Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rachel Swirsky's Novella Recommendations from 2011

I always end up reading far fewer novellas than I do things of any other category. This year, I read 13. In addition to the sources I used for the other short fiction, I went to the SFWA forums and pulled down anything with an interesting title. I would have pulled down all of the novellas in the forums, but my husband is on the point of threatening divorce if I don't wrap this up. :-P


"With Unclean Hands" by Adam Troy-Castro (Analog) - A far-future story in which aliens offer an unbelievably good trade--amazing technology that humans want in exchange for a single human. The main character, who is expected to merely rubber-stamp the transaction, must instead figure out why the aliens are making such a bizarre trade and whether it's in human interest to agree. I really liked this; I thought it was smart and well-plotted. The main character is a jaded woman who, as a little girl, was on a colony that was exposed to a virus that made everyone genocidal; she was the sole survivor, and lives with knowing she murdered friends and family. As the innocent child who committed genocide, Andrea Cort is an analog for Orson Scott's Ender, but I find her contrition, bitterness, and self-flagellating quite a bit more compelling and realistic than Ender's.

"Ice Owl" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) - A little girl who's spent her life traveling from colony to colony has lived more than a hundred linear years, even though she's only been aware for (approximately) 12 of them. The political situation on the world where she's living now has just gotten tricky; a revolution is in the offing. When her school is bombed, the little girl seeks tutelage from an art dealer who knows secrets about the past that the girl slept through. This is my favorite piece by Gilman that I've read so far. I've sometimes felt held at a bit of a remove from Gilman's stories, which isn't to say I didn't still enjoy them, but this one allowed me to go deeper emotionally. The main character was very interesting, and the world around her was incredibly rich with soap opera details. The descriptions of the art and art history were wonderful. Like both of the other novellas I've selected as "hard picks," this one also deals with genocide; I'm not sure whether that says something about my taste (probably) or something about what was in the inspirational ether this year (also, I think, probable). While the Liu is my pick, this was really, really good; it's about as good as space opera gets.

"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu (PANVERSE 3) - This hands-down my top pick for novella, and I really did enjoy the other two quite a bit. In a format reminiscent of Ted Chiang's "Do You Like What You See?" (which appears to have been deliberate; Liu credits the Chiang story as part of his inspiration), the story is told (largely) as if it's the script of a documentary discussing the pros and cons of the historical development of a new technology: in this case, the ability to send an eye-witness back to observe historical events. The take on time travel is unlike anything I've ever seen before, both technologically, but especially sociologically. The time travel itself focuses on the Japanese equivalent of a death camp in China and the writing about it was so skillfully vivid that I had to take breaks to remind myself how to breathe. I was viscerally involved in this story, sick in my gut, furious in my bones. The intellectual considerations (which include the physics of the thing, but are more about international politics and--especially interesting for me--an actual consideration of history as a subject people practice) dominate the story, but Liu is able to use the framework to create several detailed, emotionally interesting characters. I feel like this length gives Liu the space to work more stably with both the intellectual and emotional threads of his story than he always manages with the shorter fiction (for instance, while I thought the balance in "Simulacrum" was quite good, the balance in his "Tying Knots" is--imo--significantly too heavily toward the intellectual, leaving the characters vitiated). I would be interested to see what he could do with even more space to develop both ideas and characters.


"Martian Chronicles" by Cory Doctorow (LIFE ON MARS) - A second wave of immigrants is on its way to Mars, a significant time after the first wave of colonists established themselves. The story takes place on the journey, from the perspective of a teenager who's being brought along by his family. The kids all play a VR game that models life on Mars and the story is about contrasting that game with what happens on the actual Mars--with twists. The politics in this story are unsubtle in a way that I felt like I should have annoyed me (I don't object to blatant politics in stories as a rule, but there was something... simplistic? predictable? about the presentation here that might have been because the story was intended as YA), but really they didn't; mostly I was just going along with the characters and having fun. The world was fun to inhabit and the descriptions VR game kept my gamer-brain entertained.

"Rampion" by Alexandra Duncan (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) - A retelling of Rapunzel, during a period in history when the Moors and the Christians were fighting for dominance over European land. The details in this were really great, and I liked the gentle way it interacted with the Rapunzel fairy tale, letting the parallels happen without forcing them to be too significant or too close to the original story, so that it felt like part of the novella's natural flow.


"The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johsnon (Asimov's, first half online here) - So, I adore Kij Johnson's work like crazy, and then I was reading this novella and I was like "oh my god I'm so bored" and there was that really weird, spooky thing that happens when there's an author you love and you're like "nope, this time, no." It's clear, however, that this novella is actually good; Strahan loves it, for instance. And there were things about it I really liked: the story takes place on the banks of a river filled with sinister mist in which ancient, creepy fish-like creatures swim. I *loved* the passages about the mist and the fish. I also found the way it examined themes about advancing technology and its gains and losses really interesting. I didn't object to the characters, and other different circumstances I might have connected with them, but there was just something that really got between me and the story. For the first 40% especially, I think I kept waiting for a dramatic plot. For me, it was kind of like "OK, all this is happening, but why am I reading about it?" There wasn't any plot tension (for me) and while I'm often okay with that, in this case the details of the characters' lives didn't pull me through either. Again, I'm sure this is a quite striking novella when it's being read by someone who isn't me, and even if you are me, there were things about it to like. I always find it weird when I fall so far away from a consensus opinion I'm sure is basically accurate (like Mieville, I just don't get into his work, and I know it's my fault). I just didn't "impress" on this story; I never found the point where I became immersed as a reader.

"Long Time Waiting" by Carrie Vaughn (KITTY'S GREATEST HITS) - I was reading this story and then I went "hey, some of the stuff in this is familiar" and then I went "Oh! It's from the perspective of a character from one of Carrie Vaughn's Kitty the Werewolf novels, telling a set of events we don't get a clear view on during the text." I enjoyed it from the perspective of someone who enjoys the novels. I particularly like the character of the grumpy ghost from the early 1900s.

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