2017 Hugo Reviews: Novelettes
With my previous post having covered the Best Short Story finalists, it is time to move on to the category for stories between 7,500 and 17,500 words: Best Novelette.
“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Aliens land on Earth and announce their desire to spend some time on the planet, secluded from the native population. Much of humanity mistrusts them, but the owner of one shipping company feels it worth his while to take a contract from the newcomers. He assigns an employee, Avery, the task of transporting one of the aliens. The entire job is shrouded in secrecy; Avery does not even know what her passenger looks like, as he is hidden away inside her bus.
Also traveling with Avery is an interpreter named Lionel, who was abducted by the aliens as a child and brought up on their home planet. The irony here is that Avery and Lionel could benefit from an interpreter for their own conversations: Avery knows nothing about the aliens; Lionel knows all about them, but does not understand Earthlings well enough to effectively communicate his knowledge to Avery.
The two are pursued by a passive-aggressive agent named Henry, a man so mysterious that he hands out business cards with his first name and no further information, and who seeks to influence their journey for his own inscrutable reasons.
The narrative is structured so that info-dumps come organically during Avery’s trip. Partly through discussions with Leonard, and partly from newscasts screened on gas-station televisions, Avery learns more about the nature of the extra-terrestrials during her trip. For one, she finds that her alien passenger lacks a cerebral cortex.
“For him, life is a skill of the autonomic nervous system, not something he had to consciously learn,” explains Leonard. “That’s why he can think and react faster than we can, and requires less energy. The messages don’t have to travel on a useless detour through the cortex.” She also finds that Lionel and the alien share a telepathy-like link, raising the question of how much of the interpreter is truly Lionel, and how much is the alien.
“Touring with the Alien” sizzles with ironies, a constant tension between the everyday and the alien. Avery is closer to one of the extra-terrestrials than almost anyone else on the planet, and yet, her encounter is combined with the everyday banality of a bus trip. Lionel alternates between sufficiently lucid to explain the workings of the aliens and obtuse enough to seem alien himself. Avery is initially bewildered by the idea of an intelligent being incapable of conscious thought, but later comes to contemplate how much of her own life has been dictated by her unconscious: “What good has consciousness ever done me?”
Overall, “Touring with the Alien” blends the personal and the philosophical into an entertainingly odd story about an alien being given a bus trip and with a good twist at the end to boot.
The Jewelled Valley is hit by a coup. The King’s lapidary–that is, his courtier–has made a pact with an enemy army and destroys a set of magic gems that protect the royal palace. He has lost his mind as a result of breaking his vows to the King. In this world, those who fall under the sway of the gems are given a choice between obeying the stones and going mad or obeying the royalty–known as Jewels–and retaining sanity in servitude.
The sole surviving member of the royal family is the King’s daughter Lin, whose lapidary Sima happens to be the daughter of the King’s insane courtier. It is not long before the two girls end up in the clutches of the enemy army the leader of which wishes to marry Lin off to her son.
The plot of “The Jewel and her Lapidary” fits into an oft-used adventure-story mold, one put to influential use by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which juvenile characters end up in the hands of morally dubious adults and must use their pluck and ingenuity to survive. Thrown into this mix is the also-familiar motif of the Anastasia-like lost princess, all placed into a land of magical gems. And this is where the story truly takes on a new dimension. Fran Wilde shows a firm grip of the symbolic workings of her fantasy world.
The gems, like Sauron’s ring, tempt their wearers with Faustian gifts of power, gifts that inevitably come at a great cost. In this world vows and oaths have solid form as bands and chains, necessary measures to keep the gems at bay while still harnessing some of their power.
On one level the gems embody the old truism that power corrupts, but–as with any good bit of symbolic fantasy–other readings are possible. In terms of their immediate effects on the main characters, the gems often suggest drugs, both illicit and medical. When used correctly, they can bestow peace and calm, like antidepressants, but if a close eye is not kept on their usage, they will encourage feelings of despair.
The story has a satisfying degree of psychological depth. Sima is wracked with guilt, because she failed to protect Lin during the coup, and she is now also forced to act against her own father. She subsequently becomes caught between her loyalty to Lin and the temptations of the gems.
By the end of the story, one of the main concerns of the protagonists is the nature of the world that will exist following the palace’s fall. They have the chance to start afresh, and so will the gems. But will all the potential corruption that comes with their power still have a place?
For a short adventure story, “The Jewel and her Lapidary” is a rewarding, multi-layered piece of work.
“The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon
Grandma Harken lives on the outskirts of a desert town with her daughter Eva. For fifty years, she has been growing tomatoes in her garden. Hers are renowned as the finest tomatoes in the town despite her reputation as a witch.
Then, one morning, Grandma Harken wakes up and finds that one of her tomatoes has gone missing. As the days pass more and more of her tomatoes disappear, to her ongoing confusion. Is a jackrabbit responsible? No, they tend not to steal tomatoes. A box turtle? No, the tomatoes would be too hard for it to reach.
The culprit turns out to be a shapeshifter, a mockingbird-woman named Marguerite. As Marguerite is the hapless victim of a curse placed by a sorcerer, Grandma Harken sets off on a quest to confront the magician, no matter how far into the desert it takes her.
With “The Tomato Thief,” Ursula Vernon returns to the world of her earlier story “Jackalope Wives,” a near-finalist for the 2015 Hugos. But while “Jackalope Wives” offered a relatively small-scale domestic narrative, “The Tomato Thief” broadens the horizons of Vernon’s fairy-tale west.
In this world, trains are minor deities–strange, new gods, binding the once-free land with their chain-like tracks, selecting mortal men to act as train-priests, and transporting passengers between worlds. Sarcastic coyotes offer dubious advice to lonely travelers. Frail little girls have cholla ribs for bones. Saint Anthony, known for overcoming demons in the desert, is regarded as something of a patron saint for all of this arid other-worldliness.
The main folktale reference point in “Jackalope Wives” was the story of the animal bride. “The Tomato Thief,” meanwhile, turns out to be a reworking of the “Koschei the Deathless” story. Once again, Vernon has succeeded in putting her own stamp on old material. Familiar fairy tale motifs are adapted to fit iconography of the American West, all mixed in with some original touches that arise from Vernon’s imagination. What starts as a silly yarn about tomatoes turns out to be a wide-ranging fantasy quest.
“You’ll Surely Drown Here if you Stay” by Alyssa Wong
Here’s another weird Western, and another story by Alyssa Wong, who also has a finalist in the Best Short Story category. Told in second person, this story introduces us to Ellis, a boy from an old mining town who has the ability to see ghosts:
“I saw my pa tonight,” you say into Marisol’s hair. Her dark braids smell like smoke, and you bury your face into them, just behind her ear. “Walking among the brush with the rest of the dead.”
“I didn’t find your folks, though. I heard their voices, but I couldn’t dig a path deeper into the mine.” You’d torn your hands to pieces, ripped the skin and flesh down to the bone, and the desert had built you back out of sand and briars, then pushed you rudely away from the entrance to the collapsed mineshaft. The wandering skeletons of slain cattle and men had stopped their nighttime shambling to watch through ant–eaten eyes. Stay away from this, child.
Ellis inherited some of his powers from his late father, who in turn was granted them by a mysterious preacher. He also inherited abilities from his mother, who, in fact, is the preacher’s sister.
The boy carries out chores at a local brothel owned by his stepmother Madam Lettie, but is not above playing with his supernatural abilities at work, as when he causes a chicken to rise from the dead even as the cook prepares it for dinner. He is more at home in the desert outside the town; here, he takes on another form, “a mad creature stripped down to the bone,” bestial but unlike any animal alive.
One day, the mining magnate William Lacombe arrives in town to investigate a collapsed shaft. Having heard about Ellis’ necromantic abilities, Lacombe takes the boy with him as a means of quelling the unquiet dead. In doing so, Ellis will confront not only these ghosts, but the force that animates them: his mother, the very spirit of the desert.
At the center of the story is a compact but intricate family saga, one that is glimpsed piece by piece as the narrative develops. Ellis is torn between two worlds, two branches of family. On the one hand is the mundane world represented by his uncaring stepmother, but also by the saloon girl Marisol, whom he loves; on the other hand is the supernatural world of his mother and uncle, strange and disturbing, but perhaps his true home nonetheless.
“You’ll Surely Drown Here if you Stay” is a tale told with utmost confidence in its fantasy. Wong succeeds in building an atmosphere of eeriness not through images (although her use of danse macabre iconography is vivid enough), but through an evocative writing style where physical sensation mixes with subjective emotion:
But you do not leave. Instead, you hold your ground in front of the company of men and call the dead down, one by one, forcing them to their knees, then to their faces. Their deaths wash over you as you lay them to rest
stabbed eaten whole my mouth is so dry will I never see my children again suffocating bleeding broken neck teeth tearing at me I don’t want to die
and they go peacefully. You, though, do not; after only a few of these anti–resurrections, you’re shaking and howling and barely able to stay on your horse for it.
Wong’s story makes a good companion piece to Ursula Vernon’s take on the weird Western. While Vernon bases her narrative the familiar conventions of the fairy tale, Wong is unafraid to take the reader to unexpected and unfamiliar territory with haunting results.
“The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan
Emily Clarah Starr is an employee at a hotel of the future. Her workplace will soon play host to a pair of astronauts scheduled for a one-way trip to Mars. This will be the second such endeavor in history, the first manned flight to Mars having ended in disaster. Emily’s mother, nicknamed Moolie, is suffering from mental and physical afflictions as an apparent result of being hired to examine radioactive substances at the site of a plane crash.
Our protagonist does not know who her father was. Her mother claimed that he was an astronaut, who left Earth on the first Mars mission while Moolie was pregnant, dying with the rest of the crew.
Emily’s father left behind a lavishly-illustrated book called The Art of Space Travel. She has since come to see the book as a memento of her unknown father, despite a nagging doubt that the story she heard from Moolie is anything more than another one of her mother’s delusions. Starting a quest to identify her father, Emily conducts research into the ill-fated Mars mission to try and deduce which of the deceased astronauts was most likely to have sired her.
“The Art of Space Travel” is a science fiction story in which the science fiction occurs in the background. In the foreground are the everyday people, such as hotel-worker Emily, to whom giant leaps for mankind are primarily symbolic. Using Emily’s perspective, the story portrays space travel in deeply romantic terms, be it the romance of tragedy, as with the first Mars mission, or the romance of potential advance, as with the second.
Connecting background and foreground is the central theme of family. Much of Emily’s narration is taken up by accounts of her family history, as when she describes an old photo of her grandmother or recounts a teenage argument with her mother. In the story’s present, as her mother drifts away from her through mental degradation, the figure of Emily’s absent and presumably dead father is in some ways, paradoxically enough, truer and more vivid to her than her surviving parent. He may have perished in a space disaster, but he was still the story’s key symbol of romance: a spaceman.
Emily often ends up ruminating on the family lives of astronauts. A co-worker learns that Jocelyn Tooker, one of the astronauts preparing to leave Earth forever on the new Mars mission, is a mother. “How can she bear it? Knowing she’ll never see them grow up, that she’ll never hear their voices again, even?” Emily herself, however, holds a deeply romantic view of the subject:
I mean, everyone aboard that spacecraft is going to live forever—in our hearts and minds, in our books and stories and films, and in thousands of hours of news clips and documentaries. Even if they crash and burn like the crew of the New Dawn, we’ll never stop talking about them, and speculating, and remembering.
If you look at it that way it’s a straight trade: fifty years or so of real life now against immortality. I can see why some people might think that’s not such a bad deal.
In a way, the men and women who go into space are our superheroes. Ten years from now, some journalist will be asking Jocelyn Tooker’s children what it feels like to have a superhero for a mum.
Emily’s mind is stretched across a troubled past, an uncertain present, and a starry-eyed vision of the future. Inevitably, any actual narrative progression threatens to disrupt this dynamic, and it has to be said that “The Art of Space Travel” does take something of an easy way out come its conclusion. While searching for her father, Emily compares her predicament to similar scenarios in fiction, noting that fiction tends to wrap things up more neatly. As it happens, however, the plot thread involving Emily’s father is wrapped up rather neatly; this can be read either as a conscious irony in the name of romance or as a weakness in the narrative, depending on how charitable the reader is feeling. Despite this shortcoming, “The Art of Space Travel” is a touching and warm-hearted paean to the romance of space.
Kelly, a woman trapped in a loveless relationship with a guy named Charlie and trying to make ends meet, has found work as a stripper. While pole-dancing one night she notices that, among the lustful men in her audience, is one person who seems to be viewing her with respect. She hooks up with him after work; named Tyrone, he turns out to be a tough but melancholy soul, having lost his girlfriend and many other loved ones a long time ago. The two waste no time in beginning a steamy sexual relationship.
Also, Kelly is a green-skinned, antennae-headed, three-breasted alien, and Tyrone is a tyrannosaurus rex. But not one of those weedy-armed dinosaurs you’ve seen in paleontological illustrations. This tyrannosaurus works out!
Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex is, of course, the Rabid Puppy pick for Best Novelette. It is here as a result of Vox Day rather lazily repeating his prank from last year when he got Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion on the ballot as a dig at Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.”
Some have dismissed Stix Hiscock (who, despite her masculine choice of pseudonym, is a woman) as a mere Chuck Tingle imitator. This would be unfair. After all, Chuck Tingle was not the first author to write weird dinosaur erotica, and Ms. Hiscock has as much right as he does to try her hand at the genre.
Taken on its own terms, Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex is a solid but undistinguished specimen of its kind. It has a number of wacky, cartoonish ideas, such as Kelly shooting lasers out of her breasts when she achieves orgasm, but on the whole lacks the inspired oddness of Tingle’s work. The sex scenes place their emphasis on Kelly allowing Tyrone to place her head-first into his mouth; if that’s your bag, this is the story for you. Anyone else should probably give it a pass.
I found this to be a stronger ballot than Best Short Story, and with the obvious exception of Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex, all of the stories are roughly on par with one another. They also show a reasonably wide variety, including a secondary-world fantasy story, a science fiction story, a family drama that uses science fiction as a motif, and two (quite different) weird Westerns.
For my personal choice, I would go with Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “Touring With the Alien.” The Ursula Vernon and Alyssa Wong stories, meanwhile, are tied for my second spot.