Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Hugo nominees 1997

Disclaimer: Some reviews contain spoilers. The following pearls were written during the voting period for Hugos for that year, so I'm sure some of my opinions have softened since then with the acquisition of greater wisdom.
NOVEL

  • Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen hc, Oct 96, $22 0671-87743-7)
    Mirror Dance was a difficult jumping-on point for me with the whole Vorkosigan saga, but I liked it anyway. This sequel of sorts also makes numerous references to previous adventures, and while it isn't necessary to have read them, it would probably help. But having said that, this book succeeds spectacularly on the two fronts of Miles soul-searching following his dismissal from ImpSec, and the whodunit involving his former boss that he sets about solving. Although the perpetrator may be obvious in hindsight, Bujold throws enough red herrings along the way to keep you guessing anyway. The action is almost entirely planet-bound, so whether that will put off the regular readers of this series enough to keep it from winning is debatable, plus it faces stronger competition than Mirror Dance. Bujold seems to be single-handedly redefining space opera for this generation of readers, by using real characters and interesting situations, which doesn't sound all that innovative but then how come nobody did it before?
  • Remnant Population, Elizabeth Moon (Baen pb, Mar 97, $5.99, 0671-87770-4, Baen hc, May 96, $22, 0671-87718-6)
    From about page 10 you can tell that this is a science fiction novel written by a fantasy writer. Not that this is a bad thing, but her style, what she focuses on and what she slides past, makes it apparent. This book sets up a fairly engaging first contact scenario, with the nameless aliens suddenly making their presence known only after 40 years of human colonization abruptly ends, and one lone old woman decides to stay behind. The alien culture is fairly well depicted, and even the human corporations are surprisingly diplomatic. There is very little dramatic tension in the book to speak of; you don't believe for a minute that Ofelia, the protagonist, is in any danger, because she's the only human character in the middle two-thirds of the book. I think this book succeeds as a good story, although it doesn't grapple very intently or convincingly with its underlying ideas of aloneness and alienness. The main problem is that, lacking any deeper narrative drive, the book is way too long. As a novella, I think Moon could have developed the ideas about the same, with a lot less filler of Ofelia teaching the aliens English.
  • Blue Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins Voyager; Bantam Spectra hc, Jul 96, $22.95, 0553- 10144-7, Bantam pb, Jul 97, $6.99, 0553-57335-7)
  • Starplex, Robert J. Sawyer (Ace pb, Oct 96, $5.99, 0441-00372-9)
    There are only a few hard science writers anymore who write books that are halfway interesting. Greg Bear would be the first name to spring to mind, and I think that now firmly in control of second and heading for a challenge for number one is Robert Sawyer, who surprised me tremendously with The Terminal Experiment last year, and this year comes back with a hard science yarn set on the space station Starplex that is so overflowing with sense of wonder it makes you want to burn the complete works of Arthur C. Clarke. In practically every chapter, Sawyer presents new ideas about, among other things, the origins of dark matter, the end of the universe, the formation of galaxies, and his characters are just as blown away by it all as we are. This book is more focused than Terminal Experiment, it contains a space battle that revels in the limitations of how real-science space battles would be fought, and handles two alien races, intelligent dolphins, and sentient grids of stars with equal deftness, all in just a few hundred pages. Win or lose, I would think this is a future classic.
  • Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (Orion; Bantam Spectra hc, Oct 96, $22.95, 0553-09958-2)
    After the extermely lightweight cyberpunk entry by William Gibson a couple of years ago, I approached this book with some trepidation. Add to that I'm not a big fan of Sterling's short fiction, and this was my first novel of his, but I was pleasantly surprised. In a not-too-distant future where people live for a couple of hundred years, one old woman Mia Ziemann, decides to have an experimental process done that turns back the clock and allows her to start over as a 20-year old, without much memory of her previous life. Sterling's exploration of being a young person in an old person's world is meticulously thought out, and when you add to that the main character's "young person who used to be an old person" in an old people's world, it's even more interesting. Sterling globetrots around with the jetset, exploring the European fashion world like Judith Krantz, lots of meetings in cafes like Jean Cocteau, and really not much of a plot, like the aforementioned Mr. Gibson. But enough ideas are presented and the future is interesting enough that you can almost forgive him.
  • NOVELLA

  • 'Immersion', by Gregory Benford (SF Age, March 1996)
    This story kind of reads like a screenplay, albeit a well-thought out, exceedingly big-budgeted screenplay, but it's an enjoyable romp nonetheless. The main character, a sort of social historian, and his wife are taking some time off and become interested in "Immersion", where people can temporarily inhabit the bodies of chimps. It turns out there's a guy out to get them, and one day the couple find themselves trapped inside their chimp hosts, and on the run from their pursuer, who only has to kill the chimps to kill them and make it look accidental. Benford, who isn't an anthropologist, nevertheless goes to great lengths to think out all the ways that people would try to make chimp bodies work, and how much or little resistance the chimp physiognomy would provide to those methods, such as running over long distances, or using a knife. Interesting that this story alone was nominated out of all the ones in SF Age, mostly because there is a shortage of novellas this year due to cutbacks at Bertelsmann before they sold Analog and Asimovs. A worthy contender, but I don't know that it'll stick with me.
  • 'Blood of The Dragon', by George R. R. Martin (Asimov's, July 1996)
    If this story were by anyone else I would probably be saying ho-hum, but under Martin's expert care this tale, which typifies to me all the usual boring tropes of fantasy, is actually very well told. The protagonist is the ubiquitous young girl sold into marriage to help advance the fortunes of her brother, the ubiquitous man who would be king. Along the way she learns to love the ubiquitous old warrior she's been married to, and turns against her brother, who was kind of a jerk anyway. But that's only the first half of the story (which is only part of a novel, after all), and in the second half Martin throws in some black magic, some dragons, and some fairly poignant scenes where the heroine, facing the prospect of a suddenly grim future, must sacrifice just about everyone and everything to save her husband's life, only to euthanize him later when she realizes his life isn't what he would have wanted. Martin succeeds maybe because he doesn't get bogged down in the details of the scenery, the historical and political interrelationships of the characters is not beaten over your head with a club, and he leaves out a good amount of stuff that's just as well left out. As a result we have a big stew of fantasy ideas, handled deftly by someone best known as a writer of science fiction. The story is at times depressing, but unflinchingly honest, and the main characters are well presented. Maybe too much fantasy for the Hugo crowd, but a strong contender anyway.
  • 'Time Travelers Never Die', by Jack McDevitt (Asimov's, May 1996)
    A good, solid time travel story reminiscent of Poul Anderson's Time Patrol stories, except in this case it's a Time Patrol of two guys who just jump around in time to witness historic events and meet famous people of history. Things go sour when one of the guys, the one who discovered the process of time travelling, turns up dead, and it's up to his fellow traveler and his girlfriend to figure out what happened. Some interesting questions are dealt with realistically, such as the problem of knowing how you will meet your demise and how to face it, particularly when things start to fall apart in the timestream for everyone else while your paradox exists. The usual paradoxes come up and are dealt with fairly casually, but McDevitt seems to take the subject seriously without spending an inordinate amount of time on causality and changing the past and all the stuff. He just leaves it at "It shouldn't be done", although an interest paradox develops at the end when the main guy has basically died twice, and the other two characters have to recreate his death with someone else in the past, only to have it look like it was really someone else in the first place. The ending is a nice touch too, where the protagonist goes off in search of his friend who has come back one last time to take away the woman both of them love. Not too long, plenty of food for thought, and not too technical, all in all a major success.
  • 'The Cost to Be Wise', by Maureen F. McHugh (Starlight 1)
    As is the way with most writers of high-quality short fiction, that fiction has recently dried up in the magazines at the expense of working on novels and selling stories to original anthologies. This entry then was eagerly anticipated, and as a result a crushing disappointment. McHugh seems to have taken on a bit of Leguinitis, where characters and setting are introduced and manipulated, but nothing much comes of any of it. This story reads like a part of a novel (and sure enough her next novel is set in the same universe), and is interesting on its own terms, but the payoff is so subtle that I had trouble with it. The protagonist is a youngish girl on a harsh colony world that has been a colony for so long they've lost all connection with Earth. She takes to a visitor, Veronique, who has come from offworld with her teacher. During her stay the camp is invaded by outrunners, the typical marauding horde who start by taking advantage of everyone but end up just trashing the place and killing all the natives. The two girls escape and call for help by means of some very out-of-place technology given to them by one of the other teachers. Help comes, takes away the offworld girl, and leaves the indiginous population to their fate. Much is made during the story of the colonists solving their own problems, and the ending presumably ties into the harsh realities of adhering to this, but I was left unimpressed. McHugh's prose is spare and compelling, the main characters are well handled, but either she's not trying very hard, or this was lifted from a larger work mostly unchanged. From many writers this would be sufficient but from McHugh I expected better.
  • 'Abandon in Place', by Jerry Oltion (F&SF, December 1996)
    This is either the best story of the bunch or the worst, depending on how the reader feels about the ending. The style, which Oltion describes as "hard science fantasy" is unusual enough, and the plot, dealing with a ghost Apollo spaceship that shows up on the launch pad one day and how three people take it to the moon and back, is handled just seriously enough to keep it from pretentiousness and silliness at the same time. Oltion conveys a tremendous reverence for the glory days of the Apollo program, such that those of us who lived through it but were too young to appreciate its momentous place in history are filled with a sort of bittersweet nostalgia, because I can remember it happening, but I wasn't old enough to really take it all in. Oltion goes through the launch, the flight to the moon, and the landing with painstaking detail, and when there's only about five pages left to get you back to Earth you start to get suspicious. Along the way, the ship has been occasionally fading, becoming almost immaterial for a few seconds at a time, and the crew ultimately links this to the protagonist, Rick, and his feelings towards popular opinion of the space program. When things are going well and he starts to believe that moon colonies and what have you could actually happen, the ship starts to disappear, thereby making it a ghost of his own perception of the Apollo era and what might have been. At the very end, after a successful re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, the story literally leaves them hanging as Rick's optimism surges to such a level that the spacecraft disappears completely, and at the last sentence the three crew members are free-falling into the ocean from about a thousand feet up. On a second reading, knowing it was coming, it was less maddening and I suppose a case could be made for why that's the best way to end it. After all the story is about the trip itself and the emotions of the people involved, and the aftermath is just as open-ended as it would be in real life. The fact that they expect to survive the fall but all their rock samples will disappear into the ocean lends itself to the dream-like, fantasy quality of the whole mission, that there would be no tangible evidence of the trip. Of all the stories I read last year, this is one of the ones that stuck with me the most, partially because of the ending, but also just the sense of wonder over something that really used to exist. There are other good stories in this category, but this one gets my vote.
  • 'Gas Fish', by Mary Rosenblum (Asimov's, February 1996)
    Not the most memorable Rosenblum story I've read recently, but there's nothing really to say against it, either. The Gas Fish of the title is a dolphin-shaped robot equipped with an AI that turns out to have been created from the personality of the dead son of the protagonist, an investigative reporter looking into the project to see where the money is coming from and what they expect to gain by it. If that sounds like a coincidence, it turns out to Rosenblum's credit that it really isn't, that the reporter has been set up by the company funding the project to expose it so that they can pull the plug on it without looking bad. When he decides instead that he'd like to see the project continue so that his son's personality can live on in Jonah, the experimental robot, the company must resort to more primitive measures. Several twists and turns, with characters smart enough to recognize them as twists and turns, even if they don't necessarily figure them out ahead of time. The science part, with the robot set up as probe to swim around in the atmosphere of Jupiter looking for stuff we can use back on Earth, is a neat idea. The characters are a little stereotyped, but not painfully so. I think the lack of characterization may be what keeps this story from standing out more, sort of unusual for Rosenblum, but with the science and the mystery plot at the forefront this reads more like something written by one of the interchangable clanky sf writers at Analog.
  • NOVELETTE

  • 'Age of Aquarius', by William Barton (Asimov's, May 1996)
    I'm a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic yarn, and Barton delivers with not only just about the only nuclear holocaust story I've read in recent years, but one of the best. Back when I first started reading sf, books like Alas, Babylon were classics and Dean Ing's Pulling Through was topical. Now the nuclear menace has faded, but it's nice to get a nineties perspective on what would have happened had the Cuban Missile Crisis not been resolved. Barton's conjecture is that there weren't enough bombs to wipe out Western civilization then, so America survives, although it takes a while for the protagonist to come though it. Barton's choice of a teenage boy dreaming of Barsoom and wanting to be somewhere else is well-designed, and he ties it in very well with real events, although the purpose isn't so much to look at this scenario as alternate history as to show the dreams we young sf readers had weren't so far off base after all. Barton is the relative unknown in this category, but this story is hard to beat.
  • 'Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast', by Suzy McKee Charnas (Asimov's, March 1996)
    A well-told version of Phantom of the Opera, told from the point of view of the woman, and with the "real" ending. Charnas has taken on a flowery fin de siecle style in this first person narrative, and there are times when you might as well be reading a romance novel, but the story never loses track of its purpose or its origins. With lots of singing technique and opera references, the story is well-researched, and though on the long end of a novelette it never really loses its drive. Both the protagonist and the "Phantom" come off as much more interesting characters than in the Lloyd Webber version, enough so that you don't mind the "searing passion" phraseology that creeps in once and awhile. Altogether a successful and fresh perspective on a familiar story.
  • 'Mountain Ways', by Ursula K. Le Guin (Asimov's, August 1996)
    Finally, Le Guin gives us a story about characters, rather than just creating a setting with some odd sexual politics and wallowing in it, and it works immensely. I've said before that Le Guin's recent stories seem to take place in societies where either one sex or the other is subjugated, but she breaks that trend here, instead opting for a marriage consisting of two men and two women, with various permitted and forbidden pairings among them. Into this structure comes a woman who already knows who her female marriage partner will be, but falls in love with a different woman instead, and convinces her to pass as a man in order to complete the foursome. Unlike most Le Guin stories, this idea could actually have been explored in more depth than she chooses to here, but the resulting story is still quite well done and provocative enough regarding people's expectations and how they change from before marriage until well into it. The setting is barely touched upon other than references to sheep-farming and such. Does wonders to restore my faith in why I like Le Guin in the first place.
  • 'The Land of Nod', by Mike Resnick (Asimov's, June 1996)
    Resnick takes the Kirinyaga series one story too many in this final installment, I'm sorry to say. Coming across as mostly an afterthought, we get a glimpse of what happened to Koriba once he left Kirinyaga in "When the Old Gods Die", and it's kind of pathetic. The former mundumugu comes across not just as a stranger in a strange land, but as kind of sanctimonious and, although never explicitly stated, kind of off his rocker. He meets up with an old man who is guarding a clone of an extinct elephant, and as a kind of last hurrah decides to set it free and live out his days back at the original mountain called Kirinyaga. Having failed to establish a Kikuyu utopia, his last efforts are spent towards attaining a kind of personal utopia. Not much is done with these ideas, Koriba seems to be uncharacteristically mulish towards a contemporary society that after all he grew up in, and the story just doesn't seem to connect with the others. Resnick has commented that while several of these stories have been nominated, only those with African words in the titles have actually won. I would expect that trend to continue here.
  • 'Bicycle Repairman', by Bruce Sterling (Intersections; Asimov's, October 1996)
    A more coherent story than "Deep Eddy", Sterling's last short fiction nominee, and set in the same milieu. The fact that the setting is already more or less a given may help this story, but on the other hand Sterling doesn't seem to spend inordinate amounts of time reveling in the cyberpunkiness of the story's backdrop, and is free to spend more time on such things as character and plot. The latter, where the eponymous hero is seduced by a woman who is really after a mysterious package he has recently received, isn't particularly inspired, but the two principal characters are interesting enough and a couple of the supporting characters stand out as well. Having finally read a Sterling novel, I'm starting to think that his style benefits more from the longer forms, because here as elsewhere in his short stories, he just doesn't have much to say.
  • SHORT STORY

  • 'Gone', by John Crowley (F&SF, September 1996)
    This quiet little story speaks volumes, and makes you stand back and appreciate Crowley's craft without even realizing it. The plot as such revolves around aliens who have shown up suddenly on Earth, and go around selecting individuals to "say Yes", although precisely to what no one is certain. The main character is estranged from her husband and daughter, and wants to agree to the aliens request, even though she doesn't know what it means. As a result, she is able to move forward in her own interior struggle. A nicely done, evocative, poignant vignette.
  • 'Decency', by Robert Reed (Asimov's, June 1996)
    An old-fashioned sort of sf story from a writer who just doesn't get enough recognition, maybe because he has yet to write a breakaway popular sf novel. The denizens of Earth are surprisingly passive and excited when it is discovered an alien craft is heading straight for them. It crashlands and is found to contain one alien occupant, who has suffered mortal injuries. The protagonist is a man who takes it upon himself to put the alien out of its misery. This alone is a neat idea, and the postscript about when the aliens come back to reward him is nicely done, too. If Reed can't win it with this one, I don't know what will do it.
  • 'The Dead', by Michael Swanwick (Starlight 1)
    Swanwick weighs in with this fairly lightweight entry that deals with zombies, and what would happen if they were brought back to life specifically to do work that humans could do. But in the confines of a short story, he covers a broad canvas that doesn't really develop any of the possibilities, only expresses them, and dwells the most on the gratuitous postulation that zombies would make better sex partners. Full of potential, but not focused enough for this format.
  • 'Un-Birthday Boy', by James White (Analog, February 1996)
    I discovered James White because he was guest of honor at my first Worldcon, and enjoyed tremendously Hospital Station and The Watch Below, and liked just about everything else I read. This story is very readable, but feels like it could just as easily have been written thirty years ago. A young orphan grapples with the questions of why he is treated differently from everyone else, to the extent that because he was a foundling his adoptive family never celebrates his birthday and doesn't even give him a name. As it turns out, he's human but his family is not, which explains the extreme behavior. A good story, but not award material.
  • 'The Soul Selects Her Own Society . . .', by Connie Willis (Asimov's, April 1996; War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches)
    This is barely a story, weighing in at only seven pages, and half of them are footnotes, but it is a hilarious thesis on a couple of newly discovered Emily Dickinson poems that prove that H.G. Wells' Martians landed in Amherst several years after the poet's death. The most amusing revelation is that many of Dickinson's best known poems can be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas". This was just about the only memorable story that I saw reprinted from this anthology, and is a tour de force on several levels in a small space, but I can't bring myself to vote it a Hugo.

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