Next up, novelette time, aka “Emily frantically rushes to finish reading all the Hugo nominations before the actual award ceremony.”
(The Rabid Puppy slate pick is not being reviewed.)
- “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan, (Tor.com, July 2016)
A quiet, literary science fiction story. Emily, the head housekeeper of a hotel where a team of astronauts will be staying before leaving on a mission to settle Mars, juggles caring for her fuzzy-brained mother who she calls Moolie and imagining/researching the identity of her father. Tying together Emily, Moolie, Emily’s musings on her father, and the astronauts’ impending mission is a wonder of space and its possibilities, the momentous feeling of being part of something grand and larger than yourself, even with inevitable, costly, and deadly failures.
Nina Allen’s writing reminds me of Jo Walton’s, with a bit more of an artistic flair on the word-smithing level, with lines like “It’s all still inside, I know it—everything she was, everything she knows, still packed tight inside her head like old newspapers packed into the eaves of an old house. Yellowing and crumpled, yes, but still telling their stories.” The story has a nice homey, neighborly feel to it and the writing is lovely, but overall it’s a bit loosey-goosey for my taste. I appreciate the craft and composition more than my experience reading and having read it.
- The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde, (Tor.com Publishing)
- “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon, (Apex Magazine, January 2016)
More American Southwest, desert-y world building. Set in the same universe and starring the same Grandma Harken last seen in the Nebula Award-winning short story “Jackalope Wives”, Grandma is out to determine just who or what is stealing her newly ripened tomatoes. The answer is far more complicated than it seems. To stop the thief and free those he’s trapped, Grandma Harken takes a journey across a desert containing train gods, coyotes, gila monster dragons, and more.
Ursula Vernon has a knack for writing layered world-building filled with sensory details and characters (and stories themselves) with a penchant for dry, sardonic humor. I loved the hints of desert lore intertwined with the straightforward, engaging storytelling, and I enjoyed Grandma Harken’s down-to-earth toughness and love of the simple things in life, such as tomato sandwiches.
- “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)
An alien invasion story crossed with a good old-fashioned American road trip. A middle-aged itinerant driver named Avery takes a job transporting to St. Louis an alien—whose species has zero consciousness yet are far more knowledgeable than humans can ever be—and his human translator named Lionel. His and Lionel’s relationship is parasitical—on behalf of the alien. The more the alien experiences consciousness through Lionel, the more he dies.
It’s a thought-provoking story, unique and mind-boggling while grounded in the realism of small-town America and sincere questions of what it means and feels like to be conscious and have awareness. Carolyn Ives Gilman does a good job balancing the thought experiment elements with the storytelling and forward momentum of the narrative. I enjoyed trying to wrap my brain around the ideas of life with and without conscious thought, and I’d be curious to learn which and how many of the ideas and suppositions presented are based in scientific fact or reasonability.
- “You’re Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong, (Uncanny, June 2016)
My vote: Almost all of these entries are strong, and I can make a case for why each of them should or might win. My vote lies with “The Tomato Thief”, though my hunch is that “The Art of Space Travel will take the prize.
I’m going to try as hard as I can to get my post for the Hugo novellas up before the end of next week. I only just obtained a copy of This Census Taker and still don’t have a copy of the Bujold entry, so we’ll see what happens.