Welcome to another instalment of our six-part series looking at this year’s finalists for the Hugo Awards! The previous post covered three contenders for Best Novella. Now let us round off the category by looking at the three that remain…
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
This novella depicts an alternate history where airships float the skies but the former USA is still split into Union and Confederates; New Orleans, the site of a slave uprising near the start of the Civil War, successfully emerged as a neutral and open port, where people of different races and nationalities freely mingle despite the surrounding division. The main character is Jacqueline, a thirteen-year-old pocket-picking orphan whose skill at climbing walls has earned her the nickname of Creeper.
While about her nightly business, Creeper chances to hear a group of Confederates discussing the Black God’s Drums – an advanced weapon that helped Haiti achieve freedom from France. Upon learning that the weapon is in danger of falling into Confederate hands, Creeper teams up with Ann-Marie St. Augustine, a Trinidadian airship captain who once knew her mother.
The Black God’s Drums is one of two stories by P. Djèlí Clark on this year’s Hugo ballot, the other being the Best Short Story finalist “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” Like that story, it re-imagines America’s past with a close eye on the country’s racial minorities, allowing it to both explore oppression and to celebrate cultural richness; in each alternate history, what should never have been sits side by side with what could have been. But while “Nine Negro Teeth” has an unorthodox, experimental structure, The Black God’s Drums is constructed more as a straight-ahead adventure story, using a basic framework familiar from the classic yarns of Robert Louis Stevenson: a young protagonist is thrown among various adults of conflicting moral stripes, and forced to use their wiles to survive. The airship captain even has a mechanical leg, in a clear homage to Long John Silver.
The novella has everything a reader could expect from a good adventure yarn, with engaging settings, strong heroes and villains, various near scrapes and a high-stakes climax. The plot beats are largely predictable, but the story makes up for this with its worldbuilding. The alternate history is vibrant and vital, established piece by piece in the myriad dialects of the characters, fascinating details (such as Harriet Tubman acting as a general in a guerrilla war against the Confederates) turning up in throwaway lines. Clark shows a skill at incorporating historical details into the texture of his world: for example, the story takes the racist concept of drapetomania – which, according to nineteenth-century pseudoscience, was a mental illness that caused slaves to run away – and uses it to create Drapeto Gas, a mind-numbing weapon used by the alt-historical Confederates on their slaves.
As well as the nuts and bolts of steampunk, The Black God’s Drums has a streak of magic. Throughout the story, Creeper has visions that she interprets as messages from Oya, a storm-spirit of Yoruba lore who is also part of Santeria and Vodou tradition. The story’s titular weapon marks an intersection between magic and machinery. It is named in reference to the deified Yoruba historical figure Shango and is established as a tool with almost apocalyptic potential, capable of damaging the weather systems of its target area years after it has been used.
The Black God’s Drums combines history, folklore and products of the author’s imagination, and paints the resulting mixture over a solid framework of adventure story. An accessible tale that rewards closer reading.
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
Here we have something of a phenomenon in contemporary SF: Martha Wells’ 2017 novella All Systems Red not only won a Hugo, it also spawned three sequels that were published over the course of 2018 to great acclaim; the series is known collectively as The Murderbot Diaries.
All Systems Red ended with the protagonist – a nameless cyborg “murderbot” designed to provide security using lethal force if necessary – being liberated to a new life as a civilian, by masquerading as an augmented human. But they are left with a lingering question: at some point in their past as a murderbot, they apparently carried out a killing spree. With no memory of the incident, they are unable to confirm their involvement – and so will have to do some investigation before facing up to their past.
The second instalment in the quartet, Artificial Condition follows the liberated cyborg as they search for answers, travelling through new settings and new characters in the process. On board a ship they encounter an artificial intelligence whose personality leaves something to be desired: literal-minded and pedantic, the protagonist dubs it Asshole Research Transport (or ART, for short). Afterwards the former murderbot is hired by a group of youngsters – Rami, Tapan and Maro — who have no idea of their new companion’s history.
Artificial Condition is structured as a ripping yarn, designed to send its protagonist through a series of scrapes involving deadly computer viruses, advanced security systems and other high-tech hazards. But while working as a mere romp, it also succeeds on working at a deeper level, largely due to the characterisation of the cyborg protagonist. Acting as narrator, the ex-murderbot provides a sometimes amusing, sometimes poignant character study: they get much of their information about the world from television shows (or “entertainment media,” TV apparently being too low-fi a concept for stories set in the far future). Through this character trait, the novella is able to explore the theme of humanity – or, rather, how humanity imagines humanity – from the perspective of a character trying to become a human. These ideas are not especially original, but here they are sufficiently well-articulated and neatly-packaged to seem fresh
For all its merit, Artificial Condition is somewhat awkward to judge in the context of the Hugo awards: it does not stand up particularly well on its own, being clearly a middle instalment in an ongoing narrative. As a series of releases too short to be classed as novels but long enough to be published individually, Murderbot Diaries is an interesting example of the new opportunities afforded by digital publishing, but it also shows how some of the new opportunities are at odds with the decades-old structure of the Hugos.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
The Shadow’s Child is an intelligent spacecraft. Her history as a military vessel, including an incident that left her entire crew dead, has left her with something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder: certain triggers will send her into a flashback to the event. Now serving as a passenger craft, she must face her trauma as her current client – a woman named Long Chau – intends to fly her into deep space, where the incident occurred.
Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child eventually arrive at the wreckage of another ship, where they find the corpse of a human woman. The authorities have no interest in investigating her death – but Long Chau, a consulting detective, takes it upon herself to solve the mystery. Why? Because she can…
It should not take long to realise that The Tea Master and the Detective owes something to Arthur Conan Doyle. Long Chau is a clear Sherlock Holmes stand-in: a consulting detective whose dominant emotion is the satisfaction of having solved a mystery for the sake of solving it. Even Holmes’ weakness for drugs has a counterpart in the story, with Long Chau partaking of mind-altering tea provided by the ship.
If Long Chau is Holmes, then The Shadow’s Child by default becomes Watson – and the two characters do indeed share a common trait in their history of military service. Here, Aliette de Bodard becomes more playful in regards to her source material. Not only does she make the Watson stand-in a sapient spacecraft, she also delves further into the psychological ramifications of the character’s wartime background than Conan Doyle ever did with Watson. The mindship’s emotionally wrought state, with traumatic memories triggered by her voyage to deep space, contrasts with the cold aloofness of Long Chau.
As the story develops, the playfulness continues. The Shadow’s Child goes on to carry out some detective work of her own, with Long Chau the subject of her investigation. The case turns out to involve a religious sect, recalling Holmes’ encounter with Mormons in A Study in Scarlet; yet the sect in question makes use of the mind-altering tea, which turns out to be a major plot point – two recognisable elements from the Holmes canon being entwined to create something new.
The Tea Master and the Detective is part of de Bodard’s Universe of Xuya series (which, as an aside, is up for Best Series at this year’s Hugos). Taking place in a pre-existing universe, the story has a rich setting to draw upon in assembling its network of suspects and motivations.
Fans of the previous stories in the series should enjoy this addition, but drawing as it does on the familiar formula of Sherlock Holmes, The Tea Master and the Detective is accessible even to readers unfamiliar with de Bodard’s past work.
One detail that stands out after reading the six novellas is how many of them are tied to earlier works. Three of the books (Binti: The Night Masquerade, Artificial Condition and Beneath the Sugar Sky) are direct continuations of previous Hugo finalists; The Tea Master and the Detective is set in an established universe, but works as a standalone story.
In addition, both The Tea Master and the Detective and The Black God’s Drums riff upon much-loved fiction of the nineteenth century, borrowing frameworks from Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson respectively – although, between de Bodard’s Vietnamese-influenced future and P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate African American history, each story drastically alters the cultural context of its source material.
That just leaves Kelly Robson’s inventive time-travel saga Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach, and the debts owed by the other five novellas serve to emphasise just how original Robson’s story is.
Of course, originality is not the only metric by which to judge a story. A worthwhile revisitation can be just as rewarding as a trip to pastures new. Only time to tell which the Hugo voters will favour.