What are these novellas doing on this year’s Hugo ballot? I feel like a completely different group of people nominated them. They’re all enjoyable in some way, even if I wouldn’t go so far as to call all them science fiction. One of them isn’t even a proper story. Let’s start there.
In ascending order:
The Sultan of the Clouds, by Geoffrey Landis
Given the title, I was afraid it would be an Orientalist vision of Baghdad in the cloud cities straight out of Hollywood, but it’s just cloud cities.
The narrator, Tinkerman, says he’s accompanying Dr. Leah Hamakaya to Venus, but she doesn’t seem to care whether he follows her or not. When they arrive on Venus and the Sultan turns out be a barely adolescent kid, neither of them are particularly perturbed. He’s only mildly annoyed when the Sultan’s people tell him to get lost.
Tinkerman wanders fairly aimlessly. We get their history, we get a tour of the Venusian cloudscape and the floating cities, we learn about their marriage customs, but we never get a clue of what he’s really after. People keep asking him, Who the hell are you? and he never answers. He sort of tries to get back in touch with Dr. Hamakaya, but doesn’t even rise to the level of stalker.
The whole thing is a setting in search of a story. Eventually a plot turns up, but it’s pretty thin. Still, I’m a sucker for cloud cities, so I enjoyed the setting. If you like cloud cities but want more story, check out Sly Mongoose. (Warning: you have to like zombies. Which I don’t.)
Troika, by Aleister Reynolds
As in Julian Comstock a world power has collapsed and decided to recreate a previous century. This time it’s Russia and the Second Soviet, only the Russians aren’t going into space any more.
Demetri Ivanov is a cosmonaut, the last surviving member of a three person team who explored the Matryoshka, the biggest nested doll that ever mysteriously entered the Solar System. He has just escaped a mental institution, desparate to bring the famous astronomer, Nesha Petrova, a little box he is carrying. If it weren’t for that box, I might have given up reading. The first half of this story was such a slog I kept glancing at the page count to see how much further I had to go, and it was never far enough. The only thing that kept me going was mild curosity over what it has in its pocketses.
In flashbacks, we see what happens when Demetri and the others explore the Matryoshka. This was pretty cool. I liked that they were still using a Progress as a probe and a Soyuz as a manned capsule. The structure and effects of the Matryoshka reminded me of the things in Revelation Space, so I wonder if this is a prequel of sorts.
Mostly the story wants humans to know how vital it is to be able to go into space. In the frame story,we see how terrible it is that they live in a time when no one’s going into space. And just when I was feeling annoyed about Getting the Message, there is a satisfying twist at the end. Nicely done.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang
If this was written by anyone else, I’d call this a wonderful Big Idea story. But I’ve gotten spoiled by some of his other stories, which makes this one feel shockingly underbaked. So much happens, it’s largely told in summary. It’s already the longest of the novellas, but I can’t help thinking it could have used just a bit of unpacking to turn it into a novel.
Here the central premise is that intelligent entities can’t be programmed; they must interact with their environment and learn. These sapient digital creations, like Furbies that actually understand what they’re saying, are called digients. Everything about them strains to tug at your heart. They’re designed to look like cute animals and robots so humans will buy them and care for them. There’s a lot of kids-say-the-darndest-things darlingness about them. Their speech never even progresses beyond a broken pidgin.
The title calls it a life cycle, but the digients we see barely come to the beginning of the end of childhood. After struggling through virtual limbo, they are offered a Second Life, in which they might finally mature. As in maybe earn money. As in maybe even sexually mature (in a deal that sounds a lot like becoming the lover robot in “Eros, Philia, Agape“). The story breaks off just before ony of this is even likely to happen. But since I never felt fully engaged with the characters, I can’t say I minded the abrupt ending.
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon”, by Elizabeth Hand
This was the first story I enjoyed while reading these nominees. What a relief it was, to enjoy the opening tales of working in the Smithsonian National Aerospace Musuem. I liked how cheesy it all seemed from the inside. The giant Head speaking of billions and billions was amusing, though I was puzzled that it was treated like some sort of trademark violation to speak the name of Sagan.
A group of eccentrics make an eccentric gift for an eccentric mentor and friend, who is dying. I liked them, if I did have trouble keeping the guys’ names straight. Why did they all have to be guys, by the way? And why did the only woman have to be barely glimpsed during the story and be dead of breast cancer by the end?
The story unfolds with beautiful descriptions, of the museum, the journey to North Carolina, the beach. The Bellerophon itself was one of those Wonderful Flying Machines that was too wonderful to fly. But maybe it did fly, once. While there are suggestions that maybe something untoward happened, either in the original flight or its recreation, all the speculation is kept carefully fictional. In the end, not much seems to come out of the whole enterprise. I enjoyed being in this story, but I’m not sure what it says, except maybe how in the face of death, all we have is each other.
The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers from Beneath the Queen’s Window, by Rachel Swirsky.
Naeva is a sorceress who loved the Queen of the Land of Flowering Hills. She is betrayed in the opening scene and killed, her spirit snared so she cannot truly die. In a series of scenes she is summoned over the generations, by various people who want her help. It’s told in luscious prose, over a romantic sweep of time, against which she adamantly refuses to change.
In her home time, only women were permitted to use magic, and only some women. She is filled with vicious names for child-bearing women, and men. As the world passes her by, she will not change. She cannot change. But the world grows up and discards prejudices like the ones that Neava holds dear. Then finally the world leaves her behind and the story expands into a vision of eternity.