All five of the 2014 Best Novella Nominees rank above No Award on my Hugo ballot, which is saying something this year. Nearly all of them succeed on their own terms and it’s easy to see why each story has its fans.
(5) “Equoid” by Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
This is the first of the Bob Howard “Laundry” adventures I’ve ever read. Stross has written many stories in this series, including several novels, and it’s quite popular. So why would a yarn with that pedigree land fifth on my ballot? Because I don’t vote Hugos to stories that make me want to throw up.
In the middle of this Lovecraftian parody/espionage tale there’s a confrontation with a monster that details a hideously graphic sexual violation.
Ordinarily I would have clocked out of the story at that point. I abandoned Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl when a scene struck me as outside the bounds of entertainment, and it was far less offensive. Yet I couldn’t shake off the fanzine fan ethic that says – don’t review stuff you haven’t read. So I finished “Equoid.”
Even apart from that dealbreaker, Stross’ sustained cleverness is almost overwhelming. It’s like being on a panel with David Brin, a constant flow of truly inventive ideas that nevertheless focus attention on the author more than the subject. However, there was one thing I truly enjoyed — the parallels drawn between bureaucratic infighting and action in the field. That definitely qualified as a “truth said in jest.”
(4) “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
The science fiction field tends to be hostile to religious faith, so it’s rare to find a good exploration of that topic in the genre. Torgersen’s characters begin at several different points on the topography of belief. He draws each one to a resolution that feels genuine, which is not easy to do. Otherwise, this is a linear, action-driven space opera that would have fit comfortably in Astounding (and evidently still fits in Analog today). Only fourth place for this effort because the writing style is rather basic.
(3) The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
Dan Wells’ story has an even higher body count than “Equoid” but confines itself to regular barroom and battlefield morbidity. The protagonist has a technology-related superpower that leads to a great military career though with many a pitfall. His life story is told out of chronological order, something Wells carries off very well – and the choice for the last segment is completely satisfying. A professionally impressive work, though one that isn’t much fun because the protagonist is psychotic.
(2) Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
The other day I read an editor promising her readers “gorgeous prose,” and Valente is an author who supplies that in abundance. In this novella she reweaves the traditional Snow White fairy tale as the life story of a child of a wealthy miner and a Crow woman, told in frontier diction — perhaps not the same as Charles Portis’ True Grit, though it came to mind, and absolutely without a trace of humor. The protagonist is an abused child inevitably trapped by a desire to please her parents. Throughout her life she copes with all the racism and sexism the 19th century has to offer. The historical realism (indeed, some of these details come from the Hearst family) makes the story feel like a duty to read.
The story is essentially a series of episodes that hold together because the reader knows the fairy tale. Otherwise the experience would be comparable to reading Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.” But that’s a short story. When I reached the point in Six-Gun Snow White of asking “Will this be over soon?” there were 80 more pages to go.
(1) “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013)
“Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages is by far the most entertaining and slickest written story nominated in this category. The cleverness, use of dialect and diction, and the awareness of social issues noted in the competition are all present here but remain in balance with storytelling and characterization.
There is one drawback. It’s not science fiction, and it’s only fantasy in a very general sense. Now when I was a lad I might have felt obligated to defend the purity of the Hugo Award against incursions of popular mainstream fiction. But this year, when so many games were played to get things on the final ballot, I refuse to be stopped from voting for what I regard as the best story in the category.