The Hugo Awards have struggled to keep pace with the Nebula Awards, whose annual volume commemorating their winners is now in its 44th volume. The Hugo Winners was a patchy book series at best – you can view them by clicking on the category listing in the right hand column (or even by clicking here, to save you the effort!). It’s been 15 years since the last volume, but clearly the success of the SFFWA’s Nebula Awards Showcase series has encouraged the World Science Fiction Society to dip their toe into the market, and to be on the safe side, with the Hugo Awards Showcase they’ve gone for a title, and a look and feel, that is very similar to the Nebula Awards Showcase.
The main difference between the two (other than the content, of which more below) is that this volume concentrates purely on the fiction, at the expense of the not insubstantial amount of commentary and analysis in the Nebula Awards series. Which for me means that as I’ve read all the stories, it’s going to spend about 45 minutes in my hands as I write this, before being put on the bookshelf.
Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ won the Best Novella award, and appeared in Asimov’s October/November 2008 issue, and appears in this volume. When it appears originally I wrote :
- Kress on top form with a strong story to start the issue. There is an intriguing setup, as an alien vessel far distant reacts to something very unexpected, and we then meet Henry Erdman, an elderly physicist living in an assisted living facilty. Just how can these two events be related – for related they clearly are, and as Henry is setting out to deliver a lecture at his old university, something stops him in his tracks. Has he had a mini-stroke, or some other cerebral event to worry about? The story progresses through Henry and his fellow residents as each of them finds themselves similarly affected, with the alien spaceship homing in on Earth, alarmed that something is happening in an altogether unexpected and alarming manner. As the cerebral events increase in frequency and impact, the residents realise that they are in fact sharing experiences, and what is happening is that the increasing global population of the elderly has caused a switch to be triggered, as the combined experience, wisdom and intelligence is beginning to merge together and to reach out to the rest of the universe. Those affected are offered an opportunity to become one with the greater cosmos, although not all take it, and those left behind are left wondering.It’s a clever story, handling the varied elderly protagonists well, and certainly a welcome change to see older people having a more positive role to play in SF than as Alzheimer’s patients, as has been the case recently.
One of the runner’s up appears in this volume – Ian McDonald’s ‘The Tear’ which appeared originally in ‘Galactic Empires’, edited by Gardner Dozois, and difficult to obtain as it was published by the Science Fiction Book Club in the US. I certainly rated it when I read it :
- The volume closes with a lengthy, dense and rewarding story of the far future, very much in a Stephen Baxter/Alastair Reynolds.Humanity has long since left Earth, spreading far and wide, and in a variety of guises. Empires have come and gone, and whilst humanity is now in many guises, we are very much still recognisably human.The story starts on a waterworld, with a young man approaching his coming of age – one in which he will move from being a singleton, to one who has several seperate facets of himself on which to draw. As he enters this period of change, so does his planet, as the distant cousins who have recently encircled their world, flee an even alien enemy. Through this several stages of development, we track the challenges he faces, and, through is longevity, his perspective on the challenges for the human race.
Also a runner-up and in this volume, and also from Asimovs October/November 2008 (which I noted at the time was an excellent issue), is Robert Reed’s ‘Truth’. And I was fulsome in my praises :
- One of the best stories I’ve read for quite some time. It’s a gripping, complex, multi-layered story with so much going for it. There are a number of three-dimensional characters in the story. There is a prisoner, held in a secretive military installation for many years. There are two investigators, one of whom is the main protagonist and who has taken over, as a matter of urgency, from her predecessor, who has recently died (and despite being dead, he comes across as a more real character than many cardboard cutout characters in a lot of SF). There is the chief officer of the prison, who has a large part to play, but even small camoes such as the US President, and a guard, come across as real people.The central conceit is an intruiging one : is the prisoner really someone from the future, a Muslim terrorist/freedom fighter come back a couple of centuries to unleash hell on the decadent west? Have the recent events, post-9/11, including the devastating nuking of New York, been the result of his work, and those of his colleagues? Are there more terrorists amongst us?The investigator begins to get to know the prisoner, as we find out more about the mess that the world is getting into, and its impact on the main characters is explored. The ending is a doozy, which left this reader needing a couple of minutes to recover.
To be consistent with my reviews of the previous Hugo anthologies, I’ll mention the other nomiated stories, even though they don’t appear in this volume, but make clear they don’t appear in this volume.
Charles Coleman Finlay’s ‘The Political Prisoner’ appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction’s August 2008, and it really didn’t grab me at the time:
- Finlay’s earlier story ‘The Political Officer’ garnered praise in many quarters, to the extent it was a Hugo nomination, although it didn’t move me greatly. This time Nikomedes is under cover on an alien planet, and there some identity hiding, spy thriller espionage excitement and shootouts, but not really a grabber for me. You can whizz through the story like a knife through butter, which The Da Vinci Code did to great commercial effect, but the speed of it makes it difficult to engage with the characters and their challenges. For me, more suited to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, or Ian Fleming’s Cold War Spy Story Magazine.
In contrast, Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow’s ‘True Names’, which appeared in Lou Ander’s ‘Fast Forward 2’ did grab me :
The longest story in the volume by far, and a mind-boggler. How’s this for an opening :
‘Beebe fried the asteroid to slag when it left, exterminating millions of itself.. The asteroid was a high-end system: a kilometer-thick shell of femtoscale crystalline lattices, running cool at five degrees kelvin, powered by a hot coare of fissiles. Quintillions of qubits, loaded up with powerful utilities and the caconical release of Standard Existence. Room for plenty of Beebe.’
And it just gets better. What is Beebe you ponder? After being a single entity at risk of destruction ‘..Beebe became a probability as much as a person: smeared out across a heptillion random, generative varied selves, a multiplicitous grinding macrocosm of rod-logic and qubits that computed deliberately corrupted versions of Beebeself in order that this evolution might yield higher orders of intelligence, and more stable survival strategies, smarter more efficient Beebes that would thrive until the silent creep of entropy extinguished every sentience.’
Rosentorow takes us into a future that it hi-tech, silicon rather than biological, with intelligences spinning off multiple instances of self, against a background of a galactic-spanning threat, but makes the entities one with which we can engage, showing how we it could be possible to retain those complex states which makes us human rather than simply been on/off binary states.
It’s one of the most sfnal SF stories I’ve read for a while, and it’s one of the stories that is a ‘must read’ for any serious SF reader.
Elizabeth Bear’s ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’, from Asimovs March 2008, won the Best Novella award. Whilst I found it clever, I wouldn’t have fingered it as a potential Hugo winner.
- I’ve little knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos, so apologies if I’m missing a trick here. The story features shoggoths, jelly like creatures off the Maine coast. A young black academic visits to study the creatures, and it being the 1930s we find out a lot about being a black American at that time, with another war on the way. The academic finds out that it is not the race that evolves, but individual shoggoths – and he is offered an opportunity to offer leadership to the largely unthinking creatures he has been studying, who exist simply to obey. But rather than taking that opportunity, it is to France he heads, making that same evolutionary step himself.A clever story, with perhaps even more for Lovecraftian students. (I recall reading The Mountains of Madness, and by golly it gave me the willies!)
A runner-up in this category and also in this volume was John Kessel’s ‘Pride and Prometheus’ was orignally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in January 2008, but didn’t really grab my attention, with my review stating:
- What I believe the younger generation call a “mash-up”. Kessel puts the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice together with Victor Frankenstein. Kessel does a more than passable rendition of the writing style of Miss Austen, which will doubtless please those who like their fiction written in a style now two centuries old, although it can at times err on the pastiche, and I for one was reminded of the classic French & Saunders pisstake on such costume dramas on TV (“You suppose? You suppose? Madam, I find you very suppository!”)
The two unmarried Bennet daughters, Mary and Kitty, are in London, the younger, prettier, out to catch herself a man, like Mr Darcy, of some six thousands pounds per year. However, it is Mary who is smitten – by Mr Frankenstein. The creature also lurks, and the story leads a leisurely pace until a dreadful denoument, when young Kitty dies of a fever, and her body is resurrected by Frankenstein, to furnish the creature with a mate.Actually, this is a false denouement, as we find through means of a newspaper clipping a year hence, of the likely fate of several of the characters, although this rather wraps up the story post-haste and with less satisfaction than one would like.
Similarly a runner-up to Bear, and in this volume is James Alan Gardner’s ‘The Ray-Gun : a love story’, which appeared in Asimovs March 2008 issue when I opined:
- Another clever and classy story. The central character is an alien weapon, which finds its way to Earth, and into the hands of a young nerdy guy. We follow him as the forces now at his power guide his development, through first love, through to increasingly obsessive behaviour. However, the weapon has more than simply brute force, and the understates unsettling nature of that very alien power finds a way to protect itself, that sees humanity once again as a small player in a big game.
The other two runners-up to Bear were Bacigalupi and Resnick, and if you had asked me ahead of reading the stories, I’d have been fairly confident that Bacigalupi would have provided the goods to tickle my fancy, ahead of Resnick. The opposite was the case. Go figure! Please note they don’t appear in this volume, but are here for the sake of completeness!
Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The Gambler’ appeared in Fast Forward 2, but didn’t really grab me as much as his stories normally do :
- Bacigalupi explores the world of hi-tech internet media, through the eyes of someone working, but somewhat detached, from the hyper-obsessed American culture. One of the stars of his news gathering corporation gets a hot story and generates enough traffic to their site to guarantee bonuses all round. Having left a lot behind in his native Laos, Ong finds himself, instead of writing niche stories with low levels of footfall, he has a chance to hit the big time in being pitched in with a major celebrity from his home country and with, seemingly, a lot in common. However, it turns out that the celebrity has very much embraced the modern culture of the US, and he has to take a gamble on which route to take.
Mike Resnick’s ‘Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders’ appeared in Asimovs January 2008 and I wrote:
- At the other end of the age range, is a very, very satisfying story from Resnick. Two old guys, sharing a flat in a retirement complex, are getting very near to the end of their lives and their almost life-long friendship. With creaking joints and failing organs, they reflect on their moment of first meeting, in the magic store which they visited as children. They reflect on that time, as young boys when all was possible, and indeed, Alastair Baffle seemed to suggest that even more was possible. Maury Gold is determined to see if the shop is still there. Against all the odds, of course, as he is 92, so the shop must be long gone. Nate Silver reluctantly accompanies him, and they find that not only is the shop still there, but so is the owner, and Mr Baffle appears to be not a year older. It appears that Baffle has much more to offer than sleight of hand tricks, and Gold is quite willing to take what is on offer, whilst Silver less so. It’s an extremely effective but gentle and subtle story.
In the Best Short Story category Ted Chiang’s ‘Exhalation’, from Eclipse 2, was the winner. But sadly the story doesn’t appear in this volume!
- As you expect from Chiang, an inventive and expertly crafted tale. He smoothly posits a humanity in which lungs are replaced when empty of air, in a society constrained within a finite dome. What is not finite, in fact, is the oxygen which they breathe, and we follow one scientist as he explores the nature of their reliance on oxygen, and the implications of a supply that will not last much longer. One to be instantly re-read to savour the quality. And if you like short SF, and don’t have a copy of Chiang’s ‘Stories of Your Life’ collection, then I would suggest you rectify that situation.
Kij Johnson’s ’26 Monkeys’ appeared in Asimovs July 2008 issue, but didn’t grab me, and hasn’t upon re-reading it.
- In which Aimee inherits a circus act involving 26 monkeys which disappear onstage. It’s a strange life for Aimee, but one that is a passing phase in her life, as she must pass on the act, but with it having changed her and her life. More of an F&SF kind of story, than a ‘mov’s.
And similarly, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘Evil Robot Monkey’ appeared in The Solaris Book of Science Fiction 2, and at the time I was similarly not whelmed
- ..very much a story from someone who has yet to breakout of the semipro ranks. A monkey with a digital implant, making it more human than simian, is upset by some schoolchildren who come to visit. Erm, that’s it.
The story has been subsequently anthologised in the year’s best volumes, so clearly I’m missing something!
Also a runner-up in this category, and also in the volume, and one which I did go for, was Michael Swanwick’s ‘From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled…’ which appared in Asimovs, February 2008, whence I writ:
- The opening paragraph is a doozy – it describes the titular city on Europa, and does so quite beautifully across several sentences, and then kicks into a higher gear as the narrator describes herself : a simulation of one of the humans killed in the destruction of the city, and then the story starts with a “Here’s what it was like…”It’s an opening that you could use over the first month of a Science Fiction Writing 101 course, and the rest of the story lives up to that standard. The narrator, Rosamund, is embedded in the hi-tech suit of one of the survivors of the meteorite strike – Carlos, her lover. She has to care for him using the suit’s advanced medical capabilities to get him to the point of being in a state to be brought back to consciousness, and we follow them as she guides him, and one of the strange, definitely non-human race on the planet. In order to escape the armed warriors of his race, Uncle Vanya has to undergo the unkindest cut of all – “The first thing we have to do is castrate you..” is the kind of line you can only come up with after some years in the business. Swanwick takes the unlikely trio through an alien world, effectively getting across the alieness of Uncle Vanya through his speech patterns, and cleverly intertwining the action with backstory.And the ending is just terrific – with Rosamund left embedded in the spacesuit, hanging up in a locker. It’s a story that is simply top class.
And a nominee in this category which didn’t make it into the volume is Mike Resnick’s ‘Article of Faith’ which appeared in Baen’s Universe, October 2008, and which I have yet to read.
So there you have it. A clutch of stories from a couple of years ago, voted upon by ‘the fans’, in contrast to the Nebula Awards, voted upon by ‘the writers’. The stories in this volume come from a limited range of sources, far more mainstream science fiction than the literary, and increasingly speculative Nebulas. If you likes your SF to be SF (and if you’re a guy of a certain age), or if you know one such guy and want to buy him a book, the Hugo Awards would be a great choice. To choice a technical term we librarians use (I’m not sure if it was Dewey or Ranganathan who coined the term), there’s a shitload of quality SF between the covers of this volume. Now, I wonder if Prime will use that quote on next year’s volume.