2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novelettes

  • “The Long Fall Up” by William Ledbetter (F&SF, May/June 2016)

Free version unavailable.

A quiet, banter-y story that takes place soon after an apocalypse of some sort. The rich and famous live on vast ships out at sea and have commandeered all available resources and amenities, leaving the rest to eke out a living as they can. When an impulsive, talkative rock star from one of those ships washes ashore, she’s the first human being the taciturn, scavenger Bay has seen or spoken to in years. These two women may be like oil and water, but together they might find something they’ve each been without—connection. Like Sarah Pinker’s award-winning novelette from last year, there’s enough story and world-building and potential for a longer story that I would have preferred reading over the shorter novelette version. Otherwise this was a pleasant, engaging read.

WOW.

This story is written in one of my favorite genres: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In a far-off future, damage to the earth and environment is a thing of the past, thanks to grains that are programmed to monitor and protect the land and anchors, grain-imbued humans that act as their proxy and are rooted to the land they come from, unlike the day-farers, who are grain-free and obligated to always travel and never settle. Frere-Jones has been an anchor all her life, and she has lost her husband and son for daring to rebel against the grains’ ironclad will. Now, for protecting day-farers from the grains’ wrath, she’ll pay a terrible price—and maybe make a difference.

I loved this story. It has a unique original concept that’s excellently executed, it’s gripping and filled with tension, and has enough pathos to make you really feel it, tinted with just the right amount of hope that maybe things will change. I also loved the Golden Bough-esque world-building and the way the grains both draw their power and motivation from memories and monitor and compartmentalize them to manipulate the anchors into fulfilling their programmed goals. All of the world-building is top-notch, and Frere’s dilemma is perfectly realized within the context of the world she inhabits.

  • The Orangery” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, December 2016)

This novelette draws inspiration from the many women in Greek mythology who are turned into trees for refusing the attentions of a deity. A guardian has tended the Orangery, a sanctuary of sorts housing all the trees who were formerly women, for years on end, alone, until Apollo breaks in to take back Daphne for good. Interspersed within the main narrative are the stories of three women-turned-trees, told by a guide who used to a tree herself. It’s an intriguing take on agency and choice, and what kind of agency and options a woman has when the only way for her to escape the attentions of a man is to cease being human. A solid entry.

  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde, (Tor.com Publishing)

I bounced hard off this one. In a kingdom with magical jewels where royalty are known themselves as “Jewels” and have lapidaries who can hear the jewels’ voices and wield their powers, the princess Lin and her lapidary Sumi, the only ones to survive a palace-wide betrayal that left everyone but them dead, must fight to save their kingdom from a conquering army and commander before it’s too late. The neck-breaking pace of this novelette read as though the story believed itself to be a full-length novel, except it wasn’t. The result was a story jammed in to fit a length that felt way too confining, whose world-building consisted of simplistic details about how the jewels worked and repetition of the rules binding Jewels and lapidaries. Pass.

Alyssa Wong never writes the same story or kind of story twice, and each one feels distinctly unique and fundamentally hers. A weird west story about a boy named Ellis who can channel the power of the desert and resurrect the bones of the dead, Marisol, his best friend and the one he loves, the man who wants to exploit the dead for his own profit, and the thin line between death and resurrection and desiccation and rebirth. The written setting is fantastic, the prose and imagery are lovely, and the story makes similarly excellent use of pathos and hints of change as “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”. It’s also perfect for fans of Pretty Deadly.

My vote: The story of my heart on this ballot, and my first choice, is “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories.” “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” is runner-up.

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2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novelettes

And we’re back with my thoughts on the novelettes nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards.

Novelettes are tricky things for me, and I tend to like fewer of them on average compared to novellas or short stories. I suspect it’s something to do with the word count—either too few words or too many. As such, I don’t have quite the same amount of love for the stories I read in this batch. Which isn’t to say they aren’t any good, but there weren’t any I especially loved.

  • Rattlesnakes and Men” by Michael Bishop (Asimov’s 2/15)
    The allegorical story of the bunch, “Rattlesnakes and Men” is the story of Wylene, her husband, and their daughter moving to a small town in southern Georgia where everyone is legally required to own rattlesnakes genetically modified to sense and attack intruders. These snakes are a cornerstone of the town’s economy and identity, and men men walk around with snakes at work, in schools, and even hospitals. When Wylene and the town’s doctor engage in activism for tighter restrictions on rattlesnake ownership and usage after several kids are bitten, these men, part of a larger organization of rattlesnake proponents, grow ugly and violent.

As it turns out, this story was written in response to Georgia’s passing a law further legalizing open-carry. It’s transparent about being a political piece on American gun culture (many of the names are thinly-veiled references to Georgia politicians and other individuals.) As an allegory, it’s an effective piece of fiction. As a science fiction story, it’s less so, as the bioengineered rattlesnakes are incidental to the larger issue of the snake owners.

  • And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
    A Kameron Hurley-esque story if ever there was one—Rhye is a battle-hardened, foul-mouthed cyborg on a job with her partner Rack, a cyborg hacker, when he gets caught inside his own security system. Even though she’s far more comfortable in the physical world killing things than in the virtual world, Rhye will have to go in after him if she has any chance of bringing him back to life.This novelette reads like a combination action movie script/sordid cyberpunk story. It’s brutal and messy and I don’t even know how many swear words and rude metaphors are in it, but they are deployed with a kind of poetry. It’s the kind of writing that actually works really well for a piece of short fiction (there’s no way this could be sustained for an entire novel) and is  physically exciting experience to read.
  • Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/11/15)
    Technically a traditional secondary world fantasy, except not actually all that traditional in terms of characters or world-building. This novelette is part of Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse universe, of which I’ve only read this one story, which unfortunately negatively impacted my reading experience to a certain extent—I felt like I was missing some important context about the various groups of people and the magic system that I got the sense had been introduced or explored in previous stories.

It’s the coming-of-age story of sixteen-year-old Aviya, and with it comes acceptance of her own lack of magical abilities, her autistic sibling Kimriel, and her transgender grandparent, the latter of whom is also coming into acceptance of himself after many years of repression for the sake of his family. This description makes the story sound dry—really it’s a colorful, visually intriguing tale of desert peoples with different magical traditions and different uses of words and language, especially when it comes to gender and personhood.

  • The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien (Asimov’s 6/15)
    Henry Lien writes strange fiction. I don’t mean that in a bad way, or even in a New Weird or surrealist way—it’s just strange. The last story I read of his was about wayward girls in a reform school engaging in mandatory roller-blading competitions. This particular novelette is a ginormous parody of nineteenth-century socialite politics, complete with purple language and ridiculously dramatic escapades,  in the form of two women viciously competing to have the best themed garden to impress the richest, most influential wife in town, only to have their efforts descend into environmental catastrophe. This story is so grandiose and unabashed of itself that it actually works. I also feel like I’m incapable of judging it’s worthiness of being awarded a Nebula.
  • “The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir (F&SF, 7-8/15)
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  • Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 6/15)
    And this is where my ambivalence towards the novelette format shows its face—the story of a middle-aged woman named Luce touring with her band across the United States and struggling to make ends meet due to the popularity of holographic technology that broadcasts concert performances and makes obsolete the need to attend actual concerts, this felt like the intro to or an excerpt of a larger story. The ending begged the question of what happens next in a way that didn’t feel satisfactory or like the novelette length was adequate to tell this particular story. I did enjoy Luce’s tough, world-weary demeanor, her dedication to her music, and her love for her van, Daisy.

My vote: There’s no particular story I especially want to win here. So I’m going to base this on enjoyment factor and cast my vote for Bolander’s “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead.”