Visions of Paradise

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Three Hugo-nominated novellas

After I downloaded the Hugo-nominated stories this summer, I started reading the novellas first. Unfortunately, I did not finish reading them until after the voting deadline passed, because reading them on my computer was inconvenient and I did not buy an e-reader until September. So, better late than never, here are my comments on three of the nominated novellas.

The first one I read was Nancy Kress since she is my favorite among the nominated authors. “Act One” was reminiscent of her brilliant “Beggars in Spain,” which was both a plus and a minus. A plus because this was also a strong, thought-provoking story with a well-developed point-of-view character. A minus because “Act One” had several noticeable flaws. The premise was that an illegal underground movement was gene-modifying children to be empathetic to the point of nearly reading people’s minds, hoping to eventually spread the ripples through the entire population. The tension arises when the group develops a faster way of infecting the entire population with an urge for nurturing.

The main character is the agent for a fading movie star who is to play the lead in a movie about this movement, and who thus contacts members of the illegal Group to research her role. The story is typically well-written for Kress, and the plot develops well and interestingly. However, Kress tries a bit too hard to jack up the story’s importance by giving the protagonist an emotional sub-plot all his own. He is a dwarf who has been alienated by his wife and normal-sized son since the birth of the son. I was never convinced of the rationale behind the dwarf’s actions which alienated his wife, nor of the subsequent effect on the son. A more jarring flaw though was that the Group, whose main goal is to spread empathy and nurturing through the entire population, so tightly-controls their members that anybody who proves dissatisfactory to their needs is immediately and viciously killed. Kress needed to show more of the Group’s motivations for this seemingly contradictory behavior to be believable. “Act One” had enough strengths to be a worthy Hugo nominee, but too many questions to be the winner.

Next I read Kage Baker’s “The Women of Nell Gwynne,” which is set in the currently-popular era of Victorian London. This setting—as well as similar settings around the world during the same era—have grown so popular in recent years that they have been given the name Steampunk, as if they are an actual movement, akin to Cyberpunk or New Space Opera. I have not really seen anything deserving of a movement since these stories share only a setting and some sfnal tropes rather than any philosophical basis. Still I have found most stories set in this milieu to be generally interesting. As was this story of a house of prostitution which serves as spies for the government. Baker was a very facile storyteller whose plots were generally fast-paced and interesting, with characters easy to relate to. Nothing major—or, in this case, award-worthy—but recommended for light reading.

Next I read John Scalzi’s “The God Engine.” This is the first Scalzi I have ever read, although I am familiar with his reputation for writing Heinlein-type fiction. This story did not remind me of Heinlein so much as a 1950s Ace Double or perhaps a story from the pages of Worlds of IF in the 1960s. The title is precisely the premise of the story: the universe contains numerous “gods” whose followers apparently warred many centuries ago until one god won out. Now he is the Lord who rules the galaxy while the other remaining gods are enslaved as some type of propulsion for starcraft. This premise is not particularly believable, nor is any attempt made to explain or justify it. The entire premise seems to be merely a convenient foundation for the story.

Nor is the religion of the victorious Lord developed any more than a bunch of typical clichés: autocratic leaders who seem more concerned with power than faith, followers who automatically spout the “official” beliefs, and a main character who is naturally skeptical about all of it. If a story based on religion is to be taken seriously, its beliefs and followers must display at least some philosophical depth or conflict. That does not exist at all in this story which, combined with the illogical background of the gods themselves, reduces this novella to little more than traditional pulp fiction.

I do not mean to disparage Scalzi’s writing, since a pulp homage might have been his intent for the story. It is fast-paced adventure, enjoyable so long as I did not take any of it too seriously or look for any depth beneath the surface plot. This type of story would have fit nicely besides the light adventures of writers such as Keith Laumer, Christopher Anvil and Mack Reynolds, all of whom were staples of the 1960s prozines. But these stories were never considered award-winners, nor should this one be on the Hugo ballot.


  • This is one of the few Scalzi stories I have not read and probably won't. A close friend who is also a Scalzi fan like myself felt the story was not characteristic of his writing and was not worth bothering with. Trusting his judgment I have passed on this thus far and your assessment makes me think I was right on in doing so.

    By Blogger Carl V., At 1:05 PM  

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