Friday, July 19, 2019

My Hugo award votes 2019 part 3: novellas

All stories in the novella category were worse this year than last year. Some of them were at best fairly good, but most of them were pretty contrived and tried too much to be “literate” at the cost of readability and plot. The order of the stories was pretty easy to decide, as there were two stories I enjoyed pretty much, three that were okay and one I pretty much hated. The two best stories were both parts of a series, which is always a drawback when considering whether the story is award worthy or not. The order of those two could go both ways, but I decided to put the one with a more satisfying plot in the first place. The last place was obvious, and the order of the other stories was also fairly easy to determine.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
The story continues with last year’s nominee pretty much straightaway. The killerbot is trying to find out what happened to it earlier when it apparently had lost its mind and killed all humans on a mine where it was working. To find clues, it returns to the place where the massacre happened. On the way, it encounters a ship mind with which the bot makes friends, as much as there can be friendship between artificial intelligences, and the ship mind helps the killerbot look less like a bot and more like an augmented human. For permission to get to the mine the bot hires himself out as a security consultant for a small team that needs a backup for a business negotiation. It seems obvious that the “negotiation” is a setup for an ambush, and, as it turns out to be so, the killerbot finds itself helping its new friends. A pretty good and entertaining story, but not as good as the first part of the series.

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

The story continues pretty straight from the last part. Unfortunately, it isn’t better than the middle part, but worse. Anything that was wrong in the first two installments is even more wrong in this one.
Binti faces hard tasks, her family is apparently murdered for poorly defined reasons and she must mediate a peace treaty between two factions who have hated each other for generations for some very contrived reasons. The plot is hard to follow and confusing, the “science” described is beyond stupid, the main character is as irritating (or even more irritating) as ever and she is (like apparently all her people) hopelessly stuck in old customs and behaviors (and apparently that is considered a GOOD thing by the author). She endlessly worries about otjize, a clay/mud her people have traditionally used on their skin to repel insects. She worries about that so much, that the word “otjize” is mentioned 80 (!) times during the novella, and even if the story is badly overlong, it isn’t very long. And she uses that mud even when there is no need for it, even in a space ship and at her school, even if it constantly scales off. The cleaning personnel must REALLY, REALLY hate her. And/or her quarters must be filthy like a pig pen. This will go under “no award” at my Hugo voting.

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
An alternative world where the American Civil War ended in a stalemate, airships are commonly used for transportation (and war) and some magical elements are real. A young teen lives on the streets of New Orleans. She aims higher than being on small-time crook: she wants to get on an airship. She has a bargaining point: some secret info about a secret weapon and contacts a smuggler airship (which is secretly an espionage ship). The situation is fairly volatile. New Orleans is, in principle, free, unaffiliated and demilitarized, but is filled with spies of all parties of former wars. Southern states still use slaves, which were made docile by a gas which robs all initiative. A fairly good story, but the setting is overly complicated: maybe just one or two differences of the real world would have been enough.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Ecosystems have been destroyed and humanity has spent a long time in the caves. Now the world is being reclaimed and ecosystems are being replanned. Someone gets an idea to study carefully ancient riverbeds to restore new ones. So they book a trip to 2000 BC to survey the Mesopotamic area. The first half of the story is pretty dull and deals mostly with project management - or even worse, talking about project management. So, a team where some of the members are “enhanced” with goat legs or with the lower body with tentacles instead if feet are sent to the past. Everything doesn’t go smoothly. The story felt overlong, and the motivations of the characters were unclear and contrived. And the ending was very sudden and seemed to leave things hanging.

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
It continues a series about children who have traveled to different worlds when they have been unhappy in the “real” world. This story continues pretty directly the first part while the second part (which was nominated last year) was kind of a prequel. This time it turns out that the death of one youth in the first part has unseen consequences. She was supposed to return to her “world”, defeat an evil witch, and become the benevolent ruler of the world and to have a daughter. As she died, that will not happen. As her world behaves in a nonsensical way at a different timestream, the events she might have done have already happened and start to unravel shortly after her death - including her future daughter. The children of Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children must find a way to resurrect the dead girl and to achieve that they must visit several different worlds. Another very well written and good installment of the series, easily at the same level as the earlier ones.

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
The story apparently happens in the same Chinese derivative nepotistic world as many of her other works. This time the focus isn’t on the ruling families, but on a ship intelligence who tries to earn her living by making tea blends. Together with a mysterious woman, they try to solve the death of an unknown woman. A bit better than some of the other stories by the same author (I have never been a great fan of hers). The actual mystery plot was almost a sidetrack to the story, which is pretty slow-moving, describing mainly the world and characters.

My voting order will be:

1. Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
2. Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
3. The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
4. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
5. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
6. no award
7. Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

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