Synopsis: Humans raised from infancy to be crew for a wormhole-building starship are awakened for a few weeks every several thousand years to do their job. Fed up with the futility of it all, they attempt to organize a revolution under the watchful eyes and ears of a nearly-omniscient artificial intelligence.
What I thought: This is a wonderfully-rich, hard science fiction universe, filled with big concepts and unique imagery woven together in a plausible execution, with characters I cared about. The methods the crew devises to communicate are intricately clever, and the plot engages with the question: What does it mean to really live, rather than just survive? This will definitely be on my Hugo nomination ballot. (for more details, read the File 770 feature on this novella, with links to related free stories)
Paul Oldroyd: Couldn’t agree more. An excellent bit of hard skiffy. It needs a sequel though…
PhilRM: And yeah, The Freeze-Frame Revolution is brilliant.
Lfex: My novella Hugo list at this point [includes] The Freeze-Frame Revolution (really brilliant!)…
Bonnie McDaniel: My [Hugo nomination longlist] novellas so far: The Freeze-Frame Revolution. Peter Watts is just a cranky, evil genius.
Goobergunch: will n+1 the recommendations for [this one].
Umbernight by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Clarkesworld, February (full story)
Synopsis: When the colonists chose their world, they didn’t realize that the system had a second star which gave off deadly radiation on its periodic swings toward the planet. Generations later, the survivors live with extended seasonal cycles, spending “winter” in caves for years at a time until the star recedes once again. It’s almost time to head underground again – but the third and final supply capsule sent via a solar sail ship before their departure by the original colonists hundreds of years ago is finally due to arrive. Dare they risk a retrieval with the onset of the deadly radiation so near, or must they wait many years for what might be essential supplies?
What I thought: Multiple Hugo and Nebula finalist Gilman is one of those authors like Ted Chiang: not terribly prolific, but every story by her is a gem, and this one is no exception. I loved this story, which combines a hard SF backstory and inventive worldbuilding, with vividly alien lifeforms and heartbreakingly human characters – especially the narrator, who is the colony’s cartographer and scientist – and which wrestles with the age-old questions: What’s more important, safety or potential rewards? science or art? rationality or hope? This is on my Hugo nomination shortlist.
recommended by Jason
recommended by Jeff
Lace: An old-school story of survival on a hostile planet, with wonderful worldbuilding to think about. I’d love to sit and listen to Gilman geek about the planning she did.
Kendall: Thanks for recommending [this story]; that was excellent! I third the recommendation for this story.
Mark Hepworth: …possible I didn’t give this enough attention, but basically several of the characters annoyed me and I ended up skipping through to just see what happened.
Goobergunch: will n+1 the recommendations for [this one].
Synopsis: Murderbot is pretty sure that their dark past is a result of nefarious doings by a corporation with evil intentions, and they are going to find out exactly what really happened – but EvilCorp will do anything to stop them, so they’re going to have to be really clever and sneaky with their investigation. In the meantime, those hapless human beings keep getting in the way, and it’s either step in to save them or watch them succumb to their doom… which means, once again (sigh) taking time out from the main mission to help them.
What I thought: I love these stories with the burning heat of a white-hot sun. They are an ongoing dialogue with what it means to be human and neuroatypical, as well as just great adventures. Murderbot will appeal to any fan who has at some point wished that the rest of the world would just piss off so that they can enjoy their SFF book or movie in peace. Readers who appreciated the humanity of the nonhuman protagonist Breq in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary novels will almost certainly appreciate these as well. I think that I liked Artificial Condition best of these three, but will probably put Exit Strategy on my Hugo Novella ballot, since it’s the wrap-up of this story arc. Also, 2019 means MURDERBOT novel!
Greg Hullender: A traditional way to reward a competed series is to vote for the last installment and let it stand for the whole. Toward that end, I expect to nominate “Exit Strategy” for Best Novella.
Kyra: [three of my 5] fave novellas this year.
Lfex: My novella Hugo list at this point [includes Exit Strategy].
Lurkertype: Numero uno, all the way, I’d even stop watching my shows to read it. Go Murderbot. It gave me All The Feels.
Bonnie McDaniel: My [Hugo nomination longlist] novellas so far: Exit Strategy. Please, nominators, don’t split the vote and get none of the 3 Murderbots this year on the ballot. Please settle on this one; it’s every bit as good as the first.
Lorien Gray: One of the Murderbot novellas will definitely be on my nominating ballot.
Mark Hepworth: MURDERBOT!
Goobergunch: will n+1 the recommendations for everything Murderbot.
Phoresis by Greg Egan, Subterranean Press
Synopsis: Colonists on a planet discover that their resources are declining and that they face extinction; they desperately work to get to a nearby planet in the hope of providing survival for their descendants.
What I thought: This is a generational saga, so while there is some character development, it is very much a showcase for the worldbuilding of the planets, and the physics involved in devising a solution for survival. Readers whose main interest is in characters or action may find it a bit dry, but I found the worldbuilding and problem-solving intensely interesting, really enjoyed it, and put it on my Hugo longlist.
Lfex: My novella Hugo list at this point [includes this story].
Lorien Gray: +1 for Phoresis by Greg Egan. The story is told in three parts across several generations of people all trying to solve a potentially species-threatening problem. There was something about splitting the story across the generations that got to me. I have no idea if the world depicted in the book is scientifically feasible, but it all holds together within the story. You get just the right amount of details about the society and its people to draw you in without bogging you down in details. I came away completely satisfied but interested in reading more if the author is so inclined.
Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body by Simon Petrie, Peggy Bright Books (excerpt – click “Preview Now”)
This little gem was published in Australia in 2017, but only published in the U.S. this year, so it is eligible for the Hugos next year. It was a finalist for Australia’s Aurealis and Ditmar Awards, and won NZ’s Sir Julius Vogel Award.
Synopsis: Colony life on Titan is harsh and unforgiving – still very much a wild frontier – so any time there’s a death, it is investigated by professionals to figure out how similar deaths can be prevented in the future. When the 20-year-old daughter of a wealthy industrialist kills herself, the investigator faces puzzling and obstructionist behavior by the parents and inconsistent data about what actually happened – and suddenly, random incidents and “accidents” which threaten the investigator’s life.
What I thought: There are enough clues sprinkled throughout the narrative that I had 90% of the solution figured out by halfway through. But the worldbuilding is so interesting that there was never any question of reading all the way to the end, especially for the 10% that I didn’t see coming – which is well worth it, and this story is on my Hugo longlist.
Shadowdrop by Chris Willrich [Gaunt and Bone], Beneath Ceaseless Skies, September 27 (full story)
Synopsis: Archaeopolis, a sprawling ancient city which has endured and been massively changed by political, meteorological, and geological upheavals over the millennia, is home to many thousands of people, wizards, sentient black cats (cursed with the ability to cause bad fortune to humans), and the sleeping powerful dragon at its heart. But in recent years, more and more strange and malevolent creatures have been appearing, and something evil is in the works. The cat Shadowdrop stumbles upon the edges of a sinister plan, and must persuade the other cats to help save their city.
Synopsis: There are so many things about this story in which to delight: with its talking cats and dragons, and complex, magical worldbuilding, it’s like catnip for Filers. (It would be worth reading just for the game of Treatment and “crack of dawn screaming monkey surprise” alone.) While it contains a lot of sly humor, this story also touches on more substantial themes: of the conscious choices we make in how we live our lives, whether we learn to empathize with others and make our choices with care; of the way in which peoples’ emotional responses to the death of a loved one can warp and damage their relationships; of how parents’ varying preferences for their children mark those children and fuel sibling rivalries. I loved this story, and it is on my Hugo longlist.
Mark Hepworth: At the other end of things is the much lighter Shadowdrop – our hero is a black cat, no less, bounding around a flavorful fantasy city spreading the bad luck magic that all black cats have been bequeathed. There’s some good jokes – when you get to “Postgrad” you can appreciate the terrible punnage – and a fun plot as cats save the day for the oblivious humans of the city.
recommended by Jason
Synopsis: In a moment of carelessness, the main character dooms himself to be outcast from his tribe, forced to wander the planet and barely surviving by stealth and theft. But the world outside his village is far stranger than he imagines, and what he discovers will shatter everything he thought he knew.
What I thought: This was a really pleasant surprise: a reasonably-hard SF story about gur qrfpraqnagf bs cynarg pbybavmref nsgre gurve grpuabybtvpny fbpvrgl unf snyyra, and what it means for human beings when the struggle for survival must take precedence over the striving for knowledge and greatness. I would have liked some of the things to be explained in more detail, but for a novella, it does the job well.
recommended by Paul Weimer
Mark Hepworth: It’s quite hard to talk about it without spoilers, because the setting is the Big Idea, and the gradual discovery of the setting is the main point of the story. I suppose the setting could be considred a bit of an old chestnut by some, but I thought Tchaikovsky gave it life, plus some additional interest from his perpetual obsession with putting insects in everything. I think it would be fair to say that the plot is a bit of a straight line through the job of exploring the setting, but given the limitations of novella length I’m not sure he could have done much more. Overall an enjoyable novella.
Charon D.: Tchaikovsky’s really good. I bounced off Ironclads but I’ve been enjoying The Expert System’s Brother.
Mark Hepworth: [this is on] My current likely [Hugo] list.
Arifel: [This] had some fantastic worldbuilding and cemented Adrian Tchaikovksy’s position on my favourite authors list.
Lfex: My novella Hugo list at this point [includes this story].
The Rescue of the Renegat by Kristine Kathryn Rusch [Diving Universe], Asimov’s, January-February (full text PDF)
Synopsis: A starship captain races against time to save as many members of a mysterious doomed ship as possible, without sacrificing any of their own crew… but they may have forgotten the most important reason for the existence of The Fleet.
Dix by Kristine Kathryn Rusch [Diving Universe], Asimov’s, March-April (excerpt)
Synopsis: A ship’s officer who is angry and bitter about being trapped in a different time and lost to his loved ones, decides to get even with the captain and first officer who refuse to implement his likely-fatal plan to get back to their own time.
Joyride by Kristine Kathryn Rusch [Diving Universe], Asimov’s, March-April (full text PDF)
Synopsis: A teenaged prodigy on a deep-space school for the fleet’s young people sets up an elaborate challenge and adventure with his equally-gifted co-student, one involving security hacks and sleight-of-hand with ship systems and the “borrowing” of ship shuttles. But then everything goes wrong, and he will learn the price of his hubris – assuming that he lives to pay it.
What I thought: Regular readers here know that I’m a huge fan of this series (which is definitely on my ballot for Hugo Best Series in 2019). These stories flesh out the worldbuilding and some of the main characters from the novels, but are enjoyable on their own. I especially love SF mysteries, and the novels in this series have a lot of that; of these three, Dix is the mystery, the one I liked best, and the one I recommnend most to people unfamiliar with the series.
Blurred Lives by Adam-Troy Castro [Andrea Cort / Draiken #3], Analog, January-February (full text PDF)
Synopsis: Draiken and Thorne, having both been imprisoned and tortured by the machiavellian organization for which they once worked, now seek vengeance by means of destroying their former employers. But in order to obtain information necessary to achieve their goal, Draiken agrees to be locked into a prison from which there is ony one way to escape; if he succeeds in solving the mystery of how to escape, he will win the release of all the prisoners and the information he requires. But the prison cell has technology which distorts his senses, making an escape seem impossible.
A Stab of the Knife by Adam-Troy Castro [Andrea Cort / Draiken #4], Analog, July-August (full text PDF)
Synopsis: Still on his path of seeking the destruction of his former employers, Draiken engages in surveillance of prosecutor Andrea Cort, whom he believes has ties to his targets. But she is aware that he’s up to something, and he may end up a casualty of her own machinations.
What I thought: Not only is each of the stories in this series a standalone science-fictional mystery, they are so deftly-plotted, featuring intricate twists, that it’s only when the pieces slot into place that the brilliance of the plotting becomes apparent. The author has created compelling, well-fleshed-out characters, and fascinatingly-alien races and worlds, served up with intriguing spycraft and detective work.
Starship Mountain by Allen M. Steele [Arkwright], Asimov’s, July-August
Synopsis: When an investigator is hired to find the missing daughter of a wealthy, high-status family, he stumbles onto a much bigger discovery than just finding out whether she was kidnapped or ran away.
What I thought: This is a story of colonists and their long-forgotten, fallen technology – and of whether it is better to accept and work with what you’ve got, or to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. I enjoyed the four novellas which make up the novel-length Arkwright, and was delighted to get more in this universe. I recommend first reading the prequel short story “Sanctuary” on Tor.com; it’s not required reading to enjoy this story, but does enhance it.
Synopsis: A dealer in used and rare books stumbles upon a mystery: an intriguing letter tucked into an obscure book of poetry, which is by an unknown author and appears in no bibliographies, and yet the book dealer keeps encountering copies of the book – frequently containing similar mysterious notes – again and again in his travels. What he gradually pieces together in his obsessive search is the story of two people in love, who meet up again and again throughout history, when the random time vortex phenomomen in which they are caught deposits them in the same time periods.
What I thought: I really liked the historical and cultural aspects of this story, and found it interesting and engrossing, though the explanation for how it all works, and when it started, doesn’t quite hang together as coherently as I would have liked. Recommended, especially for those who enjoy time-travel stories.
Mark Hepworth: [this is on] My current likely [Hugo] list.
Synopsis: Bronko and his team of crack chefs and kitchen staff have been serving the New York supernatural community for decades. But all that could be about to change. The entity formerly known as Allensworth has been manipulating Bronko and his team from Day One, and the gang at Sin du Jour have had enough. Old debts are called in, and an alliance is formed with the unlikeliest of comrades. Some will die. Some will descend. And some will rise.
What I thought: This is a really well-done wrap-up to the series, which I have personally enjoyed a great deal. It’s a story of finding your family rather than being born into it, and dealing with loss and betrayal among those you love. There’s also lots of clever, snarky humor and bizarre happenings. The author does a really good job of working current cultural references into these stories; whereas I ordinarily find that a contrived and dated device, in these books, it seemed to integrate well. However, this is very much a series – one which is on my Hugo Best Series longlist for next year – but the individual novellas do not stand well alone.
Greg Hullender: the quick summary is that I loved it. I’ve been lukewarm to negative about the earlier installments, largely because I felt they were too incomplete to recommend individually, but this last installment really rocks the casbah. I would now strongly recommend the series as a whole, which I really didn’t feel I could do before without knowing how it was all going to end.
Arifel: I’d like to nominate it [for Hugo Best Series].
Greg Hullender: A traditional way to reward a competed series is to vote for the last installment and let it stand for the whole… I plan to do the same for the Sin du Jour series [by nominating Taste of Wrath for Best Novella].
Mark Hepworth: I loved the first Sin de Jour but for some reason the later ones have lost me.
Synopsis: A sentient transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. When an abrasive and eccentric scholar’s search for a research corpse turns up a murder, the scientist and the shipmind decide to investigate.
What I thought: This is the story of two very damaged beings, and the way that their shared venture helps them work through some of their trauma and learn to trust each other, at least provisionally. It’s also a critique of the absolute self-assurance which accompanies fanaticism and is often so extremely destructive. Although this story is very much in dialogue with Sherlock Holmes, I wasn’t even thinking about that the first time I read it, and it reads well even if one is not a Holmes fan. I do love a good science fiction mystery, but the star of this story is the worldbuilding; the mystery is just a bonus. I’d love to see more stories featuring these characters. As with most of the Xuya stories, this can be read on its own, but is enhanced by having read one or more of the other stories. A good exemplar which can be read for free online is the Nebula-winning, Hugo-finalist novelette “The Waiting Stars“.
Lace: This is a Xuya novella and a light-handed Sherlock Holmes pastiche, with a mindship in the Watson role. I don’t think I’ve happened to read a Xuya story from this viewpoint, and I enjoyed it a lot. There are hints we might get more stories about this pairing.
Sylvia Sotomayor: excellent! Highly recommended! Will probably be on next year’s nominating ballot. Loved both characters, secondary characters were well done, too, and the mystery as such was also good.
Mark Hepworth: This is set in her Xuya series of Space Opera stories, but I suspect it will stand alone reasonably well as the characters are all new. Although it’s quick and easy to call it Space Opera Sherlock Holmes I do think it quickly rises above just being a pastiche or homage – the characters aren’t just tributes to the classic stories, they have their own origins that fit into the Xuya universe and work within it. I think it’s most successful as a character piece – the mystery is decent but there’s only 20,000 words or so to work with – and that’s what makes me really like it, as the two characters very slowly open up just enough to let the other want to stick around with them. If you already like the Xuya stories then this is well worth your time. If you’ve not tried them then I think this is a good jumping on point, and it’s also the best novella of the year I’ve read so far.
Kyra: [one of my 5] fave novellas this year.
Lurkertype: Also swell. Holmes and Watson, if they lived in outer space in the future and had Vietnamese culture and weren’t male, and Watson was a living starship.
Lorien Gray: I liked [this].
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