Best novella is a strong category this year. Even though this is certainly the fiction category with the fewest eligible works published, the voters managed to find six worthy nominees. All of the nominees will have their supporters——several of the nominated authors are popular with the Hugo voters, plus Kage Baker will have a sympathy vote due to her untimely death——but my guess is John Scalzi will win a Hugo for the third straight year, his first in a fiction category.
Kage Baker's "The Women of Nell Gwynne's," a steampunk mystery with a group of prostitute/spies as lead characters, is mostly light entertainment but does have an appropriately dark edge when showing us why some of our heroines would choose this life. The tale features some wonderful dialogue and is great fun to read, but the whodunit does not satisfy and the story feels less complete than the other nominees. My guess is "The Women of Nell Gwynne's" was meant as the first in a series of stories about these remarkable ladies——see for instance my recommendation for The Bohemian Astrobleme——which sadly will now never be completed.
"Palimpsest" by Charles Stross is a time travel story on a very large scale. While it begins with the cliché of a time traveler killing his own grandfather, the tale quickly moves on to grander and more original issues about the fate of humanity over the next billions, even trillions, of years. The folks directing human destiny control time travel technology, although oddly their grand plans mostly involve moving planets around, not time travel. Stross throws plenty of interesting ideas at us, but fails to include strong enough characters to provide the emotional hook to carry us through this type of Stapledonian epic. The main character has very little personality, and his two girlfriends have none at all.
"Act One" by Nancy Kress, a former story recommendation of the week, explores the morality of an attempt to impose genetic modifications on humanity to give everyone a greater sense of empathy. This is a near-future story on a much smaller scale than "Palimpsest," but the superior characterization makes "Act One" more successful overall.
James Morrow is the best satirist in our field, and one of the two best ever along with John Sladek. "Shambling Towards Hiroshima" exemplifies his trademark dry humor. The protagonist is a Boris Karloff-style creature-feature actor, called on during World War II to give the Japanese a demonstation of the damage that will be inflicted, if they don't surrender, by a fearsome weapon the United States has developed: monstrous fire-breathing lizards. Morrow has great fun writing of the B-movie culture of 1940's Hollywood, but he doesn't quite manage to combine this with his serious point as seamlessly as in his best work. The goofy monster movie material takes over the story, while the endnote as to the morality of weapons of mass destruction feels tacked on.
Ian McDonald's "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is the fascinating life story of a genetically engineered slow-aging super-genius who was instrumental, along with his unmodified brother, in the radical transformation of India. In contrast to "The Women of Nell Gwynne's," which suffered because it felt like the opening chapter of a larger unfinished work, "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is impressive because it stands alone very well yet also is a terrific capstone to Ian McDonald's series of stories (as well as the novel River of Gods) set in a future India.
While all the nominees in this category are very good, my favorite is John Scalzi's "The God Engines," the thought-provoking story of Ean Tephe, captain of a starship powered by an enslaved god, captured and harnessed by the god Tephe worships. Not surprisingly, Tephe comes to doubt his faith in his own god, but from there matters do not play out as you might expect. The tale is an interesting blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements.
John Scalzi has emerged in the past five years as one of the field's most capable authors, but at times he relies too heavily on snappy dialogue, rather than attempting something with more depth and emotional impact. "The God Engines" is thus a breakthrough work for him. Scalzi sets aside his usual sardonic humor in favor of original, intricate world-building and a compelling protagonist caught in the teeth of a dilemma from which there may be no way out. All of Scalzi's fiction is entertaining, but "The God Engines" is his best yet.
Aaron's Ballot for Best Novella
1. John Scalzi - The God Engines
2. Ian McDonald - Vishnu at the Cat Circus
3. James Morrow - Shambling Towards Hiroshima
4. Nancy Kress - Act One
5. Charles Stross - Palimpsest
6. Kage Baker - The Women of Nell Gwynne's