Novelettes tend to be long short stories (7500-17500 words). The little bit of extra space gives more flexibility and can lead to greatness (last year’s Tomato Thief springs to mind), but far to often they fall into the uncanny valley where the length makes them flabby without gaining the depth of a longer work.
Note: I’ll note every time there will be varying degrees of spoilers, so feel free to jump to the ballot at the end if you want.
Children of Thorns, Children of Water by Aliette de Bodard
In post apocalyptic Paris, Dragons try to infiltrate a house of Angels through their intake of domestic staff.
The depth of the world that de Bodard establishes here is incredible – a dystopian Paris of refuges, Dragons, Angels, and magic. Similarly the story blends elements of upstairs downstairs, haunted houses, and high fantasy, and is populated by a raft of interesting characters, from the wastrel princeling to desperate refugees, but manages to feel propulsive rather than cluttered. The only fault I would level is that it felt incomplete, with certain key relationships and motivations missing in a way that suggested they were elsewhere – it was therefore no surprise to find that this story is an interstitial in a series of novels. Of course, even in this the story was a success, as I now fully intend to pick up the novels.
A successful melange of appocalypse and fantasy, east and west, in a uniquely magical Paris.
Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee
An assassin turned ship captain is sent undercover to recover a friend from a hostile station.
Another day, another excellent story set in the hexarchy. Obviously I can’t separate myself from the previous novels and stories in this world, but I think Extracurricular Activities stands alone as a fun, science fiction version of a cocky spy story. It opens with an inappropriate gift from a parent, detours to a flashback showing just how competent (and insufferable) our protagonist is, before launching into a mission that owes equal parts to 007 and classic farce. Indeed, if I were to be picky, it would be with a meta-textural complaint;1 given the inventive and weird way technology works in these stories, I kept waiting for the Gwa Reality’s ‘thing’, and while there was something, and it was good, I wanted more.
Inventive, funny, weird and exciting: just another Yoon Ha Lee story.
The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer
Shortages force an old robot to undertake pest control.
It’s often the little things from stories that stick in my mind; in this case it was the way the way robot 9 referred to its programs as mantras. It is such a perfect little detail, and it makes clear that while the setting is science fiction, this is the classic quest of a hero facing a dragon. 2 Since this is a hero’s journey, it’s a relief that our hero is everything you want for this kind of story – plucky, resourceful, kind, and determined. Palmer also pulls off a deft transition, moving from swords and monsters to aliens and spaceships effortlessly. Strangely, where the story falls down is in its human characters: their dialogue is stilted, and their response to the events in the end is bizarre. Fortunately, they are relegated to the chorus, and the robots are generally left to shine.
A cunning use of scale manages to run a classic quest in parallel with an sf staple.
A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
A steak counterfeiter takes on an epic fraud under extreme duress.
A really great idea is one that is obvious in retrospect, and the idea of counterfeiting animal meat with printed meat is one of those ideas. This is where short science fiction shines, have a great idea, put it in a narrative that illustrates the idea, and get out. A Series of Steaks does this, and while I’m not entirely sold on the framing device (all half a page of it), it does more than this: the main character feels like a real person with a well developed back story, the counterfeiting story is actually a good con story, and it introduces a new and improved version of the manic pixie dream girl who actually exhibits some agency.
A good con story combined with a good ideas story makes a great read.
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara
A man in transition becomes a vampire in transition.
Between this and Carnival Nine it is clearly the season of the unsubtle metaphor. The equating of sexual transition with a monstrous transition is basically an entire sub-genre of horror/fantasy, but the idea of combining it with gender transformation is novel and exciting. The problem for me is that it felt like Small Changes only lives up to the strength of its premise in fits and starts. There are profound moments of reflection about what it means to be trapped in the wrong body forever, even as everyone else gains the ability to change, contrasted against traumatic doctors visits and ill-fated sexual encounters. This made the story feel unfocused, with a series of good individual pieces that just never cohered into a good story. A part of me worries however, that this criticism is due to my limitations as an audience, rather then the limitations of the story.
A unique take on a common trope that felt less then the sum of its parts.
Wind Will Rove by Sarah Pinsker
A teacher clashes with a student on the relevance of history when the past is lost.
A teacher on a generation ship has a difficult student. She plays some music and records an oral history of it. Very deliberately, almost nothing happens. But.
This is a story about passing on knowledge, or it’s about history, or maybe music, art and creativity. This is a story about the arch of human progress, about what we hold onto, how if we hold onto it too tight we can drown, and how the best of human achievement is found in the synthesis of old and new.
This is a story about finding meaning when trapped in the flow of history.
- Wind will Rove
- Extracurricular Activities
- Secret Life of Bots
- A Series of Steaks
- Children of Thorns, Children of Water
- Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time
This is a category where, given the quality and length of the stories, I have no qualms recommending people just read all of them. When it comes time to submit my ballot, I may swap 1 and 2, as I debate the perennial question of more meaningful work vs more enjoyable, and on a different day I might also swap 3 with 4, given the similarity of quality between the two novelettes. The only weak link for me would be Small Changes, and it is still a novel story with a unique perspective and interesting things to say.