Welcome back to this series reviewing the prose contenders for the 2019 Hugo Awards. Previous instalments have covered Best Short Story and Best Novelette. Now it is time to begin looking at the contenders for the title of Best Novella…
Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
In the twenty-third century, humanity has been devastated by plague. Survivors were forced to retreat underground, and only in recent decades have they made moves to return to the surface world by constructing artificial habitats for themselves. The world has a generational divide between those born during the plagues and those born after, who are dubbed plague babies and fat babies respectively. The former rely on life-support mechanisms, but the latter are healthy.
And now there has been a further complication: an organisation called TERN (Temporal Economic Research Node) has developed time travel. Denizens of the post-apocalyptic era are now able to head back to earlier, healthier ages of humanity. This process has its limitations and comes with risks, but those with the technology are determined to take advantage of it.
The story’s central characters are Minh, Kiki and Hamid, three workers at a firm based in a Calgary habitat. Minh is a plague baby who has tentacle-like prosthetics in place of legs; Hamid hails from the same generation, while Kiki is a healthy fat baby. To these individuals, all of the wondrous technology that surrounds them is little more than the daily grind. The world is run by banks that reduce everything to figures, sums, and short-term advantage – and Minh, Kiki and Hamid are merely cogs in the machine. When a TERN employee named Fabien hires the three for a job in Mesopotamia, this proposed colonisation of ancient history is outlined in management-speak at its most calculatedly soulless:
The successful proponent team will assess and quantify the environmental state of Mesopotamia in 2024 BCE. The project will include complete geomorphological and ecological baselines, responses to stressors, and processes of change and adaptation. The data gathered will guide and inform future restoration projects in an effort to impose a regular climactic regime across the Mesopotamian drainage basin.
All of this may give the impression that Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is following Douglas Adams’ practice of using science fiction as a vehicle for whimsical satire, but this impression would not be entirely accurate: Kelly Robson has put a significant amount of thought into the logistics of her universe, with characters discussing in precise detail exactly what can be achieved with time travel (“TERN’s maximum payload seems to be restricted by volume, not mass. The single heaviest item brought from the past is the Golden Buddha from ancient Thailand. It weighs over five thousand kilograms”). That the story’s universe is believable makes the satire all the more biting – it is all too easy to see how this world ended up the way it did.
The Calgary crew take some high technology back with them to Mesopotamia: Kiki has her legs replaced with six tentacles, like Minh, and they have equipment ranging from cameras to a boat called the Lucky Peach. The team of time-travellers arrive in the middle of political strife between the Mesopotamian king, Shulgi, and his rival in affairs of state Susa. To the locals, the newcomers and their advanced technology seem like supernatural monsters: the Mesopotamians speak of flying silver stones with single red eyes, grey slabs edged with hornet stripes, and weird half-woman, half-octopus creatures.
It turns out that the ancient people are right to fear the visitors, as Fabian kills six soldiers during the course of the trip. According to TERN, these deaths mean nothing, as changing the past is impossible: attempting to do so merely creates a temporary timeline that collapses when the time traveller departs. But Minh, Kiki and Hamid are not necessarily convinced – after all, TERN has a monopoly on time travel, and is free to mislead the public and its employees as to how the process works.
Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is a very “now” story, one that weaves together multiple topics relating to contemporary social justice. A large portion of the climax consists of a cross-generational argument between fat baby Kiki and her plague baby peers about who is to blame for the sad state of the world – unmistakeably resembling arguments between baby boomers and millennials. The novella also satirises colonialism, with TERN analysing Mesopotamia in great detail but remaining largely oblivious to the human cost of its experiments: time travel stories often consider how trips to the past would impact the present, but concern over the effects on denizens of the past is less common.
All of this could easily have been preachy, but Kelly Robson shows skill at both worldbuilding (not only in terms of science fiction gadgetry, but also the financial nitty-gritty to underpin it all) and character dynamics. Because of this, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach truly comes to life.
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
In the third part of the series that began with 2016 Hugo winner Binti and continued with 2018 runner-up Binti: Home, the title character remains trapped between worlds. Although hailing from Earth, Binti has ended up with a set of blue tentacles on her head that lend her kinship with the Meduse – a species of jellyfish-like aliens who have a history of hostility with Earth.
Things become worse for Binti during the course of this story. The Khoush – an ethnic group hostile to Binti’s people, the Himba – launch an attack on her home and family after word gets out that she has mated with a Meduse. Caught in the conflict, Binti reaches a point where only alien DNA can repair her body. As both she and the world around her undergo transformations, Binti is faced with some daunting questions: how much of her is human, and how much of her home is still home?
For newcomers to the series, Binti: The Night Masquerade will not make a good starting point. It has a protagonist whose emotional state is defined by the events of past stories; its plot takes place in the middle of a previously-established conflict between various factions both human and alien; and it spends much of its time deliberately pulling the narrative rug out from under the central character. Binti has visions that – as she is told by a companion – could be anything from mere nightmares to alien communication. Not only is Binti’s identity fragmented, the very reality that surrounds her is similarly fragmented, and the reader is left to pick up the pieces.
But paradoxically, all of this helps the novella to unite the series’ various storytelling strands: the narrative becomes so loose that the overall themes become its strongest points of connection. Nnedi Okorafor ends up exploring the concepts of identity, family and home not so much through plot or characterisation, but through a set of symbols. Some are simple, like the point where a device containing a digital record of Binti’s identity is destroyed; others are more subtle and nuanced, like the repeated references to oil and clay that Binti adorns herself with as per Himba culture, but all are strong enough to stick in the mind.
Binti’s story began in such an open and accessible way with the original 2015 novella; here, it reaches an offbeat but nonetheless satisfactory conclusion.
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
Another third instalment, this time in the series that began in 2016 with Every Heart a Doorway and continued with the prequel Down Among the Sticks and Bones, both of which were Hugo finalists. The stories centre on a boarding school for youngsters who have visited fantasy worlds, offering a place for sundry Alices and Dorothies come together to cope with adolescent angst.
This time the school receives a newcomer in Rini, who happens to be the daughter of an earlier pupil named Sumi. But there’s a problem here: Sumi was killed during the events of Every Heart a Doorway, before she could have children; Rini therefore comes from a future that has been prevented from happening. Rini and Sumi each hail from a land of nonsense, where such occurrences make perfect sense, but this state of affairs causes serious disruptions in the mundane world. Bit by bit, Rini is fading away. Fortunately for her, Rini makes enough new friends at the school to help her out: Cora, a mermaid who has learnt to hide her scales inside her legs; Cora’s bestie Nadya; Christopher, a boy from the underworld; and Kade, a goblin prince. Together, they must rebuild Sumi by gathering together her three components – her bones, her spirit, and her heart – no matter how many worlds of fantasy they must visit in the process.
As well as an inventive portal fantasy in its own right, the series has always been a celebration of fantasy stories on a wider scale, with both the darker and the fluffier varieties of the genre represented in one cosmology. But across the first two novellas, McGuire has tended to favour the darker end of the spectrum, something summed up when Sumi – a representative of cheerful, carefree fantasy – was brutally murdered in the original story.
Beneath the Sugar Sky feels like a concerted effort to redress this balance, not only resurrecting Sumi but taking the central characters on a journey to the land of Confection where the sea is made of strawberry rhubarb soda and even the villain – the tyrannical Queen of Cakes – has a touch of cuteness. The story is not entirely sweetness and light, and not all of the characters return from their journey, but the shift in tone towards fun and optimism is hard to miss.
Once again, McGuire explores the angst and anxieties of her teenage characters. Cora is fat, Nadya has one arm, Christopher is Hispanic, Kade is transgender, and each one has stories to share about prejudice they face and slurs they hear. But this never seems forced: in a world that’s diverse enough to include mermaids, skeletons and goblins, of course it would include members of real-world minority groups.
The overall sense is that McGuire is having fun with the universe she’s made, exploring the implications of its rules. Confection initially appears to be a land of pure nonsense; but then the protagonists find that much of it was created by a teenage Brooklyn girl named Layla, who measures ingredients and follows recipes like any other baker. Confection is therefore a land where seeming nonsense arises ultimately from fixed rules, while other worlds existing in this multiverse may use different structures of reason and unreason.
Beneath the Sugar Sky never strays far from the territory staked out by the previous instalments – but it does show us that territory from a fresh perspective. A good addition to an engaging series.
To Be Continued…
The next post in this series will cover the remaining three novellas. Stay tuned…