Sad to say, none of the novelettes nominated for a Hugo impressed me. While there was some competent writing on display, particularly in the two novelettes that actually were self-contained works rather than excerpts from novels or tightly linked serials, nothing here struck me as worthy of the nomination.
The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt
A man's lover rejects him. His world - and everyone else's - turns upside down. Literally. The earth's gravity well is nullified by some strange and unexplained means and everything on the surface - though not everything beneath the surface, be it the surface of the earth or the surface of water bodies on the earth - is drawn into the sky, and beyond. This is some mighty manpain we are talking about.
In the midst of this extreme upheaval of life as we know it, the protagonist decides the most important thing in the world is returning his ex's goldfish to her - only to find that despite this show of devotion, she still doesn't want him any more. And that she is more concerned over the death of her new lover and her own injuries than his mighty manpain.
This story struck me as an extended psychological metaphor - a most science fictional metaphor, to be sure, and with a good eye for the details and consequences of its extreme literalisation. But the underlying nastiness of the narrative, both in the way that the protagonist's "rival" is killed and his ex-lover injured when gravity reverses, and in the way that he lets one woman die and abandons a child to the mercy of others, undercuts any appreciation I might have for the cleverness of the story's main conceit.
“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart
Aliens with better tech invade a human colony and turn the free men of earth into second-class workers. One man thinks that the aliens are treating the humans too well - apparently because human funeral rituals (which no longer include burial) convinced them that humans were at least somewhat sapient. How to revive the fighting spirit of enslaved humans? Make the aliens treat them worse. How to do this? Horrify the aliens - who our hero has deduced are claustrophobic - by reverting to a form of burial they think of as barbaric - interment. Fortunately, our hero is dying of cancer, so he gets his friends to bury him after he dies. This does indeed freak out the aliens, with the promise of war to come. Humans will be forced from their slavish apathy and defend their imperialist honour the way they should have all along.
Not only is the plot silly, but the characterisation is rather slim and the writing not what I'd call stellar. When I think of some of the other short fiction of this length published last year, this just doesn't make the grade.
“Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner
In Chapter One, we meant a guy named Lyle, sent to diagnose and fix a problem with an automated asteroid miner - but the mission is interrupted by a jab in the back and an unseen voice. Then we have the first of several excerpts from the Internetopedia concerning an alien species commonly known as Snakes who apparently tried to invade Earth's solar system and failed. Survivors of that invasion live in a partially self-governing colony (which was originally an internment camp) on one of the moons of Uranus. Action switches to the colony, where Carl, a human security official, is awaiting the arrival of Corrine, a reporter. We learn in an interview with Glithwah, the leader of the Snakes, that the colony has been plagued by industrial accidents and losses of ships. Corrine notes that humans have been experiencing mysterious losses too (I guess that's what happened to poor Lyle from Chapter One). Carl debriefs an agent named Danica and shares his belief that the Snakes are up to something sneaky, and he compares whatever is happening to the Snake strategy game b'tok, which he has been trying to learn. Suddenly Carl and Corrine are talking about a suspected conspiracy that has manipulated the development of 11 sentient species over possibly billions of years. Then surprise! We learn that the Snakes are secretly putting together an army of robots. Carl and Glithwah play b'tok. Corinne plans to visit an interstellar ship, but there's an accident and her access is revoked. She goes anyway. Suddenly, Carl is planting a bug in the studio of a reclusive artist named Banak while Danica watches him picking up a parcel. Banak is spooked by Snake security and demonstrates that he was a spy for somebody by blowing up himself, the Snake security people and Danica. A trap in his quarters almost blows up Carl. After recovering, Carl is sent home for violating Banak's privacy. He can't contact Corrine, and worries because her pilot had mentioned knowing Banak. There is a news story - his handler (and Corinne's) is dead in an accident. Glithwah prepares to capture the interstellar ship. The End.
Obviously this is not a self-contained story, so what it's doing in this category is a mystery to me. But I guess is a multi-volume series can be nominated for Best Novel, an excerpt from a novel can be nominated for Best Novelette. Judged on its own merits, however, I can't possibly say that a short piece of fiction that stops arbitrarily with at least three major plotlines unresolved is in any way satisfying.
“The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn
This appears to be a lost colony story - or series of stories, to be more accurate. In a previous installment, Teodorq and Sammi, both adventuring away from their people, met and discovered a long-abandoned shuttle with a still-functioning AI. The AI saved them from members of yet a third group who were hunting Teodorq to take revenge for the death of one of their people, and enlisted them in a search for surviving settlements of the original colonists. In this story, Teodorq, Sammi, and Kal - the leader of the third group and brother of the man Teodorq killed - have been captured by a fourth group of people, the iron men, whose technological level seems to be somewhat superior to that of Teodorq, Sammi and Kal's peoples. We learn that the iron men worship spaceship relics - some kind of PDA and the door to a men's lavatory. The leader of the iron men has Teodorq, Sammi and Kal trained as fighters and scouts, intending to send them out against yet another group, the green people. Teodorq and Kal start a fight to the death, but it ends in a tie and the iron men leader orders them not to do it again. The End.
In addition to being yet another incomplete story, nothing much happened here to draw my interest so that I would read further installments. And the dialogue, oh my bleeding eyes. In order to distinguish languages or cultures, the author uses sayings, idioms and slang from 20th century English dialects, broken pidgin, occasional epic storytelling prose styling, gangsta speech, faux 17th century yeoman English with bits that might be derived from Russian, and other treats.
Just to offer some examples (and inconsistencies), Sammi sometimes sounds like Tonto, but on other occasions seems quite capable of creating complex sentences.
Sammi grunted. “Jamly Ghost say much kenning lost since big-f ight-in-sky. Stupid plainsmen forget most; hillmen not so much. Maybe ironmen forget less.” He pursed his lips. “We stay in trees, iron hats no see us. Sneak past stone house, then ride like hell.”
"Sammi never cease to marvel at swiftness of plainsman mind.”
Teodorq's language on the other hand is quite varied and seems to draw on multiple sources - but oddly enough, when it comes to 20th century English idiom, there has been no drift in however many years it has been since the colony was lost.
“Sweet breath of Awāchi!” swore Teodorq. “Do those metal hats of theirs cook their brains? Where else could we come from? Anyone and his great aunt Matilda not wishful of either cliff-climbing or being gator-bait has to come past this here spot, and that there’s a fact. If their heads weren’t iron clean through they’d want to know what I seen in the kraals we passed through. That spy stuff works both ways and . . .”
“Hey, babe, it’s bad cess to the Timberlake folk west of the stony river that Bowman’s gonna muscle in on ’em, but it ain’t no skin off my nose.”
Teodorq ignored the jibe. “It matters not how a man may come to a place. What matters is how he leaves it. The shuttle was a house within a hill. It had come to grief so long ago that the soil and grass grew thick on its back and sides and only through a narrow cleft could a brave man gain access.” He paused and added, “Being the braver man, I went first inside.”
Aside from the dialogue, the narrative passages were often overblown in what seemed to be an attempt at a kind of archaic high fantasy figurative prose - which often clashed badly with the dialogue.
Round about the stronghold huddled scores of lesser dwellings, cattle and sheep pens, yapping dogs, curling smoke from under which issued irregular clangs. Smells of dung and compost floated with the burnt tang of the smoke. Beyond the settlement a waterfall plummeted from the very lip of the plateau, and from that direction issued a steady thump, as if a frost giant strode the earth.
I will acknowledge that the characters were, for the most part, reasonably well-drawn and clearly differentiated. In a better-written work that actually had a full plot with a climax and an ending, I might even want to know more about them. But that is not the case in this work, sad to say.
“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra
As the title says, this is definitely a story in the tradition of the Golden Age pulps. Plot-driven, a bit on the breezy side, lots of tech (not all of it fully justifiable), and the first person POV allows the author to do a fair bit of infodumping without excessively boring the reader.
The plot is a standard one. Three space cadets get into a bar fight and are punished by being sent on a mission to dismantle a planetary exploration camp - hard work, low threat. The exploration team is leaving because their mission has failed - they identified but failed to make any contact with the sentient species found on the planet, a species of vaguely cow-like beings wearing transmitter bracelets on their tentacles.
Naturally, the smartass cadet who started the bar fight has to raise the stakes by asking to see the mission reports just in case he can salvage the mission. He's told he can have them - but if he fails to make that breakthrough, all three cadets will be cashiered out. Smartass spends the trip incommunicado while the narrator, also given access to the records, bravely infodumps it all for the reader.
On arrival, the three cadets and their guide head out to meet some of the natives - where Smartass demonstrates that the real sapients are not the cows, but the tentacles, which are a separate life form. This results in the tentacles all diving underground and causing a massive collapse that kills the guide and severely injures Smartass and cadet number three, leaving the narrator to find a way to communicate with the tentacles so she can get help for her injured mates.
Fortunately, she does this and all three cadets are awarded for saving the original mission. The dead guide is never mentioned, which rather undercut the breezy tone during the story's resolution. But at least this story was competently told, with a consistent style, and it had a self-contained plot with an actual end. Nothing particularly special, outside of a flash of nostalgia for the gee-whiz space stories of my youth, but certainly readable.