Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Thoughts on Nebula Nominees 2008: Novelettes

"The Fiddler of Bayou Teche" - Delia Sherman (Coyote Road, Jul07)
"Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)" - Geoff Ryman (F&SF, Nov06)
"The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs Of North Park After the Change" - Kij Johnson (Coyote Road, Jul07)
"Safeguard" - Nancy Kress (Asimov's, Jan07)
"The Children's Crusade" - Robin Wayne Bailey (Heroes in Training, Sep07)
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" - Ted Chiang (F&SF, Sep07)
"Child, Maiden, Mother, Crone" - Terry Bramlett (Jim Baen's Universe 7, June 2007)

I have very mixed feelings about the nominees in the Novelette category. On one hand we have “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang. This is an outstanding story and is rightfully nominated, should probably win, and deserves to be held up as one of the best stories of this or perhaps any other year. On the other hand we have “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)”, by Geoff Ryman. I am not sure I can quite properly express how much I did not like this story. I first read it last year when it was nominated for the Hugo, and this year it was nominated for a Nebula. One would think that this means the story is good and well regarded. Perhaps. It is a frustrating read and one which offers no satisfaction for the reader, or at least for this reader. Both stories are from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Next up are the two from The Coyote Road, an anthology of trickster tales. I wrote about these two recently and what I said then still stands. “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche” left me cold while “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change”, despite the overlong title, was a very moving story and involved human and animal characters I could find a way to identify with. I get that being able to identify with the characters is not necessarily a mark of good writing, and I am sure Delia Sherman’s story involved skillful writing, but the best stories are the ones that make the reader care and continue to think about the story long after we’ve reached “The End”. Kij Johnson’s story was successful at that. Delia Sherman’s story was not.

The next pairing is “Safeguard” by Nancy Kress and “The Children’s Crusade” by Robin Wayne Bailey. “The Children’s Crusade” comes out of the Heroes in Training anthology edited by Jim Hines and Martin Greenberg. All the stories in the anthology deal with, in one way or another, young people taking their first steps to being heroes. “The Children’s Crusade” starts in Iraq with a young Muslim boy tired of terrorism takes a stand. We learn later than the boy can teleport, and he has friend from Israel also tired of the violence adults do to children. Together, they try to find a place of peace in the world and when they don’t find it, they decide to make their own. “The Children’s Crusade” is a story which could easily find a place in a non-genre publication, even with the teleporting (hey, if The Time Traveler’s Wife isn’t considered SF by the general public...) and is a moving story of children fed up with being targets of wars they have no part of. In his introduction to the anthology Jim Hines stated that this story made him cheer for the kids. While I would not go quite that far, it is worth a read. “Safeguard” takes the flip side of this. The government of the United States has discovered that some terrorist cells have genetically engineered children to be weapons of terror. The United States has four children completely isolated in something of a bio-dome. The four children only know of this as the real world. Flipping between viewpoints of the children and of Katherine Taney, the only woman the children know and an advisor to officials of the United States, “Safeguard” tells of a bleak future where there is little hope and where children can be weapons. Of the two I prefer “The Children’s Crusade”, though “Safeguard” has echoes of a possible future where the unspeakable can be real.

The final story is “Child, Maiden, Mother, Crone”, by Terry Bramlett. I was apprehensive about this one, I think due to the format of the seasons, but the story of a former musician turned farmer meeting a girl who would grow and age with the seasons (hence the title) really pulled me in. Its worth checking out. I'd like to read more from Bramlett.

If I had to vote for a winner in this category, and as a Non Member of the SFWA, I can’t, I would probably vote for “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang. I marveled at the story when I read the Subterranean publication in hard cover, and with Ted Chiang’s name on the story we know it’s going to be something good. The story lives up to the expectation and to whatever hype there is.

With that said, if I had a second choice or if we could ignore the elephant in the room named Ted Chiang, my second favorite story from this set is “The Evolution of Trickster Stories...” by Kij Johnson. I can’t tell if it is the dogs, or if it that the story is just that good, but Kij Johnson had me at hello.

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