After the drama of the Puppy-tinted Hugos, the Locus Award finalists are an abrupt departure from that list. On the short fiction front, there isn’t a single finalist that overlaps with the Hugo nominees. More interestingly, these finalists do not overlap at all with the Nebulas, either, so this year we have three completely different set of finalists for these three awards, each of which takes a different form to reach its nominees/finalists.
So while the Nebulas are voted on by the professional writers of the SFWA, and the Hugos by attending and supporting members of WorldCon, the Locus Awards are the result of an open online, ranked poll. The fact that this popular vote matches neither the choices of the professional writers nor the ostensibly popularity-derived slate of Puppy nominees is at the least an important part of the conversation as we move forward from this year’s awards to the coming years.
“Covenant”, Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future)
This story imagines a future that may not be far off, where stem cell developments allow the criminal justice system to rewire criminals’ brains—to rightmind them—to make it impossible for them to commit the kinds of crimes they once did. Our narrator is one such former felon, a serial murderer, who submitted to it believing that he could beat the system. He—now she, because he thought people might be quicker to believe the transformation with a sex change—narrates the current time as a woman and recalls the past in third person as “he.” Rightminding proves stronger than he’d expected.
Much of the skill of the story is in how it plays out the revelations, so I’ll limit my review to saying that her current self runs into a person much like she used to be. The conflict, though, isn’t so much between her current and former identities in the form of this stranger, but in her current self dealing with the actions of her past self and whether there’s any purpose in pressing on.
There’s a heavy sense to the narrator’s voice, a sense of self-loathing that gives the story a deep ballast. It creates a compelling and thought-provoking view of a possible future.
“The Dust Queen”, Aliette de Bodard (Reach for Infinity)
Once again we have a story concerned with manipulating brains and memories. In this case, the people who have gone to live in orbit around Mars, monitoring its slow terraformation, have access to a technology that will let them seal off specific memories within their minds. The memories are not gone, but they become static, losing any emotional context they once had. Many of them find that the tedium of life above Mars demands them to seal away their memories of Earth.
One other fact that helps them through their tedium is the amazing dust shows, in which the Dust Queen manipulates the dust below them through remotely controlled nanobots, enacting grand spectacles for the workers to view from above.
In this setting, Quynh Ha is a skilled rewirer, and she is summoned by Bao Lan, the famous Dust Queen herself, to restore the memories that had been sealed away. Quynh Ha’s awe for the Dust Queen and the Viet heritage they share gives this story its core.
There is a delightful sense of wonder in the dust shows themselves, and the story has some powerful (and by no means simplistic) things to say about the connection between art and memories and emotion. I make no secret of the fact that de Bodard is one of my favorite short story writers—she was also nominated for a Nebula, for a different story, which I praised in that review—and this is a rich and beautiful example of what short fiction can do.
From these two we go to a quieter, subtle fantasy of a young immigrant woman, Anisa, who’s come from Lebanon to London and then Glasgow. There she immerses herself in helping the birds at an owl rescue center. Pithy facts about owls introduce each section and play off the events Anisa experiences.
Intrigued by a friend she meets at the center and the Celtic legends she hears, Anisa becomes fascinated with the Welsh language, which she finds similar to Arabic in odd ways but without the cultural weight that makes her own birth language fraught with extra emotions she doesn’t want to face.
Culture and language and the feelings of displacement are the core of this story. The magical aspect is what forces Anisa to confront them, but really it’s in the poetic way her growth is shown to us that the story shines, a quiet but very memorable piece.
“In Babelsberg”, Alastair Reynolds (Reach for Infinity)
This story brings us back to a much more overt science-fictional mode. It takes place in a near future when humans are tentatively trying to send humans farther out into the solar system, but robotic missions remain far more feasible.
Our narrator, Vincent, is an AI with a very developed individual personality. After his explorations of the moons of Saturn, where he studied and cataloged and named the features of the moons, he returns to Earth a celebrity. Something terrible happened while he was among the moons, though, and the sadness plays through his various interviews and presentations back on Earth.
Vincent is a well-captured character, an AI with an artistic streak—he’s named for and loves the work of Vincent Van Gogh. And the hint of a rivalry with a new AI explorer, Maria, plays out fittingly. The true force of the story, though, comes to play in a late reveal that I won’t spoil. It’s a gut-wrenching climax that makes you need to go back and re-read the earlier statements Vincent has made. The wind-down from that climax feels at first read somewhat disappointing, but on re-reading it, it’s clear that anything else would have likely been melodramatic and simply wouldn’t have fit.
“Ogres of East Africa”, Sofia Samatar (Long Hidden)
This final story is another fantasy, and the most original in format of any of the stories. It takes the form of journal entries by Alibhai, who is the scribe for a colonialist traveling through the region. He records information about local Kenyan folklore. Specifically, he catalogs the local stories of ogres, and in between these entries jots down events of their expedition. His source for the information is a local woman who calls herself Mary.
The layers of the story are perfectly balanced. There is the whimsy of the ogres with the complicated back and forth between Alibhai and Mary and the callous greed of the employer. There are the layers of power among the three, as well as the porters and other employees of the expedition. And there’s the gradual development of the ogres’ tales and how they meet up with the characters.
Little is explained, but the allusive beauty of the tale rises up between the stories of the ogres and the expedition members.
This is another strong selection of stories. My own taste for the poetic and fantastic inclines me toward Samatar’s story, but none are a waste of time and several are simply excellent stories, each in their own way. The winners will be announced this weekend at a special convention explicitly for the Locus Awards.
Author: Daniel Ausema
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