So I read a bunch of novellas tonight (I had some spare time that didn’t get taken up by writing, or compiling a project, or working, or going to the cinema) and to save you all from the prospect of having a bunch of entries suddenly appear in your feed, I thought I’d write about them here.
I think the order in which they will go, in my voting, is ‘Kiss Me Twice’, ‘The Man Who Ended History’, ‘The Man Who Bridged the Mist’, Countdown, Silently and Very Fast and then ‘The Ice Owl’.
24) Countdown by Mira Grant
This novella is actually written in a semi-similar style to the last one I read, Ken Liu’s ‘The Man Who Ended History’, and so I jumped straight in with gusto. It’s not presented as a documentary, but it’s the story of several snippets of different people’s lives, all of which build towards the end of the book. Countdown is a novella in the Newsflesh universe, alongside Feed, Deadline and Blackout; I don’t think I’m spoiling much if I tell you that this universe is mostly preoccupied with the Rising, in which the dead rise and try to eat the living. Countdown is a compilation of stories that describe the events before Feed that lead to that occurring.
The novel charts the development of the cure for cancer and the cure for the common cold which, when combined, lead to the Kellis-Amberlee virus. The Kellis-Amberlee virus has the rather nasty side-effect that, if you undergo amplification, it takes over your body – even if you’re dead. This means it’s the first properly sfnal treatment of zombies I’ve seen, which, in itself, is pretty impressive and enough to make me like the background.
The novels also talk a lot about blogging and the evolution of the media, but that’s not really something that the novella says much about. There is mention of the mainstream media sticking to the official, do-not-panic, zombies-aren’t-real line whereas the Internet and more independent journalists are spreading a message contrary to that, but it really isn’t a main theme. There is a strong message about what happens when people fuck with viruses that haven’t yet been tested on humans, which, given Grant’s passion for virology combined with her irritation at people who don’t follow the proper procedures, is not really surprising.
I found this novella to be a satisfying slice of backstory for the Newsflesh universe but also a nice piece of exposition as to how Kellis-Amberlee came about. This story really sets out, in chronological order, the events which lead to the first realistic – if that’s the right word – zombie uprising. I think that’s really cool, and so I came out of this tale smiling.
I feel guilty that this ended up as low in my rankings as it did, but I think that’s a function of the fact that nothing here is anything new in terms of the Newsflesh universe. Grant hasn’t included any titbits that are critical to the plot of the trilogy, which is fair enough, since this isn’t required reading for people who want to read the novels – however, that ultimately ends up hurting the novella because it means I got exactly what I expected, with no surprises or expansion of the boundaries.
25) ‘The Ice Owl’ by Carolyn Ives Gilman
This novella is, structurally, very easy to follow, telling a story in chronological order from the perspective of a single protagonist (the first of the novellas I read that did so). I liked the main character, a somewhat rebellious teenager called Thorn, and I liked the background, too. It’s set in the Twenty Planets universe, which is a backdrop that Gilman also used in a previous novella and which I liked the look of – humans can transport themselves between the planets via beams of light, but since this occurs at light speed, they leave everything behind when they do so, as by the time they get back to their original destination the friends they had will have aged significantly whilst they stayed the same. This isn’t a new concept (something similar happens in Revelation Space, for instance) but it’s a nifty implementation, in my opinion, and the characters that arise as a result are intriguing.
Thorn’s school gets burned down by fundamentalists who want to seize control from what they perceive as a corrupt government, bringing an end to Thorn’s way of life in the process. Since the area that Thorn lives in is only allowed to exist as a result of the government looking the other way, this is obviously a problem. Thorn’s mother, Maya, has a boyfriend, Hunter, who wants her to find a tutor since her school has burned down. She goes out and does so, and a relationship blossoms with the man.
The relationship she develops with her tutor is well done, and I enjoyed her beginning to learn more and more about him. I also enjoyed the way that her tutor and her mother’s boyfriend turn out to have something in common, and the way that this commonality comes together, in a way, as the plot continues. However, I must confess that I was slightly disappointed with the way that the story trails off without seeming to reach an end. I almost feel like the story should either have ended slightly earlier or lasted slightly longer, because the actual ending was a bit of a damp squib. I also didn’t find much that was conceptually impressive about the novella; whereas the other two had ideas that were interesting and used those concepts to do things, this one doesn’t really achieve either.
I enjoyed reading this, which might make it a little weird that I’ve ranked it last on my Hugo ballot. This reinforces the high standard of the novellas this year, and is a reflection of my dissatisfaction with the ending, which spoiled the story for me. If this was the first segment of a novel, and had been released as a teaser, I’d totally buy the novel; as a standalone work it fails.
26) ‘Kiss Me Twice’ by Mary Robinette Kowal
This story almost makes me glad that I still have ‘For Want of a Nail’ still to read from last year’s Hugo Voter Packet, since it completely drew me in. I wasn’t this gripped by any of the previous three novellas, and I really liked the pacing of the plot. I suspect this was not hurt by the fact that I’ve always been rather fond of crime fiction! As I finished it I wanted to read it again, and I definitely want to seek out more of Kowal’s work.
It’s a police procedural story. Structurally, it’s the same as the previous novella; a story told in chronological order from the perspective of a single character. I found it interesting that it told the story of two partners, but that one of them was an AI that the human character talked to and interacted with via his VR glasses. I liked the dynamic between the two, and the pacing of the story was excellent.
The undercurrent of the rights available to AIs was visible to the reader but not a big deal; I think, if it had been, it might have made the ending feel somewhat different. This was well illustrated by the AIs that crop up during the course of the novel – neatly reflecting the attitudes of their owners or masters – as well as the reactions from the human characters to the AIs in the world described. I would be very interested to see some of these ideas explored in more detail, especially if Kowal delivers something that draws me in as brilliantly as this.
For reasons I can’t adequately put into words this one tops my list of novellas this year. I would dearly love to read more about this partnership.
27) Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente
I really wanted to like this story, but something about the way it was written made it hard for me to get into and even harder for me to understand properly. Valente is writing, essentially, about how an artificial intelligence develops within the mind of a human; it’s a fascinating look at this process and one that I found very interesting. Unfortunately, I really felt that the style of the writing obfuscated the concepts that were being explored, to the point where I was really slogging through the story as opposed to wanting to keep reading. Since this was the only novella that made me feel that way, that might explain why I didn’t rank it very highly.
It’s worth noting at this point that, of all the novellas here, this is probably the one that attempts to tackle the largest sfnal concept. It’s also the only one that I felt tackled an SFnal concept that wasn’t easy to get your head around. ‘The Man who Ended History’ made me think, but it did so by using a simple concept to illustrate something horrific from different viewpoints, which is a different kind of mental gymnastics; this is definitely the hardest SF of the six candidates on offer, I’d say.
It’s a shame, since Valente is clearly very clever in her style of writing and I can tell that my dislike for the tale is almost certainly a fault on my part rather than on hers. I really enjoyed how cleverly she constructed ‘Golubash (Wine-Blood-War-Story)’ (which was the story that appeared in Escape Pod #340) so I am now eagerly anticipating experiencing more of her work to see where I fall on that. But, ultimately, this novella didn’t do it for me, and so it winds up second-to-last in my rankings. (This reinforces my suspicion that Neil Clarke will end up somewhere towards the bottom of my rankings in that category, too.)
28) ‘The Man who Bridged the Mist’ by Kij Johnson
The last of the novellas that I read for this year’s Hugo Awards was also very gripping and came from the same editor as ‘Kiss Me Twice’, more or less confirming my suspicions that Sheila Williams will be doing very well when I vote in Best Editor (Short Form). This story really drew me in with the strange and ethereal Mist, and the descriptions of the crossings performed by the Ferrys are awesome to read – very vivid!
The main character in this novella has issues when it comes to connecting with others and it’s interesting to see how these are developed. We are treated to flashbacks to his relationships in the capital, before his job building the titular bridge. He seems close to his father, but his mother is nowhere near as important; his relationships with anyone else prior to his university education are non-existent and even when he reaches university he is more in the business of casual relationships than anything approaching commitment. This is exacerbated by his job, which requires him to leave a place after each successful project.
This is all changed by the project described in the novella, in which he feels himself becoming known by the entire town before he gets involved with a woman and, at the same time as they become close, he realises that his departure grows near and thus begins to become distant from the town he’s been living in. I liked this journey of his, and I found it interesting to observe the changes and the way Johnson describes his interactions with the villagers. In addition to this evolution of the central character there are really two stories being told – one is the story of a bridge being constructed, and the other is a love story.
I have to admit that I don’t think this will place above ‘The Man who Ended History’ for me due to the lack of conceptual brilliance here. I thoroughly enjoyed the tale, but I didn’t fall in love with it in quite the same way that I did with ‘Kiss Me Twice’; as such, it goes into a comfortable third place in my voting.