Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thoughts on Hugo Nominees 2008: Novelettes

Tuesday, May 20, 2008
"The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics" by Daniel Abraham (Logorrhea ed. by John Klima)
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang (F&SF Sept. 2007)
"Dark Integers" by Greg Egan (Asimov's Oct./Nov. 2007)
"Glory" by Greg Egan (The New Space Opera, ed. by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan)
"Finisterra" by David Moles (F&SF Dec. 2007)

I previously reviewed “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" here, and really, I don't know quite what to say other than Ted Chiang is an outstanding writer and storyteller and this is a great story.

“Glory” was originally published in The New Space Opera, an anthology I apparently did not love as much as a goodly number of other people. The story opens with several pages of description of what is occurring to some antimatter needle, or something. Honestly, I didn’t get exactly what was happening or what the implications were. What I knew is that I was already turned off from “Glory”. This opening allows some sort of distant travel to be possible (distant meaning to far flung galaxies otherwise impossible to reach). “Glory” is chock full of too much SF technology and narration about technology, and this is the sort of thing that makes my eyes glaze over. Once we got past this initial eye glazing, however, Greg Egan began to tell a fairly interesting story about uncovering history on an alien world. Well, that’s not –exactly- what “Glory” is about, but it is as good an abstraction as any. “Glory” is an odd blend of overwhelmingly dull detail (mathematics cubes? Really?) and discovery. I don’t think the blend works nearly as well as this nomination suggests.

Greg Egan’s other nominated story is “Dark Integers”, a warfare via mathematics story. Yeah. Really. It’s different. I’ll grant Egan that much, but this is the sort of thing I’ve stopped reading Stross novels for. Too much technical detail, not enough humanity. Though, in the case of Egan there is a good deal more humanity than found in a techy Stross novel. Early on we are unclear on exactly how this works, but there is an incursion across borders by some unknown math program and flags are raised, hackles are up. The only ones who can be trusted not to screw up the investigation are three people who have formed their little secret society of sorts. Egan does something here, he makes the math talk somewhat interesting. I could care less about the plot, but the discussion of math as weapon somehow comes across as natural and real, rather than abstract. Beyond that, Greg Egan’s two nominated stories here fail to impress. They are competent and workmanlike, and some SF readers clearly delight in Egan’s fiction, but between “Glory” and “Dark Integers”, I’m not one of them. The best I can say is that there is a core of a good story here, but Egan doesn’t quite hit it.

You hope for the story from which you expect little and get much in return, the story that has a title which is makes no sense and turns you off from the story right away. “Finisterra”. Break down the title and the best I can come up with is “finis” “terra”. The end of earth. This is before I’ve read the story, by the way. I expected little from David Moles’ “Finisterra”. That’s what I got. 3 pages and I struggle. Not to make sense of the text, but rather to care. Moles writes descriptive prose, hitting details in Spanish and perhaps Arabic, and he evokes a multi-cultural, almost alien landscape. Or, skyscape, as the case may be. 6 pages and it’s official. I wouldn’t have bought this story. If this came out of a slush pile, the rejection slip would have gone out. It’s just a matter of taste and this story doesn’t suit me. I’m sure there is great descriptions, some action (things were thinking about heating up), and a good story, but Moles didn’t hit me in such a way that I wanted to keep reading.

Proving that you can’t truly judge a story by its title, we come to “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham. A cambist is a person who is an expert in knowing exchange rates and the value of stuff. Lord Iron is that extravagantly wealthy individual with debased and decadent tastes who only seems to exist in fantasy stories, though I’m sure there is a real life counterpart somewhere. Olaf, a cambist, has no personal life outside of his job. One day, Lord Iron, on a capricious whim, challenges Olaf to exchange exceedingly rare currency. If Olaf fails to provide an accurate exchange rate, Lord Iron will destroy Olaf’s life and career. Because he can. Thus begins a series of three encounters between the Olaf, the cambist, and Lord Iron. Each meeting is for greater and greater stakes with increasingly difficult challenges of assigning value. Rather than being a dull story about the value of things, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” is a smoothly written story with an interesting intellectual challenge for Olaf (and in turn the reader, if we want to think about the challenge before Olaf figures it out). Moreover, I liked “The Cambist and Lord Iron” enough that I intend to go find a copy of Logorrhea (the anthology the story is from), and also go read the novels of Daniel Abraham.

The favorite for this category has to be “The Merchant and the Alchemists Gate” from Ted Chiang. It won the Nebula and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t win the Hugo. The story really is that good, as one would expect from Chiang. I expect it to win.

If it doesn’t, I’d be quite happy if Daniel Abraham won for “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics”. Besides being the only other story in this category worth a damn, it’s quite good.

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