Monday, 23 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Novellas

This is my ranking of the novella nominees in order.

Countdown - Mira Grant

Countdown is a prequel novella to the Newsflesh trilogy. It recounts the story of the Rising, the focus is primarily upon characters who are only mentioned in a historical context in the main trilogy, though there is also a fair amount from the perspective of the adoptive parents of Shaun and Georgia Mason.  

Being a prequel most readers will know what is going to happen, pretty much all of the events were mentioned in some way during Feed and Deadline, and Mira Grant provides a lot of foreshadowing for those readers.

I think that a reader completely new to the series would still be able to enjoy Countdown, but it feels very much written for the fans. I really enjoyed the story a great deal, it was great to be able to see and get to know Dr. Kellis and other characters which have such a significant and direct impact on the setting but don't really appear in the main series.

The Man Who Ended History - Ken Liu

I found this story very powerful, mostly because the science fiction elements are a framing device to discuss history, observation and the human desire to try to forget and diminish terrible things.

The central concept is that there is a technology developed that allows a person to directly observe the past, with the limitation being that this can only be done once for any given time and place. The mere act of observing destroys the ability to observe again. The very public test of this technology? The Pingfang district, where Unit 731 were located. This really is the focus of the work, what was done by Unit 731 was terrible, horrifying and astounding. Medical experimentation without any real ethical boundaries.

The story discusses the political ramifications, who owns the past, since control of land constantly shifts between areas. Similarly, this is a political conflict between Japan and China, Japan was clearly historically in the wrong, but China is not as well regarded by the West. Besides, what governments really want to allow any areas of their history to be closely observed? History is sadly filled with terrible atrocities that society for better or worse would rather forget than reflect upon. 

The Man Who Bridged The Mists - Kij Johnson

This is a fantasy story about civil engineering. The mist is a dangerous supernatural boundary that splits the empire. It runs over a river and makes crossing very dangerous and communication difficult.

The man who bridged the mist is about the first permanent bridge constructed over the mist connecting both nearside and farside. It is a complex, lengthy and dangerous task, but one that is not trully opposed by anyone.

The only people likely to lose anything are the Ferries, a family who make their living ferrying people across those dangerous waters, it is a calling and whilst they are extremely good at it, it is an occupation which will inevitably kill them after only a short number of years on the craft.

I really enjoyed the interactions between Kit and Rasali Ferry, they work well together and I enjoyed the talk that went into building the suspension bridge.

Kiss Me Twice - Mary Robinette Kowal

Kiss Me Twice is science fiction noir tale about a murder and a kidnapping. The story is told from the perspective of a police officer who is perhaps a little too attached to the police AI.

It was pretty cool to have a police department that is heavily assisted by an AI that mostly communicates with them via AR. I liked the twists and turns that the story took and the conclusion was one that I did not see coming though probably should have.

The Ice Owl - Carolyn Gilman

This is a science fiction story about the education of a young girl, forgiveness and a holocaust. I quite enjoyed the lessons that the girl was taught and the puzzles that she solved using that education. I didn't really get into the setting and the story was good, but just not one that I have much to say about.

Silently and Very Fast -  Catherynne M Valente

This was a very confusing novella about AI and the turing test. It swaps between modified fairy tales and the primary narrative around the development of an AI and its ties to a particular family. The swapping between these two perspectives really did not work for me, it pulled me out of the story and I found it harder to track what was going on.

I did like the point about the turing test though. Basically it indicates that we will only accept an AI when it limits itself to our level, when it thinks like us and has similar limitations. This is often seen in movies where bad robots and AI inevitably seek omnipotence and to strike humanity down for its hubris. Why would a superintelligent AI even care about us?

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