Welcome back to this series of reviews covering the prose stories on the 2020 Hugo Awards ballot. The previous posts in the series looked over the Best Short Story category; now, let us move on to the category for stories of 7,500 to 17,500 words: Best Novelette…
When the colony of New Mars is wiped out in an apparent plague, researcher Saki Jones is assigned investigation duties. Her interest in the subject is more than just professional, as she lost her longtime partner M.J. in the cataclysm. She is aided by her graduate student Hyun-sik, who was orphaned in the disaster – and who also happens to be the boyfriend of Saki’s son, Kenzou.
Their main source of evidence is a time-record termed the Chronicle, which existed on the planet prior to the arrival of humans and can be used to view any point in the world’s history. It comes with drawbacks, however, as it is affected by the minds of its users: “Your presence muddles the temporal record as surely as an archaeological dig muddles the dirt at an excavation site.” Delving into the chronicle is a risky business, then, but Saki is willing to push ahead – partly to learn the origin of the plague, partly for one last encounter with her beloved M.J.
“The Archronology of Love” is a mystery story with two enigmas: the fate of the aliens that once inhabited New Mars, and the subsequent fate of the colonists. These do a good job of pulling the story along, with the reader learning about the setting at the same time that Saki and company dig into the planet and its history. But the mysteries are merely the bare structure for a meditation on fragility.
The story deals with the fragility of life, represented on a large scale by the loss of the colony and on a smaller scale by Saki’s loss of M.J. It touches upon the fragility of family ties through Saki’s sometimes strained relationship with her son. The story’s climax, in which Saki violates her discipline’s rules by using the Chronicle to view the future – a previously untested and potentially dangerous process – is built on still another form of fragility. Permeating the narrative is the fragility of human knowledge: even in this futuristic setting, the researchers’ perspective is so limited that the story periodically shifts to the viewpoint of the unseen aliens, thereby providing a more complete picture.
It is only natural that the central image of the story, the Chronicle, serves as a symbol of fragility:
Saki used the micro-jets on her suit to turn and face her student. He was surrounded in a semi-translucent shimmer of silvery-white, the colors of the Chronicle all swirled together where his presence disrupted it, like the dirt of an archaeological dig all churned together. At the edges of his displacement cloud there was a delicate rainbow film, like the surface of a soap bubble, data distorted but not yet destroyed.
The story posits that the antidote to this fragility – the binding force – as love. This is a concept that could easily have been trite, but through the consistency of its themes, the believability of its characters and the robustness of its mystery plot, “The Archronology of Love” succeeds. Caroline M. Yoachim has penned a strong combination of intriguing science fiction concept and humane spirit.
Zanna, an author of crime fiction, arrives a cabin with her close friend Shar. Now living far from the urban bustlei, with Shar ready and willing to act as personal assistant, Zanna should have everything she needs to get on with her work undistracted. The cabin turns out to be more rustic than expected, however, the biggest drawback being a lack of power for Zanna’s laptop. And so she heads out to find help – only to instead find a corpse lying next to a nearby SUV. The local police rule the man’s death an accident, but Zannia believes him to have been murdered. She puts her detective-writer’s brain to use in solving the mystery – the details of which turn out to be far stranger than she had expected.
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” is in no hurry to get going. Zanna does not find the body until nearly a third of the way into the story, while the plot’s element of the fantastic does not become clear until the final quarter – to go into detail would be to give too much away, but suffice to say that the twist turns out to be science fictional rather than supernatural. When read as a contender for a Hugo, the story’s effect is unusual, while not necessarily unwelcome: a finalist at an SF/F award which, for most of its length, contains no overt SF/F elements and instead appears to exist within conventional mystery-genre territory.
Yet it all fits together. The mystery genre, built as it is upon the exploration of seemingly impossible happenings, frequently employs the frisson of the fantastic even if the solutions are ultimately materialistic. One charm of “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” is that it finds a way to explore this intangible area – the point in a mystery story when it seems as though reality itself might have been violated.
Given that the protagonist is a detective writer who consciously compares her investigation to those of her fictional sleuth Jean Diener, the story is actively encouraging the reader to take a step back and analyse it as a work of fiction, rather than an assemblage of clues and motivations. When we learn that Zanna started out writing science fiction, then, the story is effectively asking permission to expand its universe in weirder directions.
Of course, no detective story is complete without some discussion of motivation and transgression, and so the conclusion to “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” introduces a new moral angle to the narrative. Again, though, discussion would give too much away: the conclusion to the story is as satisfying as the punchline to a good joke.