There was an interesting discussion between Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe a while back on the Coode Street Podcast about the attractions of the novella form: long enough to allow some interesting world-building and development, but not as major a commitment as a novel. With Tor (in particular) publishing a number of novellas, there’s a market for the stories. Unsurprisingly, authors have risen to the challenge. As part of the discussions at Critical Mass, we’ve been looking at recent nominees in that category. Here are some of my notes…
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells
This is the second of the murderbot stories, and picks up after our SecUnit flees the safe haven they had found.
The apparent AI which is this particular murderbot shows many contrary human traits, so I wonder whether there is a human core to the construct. Our hero is too well known in the media, and they don’t want to chance their former employer finding them — particularly as they only survived because they had hacked their governor control.
They’ve apparently developed a taste for detective/spy fiction, so they decided to pose as a security consultant.
A bot freighter AI is helpful, and literally cuts them down to size so they won’t be easily spotted by security recognition in the ports their passing through.
All seems to be going well for our murderbot, until a voice comes through their feed, saying “You were lucky”
“I said aloud, “Why am I lucky?”
That no one realized what you were.
That was less than reassuring. I said, cautiously, “What do you think I am?” If it was hostile, I didn’t have a lot of options. Transport bots don’t have bodies, other than the ship. The equivalent of its brain would be above me, near the bridge where the human flight crew would be stationed. And it wasn’t like I had anywhere to go; we were moving out from the ring and making leisurely progress toward the wormhole.
It said, You’re a rogue SecUnit, a bot/human construct, with a scrambled governor module. It poked me through the feed and I flinched. It said, Do not attempt to hack my systems, and for .00001 of a second it dropped its wall.
It was enough time for me to get a vivid image of what I was dealing with. Part of its function was extragalactic astronomic analysis and now all that processing power sat idle while it hauled cargo, waiting for its next mission. It could have squashed me like a bug through the feed, pushed through my wall and other defenses and stripped my memory. Probably while also plotting its wormhole jump, estimating the nutrition needs of a full crew complement for the next 66,000 hours, performing multiple neural surgeries in the medical suite, and beating the captain at tavla. I had never directly interacted with anything this powerful before.
You made a mistake, Murderbot, a really bad mistake. How the hell was I supposed to know there were transports sentientenough to be mean? There were evil bots on the entertainment feed all the time, but that wasn’t real, it was just a scary story, a fantasy.
I’d thought it was a fantasy.”
— excerpt from Martha Wells. “Artificial Condition.”
The first person narration helps us sympathise with the murderbot. They takes on a case to help some researchers get money owed by a big corporation. What might have been a simple transaction turns out to be more complex, as the murderbot discovers the head of the corporation wants to claim them. A nice adventure which deepens the story around our murderbot.
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
This was a finalist for best novella in the Nebulas, and is a fascinating tale of forbidden love in 1940s San Francisco.
It opens with the sale of a painting by Weird Tales cover artist decades after his death, then flashbacks to the creation of the painting and the history of the painter, the subject, and a group of female friends who are artists, writers, lovers, and perhaps, magicians.
“Franny’s certainly got talents I can’t explain,” said Helen. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I think she’s a, a—” she stammered, groping for a word. “A witch.”
“That is an ugly, prejudicial term.” Franny made a face. “Like dike.”
Helen nodded. “Or Chink. Sorry. I get it. But you must be some kind of—?”
“In essence, yes.” Franny sighed and turned to Emily, who was chuckling. “You’re a skeptic. You don’t believe in powerful, invisible forces?”
“Radio waves? Magnetism?”
“Is it? How about mysteriously glowing deadly rocks?” Franny smiled. “Oh, right. Radium is science.”
Emily shook her head. “Now you’re confusing apples and oranges.”
“Really? I find apples often turn out to be oranges.”
— excerpt from Passing Strange, Ellen Klages
A very interesting story set in the 1940s lets us learn more about prejudice against non “standard” sexuality and customs, and offers a glimpse of how the community dealt with various problems. Add a gentle touch of magic, and we have an interesting, unusual story. Highly Recommended.
The Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor (tor.com)
The first of these novellas appeared in 2015, to great acclaim, winning Hugo and Nebula awards. Binti: Home came out in 2017, and the third came out this year.
Binti is a deceptively simple story about a teenage girl who runs away from home to go to University. There are a few complications: the Oomza Uni is a prestigious intergalactic university, and she has to fly there on an organic spaceship.
The trilogy follows Binti’s adventures and growing self-discovery as she deals with various difficulties, including space marauders, the threat of interplanetary war, and the close knit home community upon her return.
The story is told through the eyes of Binti, a first person narrative as the sixteen year old discovers the wider world/universe for the first time. We, the readers, discover that apparently “primitive” tribes may be more advanced than their brasher neighbours, and that a young harmonizer may solve ancient problems as well as immediate threats. A fast paced adventure with surprises for Binti and the reader.
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
“The night in New Orleans always got something going on, ma maman used to say—like this city don’t know how to sleep. You want a good look, take the cable-elevator to the top of one of Les Grand Murs, where airships dock on the hour. Them giant iron walls ring the whole Big Miss on either side. Up here you can see New Algiers on the West Bank, its building yards all choked in factory smoke and workmen scurrying round the bones of new-built vessels like ants. Turn around and there’s the downtown wards lit up with gas lamps like glittering stars. You can make out the other wall in the east over at Lake Borgne, and a fourth one like a crescent moon up north round Swamp Pontchartrain—what most folk call La Ville Morte, the Dead City.”
— The Black God’s Drums
P. Djeli Clark is an Afro-Caribbean-American writer of speculative fiction.
“Raised on genres of fantasy, sci fi, horror and the supernatural, I felt a need for more diverse tales with more diverse characters drawn from more diverse sources. To that end, I put pen to pad and fingers to keyboard, seeking to Imagine, Dream and Create new realms to explore.”
The Black God’s Drums is a fine adventure set in 1884 in a world where New Orleans is free and independent (though surrounded by enemies). It freed its slaves in the first year of the Confederate/Union war and declared independence. The Free Coloured militias broke with the confederates and joined the freed slaves to protect New Orleans.
“After that, Union ships and troops came in and got into one big batay with the Confederates. Was them two that burned Old Algiers. New Orleans hunkered down and waited it out. Finally, the Haitians and Brits and Frenchies sent their airships to stop the fighting. Truce was signed making New Orleans a neutral and open port.”
Our hero is a street kid, hanging around the port. They’re a favourite of the storm goddess, Oya…
“When I open my eyes again, the skull moon is gone. Time has caught up to normal too—the sounds of the night returning in a rush. And the city is there, spread out again: breathing, shining and alive. I release a breath. This was all Oya’s doing, I know. The goddess has strange ways of talking. Not the first time I’ve been sent one of her visions—though never anything so strong. Never anything that felt so real. They’re what folk call premonitions: warnings of things about to happen or things soon to come.
Our hero overhears a deal to transfer the Black God’s drums to one of the warring sides — this world’s equivalent to nuclear weapons. It’s set to happen on Maddi grá…
It’s in the local brothel we discover our hero, Creeper, is not a lad, but a girl.
Creeper enlists the aid of an Airship captain
“The captain of the airship Midnight Robber is as tall as I remember—not so much as most men, but a good height. She wears snug-fitting tan britches on long lean legs, and the red and green jacket of a Free Isles flyer. Her coils of black hair are pulled back by metal clasps above a dark brown face with the kind of big eyes men like talking about. She scans around the place, one hand dropping to rest on a pistol at her waist. At a call from the Hindoo, she moves to join her group, walking with a slight limp. The other men in the room look her over, some curious, others admiring. Seems they uncertain if she’s up for sale too. But she ignores them, instead shouting for a drink and settling into a sofa.”
An interesting fantasy, set in a convincing world. Pirates, spies, adventurers, freebooters and mad scientists. What more could you want? Goddesses? Yep, they’re there, too. ❦
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (JABberwocky)
“I’d like to make a few inquiries of my own in parallel.”
“You never did ask me what I did for a living.”
“Because it was hardly relevant!”
She’d expected a quick, amused glance upwards, but Long Chau didn’t even blink. “I’m a consulting detective.”
“An adviser,” Long Chau said. “A solver of people’s problems, especially when such problems involve lawsuits and magistrates.”
A consulting detective. So many thoughts pressed themselves in The Shadow’s Child that she was hard-pressed to pick one. “You really think you can do better than the magistrate to find out how that woman died?”
“I know I can.” It’d have been unbelievably conceited, but Long Chau’s voice was completely emotionless: it was a statement of fact, and not even one she took particular pride in.
— Aliette de Bodard, The Tea Master and the Detective
Probably the most unusual version of Holmes (a female) and Watson (a spaceship), but one that plays very nicely. The novella has already won a Nebula, and is in the running for a Hugo. (Although I think The Black God’s Drums will win that.) De Bodard clearly enjoyed the collected Sherlock Holmes stories she got at age 10; she cites Jeremy Brett and Lucy Liu as “the Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson of my heart”.
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The third in McGuire’s Home for Wayward Children novellas.
“Angela watched the sky too, waiting for a rainbow, ordinary shoes on her feet and enchanted shoes slung over her shoulder, laces tied in a careful, complicated knot. If the light and the water came together just so, if the rainbow touched down where she could reach it, she would be gone, off and running, running, running all the way home.
Christopher, whose door would open—if it ever opened for him again; if he ever got to find his way back home—on the Day of the Dead, sat in the grove of trees behind the house, playing ever more elaborate songs on his bone flute, trying to prepare for the moment of disappointment when the door failed to appear or of overwhelming elation when the Skeleton Girl called him back where he belonged.
The children disliked pretending to be ordinary delinquents, sent away by their parents for starting fires or breaking windows, when really they had been sent away for slaying dragons and refusing to say that they hadn’t. The lies seemed petty and small, and she couldn’t blame them for feeling that way…”
The story starts when some friends are swimming, when a girl literally falls out of the sky:
“Turtles!” Nadya howled. “Your queen returns!”
She didn’t stop when she reached the edge of the pond, but plunged gleefully onward, splashing into the shallows, breaking the perfect smoothness of the surface. Cora stopped a few feet back from the water. She preferred the ocean, preferred saltwater and the slight sting of the waves against her skin.Fresh water wasn’t enough.
“Come back, turtles!” shouted Nadya. “Come back and let me love you!”
That was when the girl fell out of the sky and landed in the middle of the turtle pond with an enormous splash, sending turtles skyward, and drenching both Cora and Nadya in a wave of muddy pond water.”
It turns out the this is a time travel story, as the girl — who is a princess — was transported through time as well as dimensions. The problem is, a usurper to the throne has killed her mother, so the princess is in the process of being unwritten from history.