May 27th, 2011

buzz

2011 Hugos: Best Novella

This year's list is a good one, none of the stories being as bad as the worst in the other fiction categories.

5) One has to start pruning somewhere though, and Elizabeth Hand's "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon", though itself a nice characterful story, is only barely sf; it's really about some present-day employees of the Smithsonian setting up an elaborate stunt to cheer up a dying colleague. There is a counterfactual backstory - the Bellerophon of the title is a pre-Wright Brothers aeroplane, most records of which have been lost - and a mysterious event at the end which may (or may not) have an sfnal explanation. But it doesn't really pass the "what I point to" test which I would generally require of a Hugo winner.

4) "Troika" by Alastair Reynolds has a great concept - cosmonauts investigating a Big Dumb Object, and a well-executed sting in the tail about the reliability of the narrator. But I was irritated by the Russian setting; although the story nominally takes place in the middle of this century, the technology and politics felt very like Western perceptions of the Cold War Soviet Union to me, and indeed Reynolds has his future Russia reverted to Communism and, even more improbably, enjoying a monopoly of spaceflight - even if the Americans and Europeans should for some reason give it up, I can't really see the Chinese doing the same. So, good marks for the non-human bits, less so for the human bits.

3) Rachel Swirsky's "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath The Queen's Window" won the Nebula this year, making her the youngest winner of the award since Ted Chiang in 1990 and the first winner of either Hugo or Nebula to have been born in the 1980s. I liked the story though I wasn't blown away by it. The core idea again is great, the narrator being a woman in a vaguely High Fantasy society who is killed on the second page and is then repeatedly reincarnated by a series of future savants with varying motives and decreasing knowledge of her real background. I felt the execution was a bit disjointed and sometimes a little flat, but obviously the Nebula voters took a different view.

2) Geoffrey Landis' "The Sultan of the Clouds" is very colourful - oligarchs and revolutionary pirates operating out of airships in the middle atmosphere of Venus, with the eponymous Sultan's sekrit plan being one of globe-spanningly breath-taking audacity. The narrator's difficulties in coping with the reactions of his colleague (and ex-lover) to the unfamiliar sexual politics of Venusian society are also convincing, if not always comfortable. It's a bit steampunkish, which will put some readers off though I don't mind if it is well enough executed, as is the case here.

1) I'm frankly astonished that Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects didn't win the Nebula. (Originally published separately so counts as a May Book for my log.) Chiang's few stories are always memorable; this one is about intelligent software pets, and the human owners who become fascinated with them, and how changing circumstances - both the shift in fashionability and power of online environments and the altered circumstances of the humans in them. It is really poignant and will ring very true for anyone who's been online for more than five years, anyone who has children, and anyone who is interested about reading about either of those experiences. Charles Stross summed it up well as "that very rare thing: a science fictional novel of ideas that delivers a real human impact" and I think that whatever wins the Hugo, this is the one story from all three of the short fiction lists of 2011 that will be remembered for many years to come.

Previous Hugo category write-ups: Best Novelette, Best Short Story, Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form, Best Dramatic Presentation - Short Form.
tardis

Kiss of Death

The latest in the main range of Big Finish's Doctor Who stories, this has the reunited team of the Fifth Doctor, Turlough, Tegan and an older Nyssa starting off with taking a holiday which descends into a surprising exploration of Turlough's past. By complete coincidence I was listening to this over the same four days this week that I rewatched Frontios, a story with some very similar elements - underground mysteries, Turlough's past, Turlough's romantic interest - which Kiss of Death does rather better. (In fairness to Frontios, there are also some things that it does well enough which Kiss of Death does not try to do at all.) As with any established companion, giving Turlough an extra back story was always a bit risky, and spinoff fiction has on occasion done this as clumsily as the TV series (eg Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma). But Stephen Cole does it really well here; he has confessed in previous commentaries to his fascination with Turlough as a character, and now he has written what is, and will probably remain, the best Turlough story. I can strongly recommend Kiss of Death to any fan who knows a bit about Turlough but doesn't utterly hate him.

The one disappointment is the aural realisation of the hidden monster, the Morass, whose voice was distorted beyond comprehensibility. It's really rare for BF to have serious problems in this regard - the only other case I can remember was a Bernice Summerfield play, The Poison Seas, which featured Sea Devils so sibilant that their dialogue could not be made out. But it's disappointing when it happens.