2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Novella

While I have written at length about the novels this year, I find myself running a little low on time before the voting deadline, so I’m going to have to abbreviate myself a bit.  So here’s my rundown of the Best Novella nominees, in order of my preference.  This was in some ways a harder decision to make than the novel voting; I changed the order of these multiple times as I wrote this post.

1. A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson

A Taste of Honey is a followup to Wilson’s debut novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps; while it isn’t a direct sequel, it takes place in the same world, a pre-industrial analogue of Africa in which the gods live among, or at least adjacent to, humanity.  Olorum is a prosperous city-state ruled by a royal family that carries some of the blood of gods; the protagonist Aqib is a distant cousin of the family, son of the Master of Beasts and possessed of a talent of talking to animals.  The story with Aqib embarking on a whirlwind romance with Lucrio, a soldier accompanying a visiting delegation from Daluça (which is something of an analogue to Rome).  Olorum, and Aqib’s family, are not nearly as accepting of same-sex relationships as Daluçan society is, and the twin pressures of that disapproval and Lucrio’s impending departure lend additional intensity to their trysts.

Interleaved with the ten days of their relationship are vignettes from Aqib’s decades-long marriage to a princess of the royal family, begun shortly after Lucrio’s departure.  The Blessèd Remysade is a mathematical genius who often prioritizes her work over her family, and her daughter by Aqib manifests the divinity of their blood more strongly than either of her parents.  While Aqib remains faithful to Remysade, and is an excellent father to Lucretia, he never quite stops feeling like he could have had something else with his life instead; Lucrio had, after all, asked Aqib to come away with him.

Weaved into an elemental story of love, loss, and regret were several different aspects that I adored in different ways.  The magic of the gods, integrated with Remysade’s advanced mathematics, is something of a Clarke-style sufficiently-advanced-technology.  Where a conversation in a “pure fantasy” story might have used magic incantantions and words of power, Wilson instead writes densely scientific dialogue; while the reader can at least understand enough of it to perceive it as science, Aqib as viewpoint character is utterly lost and must simply think of it as magic beyond his ken.  Aqib’s life as a father is also something that resonated with my heart, and the scenes with an infant or a young child instinctively using magic while their parents reacted helplessly gave me sympathetic shudders as I imagined my own children suddenly defying the laws of conventional physics for their own amusement.

And then there’s the end.  I nearly cried.  As much as I enjoyed the rest of the story, the ending made it a perfect gem of a story that reminded me of another of my favorite science fiction stories.  I won’t say which one, as even identifying it would be a significant spoiler, but it gave me the same feeling of simultaneously stimulating my brain and engaging my heart, and being glad for the experience as it ended.

2. The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle

One of two Lovecraft pastiches on this year’s ballot, The Ballad of Black Tom tells the story of Tommy Tester, a black man living in Harlem in 1924.  He’s a small-time con man who mostly gets by doing odd jobs that skirt the law, but when he is hired to deliver a book full of arcane symbols to an address in Brooklyn, he knows nothing good can come of knowing the full contents of the book, and he tears a page out and hides it.  After that brush with the occult world he is never quite able to escape it.  As Tommy grows aware of the cosmic horror just beneath the surface of our reality, it is juxtaposed with the everyday horror of being black in America, as the story describes unflinchingly the many insults and injuries Tommy suffers, mostly at the hands of the police, for no reason beyond the color of his skin.

Which is more horrifying to contemplate?  An old god sleeping fitfully until he wakes and wipes humanity off the surface of the earth, or a police force empowered to murder you for no reason beyond momentary hatred?  The idea of the universe being not only uncaring but actively hostile towards the existence of humans, or the reality of American society being actively hostile towards people of color?  Compared to the fact that Tommy could be killed at any moment at the whim of an authority both powerful and impulsive, the idea of Cthulhu rising to devour us all at least has the benefit of being free of the prejudices pervading our society.

Victor LaValle uses Lovecraftian story elements to create a complex and multilayered criticism of Lovecraft’s racism, his stories, and American society.  He shows that black Americans face everyday the kinds of existential horror that Lovecraft’s white protagonists only saw once they went looking for it – and that they regretted seeing once they found it.  With that comparison LaValle not only demonstrates the ignorance and pointlessness of Lovecraft’s racism, but also goes on to challenge his readers – particularly his white readers – to face the horrors that Lovecraft and his characters feared.  And by portraying in 1924 police brutality that isn’t qualitatively different from what was still happening in 2016, LaValle reminds us that we haven’t made nearly as much progress in addressing racial injustice as some of us would like to think.

3. Penric and the Shaman, Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric is a young sorcerer, whose powers come by way of a demon, Desdemona, who inhabits his body and mind (as she has those of twelve others before him).  He’s also a priest of the Bastard, one of the Five Gods of the story’s world.  In Penric and the Shaman, he is sent to track down a missing spirit, and along with Oswyl, a priest-investigator, he must chase down Inglis, a shaman who is dealing with a theological crisis of his own.

Penric and the Shaman is a warm, empathetic story.  We get viewpoints from both Penric and Inglis, and occasionally from Oswyl as well. While the characters’ aims are originally opposed, Penric’s compassion and spiritual duty means that he approaches the situation looking to help instead of to prevail, and the climax of the story is a reconciliation rather than a victory for one character and a defeat for another.  Both that overall arc and the theme of interdependence between humans and nature put me in mind of some of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies as I read.  The dialogue and narration, on the other hand, is pure Bujold; she writes with the same gentle yet piercing wit that I loved in her Vorkosigan books.

This was a joy to read, and while it was the first one of her fantasy stories that I’d read, it certainly won’t be the last.

4. Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire

What happens to the children from portal fantasies once they return to the “real world”?  How do they handle their lives when they realize they may never be able to go back?  In Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire contemplates the fact that such children will not be able to adjust easily to their old lives.  Some of them eventually end up at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they can live among others that understand what it is to have seen a world where you belonged, and then lost it again.  Nancy Whitman is sent to the institution after returning from the underworld, and the thing she wants more than anything is to return to the side of the Lord of the Dead.

The plot of the story – a murder mystery, well suited to the talents Nancy brought back with her from the underworld – is primarily an engine to drive the emotional arc of Nancy coping with the world she’s lost, and learning about the other children and the worlds they’ve lost too.  McGuire effectively uses the portal experience as an allegory for the many and varied ways in which children feel like they do not fit into their own lives.  The trips they’ve taken to other worlds have changed them, or shown them the inadequacies of the real world, or simply given them something wonderful and then taken it away again.  All of them want to return to their worlds; most of them feel like they could if they only figure out the trick to getting back, or the thing that they should be doing that they aren’t, or some lesson they need to learn…

Portal fantasies so often use the other world as a metaphor for adolescence, an experience that must be endured in order to grow into the person you’re supposed to be.  But growing up isn’t that simple, and McGuire’s home full of adolescents damaged by that process puts the lie to the notion of childhood as something one can simply and painlessly grow out of.

5. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson

This is the other Lovecraft pastiche this year, and I enjoyed it despite not having read “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, the work it was originally based on.  Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the world of dreams, and one of her students – the daughter of one of the college’s deans, and a granddaughter of one of the dream world’s terrible gods – has run away with a dreamer, a man from the waking world.  Vellitt was a far-traveler in her younger days; now a middle-aged woman, she nevertheless argues to the faculty that she is best suited to go retrieve the missing student.

Where The Ballad of Black Tom uses Lovecraftian elements in a more-or-less direct way to refute Lovecraft’s own attitudes, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe takes a different approach and inverts basically every aspect of Lovecraft’s storytelling to create a mirror image of his work.  Vellitt Boe is quite at home in the dream world; until her student goes missing, her greatest concern is academic politics, rather than the dreaming gods that inhabit the world.  As her quest proceeds, those gods become aware of her, rather than the usual Lovecraftian arc of a character slowly becoming aware of them.  She handles most of the challenges she faces through negotiation and diplomacy – and, at least once, through the timely repayment of an earlier kindness – rather than the Malthusian conflict typical of Lovecraft’s work.  And in the end, it is the unusual environment of our own world she has to contend with, rather than an earthly sleeper contending with the strange world of dreams.

It is a gentler response to Lovecraft than Black Tom, but still a refutation nevertheless; where Lovecraft’s work spoke of the nihilistic hopelessness of the world, Johnson promises us that there are good people (and creatures) to be found wherever we go, and that there is more to heroism than the swashbuckling of young men.  And it’s quite a good adventure story, besides.

6. This Census-Taker, China Mieville

Frankly, I bounced off of this one.  20% of the way through, while we’d gotten little bits and hints of the existence of a plot – and a confusing, brief shift to a very different setting, later in the narrator’s life – it seemed like very little had happened, and I found that I simply didn’t care anymore.  A novella is a very short form compared to the dense novels that Mieville is most famous for, and while that slow-burn approach to introducing the world might work for the first thirty pages of an 800-page book, in a novella it just felt meandering.


There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

You must log in to post a comment.