2018 Novellapalooza

[Editor’s note: be sure to read the comments on this post for more novellas and more Filer reviews.]

By JJ: I’m a huge reader of novels, but not that big on short fiction. But the last few years, I’ve done a personal project to read and review as many Novellas as I could (presuming that the story synopsis had some appeal for me). I ended up reading 31 of the novellas published in 2015, 35 of the novellas published in 2016, and 46 of the novellas published in 2017 (though a few of those were after Hugo nominations closed).

The result of this was the 2016 Novellapalooza and the 2017 Novellapalooza. I really felt as though I was able to do Hugo nominations for the novella category in an informed way, and a lot of Filers got involved with their own comments. So I’m doing it again this year.

The success and popularity of novellas in the last 4 years seems to have sparked a Golden Age for SFF novellas, with Tor.com, Subterranean Press, NewCon Press, PS Publishing, Book Smugglers, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tachyon bringing out a multitude of works, along with the traditional magazines Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Analog – so there are a lot more novellas to cover this year. By necessity, I’ve gotten to the point of being more selective about which ones I read, based on the synopsis being of interest to me.

It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book despite not feeling that the jacket copy makes the book sound as though it is something I would like – and to discover that I really like or love the work anyway. On the other hand, It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book which sounds as though it will be up my alley and to discover that, actually, the book doesn’t really do much for me.

Thus, my opinions on the following novellas vary wildly: stories I thought I would love but didn’t, stories I didn’t expect to love but did, and stories which aligned with my expectations – whether high or low. Bear in mind that while I enjoy both, I tend to prefer Science Fiction over Fantasy – and that while I enjoy suspense and thrillers, I have very little appreciation for Horror (and to be honest, I think Lovecraft is way overrated). My personal assessments are therefore not intended to be the final word on these stories, but merely a jumping-off point for Filer discussion.

I thought it would be helpful to have a thread where all the Filers’ thoughts on novellas are collected in one place, as a resource when Hugo nomination time rolls around. Which of these novellas have you read? And what did you think of them?

I’ve included plot summaries, and where I could find them, links to either excerpts or the full stories which can be read online for free. Short novels which fall between 40,000 and 48,000 words (within the Hugo Novella category tolerance) have been included.

Please feel free to post comments about any other 2018 novellas which you’ve read, as well.

(Please be sure to rot-13 any spoilers.)

(fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)

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Review: Terror at the Crossroads – Tales of Horror, Delusion, and the Unknown, edited by Emily Hockaday and Jackie Sherbow


By Cora Buhlert: As a reader and writer, I like stories that cross genre boundaries. Therefore, the anthology Terror at the Crossroads – Tales of Horror, Delusion, and the Unknown sounded like something right up my alley.

Editors Emily Hockaday and Jackie Sherbow have combed the pages of Dell’s stable of fiction magazines, i.e. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and assembled a wide range of stories that sit at the intersection between mystery and crime fiction on the one hand and science fiction, fantasy and horror on the other. All stories were originally published between 2010 and 2017.

Now I am somewhat familiar with Analog and Asimov’s, though I’m not a regular reader of either magazine due to the difficulties of getting hold of them in Germany. Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, however, were completely unfamiliar to me. I know that they exist, but I have never read a single issue of either mag. That said, I am an avid reader of short mystery fiction, albeit mostly in German. And in Germany, the genre we call “Krimi” is a lot broader than the US mystery genre and encompasses not just mysteries, but also crime fiction, thrillers, suspense and noir. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised that the stories in this anthology that originated in the two mystery magazines were a lot more varied and experimental than the rather narrow definition of “mystery” in the US sense as “a story about an investigator solving a crime, usually a murder” would suggest.

Quite the contrary, traditional whodunnits were definitely in the minority, even among the stories that originated in the two mystery mags. “Monsieur Alice is Absent” by Stephen Ross, in which a young trainee teacher suspects her more experienced colleague may be a serial killer and sets out to prove it, is probably the closest this anthology gets to a traditional murder mystery. Meanwhile, “Exposure” by A.J. Wright might have been a classic whodunnit under different circumstances. After all, there is a murder, linked to another unexplained death decades ago, and there even is a massive red herring. But instead of following the investigator as they solve the case, we view the events through the eyes of a teenager who is connected to both the victim, the murderer and the unexplained death that links them.

Other stories fall under the broader crime fiction umbrella and tell how and why a crime was committed. The best of these is probably “The Widow Cleans House” by Jason Half, which tells the story of failing relationship, where the fact that a crime was committed only becomes clear at the very end. In fact, most of the crime stories in this anthology involve murders committed inside families and relationships. Other examples are “Pisan Zapra” by Josh Pachter, “Alive, Alive-Oh!” by O.A. Tynan and the above mentioned “Exposure” by A.J. Wright. Coincidentally, all of these stories are straight crime fiction without any speculative elements.

There also are a number of supernatural crime stories such as such Zandra Renwick’s “A Good Thing and a Right Thing”, where a psychic at an archaeological dig witnesses a centuries old crime. In Barbara Nadel’s “Nain Rouge”, a man hunts a folkloristic imp across the ruined cityscape of Detroit. The conclusion is truly chilling, in more ways than one. Meanwhile, Kathy Lynn Emerson’s “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night” is a delightful murder mystery turned werewolf tale set in Elizabethan England. Kit Reed’s fine story “The Outside Event” starts off as a pointed look at the cutthroat rivalry at an exclusive writing retreat, where the narrator’s fellow writers mysteriously vanish, and then turns into a tale of gothic horror halfway through. And in some stories such as Tara Laskowski’s “The Monitor”, a meditation on the stress and fears of new motherhood and the ambiguous feelings of a woman towards her newborn child, there is no crime at all, just a pervading sense of dread.

As might be assumed from an anthology drawn from such a broad range of sources, the settings of the stories vary widely in time and space from Viking Greenland and Elizabethan England via several contemporary or near contemporary Earth settings to a nameless planet in the far future. Even the contemporary and near future Earth stories don’t all share the same familiar US/UK settings. No, there are also stories set in Canada, Ireland, France, Spain, Greenland, Turkey, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Though only one story, “Still Life No. 41” by Catalan author Teresa Solana, was originally penned in a language other than English.

It’s also notable that many of the stories set outside the English-speaking world nonetheless feature British or American protagonists. What is more, a few of these stories carry an unpleasant whiff of colonialism. In some cases, this is intentional such as with Josh Pachter’s “Pisan Zapra”, which traces the revenge of an expat woman in Malaysia on her cheating husband. Hereby, Pachter manages to capture a certain type of self-centred western expat in South East Asia, for whom the locals are invisible except as servants or lovers, very well. At any rate, the story immediately reminded me of the time I spent in Singapore as a young girl. And yes, the bored expats holed up in their country clubs are just as unpleasant in real life as they are in this story, though the expat wives I encountered never resorted to murder (and neither did their husbands), but instead came crying to my mother about their wayward husbands.

On the other end of the scale is “The Empty Space” by Kurt Bachard, a story about a trio of selfish English people visiting a Turkey that is pure Orientalist cliché and seemingly populated only by fakirs and dancing girls. If not for a brief mention of air travel, the story might just as well have been set in the days of the Ottoman Empire, though the depiction of Turkey would have been a cliché even then. The protagonists of “The Empty Space” are so unpleasant (and not deliberately as in “Pisan Zapra”) that you do not care when something awful happens to one of them.

In fact, self-absorbed, whiny and downright unpleasant protagonists are a problem with several of the stories. Examples include “The Empty Space” as well as Teresa Solana’s “Still Life No. 41”, whose museum curator protagonist comes across as a spoiled brat who only cares about her career, even in the face of a dead body appearing in the very museum where she is working. “Alive, Alive-Oh!” by O.A. Tynan features a failed writer  as the protagonist, who is not only a stereotypical entitled white man, but who also literally gets away with murder and is subsequently rewarded with an adoring girlfriend and the second bestseller he craves. The story might work, if it were satire, but I fear it isn’t. “Notes Towards a Novel of Love in the Dog Park” by Louis Bayard is another story with an unlikable writer protagonist (in fact, entitled writer and artists are something of a theme in this anthology), who has nothing better to do than stalk a random couple she sees in the park and plot revenge upon them when it turns out that they are not what she wants them to be.

Quite a few of the stories in this anthology use unusual narrative structures and experiments with form. Megan Arkenberg’s “Final Exam” is a clever story which recounts the intertwined stories of a failing marriage and an invasion by shambling Lovecraftian horrors in the form of a multiple-choice test. The amusing “Lonely Hearts of the Spinward Ring” by Paddy Kelly is told in personal ads, while David Brin’s “Crysalis” is a collage of laboratory reports, interview snippets and literary quotes. Meanwhile, Louis Bayard’s “Notes Towards a Novel of Love in the Dog Park” takes the form of a writer’s brainstorming notes. And Kit Reed’s “The Outside Event”, yet another story with a writer protagonist, combines snippets from the writer’s unfinished novel with messages sent to her boyfriend and confessional tapes in the style of certain reality shows to tell a story of gothic horror at an exclusive writing retreat.

But the best of the stories that experiment with form is Will McIntosh’s “Over There”. The premise is that three graduate students of physics conduct an experiment and manage to split reality in two. From the moment of the split on, the story continues in two columns which recount events “over here” and “over there”. Eventually, both strands combine again for the devastating conclusion. “Over There” is not a pleasant story at all and the ending is a true gut punch, but it’s probably the strongest story in this anthology. At any rate, it’s the one that stayed with me the longest.

Another unsettling story that crosses over into horror territory is “The Deer Girl Hitches a Ride” by Seth Frost, a disturbing road trip across a post-apocalyptic America, where the titular deer girl is not the strangest or most terrifying thing the protagonist encounters. Meanwhile, Rachel L. Bowden’s “The Persistence of Memory” follows two outsiders on the cusp of adolescence in a story that feels very reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Body”. There is a science fictional twist as well – after all, this is an Analog story – but it feels tacked on.

As always with such anthologies, there are some stories that just don’t work. Sadly, most of them are science fiction. One example is “Day 29” by Chris Beckett. The story is chock full of great ideas and fascinating worldbuilding details, but eventually goes nowhere and even wimps out of a dark turn of events that seems to have been set up previously.

Meanwhile, David Brin’s “Chrysalis” is  exactly the sort of story that gives hard science fiction a bad name. It’s basically a biology lecture, complete with cardboard thin characters and jargon-laden “As you know, Bob…” infodumps, in search of a plot. When it finally finds one, the plot is a hoary old “Thou shalt not mess with things man was not meant to know” chestnut that has been with our genre since Frankenstein. Alex Nevala-Lee’s “Cryptids” is better at combining biology and fiction, though in the end the story is still too long and once again turns out to hinge on a very old genre trope indeed, in this case the idea that prehistoric animals have somehow managed to survive in secluded parts of the world.

All in all, this anthology is a mixed bag with some excellent stories, plenty of mediocre ones and a handful of truly bad ones. If you like both science fiction, fantasy and horror as well as mystery and crime fiction and stories that combine those genres, you’re sure to find something to enjoy here.


Cora Buhlert is a teacher, writer, translator, and reviewer living in Bremen, Germany, the city where she was born. She has a Master’s Degree in English, and has taught English linguistics, technical English, and high school English to German students, in addition to performing translations of technical documents. The author of speculative fiction, crime fiction, romance, poetry, and nonfiction, she blogs about her own and others’ works at her website.

The Revolution Will Be Incrementalized: Peter Watts and The Freeze-Frame Revolution


By JJ: Imagine being groomed from birth for a role on an galactic construction ship, on an endless journey to build a cosmic superhighway of wormhole transport gates for humans to use in the far future. Imagine being awakened by the ship’s AI for a few days, as part of a team to assist with a gate build, then spending millennia in cryogenic sleep before being awakened again to work with a different team of people – an endless cycle broken only by the occasional appearance of a strange lifeform as the ship exits at hyperspeed from a newly-constructed gate. Imagine the boredom, the isolation, and the devastating realization of the personal futility of being near-immortal, yet never getting to live a full life. Imagine the anger and resentment at realizing that you’ve been sold a bill of goods about this being your “noble destiny”.

Imagine trying to coordinate a rebellion with your co-workers, when you’re only awake for a few days every several thousand years – with an omnipresent artificial intelligence which has been programmed to protect the ship’s mission at all costs watching your every move, and hearing every word that you say.

This is the premise behind Peter Watts’ Sunflowers series and the just-released novella* The Freeze-Frame Revolution**.

Sunday Ahzmundin is one of 30,000 “spores” – diasporans who were groomed from birth to be sent out on the Eriophora, a cryosleep ship powered by a singularity and accelerated up to one-fifth of lightspeed, on a mission to prepare the way for a future humanity to travel the stars once their technology has advanced to the point where such travel would be possible. But their ship was a last-ditch effort made by a race of troubled people on a poisoned planet, whose survival was far from assured. And the ship left Earth more than 60 million years ago: the spores have no idea whether there are even any humans other than themselves still left alive in the galaxy. They have come to realize that they are living only shallow imitations of real lives – and they’ve discovered that their ship’s AI has been lying to them… about something.

It’s clear that the full story of this universe is something which Watts has had in development for at least a decade, because the worldbuilding in the novelettes “The Island” (which won a Hugo in 2010), “Giants” (2013), and “Hotshot” (2014) is solidly intertwined with that of The Freeze-Frame Revolution. And it is a wonderfully-rich, hard science fiction universe, filled with big concepts and unique imagery woven together in a plausible execution.

I was just as blown away by this fantastic story as I have been by all of his other works. The Freeze-Frame Revolution has earned a place at the top of my Hugo Novella nomination ballot next year – and I will be very surprised if I read anything this year to displace it from its Number 1 spot.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is available right now on Kindle in both the U.S. and the UK, and will be released in paperback on June 12 in the U.S., and on June 28 in the UK.


* the cover says “A Novel”, but the story is 41,300 words, and Watts considers it a novella

** I received a free e-ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

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Book Review: Typhoon Time by Ron S. Friedman

Review by Susan Forest: Typhoon Time is Ron S. Friedman’s debut novel, following hard on Escape Velocity, a collection of ten short stories, all of which were finalists for Writers of the Future. Typhoon Time is a fast-paced, big-cast science fiction thriller that reads like a blockbuster movie.

The story centers on Eric Sobol, an eighty-one-year-old billionaire and survivor of World War II’s holocaust. Diagnosed with brain cancer and given 24 months to live, Sobol turns his vast resources toward taking advantage of a wormhole hidden within a hurricane in the Caribbean Sea, that opens out into 1938. As a child, Sobol was robbed of his mother during a Nazi roundup, and he is determined to use any means possible to prevent World War II.

To this end, Sobol assembles a Mission-Impossible-like team with a computer nerd, historian, forger, Navy Seal, and a brilliant femme fatale, onto a Typhoon-class Russian nuclear submarine armed with two hundred nuclear warheads. Things first go wrong when the team is followed by a Colombian pirate intent on stealing Sobol’s hoard of gold. The entanglement of the pirate’s small ship with the technology that keeps the wormhole open as the submarine passed through to its destination alters Sobol’s plans from the get-go.

From there, the novel takes the reader repeatedly into new territory. Most time travel stories are highly concerned about travel to the past affecting—and destroying—the timeline that is familiar to the story’s characters. From page 1, Typhoon Time is unconcerned about this taboo and instead explores multiple dilemmas and alters history in continually surprising ways. If you think you know anything about the events of World War II—and if you don’t, Typhoon Time catches you up—be prepared to have it turned on its head.

To say more would give away too many spoilers; however, one of the key delights for me in this book was the juxtaposition of modern and historical attitudes, particularly around the agency of women and minorities.

Ron S. Friedman is well-positioned to tell this story. Born in Israel, Ron served in the Israeli army, and understands the military mindset. He has clearly done his research—as a reader who has just finished reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I can see much that is factual, or intentionally altered—but his research is subtle in its influence on the book, providing necessary background for an understanding of the events, but never sidetracking the story.

More than the science fictional expectation of cool technology and a debate over big ideas, though, Typhoon Time is a nail-biting thriller. Chases, explosions, the mafia, Nazis and even cameos by Roosevelt and Einstein fill this novel, and take you from the debauchery of pre-Castro Cuba to Hitler’s eyrie.

Were there elements of Typhoon Time that could be improved? Yes. An occasional key scene was reported from off stage, and the point of view character of the historian lacked agency, but such quibbles did not interfere with the logic chain or the story telling. None of this gets in the way of enjoying the adventure and surprising twists of Typhoon Time.


Three time Aurora finalist, Susan Forest, is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and is an award-winning fiction editor for Laksa Media. Her novel, Bursts of Fire, will be out in 2019, followed by Flights of Marigolds. She has published over 25 short stories, most recently in Analog (March/April, 2018) and Intergalactic Medicine Show (Issue 62). She has appeared at many international writing conventions. Visit her website at https://fineartemis.wordpress.com.

Sufficing

By John Hertz: Here’s one I missed entirely.

I think it’s worth your attention.  It was certainly worth mine.

You now have an excuse given by me to rebuke my not staying in touch with Electronicland.

I knew Baen had started publishing Tim Powers.  I knew a new-assembled collection Down and Out in Purgatory had appeared in 2017.  I’d read the title novella happily – if that word may be used of a Tim Powers story – hmm – with pleasure – hmm – well, awestruckly, when it was published in 2016.

I knew the collection had some twenty tales going back to his first published short fiction from 1982 (which George Scithers, then editing Asimov’s, invited, but didn’t like, so Powers sold it to F & SF).  I saw a nice new copy in a bookshop but didn’t buy it.

Oh, fatal error.  Play in your mind your favorite “Shouldn’t have turned away” music.

I’ve just read it – two weeks after Hugo nominations closed.

At the end I found “Sufficient Unto the Day”, a new Powers short story from 2017.

Not only was it in the paper version – published November 2017; I had three months – it had appeared electronically in the Baen Free Library.

Alas, I can’t nominate it now.  I can’t urge you to.  We can’t vote for it either; it didn’t reach the ballot.  But neither did other things you or I or someone thought worthy.  So it goes.

While we’re all catching up reading so as to think or re-think about what did reach the ballot, I’ll try to tell you why I find this story so swell.  When I did that with another story it helped at least one person.

Powers’ writing is vivid, poetic, and neat.  That’s not the only way to deal with strange things or even the only mighty way. But it does make use of the suggestion The greater the reality, the better the fantasy.  Some of a Powers story seems so ordinary that it heightens the strangeness.

Also Powers is the opposite of Nothing is revealed.  A hundred thirty words into “Sufficient” the main-focus character is in her kitchen, and

At 4 PM on Thanksgiving afternoon she had put on an apron and tied her chestnut hair back in a ponytail and was preparing the accommodation water for certain of the expected guests.

She was preparing what??  All will appear (I’ve warned you about these puns).  I can’t say “Fear not” – this is a Tim Powers story – but it will.

Also once strangenesses arrive they operate quite matter-of-factly.

“So what does my brother say?” Nana asked Shortstack.  Uncle Scuttle had been mute since his death, never having got the trick of vibrating the water surface like a speaker diaphragm, and could only communicate by way of Shortstack’s automatic writing.

Some of his poetic quality is like that.  Only after you’ve imagined what he’s shown you do you notice what a good metaphor he made.

His stories are architectural.  There is a sense – I hesitate to say “plain”, but in a way it is – of a place for everything and everything in its place.  That place could be a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind – or indeed much worse.  You might not belong there, I might not belong there, but what we find there does.  The ribs and spans of the story hold.

“They’re not fishbowls tonight, and get out of here.  If you’ve got to upset your sister, see that you don’t do it in the dining room.”

This to a ten-year-old nephew will seven pages later have its result.

I happen to like the way he waves at outside reading as he goes by.

Her father had always liked Dylan Thomas’ poetry.  “You really think?” asked Biscuit.  Shortstack had paused in prying at a black blob on the muzzle of his revolver.

If you don’t, as with any ornament it’s not essential.

And he jokes.  There are jokes in Dante’s Divine Comedy, there are jokes in Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Powers doesn’t duck or belittle his own creations; their dilemmas are pressing, their horrors are shocking; but this can at the same time be comical.  He doesn’t duck that either.

There are endnotes from him at the end of each story in this collection.  At the end of “Sufficient” he says

This is as close as I’ll probably ever get to writing a James Thurber story like “The Night the Bed Fell”.

Powers fans, however, would not venture a prediction.

Read Every Mountain: Books For Your Mount To-Be-Read

Installation by Alicia Martin

By Daniel Dern: It seems a shame to have the topic of “what’re we reading, what do we recommend” as a late-comer thread (some starting some 400 comments in, give or take) to an existing page (# 39769), which is mostly about con stuff, I suggest we dive into the topic in its own scroll, sic:

Allow me to kick this recommendapalooza-fest with a few that I’ve read (and enjoyed) over the past several months. Note, some aren’t sf or f, some aren’t even fiction — but IMHO they’re the kind of books that Filers and other sf/f fans might (also) enjoy:

PERSEPOLIS RISING, James A. Corey. The seventh novel in THE EXPANSE series. This one starts about three decades after the previous book — soon enough that the protagonists we’ve come to love (James F***ing Holden, Bobbi Draper, Amos, etc.) are still alive and causing trouble trying to solve problems… but long enough that they’re not spring or even summer chickens. I enjoyed this one; as Nero Wolfe says (sparingly), “Satisfactory.”

CODE NAME VERITY. I saw something about this in one of my magazines, which led me to getting it from the library. The prose is incredible compelling, particularly the descriptions of airplane maintenance, aerial views of terrain… and, well, everything else.

I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy info-lifting: (Hmm, there’s two related books, I’ve just gone and library-reserve-requested ’em.)

Code Name Verity is a young adult historical novel by Elizabeth Wein that was published in 2012.[1] It focuses on the friendship between two young British women, one English and one Scottish, in World War II – a spy captured by the Nazis in German-occupied France and the pilot who brought her there. It was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book in 2013, and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

A loose sequel, Rose Under Fire, was published in 2013. A prequel novel, The Pearl Thief, was published in May 2017; it is a mystery involving Code Name Verity’s protagonist Julie one year before the war starts.

THE EMERALD CIRCUS, Jane Yolen. A collection of stories. I’m about halfway through, it feels wrong to read these hastily.

Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS series. Somehow I never tried these before. I picked one up at our town recycling’s take some/leave some book cabin — always great to find an author new to me with 10 or more books I haven’t read yet.

I started enjoying it enough that I set it aside, so I could read them in order. (Brust says that it doesn’t matter what order you read them in, and, five in, I can see that; that said, one method is “order written in” (which I’m doing), or “chrono order”). Medium-rigorous fantasy with interesting politics. Clearly owes a lot to Zelazny’s Amber and other works for attitude, narrative tone also reminds me of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe in spots.

THE RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS, Oliver Sacks. Essays, by the neurologist who brought us “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and other fascinating stuff. The first essay alone, on Darwin’s writings about plants and evolution, could fuel a bookshelf of sf and f stories.

OK, fellow Filers, the bouncing ball is in your court!

Celebrate the Clarke Centenary with a Book Cover Parade

Photo, L to R: Arthur C. Clarke, Evelyn Gold, Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch in 1952. Clarke and Bloch were both born in 1917.

By Bill Higgins: Today is the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s birth. I would’ve liked to attend a Clarke centennial event of some kind, but I live far away from any of them.

I did celebrate in a small way on Twitter: I rounded up links to interesting reviews for each of Sir Arthur’s solo novels, and tweeted them out in chronological order, along with cover art.

 

Review: Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage

By Daniel P. Dern: La Belle Sauvage (note, ‘sauvage’ appears to translate to ‘wild’ or ‘unspoiled’ rather than ‘savage’) is the first of a new trilogy from Pullman, set in the same universe (figuratively and literally, arguably) as his His Dark Materials trilogy — The Golden Compass (a.k.a. Northern Lights),
The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, set about twelve years before the start of Compass, when Lyra Belacqua is a six-month-old baby. The next two books will, according to Pullman, take place almost a decade after the end of his first triology. (So, “prequel, sequel, sequel.”)

I found LBS readable and engaging enough… but unsatisfying in that it didn’t, to me, add to the original trilogy, it’s easy to feel it’s fleshed-out “off-stage” text establishing the world, characters and key plot elements for Materials.

Author Philip Pullman launches La Belle Sauvage, 22 years after his best-selling Northern Lights, at Bodleian Libraries. Image is copyright Anthony Upton 2017©.

Prequels are a challenging proposition, whether done by the original author or by others, as anyone who’s read through the various prequels for Dune, Zelazny’s Amber, Asimov’s Robots’n’Foundations, etc. knows. Some do add to our total sense of enjoyment, some don’t.

Yes, there’s some new/additional information (or theorizing, by the characters) about the nature of “Dust” (“Rusakov particles”)… but I don’t feel that the pre-Materials events involving familiar and new characters added to my previous enjoyment (or concerns) of Pullman’s Materials trilogy. Hopefully it will pay off in Books 2 and 3, and perhaps they will justify LBS as needed to establish these new characters and the formative events they went through.

Anyhoo, that’s my non-spoiler philosophic reader’s opinion. I don’t resent the time reading this book, but having done so, I feel that I would have not been the worse or less for not reading it. I do look forward to reading Books 2 and 3, and conceded that I may feel differently about Book 1 after that; perhaps it’s best put on the “wait until the series is done” pile.

Meanwhile, here’s a few quick non-spoiler details, notes and thoughts.

The main protagonist of La Belle Sauvage is an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm. (La Belle Sauvage is the name of his canoe.)

Through circumstance (when not in school or doing other things, Malcom works in his parents’ pub), Malcolm becomes involved and embroiled with/in, unsurprisingly, Dust, Lord Asrael, Mrs. Coulder, (baby) Lyra, witches, etc. (But no Bears.)

Although La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, if you haven’t read the Materials trilogy, you should read those books first, in my opinion, so you have a better understanding of the world that Pullman has created.

One thought — I’m not sure if it qualifies as a criticism, or is simply a question — is baby Lyra as the anti-MacGuffin. Since Lyra is the lead protagonist in Materials, it’s a given that, barring some comicbook-or-Game-Of-Thrones-level “dead — no, alive again” plot contortions, it’s a good bet that Baby MacG will survive basically unscathed. This, IMHO, seriously turns down the dramatic tension, and also makes LBS feel less like it has a “plot” than “a sequence of related events.” And similarly, while the book is introducing us to a cast of new characters, and expanding the backstory for those we already know from Materials, it doesn’t feel like the plot, or peoples’ actions, are integral… Pullman could just as easily written ten or twenty character study summaries.

But, like I posit above, LBS may legitimately be a necessary set-up to Books 2 and 3. Only time will tell.

2017 Novellapalooza

[Editor’s note: be sure to read the comments on this post for more novellas and more Filer reviews.]

By JJ: I’m a huge reader of novels, but not that big on short fiction. But the last couple of years, I’ve done a personal project to read and review as many Novellas as I could (presuming that the story synopsis had some appeal for me). I ended up reading 31 of the novellas published in 2015 and 35 of the novellas published in 2016 (though a few of those were after Hugo nominations closed).

Last year, the result of this was the 2016 Novellapalooza. I really felt as though I was able to do Hugo nominations for the novella category in an informed way, and a lot of Filers got involved with their own comments. So I decided to do it again this year.

The success of Tor’s novella line seems to have sparked a Golden Age for SFF novellas, with Subterranean Press, NewCon Press, PS Publishing, and Book Smugglers jumping on the bandwagon, as well as the Big 3 magazines and the online fiction venues – so there are a lot more novellas to cover this year. Toward the end, I’ve gotten to the point of being more selective about which ones I read, based on the synopsis.

It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book despite not feeling that the jacket copy makes the book sound as though it is something I would like – and to discover that I really like or love the work anyway. On the other hand, It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book in such a case, and to discover that, indeed, the book doesn’t really do much for me.

Thus, my opinions on the following novellas vary wildly: stories I thought I would love but didn’t, stories I didn’t expect to love but did, and stories which aligned with my expectations – whether high or low. Bear in mind that while I enjoy both, I tend to prefer Science Fiction over Fantasy – and that while I enjoy suspense and thrillers, I have very little appreciation for Horror (and to be honest, I think Lovecraft is way overrated). My personal assessments are therefore not intended to be the final word on these stories, but merely a jumping-off point for Filer discussion.

I thought it would be helpful to have a thread where all the Filers’ thoughts on novellas are collected in one place, as a resource when Hugo nomination time rolls around. Which of these novellas have you read? And what did you think of them?

Please feel free to post comments about any other 2017 novellas which you’ve read, as well.

(Be sure to rot-13 any spoilers.)

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Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Review by Mike Glyer:  Three of the four short novels in Joe Hill’s Strange Weather merge nightmarish technology and mythic predicaments in a way bound to fascinate sff fans, while the fourth is rooted in gun-related horrors the daily news won’t let us escape. All four tales are radically enriched by Hill’s exploration of the characters’ interior lives and relationships.

Joe Hill takes questions before signing at Vroman’s in Pasadena on May 25, 2016.

Years ago I lamented the fact that while a commercially-successful author like James Michener filled his epic bestsellers with heart-tugging characters, science fiction remained exclusively populated by the same two-dimensional figures that had marked it from the beginning, possessing just enough heroism and sentiment to explore the idea that was the reason for the story. That changed a generation ago, but I always appreciate a writer like Joe Hill, who’s ready to explore why someone makes the choices he or she does when plunged into the crucible of a science fictional crisis.

George Alec Effinger once explained that if you had a certain goal – like writing an sf novel that was also a mystery — you had to “budget” the wordage needed to honor the tropes of each genre. Similarly, for Joe Hill to drill into his characters’ backgrounds and emotional lives as he does in these short novels requires more wordage to unfold than it would to isolate on the sf/horror ideas underlying them had they been written in the days of sf’s pulp origins.

Snapshot

In Snapshot, a 13-year-old nerd finds himself the only force standing between an elderly couple and the menace of “The Phoenician,” a tattooed thug with a mysterious Polaroid-style camera that erases memories snap by snap.

The nerd, named Mike, tinkers on all kinds of projects, his latest being a confetti-firing party gun which obligingly obeys Chekov’s Law by the end of the story.

The wife in the couple once was a younger Mike’s caregiver, someone who helped raise him and now seems mentally ravaged by age. Although the “real” reason is an otherworldly camera in the hands of an evildoer, Hill takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore the end of human life, memory, and the loss of relationships in the face of frailty and illness.

Snapshot summoned the same emotional response from me as Keith Laumer’s “Long Remembered Thunder,” which is about a student who has to master an alien weapon to save his teacher and the person she loves. But I would add that while Laumer worked within a narrower frame of archetypes and sentiment, Hill frequently hits on compelling psychological, ethical and spiritual truths about his characters.

If Snapshot has any weakness, it’s that the story has more than one ending. Somebody needed to tell the author the story was over. Not that the extra wordage did any harm to my enjoyment of what had gone before – and maybe Hill just needed me to see what happened later on to an interesting family, the way Tolkien planned to do at the end of The Lord of the Rings until his friends talked him out of it.

Loaded

Loaded, the second short novel, is inspired by America’s gun culture, racial injustice, and the routine bloody sacrifice of fact-based truth at the altar of patriotic mythology. It’s painful to read, with a constant flow of tragedy, not just a tragic ending.

This is horror. Just keep waiting for the people you like to die. They will.

Aloft

Aubrey Griffin doesn’t really want to jump out of an airplane, he just wants to impress Harriet, and is on the verge of backing out until fate intervenes in the form of a strange-looking cloud.

He’s yet another of Joe Hill’s fat, farting heroes whose self-indulgence and denial must be explored on the way to unraveling the protagonist’s one-sided romantic aspirations, before he finally realizes he won’t be missed from the world any more than the guy in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath.

Aubrey Griffin’s abortive parachute jump lands him on an impossibly solid cloud, where his human willingness to yield to delusions and wish-fulfillment may cost him his life. Aloft revolves around an idea that’s a classic sf mix of myth and mystery, made science fictional by repeated hints that it might all be a product of alien technology. Hill effectively draws on traditions like Shakespeare’s Caliban, the trials of Psyche in classical literature, and doubtless even more things than I recognized.

What is the cloud really made of? Will Aubrey survive? Having just read Loaded, I was feeling that was unlikely, and was marking time til the author arbitrarily decided which of the many dumb decisions Aubrey was making ought to be the one that killed him. Instead, Hill surprised me, and in the end it’s a new life, not the afterlife, that Aubrey is headed for.

Rain

The final of these four novels is Rain. On a seemingly ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, the clouds open up in a downpour of crystal spikes that tear apart everyone who can’t quickly get to cover. The first casualties include the protagonist’s girlfriend. The protagonist, Honeysuckle Speck, is a black lesbian and the girlfriend was in the middle of moving in on that fateful day.

And the neighborhood she was moving to is loaded with characters —

  • Russian expat dope dealers
  • a kid who likes to pretend to be a vampire
  • a house full of cultists and their leader

— not to mention loving mothers and absent fathers.

The crystal rain is not a single Fortean event — Hill pays Vonnegut a brief homage – this climate calamity is spanning the world and might be irreversible, reminiscent of Ice-9.

Honeysuckle wants to tell her girlfriend’s family what has happened, but can’t raise them on the phone, so she decides it’s her duty to walk to Denver and tell them, despite the risk of further shard-filled stormclouds. This quest also gives Hill his wanted opening to view the human race breaking down under the strain, to honor those who unexpectedly prove to be remaining pillars of social order, and to show how quickly the jackals come out.

Hill is very inventive and sometimes has trouble “killing his darlings,” getting rid of a really clever bit of wordplay that breaks character or throws you out of the narrative. (Like a reviewer who refuses to strike a gaudy phrase like “climate calamity.”) However, most of them remain carefully embedded in the flow of the story and ring true as insights the characters discover about themselves.

The quest and the view of many different people under pressure would seem like the point of the story – and it really is. Maybe Rain is another story with more endings than it needs, because before it concludes Hill also reveals how the weather crisis was caused, in a rather Twilight Zone-married-to-the-X-Files kind of way. But no harm was done, I didn’t become any less interested as he worked through the denouement, so neither I nor Hippocrates have reason to object.

Joe Hill, of course, is known as one of America’s leading horror writers. I come away from this collection rethinking my notions about the horror genre – which I not only identify with dark events and toxic emotional experiences, but with portentous and slow-as-molasses reveals. Strange Weather’s four short novels all move right along, quickly dispatching characters to meet their trouble or doom, and mapping the way with a personal history that needs to be solved just as much as the monster/invention/disaster that may end everyone before they can. I don’t know whether this book has made me a fan of horror, but it’s certainly made me a fan of Joe Hill.

Joe Hill meets Ray Bradbury for the first time at 2009 Comic-Con. Photo by John King Tarpinian.