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2018 Hugo Finalists: Best Short Story

This year’s Hugo finalists for Best Short Story are a wide-ranging batch of stories, ranging from light-hearted and humorous to depressing and angry, but I enjoyed all six of them to various degrees. In order, starting from my top choice on the ballot:

1. “Fandom for Robots”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad

2017 seems to be a wonderful year for delightfully relatable, socially awkward machine intelligences.  “Fandom for Robots” is the story of Computron, a robot – the only sentient robot ever built, in fact – who is a fan of Hyperdimension Warp Record, an anime show streaming episodes once a week.  In two paragraphs (and a third consisting of a single sentence), Vina Jie-Min Prasad cuts to the core of that slightly obsessive (and only just a little alienating) feeling of fandom that so many of us are familiar with.  The story then rewinds a little to show us Computron’s discovery of the show, prompted by an enthusiastic teenage girl who suggests (at a public Q&A session at the museum where he is an exhibit) that he might enjoy the show since he resembles one of the characters.

Then Computron runs out of episodes.  Then Computron discovers fanfiction.

“Fandom for Robots” is a love letter to fandom of all kinds, and the way that people who feel isolated from “normal” human society can find comfort and friendship within it.  The story might come across to some people as a little pandering, particularly as a finalist for a fan-voted award, but the way Computron’s fandom and friendships develop is just so well-written, with sincere joy and love for the community.

2. “Sun, Moon, Dust”, Ursula Vernon

The archetype of the crotchety, wise old grandmother with no patience for anyone else’s nonsense – particularly from her own family – may well be one of Ursula Vernon’s favorites to write.  It’s certainly one of my favorite categories of her characters to read.  Though in this case, the grandma manages to avoid stealing the show by dying in the first scene, and her poor potato-farmer grandson, Allpa, is left with a magic sword and no notion of what to do with it.

Reluctant, well-meaning but slightly confused heroes might be another of my favorite Vernon archetypes, come to think of it.  And then there are occasional digressions into potato varietals, and spirits whose expectations about the hero are immediately turned on their head, and goats that think they’re far more clever than they actually are…

Basically, “Sun, Moon, Dust” is another classic Ursula Vernon story.  If you’re familiar with her other work and you liked it, you’ll enjoy this too.  If you aren’t familiar with her other work, this is a great introduction to her distinctive and entertaining style of writing.  If you’re familiar with her work and didn’t like it… well, our tastes are probably different enough that you should take the rest of my recommendations with a grain of salt.

3. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™”, Rebecca Roanhorse

Roanhorse’s story discusses the tragedy of modern American Indian culture in a white-dominated society.  Jesse is a guide at a business offering virtual-reality experiences of Indian life to predominantly white tourists.  He and his coworkers package up and sell a sanitized version of their own culture, hamming up their exoticism because it’s what their white customers expect.  They speak to their customers in broken English and adopt different names when their own names aren’t Indian-sounding enough (Jesse Turnblatt goes by “Jesse Trueblood” at work).  Jesse is uncomfortable with his job and his boss’s increasingly stereotypical ideas for experiences, but is afraid to speak up because he needs the job.

The whole situation is less an allegory than simply a fictionalized example of the problem Roanhorse writes about – indigenous people forced to cheapen their own culture and sell it to whites because the alternative is poverty and starvation.

But then a more thoughtful-seeming white man shows up, clearly dissatisfied with the cartoon-Indian experience Jesse’s company typically offers tourists, and engages Jesse in discussion outside of work.  He just wants to know more, he says.  Get to know an actual person, not the “How”-saying caricature Jesse typically portrays.  They talk over drinks, multiple times, and Jesse thinks he’s made a friend.  But here’s where the more allegorical part of the story comes in, as his new friend insinuates himself into Jesse’s life and starts to replace him both at work and at home, while provoking Jesse’s own behavior to degrade into the worst stereotypes of modern-day Indians

“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is a cautionary tale for the marginalized cultures exploited by white European society, about the dangers of participating in the commoditization of your own culture for consumption by others.  Coming to it as a white reader, the story has another message as well: look what you have done to us, Roanhorse says.  Look what you continue to do, every time you appropriate someone else’s culture for your own amusement.  Look at the lives your people have destroyed.

I suspect a lot of white American readers are going to feel attacked by this story.  Rather than getting defensive about it, I hope at least some of us can reexamine our own relationship with indigenous cultures and others that America has marginalized if not outright destroyed, and think about ways we can do better.

4. “Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim

A gentle, bittersweet story about clockwork folk, measuring out their lives in the house of their maker by the turns of their mainsprings.  We follow Zee through her entire life, starting from early childhood.  Zee is blessed by the maker with a mainspring that can hold more turns of her winding key than most people, so she is naturally full of energy and inclined towards adventure and exploration; this spirit leads her to the nomadic life of the carnival, and to Vale, a carny boy she meets there.  Zee and Vale build a son together, leaving the new body on the maker’s workbench for the installation of a mainspring, but in the morning they discover that their son, Mattan, has a particularly weak spring, only capable of a handful of turns.

Like many of Yoachim’s stories, “Carnival Nine” has a folk-tale feel to it – it’s written simply and conversationally, but still touches upon some profound concepts of human emotion. Here Yoachim addresses with her usual empathy the difficulties and sacrifices of raising a disabled child, including the tension it introduces into the parents’ relationship and the totality with which it can consume the parents’ lives and identities.

5. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, Fran Wilde

A bizarre story, deliberately disorienting from the beginning.  The narrator is a guide through some sort of museum of curiosities or circus sideshow which you, the reader, are visiting.  But the narrator is also part of the museum herself, and the reader is also somehow involved with – possibly even responsible for – some of the things on display.

As the tour goes on, the narrator’s running tour-guide patter grows more pointed and even a little hostile towards the reader.  I expected the story to be drawing to some kind of a twist or a reversal to contextualize the menagerie of weirdness on display – but ultimately, both within the text and as a reader of it, I was escorted to the end of the story and then unceremoniously booted out of the exit.  I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but it sure was an experience.

6. “The Martian Obelisk”, Linda Nagata

After catastrophic climate change, and diseases, and wars, humanity is in decline.  Susannah Li-Langford has been remotely controlling equipment from an abandoned mission to Mars to build a massive cenotaph for the human race.  She’s lost her husband, her children, everything in her life except for this one last effort to build an obelisk on Mars, an effort which has consumed her life for the last seventeen years.

Then a vehicle from another Martian settlement – thought dead and abandoned for nearly a year – shows up at the building site.  Has an AI gone rogue, or has someone on Earth taken control of the other settlement’s vehicles?  Is the Obelisk project at risk?

“The Martian Obelisk” is a pretty depressing and pessimistic story, but it does suggest that even in humanity’s bleakest moments, life can continue and there is still some hope for an eventual better future.  However, I found the means by which the story drives this point home somewhat trite and implausible; I felt it undermined the story’s hopeful message with its reliance on a convenient coincidence of timing.

2018 Hugo Finalists: Best Novelette

Unlike my reviews of the Hugo finalist novels and novellas, the Novelette category has works short enough that I think I can address them all in a single post – but it’ll be a slightly longer one than usual.  That does also allow me to put them in order of my preference on the ballot, though.  So, starting from the top and working downwards…

1. “Extracurricular Activities”, Yoon Ha Lee

Years before Shuos Jedao massacred both the enemy and his own troops at Hellspin Fortress, and four centuries before the events of Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, he was a commander in the Kel military.  As the story starts, he’d already gained a mostly-deserved reputation for both infantry tactics and special operations.  He’s assigned to an covert mission outside the heptarchate, in a neighboring real called the Gwa Reality, where he is to rescue a former classmate of his who had been in place as a spy – and who has apparently gotten into some trouble.

While the Machineries of Empire books have included occasional bits of Shuos Jedao’s past, I’m always up for more – he reminds me of Miles Vorkosigan in his brilliant, unconventional problem-solving abilities and also his generally brash attitude.  (He’s not quite as good at talking his way out of situations as Miles was, but with assassin-level unarmed-combat abilities in his toolbox, he hasn’t needed to be.)  And the Gwa Reality reminds me just a tiny bit of Cetaganda as well, with their obsession with poetry and aesthetics and their penchant for genetically engineered viruses as a weapon.

“Extracurricular Activities” has a wry sense of humor and an entertaining spy plot, with a few twists to keep Jedao and the reader alike on our toes.  And taking place as it does before the main trilogy, I think it’s mostly accessible to new readers as well; though the author uses faction names (Kel, Shuos, Andan) as shorthand for certain traits, they’re either understandable from context or not crucial to the story.

2. “Wind Will Rove”, Sarah Pinsker

Rosie is a middle-aged history teacher and fiddler aboard a generation ship.  She tries to connect folktales (such as the story of her grandmother playing fiddle on a spacewalk) with old Earth history, which is made particularly challenging by the Blackout, a massive data-loss incident earlier in the ship’s own history.  She sees herself as a bridge in the ship’s history, a conduit to old Earth history, trying to connect her memories of her grandmother (who was among the original passengers who left Earth) to the present and the future of her community.  Rosie contends with a minor rebellion in her class, led by a student insistent that learning history is pointless, as well as with memories of her own mother and others who rejected history in various ways.

“Wind Will Rove” is a meditation on history and the way our understanding of it changes over time and generations.  Using as an allegorical standin the evolving, branching lineage of a folk song – the lost original, “Windy Grove”, its offshoots “Wind Will Rove”, “Wendigo”, “When I Go”, and later interpretations like the hip-hop remix “Wild Will Roam” – Pinsker contemplates the meaning of history and the way each generation understands it anew.  The themes of the story will feel very familiar to anyone who’s spent time thinking about the musical Hamilton and how it fits into the dialogue of American history, as a reinterpretation of past events in a modern context that makes them more accessible while simultaneously (and, in my opinion, unavoidably) eliding parts of them that don’t fit into the narrative for various reasons.

This is the second story of Pinsker’s that I’ve read for the Hugo ballot this year, and while my sample size is tiny so far, I’m definitely getting a sense that the ambiguous, open-ended conclusion is a distinctive aspect of her style of writing.  In both cases, she’s ended the story at a pause from which it could proceed in any number of directions, and suggesting to the reader several possible ways the story could continue without dictating any of them with certainty.

3. “The Secret Life of Bots”, Suzanne Palmer

This was one of the novelettes on my nominating ballot (and in fact the only one to make it on to the final ballot).  I still like it quite a bit!  It’s the story of a bot aboard a spaceship assigned to investigate a biological infestation.  9 is the oldest bot on the ship, and a little unusual by the standards of its younger comrades, but its different perspective and multipurpose functionality enables it to employ some unique problem-solving in addressing the intruder.

“The Secret Life of Bots” is filled with gentle humor as well as a dose of adventure and a variety of mostly sympathetic bots.  It’s a cute story, and it succeeds at portraying the bots’ perspective as an interesting counterpoint to our more usual human outlook; the places where the human and bot approaches to the problem come into conflict are particularly rich sources of both humor and drama.

4. “A Series of Steaks”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad

The story is set in an ambiguously near future where 3-D printing of biological matter is possible.  Extruded food is perfectly edible, but many people still care that their fancy beef comes from an actual cow.  Helena Li Yuanhui produces counterfeit meat to try to earn enough money to escape her life and past misfortune.  Then, someone who knows her past blackmails her into taking on an impossible job…

The unmarked transitions between the main story and the handful of flashbacks detailing Helena’s backstory were a little confusing, but those flashbacks also helped to establish setting and background with a minimum of expository narration.  “A Series of Steaks” was a fun, quick story, with sympathetic characters and a satisfying ending.

5. “Children of Thorns, Children of Water”, Aliette de Bodard

I have been curious about Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series for a while, but for whatever reason never got around to reading House of Shattered Wings, the first novel in the series.  So unlike some readers, I went into this story – set between the first and second novels – completely new to the world.  This made the opening scenes a little disorienting, but the author did an excellent drop of dropping just enough bits of detail and explanation here and there that I was able to piece together the context in which the story took place.

The meaning of the story itself, on the other hand, I feel like I don’t entirely get.  At the surface level the plot was relatively straightforward – Hawthorn House is testing servants to hire (and potential future members of the House), and a couple members of a rival faction intend to take the opportunity to infiltrate the House.  But beyond that, there seemed to be a lot of important details of politics and the meaning of the House within which the story takes place, and while I could tell they were there I couldn’t really make much sense of them on their own..  The conclusion of the story looked to me to be primarily about setting up the main character for future plot complications.  Overall, while I am definitely intrigued (and will probably be picking up House of Shattered Wings soon), this story just didn’t do much for me as a standalone novelette.

6. Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, K.M. Szpara

This novelette juxtaposes the concept of vampirism with life as a transgender individual.  Unlike in many vampire stories, here the vampires are known to exist and live more or less openly in society, but with their behavior strictly regulated and often relegated to the corners of society all the same.  This slightly unusual approach to the setting enables discussion of transgenderism on multiple levels.  It’s not that the medical establishment doesn’t know vampires exist, for example, but rather that vampirism is a complication to normal medical issues, and one that most doctors will not address, being unqualified to do so, or unwilling to even bother, or both.  Thus also with being transgender.  The bureaucratic issues and society’s general distrust compounds more fundamental issues of feeling betrayed by one’s own body and struggling to gain any control over it.

Unfortunately, the story’s approach to feeling a lack of agency included multiple scenes of actual violations of bodily autonomy, which seemed to get smoothed over far more easily than I felt was warranted.  Perhaps there’s some additional aspect to the story’s subject matter that I’m missing here, but the shrug-and-move-on approach to those violations left a bad taste in my mouth.

Review: Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem is the second book in Yoon Ha Lee’s excellent “Machineries of Empire” series.  The first book, Ninefox Gambit, was nominated for the Hugo last year, and I put it at the top of my ballot.  I admired Lee’s inventive science-fiction mechanics – the “exotic effects” enabled by the particular configuration of the local calendar, as well as by the positional formation of troops in battle – as well as the use of game design and its pedagogical capabilities as a plot point, and the sympathetic protagonist and her mathematical genius…

The first book did a lot of worldbuilding, about not only the mathematically-driven nature of the world but also the political intrigue proceeding in the background; the second book takes all that setup and runs with it.  Ninefox Gambit‘s core theme of the hard choices made in war is carried through, of course, but Raven Stratagem dares to contemplate the possibility of another way – if not peace, then at least a world in which war isn’t quite so terrible.

Raven Stratagem also expands the core cast of characters beyond Kel Cheris, the protagonist of the first book, and Shuos Jedao, the brilliant yet insane ghost that had been attached to her.  The narrative of Ninefox Gambit frequently made brief visits to other viewpoints to provide context or show something that Cheris and Jedao could not have directly observed.  Raven Stratagem is built almost entirely around other viewpoints, and while Cheris/Jedao still acts as the central figure in the story, we get very little time inside their shared head for most of the story.  I recognize that it was an extremely effective choice for the story, but nevertheless, this was probably my least favorite aspect of the book – I really enjoyed seeing how Cheris and Jedao thought about things in Ninefox Gambit.

On the other hand, the new characters we get in exchange are nearly as good.  Kel Brezan has a unique perspective on the Kel by virtue of his ability to resist orders from his superiors, something that most of the Kel are conditioned to be literally unable to do.  Kel Khiruev’s conditioning is working as intended, but she faces her own set of moral quandaries and trust issues in figuring out how to serve under a person she knows only as a traitor and a madman.  Shuos Mikodez, the hexarch of the Shuos faction, is an oddly warm character for all of his merciless plotting.

Ninefox Gambit grabbed my attention in part with its flashy, weird concepts of technology.  Possibly it’s because I was already familiar with it, but Raven Stratagem seems to calm down on that front a little bit, focusing a lot more on the relationships between the characters and the conflicts they create as they each pursue their own goals.  It’s a more mature story in that way, and ultimately a more engaging one, particularly as it’s easy to see two characters come into conflict and still sympathize with both of them.  There are very few places where there’s an obvious right side and wrong side to a fight, and seeing the characters grapple with that concept as well makes for thoughtful and occasionally challenging reading.

As with the first book in the series, Raven Stratagem ends up at the top of my Hugo ballot this year.  It’s a tough field, and I think a good argument could be made for any of the six nominees being the most deserving of the rocket, but I really do hope that Yoon Ha Lee gets some more recognition for the richly detailed and thought-provoking series he’s put together.  (And if not this year, well, I suspect we’ll be seeing the concluding volume Revenant Gun on the ballot next year as well…)

My final Best Novel ballot:

  1. Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee
  2. Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty​
  3. The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
  4. Provenance, Ann Leckie
  5. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson
  6. The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire is the first book of John Scalzi’s new Interdependency trilogy.  The titular Interdependency is another space monarchy in the tradition of Barrayar and Manticore, an empire of factions held together by political bonds and mutually assured disadvantage.  The Interdependency is a particularly mercantile empire, in which trading guilds wield most of the power, and humanity’s prosperity is possible thanks to the Flow, the unidirectional hyperspace/wormhole phenomenon that serves to enable faster-than-light travel in this particular universe, and allows the various human settlements to trade their various life-sustaining goods with each other.

The problem, discovered by a physicist who was also a friend of the recently deceased Emperox of the Interdependency, is that the Flow is about to start shifting and falling apart, marooning each of humanity’s settlements in turn and eventually leaving every habitation on its own for survival.  The newly crowned Emperox, Cardenia, is already having trouble consolidating her power, and also grappling with the ethical uses of that power.  The physicist’s protege needs to reach Cardenia to present the evidence of the imminent end of the Interdependency, but since travel through the Flow by its nature makes direct point-to-point travel difficult, they have to deal with multiple petty fiefdoms of various types in the process of getting there.

The Collapsing Empire was an entertaining read, and I’m definitely looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy; it has that Scalzi nature of being light, easily-digestible reading that nevertheless gives you a lot to think about if you’re willing to spend the time.  It’s not a challenging work, nor is it meant to be.  But it’s a worthy entry in the tradition of space-opera page-turners.

My Best Novel ballot so far:

  1. Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty
  2. The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
  3. Provenance, Ann Leckie
  4. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson
  5. The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Review: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty’s novel Six Wakes opens with one of the main characters waking up in the cloning bay of a spaceship, surrounded by corpses – including her own, which appears to have aged multiple decades since her most recent memory.

(I feel like that hook, plus the assurance that the author successfully delivers on the premise, is really all I need to say to recommend the book.  It certainly grabbed my attention from the beginning.  But I will continue on anyway…)

The other five crew members wake up shortly thereafter, and they soon come to realize that they need to solve their own murders in order to feel confident that they’re not about to be killed again.  This is complicated by multiple factors, of course.  The rest of the crew is also missing decades of memories, so none of them remember each other, or have any reason to trust each other, either.  The AI piloting the ship has been disabled, and the ship is off course.  And, as the crew members start to compare notes, they start to realize commonalities and overlaps in their lives prior to the voyage.

The narrative aboard the ship is interspersed with flashbacks providing some details about each of the crew’s histories, as well as background about the social and political ramifications of cloning.  It would be an understatement to say that humanity as a whole did not handle the emergence of that particular technology very well, and the resulting upheaval is a crucial part of the story’s background.  The reader gets to piece together the complete history of the crew, and of human society as a whole, from the bits and pieces we get from each character’s flashback, and I found it to be a rewarding and entertaining experience.

Six Wakes is a wonderful example of the kind of storytelling that science fiction as a genre is capable of.  Mur Lafferty skillfully imagines the social strife around the development of cloning, and its microcosmic strife among the crew, and while the technological aspects of her imagined future are fascinating, it is the human reaction to it that makes a great idea into a fantastic story.

My Hugo ballot so far:

  1. Six Wakes, Mur ​Lafferty
  2. The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
  3. Provenance, Ann Leckie
  4. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson

Review: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

You know that bit in Hamilton where the characters take a moment to exult in the unique glory of New York City as both an exemplar and a template for urban life?  That same Big Apple swagger can be applied to speculations of future history just as easily as reinterpretations of past history.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is a classic near-future science-fiction novel, postulating humanity’s failure to adequately respond to the threat of global climate change and the resultant chaos and upheaval that ensue when all of Earth’s coastal cities are flooded by rising sea levels.  The story of that upheaval would be interesting, of course, but Robinson sets the story multiple decades after the latest major change, instead looking at what the “new normal” might be in a New York City where most of what we currently consider to be prime Manhattan real estate has become an intertidal zone.

Robinson looks at this new world through multiple lenses via multiple viewpoint characters.  Our cast of characters includes multiple people from different segments of the financial industry, an NYPD inspector, a pair of treasure-seeking street urchins, an airship-piloting nature-adventurer YouTube star, a building superintendent, and an unnamed “citizen” whose function falls somewhere between expository historian and opinionated rambler.  The picture the author paints of the 22nd century is, accordingly, well thought out from multiple angles; while parts of the story are more or less a paean to the glories of New York City, others are completely unflinching in their analysis of how our present social and political systems have failed us.  As he did in his Mars trilogy, Robinson brings together a dizzying array of disciplines in imagining the world of 2140 – economics and finance, geology and hydrology, engineering and architecture, history and cartography, political science and sociology – and the result is a well-rounded, convincingly speculative narrative of where the next century-plus is going to take us if we don’t get our metaphorical shit together.  The conclusion is a little more optimistic than I felt was warranted based on the rest of the story, and Robinson’s usual extrapolation of complex situations seemed to be eliding a few factors in order to bring the story to a satisfying end, but it’s also possible optimism just feels a little naive to me lately.  Nevertheless, like all good science fiction, New York 2140 offers a lot of insight into the present day.

My Hugo ballot so far:

  1. The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin​
  2. Provenance, Ann Leckie
  3. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson

Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

Tautological though it may be, Ann Leckie’s Provenance sure is an Ann Leckie novel.

In just a few years and a handful of novels, Leckie has developed a rich universe as well as a particular mode of writing within it.  To fans of Ancillary Justice and its sequels, Provenance will feel at once familiar and fresh, as her latest novel reaches out into nearby but still distinct areas of both the setting and the themes that she is known for.

Where the Imperial Radch trilogy was concerned with imperialism and colonialism and cultural hegemony – the exporting of one’s culture as the only “proper” way to be “civilized”, and the use of that culture as a bludgeon to force others to fall into line – Provenance is concerned with the myths and stories we tell ourselves about where our own culture came from.  These stories are manifested in “vestiges” of the culture’s history, and the vestiges people collect range from historical artifacts to mere souvenirs of minor events of the past.  The characters’ obsession with these vestiges, particularly those that relate somehow to the founding stories of their sovereignty, forms the framework upon which the overarching plot of Provenance is built.

And then, where the story of Breq and Awn and Anaander Mianaai was concerned with concepts of identity and the self – what it means to be a person, or to be Significant, and what happens when one is in conflict with oneself, or made to act against one’s own beliefs – Provenance examines the dynamics of family and the way that one’s upbringing influences the course of one’s life.  Provenance is full of people whose parents (or parental figures) have damaged them emotionally, turning some into sociopathic exemplars of their status-driven culture and others into distrustful misanthropes whose paranoia about their parents’ motives extends to their entire society.

Between all these thematic components, of course, Ann Leckie succeeds in once again writing an entertaining adventure story.  The reader starts out a little disoriented, trying to get a handle on the setting and the cultural context surrounding the protagonists’ behavior, but as those details start to become clear the story develops into one of familial intrigue, complete with siblings jockeying for parental favor and bystanders getting sucked into their schemes.  Leckie’s classically ineffable aliens make another appearance as well, always ready to show up and complicate the situation whenever things seem to be going too smoothly.

Provenance doesn’t reach quite as far into the frontiers of the science fiction genre as the Imperial Radch series did.  The cultural and familial structures are a little more familiar, and the gender-identity situation isn’t as unusual.  That said, the idea of gender being a decision made in the transition from adolescence to adulthood – an idea shared with JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven, up for a Best Novella Hugo this year – still feels like a refreshing alternative to having gender assigned at birth, and non-binary identities are also a normal and largely unremarkable part of the setting’s culture.  (Possibly part of why that feels less radical now is simply that the last three or four years have seen a lot of growth in our own culture’s ability to consider gender as far more complex than simply a description of one’s genital configuration.  Maybe I’m being optimistic, or maybe it’s just that I’ve come to know multiple non-binary people in the years since I first read Ancillary Justice – but, not for the first time, it’s nice to see our society starting to catch up to the potential that our science fiction has promised us is possible.)

My Best Novel ballot so far:

  1. The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin​
  2. Provenance, Ann Leckie

Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The first two volumes in N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, have won the last two Hugo Awards for Best Novel.  Now the concluding book, The Stone Sky, has also been nominated.  And it’s put me in a tough spot regarding Hugo voting.

In my review of The Obelisk Gate (and elsewhere), I mentioned that I generally prefer to spread the award recognition around a bit; rather than award a second Hugo to a series that has already won one in the near past, I typically find it more meaningful to honor a different series for the first time.  And this is another strong year in the Best Novel category.  But as good as the first two books in the trilogy were, I think The Stone Sky is the best book in the series by a large margin – enough so that simply nodding at the awards won by The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate doesn’t do it justice.

Folks, this book is transcendent.  It takes what we’ve learned about the world of the Stillness, about orogeny and orogenes, about stone-eaters and the angry Earth, and it turns the whole thing on its head, gives us context to more deeply understand it, and then ties the whole story up with a bow in one of the best series conclusions I’ve ever read.

Mild spoilers follow.

In the time period in which the first two books were set, civilization in the Stillness is staggering along under the weight of its own history.  Humanity is in a sort of species-wide purgatory, suffering for its past sins against the Earth.  We got a glimpse of what that history includes in The Obelisk Gate, but in The Stone Sky, Jemisin weaves together the “present-day” story of a handful of people trying to finally redeem humanity’s sins with a millennia-old flashback detailing the events that caused the deadly Seasons to begin afflicting the Earth.  All of the hints, and fragments of history, and suspicious correspondences we’ve seen, all of it comes together in the past-history sequence, bringing our understanding of the world into crystal-clear focus.

This same clarity also intensifies the allegorical treatment of racism and other forms of oppression present in the previous two books.  It wasn’t exactly an ambiguous assertion before, but in shoring up the superstitious folklore of the Stillness with its historical underpinnings, Jemisin makes it clear that the oppression experienced by so many people is not just a coincidence or an unhappy byproduct of the dominant society’s attempts to accumulate increased power.  Rather, it’s a integral component of the power structure, both cause and effect, a feature rather than a bug from the point of view of those holding power and privilege.

And then on top of the historical narrative, we get some pretty heavy storytelling about a mother and a daughter each trying to cope with their estrangement at the same time they’re trying to save the world.  Neither of them is wholly blameless for the estrangement at this point, but in their broken relationship we also see how systematic oppression of a people inflicts recurring trauma upon each successive generation, taking otherwise manageable difficulties and aggravating them into lifelong damage both physical and emotional.

And then on top of that we get a perfectly executed climax to the entire trilogy that pulls together the historical narrative with the present-day one, combining the literally world-changing finale to the big-picture story with a bittersweet conclusion to the emotional arcs of characters from both periods.  It all ties together so tightly.  I am in awe at the complete mastery of storytelling and social allegory Jemisin has demonstrated here and throughout the series, and I think that, decades from now, people are still going to be studying the Broken Earth trilogy as one of the greatest works of literature that this decade has to offer.

This being my first review for this year’s Best Novel finalists, I honestly don’t yet know where The Stone Sky is going to fall on my final ballot.  The other five nominees are strong contenders for the award as well. But whatever bar I might have set for awarding N.K. Jemisin and her astounding trilogy a record-breaking third Hugo Award in a row, The Stone Sky has cleared it with room to spare.

Fanart: Decibel Jones from Space Opera

One of my favorite things about Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera (review) was the aesthetic. Despite the limitations of prose as a medium for visual arts, Valente’s lovingly detailed descriptions of the glam-rock costumes worn by the Absolute Zeroes inspired me to attempt to draw them.  And because I love those vulnerable moments of humanity as well, here’s Decibel Jones succumbing to petrifying stage fright at the beginning of his very first gig at the Hope and Ruin, early in the story.  (I may attempt his Metagalactic Grand Prix outfit at some point as well, but the prospect of having to draw the oil-slick dye job on Robert the coat’s fur lining again is daunting.)

I had the opportunity to present the original art to Cat Valente herself at her recent reading in Seattle, and while waiting in line to personally hand one of your favorite authors some fanart is a uniquely anxiety-inducing experience, her delighted reaction was well worth it.

Decibel Jones at the Hope and Ruin (click to view full size)

Review: “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker

When I saw that Sarah Pinsker’s novella “And Then There Were (N-One)” was the story of a character named Sarah Pinsker attending a cross-dimensional convention populated entirely by other Sarah Pinskers from across the multiverse, I have to admit, I braced myself for some self-indulgent, pretentious “literary fiction”.  What I got instead was an engaging and entertaining story that struck a perfect balance – it was introspective, but not to the point of navel-gazing; it was full of in-jokes, but ones that pretty much anyone who’s ever been to a sci-fi convention would be in on; and despite the story’s cast of characters being endless variations on the author herself, it was nevertheless relatable to anyone else who’s spent a lot of time thinking about the choices they make and what might happen if they were different.

In some other universe, a Sarah Pinsker discovered cross-dimensional travel, and being the kind of nerd many of us are, organized “SarahCon” to gather as many different Sarah Pinskers as she could to compare notes and see how else their lives could have gone.  It’s a classic sci-fi “big idea” kind of concept, and the author executes on it brilliantly.  She’s not afraid to imagine herself as potentially having been many different types of people; while the first few Sarahs we meet are distinguished by hairstyle and profession (and taste in alcohol), we eventually meet a few transgender versions, some Sarahs with drug problems, a few with significant tragedies in their pasts… and a dead Sarah, whose murder our protagonist Sarah is asked to investigate.

Honestly, I don’t know if I could have written about hundreds of versions of myself with anywhere near this level of self-awareness and empathy; that alone is worthy of admiration, to say nothing of the skill with which the author weaves the philosophical questions of what might have been together with a well-executed speculative-fiction murder mystery.  “And Then There Were (N-One)” is certainly one of my favorite novellas of the year; deciding between it and All Systems Red for the top slot on my ballot was a very difficult choice, but one I had to make eventually.  So here’s my ballot for Best Novella:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. “And Then There Were (N-One), Sarah Pinsker
  3. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  4. Down Among the Sticks and Bones​, Seanan McGuire
  5. The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang
  6. River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey