Hugo Nominee: “The Political Prisoner”

As previously noted, the story doesn’t appear to be available online. I will note, however, that this story has also been a Nebula nominee, is currently a Sturgeon nominee, and will appear in Dozois’ year’s best; so it really is, according to several different constituencies, one of the best stories of the year. What did reviews make of it?

Charlie Anders at io9:

Once again, the best thing in the current Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is a very political novella about spying during wartime. […] “The Political Officer” and “The Political Prisoner” both take place in a future society of quasi-Russian religious zealots that have terraformed a new planet the hard way: with their bare hands. They’re locked in a conflict with the Adareans, who have spliced non-human DNA to allow them to do things like photosynthesize (much like the enhanced Rebirths, in Reed’s “Five Thrillers.”) In “the Political Officer,” which is on the F&SF website, Max is a propagandist and spy, sent aboard a spaceship to spread the official party line and keep tabs on the Education Department’s rivals, the Intelligence Department. It’s very Gogol-esque. The ship is on a spy mission against the Adareans, but then it comes across a trade ship sporting some new technology that could give the humans an edge in their coming war against the Adareans

In the sequel, “The Political Prisoner,” Max comes back to Jesusalem, just in time for the battle between Political Education and Political Intelligence to heat up. He’s caught on the wrong side of things, and winds up part of a purge of Political Education supporters. He’s bussed out to a gulag, where he and his fellow prisoners are terraforming a new section of the planet, just like their religious zealot ancestors did. It’s incredibly rough work: carting rocks out to the ocean, and then carting back a ton of seaweed to help fertilize the dead ground. It’s not at all the way you picture terraforming, with huge machines or glowy lights. But it’s probably closer to the way actual terraforming would go. Max is forced to live among the Adareans and starts to understand more of their hybrid culture. It’s a worthy sequel to “Political Officer,” and a worthwhile read in its own right, despite a slightly disappointing ending.

Rich Horton:

My original review noted that “The Political Prisoner” violates Mundane Manifesto guidelines by positing a future interstellar human society tied together (at least to an extent) by FTL travel. (The review began by considering the Interzone Mundane SF issue.) Worse, it’s set on a planet not terribly advanced technologically (in some ways) from the 20th Century. There’s no denying such a future isn’t terribly plausible. But really this is an artificial construction — a stage set — for examining its central idea (and for telling a story). “The Political Prisoner” is a sequel to “The Political Officer”, and like that story it draws to some extent on Soviet history for its plot and situation. The title character in both stories is Maxim Nikomedes, an internal spy for one branch of the authoritarian government of the planet Jesusalem — that is, a man who spies on other factions of the government. Here he is swept up in political turnover and sent to a work camp. The main SFnal element here is that the work camps, instead of being in Siberia, are instead terraforming camps. But the heart of the story is the depiction of Nikomedes — not a nice man, but among even worse men, so queasily sympathetic.

What’s good here — mainly the portrait of Nikomedes, and the fairly plausible situation he ends up in, and its bitterly inevitable working out. What’s bad — well, as I hint at above, there’s not much SFnally exciting going on. There really is fairly little point in the story being SF at all. This is very well done stuff, but for an SF (or Fantasy) award, I want to have been thrilled by the central idea. (Or, alternately, the story could be so brilliant in other ways that that was less important … but that sets the bar for brilliance a lot higher.)

Jason Sanford:

My new story of the week is “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay from the August 2008 Fantasy and Science Fiction. […] Finley’s descriptions of the harsh reality of a reeducation camp–which is modeled on those infamous gulags of the old Soviet Union–are simply awe-inspiring, as are his descriptions of what people will do to survive in such a death-inducing environment.

However, the most amazing aspect of the story is Max himself. As a political officer, Max has a unique view on why all of this is being done to him. For example, when prisoners are killed as a way to teach everyone to stay in line, Max is both horrified at the sight and appreciative of the political skill of the man doing the killing. Likewise, he is now seeing the fruits of his own political work. For example, decades ago he created a derogatory term for a group of genetically altered humans; now Max hears people bandying this term around as they hate these altered people with an outsized passion. Max is vain enough to take pride in this outgrowth of his work–and old enough to also be ashamed. It is in this conflict between what Max has done in the past, and the changes he is undergoing in the reeducation camp, which makes the story such a winner. This story will likely be reprinted in some of the “year’s best” anthologies, and I highly recommend it to all readers.

Ian Sales:

I don’t get this story; I don’t get why it’s science fiction. Finlay might as well have set it in Nazi Germany. Or Stalinist Russia. Or any totalitarian regime which slaughtered great swathes of its population in the name of something or other. ‘The Political Prisoner’ may be set on another planet, and the forced labour is supposedly part of the terraforming required to make the world more habitable, but that’s as close as it gets to sf. Setting a story on another planet does not make it science fiction.
In my comments on Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ (see here), I mentioned the open mechanism which drives science fiction stories. That mechanism is absent in ‘The Political Prisoner’. Its workings do not need to be laid bare because everything is on the surface. Nikomedes is in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nikomedes can’t reveal his secret affiliation, Nikomedes gets sent to a reclamation camp and his past experiences help him survive, Nikomedes gets rescued. There is no idea which needs to be explicated, no idea upon which the plot is carried, no idea with consequences which can be explored.

I’ve not read Finlay’s ‘The Political Officer’, but I can only imagine that those who liked it voted for ‘The Political Prisoner’. Because on its own, there’s nothing in it that’s strikes me as award-worthy. There are enough examples of one group of people horribly treating another in recent human history, without having to go to all the trouble of writing a science fiction novella on the subject. Especially since ‘The Political Prisoner’ doesn’t actually say anything insightful or worthwhile. Nikomedes survives several months in the reclamation camp, then the head of Intelligence turns up and rescues him. Nikomedes asks that the prisoners he had been bunked with, the ones who had been doing the hardest labour, are released. Because, he says, “There’s been enough killing.” Oh dear.

‘The Political Prisoner’ is definitely the weakest of the three novellas I’ve read so far. And, like the Kress, I can’t quite understand why it was nominated in the first place.

Aliette de Bodard at The Fix:

“The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay is a sequel to “The Political Officer,” which was published in 2002 in F&SF. Set on a planet where a rebellion turned the government from religious to secular, “The Political Prisoner” features Max Nicodemes, a political officer who works for the Department of Political Education, which is in charge of propaganda. Max’s boss, Mallove, has political ambitions of his own-especially now that Drozhin, the man who spearheaded the rebellion, reportedly lies dying. When purges shake the city, Max finds himself stranded in their midst.

This is the longest story of the issue, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Finlay’s fast-paced narrative makes the pages fly by, and Max’s ordeal is believably chilling, as are the politics underpinning the purges. When the story moves into the reclamation camps, where political prisoners work on terraforming the arid environment, it takes on echoes of similar camps in the 20th Century (gulags, but also penal labour camps such as the Japanese ones in WWII), and thus a special relevance-proving, sadly, that even in space and in the far future, mankind’s ability to inflict pain on one another is boundless. Recommended.

Russ Allbery:

I’m not much of a fan of Finley’s other work, but this one was a pleasant surprise. Lucky, that, since this very long novella is much of the issue.

This is a follow-up story to “The Political Officer,” which I haven’t read. Max Nikomedes is a political officer in a very religious colony world. At the start of the story, he’s been arrested due to changes in the political winners and losers in the government. From there, matters go from bad to worse, and he ends up in the prison camp system with a group of aliens, genetically-engineered offshoots of humanity that had been a convenient war target to rally the population. It follows the normal pattern of a prison camp story, of desperation and defiance and psychological struggle, but it’s well-written, hard-hitting, and didn’t become monotonous. The subject matter won’t be to everyone’s taste, and it’s not clear how much the SF setting adds to the story, but it’s well-told within its type. (7)

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

The use of Russian-sounding names helps evoke a strong sense of the Stalinist purges and the gulag. Jerusalem’s origin was as a fanatical theocracy, but doctrinal disputes have by now been replaced by raw power struggles. While Max is the consummate pragmatist, a man who can tell the boss he is betraying, “Sir, if you want me to be disloyal, I will be,” yet there is an idealist at his core; he can not help thinking that even this purge may ultimately be for the greater good, if not his own. A fascinating and complex character in a well-drawn scenario where the struggle for survival tests humanity to the breaking point.

So: any other comments?

Hugo Nominee: “The Erdmann Nexus”

The story is here; so, on with the commentary.

Rich Horton:

“The Erdmann Nexus” seems a bit old-fashioned: almost explicitly channeling Theodore Sturgeon. Indeed elsewhere I called it, a bit meanly, “warmed-over Sturgeon”. But mean or not, read “To Marry Medusa” and “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff”, let’s say, then read “The Erdmann Nexus”. For all that both Sturgeon stories marry moments, whole sequences, of utter brilliance with some real disappointing elements, there’s just something special about them that isn’t present here. Anyway, Henry Erdmann is an aging physicist living in a nursing home, who is scared by brief strokelike incidents — but no brain damage is involved, and eventually there are apparent links to the memories of other residents of the home. And soon he learns that many of his fellow residents are indeed having similar episodes. The resolution — signaled from the beginning — is not surprising: elderly people are evolving into a higher consciousness. Kress does take this familiar idea in a slightly unexpected direction at the end — and there is a subplot involving a young attendant and her abusive husband that I found involving — but there’s no denying that not much really new is going on here.

So: what’s good: slightly unexpected ending. (But even so, one that didn’t thrill me.) And an interesting subplot that alas wasn’t enough of the story. What’s bad — not enough here new. A certain inevitability of the working out of things.

Ian Sales:

Unfortunately, hiding the extraordinary’s explanation, and only revealing it at the end, doesn’t work because it makes for an uninvolving narrative. And, for all its many viewpoints, ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ is pretty dull. […]

Kress throws in a framing narrative, describing a sentient spaceship approaching Earth, but it seems entirely gratuitous. The plot certainly doesn’t require it. And the mentions of split photons, quantum entanglement and emergent complexity just obfuscate. When an author holds the explanation close to their chest, it has to be a damned impressive explanation to redeem the story. Kress’s isn’t. We’ve seen it before, in both science fiction and fantasy. […]

The single-note characterisation in ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ doesn’t help either – gossipy granny, bible-basher, ex-ballerina who pines for her past, blue-collar retiree out of his depth…. And detective Geraci – Kress might as well have named him Goren since he’s plainly based on Vince D’Onofrio’s character in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Val Grimm, at The Fix:

I haven’t seen Cocoon or anything else most folks would probably compare Nancy Kress’s “The Erdmann Nexus” to, so bear with my cultural illiteracy. Although I haven’t seen this specific plot before, it feels familiar and a bit predictable (I can’t reveal quite why without spoilers, so bear with me). That said, I didn’t particularly care because the characterization was so strong. I don’t usually get attached to characters in novellas the way Kress managed to get my empathy engaged here; there usually isn’t enough room. But what she tells us about Henry and Carrie and some of the other central characters makes them solid and interesting, and the interactions between her dramatis personae are ultimately what make the story. In a way, and not just because it is a mystery, it feels like The Westing Game, with each character or group of characters getting their own moment in the spotlight, each vignette fitting into the whole neatly.

Russ Allbery:

Kress isn’t a writer I particularly look for, but she’s a competent writer and rarely writes a bad story. This is one of her better ones, mostly because of the detailed and varied characterization of the residents of a nursing home. The focus is Henry Erdmann, a retired physicist, who takes the role of detective in figuring out mysterious ailments linked with visions and apparent mental powers that the residents begin to experience. It’s a Nancy Kress story, so unsurprisingly there’s a theme of human evolution and transcendence, but there are also moments of character conflict that reminded me of Connie Willis. That’s a rather good mix. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying, but the story was solid entertainment. (7)

SF Gospel:

In the story’s final pages, our third-person omnipotent grants us some glimpses inside several characters’ minds as they are given the choice to join the group mind or continue their . For Erin Bass, the experience is defined within the terms of her spirituality. It is “satori… oneness with all reality.” Similarly, a nameless woman in Shanghai interprets the experience of joining the transcendent mind as “the gods entering her soul.” What, then, does Gina Martinelli experience? Unlike Bass, she does not see the experience through the lens of her faith. She experiences transcendence, but does not see Jesus there. She concludes: “If Christ was not there, then this wasn’t Heaven. It was a trick of the Cunning One, of Satan who knows a million disguises and sends his demons to mislead the faithful.” She rejects the group mind, opting to wait for the Second Coming outside of the collective intelligence.

What does this say about faith and religious experience? If two non-Christian characters are allowed to interpret their experiences in the vocabulary of their faith, why isn’t the Christian character allowed the same leeway? My guess is that Kress’s intention was to show that non-Western religions have provided a vocabulary that is better suited to describing transcendent experiences than Christianity has. But that simply isn’t true—from Pseudo-Dionysius to Meister Eckhart to Philip K. Dick, Christianity is chock full of mysticism that would allow for the kind of collective experience this story describes to be described quite well. Of course, Gina is presented as having a particularly narrow kind of faith. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here—after all, I complain about the close-mindedness of conservative Christianity pretty frequently, and ignorance of the history of mysticism is certainly part of that close-mindedness. But even I will allow that conservative Christians have their own strands of mysticism, as the growing popularity of Pentecostalism shows. I would expect that even as stereotypical a Bible-thumper as Gina Martinelli would be able to see her faith reflected in the totality of all existence. To describe a transcendent experience with culturally-specific terms—”satori,” “the gods”—and to refuse to allow a character from a different faith-tradition to have the same kind of culturally-specific interpretation strikes me as a double-standard. It’s a quibble, really: Martinelli is a pretty minor character, and Kress’s story is characteristically good. Nevertheless, that kind of detail does tends to rankle.

Elsewhere, Colin Harvey liked it and Nicholas Whyte was unconvinced. Your thoughts?

Hugo Nominee: “Shoggoths in Bloom”

The story. The comment:

Rich Horton:

“Shoggoths in Bloom” [is] a thoughtful (and quite straight-faced, despite the title) piece about a black scientist in the late ‘30s, investigating the reproductive habits of shoggoths off the coast of Maine. He learns a bit more than be expected — about shoggoths, their nature, their temptations — all of which is nicely put in the context of the times — his own heritage, as a black man; and the state of the world as Hitler threatens. I thought this quite intriguing in its speculations about shoggoths — for all they are obviously rather silly creations in the original, Bear does not betray Lovecraft’s vision (as far as I can tell) but riffs nicely on it. And then she constructs a morally serious character piece around the central idea, with some historical heft. A very strong story, surely one of the best of the year.

Karen Burnham:

… by firmly grounding this story in a time when almost unthinkable horrors were about to be unleashed, Bear seems to be dismissing Lovecraft’s “horrors” altogether. If you want horror, she seems to say, skip the stories and go straight to the documentaries.

Once more, like all the best stories with a point, in this tale the polemics never dominate the story itself. Bear is a great story-teller, and this one has some good humor and some in-jokes for the Lovecraft fans. Even on its own, without any background in Lovecraftian fiction, I think this story would stand up well. The message and the critique are embedded nicely within an enjoyable tale, just the way they should be.

Russ Allbery:

I think the best part about this story is how it gives you the impression it’s about one thing and then shifts to another, and then another. As advertised in the title, it’s clearly aimed at H.P. Lovecraft territory; it follows a black naturalist in the days just before World War II who is investigating shoggoths on the New England coast. Shoggoths, in this universe, are known creatures, blobs of living jelly, although no one really knows what they are or how they work. He’s trying to find out. From there, the story moves into a bit of the horror and revelation angle that one might expect, but not before race also enters the story mingled with the politics of World War II. And then the horror turns out to not be that horrific after all, just very weird, and the conclusion of the story turns to ethics. The flow from topic to topic is very well-done and kept me engrossed the whole way, and while the ending is reasonably obvious, I still liked it a great deal. Recommended.

Ian Sales:

I wanted to dislike this story. There seemed to be too much in it – 1930s race relations, Nazi persecution of Jews, WWI, and a sudden swerve towards slavery at the end – and I couldn’t decide if the central conceit, the shoggoths, was cleverly done or mishandled. I’m still not sure. But the story grew on me, and by the end of it I did think it was quite good. Not as good as the Kessel or the Bacigalupi, but better than the Gardner.

The Fix:

Bear depicts her setting with authenticity, tackling issues of race and social class in addition to Harding’s quest to understand the shoggoth lifecycle. The histories of Harding and of the shoggoth race meld together in a short, powerful climax that wraps this novelette up perfectly.

Abigail Nussbaum:

It’s a nicely atmospheric piece, and does a good job tying together the protagonist’s investigation of the shoggoths and his dark musings about racial prejudice–which is expressed genteelly in the behavior of the local fishermen and violently in the Kristallnacht riots, which take place shortly after the story’s beginning–most particularly in the choice the protagonist faces in the story’s end, between the freedom of one persecuted minority and another. I liked “Shoggoths in Bloom,” but unlike other Lovecraft pastiches such as Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” or Charles Stross’s “A Colder War,” I also can’t help but feel that my never having read Lovecraft is a barrier to fully appreciating it. For example, I assume that the story’s emphasis on racism is supposed to be intensified by knowledge of Lovecraft’s own well-document racism, and I’m wondering if there are other nuances that have gone over my head because I lack the proper grounding. I’m not sure how fair a criticism this is–and maybe the distance I feel from the story has nothing to do with Lovecraft and everything to do with the story itself–but the bottom line is that “Shoggoths in Bloom” leaves me somewhat cold, impressed by Bear’s technical achievement in creating her pastiche and grafting it to the real world, but not genuinely moved.

And now … over to you.

Reminder: “Shoggoths in Bloom” discussion, and future schedule

Last of the novelettes, this Sunday. Read it here.

We now hit a slight snag, in that the Hugo voting deadline is 3rd July, which on a weekly discussion pattern would get us through only seven of the remaining nine (having already discussedExhalation“) short fiction nominees. My proposal, therefore, is to do the novellas like this:

17 May: “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress
24 May: “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay
31 May: “The Tear” by Ian McDonald
7 June: “True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow
14 June: “Truth” by Robert Reed

And then the short stories on Wednesdays and Sundays, like this:

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

Sound OK?

Hugo Nominee: “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story”

OK, I suck. But better late than never, eh? Here is the story; and here is the commentary:
Rich Horton:

James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” is just what it says. A boy finds an alien ray-gun in the woods. He is convinced it means his is special, and he works to make himself worthy of it — but at the same time his relationships with other people, particularly women, are poisoned. The story reflects on the dangers of the power such a gun might confer — as it notes internally, not entirely in a new way: “he realized he was not Spiderman, he was Frodo”. I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and I am reprinting. I acknowledge one weakness — as Science Fiction, it’s a bit lacking, in that (as Gardner announces at the opening) the central Maguffin is not explained at all, and is really not that SFnally interesting — it is just a device (no pun intended) for stringing a character story on. Fair enough … and reason enough for me to decide to vote Bear’s story ahead of this one on my final ballot. But the story does what it intends to do very well, I think.

SF Gospel:

James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” (Asimov’s, February 2008) is my kind of SF story. It takes a simple premise—a young boy discovers the eponymous alien artifact—and explores it with strong characters and a healthy does of philosophy. Jack, the boy who finds the weapon, becomes obsessed with his discovery, and as he grows into adulthood this obsession comes to define him. His interest in the gun leads him to a career in science; his fears about its discovery lead him to push away those whom he loves. Before long both he and the reader begin to wonder if the ray-gun is intelligently guiding its owner to predetermined ends. This sort of high-tech teleology is a common trope in SF—among other things, it’s the foundation of Asimov’s Foundation. The idea that there is a way things are supposed to be, a conclusion to which everything is moving, is essential to any satisfying story, but SF allows a greater degree of transparency about the intelligence(s) that determine that end. The whys of Gardner’s story remain sketchy; the ray-gun is, after all, wholly alien, and its design is as ineffable as its tech. Nevertheless, it’s a moving exploration of the concept of the happy ending. The real strength of the story is its characters. Jack seems to be painted in broad strokes—we learn few concrete details about him, and he doesn’t even have a last name. But Gardner tells his story confidently, and as a result he feels more real by the story’s end than if he were granted more exposition.

Aliette de Bodard, for The Fix:

“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner is the other standout. About a mysterious alien ray gun which falls to Earth, it follows the life of Jack, the boy who finds it and keeps it, and the various ways in which the gun affects his life. As the narrator warns us, this isn’t a story about how ray guns work, but rather a very intelligent look at how having a mysterious artifact can change lives. Both Jack and his girlfriends are profoundly affected by the ray gun’s secret in utterly believable ways. The last paragraph did feel a tad superfluous, but don’t let that deter you from reading this fine story.

Russ Allbery:

Gardner has a matter-of-fact story-telling voice with a hint of wry wit under the surface that, when he’s on, is oddly compelling. I found myself thoroughly enjoying this story without being able to put a finger on why. I think it’s because the story is so confident in itself; it doesn’t spend time explaining or justifying. A boy finds a ray-gun. The ray-gun changes his life, for both good and bad. As he matures, he realizes what a responsibility it is, and the problems it causes. And by the end of the story, it’s the spark for a touching love story. The whole story is in the title, really, but Gardner writes it with such confidence and gentle emotion that it’s the highlight of the issue. (7)“:

  • The good:
    • I loved all the references to Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings, and how they worked so well with this story. Very cool!
    • Like the title implies this really is a love story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romantic science fiction story and enjoyed it as much as this one. Really well done!
    • The ending of “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” was really quite nifty – it was totally fun to see how things all came together.
  • The bad:
    • The story telling style was a little bit different with its “simplistic narrator” point of view. But after the first part of the story I eventually got used to it and it didn’t really bother me any more.
    • Even though “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” starts out with young teenagers, it isn’t really a story for kids.

Abigail Nussbaum:

The result is pleasant but not very exciting. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s the appeal to so many readers’ own experiences as young science fiction fans, convinced that any minute their life was going to transform into something out of their favorite stories, that is at the root of “The Ray-Gun”‘s appeal (though by the same token it’s not much of a stretch to view the ray gun as a metaphor for being an SF fan, and the story’s ending, in which Jack and his new girlfriend send the gun to the bottom of the ocean, as saying that if you want to get a girl, you’ll have to give up that creepy science fiction habit). I can’t say that I think nostalgia and sentimentality are, on their own, good enough reasons to give a story a Hugo nomination, or indeed to lavish it with all the praise that “The Ray-Gun” has received.

Hugo Nominee: “Pride and Prometheus”

The story, and the comment:

Nick Gevers, in Locus:

The closing story in this collection, ‘‘Pride and Prometheus’’, recently published in F&SF, is a splendid exercise in Jane Austen pastiche, a younger Bennet sister meeting Victor Frankenstein and striving to reconcile his cruel Gothicism with scientific ideals. Enlightenment scientism is beautifully burlesqued here, both Austen and Mary Shelley coming in for gentle mockery, the worldliness of the one interweaving mischievously with the emotional extravagance of the other. Each satirizes its counterpart, and the result is a spirit of wry realism. In short, a perfect summary of the complementary contraries within John Kessel, who in The Baum Plan for Financial Independence has produced one of the best collections of the year.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, at The Fix:

“Pride and Prometheus” is a technically dazzling Jane Austen pastiche which brings Miss Mary Bennett in contact with Victor Frankenstein. There is much to admire here: the language, both Victorian and Gothic, the philosophical discussions around naturalism and the limits of what empirical research ought to concern itself with, as well as the search for redemption through companionship from opposing and contrasting points of view. And yet, for me, some dramatic tension was diffused through the forced juxtaposition of thematic concerns and reverberations. The impeccable narrative style already places us at one remove from contemporary sensibilities; rather than spontaneously generating from this construct, the inclusion of Frankenstein’s world seemed more like a nifty exercise in literary mutagenesis that further constrained the dramatic potential. This story has already proven popular, though, and despite my reservations on these grounds, readers will find plenty to savor here.

Abigail Nussbaum:

If I have any complaints against “Pride and Prometheus” they are first that Kessel hasn’t really got the Austen-ish voice right. His pastiche rings hollow, emulating Austen’s grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure but lacking the spark that imbued her writing with so much humor. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the plain fact that “Pride and Prometheus” is barely even a genre story. That’s not always a problem–Kessel’s story is a hell of a lot more SFnal than Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See,” which quite rightly won the Nebula in 2004–and if nothing else “Pride and Prometheus” has once again reminded me to be grateful for the broadness and inclusiveness of the genre short fiction scene, since I can’t for the life of me imagine what mainstream short fiction magazine would publish this story. But with a shortlist already stacked to the rafters with metafictional games, literary pastiches, and appeals to the reader’s nostalgia and fannish affection, Kessel’s story, which unlike “Shoggoths in Bloom” doesn’t do much besides be metafictional, is somewhat devalued. Finally, given my chilly response to Bear’s story, I can’t help but wonder how much of my positive response to “Pride and Prometheus” has to do with my previous familiarity with the novels Kessel is drawing on.

Paul Kincaid, at SF Site:

Other than the hard-riding heroines of “The Invisible Empire” or the rather fearsome autocrats of the lunar stories, the strongest character is probably Miss Mary Bennet in “Pride and Prometheus,” in which the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice encounter Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creature. It is becoming impossible to keep count of the number of novels and short stories that revisit Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though this is certainly one of the better examples. This is at least in part because of the novelty of including Jane Austen in the mix, and even more because of the consistent way in which Kessel views the action from the point of view of Mary Bennet. Rather than the horror of monstrosity, therefore, this becomes a story about the constrictions of society. Kessel’s women are as trapped by perceptions of what they should be and how they should live their lives as his men.

Best SF:

What I believe the younger generation call a “mash-up”. Kessel puts the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice together with Victor Frankenstein. Kessel does a more than passable rendition of the writing style of Miss Austen, which will doubtless please those who like their fiction written in a style now two centuries old, although it can at times err on the pastiche, and I for one was reminded of the classic French & Saunders pisstake on such costume dramas on TV (“You suppose? You suppose? Madam, I find you very suppository!”)

The two unmarried Bennet daughters, Mary and Kitty, are in London, the younger, prettier, out to catch herself a man, like Mr Darcy, of some six thousands pounds per year. However, it is Mary who is smitten – by Mr Frankenstein. The creature also lurks, and the story leads a leisurely pace until a dreadful denoument, when young Kitty dies of a fever, and her body is resurrected by Frankenstein, to furnish the creature with a mate.

Actually, this is a false denouement, as we find through means of a newspaper clipping a year hence, of the likely fate of several of the characters, although this rather wraps up the story post-haste and with less satisfaction than one would like.

Colin Harvey, at The Fix:

But where Kessel scores is in fusing two seemingly disparate genres together so beautifully; it’s a wonderful Austen pastiche, and only rarely does he ever let control of his material slip. Once the initial bemusement at such an unlikely juxtaposition has passed, it’s a well-written story in its own right, with Mary [Bennet] at times quoting contemporary beliefs in such a way that they feel as if they could as easily have come from the mouth of Mary Shelley, who was, after all, a feminist almost two centuries before the term was popularized.

While the first half of the story is as light a soufflé as any Austen created, the mood gradually darkens with the second half to bring it emotionally closer to Shelley’s Gothic denouement—although in the end, Kessel reins in the story to steer a middle course which, unlike many genre romances, avoids both a contrived resolution and some of the histrionics that characterized his source material, and he manages to wring fresh pathos from what could, in a lesser writer’s hands, simply be a reworking of familiar materials. In all, “Pride and Prometheus” is highly recommended.

Broadly positive, then — and, of course, it’s just won a Nebula award. There’s also a short interview with Kessel about the story here.

And now, over to you …