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2014 Hugos: Best Novelette - Bela Lugosi's Dead, Jim
June 22nd, 2014
05:03 pm
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2014 Hugos: Best Novelette

General notes:

  • Major spoilers for everything on the ballot!
  • Reviews in order of reading/watching.

My current ranking is:

  1. The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
  2. The Lady Astronaut Of Mars
  3. The Waiting Stars
  4. The Exchange Officers
  5. No award
  6. Opera Vita Aeterna

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling (Ted Chiang)

Two nested stories concerning the application of technology to memory and interpretation. The outer story is barely a story at all, much of it being the narrator’s ruminations on a future technology used to sharply enhance human memory. The dramatic core of the whole is his discovery of how badly he mis-remembers key events and the real consequences of those events.

The inner story analogises the outer by introducing writing to an oral culture, via a boy who takes an interest in a missionary’s books. The culture is a real one, though how accurately they are represented here I cannot say. This protagonist’s struggle to understand writing and the new perspectives it gives him on the context he’s embedded in were the strongest part of the whole for me.

The future technology is an extrapolation of current trends (something you could probably also have said about writing if you’d been living in Sumer or Egypt at the right time), and its most disruptive uses don’t really depend much on the less plausible details. This certainly isn’t a terrible warning about the evils of new technology though - the conclusion is very much that there are both pros and cons and that the former can outweigh the latter.

Conclusion: does a good job of looking at a single interesting idea from several angles.

The Exchange Officers (Brad Torgersen)

Two American soldiers remotely operate orbital robots, and react to an attack from one of today’s perceived threats. A fairly clear sketch of possible approaches to working and fighting in space in the near future but in some ways feels weirdly like it was written a couple of decades ago (Chinese government types wearing suits is really not news!)

There are hints of the relationship between the various characters developing but I think this part of the story needed just a little more word count to do it justice.

Not bad; but not really great, either.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars (Mary Robinette Kowal)

Elma York is a retired astronaut, now living on Mars and, essentially, waiting for her terminally ill husband to die. When she’s given an opportunity for a new mission she’s faced with a difficult decision.

The setting’s an odd one. In or somewhat before the early 1950s (when Elma travels to Mars) an asteroid impact destroys the US capital (and doesn’t do the rest of the planet much good). A combination of alarm about the fragility of Earth as a habitat, consequently elevated willingness to take risks and punched-card computer technology lead to the establishment of a colony on Mars. By the time of the story (the early 1980s) the computers don’t seem to have got much better although some exotic-physics space travel technology has turned up.

Her husband, of course, thinks she should take the mission. More complex is the relationship with her doctor, Dorothy, who ultimately brings a symbol of the past which helps Elma make her decision. Dorothy’s background puts her through the wringer; Uncle Henry and Aunt Em do not survive the spacecraft crash that destroys her home, and of Toto there is no mention.

It’s a well-paced and thoughtful story. The strange archaism of the setting is a nice nod to the history of science fiction and the transplanting of Dorothy from Oz to Mars adds color.

The Waiting Stars (Aliette de Bodard)

There’s two threads to this story. In the first a Dai Viet rescue mission seeks out the AI controller of a spacecraft, disabled by the powerful and violent Outsiders. In the other thread, set in Outsider society, Dai Viet children ostensibly rescued from the likelihood of future mistreatment grow up in and graduate from a religiously funded institution.

As it turns out of course the children are not children at all but are proxy body for the disabled AIs, their memories tampered with so they are not themselves aware of this.

It’s not badly told but I found it rather baffling. Despite half the story taking place inside Outside society there’s no real explanation of why they act as they do. There’s a hint of a religious motivation but this is never explored, and there’s a mention of past violence and resource competition but there’s no visible connection between this and the strange half-kidnapping of AIs.

(Discussion elsewhere helped make more sense of the story.)

Opera Vita Aeterna (Vox Day)

A traveller comes to monastery, interested in the religion of the monks following an (off-screen) incident involving a missionary. While never coming to believe in the religion the traveller becomes fascinated by manuscript illumination and ultimately spends years working at it among the monks and engaging in theological debate with the abbot. Eventually the monks are massacred by the traveller's former associates while he’s away; nevertheless the abbot and some of the monks achieve a form of immortality through the working of their images into the illuminations.

The religion is similar to Christianity (some of the detail seems to differ) and the initial incident with the missionary could have been taken straight from the early medieval spread of Christianity beyond the former confines of the Roman Empire. The traveller is an elf, the monks are massacred by goblins.

It’s not a bad story but if it had been set in C8th continental Europe and featured Saxons instead of elves and goblins then I’m not sure what it would be missing apart from there mere fact of a particular setting.

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