I finally finished reading the best novella nominees for the Hugos. They were not small, with the average size being about 100 pages. I thought a couple of the nominees were more fantasy than science fiction. I had only heard of two of the authors before, Nancy Kress and John Scalzi. The novellas ranged from humour to steampunk to very hard science. A couple of them failed to engage my interest and one was too complex for reading just before bed. The nominees where:
Act One by Nancy Kress. This was the shortest of the nominees and one of the best. The story revolved around genetic engineering, debating its pros and cons within the narrative. The main character is a dwarf and an agent for an actress who is researching genetic terrorists for a movie role, things go wrong and they become involved in the spreading of a genetic virus. The writing was simple and flowed as did the tension. I will be reading more of Nancy Kress.
Palimpsest by Charles Stross. I found this a very difficult read. It was very complex with extended information dumps breaking up the flow of the story. The MC is a time guardian who jumps through time trying to stop a conspiracy to change the timestream and divert the universe to a less controlled future. He is at the centre of both the investigation and the conspiracy as attempts are made on his life, including by himself. At least that is what I think the story was about. The story jumped about in time and I had trouble identifying which version of the MC was now telling the story. Perhaps I should have read this one early in the day, but other stories with time guardians as the main character and have failed to impress me, even though I generally enjoy stories involving time travel.
The God Engines by John Scalzi. This was probably the best written of all the stories. Scalzi writes great dialogue. The story flowed so well. If it had not been for the fact that I considered it to be fantasy and not science fiction, it would probably have received my vote for being the best. The story is set in a universe dominated by warring Gods competing for more converts and thus more power (a concept Neil Gainman used in his novel American Gods). Losing Gods are enslaved. There is no science as such, just religion that uses Gods, and the talents they award to humans, to power everything from spaceships to interspace communications. I loved the ending, showing how faith is so hard to destroy, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.
The Women of Nell Gwynnes by Kage Baker. Another very well written story. Set in the 19th century, it is an espionage thriller as the English try to stop a world changing invention being sold to the evil French etc. The heroines are a group of high class prostitutes who work undercover for a secret organisation that has the better interests of the English at heart. This organisation has access to amazing inventions like flash lights and lenses that bring sight to the blind. I couldn't help but think of them as a bit fascist, why keep these inventions for themselves? The answer seemed to be to keep themselves in power. There is a bit of this going around in science fiction where a hero or group of them take it upon themselves to decide what is best for everyone, as in the Palimpsest. I prefer more democratic heroes. I also thought the science aspects were dispensable: that the same plot and could have been written without them, which made me think that this story was not really science fiction.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima, by James Morrow. This novella came with attached quotes telling the reader that James Morrow was a great satirist, so I expected a bit of a laugh. In the 1980s, a bitter actor is writing his memories. He made his name donning monster suits during the 30's and 40's. He was so good at being a monster the army conscripted him to play a monster in a role that they hoped would cause the Japanese to surrender without the A-bomb being used. It takes 160 pages to find out what went wrong. In the pages in between we are taken through a history of cinema monster movies. I am not sure how much of it was made up, but I thought I recognised actual movie titles. I got one laugh out of the seemingly endless smart alec banter of the main character. I think the story could have been told in less than half the words. Comedic science fiction has never really be something I read.
Vishnu at the Cat Circus by Ian McDonald. A wonderfully original story. Set in a future India, it starts after some catastrophe has beset the land. The main character Vishnu narrates what changed a thriving prosperous India to a place now seemingly deserted of people. He was genetically engineered as a child and his abilities had him treated like a minor God, but then other technologies superseded him, taking humanity with them, and leaving him to control only his cat circus. It's a story about human obsolescence. It did not flow quite as well as some of the other novellas, but for sear originality and ideas it gets my vote as the best novella.