The Informed Voter Project, Part the Third: The Nebula Award Novella Finalists

Well, here we are in the third installment of the Informed Voter Project. Today I’ll be looking at the Novella finalists!

In the first post on short stories I wrote that for me, each one was a tale about identity. The novelettes, I felt, sustained my little thesis. The novellas didn’t play along quite as nicely, though. This week, the Identity Thesis suffers a bit of a setback—but who cares, when the reading’s so good?

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker

The women in question constitute an elite group of information gatherers for the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society—they are whores only incidentally. When four European power brokers are invited to the house of Lord Basmond, a noble offering a levitating technology at auction, Lady Beatrice and three of her cohorts are dispatched as the entertainment for the house party. Then Lord Basmond is murdered the night before the bidding begins, and the girls suddenly have not just a world-altering technology to secure for the Society, but a murder to solve.

If there’s an identity piece here, it’s Lady Beatrice’s discovery that, once ruined and abandoned by her family, she can still be of use; this time, in service to her country—but that’s a bit of a stretch. This story is an adventure with very, very cool detailing: the chain of events that brings Lady Beatrice to Nell Gwynne’s, for instance, and Mr. Felmouth, the Society’s “Q,” who invents marvelous gadgets. And there’s a pretty seriously cool twist at the end—this story turns out to be not exactly the story you think it is. I love when that happens.

“Arkfall,” Carolyn Ives Gilman

On the water-covered planet of Ben, the great work of creating a livable environment relies on people like Osaji, crewmembers on spherical arks that make rounds of the underwater world. It’s an ongoing project, the work of generations, and it depends on the selflessness of the Bennite people and their willingness to sacrifice their personal comfort. It’s a society stifled by politeness and vaguely passive-aggressive manipulation. This is how Osaji wound up traveling with her grandmother, Mota—she’s never been able to say no. When her new ark is cut loose in an underground eruption, Osaji and Mota wind up alone in the vessel with a loudmouthed outworlder named Jack.

Now we’re back in—not to be cute—more comfortable waters as far as the Identity Thesis is concerned. Osaji’s life is defined by her willingness and ability to sacrifice her personal wishes to someone or something else. The Bennites’ language alone is worth the price of admission. When Osaji goes to inquire about leaving Ben, the Immigration agent shuts her down without a single impolite question. Osaji’s own brother-in-law can’t address her directly, because it’s impolite. While inquiring about joining a new ark, Osaji can’t even claim she’s good at her particular specialty because it would sound like boasting. And when she asks Mota if she’d prefer to go on another round, Mota will not—cannot—make a choice. In order to transform the world, the Bennites have transformed themselves, trading away all their individuality for the sake of the Great Work.

“Act One,” Nancy Kress

In Hollywood of the near future, Jane Snow is doing research for her next film. Barry, her agent, accompanies her to an interview with a Group that specializes in gene modification; specifically, they engineer children with Arlen’s Syndrome. Arlen’s children are sensitive, able to read verbal and nonverbal cues so well they almost seem to read minds. What ensues, of course, is a wonderful meditation on morality and what it means to be normal in a world that’s capable of significant genetic modification.

There are a lot of great things about this story. Barry, a dwarf, was unable to imagine having an “average” child, so he convinced his wife to agree to modify the fetus to ensure that it would be born a dwarf, too—by the time the story opens, his family has been torn apart and his son, Ethan, is a complete stranger to him. The Group, it turns out, isn’t just turning out Arlen’s kids; it’s also turning out a very easily transmitted compound that changes behavior. And the entire story takes place under the scrutiny of the media as the script for Jane’s film is being finished, a film that will make a major statement about Arlen’s kids by bringing them to the screen for the first time.  And the ending–oh, it’s just phenomenal.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow

In the Hollywood of the past, an actor famous for portraying movie monsters is drafted by the U.S. military to play the role of a lifetime. The U.S. is still rushing to get the Bomb, but they’ve beaten Hitler and the Japanese in the race to get the Lizard. Certain parties in the military want to unleash firebreathing behemoths on the Japanese, but cooler heads want to stage a smaller-scale demonstration first in the hopes that if the Japanese delegation sees a model of Shirazuka being leveled by a giant lizard, they’ll convince their leaders to surrender. The problem: the dwarf behemoths are annoyingly docile. The solution: horror legend Syms J. Thorley and a Personal Reptile Rig. Operation Fortune Cookie: nothing can possibly go wrong.

So much great stuff here. The story’s narrated by Thorley, holed up in a Baltimore hotel room (after a horror conference in which he’s been awarded a Raydo lifetime achievement award) as he drinks Amontillado, writes his memoir on yellow notepads, and debates whether, when he’s finished, he’ll take a shuttle to the airport or jump out the window to his death. His tale is studded with stars real and imagined, from James Whale who has been drafted to direct Thorley in his PRR in What Rough Beast (the script written for Operation Fortune Cookie) to Sigfried K. Dagover, Thorley’s nemesis both onscreen and off. Clever repartee abounds, along with Hollywood twists and betrayals, unimaginably high stakes and ample doses of nostalgia. I loved it.

“Sublimation Angels,” Jason Sanford

On the frozen planet of Eur, a small core of humans struggles to eke out a living underground. Their mission is to survive in the unforgiving planet while trying to make contact with the Aurals–alien beings like balls of colored light so powerful they were able to shift Eur out of its orbit to pick up the humans who now live there: the moms, who occupy the highest level of the social hierarchy; the middle kids and the low kids, and two A.I.s who had to subject themselves to life as humans in order to lead the group–the Big Moms. Chicka and his twin brother Omare, like all kids of the moms, are taken onto the frozen surface to see if any of them catch the attention of the Aurals. Omare is chosen, which is when things begin to fall apart.

I think I read this one the same day I read “Arkfall,” and the two novellas had a lot in common: small communities working to make livable an unforgiving, unfriendly environment; citizens bound by a society that evolved in order to keep the great work going. In “Sublimation Angels,” though, there are ominous forces at work, and at odds with each other: Big Mom, the AI-made-human who, along with her enforcers, keeps the hierarchy of the people of Eur in place; and the Aurals, whose motives for allowing humans onto their homeworld, especially with such rudimentary technology, are completely unknown. The puzzles of why are almost as fascinating as the details of the world and its society, and I think I would feel that way even if they didn’t play so neatly into the Thesis.

The God Engines, John Scalzi

Captive gods bound by iron circles power the ships of the Faithful: the gods debased by the one who in some ancient time was victorious over the rest. What isn’t powered by the God Engines is powered by faith–up to and including, possibly, the iron that binds them and keeps them from escaping to wreak bloody vengeance on the ships they’re forced to move across the galaxy. Captain Ean Tephe of the Righteous has been sent to convert a planet that may hold the last known people who have not yet been converted. Faith, like iron, has levels of power, and these unconverted carry the most potent faith of all. The Lord needs them in order to combat a new and powerful threat that must be subdued—a new god calling some of the weakened and defiled ones to it, and attacking the Lord’s dominion.

Here are some things I loved about this story, in no particular order. The significance of iron: capability (and, arguably, identity) are handed down from the Lord in the form of iron Talents worn by the faithful, and there are three types of iron used to control defiled gods: third made iron binds, second made iron wounds, single made iron kills. The Age of Sail conventions that survive on the god-powered starships. The questions it raises about faith, belief, duty, and calling. The absolutely deliciously dreadful ending.

So this wasn’t as much of an identity-themed week, although certainly these novellas didn’t precisely kill the Thesis. The way in which faith powers the universe of The God Engines, for instance, the social conditioning of Eur and Ben, debates on the subjects of morality and normalcy of “Act One,” and even the way in which Syms J. Thorley tries to save humanity by becoming Gorgantis the fire-breathing lizard and the ruined Lady Beatrice turns whoring into the ultimate act of patriotism. This was, however, the week of the Flippin’ Sweet Endings. Ambiguous endings, devastating endings, unforeseeable endings, horrifying endings. Just great endings.

And now, it’s 7:30 pm on March 28th (although we’re having internet problems tonight, so I’ll probably post this tomorrow morning). I have two subway rides, one lunch break, and one day off before I have to be finished my reading, and here’s what I have left (pausing to count): five full-length novels and Avatar.

Full disclosure: I’m probably not going to make it to see Avatar, because I feel really strongly about finishing my reading. I’m pretty sure I can do it, but I’m not going to post on the novels until afterward. So this is where I leave you for now. But the Informed Nebula Voter Project will return! Here’s what you have to look forward to:

Nominees for the Nebula award in the Novel Category:

  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, Sep09)
  • The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
  • Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
  • The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
  • Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

Nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy:

  • Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)
  • Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)
  • Ash, Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, Sep09)
  • Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)
  • Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)
  • When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)
  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)
  • Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

Thanks for reading!

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