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There were 5 nominations in the 2014 Hugo Novelette category, two by women and three by men. Two were strong stories, two were mediocre, and one went unread. I’m going to review them from least liked to most liked, and omit entirely the one I didn’t read because I can’t comment on something I didn’t read.
Of the novelettes I read, I liked The Exchange Officers by Brad Torgersen the least. Part of this is simply a genre thing: although I’ve read a lot of military SF (in part because that’s what was predominantly available in my small town library when I was younger) I’m not a huge fan of it. I’m familiar enough with it, though, that it really feels like this work (and his novella, another military SF thing) have the TRAPPINGS of military SF without an UNDERSTANDING of it. Like, he’s read a bunch of Heinlein and early 1960s era milsf and is imitating the genre in a lazy, shallow way. It’s got, you know, a military man who just super hates military command and rank and also he has an Eastern European last name that gosh darn but nobody can pronounce it so he gets a nickname, and there’s a female Marine who gets nicknamed “Chesty” but hey don’t worry it’s not because she has TITS and it’s a CONSTANT REMINDER THAT SHE HAS TITS lol no she’s nicknamed after famous marine Chesty Puller so just relax already her nickname isn’t sexually loaded reminder that she’s a woman with boobs! The antagonists are Evil Communist Chinese Hoards who are sneaky and inscrutable, and there’s a woman president who’s spoken of with scorn etc. The writing itself really needed a stronger editor. The story was mediocre, the characters weak and not really memorable or likeable. It feels really dated. This novelette did absolutely nothing new with the genre or the tropes it dragged out. I’ve read other reviews saying it’s not as good as his usual work, and his novella IS slightly better, but has a lot of the same flaws. In the piece’s defense, nobody spanks Chesty or tweaks her nose, but her character’s had all the depth and appeal of a floor lamp. The protagonist wasn’t much better filled out, though. If you’re a big fan of military SF you might like this more than I did, or you might just get angry at it. My youngest brother’s a Marine, I want to float both pieces past him and see what he thinks of them.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, by Ted Chiang, has a promising premise but a flawed execution: a journalist in the near future sets out to write a well researched, nuanced piece about a popular piece of technology that many people are claiming will ruin humanity forever. Just as we in our time have smart phones and blogs and instagrams and twitter, people of his time have “lifelogs,” which are kind of like googleglass I guess. They record every aspect of their lives, and these recordings can be used in court. However, they’re difficult to search because there’s no tags or keywords or whatever, so you wind up doing a lot of scrolling. A company figures out a way to easily index and search lifelogs, and sells their product, making it a hell of a lot easier for users to replay exact experiences in full. The narration is interspersed with an account of a young man from a “primitive” tribe taught to read and write by a European missionary, and discusses how stuff we take for granted (like reading and writing) is technology that changed how we remember, see the world, interact, etc. There’s some really interesting ideas in the story, but there’s also some lazy writing, some florid writing, and I’m really tired of the trope of poor put upon suffering male hero has a flighty bitch ex-wife who abandoned him to “find herself” and she’s so horrible and such a bitch. Yes, it’s revealed in the book that the narrator is a real dickbag who rewrites his memories to make himself the long suffering victim (as all humans do) but still. There’s a lot of real fundamental laziness going on, and despite the interesting ideas presented, Chiang doesn’t do much with them. The narrator, and his daughter, remain ciphers. The story doesn’t seem very emotionally invested in them at all. I almost didn’t finish the story… there just didn’t seem a lot of POINT to it.
The Waiting Stars, by Aliette de Bodard is an absolutely incredible story about identity and family and colonialism. (If you click the link, it should take you to de Bodard’s website, where you can download the novelette or read it right there.) In the far future, there are sentient ships, born of women, in a strongly Vietnamese culture. The story follows two women: one is a Da Viet woman trying to reclaim a captured ship, who she considers her Great Aunt, from the “Outsiders” who have captured it; the other is an orphaned Da Viet woman who was “rescued” as a child along with a bunch of other girls and raised in an orphanage where she was “civilized” and given a European-sounding name and forced to forget her culture of origin (language, food, dress, religion, family, etc). I’ve noticed that the women writers on the Hugo Ballot ALL addressed race and/or gender issues, and “The Waiting Stars” tackles racism and transracial adoption and colonialism in a BIG but not heavy handed way. The writing is deft, lyrical, and powerful. The world and the characters and the politics are incredibly real feeling. The story left me wanting more: more of the characters, more of the world, more of the writing, more. I absolutely will be seeking out more by de Bodard, she’s a talent to watch.
The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal, is the story of a now-elderly woman astronaut who was one of the first to travel to Mars and set up a colony there. (once again, click the link to read the story.) This is the first novelette in the packet I read, and it utterly floored me. I was thrown, at first, by the references to Dorthy Gale and Kansas, but moving past that, it’s a fantastic exploration of what would have happened if the USA had had a functioning space program that reached Mars in the early 1950s… and had included women in the program. Elma, married to her programmer love who hasn’t much longer to live, is desperate to fly again. She’s given the opportunity to do just that, but it would mean abandoning her husband to die without her present… and without any children to support him, as they decided not to have kids because of her astronaut career. It’s a beautiful and poignant story about regret and about hope, about inspiration, and about love and devotion. I’m not going to lie, it made me tear up… and it put Kowal very clearly on my reading radar. As with de Bodard, I’m absolutely going to keep an eye out for her work.
The last two novelettes reviewed were difficult. I love them both so much, but in different ways and for different things. If I could, I’d vote for them both to be number one, but failing that, I gave Kowal’s piece the #1 slot. If I’d read de Bodard’s first, to be perfectly honest, my ranking might have been different though.
I did not read the other novelette.
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