Solitair vs. The Hugos 3: Novelettes

“For me, Moolie is a wonder and a nightmare, a sadness deep down in my gut like a splinter of bone. Always there, and always worrying away at the living flesh of me.”

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong

Wong’s second nomination this year is an atmospheric story about a put upon unfortunate saturated with the atmosphere of the desert and the corpses left behind in such a harsh environment. That atmosphere and some strong bone-centered imagery are the strengths of what is otherwise a fairly typical story of a put-upon youth discovering that he’s special and using his special talents to make his terrible life better. There’s nothing wrong with the execution of this story; it kept me in suspense and made me feel for the protagonist’s situation. I’m just getting to the point where I’m starting to see short stories in terms of patterns and archetypes. Things are blurring together for me, though I still haven’t seen that many stories written in second-person present, like this one is. It makes me wonder if Wong read The Fifth Season and decided that it was a neat device to use to encourage empathy. I also appreciate that the character who initially seemed like a heartless caretaker in the mold of Pip’s sister from Great Expectations got protective like a proper parent when it looked like the main character might come under threat.

“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

This doesn’t have any particularly standout imagery or prose outside of one unnerving scene, but it has a concept that I’ve never considered before, at least not in this context. Alien structures materialize on Earth, and paranoid freelancer Avery takes a job that brings her into contact with an alien and its human interface. It’s not long before she finds out that the alien species achieved interstellar travel purely on instinct and automatic reflex, without consciousness or a cerebral cortex, begging the question of whether sapience is as necessary as people think it is. The story’s a bit heavy-handed about it; Avery thinks of Captain Kirk from Star Trek making the pro-human judgment she refuses to support in the end, but since I can see Avery thinking like that, I’ll let it slide.

What’s more difficult to let slide is the fact that this story has a few side plots that distract from the main idea. I understand giving Avery a life outside of this one job, especially a tragic past that makes her unsympathetic to the human condition, but the scene where she talks to her brother about missing his concert is only relevant in order to set up an analogy Avery uses to understand how the aliens work. Lionel, the alien’s interface, describes people native to Earth as “feral humans” and eats kibble, but parallel this draws to pets doesn’t mesh well with the actual relation between the aliens and their interfaces. We aren’t less conscious than our real life pets, after all. Most egregiously, a subplot of media suspicion of the aliens and their interfaces, who claim to have been ‘adopted’ from their human families at a young age, is only used to provide tension in the middle of the story and gets dropped before the emotional climax even starts. It feels like it was only included for cheap pops against conventional humanity.

I like the main idea at the center of this more than the conceit of Wong’s story, but this one is less cohesive overall, and shouldn’t come out on top.

“The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan

This book has a weird structure and flow, where the main character alternates between the past and present, along with different trains of thought. It ends not with the book’s emotional climax but with Emily the protagonist’s concerns that she should be getting back to work, indicating that it was an artistic decision to indicate that there will always be things going on outside of someone’s worries, not matter how urgent that inner life seems to them.

“The Art of Space Travel” is hard to get into because it buries that turmoil a few pages deep, but once it gets going, it revels in details like the feel of an old book and the routine of a hotel cleaning staff to enrich the narrative of Emily caring for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother and asking about her absent father. It’s easy to get invested in the mother’s rich life, suggested in part by Emily’s memories of her and with big gaps left unsaid, both by the Alzheimer’s and her mother’s prickly, standoffish nature.

Unfortunately, Emily’s narration refers to her as “Moolie,” a childhood nickname that also happens to be a racial slur. If you didn’t know that, I’m sorry if that ruins the tone of the story for you, because otherwise this is a good example of literary science-fiction. It also has much more emphasis on the literary than the science-fiction, but if Worldcon and Tor can accept that, so can I.

“The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon

Several months ago, I talked about “Jackalope Wives,” an Ursula Vernon story that should have been a finalist, but wasn’t. The cranky grandma from that story is back in a sequel that takes her from her tomato garden through the distorted landscapes and warped train tracks of the desert. Like “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” it’s trying to get the feel of desert life down, but it focuses on the folklore aspect in a breezier, less macabre way. It still makes me think of weird bones and dry skin pulled tight enough to serve as a canvas, but there’s also a giant gila monster, a landscape that folds in on itself by magic, sapient trains that turned on the robber barons who built them, and a little cactus girl.

This category’s race between stories is closer than I remember any of my ballot decisions being, but for now I think “The Tomato Thief” might win. It has a better balance of appealing things than its competitors: some off-kilter ideas I wish I’d thought of first, the sense of danger lurking behind everything the main character knows not to do, levity, call-backs to the previous author’s story, and a decent facsimile of Granny Weatherwax from Discworld. Harken isn’t quite as good as the real thing, but with Terry Pratchett’s passing I’m glad to see that someone can take a small spark of his work and make something out of it without screwing anything up.

“The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde

This one won’t be taking Vernon’s crown today. It’s a stark, serious story about a princess of a kingdom centered around magic, mind-affecting jewels and her handmaiden with goldsmithing powers struggling to survive the fall of the royal family and the conquest of the kingdom. The situation starts out bleak, only gets worse from there, and ends with a release in tension that refuses to provide relief. Two things make me care about the characters beyond the reflexive wincing at people being menaced with acid. The first is that Jewel Lin might have been a more resourceful character if she was trained to be savvy with people instead of just a wife in a political marriage. When the worst happens, she’s almost completely out of her depth, with glimpses of her past indicating that it didn’t have to be this way.

The second is the whole conceit of lapidaries and the magic gems, which takes the idea of making a metal setting to secure gems into jewelry and turns it into a metaphor for controlling wild impulses and primal magic. Lapidaries themselves take that idea one step further; with their seniors shackling them with vow-enchanted bracelets that could only be removed by un-soldering them, plus the veil Sima forms on Linn, I get the impression that the lapidaries also make settings to place human beings in. Unfortuantely, this magic system didn’t teach me anything about gem-crafting and gem symbolism that I didn’t already know, and in the end it just boils down to another iteration of the One Ring tempting and corrupting those who want to use its power even for the greater good. I thought at first that a system forcing a bloodline of gemstone whisperers into being the Jewel family’s slaves, no matter how powerful they are or how well they’re treated, would be the fatal flaw that brought them all low, but ultimately the underclass’s loyalty to their masters wins out despite that first impression.

Also, there are interludes from a tourist’s manual many years in the future detailing landmarks that relate to the historical events dramatized in the bulk of the story, which add nothing to the proceedings. Even if a hypothetical reader is nowhere near burned out on gruesome fantasy scenarios, I can’t imagine they’d get much out of this story. Vernon wins. Next time, something with much more meat to it.

Final Ballot

  1. “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon
  2. “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan
  3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong
  4. No Award
  5. “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde
  6. “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  7. That porn story which isn’t even by Chuck Tingle. Guess VD noticed Chuck’s sick burns and decided to go with a more apathetic smut peddler this year.

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