Hugo Ballot Reviews: Novelette

The 2004 Hugo Award Trophy (given out at Noreascon 4, the fourth Worldcon held in Boston), base designed by Scott Lefton.
The 2004 Hugo Award Trophy (given out at Noreascon 4, the fourth Worldcon held in Boston), base designed by Scott Lefton.
When I started on this journey of reading the Hugo nominated stories before casting my ballot, I had a rather noble notion that I would read everything with an open mind, and not necessarily make a blanket No Award vote for anything that had made it onto the ballot due to the bloc-voting scheme of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. The short story category was disappointing, to say the least, but I remained determined to soldier on, in hopes of posting maybe a category a week.

I don’t want to give anything away, but one reason it’s been a few weeks since I posted any more reviews was because the next categories were at least as difficult to slough through…

So, let’s look at the nominees for Best Novelette. This category is awarded for a science fiction or fantasy story of between seven thousand five hundred 7,500 and 17,500 words in length.

“The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translated by Lia Belt. This story was a delight! I was sucked into its very surreal premise immediately. Inexplicably, gravity reverses… at least for solid objects—people, cars, grocery bags, you name it—suddenly start falling into the sky. That this happens shortly after the protagonist is dumped by his girlfriend makes you wonder, for a while, whether or not this is all happening in the protagonist’s head, but I was soon so caught up in is quixotic adventure to somehow keep her pet goldfish alive, transport it to her (by clinging to objects fixed to the ground, and so forth), and effect her rescue.

The misadventures that follow, in which (among other things) the narrator rescues a child clinging to a swing set who longs for her mother who fell into the sky, all slowly build to a climax that is sad, poignant, yet completely fitting. It’s that magical sort of ending that you occasionally encounter where it isn’t what you expected, yet once you reach it, it seems inevitable and the only possible way it could end.

I really, really liked this story! And having read it, I was filled with a renewed hope for the rest of the novellas!

Unfortunately, “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Gray Rinehart did not live up to that hope.

It’s a rambling tale of a bunch of humans who are being held prisoner by the lizard-like aliens of a planet they landed on 17 years earlier. The aliens continually restrict the humans to using less and less technology. One of the humans decides to purchase/negotiate the creation of a monument in the style of the aliens from the aliens. Except at every step of the process it is not like what the aliens would do. It all leads to a death that supposedly points the way for the other humans to free themselves from captivity.

The dialog is all right, but it resembles my own roughest drafts too much: there is little to no description for long stretches of the dialog, so you start to become lost as to who is speaking and why. About half of the dialog consists of info dumps. And about half of what little narration we get also consists of info dumps. So it’s a whole lot of exposition about a setting and premise that is so unoriginal that almost none of the exposition is actually needed.

The viewpoint character is Cerna, and the obstacle he’s confronted with at the beginning of the story: why does Phil want the monument, seems like a promising plot. Except that the riddle is not solved by Cerna. The answer is delivered to him. So Cerna isn’t really the protagonist, because he doesn’t resolve that riddle. But Phil isn’t the protagonist, either, because by the end of the tale, we know that the real obstacle Phil was struggling with was to escape the aliens. But that isn’t resolved.

In point of fact, nothing is resolved. The story doesn’t conclude. It feels as if this is the opening few chapters of a longer novel, rather than an actual story.

It definitely is not award worthy.

Similarly for “Championship B’Tok” by Edward M. Lerner. This isn’t a complete story. It’s the opening to a novel. It is at least more competently written than the previous story, but it’s slow going, and the characters are not engaging. It’s divided into chapters, several of which begin with an excerpt from the fictitious Internetopedia to give background information. It’s a trick that is used by many authors I admire, including both Douglas Adams and Frank Herbert, but both of those worthies realized that these excerpts need to be brief in order to enlighten without being boring, and that they need to convey something other than the explicit information of the text—the fake encyclopedia entry has to also include subtext the reveals something about the personality of some of the characters, or how the subsequent generations think about the events the reader is currently reading about.

And it doesn’t conclude. It just stops like a long and particularly bad prelude to a novel that probably doesn’t actually need a prelude (since most novels that do have preludes would almost always be much better without them).

Not award worthy!

Then there’s “The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn which begins with a Louis L’Amour quote, but the tale owes more to Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. This is also a sequel, and it shows. And not in a good way.

Our main characters are on a mission that was given to them by someone who either has died since sending them on the mission, or was already a ghost. The world appears to be a distant inhabitable world where the descendants of a terran colony have lost most of their history and all their technological know-how. So it has a lot of post-apocalyptic tropes as well as your typical fantasy swashbuckly/military fic tropes.

It’s interesting enough, but the action that occurs could have been told in a much shorter story, and then it just stops. Again. It doesn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. Unlike the previous two, this one does not read like the opening couple of chapters of an unfinished novel. This reads exactly like chapter two of a novel. So you’re coming in after the story has gotten underway, have to sort of guess at what happened before you got here, and then it stops. Not even on a cliffhanger, but rather on a rather innocuous transition.

Again, not award worthy!

Finally, we come to “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” by Rajnar Vajra, which was an improvement over the last three. It definitely lives up to it’s “golden age” subtitle: three space marines sent as a punishment for a minor altercation on a mission to a world where so far everyone has failed to figure out how to communicate with the weird aliens. It hits a lot of those old-fashioned “rocketships and aliens” notes. It was actually enjoyable (though that fact that the spelling of the main character’s name keeps changing tells me that editing has really slipped at Analog since the days I subscribed).

It’s a good, solid story. I enjoyed it. I’m not completely certain it really rises to the level of being great, and thus really better than most other novelettes published last year, but at least it isn’t awful.

I may put this on above No Award. It will most definitely be behind “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” however. That one definitely deserves an award!

I’ll try to get to Novella later this week. I’ve nearly finished enduring those…

8 thoughts on “Hugo Ballot Reviews: Novelette

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