Friday, July 21, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: NOVELLAS

The novellas are the strongest category of short fiction Hugo nominees this year, yet even this group is marred by one clearly undeserving nominee, “Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer. Sawyer is not a poetic author, but we forgive him because his ideas are so interesting. Unfortunately, there is nothing about “Identity Theft” interesting enough to distract from his clunky writing. It is a science fiction mystery involving a technology that allows human consciousness to be copied into an artificial body. Sawyer tries to raise a moral issue as to the disposal of the original copy, but other authors have addressed the same dilemma far more effectively, see for instance James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur” (and Sawyer himself already addressed the issue in “Shed Skin”, a Hugo nominee last year). Sawyer handles the mystery elements of “Identity Theft” very poorly. In particular, he fails to give any convincing motive for the murder driving the plot. What’s worse, his ungainly writing style interferes with the whodunit – it is supposed to be a major clue that one of the characters speaks in a stilted, unconvincing way, but all of Sawyer’s characters speak in a stilted, unconvincing way.

“Burn” by James Patrick Kelly is a well-written story combining social commentary steeped in irony (on the world of Walden, a pastoral society modeled after Thoreau battles suicide arsonists, holdovers from the planet’s prior civilization), interpersonal drama (Spur, the protagonist, is unable to make his marriage work even though he and his wife still care about each other), and light-hearted humor (Spur inadvertently makes contact with a 12-year-old offworld VIP, who promptly travels to Walden and disrupts everyone’s lives as a lark). However, to my mind these different elements of the story do not blend comfortably, and the reader is left with an uneven whole that is less than the sum of its parts.

Ian McDonald’s “The Little Goddess” takes place in Nepal and, like his acclaimed novel River of Gods, India of the near future. It is the first-person narrative of a young girl marked by a time-honored Nepalese ceremony as the receptacle of a goddess. Her personal struggles parallel her people’s challenge to reconcile ancient traditions with the modern world. Her tale is very interesting on an intellectual level, but I found it difficult to develop much emotional attachment to the character.

“Inside Job” by Connie Willis is a charming story in the author’s romantic comedy mode. Rob is a professional skeptic, dedicated to debunking phony psychics and mystics everywhere. Among the things he is skeptical of is whether his ex-actress coworker Kildy could actually be attracted to him. The two come upon a medium who seems to be able to channel the spirit of notorious skeptic H.L. Mencken, and each time she does Mencken promptly berates her audience for believing in such an obvious charlatan. “Inside Job” has all of Connie Willis’s usual wit and irony, and is a whole lot of fun to read.

As much as I enjoyed “Inside Job”, the highlight of this category, and to me the best of all the Hugo short fiction nominees, is “Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link. Kelly Link won both a Hugo and a Nebula for “The Faery Handbag” last year, and “Magic for Beginners” is a far better story than that one. The story begins with a group of teenaged characters on an offbeat TV show who themselves are obsessed with watching an offbeat TV show, and things just get stranger from there. The story-within-a-story format has been overused in recent years, but Link handles it absolutely beautifully; the two (or more) layers of the tale complement each other wonderfully, and the reader never knows just where one story ends and the other begins. “Magic for Beginners” is surreal and very real. It is incomprehensible and everything fits together perfectly. It is very funny and oddly disturbing. It is post-modern silliness that makes a serious statement about adolescence. It is chock-filled with symbolism and anyone who reads it to analyze the symbolism is missing the point.

“Magic for Beginners” is a masterpiece of slipstream fiction. (You don’t think it’s slipstream? Ask yourself whether the woman at the end is really a vampire or just someone wearing plastic teeth. If you don’t know the answer – and you don’t – the story is slipstream.) The only question is whether the Hugo voters are prepared to embrace slipstream, or will be biased in favor of a true SF story like “Burn” (or “Identity Theft”, perish the thought). Even though there is much to admire in some of the other nominees in this category, it will be an injustice if “Magic for Beginners” does not carry the award.

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Kelly Link – Magic for Beginners
2. Connie Willis – Inside Job
3. Ian McDonald – The Little Goddess
4. James Patrick Kelly – Burn
6. Robert J. Sawyer – Identity Theft

Predicted Winner:
Kelly Link – Magic for Beginners

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