Hugo Nominee: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled”

This is it: the final story. Read it here and comment below …
Rich Horton:

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” is fascinating SF about a human embassy to an alien city. The city is attacked, and everyone killed but one human, who escapes in the company of one of the aliens, wearing a spacesuit whose intelligence is based on his now-dead lover. The story deals with economics, with the biology and culture (and economics) of the aliens, and with the dangers of crossing an unfamiliar planet — it is intelligent, full of adventure, original, wry. This is really fine smart SF, and I particularly liked the economic slant to the whole thing. It’s not a breathtaking story, and I rank it behind most of this ballot, but it’s strong work.

Aliette de Bodard:

In “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” by Michael Swanwick, Quivera is a diplomat sent from Europa to a planet peopled with insect aliens—and most particularly to Babel, greatest of the alien cities. When Babel falls to the hands of other cities, Quivera and the alien Uncle Vanya have to carry the library of Babel—the only record of that civilisation—to safety, without being caught by the soldiers hunting them.

This is one of the two standouts of the issue. Swanwick keeps a taut pace throughout the narration as his protagonists try to rally the safety of another alien city, and he succeeds in making the aliens a fundamentally different species for whom the reader can still grieve. The ending is unexpected and a bit hard to accept at first, but in retrospect, it is perfectly in keeping with both the story’s theme and the various characters involved

Tpi:

Story starts straight away in action. Human station on an alien planet has been attacked, and sole survivor, his AI survival suit with a personality modeled on his girlfriend killed on the attack and an alien must make a hasty escape. The start of the story is a bit confusing, as fairly little back-story is given. The story improves a bit towards the end, when it comes a bit easier to understand just what the hell is going on. I wonder if this story is a part of some series?

Matt Hilliard:

Out of all the nominees this one is the most traditionally structured story, which these days is somewhat rare for this length (of course it just barely slides in under the novellette wire length-wise). The world was interesting and the writing was effective. In fact, pretty much everything was great except the story actually being told, which wasn’t all that interesting to me. Unfortunately I exalt plot over other things so this left me feeling vaguely disgruntled, but it’s worth still worth reading.

Best SF:

The opening paragraph is a doozy – it describes the titular city on Europa, and does so quite beautifully across several sentences, and then kicks into a higher gear as the narrator describes herself : a simulation of one of the humans killed in the destruction of the city, and then the story starts with a “Here’s what it was like…”

It’s an opening that you could use over the first month of a Science Fiction Writing 101 course, and the rest of the story lives up to that standard. The narrator, Rosamund, is embedded in the hi-tech suit of one of the survivors of the meteorite strike – Carlos, her lover. She has to care for him using the suit’s advanced medical capabilities to get him to the point of being in a state to be brought back to consciousness, and we follow them as she guides him, and one of the strange, definitely non-human race on the planet. In order to escape the armed warriors of his race, Uncle Vanya has to undergo the unkindest cut of all – “The first thing we have to do is castrate you..” is the kind of line you can only come up with after some years in the business. Swanwick takes the unlikely trio through an alien world, effectively getting across the alieness of Uncle Vanya through his speech patterns, and cleverly intertwining the action with backstory.

And the ending is just terrific – with Rosamund left embedded in the spacesuit, hanging up in a locker. It’s a story that is simply top class.

Russ Allbery:

Swanwick stories are often at a bit of an angle to the rest of the genre, and this one is no exception. The plot, once you dig it out of the story, is full of classic SF tropes of alien contact, diplomacy, misunderstanding, and cross-cultural confusion. There are some fun branching syntax diagrams of alien speech patterns thrown in, which I greatly enjoyed probably because they’re similar to, but more subtlely done than, something I played with in my own writing. But the story is told from the perspective of a protective suit worn by the nominal protagonist and is full of weird diversions and fun descriptions of how the suit works. It also has an unexpected ending that fits its viewpoint. Without the charming perspective, it’s a rather forgettable story, but the perspective makes it worth reading. (7)

John DeNardo:

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick starts with a meteor strike on a human city on an alien planet of millipede-like creatures. The human named Quivera is guided to safety by his armor suit AI, which is based on Rosamund, the woman with whom he had an affair. Quivera’s trek through the dangerous steam jungles of the planet with “Uncle Vanya” (a native millie with low social status) leads to several interesting discussions about their two economies: the humans based on information, the millies’ based on trust. As much as I usually dislike economics in my sf, I have to say this didn’t bother me a bit, as it offered up a nice contrast to the two characters whose relationship begins as one of mutual utility, but evolved in the face of their predicament and adventures.

Das Ubernerd:

Swanwick’s story also uses an ancient SF theme: two seperate aliens that cannot trust each other are forced together by circumstances to join together in order to cross dangerous territory. In this case it’s a human from a libertarian distopia joining with an alien from a society that holds trust as the highest virtue. Together they’re on the run from the destruction of the alien’s city which was betrayed and they carry with them a library containing information beyond calculable value. What makes this story work is the ambiguousness of it; while both character’s hold their society’s values in great esteem they also recognize the limitations of it even before the story begins. So while it plays with the “learning about other cultures” theme there is an undercurrent that both already know those lessons. It also helps that the story has a unique viewpoint: a ghost AI that runs one a spacesuit. It’s a subtle story that has some interesting layers and I appreciated it for that.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Johnson’s story makes for an interesting counterpoint to Michael Swanwick’s “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled,” which is good old fashioned Proper SF, set in the far future and on an alien planet, and featuring interplanetary intrigue, cataclysmic destruction, fights to the death, a mad scramble across hostile, alien terrain, and bug people. Swanwick is a pro at this stuff, and “Babel” finds him very much on top of his game. It’s exciting and well-done, cramming a hell of a lot of exposition, action and description into every single sentence until it draws a meticulously detailed portrait of two civilizations, their history, their cherished values, and the often fraught interactions between them. Still, given all the pyrotechnics and grand adventure involved in getting us to its end, “Babel” is somewhat underperforming.

Underpinning the story is a discussion of the economics of the two species–humans, represented by the diplomat Quivera, have an information-based economy, while that of the bug-like Gehennans, represented by the sole survivor of the recently destroyed Babel with whom Quivera flees its ruins, is based on trust–but Swanwick’s descriptions of of these systems are messy and difficult to follow, and I found myself unpersuaded by his conclusions. “Babel” ends with one half of its unlikley partnership sacrificing himself to save the other, and in order to safeguard the precious (in many different senses) cargo they are carrying, but it’s left to us to decide whether the survivor acted as an adventure hero would and honored his friend’s dying wish, or whether he cashed in on an unexpected windfall. Obviously Swanwick is trying to undermine the adventure plot, and remind us that in the real world, it’s cold hard numbers, profit and loss, that drive our decisions, but this feels like a petty sort of ‘gotcha!’ to the readers, whom Swanwick has worked hard to invest in the adventure aspect of his story only to snatch the rug out from under them at the last minute. I can’t help but compare “Babel” to last year’s Hugo-nominated novelette, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” by Daniel Abraham, which so much more intelligently and elegantly managed to fuse adventure and economics into a single, satisfying whole, without ever resorting to wagging its finger in the readers’ faces as Swanwick seems to be doing.

Hugo Nominee: “Evil Robot Monkey”

… aka the penultimate discussion. The story is here — and at 942 words, if you’ve got time to read this post, you’ve got time to read the story (is it the shortest piece ever to be nominated for a Hugo?).

Abigail Nussbaum:

Misunderstood robots also appear in Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey,” which beats “Article of Faith” hands down in terms of prose and its ability to elicit emotion, but which also isn’t really a story at all but piece of one, a thousand-word vignette in which Sly, an uplifted monkey, rails against his handlers and their refusal to ackowledge his personhood. Kowal is a good enough writer that Sly’s plight is compelling, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Evil Robot Monkey” doesn’t do anything beyond establishing that plight, or that it does so in ways that are both trite and familiar. Once again, this premise, of artificial creations gaining a measure of personhood only to see it, and their desires and aspirations, denied, has been at the heart of a significant portion of classic science fiction, and in order to be worthy of a Hugo nomination I think a story ought to do more than simply tip its hat to these works and then stop. In a way, I find Kowal’s nomination even more baffling than Resnick’s. Hugo voters either like him or his particular brand of sentimental pap, but as far as I know Kowal hasn’t amassed that kind of following yet, and it’s hard to imagine a non-story like “Evil Robot Monkey” arousing enough passion to make it onto the ballot on its own rather flimsy merits.

Rich Horton:

At less than a thousand words this must be one of the shortest Hugo nominees ever. It’s about an uplifted chimp, doing pottery but forced to be on exhibition and thus driven to a rage by the taunts of schoolchildren. Quite simple, but convincing and bitterly moving.

Tpi:

Extremely short story about monkey working with potter’s wheel. Pretty good, but nothing special. I really don’t understand why this story was nominated over so many other good stories, I can’t find it special in any way. Nice little mood piece, but that’s it.

Ian Sales:

The title is a silly joke – the monkey in the story is a live Chimpanzee. A “smart” chimp, in fact. Who makes pots out of clay. The story is around four pages long in the mass market paperback Solaris anthology. It is mildly amusing and mostly inconsequential. It’s not even the best story in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2.

Matt Hilliard:

An unusally short story that despite being short manages to have a bit more to say than the other nominated monkey story. Like basically any story of this length, it has one thing to say. It does a pretty good job saying it. I don’t think that’s really award-worthy, though.

John DeNardo:

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” (originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 edited by George Mann) is an affecting snapshot in the life of a chimp with an implant in his head that increases his intelligence. Unfortunately for him, that lands him in the “hellish limbo” of being “too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans.” He becomes the subject of ridicule of children in what is presumably a school where he spends his time behind a pottery wheel. The interesting premise is delicately overlaid with emotion by having a single human show the chimp some compassion, resulting in a quick-and-dirty sf short story that is both charming and memorable.

Charlie Jane Anders:

…the story is awesomely depressing. It’s a great examination of art and the creative process, and what it feels like to be an artist who’s looked at merely as a curiosity or as a momentary amusement for child barbarians. And art as a containment device for impotent rage.

Joe Sherry:

Oh, this is a beautiful and heartbreaking story. In fewer than 1000 words Mary Robinette Kowal just killed me. The opening paragraphs paints a picture of a monkey in a pen trying to do nothing more than make pottery but because Sly is a monkey, people think it is okay to hit the glass walls of his pen. The pottery brings the monkey peace. The other aspect of the story that wrecks me is the conversation between Sly and Vern, the handler, about what happened and why and what the consequences are.

Damn, “Evil Robot Monkey” is good. It’s so short, but the story is exactly as long as it needs to be. The story lingers.

So: lingering, or forgettable? Inconsequential, or accomplished?

Hugo Nominee: “Article of Faith”

We weren’t keen on the last Mike Resnick story we discussed. Will this one be any better?
Lois Tilton:

Reverend Morris gets a new janitorial robot for his church, but this one is too logical; it takes the premise of religion to conclusions that the reverend is not prepared to accept.

“I wish to become a member of your church.”
“But you’re a robot!” I blurted.
“If God is the God of all things, then is He not also the God of robots?” said Jackson.

But faith is not a matter of logic, as Reverend Morris should have known.

This is a tragic tale that some readers might consider a bit sentimental, yet it asks some very apt and pointed questions about religion. I find the unanimous reaction of the congregation to the presence of a robot to be a bit extreme–or rather, a matter for which the setting has not prepared me. We see nothing of the place of robots in the society outside the church; most of the story is a dialogue between Morris and his robot.

Abigail Nussbaum:

We begin our odyssey with perennial Hugo nominee Mike Resnick. The narrator of “Article of Faith” is a priest who at the beginning of the story takes ownership of a new cleaning robot for his church, and, on a rather poorly explained lark, starts giving it religious instruction. When the robot asks to participate in church services the priest, and later his congregation, react with horror and confusion. The premise of “Article of Faith” begs comparison with a whole raft of Asimov robot shorts of a roughly similar ilk, and Resnick’s construction of the robot character–anthropomorphic, human-named, soft-spoken, deferential but insistent on puzzling out the logical inconsistencies in the narrator’s theology–is also heavily reminiscent of Asimov’s robots. Which means that on top of failing in the traditional Resnick ways–plodding prose, obvious and predictable plot, shameless and blatant manipulation–“Article of Faith” fails by falling so very short of Asimov’s standards.

Asimov was no great stylist, and his characters were paper-thin, but his robot stories had a lightness to them, an effervescent wit and gentle humor that are completely absent from Resnick’s clomping, heavy-handed immitation of him. Add to this a simplistic and borderline reactionary treatment of religion–when arranging the wedding of a pregnant parishioner, the narrator muses that “it’s not my job to judge them, only to help and comfort them,” which sounds plenty judgmental to me; when the robot questions why services are held on Sundays instead of Tuesdays, the narrator’s “first inclination was to say Force of habit, but that would negate everything I had done in my life,” which, oh God, I don’t even know where to start; then, of course, there’s the blatantly telegraphed ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’ (no, really, he uses the actual quote) ending. There’s been a discussion of Resnick’s nominated novelette “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” at Torque Control, during which there’s been some attempt to pin down just what it is that makes him such a bad writer. A lot of good suggestions have been made, but to my mind his greatest failing is and has always been the one encapsulated by “Article of Faith”–his ability to take a subject that underpins some of science fiction’s seminal works, write his own spin on it which is neither innovative nor unusual nor particularly good, and send it out into the world without a hint of embarrassment or self-awareness.

Matt Hilliard:

It wouldn’t be a Hugo ballot without a horrendous short story, and here it is. For the life of me I can’t imagine how this could have been considered award-worthy. I think there need to be more SF stories that seriously examine religion rather than merely dismiss it, but this…this gives the religious SF story a bad name.

Rich Horton:

This story has a quite familiar plot. It’s told by a minister who has a robot that cleans his church. The robot shows some curiousity about religion, and the minister tries out his sermons on the robot. Naturally, the robot decides he has a soul, and wants to discuss religion — and he sees flaws in his pastor’s arguments, too. This really is a very 50s sort of idea, and the problem is, it’s not explored in an very original way. And indeed, I found the resolution inadequately set up, and quite unsatisfying. For all that we have seen plenty of “robot gets religion” stories before (including such famous works as the SF Hall of Fame story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” by Anthony Boucher, and also Robert Silverberg’s “Good News from the Vatican”) there’s no reason that the theme couldn’t still be used for a good story. And as far as it goes Resnick’s treatment isn’t awful, just unfinished, and too routine. So while I can see the story being published and all, I am rather puzzled by the Hugo nomination.

Ian Sales:

I thought this was appalling: dated, dull, and wholly predictable. A new robot joins the staff of a small-town church and ends up wanting to worship. Cue arguments on whether robots have souls. Yawn. And who writes stories featuring these sorts of silly pulp sf robots – because, let’s face it, if the robot is a stand-in for a foreigner, i.e., not-one-of-us, then why not actually use a foreigner and give the story more impact?

Tpi:

A robot working for a priest in a small congregation gets taste of religion. Another well written, pretty typical Mike Resnick story. The allegories a more that a bit heavy-handed, and there are some major problems with logic. A robot which is supposed to be absolutely logical (as stated in the story) doesn’t find anything contradictory or illogical in the bible? And falls for religion?

Joe Blaylock:

“Article of Faith” isn’t the most deeply moving Resnick story I’ve ever read or heard. That would probably have to be “Down Memory Lane”, a 2006 Hugo nominee. Still, this story struck a nerve. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the Bodhisattva’s Vow to aid all sentient beings. It sounds good, but it begs the question: What is a sentient being? Despite its trivialization as a trope of popular television series, films, and Hugo Award-winning short fiction, this moral conundrum has real consequences.

For example, it’s generally considered poor form to eat ones’ neighbors. So how do you decide what you can ethically eat? One could take the Genesis 9: 2-4 approach, and say, “Anything slower than me is food. Except for a few restrictions.” If one really wants to save all sentient beings, though, this might seem awfully selfish. Do you save them by eating them? I guess that depends on what you grok their purpose to be.

Of course, deciding who and what counts as having a soul (in popular parlance) doesn’t begin nor end with deciding what to eat. It informs every facet of how we choose to relate to the rest of the world. While Resnick’s written stronger stories, I think that he indirectly (accidentally?) captured this in “Article of Faith”. The fate of the robot, the minister, and even of the town, all seem intertwined with what the people choose to accept. To me, the story felt almost like an environmental piece.

But perhaps I’m reading into it over much.

Scott D. Danielson:

Mike Resnick has a way of revealing truths about ourselves that are often uncomfortable. That they are truths and that he can present them so well in fiction is why I like his writing so much. The Kirinyaga series of stories, “The 49 Antarean Dynasties”, and “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” are three of my favorite Resnick stories. From the latest issue of Baen’s Universe, Resnick offers another story that left me shaking my head at the truth of it.

Janice Clark:

Can a robot have a soul? Is it capable of worship? Should it be allowed to worship with people? In “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick, Reverend Edward Morris is faced with those questions when Jackson, his church cleaning and maintenance robot, begins studying religion.

It all starts innocently enough. Rev. Morris’s old maintenance robot has just been replaced by a new one, whose programming apparently makes him the ideal servant: courteous, attentive, and anxious to please. Bit by bit, Rev. Morris answers Jackson’s questions regarding religious practices, and eventually invites the robot to critique his sermons, pointing out obvious errors or logical inconsistencies. To facilitate this process, he has Jackson read the Bible. Shocked when Jackson expresses a desire to join the church, Rev. Morris tries unsuccessfully to convince Jackson that robots are soulless machines, different from humans. The pastor, a thoughtful and compassionate man, gradually comes to respect Jackson’s well-reasoned arguments:

“You can be switched off,” I pointed out. “Ask any roboticist.”
“So can you,” replied Jackson. “Ask any doctor. Or any marksman.”

There’s the meat of the story: who gets to decide who or what is acceptable to God? Unfortunately for Jackson, Rev. Morris’s parishioners are far less tolerant than their spiritual leader.

Aliette de Bodard:

In “An Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick, Reverend Edward Morris is faced with a problem: Jackson, the robot in charge of keeping the church clean, has decided that it believes in God and wants to be a member of his congregation.

Though this is well written and reads smoothly, the questions of faith and prejudice it addresses are not new (addressed, for instance, by Jack McDevitt in “Gus” or Isaac Asimov in “The Bicentennial Man”). In fact, they felt quite dated and didn’t offer a fresh enough take on the subject to be memorable.

John DeNardo:

“Article of Faith” concerns a subservient robot that works in a church and begins to question the pastor about religion. I’ve heard lots of griping about this story but I’m not exactly sure why. The worst that could be said about is that the “robot wants to be human” theme has been done numerous times before — even by Resnick himself in his wonderful story “The Big Guy” – but even that assessment depends on one’s personal reading history. As it is, Resnick’s dependable easygoing style delivers a story that doesn’t disappoint.

Hugo Nominee: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

On to the short story nominees! Kij Johnson’s story is here, and I expect you all to read it in your lunch hour. Commentary:

Rich Horton:

This is a sheer delight. Aimee is the operator of an act featuring 26 monkeys, who perform various stunts, then disappear. The story, of course, isn’t about the monkeys disappearing — it’s about Aimee, and how she got there, and her boyfriend, and their future, if they have one. I liked the not quite whimsical telling — the sense that there is much serious matter behind the sweet surface. The monkeys and their act are nicely described, Aimee and her boyfriend seem real. And the ending is handled just right. Sometimes a story simply grabs me, and that’s what happened here.

Ian Sales:

While this is clearly a good story, it’s not the sort of genre fiction I normally enjoy. The premise is whimsical, the treatment is whimsical, and I’m not a big fan of whimsy. Nevertheless, it’s one of the stronger stories on the shortlist.

Lois Tilton:

Aimee has a monkey act, and her big trick is making 26 monkeys disappear from a claw-footed bathtub onstage. The problem is, she doesn’t know how they do it. But really, it isn’t a problem at all.

Neat.

Val Grimm:

in “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” Kij Johnson assembles a beautiful mystery which, although it may seem predictable or familiar at first, has a flower (instead of a sting) at the end of its tail.

Aimee lost everything and replaced it with a sideshow. Twenty-six well-behaved, exceptionally intelligent monkeys pile into a bathtub and disappear, to return hours later to the bus which is their home with all sorts of odd items. She and her boyfriend, Geof, are just along to drive it seems, and like Bastian of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, she wanders as though she’s used up all her wishes and no longer remembers who she is:

Fairs don’t mean anything, either. Her tiny world travels within a slightly larger world, the identical, interchangeable fairs. Sometimes the only things that cue Aimee to the town she’s in are the nighttime temperatures and the shape of the horizon: badlands, mountains, plains, or city skyline.

The ending may seem predictable, and in some ways, what you expect is what happens. Why and how—and what it means for the future of the monkeys, the bathtub, Aimee, Geof—less so. The thing that ultimately gives meaning to this tale of slipstream serendipity may surprise you with tears.

Russ Allbery:

This is an excellent story. It’s about a woman who owns a monkey show, except the show basically runs itself and all the monkeys know what they’re doing and have ever since she bought the show for $1. They’re remarkably intelligent, come and go as they please, and at the end of each show, they disappear out of a bathtub on stage and are gone for hours, only to return at the show bus. The emotional reactions of the main protagonist are exceptionally well-written, with deep emotions hiding under the light and somewhat amusing situation. Johnson throws in some twists in the plot and doesn’t take it in expected directions, and the ending, while maybe a bit saccharine, worked perfectly for me. The best story of the issue and quite possibly deserving a Hugo nomination in short story. (9)

Abigail Nussbaum:

Kij Johnson, meanwhile, does seem to have something of a following. Last year, praise for her story “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” seemed to be on everybody’s lips. I read “Trickster Stories” when it was nominated for the Nebula and found myself underwhelmed. It was charming and well-written. I was impressed with the way Johnson handled her inventive premise, neither shortchanging nor belaboring it, and couldn’t help but be taken in by the gentle melancholy that suffused the story. But I didn’t particularly like it, nor did I see why it had garnered such praise. I’m telling you all this because my reaction to “Trickster Stories” is also, word for word, my reaction to “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” Johnson’s story on this year’s short story ballot. It’s a nice piece with a slightly surreal premise–Aimee owns a carnival act in which 26 monkeys disappear into a bathtub–but so gentle and unassuming that it’s hard to believe that, once again, so many people have fallen in love with it. There’s nothing wrong with “26 Monkeys,” and Johnson’s voice and style are unusual enough that I can sort of see how she might deserve recognition for them, but I can’t help but think that there are much stronger, more interesting, more passionate stories out there that ought to have had her spot on the ballot. Still, I’m willing to admit that this is probably a case of me being the wrong reader for the story.

And a very detailed reading of the story by Juliette Wade, with comments from Johnson:

Kij Johnson has chosen to juxtapose Aimee’s carnival act – absurd, quirky and inexplicable as it is – with Aimee’s terrible grief as a result of terrible events in her life. As the story progresses, Johnson manages to bring the two sides together in a marvelous way, so that they are less contrasting and more congruent.

If she had gone another route, and taken us closer to Aimee’s point of view, it would have been easy for us to get mired in the grief itself – and this would have made it far more difficult to grasp the thematic content of the story. By keeping narrative distance, Johnson avoids the trap of protesting too much. She allows us to share Aimee’s sensitive observations of the details of her life, and by showing us Aimee’s fear of touching her own grief, Johnson allows readers to add their own depth to her story by accessing personal experiences of grief, and of the grieving.

This is more than just a wonderful story. It kept me guessing, and it made me think. And now it has also given me an opportunity to think about third person omniscient in a whole new way.

Your thoughts?

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?

Reminder: “Truth” discussion and short story schedule

And so we reach the last of the Hugo-nominated novellas, Robert Reed’s “Truth”, which you can read online here. I’ll be travelling on Sunday afternoon, so the post will go up on Sunday evening.

And as a reminder, the schedule to get through the remaining short stories before the voting deadline (“Exhalation” having been already covered):

17 June: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
21 June: “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick
24 June: “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
28 June: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick

Hugo Nominee: “True Names”

This week’s story. This week’s commentary:

Abigail Nussbaum:

A literary collaboration between Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum seems, at first glance, like a dubious proposition, but I congratulate whoever it was–the authors themselves, or Fast Forward editor Lou Anders–who came up with the idea, because the result of this marriage, “True Names,” is a complete triumph. As I said in my Hugo ballot post, it combines both authors’ strengths and favorite topics–Rosenbaum’s penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story “The House Beyond Your Sky,” and Doctorow’s fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self (of course, now that I’ve spelled out which parts of the story I think were contributed by each author, it’ll probably turn out that I’ve got them completely backwards). This, no doubt, is to make “True Names” sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. In what I assume is a sly meta-reference, near the middle of the story one of the characters performs in a play which recasts her life into its canonical form, and has her swinging a cutlass on the deck of a pirate ship.

“True Names”‘s actual setting, however, can best be described as, but is probably much more complicated than, a computer. In the vastness of space, two entities, Beebe and Demiurge, fight for dominance and for the raw material they can convert into processing power. Demiurge is monolithic, all its subroutines guided by a single agenda. Beebe is chaotic, with different sub-entities taking on lives of their own and vying for control, spawning new and subtly altered copies of themselves on a whim. And, it soon becomes apparent, both Beebe and Demiurge have the power to model each other, and sometimes the whole universe, in order to predict their enemies’ actions. We end up, therefore, with several different iterations of each character, only some of whom exist in the ‘real’ world. Like “The Tear,” then, “True Names” is a story about individuality in a world in which personality is easily edited and copied, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow pull off the trick McDonald wasn’t quite up to, and easily distinguish between different versions of their characters while maintaining a coherent core for each one. This is, however, far from their greatest accomplishment with this story, which on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure is both clever and cleverly put together–the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only story on the ballot which feels truly, meaningfully SFnal, telling a familiar story in a setting that is so strange that it forces us to see that story through new eyes.

Mentatjack:

I’ve not done my quota of lists on this blog, so here are my reasons why True Names is AWESOME.

  1. It’s short. It can be read in a sitting or listened to over the course of a couple commutes.
  2. It’s not TOO short. It’s a novella, if you’re frustrated with me being vague.
  3. It’s written like Bach’s inventions. Simple components combined and recombined into beautiful complexity—simple is relative, of course.
  4. Quantum Computers Rock!
  5. Modeling Universes is FUN
  6. Sock puppets are almost as cool as muppets. Actually the sock puppet might be cooler if it was a goddess
  7. Galactic battles SO enormous they can only be described via metaphor.
  8. Go is the best game ever, and the game played in this story is one of the most seamlessly integrated I’ve ever encountered in a science fiction story.
  9. It introduced me to Ben Rosenbaum … actually the name sounded familiar. I’ve heard 3 of his stories on Escapepod. If you like True Names you’ll dig “The House Beyond Your Sky,” (or vice versus) and the other two stories, while VERY different, are quite spectacular. I’m totally grabbing a copy of The Ant King and Other Stories when it’s released.
  10. It got me excited enough to write this list, and I haven’t even finished listening it. I’ll update this after I finish listening to it on my drive to work.
  11. update: I finished this on the way to work. So, imagine reality is the reality of The Matrix and then imagine there are other realities competing for computation. That’s the simple idea I mentioned in point 3, and Cory and Ben layer it upon itself beautifully. It’s wild having events happen at the scale of galaxies, yet still be a very personal tale. I could see that the abstract convolutions could turn a few people away, but if you can follow a Tarantino flick, then you’ll be able to follow as the secrets of the universe reveal their secrets and their secrets’ secrets.

Rich Horton:

The longest and arguably most ambitious of these entries is “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, nearly a novel according to Hugo rules. Perhaps this is a new entry in Doctorow’s ongoing series of riffs on famous SF stories. It concerns a far-future set of civilizations, mostly living in virtual environments. (That being the main nod to Vernor Vinge’s famous model — otherwise there is less thematic connection to the predecessor stories than in Doctorow’s “I, Rowboat”, “I, Robot”, and “Anda’s Game”, and for all I know, it’s not really intended to be a Vinge riff.) One civilization is democratic, consisting of numerous entities vying for control, while the other is more or less totalitarian, ruled by a single strict program. The two polities battle across the Galaxy, not always noticing the threat of a third virtual environment, which seems lifeless but unstoppable. The plot involves computer program sex (sort of) and heroism, and questions about reality versus simulation — at multiple levels — and it’s fast-moving and interesting but for me it fell into the trap of excessive abstraction. I never quite believed in — nor always understood — what was going on. Nonetheless, it’s quite a thought provoking effort.

What’s good here — tons of imaginative ideas, lots of rigorous thought behind the setup. And an ironic and well thought out conclusion. What didn’t work for me — as I said, much of it simply seemed too abstract. Too much the authors telling us what we should think about what was going on rather than making us believe it. And, I’m not sure I understood everything. Which, I hasten to emphasize, is as much or more my fault than the authors’. Pace much discussion of Greg Egan’s Incandescence, there are some stories that demand a lot of their readers (in different ways for different stories). And it’s not a fair argument to say that the burden is entirely on the writers to make a story accessible to all readers, or even most. If a story is properly told in such a way that only a subset get it, that’s fine, particularly if telling it differently would ruin it. Heck, that’s the case for much of the SF genre when so-called “mundane” readers encounter us! That said, in all honesty, if the story didn’t work for me, I can’t vote it ahead of stories that did. But I respect those who did get it.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro:

Fast Forward 2‘s showy centerpiece is the novella “True Names” by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum, presented in hyper-widescreen. This is a story so densely populated with “—al” ideas (ontological, epistemological, SFnal, computational, mythological, legal, cryptographical, take your pick) that it’s probably as close to actually being made of computronium as a contemporary SF story can be. Many of these ideas (those which I understood, or think I understood) tickled my brain and commanded my respect, and as an exercise in extreme imagination I found it impressive—but as a work of fiction it is the one piece in Fast Forward 2 that failed to keep me entertained or engrossed. “True Names” presents a Universe in which three highly advanced forms of AI, Beebe, the Demiurge and Brobdignag compete for computation and ideology. […] the power struggle between them, as experienced by the characters of Alonzo, Algernon, Paquette, Nadia and others, sometimes as emulations inside each other’s entity matrices, serves as the springboard for the novella’s central, and abstract, preoccupations. I found myself unable to develop any attachment for the characters or their simulations: the dialogue was too stultified with adolescent-sounding techno-avatar-isms like, “But Alonzo, she’s so hot!” and their behavior comprised more of wide-eyed naivete and sardonic posturing than any real emotion. This left me skating on the sheer and audacious profligacy of concepts. What I found was a beautiful museum collection, a magnificent display of pre-existing ideas arranged in fabulous geometries and twisted into pleasing, recombinant strategies of exuberance, only lacking the one arresting moment of originality that can take our breath away. This might seem like a strange claim on my part. Perhaps “True Names” is so Far Out, in setting, that I found myself not caring sufficiently about how Far Out it was. Not even the Solipsist’s Lemma could save me.

Paul Raven:

By dint of sheer size alone, the centrepiece of Fast Forward 2 is Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “True Names”, an implicit homage to Vernor Vinge’s seminal novella of the same title (often credited as being one of the first fictional appearances of a recognisable technological singularity as well as one of the earliest works to have a fully realised ‘cyberspace’ as its setting, three years prior to Gibson’s Neuromancer). No surprise, then, that it’s a crazy bells-and-whistles epic of big ideas that pits three different post-singular societies against each other on a galactic scale. Because of that, it’s sure to be the sort of story you love or hate; fans of Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes, Stross’s Accelerando and some of Doctorow’s own material are going to lap up the multiple iterations of the same characters, the nested and interlocking simulated realities, and the sheer ebullient geekery of the whole thing. I enjoyed “True Names” a great deal, but there’s a case to be made that the flux of characters and situations (and the firehose of ideas) could be hard reading for a reader more accustomed to conventional narratives; it might also have been a little shorter. But considered as an imaginative sensawunda geek-out, “True Names” raises the bar for the subgenre.

Hugo Nominee: “The Tear”

Unsurprisingly, given that (a) it first appeared in an SFBC-only anthology and (b) it wasn’t in the Hugo voter packet until recently, there’s not much talk of substance about this one out there, that I could find at any rate. Maybe we can rectify that. Here’s what I did find:

Rich Horton:

My favorite story of the year is Ian McDonald’s “The Tear”. Gardner Dozois’s introductory material suggested that it has sufficient ideas and plot for many writers to make a trilogy from. In fact, one could argue that that is not entirely a strength of the story — there would have been nothing wrong with a more leisurely treatment of some of the stories situations.

It’s set in a future McDonald has visited before, in which the Galaxy (and perhaps beyond) has been colonized by the Clade — a vast variety of beings, all apparently based originally on Homo Sapiens, but with genetic modifications (and sometimes more extreme changes) to allow human life to spread to many different environments. On Ptey’s planet most people develop different “aspects”: completely separate personalities that take over when needed. Ptey — or the aspects he has become — play a vital role in a crisis involving a curious group of beings fleeing an implacable enemy. The story keeps leaping to radically different futures, following different aspects of Ptey, through parallel love affairs, centuries long space journeys and battles, meetings with new branches of humanity — it is fascinating, tragic, hopeful, imagination-stuffed, and powerful.

That short review doesn’t really do the story justice. There is a well-depicted central love affair. There is some play with the nature of the “aspects” Ptey’s people develop that I found fascinating. The depictions of the first visitors to Ptey’s planet are really cool. The notion that all these very different beings are human is not at all new but nicely handled. There is a certain ambiguity as to how “good” the good guys necessarily are. (But application of one main rule — “killing people is bad” — does clarify things somewhat.) I just really loved the story.

What’s good here — well, what I’ve said. And it’s as imaginatively stuffed a story as we usually see, though to be fair Rosenbaum and Doctorow’s story (see below) is also pretty stuff that way. What’s bad — as I hinted, perhaps sometimes things are a bit rushed.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” is a major departure from his habit, over the last few years, of writing offshoots to his novels River of Gods and Brasyl. A far-future space opera, it follows the character Ptey from his childhood and early adulthood on the planet Tay and into space, where he is first the guest of an alien race visiting Tay, then a fugitive from their enemies, then the alien visitor of another race, and finally the prodigal son returning to his ravished home world. Except that all of these aliens are humans–evolved or artificially altered into radically different forms–and that Ptey is only Ptey for the first few pages of the story. His people have a tradition of ‘manifolding’–creating new, subtly different, aspects of their personality within themselves, different people sharing the same body and carrying on their own, separate lives–and later on Ptey transforms again through exposure to alien technology. The multiplicity of personalities who are all essentially the same person is obviously intended to track with the multiple forms humanity takes in the story, from Tay’s socially-mandated schizophrenia to its visitors’ virtual existence to the accelerated aging of the inhabitants of a generation ship Ptey hitches a ride on. This is an interesting point, but it seems a little flimsy for such a long story, especially given the thinness of the its plot–Ptey leaves home, Ptey comes home. Even more problematic is the fact that McDonald doesn’t quite pull off the feat of making Ptey’s different iterations feel like different versions of the same person–they either come off, in the first half of the story, as completely different people, or, in its later parts, as the same person playing different roles in different social settings. “The Tear” is interesting and well written (though McDonald’s prose often veers from merely ornate into baroque, which occasionally made for a tough slog) but since the whole story hinges on the device of Ptey’s transformations–it is even divided into chapters according to the changes in his aspect–the unconvincing execution of that device renders “The Tear,” if not quite inert, then at least seriously underperforming.

John DeNardo:

Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” presents a water world culture that encourages multiple personalities – specifically eight- upon entering adulthood. At that time, its members relocate to a “Manifold House” where their other identities are born. This story follows the life of the protagonist born as Ptey, a male identity that is eventually replaced by eight others over the course of the story. Ptey’s passage to adulthood includes dealing with girls, a friend who cannot become multiple (Cjatay, a so-called “Lonely”), and – perhaps more prominently – the alien Anpreen that orbit the neighboring world for fuel. Ptey learns a terrible and dangerous secret of the Anpreen and their reason for emigration – a secret that forces him, against cultural taboo, to assume a ninth personality so that he can join them in their travels. Things only get worse for poor Ptey when the Anpreen situation comes to a boil. This is a very brief skimming over the central story, which itself is brief in comparison with the mind-numbing ideas being tossed about like balls in a lottery machine. Too many ideas may have taken the edge off this story, but it definitely has a most epic feel to it, the scope of which still has my mind reeling in wonder.

Nicholas Whyte, and some other people, liked it; Walker of Worlds and Visions of Paradise couldn’t finish it. As usual, I’ll post my thoughts as a comment.