Novellas are normally my favorite of the short fiction categories on award ballots. This year’s Nebula ballot ended up being less enjoyable for me than usual due to two reasons: 1) I had a HUGE, HUGE problem with an aspect of one of the nominees and 2) I have never read a word of Lovecraft’s fiction in my life and I couldn’t care less about his oeuvre if I tried, and there were not one, but two novellas directly inspired and in conversation with Lovecraft stories on this ballot.
Trooper that I am, I soldiered on.
- Runtime by S. B. Divya, (Tor.com Publishing)
I read this novella about a year ago when it was first released, and I enjoyed it upon reread as much as I did the first time. The story is set in a near-future U.S. where internal and external physical augmentations are the norm and immigrants and their children are classified as “unlicensed” and denied all government services. Marmeg, an unlicensed teenager with no money and castoff/black market augmentations, competes in the Minerva Sierra Challenge, an arduous day-long race across the Sierra Nevadas, so she can win enough money to pay for college and licenses for herself and her siblings. The world-building is both prescient (sadly) in terms of social policies and intriguing with regards to norms surrounding bodies, abilities, and personal identities. Marmeg is a tough, empathetic character fighting both to win within and game against the system in order to survive. The story is tightly paced and tense, and there is so much potential for a larger story.
- The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, (Tor.com Publishing)
Kij Johnson’s novella is a reworking of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In this version, Vellitt Boe, a middle-aged university professor at Ulthar Women’s College, embarks on an epic journey across the dream lands to find a wayward student who’s escaped into the waking world. After the initial plot-establishing event and immediacy established by Vellitt’s need to get the student back, the tension slacks and the novella takes on more of a travelogue-esque nature, which I would have been fine with if I hadn’t needed to already be familiar with the Lovecraft mythology, setting, creatures, etc. The story is solidly written, the imagery is great, and I loved the Lewis Carol-ized words like “glibbering” and “meep”. Otherwise I did not feel like I was the intended audience, and my overall reading experience reflected this gap.
- The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, (Tor.com Publishing)
Lovecraft-reworking number two! This one tackles “The Horror at Red Hook,” which, Google tells me, is a xenophobic, racist screed of a story, even for Lovecraft. This reworking follows Charles Thomas Tester, a Black man from Harlem and street musician who hustles odd jobs on the side. One of those jobs, in which he’s hired to deliver a book containing an ancient, powerful alphabet to an old woman and in doing so catches the eyes of an old, eccentric gentleman named Robert Suydam, brings him into the sphere, and then into the realm, of elder gods and chaotic magic. Compared to Johnson’s novella, LaValle’s stands on its own, as its own story, much better, though I still preferred the historical fiction portions more than the Lovecraftian horror ones. The story does some really interesting things with invisibility and facades and the power that Tommy, as a Black man in 1920s New York, uses to his own advantage and has used against him.
- Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, (Tor.com Publishing)
Miss Eleanor runs a boarding school for Wayward Children, for those who discovered doors to magic worlds where they felt like they belonged but were unceremoniously returned years later to the “real” world, to parents who love them but think they’re broken. Nancy is recently returned from the Halls of the Dead and has just arrived at Miss Eleanor’s, where she not only finds others like her, some friendly and others not, but a murderer who is killing the students one by one.
Sigh. I love almost everything about this novella. It’s fun, it’s dark, it’s imaginative, and the world-building for the kinds of portal worlds that exist is fascinating, and full of potential. The dialogue leans overly heavy on the quippy side, but it’s still fun. Nancy, Kade, and Sumi are great characters, though dapper, mad scientist Jack is my fave.
However, this novella has a major issue, and that is the portrayal of Nancy’s asexuality.
“No. Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings.”
“I can appreciate how beautiful someone is, and I can be attracted to them romantically, but that’s as far as it goes with me.”
I personally could have done without the 101 explanation—Nancy could have just said, “Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual.” I realize we’re still in the “early” stages of ace representation in fiction, but I am already beyond ready to move past the “explain new queer-related terms to people who don’t have those identities” phase.
An additional takeaway from the quote above is that Nancy does not identify herself as aromantic. But then there’s this quote:
Apparently Nancy wasn’t the only one who found Kade beautiful, although she would have been willing to bet that she was the only one who found his beauty more aesthetic than romantic.
Here we have the first conflation of asexuality and aromanticism in this book. In the very first quote, Nancy says she experiences both aesthetic and romantic attraction towards other people. It doesn’t make sense here for Nancy to make the distinction that she would be the only person in the room who isn’t attracted to Kade romantically. The only thing she would not feel for Kade is sexual attraction, since she is, in fact, asexual.
It is possible to take this quote at face-value—that Nancy solely thinks Kade is aesthetically attractive, and she isn’t romantically or sexually attracted to him. But then later on when Nancy and Kade are holding hands, she thinks the following:
This was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things. She liked holding hands and trading kisses. She’d had several boyfriends in elementary school… and she had always found those relationships completely satisfying…. She wanted to spend hours sitting with [Kade] and talking about pointless things. She wanted to feel his hand against her skin, to know that his presence was absolute and focused entirely on her. The trouble was, it never seemed to end there, and that was as far as she was willing to go.
So here, Nancy is romantically attracted to Kade, and is actively interested in romance/romantic activities, and in doing them with him. She even more clearly identifies herself in this quote as not being aromantic. But then why in the second quote does she firmly identify her attraction as different than that of her classmates because hers is self-reportedly not romantic?
The next quote muddles things even further:
“I don’t want to go on a date with anyone. People are pretty, sure, and I like to look at pretty things, but I don’t want to go on a date with a painting.”
So, Nancy is interested in romantic activities described in the third quote, but not in going on dates? It’s stated in-text other places that she didn’t like going on dates before she went to the Halls of the Dead because of expectations that she reciprocate sexual attraction and the desire to act on it with the other person. But here, Nancy isn’t talking about that—she’s talking about the actual act of going on a date in and of itself. By saying that she doesn’t want to go on dates with people the same way she doesn’t want to go on dates with paintings, she’s emphasizing her experiencing aesthetic attraction towards people. But dates are typical romantic activities, even when there is no expectation of sex or sexual activity. And so the text once again gives the impression that Nancy isn’t interested in romance. But the only thing Nancy has ever explicitly said she isn’t interested in is sex.
These sloppy characterizations of the kinds of attraction Nancy does and does not experience and in what manner are all the more aggravating because 1) I “should” be happy there exists another entry to add to the minute pile of books with ace protagonists and 2) it feels like everyone in the universe has been recc’ing this novella on the basis of Nancy’s asexuality (among other things). But conflating asexuality and aromanticism, even unintentionally, does more harm than good. It leads to greater misunderstandings about what it may mean for someone to identify as one or the other, or both. It’s plain old not accurate. The text even goes so far as to say there’s a difference between asexuality and aromanticism, and yet doesn’t do the work to actually demonstrate what those differences are for Nancy. For me, being both asexual and aromantic, it’s infuriating. And it makes me upset that people are upholding this book as a positive example of ace representation without realizing or understanding how it throws aromanticism and aro people under the bus because of this kind of conflation.
- “The Liar” by John P. Murphy (F&SF, March/April 2016)
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- A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson, (Tor.com Publishing)
A second novella set in Kai Ashante Wilson’s secondary fantasy universe where gods walk amongst humans and have Arthur C. Clarke powers (i.e. “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) that, like The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, centers around the complicated love of two men of color. Aqib bmg Sadiqi is fourth cousin to the Royal family of Olorum, both close to and far away from the center of power and influence. Upon meeting a soldier named Lucrio during a Daluçan ambassadorial visit to Olorum, Aqib falls in love for the first time. Because of the overwhelming condemnation of his family and religion and culture, Aqib and Lucrio’s love may or may not survive. Only time will tell.
I always have to take a sideways approach towards Kai Ashante Wilson’s prose—it’s written just so that I can’t smoothly read it and need to take my time with each turn of phrase and arrangement of certain words. This can make his writing somewhat off-putting for me, but that doesn’t take away from how skillfully crafted it is. A Taste of Honey further develops the already-fantastic world building in The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and explores the contours of a lovely, angsty romance between Aqib, a man ashamed of his effeminacy and conscious of his family’s need to rise socially, and Lucrio, a sweetheart of a commoner with perceptive eyes to the truth of a thing. There’s a HUGE twist concerning the story’s structure, the passage of time, and path Aqib’s life takes, and I enjoyed those scenes less than the ones with Aqib and Lucrio. Still, the twist is ambitious, and it works for what it sets out to do. Overall, a complex, multifaceted story rooted in the down-to-earth feelings and relationships of its protagonists.
My vote: For being my personal favorite, I’d choose Runtime. For technique, craft, and prose, I’d go with A Taste of Honey.