Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Hugo Nominees 1996

Disclaimer: Some reviews contain spoilers. The following pearls were written, unless otherwise noted, during the voting period for Hugos for that year, so I'm sure some of my opinions have softened since then with the acquisition of greater wisdom. If there is no review, it means I didn't read the story, mostly because, in those early internet days, I couldn't find it.

NOVEL

  • The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (HarperPrism)
    Everyone's raving about this novel, and it is good, but I must just be thick because I don't see what all the fuss is about. The idea of continuing the story set up by HG Wells in "The Time Machine" is a good one, but it goes on a little long. The nameless narrator decides to take another trip to the future, and discovers it bears no resemblance to the one he visited the first time. Some interesting ideas about time travel are brought up and largely sloughed off with double-talk and pseudo-science ("Multiplicities", etc.). When the protagonist travels back in time to warn his younger self not to build the time machine at all, I thought this could be interesting because obviously that is something you shouldn't be doing. And sure enough he can't change his future, he can only change a different future, but the further adventures to the beginnings and ends of creation are mostly hot air. A good read, but not as deep or as fun as I would have liked.
  • Brightness Reef, David Brin
    For the first time ever I was able to read all five Hugo nominees before the voting deadline, and this is the book I saved for last, mostly because it was the longest, but also because I had the highest expectations for it. Boy, was I disappointed. What Brin has created here is a 500-page vignette, told from several different and extremely alien points of view, that must be fascinating for those who are into world-building and alien psychology/physiology, but for those of us who still expect things like narrative and plot, forget it. This book ties in with the previous Uplift trilogy, and turns out in the end to be directly related to those books, such that it is even more meaningless if you haven't read them. Many was the time I had no idea what was going on, pages and pages and pages were devoted to meaningless conversations and up until the last fifty or so pages virtually all the action happens offstage. The achievement for Brin is to have created a planet where several different alien cultures, including humans, peacefully coexist while in hiding, and by telling it from multiple points of view he plunges you into the midst of this world with no explanation from anyone. As I said, some may find this fun, but I found it maddeningly confusing.
  • The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer (serialized as 'Hobson's Choice', Analog, Mid-December 1994-March 1995)
    This hybrid novel is a well executed mix of sf and your typical suspense/thriller bestseller, along the lines of Robin Cook or Robert Ludlum. Unusual also in being so overtly Canadian in setting, Sawyer gives us really two plots: the discovery of the "soulwave", proof of some form of life after death; and an electronic clone of the main character that commits two murders. Sawyer pushes the right buttons, and there is a good amount of genuine suspense. Unlike Nancy Kress, who would probably be more interested in the social implications of the technology, Sawyer's societal upheaval happens in a series of news clippings appended to the occasional chapter. Flaws come along when you start to look at the plot, however, and notice how there would have been no plot if the characters weren't all so consistently stupid (or at least short-sighted). Juggling two plots, which basically have very little to do with each other, also seems almost accidental, as though Sawyer saw the book shifting in mid-stream and just went with the flow. While I wouldn't call these quibbles minor, I admit they didn't detract from the impetus Sawyer creates, and at the end of most every chapter, you find yourself thinking, "oh, I'll just read one more."
  • The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson
    Lately it seems that cyberpunk is getting bored with itself, such that in novels like Gibson's Virtual Light from a couple of years ago, the reader gets a minimum of detail and ends up with a very thin, cypher-like story. This is emphatically not the case with The Diamond Age, which is one of those books where you can't help but marvel at the audacity of the author in attempting to do what he does. Stephenson's blend of oriental culture, nanotechnology, neo-Victorians, quest novel, techno-thriller, and sections reminiscent of The Neverending Story make for a fascinating milieu. While the reader is plunged immediately into this culture with all the miniscule details unexplained, the setting evolves as the story does at just the right pace. The first half is the more frenetic, "punky" one, and then the second half changes tone completely to more introspection and philosophy among some of the principle characters. The train of thought is so convoluted as to occasionally get lost for awhile, but always picks back up and makes this book the most entertaining of this category.
  • Remake, Connie Willis
    A pleasantly brief novel by Willis that shows us a near future Hollywood where there are no new movies, only digitized remakes with famous stars of the past spliced into already familiar plots. The basic premise revolves around the protagonist's obsession for a girl who wants to dance in the movies, even though there are no new movies being made and certainly none with dancing. Willis's references to old movies, particularly Fred Astaire and other dancers, is encyclopedic. Her trademark frenetic pace and multi-conversation dialog is largely absent, and that is actually rather refreshing. The middle book of a triptych of under 200 page novels, this could be Willis's ideal length (unlike the bloated Doomsday Book). I was pleasantly surprised by this one.
  • NOVELLA

  • "Fault Lines", Nancy Kress (Asimov's, August 1995) download from Fictionwise
    A well-told but fairly routine story for Ms. Kress, which I didn't think was as good as her non-nominated novelette, "Evolution", although they are equally bleak in their representations of the future. By combining pharmacological sf with the mystery format, Kress gives us the impression that the future of medicine is dreary indeed. This story follows an ex-cop as he uncovers the truth about a Prozac-like drug that, surprise, leads people to kill themselves. Not all the loose ends are explored nor are they tied up, and subplots are thrown in without much if any connection to the main story. Feels like it was written in a hurry. From another author, this would be fine, but from Kress I expect better.
  • "A Man of the People", Ursula K. Le Guin (Asimov's, April 1995)
    Le Guin's two entries this year are both more memorable than last year's three, although neither are as good as "Ether OR", which wasn't nominated. But they are not memorable enough to get my vote. This and the other story are basically character studies. There is something of a linear narrative, although not really a plot per se, concerning the life and times of the character referred to in the title. After growing up on a mostly backward planet, he leaves behind everyone he knows to travel to the main planet of Hain, and the trip is such that by the time he arrives there everyone back home has long since died. That isn't the point of the story, of course, because Le Guin's stories generally don't have a point. But unlike last year's "Solitude", at least this one is readable and enjoyable on its own level.
  • "A Woman's Liberation", Ursula K. Le Guin (Asimov's, July 1995)
    I did vote to nominate this one, and it was a pretty sure thing to get on the ballot even if I hadn't. This is the better of the two Le Guin entries, and not a bad story in its own right, although once again it suffers from so-what syndrome. The advantage here is signficantly more narrative and less ruminating about the character's surroundings. The female character referred to in the title grows up essentially as a slave, is present when the slaves are freed, and of course ends up in worse shape than before, but eventually makes it to another planet where she ends up with the main character of "A Man of the People". Le Guin's future societies seem to break down mostly into planets where women are subjugated and planets where men are subjugated, and this harping does get kind of old after awhile. There is nothing new here from a "gender" perspective, but the story is mildly engaging and reads more quickly than most other stories of hers of this length.
  • "Bibi", Mike Resnick and Susan Shwartz (Asimov's, Mid-December 1995)
    More anthropological sf from Resnick & Co. This one deals with an HIV-positive protagonist who has gone to Uganda to help the zillions of Africans who are suffering the same fate. There he discovers a local legend of an old woman who has been known to cure people of the disease. The authors make a vivid portrayal of living with HIV, and all that comes with it. What's interesting is the sf in the story is nearly fantasy, because they don't bog down the narrative with lengthy molecular biological explanations of how "Bibi" is able to cure the people she comes in contact with - it just happens. I did like this story a lot, and it was actually number 6 on my list to nominate, but I could only nominate five.
  • "The Death of Captain Future", Allen Steele (Asimov's, October 1995) download from Fictionwise
    I don't know why, but this novella is really lots of fun, in that it takes your basic space opera plot and updates it, told from Steele's sardonic first-person wise-acre point of view. The fact that it pays homage to Captain Future, featured in the Retro-Hugo-nominated Danger Planet, makes it a particularly fitting entry in this year's nominations. But in Steele's hands, Captain Future is a pretender to the title, without any heroic qualities whatsoever. I think this story makes a neat juxtaposition of the mid-40's mentality towards science and space and the people who would populate it, and the significantly more jaded and realistic perspective we have now. Space travel isn't now and isn't going to be like Captain Future, we now know, and even if it was, people like Captain Future wouldn't exist anyway. Fast-paced and well-executed, this story gets my vote.
  • NOVELETTE

  • "Luminous", Greg Egan (Asimov's, September 1995) download from Fictionwise
    Possibly the most neglected branch of science in science fiction is pure mathematics, and Egan shows us why in this tortuously inventive foray into the theoretical branches of math. The real-world scenario develops around international espionage, which of course would be involved once a link has been discovered into an alternate system of mathematics that could cause a breakdown of our own branch. Certainly the most original story of this type I remember seeing recently.
  • "TAP", Greg Egan (Asimov's, November 1995)
    Egan's second entry is better in some respects, worse in others. TAP refers to a brain-implant chip that allows people a higher level of communication. Somebody with the implant has died, and it's up to the narrator to figure out if she was murdered by the chip itself or by someone manipulating it externally. The mystery plot is fine until he starts to explain the motives of the perpetrators, and even on a second reading I was fairly mystified by exactly what happened in the end. No real suspense is involved, so there isn't that hook to fall back on. Interesting, but ultimately kind of tepid.
  • "Think Like a Dinosaur", James Patrick Kelly (Asimov's, June 1995) download from Fictionwise
    I liked this story better after the second reading. A brief, to-the-point, more old-fashioned tale about the guy who runs the equipment set up by the dinosaur-esque aliens to shunt people from Earth to their planet, giving up their physical bodies in the process in exchange for one at the other end. Somewhat atypical of Kelly's usual cyberpunky style, this one introduces setting, conflict, a few characters, and a "Cold Equations" sort of conclusion, all very well executed.
  • "When the Old Gods Die", Mike Resnick (Asimov's, April 1995) download from Fictionwise
    There's still one more of these Kirinyaga stories left that could be nominated next year, but this penultimate one is probably my favorite, as it deals with the breakdown of the Utopia that the original settlers have worked so hard to perfect. The arrival of an offworld medical doctor, who can cure everyone's afflictions easier and faster than the narrator, leads the people to question the nature of a utopia. A very thought-provoking story, and this would have been a better end to a series I'll be sorry to see go.
  • "The Good Rat", Allen Steele (Analog, Mid-December 1995) download from Fictionwise
    The lone Analog entry in this category is an odd one: told in partial sentences from the point of view of a human "lab rat" (after animals have finally been completely banned from all product testing), it details the day to day events of one particular project for which the narrator has contracted. This project is not out of the ordinary from his perspective, and he's just doing his job, not really wrestling with how things got to be the way they are or whether they are better or worse than they were. Was this nominated because LACon III's mascot is the rat? Well told, but not much of a point, is there?
  • "Must and Shall", Harry Turtledove (Asimov's, November 1995)
    An interesting backdrop where Lincoln was assassinated in 1864 instead of 1865, and the North was much harsher to the reconstructed South. Now, during World War II, the protagonist shows up in "occupied" New Orleans to investigate claims that the Nazis are smuggling arms to the Rebels. The story as it develops is less interesting, though, in that once you've established your alternate history setting, things proceed pretty much as they would if this was Casablanca or Paris or wherever. Turtledove has really put this subgenre on the map, but this story taken out of its larger context isn't much to look at.
  • SHORT STORY

  • "TeleAbsence", Michael A. Burstein (Analog, July 1995) download from Fictionwise
    This first published story by Burstein shows promise, but this is the just-happy-to-be-here entry of this category. Dealing with a student who sneaks into a classroom in a good school to escape the dangerous one in his own neighborhood, the story is quite readable but otherwise unremarkable, and the ending is a little ambiguous, with a sort of gratuitous twist. Burstein is popular in fan circles in the northeast, so his nomination seems more motivated by popularity than talent.
  • "Life on the Moon", Tony Daniel (Asimov's, April 1995)
    A brief, somewhat touching story of two people with divergent careers, one of whom is called to the moon to develop the architecture for the first lunar city. Told from the point of view of the poet who stays behind, the story is punctuated with poetry written as the short scenes develop. Daniel has written a number of stories that I've liked, and it is good to see him recognized with this nomination. Although there isn't much plot, there are several ideas bubbling behind the surface, and the shory is almost too short to contain them all.
  • "A Birthday", Esther M. Friesner (Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1995)
    Friesner, known predominately for fantasy and funny hamster stories, surprises with a tight, angry story concerning a future in which women who have had abortions are forced to watch computer-generated versions of the babies they otherwise would have had grow up every time they use any sort of terminal screen, particularly ATMs. Although the idea is slightly farfetched and she waits a little too long to stop referring to the situation and start explaining it, this is probably the best story in the bunch.
  • "The Lincoln Train", Maureen F. McHugh (Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1995)
    McHugh's only entry on this year's ballot is a worthy contender from an alternate history where Lincoln was shot but not killed, and the South's reconstruction is much more harsh. The problem with alternate history is that other than the fact they are in an alternate history they aren't science fiction, but McHugh's prose is so evocative and effortless that I don't care. She hints around her milieu much like Friesner does, so that a second reading makes things clearer, but this is a well-crafted entry with more maturity than Friesner, just not as much punch.
  • "Walking Out", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's, February 1995)
    As if more evidence was needed that the short story category was at least in some part a popularity contest, witness this entry by Swanwick. The shortest story in the group, it's practically a PKD pastiche involving the protagonist wanting to get out of the city and move to the country, only to be told at the end that there is no city or country because an asteroid bombardment wiped out most of civilization and he and the rest of humanity's survivors are ekeing out their existence on the moon. That this was nominated and Ben Bova's "Life as We Know It" was not is criminal.

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