Rachel Swirsky's 2012 Novella Recommendations
To begin the entry, I'm going to list, without reviews, the novellas that are on my ballot, followed by those I recommend. Below, I will post the reviews.
"After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall" by Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
"African Sunrise" by Nnedi Okorafor (Subterranean)
"Katabasis" by Robert Reed (Fantasy & Science Fiction)
"Murder Born" (excerpt) by Robert Reed (Asimovs)
"The Emperor's Soul" by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon)
"All the Flavors" by Ken Liu (Giganotosaurus)
"A Seed in the Wind" by Cat Rambo (ebook)
"After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall" by Nancy Kress (Tachyon) - The earth is destroyed by an apocalype--the fall. This novella follows two timelines simultaneously: one after the fall and the other before. They intersect during the fall, as one might expect from the title. The story follows two perspectives. The first is a boy born after the fall to one of the few survivors, his body severely impaired from radiation damage. The aliens who saved the few survivors from the disaster (it's unclear whether or not they caused it) have provided a time travel portal for him and the other members of his generation to go back in time to before the fall for short periods of time so that they can bring back resources and babies that they will be able to raise to strengthen their population. The other main character, who is a professor who lives in the before, notices a mathematical pattern to kidnappings and store robberies, the footprint of the time travel. The two characters finally meet when the boy travels back in time to a moment during the apocalypse, to where the professor is waiting for him. I really, really liked this novella, especially the bits set after the apocalypse. Kress is always a fine writer, but she's pulled out some extremely good characterization here. Many of the characters are sharply characterized, but especially two in the after--one, the boy's mentor who he is in unrequited love with, and two, the boy himself, who is a vivid portrait of an adolescent in troubled circumstances, his emotions volatile, his desires unquenchable, his beliefs and needs and wants shaped by his post-apocalyptic childhood. The thing I disliked about this novella is that there's a strong hint at the end that the story is meant to be read as an "the earth will get you" magic environmentalism thing, and that really doesn't work for me, because it's just sort of random and it's such an obvious fantasy element in a story that's otherwise science fiction... meh. But "hard" SF writers sometimes pull that sort of weirdness, and I just kind of have a "ignoring that bit; it's fairly minor anyway" receptacle in my brain, and the story is absolutely worth it for its many sterling elements.
"African Sunrise" by Nnedi Okorafor (Subterranean) - This novella expands on Nnedi Okorafor's short story "The Book of Phoenix" that appeared in Clarkesworld in 2011. A genetically altered girl has been confined to a corporate building for all of her life, along with others who have been experimented on. After one of her friends dies, she decides to escape and discovers that she possesses phoenix-like powers of fire and regeneration. The life-giving energy that radiates from her body produces a fantastic growth of plantlife that crumbles the building where she was raised and reaches out to sprawl across the city center. The main character flies away, following her instincts, knowing that she has the ability to greatly improve the world if she can find her way. As always, it's nice to see smart and well-written Africa-centered fantasy/science fiction of the sort that Okorafor so ably writes. There's a sense of magic and hope in this story that doesn't feel sentimental, but instead seems to suggest a radical re-imagining of the world. The detail of the character's life and her interactions were more interesting to me than the fantasy plot itself; in particular, there was a lovely scene in an Ethiopian restaurant early on that's stuck with me.
"Katabasis" by Robert Reed (Fantasy & Science Fiction) - This is one of Robert Reed's Great Ship stories which I admit to being a total sucker for. They take place on an enormous ship that's on an interminable mission through space. Passage is expensive; its inhabitants are nearly immortal. Humans run the place, but it's full of life that is variously alien and artificially intelligent. Basically, this story has all the "ooooooo, awesome" of space opera without the boring bits; Reed successfully portrays an immersive setting that feels alien and unknown. In this story, there is a small planet-like habitat deep in the great ship, built by long-gone aliens to simulate their world. It has immensely high gravity, and it's become a challenge for humans (and others who are not adapted to the high gravity) to take on trying to hike the "planet" without enhancements, as a test of mettle. They take along a single high-gravity-adapted porter. The story is about one such porter and the contingent that she ends up traveling with. The story of their journey is interwoven with the story of how she came to the ship. Alien weirdness abounds--if you like that sort of thing, it'll probably scratch all the right itches, or at least it does mine.
"Murder Born" (excerpt) by Robert Reed (Asimovs) -- Yes, Reed again. This is an Idea story of his which are hit-or-miss for me. I like this one less than his great ship stories, but it still worked for me. A new technique for execution is invented and, to everyone's surprise including the inventor's, it does something totally bizarre (and totally not actually science fiction at all, but rather a thought experiment in the vein of It Just Works, Shut Up And Let's Go With It, which is fine with me, really)--when the murderer disappears into it, it brings back all the people he's killed. The conceit isn't totally logically consistent about what counts as killed and some other science things, but whatever, it's a Thought Experiment, Just Go With It. The thought experiment bit is interesting. There's also a kind of stitched on adventure plot that was readable but ordinary. It's now been a year since I read the story so my memory of it has faded significantly; it's marked with a quite high rating in my database, but mostly what I remember now is talking about its flaws with people, so that's what's stuck in my mind. I think what I liked about it was the way in which it examined a number of different situations within the thought experiment. I'm happy to engage with thought experiments on a purely intellectual level from time to time; it's a long tradition; you don't read Candide for the characters.
"The Emperor's Soul" by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon) - In a world where it is illegal to do so, a woman wields the magic of forgery, able to produce soulstamps that will change the substance and history of an object, allowing it to become something other than what it is. An ordinary urn can be stamped with the essence of an ancient vase and become one, although the stamp will remain and, if it is removed, the urn will become ordinary again. After committing a series of forgeries of important artifacts, the main character is jailed, and offered her freedom and her life only if she will help the emperor's advisers to achieve a dangerous, illegal, and excruciatingly difficult task -- to endow the braindead emperor with a soulstamp that so closely approximates his own mind that his personality will be indistinguishable from the original. This is a fun and clever, straightforward fantasy, with all the pleasures of a rougish main character who is constantly trying to stay one step ahead of people who will kill her. The process of the magic is described in reasonable detail which I grooved on; it's a fun magic system. It's even better when Sanderson describes the process of simulating the emperor's soul, merging the described magic with ruminations on memory and personality. Several of the main characters take on good dimensionality, including the emperor, who is only marginally on the page.
"All the Flavors" by Ken Liu (Giganotosaurus)
- The first thing you need to know about this novella is a total mess. It's not actually a novella. It's the notes for a novel. The next thing you need to know is that it's the notes for a really *good* novel. There are moments of brilliance in this that rival or exceed any of the novellas I'm nominating. So: Bad Ken! I want to read the actual novel! Write the novel, Ken. Anyway, this is a story of an Idaho girl who is befriended by Chinese miners when they move into town, and how she learns their stories. I wrote a slightly longer review here.
"A Seed in the Wind" by Cat Rambo (ebook) - As I mentioned when reviewing one of her short stories for my 2012 recommendations, one of my favorite things about Cat as a writer is that she is able to paint really vivid, original world-building imagery with just a few well-chosen details. This novella is another excellent example of that talent. It's set in a world that's shaped like a tube, with all of its civilization built on outcroppings that protrude from the walls, and in tunnels that burrow into them. The main character, a boy who grows up next to the edge of the abyss, finds himself drawn into the lure of its unknown. As a small child, he watches an unusual natural event, in which the top of the tube opens to allow seed drifts to fall past their town and into the depths. The event moves him deeply and he becomes obsessed with watching things fall, and often throws objects that are dear to him into the darkness. The rest of his dissatisfied life is much like that of those seeds: he drifts, uncertainly, moving ever downward into a shadowed unknown. He leaves his home town to go and meet his grandparents, but is equally dissatisfied there, and then becomes addicted to various substances, spiraling further downward. The world-building detail is often exquisite, especially at its most disjunctive and surprising. There were also times when the story seemed to lose its impetus and become repetitive. I also felt unsatisfied by the ending; after following the main character's life for so long, I wasn't satisfied by leaving him abruptly, even on a strong image, especially when it didn't seem to have either a clear implication for what would happen next, or create (as would work equally well) a poignant thematic resonance with the main character's arc. My analysis of this may simply be too shallow, however. It's a lovely piece that I strongly recommend reading.
"To Be Read Upon Your Waking" by Robert Jackson Bennett (Subterranean)
"The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future" by Jay Lake (Subterranean)
"Let Maps to Others" by K. J. Parker (Subterranean)
"Sudden, Broken, Unexpected" (excerpt) by Stephen Popkes (Asimovs)