Welcome to the third and final part in a series of articles looking at the works in competition for the Best Novella category at the Hugo Awards.
So far, we have seen two fantasy stories and two pieces of science fiction. The fantasy novellas have each used traumatic episodes in real-world history as their starting point in imagining magical new worlds, but with drastically different results: The Deep by Rivers Solomon, featuring members of the rap group clipping. is a beautiful but anguish-laden narrative that grapples with the memory of slavery, while The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark is a humorous romp that deals with Western imperialism simply by erasing it.
The two science fiction novellas likewise have their similarities and differences. Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom by Ted Chiang muses on the theme of different time lines, while Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, if Fortunate is about the exploration of alien planets, but both share a certain meditative melancholy in their attitude to scientific progress.
There are two more novellas left to cover. One is a fantasy story built upon a solid logic of the sort more typically associated with hard SF; the other is nominally science fiction, but which embraces a freeform invention that is the stuff of fantasy. And each novella, in its way, is a commentary upon the nature of SFF…
In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire
Katherine Lundy is the daughter of a school principal. Her reputation as a teacher’s pet makes it hard for her to attract friends, something that her analytical mind has come to accept – she understands all too well the rules of the playground – and so she instead finds companionship in books. Then, at the age of eight, she finds a door in a tree that takes her to Goblin Market.
This is a strange realm full of new sights from bird-girls to unicorn-centaurs. But like the mundane world, it is bound by rules. Rule one: ask for nothing. Rule two: names have power. Rule three: always give fair value. Rule four: take what is offered and be grateful. Rule five: remember the curfew. Of these, it is the third rule – always give fair value – that turns out to be the most important. The Goblin Market is a market, after all, and that which is taken must be paid for.
In An Absent Dream is part of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, a saga about various fantasy worlds and the youngsters who find themselves therein. It also works as a standalone story, however, and requires no familiarity with the other novellas in the series. Its main connections to the wider Wayward Children multiverse are less narrative than thematic: like its predecessors, In An Absent Dream is a story that celebrates the tradition of children’s portal fantasy while, at the same time, taking a few steps back to analyse the genre from a distance.
In the Goblin Market – which, incidentally, bears little resemblance to the one imagined by Christina Rossetti – Katherine has all of the magical adventures that we would expect from the protagonist of a portal fantasy; the twist is that they occur off-page. Battles with such fearsome-sounding beings as the Wasp Queen and the Bone Wraiths, and even the death of Katherine’s friend Mockery, take place between chapters while the main body of the novella concentrates on the areas skimmed over or ignored by typical children’s fantasies.
Having created her fantasy setting, Seanan McGuire takes the casing off so that we can all see the mechanics. The Goblin Market has an economic system which, while fantastical in nature, is nonetheless built on a hard logic that grinds away beneath the story. On her first trip to the market, Katherine incurs debts by taking without giving back; her friend Moon agrees to take on these debts. On her second visit Katherine is shocked to find that Moon has begun turning into a bird, the natural fate of a debtor in the Goblin Market (“the only fair value left for me will be the kind that flies away”, she says). And so, Katherine is forced to go looking for work in the Goblin Market to pay off her debts and prevent any further avian transformations.
There are multiple ways of reading the logic behind the Goblin Market. One is as storytelling logic: we are told that the Wasp Queen, having taken an innocent life, was fated to be killed herself – a common rule in fiction that, as Katherine herself is reminded, does not apply to the real world. It can also be approached as the logic of a game or puzzle, the reader taking pleasure in unpicking and deciphering the rules of the story. But perhaps the most satisfying reading is that the logic of Goblin Market is the logic of childhood.
In An Absent Dream is a tale of growing up, its four chapters taking place at different stages of Katherine’s life from the age of eight to adolescence. She periodically returns to the mundane world, her family being anguished but not surprised by her regular disappearances (her father visited the Goblin Market during his own childhood). Her surrounding society changes with her, parties and birthday cake segueing into a boarding school where classmates get pregnant or form lesbian relationships, and her perspective on the Goblin Market and what it represents changes in conjunction.
In growing up, the novella reminds us, Katherine is learning about the rules of the world. “Children are capable of grasping complex ideas long before most people give them credit for, wrapping them in a soothing layer of nonsense and illogical logic”, says McGuire’s omniscient narrator. “To be a child is to be a visitor from another world muddling your way through the strange rules of this one, where up is always up, even when it would make more sense for it to be down, or backward, or sideways.” Many of the story’s observations about childhood and coming of age are not only astute but wryly humorous:
Now that she was ten, all of the things she’d thought she knew about girls and boys and herself and the people around her were changing. Family friends and distant relations bought her pretty bangles and new hairbrush sets for Christmas, instead of the books and educational toys she had so carefully requested. She supposed the reason girls were told the great secret of Santa Claus was because otherwise they would think the man had quite lost his marbles, to suddenly change the nature of presents that had been perfectly reasonable before.
Like her battles against Wasp Queens and Bone Wraiths, Katherine’s teenage turmoil takes place largely between chapters. Writing a story of magical adventures and the trials of adolescence in which so many of the key events take occur off-page may seem self-defeating, but through the strength of her adherence to the story’s core ideas, McGuire has pulled it off.
Another inventive and captivating addition to a remarkably varied fantasy series.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Two time travellers, each representing a different faction, each hailing from an alternate future, compete with one another to shape history. As they undertake a series of missions in different times and realities, the two agents – one red, the other blue – communicate with one another. At first, their correspondence is as hostile as would be expected. But over time, as they get to know each other, their tone begins to shift. The messages shared by the agents become flirtatious, even affectionate. Eventually, these representatives of rival futures fall in love.
Romantic fiction has a shaky relationship with other genres. On the one hand it is extremely adaptable: any genre can, in theory, play host to a romantic relationship of one sort or another. But at the same time, the presence of romance is often treated with suspicion by those who are not typically romance readers – it becomes viewed as a contaminant, or perhaps a dilution. The classic example is the boom in paranormal romance that occurred in the wake of Twilight, raising the ire of those who preferred their vampire novels to be fuller-blooded. With This is How You Lose the Time War, authors Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone seem to be making a deliberate attempt to prove such naysayers wrong, penning a story of romance that is nonetheless brimming with science fictional ideas.
The blossoming love between Red and Blue takes place against a kaleidoscopic backdrop, with almost every chapter boasting multiple attention-grabbing ideas. A space opera battle segues into ancient Rome; a chapter set in the Ice Age is followed by the destruction of Atlantis. One adventure is set in an alternate World War II where Nazis have zombies; another takes place in “the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy background glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar.”
In some ways the novella’s two threads of romance and reality-hopping fail to combine. In a typical romance story the protagonists’ relationship will be shaped by their surroundings: the characters who may act as rivals or helpers, the situations that may become crises or opportunities. But in This is How You Lose the Time War the ever-shifting setting means that the main characters, for all intents and purposes, have no distinct environment to play against. The two factions they work for are sketched in only lightly, with even the characters’ names – Red and Blue – suggesting competitors in a video game rather than denizens of fully-developed futuristic societies.
But despite its disparate components, there is one thing that holds the story together. This is its sheer, infectious joy at the ability to conjure up new worlds, a joy that is passed on to Red and Blue and feeds their developing romance. The novella is in large part a celebration of writing, with the characters showing few qualms about waxing lyrical on the topic:
There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? I imagine you laughing at my small joke; I imagine you groaning; I imagine you throwing my words away. Do I have you still? Do I address empty air and the flies that will eat this carcass? You could leave me for five years, you could return never—and I have to write the rest of this not knowing.
I prefer read-receipts, all things considered—the instant handshake of slow telepathy through our wires. But this is a fascinating technology, in its limits.
Affection for the imaginary worlds of science fiction shines through the story, and informs the affection that grows between the two characters. This is How You Lose the Time War is not merely about love letters: it is a love letter.