One of My Favorite SF Stories

Nancy Jane Moore is curating a new Favorite Science Fiction poll at Book View Café Blog expressly offered as a counterpoint to the canvass of favorite sf recently taken by at NPR. Her poll is governed by 7 rules that might as easily have been inspired by public outcry against the dread Guardian poll. For example:

2. The I’m Tired of Hearing About the Golden Age Rule.

4. The Sop to Short Fiction Writers Rule: Short stories, novellas, novelettes — all are OK.

7. The Expanded Russ Pledge Rule: There’s a lot of superb SF that wasn’t written by white men in the U.S. and U.K. Include it.

I’m not a habitual poll-taker. If I responded to this one I would certainly list Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Borders of Infinity,” one of the five best sf novellas I’ve ever read.

I didn’t begin reading the Vorkosigan saga until 1997 – I remember, because I bought my first Bujold novel in a bookstore while waiting for Titanic to start in a nearby theater.

What makes “Borders of Infinity” a favorite of mine? That may come from wanting to identify with how Miles – a man – meets the challenge of being dropped into a POW camp with nothing (literally, as camp inmates rob him of his clothing as soon as he arrives), then overcomes his own fear and despair to create relationships that help lead everyone to freedom.  If the liking is to some extent gender-based, well, what we bring to stories has a lot to do with why some are our favorites, no?

Years later when I became conscious of the high esteem I felt for this oft-reread novella I wondered if it had won both the Hugo and Nebula, or just one of them. And I was astonished to discover it failed to win any awards. It wasn’t even nominated.

There was a reasonable explanation, however. “Borders of Infinity” had been eclipsed by another Bujold novella published the same year, “Mountains of Mourning,” which did win both awards. (I really should have remembered that, having written about Bujold’s problem with her 1990 Hugo in Mimosa 14.)

In the context of the times the voters’ choice makes sense. In 1989 the Vorkosigan saga had barely begun. “Mountains of Mourning” revealed many new and fascinating details about Miles and his homeworld. While both stories delivered the kind of emotional punch that is a hallmark of Bujold’s early work, the winning novella commented most directly about women’s lives in a patriarchal society. I like the winning story a great deal, too.

An additional reason award voters may have had for favoring “Mountains of Mourning” is that as an sf mystery it had to satisfy the requirements of both genres. On the mystery side, that meant the reader had to be allowed a fair chance to see the evidence the detective used to solve the mystery before that solution was revealed. In contrast, at the end of “Borders of Infinity” readers learn a teensy little (well, hugely important actually) bit of information known to Miles from the beginning has been left unmentioned, giving a deus ex machina feel to the resolution.

Can’t say that bothered me – even the prisoners in the story suspect Miles has an unrevealed reason for orchestrating things as he does, and success depends on Miles overcoming a series of challenges without help from the outside.

But I understand these storyteller sleight-of-hand tricks bother some more than others. Like the way some are incensed that in the middle of E. T. when it looks like the title character has suffered a tragic demise, he is restored by some ill-explained phony-baloney medical coincidence. My take — no problem! Aren’t you happier E. T. isn’t dead and it isn’t the end of the movie? And do we want Miles to fail and die in that prison camp? Certainly not! 

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