see, and I didn’t like the language in which the story is written. Check this out:
Morgan Abutti … stared at the map that covered the interior wall of his tiny office in the Institutes substantial brownstone in downtown Highpassage. The new electricks were still being installed by brawny, nimble-fingered men of crafty purpose who often smelled a bit of smoke and burnt cloth. Thus his view was dominated by light of a flickering quality that would have done justice to a smoldering hearth, or a wandering planet low in the pre-dawn sky. The gaslamp men were complaining of the innovations, demonstrating under Lanteran banners each morning down by the Thalassojusticity Palace in their unruly droves.
He despised the rudeness of the laboring classes. Almost to a man, they were pale-faced fools who expected something for nothing, as if simply picking up a wrench could grant a man worth.
Okay, really? The brawny, nimble-fingered men of crafty purpose? The rudeness of the laboring classes?
Lake is clearly going for an archaic phrasing which might work for me if I were in the mood, maybe, but – the rudeness of the laboring classes? I’m already being set up to dislike the protagonist, and you know what? It worked! I disliked Morgan Abutti immediately, and that pushed me away from the story, and that means I’m not willing to make allowances for the brawny, nimble fingered men of crafty purpose, either.
Plus, the innovative, cutting-edge, daring plot of this story is all about how a small-minded parochial religion suppresses the glowing truth of science. Wow, that’s new.
I just skimmed the latter half of the story because I was so turned off by the first half, so that last comment may be unfair. Maybe Lake did something subtle with the plot that I missed. Nevertheless, I definitely didn’t hesitate to put this novella dead last.
Then it gets harder. But after dithering a bit, I have to say, I put Nancy Kress’ novella fourth out of the five novellas. I did not dislike it, exactly. It was immediately engaging:
It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t light. It wasn’t anything except cold. I’m dead, Pete thought, but of course he wasn’t. Every time he thought that, all the way back to his first time when McAllister had warned him: “The transition may seem to last forever.”
Forever was 20 seconds on Pete’s wrister.
And then the story rolls ahead pretty briskly. It’s true that I didn’t like Pete much as a protagonist — he was realistic, but not the least bit likable — and in fact I also didn’t much care for our contemporary protagonist, Julie, though there it’s harder to put my finger on why. She seemed so cold and almost hostile toward the people in her life that should have mattered to her; that was probably a big part of why I didn’t like her. Beyond that, I read McAllister herself as annoyingly sanctimonious.
You can see where they’re all coming from, given their situations, but I still didn’t much like any of them. But this story is well put together and I liked it as a whole. Except. Sorry, but I’ve always thought that Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis” was the stupidest piece of sophomoric philosophy that has ever been passed off as a real scientific hypothesis, and so a story founded on it is going to have a huge uphill battle to appeal to me. Huge.
Fourth of five. Sorry.
After that I had real hopes that I would just love On a Red Station, Drifting. Great title! Everybody loves the story! Plus, the setting draws heavily from Vietnamese influences, which is so cool. Also very foreign, not just the physical details but all these intrinsic attitudes. I mean all that inferior-superior stuff, and the reverence toward one’s ancestors, and most particularly the way that children are supposed to be more devastated by the death of a parent than the other way around (seriously?) – the culture drawn in the story is fascinating.
But I didn’t much like Linh and I seriously disliked Quyen.
Linh was unpleasantly self-absorbed, and halfway through the story she did something truly gratuitously cruel to a person whom she had no reason to attack, merely to take Quyen down a notch.
That was bad enough, but Quyen was worse. Though Quyen has many good qualities, her primary motivation when dealing with Linh is envy. Envy is a terribly unappealing character trait, because it’s not only jealousy of someone else’s success and not only wishing to have success yourself, it’s a desire to tear the other person down, make them smaller even if there’s no benefit to you from their fall, just because it makes you feel better to make them feel terrible.
Seriously, even if you thought it out for a fortnight, you could hardly come up with an uglier motivation.
I love stories that turn on complicated relationships between characters. But I didn’t come close to loving this one.
After that, I was really glad to read Myra Grant’s California Brownshirts story. I think it has a decent chance of winning, since it deliberately plays to the fans. Of course everyone does die – we know from the start that this is going to happen, since it’s a zombie apocalypse story, plus we are told explicitly up front that there is only one survivor.
A story like this is a guaranteed action-packed tearjerker. Even the dog dies! But Grant is at her best with this kind of story set in this world, far better (for me) than she is with her McGuire paranormals. This story really worked for me. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough – even though I knew everyone (and the dog!) was going to die. Plus, though it’s part of her FEED universe, it definitely stands alone. I am still wavering over whether to put it first in my lineup, or second.
The other standout for me was The Emperor’s Soul. The plot was clever, the magic even more clever (I loved the soul-stamp idea SO MUCH), the writing excellent, the protagonist and the most important secondary character (Gaotona) not only well-drawn but also sympathetic and admirable.
The shifting relationship between Shai and Gaotona really appealed to me – though you see from the beginning how it’s going to work out. I like the honorable-enemy set up, and I think they might have been more alike – in their drive for perfection – than either really recognized. You can see that Shai’s sense of artistic perfection is not going to let her escape until she’s seen her project succeed, no matter how much this puts her at risk; you can see that Gaotona’s sense of perfect justice and right action is not going to let him stand by while his own people murder Shai, no matter that he has to compromise his other principles to help her.
So I didn’t find this story broadly unpredictable, but I did find it thoroughly satisfying. You can say the same about the Grant story, though it was completely different. At the moment, I’m leaning toward putting the Sanderson novella first, and Grant’s second – I don’t think I’ll change my mind, but hey, it could happen.
If you’ve read any of these, what do you think? And anybody got a suggestion for a great book by Sanderson to add to my TBR shelves? I know he’s pretty well-known, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else by him.