Hugo Nominee: “Truth”

Last of the novellas. The usual round-up:

Abigail Nussbaum:

Like “The Political Prisoner,” Robert Reed’s “Truth” uses an SFnal premise to tell a mundane story about present day ills, but with a great deal more success. Carmen, a high ranking CIA interrogator, arrives at a top secret facility deep under the Kansas prairie to take over the interrogation of Ramiro, the US government’s most dangerous and valuable prisoner. Captured while crossing the Canadian border with a trunk full of uranium, Ramiro has revealed himself, through knowledge and quirky biology, to be a time traveler, a member of an army of ‘temporal jihadists’ bent on world domination. The story’s action is mainly a series of mind games Carmen plays, not only with Ramiro but with her superiors and underlings, through which Reed paints a portrait of a world in the grips of a terrifying, dangerous paranoia, and which has been driven–in part, but not solely, due to the threat represented by Ramiro–to even greater excesses and atrocities than our own. “Truth” is obviously Reed’s reply to the 24 scenario of a terrorist who knows the location of a ticking time bomb, but his answer isn’t as simple as decrying torture so much as it is to suggest that absolute truth is inherently unknowable, that neither the most brutal torture nor the most delicate psychological probing can lead to a full comprehension of another person’s character and motives (an observation which is nicely, and for the most part subtly, reinforced by recurring references to quantum phenomenon).

Given this obvious bias, the true nature of Ramiro’s mission is pretty easy to guess (though the story’s final twist took me completely by surprise), but his interactions with Carmen, and her bitter observations about the state of her world, are so intense and well crafted that the inevitable ending is a pleasure to get to. Unlike Finlay, Reed isn’t afraid to let his main character be stupid or wrong, and unlike Maxim Nikomedes, or, indeed, her own bosses, Carmen doesn’t assume that her experience and jadedness give her a complete understanding of her world–an understanding which, Reed concludes, is impossible. It is probably no coincidence that Carmen is a woman in a male-dominated environment, surrounded by men who believe that they can achieve, or already possess, such an understanding, and who keep hammering away at Ramiro and making short-sighted decisions based on the information he gives them and the belief that they can act intelligently on it, instead of stepping back and looking at the big picture. “Truth” is a clever, and surprisingly vicious, skewering of this illusion of control.

Lois Tilton:

Carmen is the interrogator of a very secret prisoner who has admitted to being part of a jihadi group from the future, sent to destroy the twenty-first century world. For twelve years, ever since he was discovered with the makings of a nuclear device, the resources of the US have been devoted to the search for the other terrorists, to find them before it is too late. This, we learn, was the secret reason for the US invasion of Iraq, for the bombing of Iran. The prisoner claims he has no information about the plans of the other terrorists, no knowledge of where they will strike next. Now the original interrogator has committed suicide, and the narrator is brought in as his replacement, to discover the truth that drove him to his death.

No one had ever predicted ‘temporal jihadists,’ as Abraham’s agents were dubbed. Uranium-toting terrorists suddenly seemed like a minor threat by comparison. Collins’ first interview resulted in a secret and very chaotic panic roaring through Washington. Black ops funds were thrown in every direction. Ground was broken for half a dozen high-security prisons scattered across the world. But then some wise head inside Langley decided that if time travelers were genuine, then there was no telling what they knew, and if they were inspired, there were probably no limits to what they could achieve.

This is a chilling story made even more horrific by its connection to recent events in our own world. The fact that it has been told before, in different ways, does not blunt its impact; rather, it confirms its truth.

Rich Horton:

Robert Reed’s “Truth” is explicitly a post-9/11 story. In a way that makes it as fresh a story as any on this list, if we accept “True Names” as a riff on an older story, and if we acknowledge that for all its extravagance and color “The Tear” is working out SFnal models that have bee around for quite some time. (Though in “Truth” we still see a dialogue with older SF — something always present, seems to me, with Robert Reed, one of the field’s great assimilators (compare Robert Silverberg) — here I did think at times of James Blish’s VOR, for example.) The story is told by an investigator come to a secret US installation to take over the interrogation of a man help prisoner since just after 9/11, when he was found trying to smuggle nuclear material into the United States. He has certain remarkable characteristics and knowledge that have convinced some that his story is true : he is part of an invasion team from the future, trying to remake — or punish — history. Most of the novella is spent considering the question of the “truth” of what this prisoner is saying, and wondering how he or his cohorts might be affecting the decaying situation outside the installatio holding the prisoner.

What’s good — very intelligently written — and well written, too. And philosophically and politically thought-provoking. What didn’t quite work — somehow I was never quite convinced. Which is an unfair point, doesn’t tell you much, but it’s what I felt. Perhaps its a reaction to the current economic crisis, but the situations displayed in “Truth” somehow seemed almost irrelevant to me. And, as Abigail Nussbaum said, while I was reading it I was quite impressed, somehow the story didn’t quite stick with me.

Bottom line: in very different ways, two other Reed stories impressed me more than “Truth” last year, though neither got a Hugo nomination. (These are “Five Thrillers” and “Character Flu”.) Good as “Truth” is, I feel it falls short of greatness.

John DeNardo:

Robert Reed’s “Truth” is a claustrophobic take on time travel and terrorism. Most of the scenes are interrogations between Carmen, a top-level CIA agent, and Ramiro, the prisoner who claims be to one of a large group of terrorists from the future. Ramiro’s claim bears out; his biological makeup uses unexplained tech and he is able to predict astronomical events and horrendous catastrophes. Carmen’s job is to learn about Ramiro’s fellow temporal jihadists and their mysterious unseen leader, Abraham. It’s a tough job since Ramiro has already withstood years of torture. The story’s claustrophobia stems from the setting: a secret underground government facility with multiple layers of tightened security. It’s here that the story unravels, as experienced interrogator and crafty prisoner play what they see as a game – one person hiding the truth, the other looking for it. In a sense, the observing reader gets to play along as well, making this story an engaging mystery, though a bleak one to be sure.

Russ Allbery:

The second novella of the issue, this is apparently a companion piece to the earlier “Veritas” (which I haven’t read). It’s about a time traveller who has been captured by the government and the investigation into what his plans are, in a near-future world torn by war after US military action in Iraq progressed to attacks on Iran and a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. But more directly, it’s a story about interrogation.

The heroine of the story is one of the top government interrogators, newly sent to the top-secret underground facility holding the apparent time traveller to take over from the previous interrogator. The meat of the story is a beautiful tracing of her methodical approach to the problem, her dogged unwinding of the mysteries of this man and of her predecessor, and the slow working out of what is actually going on. It’s one-on-one psychological combat and is thoroughly engrossing. As always for a Reed story, there are some excellent twists, including a profoundly rewarding one at the end. The best story of the issue, and one of the better ones by Reed in a while. (8)

Val Grimm:

Just as the reality of Robert Reed’s “Old Man Waiting” (Asimov’s, August 2008) evolved as the reader moved through the story toward the last-minute twist, so too “Truth” takes most of its motion from disclosure, although at times the intricate twists and turns of fake outs and minor revelations feels more like a drawn-out striptease than a plot. Like Sanderson’s piece, this is a glamorous spy story, one where the characters have remarkable abilities, although in this case those skills are intellectual, emotional, and strategic rather than physical or psionic. There isn’t much combat happening onscreen (plenty of it off screen) except for the symbolic, chess-like duel between our protagonist and her opponent, Ramiro. Although it’s thick with references to the “War on Terror” and the apparatus thereof, and some of its point is the danger of embarking on that sort of war, literal or figurative, this piece feels nostalgic, with references to Moscow and the appearance of an underground military facility. Perhaps this is merely an artifact of the parallels Reed draws between the “Cold War” and his series of hot flashes…for most of the time his world is very American, very unbalanced politically speaking (China is crippled by a civil war). Then again, the sophistication of the “bad guys,” as I will call them, reads more like a Gorkyesque top-down conspiracy than a grassroots insurgency. Interesting, nostalgic, occasionally slow and briefly didactic, but nonetheless engrossing.

And for the last time, over to you. How does it compare to the other nominees?

8 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “Truth”

  1. As Rich points out, I was initially less enthusiastic about this story, enjoying it while I read it but finding it oddly unmemorable later. That hasn’t happened this time around, which might be because I spent more time thinking about the story for my novella post, or simply because I was in a more receptive mood.

  2. I found it strangely unmemorable too – while reading it to write about it, I was sure I’d read it before but could remember no details. It also felt a bit too long. My comments are here.

  3. Ian, your URL doesn’t seem to have come through: presumably you mean this post.

    On memorability: I also found the story didn’t stick with me between first and second reading. Or, more accurately, I found that the ending didn’t stick with me; the basic conceit, and some of the scenes leading up to that ending, stuck with me quite well. I’m not inclined to judge the story too harshly for this, since for all that the ending is a twist, it feels to me like a cherry on top of the story, not the full dessert.

    That is to say, the meat of the story is in the interrogations (by which I mean just about any exchange of dialogue in the story; at least one participant is always trying to figure something out), and those are very nicely observed. (Is there anyone here who has read “Veritas”? I’d be interested to know how it compares.) Val Grimm’s comment about the kind of war it feels like struck a chord with me; in some ways “Truth” reminded me of MacLeod’s The Execution Channel. (This is praise!)

    And yet. Frustratingly, I’m left pretty much at: it’s good, it’s just not that good. And so my final ballot will be:

    1. “The Tear”
    2. “True Names”
    3. “Truth”
    4. “The Political Prisoner”
    5. “The Erdmann Nexus”.

    I don’t think I quite feel disappointed enough by the Kress or Finlay stories to invoke No Award.

  4. Oops. Not sure why the URL failed there.

    I think I agree with your: “it’s good, it’s just not that good”. If I were voting, my ballot would go McDonald, Reed, Doctorow & Rosenbaum, Kress, Coleman. But I’d like to hope there were some better ones out there which inexplicably didn’t make the shortlist….

  5. But I’d like to hope there were some better ones out there which inexplicably didn’t make the shortlist….

    On behalf of the very many SF writers who produce first class short fiction and never get the least sniff of a nomination, I endorse your hope.

  6. Well, I nominated:

    “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum (Fast Forward 2)
    Gunpowder by Joe Hill (PS Publishing)
    “The Surfer” by Kelly Link (The Starry Rift)
    “Truth” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s, October/November 2008)
    Distances by Vandana Singh (Aqueduct)

    As I said in the original post, it was a bit of a struggle to get five I was happy to nominate (though I read less short fiction than usual last year, to be fair). I’d now strike out the Reed and replace it with “The Tear”.

  7. My choice for second best novella of the year — and by quite a large margin — was Dean McLaughlin’s “Tenbrook of Mars”, which got much less attention than I had hoped (in part, I suspect, because it appeared in Analog).

    Other stories I’d have liked to see in consideration were Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Hob Carpet”, Holly Messinger’s “End of the Line”, David J. Schwartz’s “The Sun Inside”, Kelly Link’s “The Surfer”, and Elizabeth Bear’s “Overkill”.

    Of those I’d rate “The Surfer” probably the highest.

    Gunpowder didn’t quite work for me, though it was interesting — I thought Hill let his horror instincts overcome what seemed an interesting stab at writing SF, and a fine opening kind of fell apart at the end. Distances is fine and interesting and complex work (and actually novel length by my count though within the “deadband” to be eligible as either novella or novel), but it just didn’t fully cohere in my mind.

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