I thought the novellas would be an easy category for me, but it turned out to be tougher than I expected. I liked four of the five nominees quite a bit, and the one I didn’t like was a surprising disappointment. I think the top two are set, then the next two could swap places, and the fifth is definitely on the bottom.
So here they are:
1. Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold. I expected to put this novella first. And I am, I’m pretty sure. This novella has a lot of charm and is beautifully written. How it works out is not precisely unexpected, is it? Yet . . . it does have all that charm. And it is beautifully written; such a warm, amusing story – and with tons of added depth because it’s connected to the broader Chalion world.
2. Slow Bullets by Alistair Reynolds. I haven’t actually read a whole lot by Reynolds, though I know he’s a well-established author. Let me see. Yes, nine novels, Wikipedia says, and a bunch of stories. I see he’s known for “dark hard SF,” which is not a subgenre of SF I’m much drawn to generally. That explains why I haven’t read much by him.
Well, I liked “Slow Bullets” quite a bit. I found the story absorbing on a character level, and I liked the broader plot, which involves a ship that suffers a little accident and finds itself way, way far in the future, having outlived a disaster that took down civilization. I wasn’t too keen on the sacrifice of personal history to preserve fragments of the vanished society, and also didn’t get what the slow bullets actually were supposed to be for – they seem like an extremely cumbersome type of identity tag? But so very, very cumbersome and with such a pathetic amount of memory; I think my phone could hold more; it didn’t seem all that reasonable for the slow bullets to be so inefficient if their whole purpose is to store information.
But the idea that bad people can turn out to serve good ends and the hopeful rise of a new civilization out of the ashes of the old – I appreciated all that.
3. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson. I sort of liked this story from the first reading, but found it growing on me after the fact. The world involves a backstory where we’ve started maximizing happiness thus: every infant gets plugged into his or her own personal virtual reality world. Thus everyone is the most important person in their own world, which is tailored to suit their particular taste, but they interact almost exclusively with machine intelligences. Only under specific and rare circumstances do living people meet each other.
Okay, now, as far as I’m concerned this is quite a creepy future and possibly not quite as utopian as the inhabitants are supposed to find it. And the plot twist is fairly brutal. But the ending is not as bleak at it might be, as the protagonist grows as a person due to his experiences and winds up reaching out to his real neighbors. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s hopeful.
Still a seriously creepy future, though.
4. The Builders by Daniel Polansky. What a . . . peculiar . . . reading experience. I actually enjoyed this pointless, nihilistic story about revenge that solves nothing and creates nothing. The anthropomorphic animal characters made this possible by adding a cartoon element to the story; if I’d felt I was supposed to take it seriously, I’m sure I would have hated it. I liked every single vicious, brutal, heartless character, from the mouse to the rattlesnake.
There really is an elf owl, by the way. It is a tiny little sparrow-sized desert owl that, when disturbed, mimics a rattlesnake’s rattle. I just thought you’d like to know that.
But a salamander is definitely not a lizard, I feel compelled to point out.
… and, moving on –
5. Binti by Nnedi Okorofor. I know, right? It won the Nebula. Everyone was talking about it. I wasn’t a bit surprised it made the nominee list for the Hugo, and I was really looking forward to reading it. And then . . . then I didn’t care for it at all.
The protagonist’s voice did not sound right to me. It sounded like an anthropologist telling the story from the point of view of a girl. She seemed to me to slip into a tone that was just kind of . . . clinical . . . when thinking about her own people and other peoples. Also, Binti kept doing things that seemed just peculiar. Like when the meduse attack and she prays for protection to the little artifact thing she found years ago in the desert. I was like, What? Why? She makes this whole big fuss about her people not praying to totems or artifacts or objects or whatever, and so where in the world did that come from? This seemed like . . . I don’t know, kind of like a Christian praying to a flint arrowhead she found in the desert when a dire emergency erupts. It just seemed so peculiar.
And then how very lucky it is that Binti turns out to be able to communicate with the meduse. Wow, that’s handy. And the friendship that arises between herself and that one meduse, well, sure, it helped kill everybody on that ship, but hey, you can’t hold that against it because . . . I’m not sure why not, actually. It seemed like everyone in the story, not just Binti, shrugged off the murderous attack on the ship; like, Oh, well, these things happen. Meduse, you know, they’re just like that, and what’s a spot of mass murder between friends. I didn’t buy it.
Disappointing, but yeah, this one just didn’t work for me