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Meh. Got hung up on actually typing this up. Being sick sucks.

Anyway, after talking to friends and acquaintances, emailing authors, aggregating years best lists, and asking editors and critics for recommendations, I came up with a list of 17 novellas I wanted to read. Four were unavailable to me; I read the other 13.

I fell in love with two of them.

THE LIFE-CYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS by Ted Chiang – When a company develops AI with malleable intelligence, intending them to be pets, they're unprepared for the consequences of releasing learning, sentient beings that are dependent on hardware that can out-evolve them and customers who are easily bored. Two of the employees dedicate themselves to overseeing the welfare of a few of the AIs, shepherding them through both adolescence and increasing troubles. Ambitious, detailed, pitch perfect in its integration of technical details in an interesting way that supports the character, stories and ideas.

ALONE by Robert Reed – One of Reed's series of "great ship" stories which take place on an enormous, high-technology ship, which no living race of aliens know how to imitate. This novella tells the story of a reclusive, immortal, powerful machine that has no idea of its origins or purpose, except that it likes to explore the great ship, and definitely does not like to be seen. Eerie and epic in all sorts of good ways, the kind of really neat far future SF that draws you into an entirely unknown world and seems to be much longer than it actually is—in that it provides a plethora of things to think about.

The rest of my ballot:

MAMMOTHS OF THE GREAT PLAINS by Eleanor Arnason – A young woman recalls the stories her grandmother used to tell her about their family's relationship to the mammoths of the great plains, whose DNA had been preserved by one of their ancestors which made it possible to resurrect them via cloning generations later. I liked this surprisingly well given the conversational format that it was in, though I had some questions about the incorporation of the speculative element, and the ending was not as solid as I'd have preferred.

IRON SHOES by J. Kathleen Cheney – The standard melodrama plotline—a widow must save her farm, marry the guy she likes, and avoid the advances of the creepy villain. Told in a practical, charming voice. Romance aspects annoy slightly, but that's just my reading preference, I think. Fully-rounded, enjoyable.

THERE'S A GREAT BIG, BEAUTIFUL TOMORROW by Cory Doctorow (podcast) – This novella follows the story of a boy who was designed to be the next stage of trans-human. He's immortal, stuck as a preadolescent, both mentally and physically. He loses his Peter Pan innocence after his father dies, but still can't grow up or find his place in the world. This was kind of a mess. The beginning didn't resonate with the end; the middle was someplace else entirely. The story wasn't entirely coherently plotted. It was sort of as if it was several different stories, joined awkwardly at the seams, and maybe that's kind of what happened—I note from the link that it looks like Doctorow began podcasting the piece before he finished writing it. The middle story was the longest story and the best. It was pretty cool, actually. I'm nominating the middle story. The rest may ride along.

Notable

PARTICULAR FRIENDS by Camille Alexa – Another nineteenth century plotline—a child is orphaned while at boarding school and mistreated by the callous staff. When the boy turns eighteen, he leaves the school and tries to find out the truth of his mother's death, a mystery that draws him into a royal intrigue that's been festering for twenty years. I liked some of the premises of this, and it was generally engaging, but I felt that it didn't fully engage with its set-up—if Victorian gender roles are reversed, then why is a waspish waist still feminine? I mean, I think there's intrigue in the premise of a sex-role reversal that somehow doesn't affect the masculine and the feminine, but I think I needed some more world-building to give me a sense of how the culture was supposed to function. Also, I wasn't particularly drawn in by the actual plot. I liked the main character, though, and the idea of the journey.

THE SULTAN OF THE CLOUDS by Geoffrey A. Landis – The richest man on Venus wants to talk to an expert on Mars terraforming, so he summons the best, a female scientist and sometimes lover of our protagonist. The protag follows her to Venus, only to be separated from her when the richest man on Venus turns out to be a twelve-year-old boy whose interest in the terraforming expert isn't purely scientific. This was perfectly readable, and had lots of lush imagery and fun eyeball kicks about life in space colonies, but I admit to being slightly uncertain about the piece; from the number of times it got mentioned by people as one of the stories of the year, I was expecting something more unusual and exceptional. Instead, I got a decently plotted bit of traditional SF with a few issues—primarily, imo, that the narrator was underdeveloped and the central cultural scientific concept about chain marriage was short-changed for the adventure story, which prevented the story from reaching any great depth, for me. I enjoyed the story, mind. I was just expecting something different. I had the same issues with Steven Rasnic Tem's "A Letter from the Emperor," which was perfectly enjoyable, but didn't really transcend.

SECOND CHANCE by David Levine – 80 years ago, the protagonist signed up to go into space. He was trained, his genetics were copied, and the mission promised to resurrect him as a clone in space, ready to explore the solar system. Then he died. When he wakes up as a clone, alone, his training incomplete, he's baffled about what's happening. When he finds the rest of his crew hostile and uncommunicative, he's even more baffled, and then increasingly alienated among his own people. I had mixed feelings about this novella when I was reading it. There are things I like, but it also felt stilted at points. I kept feeling like the novella was a processing of race fail. That could completely be my imposition on the text, but it kept coming up for me. Processing in fiction can be cool (although there was a moment at the end that dropped my jaw, but maybe I was misreading), but I kept getting distracted. Characters seemed marked by axes of difference: the trans woman, the gay man... although that's not entirely fair; some of the characters had more complex identities. I don't know. I was ambivalent. The characterization wasn't particularly deep and the political aspects seemed to dominate, but there are times I'm okay with that. In this case, though, I wasn't quite. I think my problem was that the text seemed to want to be a slightly more complex, literary kind of characterization, but it was actually at its most comfortable when it was dealing with science. The science was neat. And from the perspective of intellectual engagement, it was an easy read—I was curious about what the story had to say.

PARAGON LURE by Tony Pi – A long-lived shapeshifter traces the location of several historical treasures which he'd lost over the centuries. When he finds a local auction house listing a pearl that had once been owned by Cleopatra, he decides to see whether the claims are authentic, marshaling all the skills and connections he has as a shapeshifter, an antique dealer, and a thief. This read like a thriller adventure. The magic system is neat and there's lots of detail to the unusual magic world. I think I'd have preferred slightly different details, but that's probably just me wishing everything was more about characters' mundane lives and less about hostage situations. I wondered if it was part of a longer work, though. There jags that didn't resolve and pieces of exposition that pointed toward plots that didn't actually unfold—they weren't distracting while I was reading the story, but when I was done, I felt a bit unfinished.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
heron61
Feb. 8th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
Alone by Robert Reed - I read this in the mostly excellent anthology Godlike Machines. I thought that I'd burned out on his Great Ship stories a while back, but this one was a gem.


THERE'S A GREAT BIG, BEAUTIFUL TOMORROW by Cory Doctorow This was also in Godlike Machines. I agree completely with your assessment, I generally love Doctorow's work (and consider Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town to be one of the finest urban fantasy works I've ever read), but that was a very weak and scattered story that could have benefited from being either half or twice as long. I think it was definitely the weakest story in the anthology (other than the Stephen Baxter story, which I didn't read, because I have learned by (very) bitter experience to avoid everything that Baxter writes).

In any case, I'll definitely look for PARAGON LURE - it looks like something I'd like.
nihilistic_kid
Feb. 8th, 2011 10:33 pm (UTC)
(although there was a moment at the end that dropped my jaw, but maybe I was misreading),

What was it?
rachel_swirsky
Feb. 9th, 2011 12:30 am (UTC)
At the end of the story, the captain says to the main character as kind of an aside, "Besides, I think you really kind of were deceived," and the trans woman looks guilty, and it came across to me as if it was supposed to be read as... kind of a gotcha? Like, "for most of the story, it has been suggested as a default that the main character was unreasonable to think that a trans woman deceived him by not disclosing, but now I subvert that by showing a reasonable character who thinks he was. Thinking trans people are deceptive when they have sex without disclosing their medical histories is presented in this story as a perfectly reasonable position in a way that, for instance, homophobia is not."

Of course, I get that not everything that happens in stories reflects an author's personal political opinions. God knows there are plenty of things my protagonists think, or don't think, that I don't agree with. But because of the way I kept reading this as parallel to race fail, and because of the fact that the characters read as thin to me which often made me feel that they were conceptual stand-ins more than people... well, it came across to me as if the character was speaking for the author, I guess, not necessarily by echoing the author's personal position, but by echoing what he felt should exist in the science fictional Overton window.

That's not a criticism of the quality of the story qua story, but since the story read as political to me, I suppose it's a criticism of its politics. But I was also reading quickly when I got to the novellas, so I figure it's equally possible that my interpretation was the result of a crappy reading.
nihilistic_kid
Feb. 9th, 2011 12:46 am (UTC)
Interesting, thanks. Truthfully, the only reason I DLed the story this afternoon to see if I could spot racefail analogues. I don't know if I would have if not for your post, but it's definitely an interesting reading. Like a lot of SF, the idea of social change in the future is pretty awkwardly handled. And the characters...uch. Our Hero hardly blinks at the destruction of planet Earth, despite his religion (which rather requires the Earth to be around!) for example.
christophereast
Feb. 18th, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
Just caught up with The Lifecycle of Software Objects -- couldn't agree more. LOVED it.
(Anonymous)
Mar. 2nd, 2011 08:44 pm (UTC)
another nomination
I can think of another novella you should nominate; (I will certainly nominate it) The title has something to do with a lady and a queen and some flowers??? The writer is just brilliant.

You should totally check it out. :-P
davidlevine
Mar. 17th, 2011 07:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks for blogging about "Second Chance"! I thought you might like to know that it was written in 2006, well before RaceFail, though it didn't find a publisher until 2009. And the captain's statement that she thinks Chaz was deceived? Her opinion, not mine.
(Anonymous)
Mar. 17th, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
That's so interesting! I thought I might have been pressing my own interpretation on it, but I just kept seeing parallels. Of course the issues have always been there in one form or another, right?

I think it was the placement of the Captain's opinion that made it feel like it was a Final Say kind of thing? Since it was happening at the same time as some of the other moral stuff.

Anyway, I enjoyed the novella and look forward to the next thing of yours I pick up!
rachel_swirsky
Mar. 17th, 2011 08:03 pm (UTC)
That was me ;-)
davidlevine
Jun. 6th, 2013 04:26 pm (UTC)
I'll be editing that statement out, and making a few other changes to reduce transfail, for the forthcoming ebook edition.
rachel_swirsky
Jun. 6th, 2013 04:26 pm (UTC)
David, that's pretty awesome.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )