I’m thrilled to say that I’ve completed my June #ReadersWithoutBorders challenge to read the 2020 Hugo Awards best novel and novella finalists! Thank you to all the lovely people who have donated and to @JDRoberts_SFF for organising this event. He has raised £57 for Doctors Without Borders over the month!
Tor.com was the first publisher I followed on social media due to their fantastic selection of diverse SFF, an exciting niche in fiction that feels like it was created just for me. They have also dominated the novella scene and brought the format back into popularity, which is how I first discovered great novellas like A Taste of Honey, All Systems Red, The Black Tides of Heaven, and Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach. SFF fans tend to be divided in their opinion of shorter reads, often preferring lengthy novels that double as a diligent doorstop or a self-isolation exercise weight. However, I am a total fan of the novella. This is pretty evident in my star ratings of these Hugos finalists – I honestly loved all of them. If you’re undecided about this corner of fiction, Rebecca Diem’s fantastic Tor.com article about the new ‘Golden Age’ of the SFF Novella provides an idea of what to expect from this feisty format.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
There has been a lot of chat about Clark’s short fiction on social media recently and for very good reason. This book is set in the same alternate Cairo as his 2016 novella A Dead Djinn in Cairo (follow the link for free read). It’s an absolute masterwork of worldbuilding in an insanely short number of pages.
In 1912, Cairo is a city at the forefront of technology, magic and culture after a rift released magical beings into the world. Two agents from the Cairo Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities are called to investigate a haunted tram car and uncover the mystery behind its possession.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is vivid, strange, beautiful and completely unique. The story is an utterly original mashup of genres and cultures, creating an immersive experience that might leave you wanting more. If you approach this read with the mindset of an epic weekend holiday rather than an exploration of every nook and cranny of the city, you will love it too.
Clark has won a Nebula and Locus award for his previous work and received a Hugo nomination, I think he’s in with a good chance of winning this year.I highly recommend all of his novellas. Check out a more detailed review of A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and Clark’s upcoming book Ring Shout over on BookendsandBagends.com.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Where The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is an impressive feat of worldbuilding, This is How You Lose the Time War challenges the limit of what can be done conceptually in 209 pages. It’s a love story about Red and Blue, two time-travellers and architects of the future, fighting on opposite sides of a war spanning thousands of years. They leave each other cryptic messages throughout time and space, becoming unlikely pen pals as they fight for opposing forces.
This book is beautifully written in a poetic style and is dramatically different from Clark’s visual storytelling.
While it is centred on a sapphic romance, I wouldn’t describe it as romantic fiction, so don’t let that put you off if it’s not your style. Although I didn’t feel overly invested in Red and Blue’s relationship, journeying with them through the time war was fascinating and kept me reading. They influence the future by manipulating seemingly unrelated events in the past, and as they do so, leave each other messages encoded in reality itself.
Waiting to see how the next letter would manifest was what I enjoyed most about this book. It reminded me of watching Final Destination films just to see the logistics of the next death. This book has already picked up a Locus and Nebular award, and while it might not be for everyone, I absolutely recommend getting a copy.
In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire
In addition to Middlegame being shortlisted for best novel, McGuire has made the best novella list with a very different story, In an Absent Dream.
The only audiobooks that I’ve enjoyed listening to are her 5 (soon to be 6) Wayward Children novellas. They are disillusioned fairy tales written in a lyrical style, perfect for someone else to read to you. The series tells the story of children who don’t quite fit in, the Alices and the Coralines who find magical doors to other worlds that are as unique and diverse as the children themselves.
But these worlds also have rules, and when the rules are broken, the wayward children find themselves stranded back in the real world. Miss West knows that pain first-hand. Now older, she runs a school to help lost children find their door again, or otherwise learn to accept a future devoid of magic.
In an Absent Dream is the fourth instalment in the series and tells the story of Lundy, who appears in the first book as a teacher at Miss West’s school. As a child, Lundy is not the kind of girl to go running through magical doors. She is logical, mature, and so very serious. But when she discovers the Goblin Market, a world of rules, debt and responsibility, Lundy knows its the place where she is meant to be. But in the market, everything has a price.
Putting an adult spin on fairy tale tropes is not a new idea. Still, McGuire has taken this tradition and run in a completely new direction. Her Wayward Children novellas are equal parts dark and humorous, tragic and hopeful. Each instalment follows a different child from Miss West’s school in their own unique world, and the result is that each book is surprisingly different in tone, with In an Absent Dream being the most unique. The same characters appear in each book, though they don’t necessarily need to be read in any order. They are beautiful tales that celebrate diversity, individuality and the desire to fit in.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes
The Deep tells the story of the Wajinru, descendants of pregnant African slaves who were thrown off American slave-ships to drown. Over hundreds of years, unborn children saved by the ocean have become a pacific society of sea-folk.
In order to preserve their calm existence, the wajinru have developed a short memory and have all but forgotten their tragic past. Yetu has been named Historian, carrying six hundred years of ancestral memory on behalf of her people. But when it is time for the annual Remembering ceremony, Yetu finds the burden too much to bear any longer.
This book is a beautiful and heartfelt story with a timely message of hope and community. The Deep is the latest in a fascinating collaborative project which you can read about in my full review over on The Worlds of Sci-fi & Fantasy.
To be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
In Becky Chambers’ latest book space travel has become a crowdfunded endeavour due to lack of government and private investment. As a result, humans are yet to leave Earth behind. But in typical Becky fashion, we do get our unrealistically altruistic but loveable space crew with queer representation.
Ariadne and her crewmates have been sent to carry out ecological assessments of five planets in nearby systems.
With spaceflight technology still in its infancy, the mission takes place across decades. The crew sleep in stasis between planetary visits and wake up each time with new biological features to help them survive each planet’s specific extremes.When Earth’s regular transmissions suddenly stop, the crew are forced to make difficult decisions about the future of their mission.
As with The Wayfarers series, the charm of To be Taught, If Fortunate is Chambers’ ability to draw out the quiet moments of humanity and sentimentality that are often overlooked in sci-fi; saying goodbye to an Earthbound family, having that first shower after years in stasis, the overwhelming emotion of stepping onto an untouched planet, or the thrill of finally discovering that microorganism. While the explanation of the human bioengineering leaves something to be desired, this human-driven space safari is a lot of fun.
To be Taught if Fortunate is an excellent introduction to Chambers’ writing style, or otherwise a quick hit for any readers needing their Becky fix.
“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” by Ted Chiang
Possibly my favourite novella on the shortlist was Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom from Ted Chiang’s story collection Exhalation. It’s a perfect example of how the novella format can be used to explore a specific concept in an incredibly effective way. This story explores the power of the decisions we make in the context of ‘many worlds’ theory.
A suitcase-sized device with a screen called a ‘prism’ has hit the mass market. When activated, a prism spontaneously creates an alternate timeline and allows owners to communicate with the alternate version of themselves through text, audio and camera.
But the technology is limited in that each prism has a limited memory capacity, and once used up, communication with that timeline becomes forever impossible.
While this might not sound like a revolutionary invention given its constraints, Chiang has thought out in detail how such a device would affect us on a societal and individual basis, and the result is fascinating. He even details how prisms containing a specific alternate reality would lead to a kind of microeconomy that is about as complex as Magic: The Gathering cards changing in value.
In the context of addiction, grief and loneliness, Chiang contemplates actions and consequences, and how we assign blame to ourselves and others. Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom is a stunning story that I can’t wait to return to when I read Exhalation in full.
And that is a wrap on my #ReadersWithoutBorders challenge! Not my most detailed reviews, but given the focused nature of novellas I figured it’d be a good idea to not to give away every aspect of each story. That and the fact that I had to start this blog from scratch three times because I can’t save a file properly, and so most of it was written in a quiet rage. That’s what I get for blogging on the job I suppose!
See you in July!
Support independent bookstores and my blog by buying from bookshop.org