Yay! I am happy to report that I genuinely enjoyed every selection in this category. These long works of short fiction (oxymoron, no?) have the space to develop good characters and deliver a good plot punch within their 50-100 pages. If you can find any of these, and some are online, they’re each worth your time.
In case you’re curious, I’ll rank them in the order that I used on my ballot, but I can recommend each to any general reader of fantasy or sci-fi.
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor, imagines a girl from the reclusive Himba tribe of Namibia, or whatever Namibia ends up being a few thousand years from now, who chooses to leave everything she knows to accept the invitation to study at a huge intergalactic university. On the journey, she finds herself at the center of a life-and-death situation, one that highlights her unique perspective on communication, culture, and negotiation. The story blends in magic realism, some science fiction elements, and a warm cultural feel that made me nestle into the tale and make myself at home. I genuinely loved this novella, and I’m so glad to see Okorafor get attention for tackling cross-cultural communication within science fiction from the perspective of a non-Western culture. This was even cooler since I’d just happened to run into an article about the Himba, so the cultural references made sense.
Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds, explores a relatively familiar dilemma in science fiction tales – that of the prisoner ship – but spins the question into a new direction by adding the “slow bullets” technology. These projectiles are used by armies to permanently “tag” their soldiers with a record of everything the soldier has ever done, along with information about their families, some familiar photos, and other snippets of memory. But terrorists can also use these “bullets” to burrow slowly, excruciatingly through a prisoner’s body. With that background in place, Reynolds soon takes the action to the aforementioned “prison ship,” allowing familiar themes like amnesia and extinction to complicate matters. But the ending left me genuinely surprised and pleased. It’s a good read.
After these two, it gets hard for me to rank the remaining stories – I think they’re all good and worth your time. So don’t take it too harshly that I ranked one above another.
The Builders, by Daniel Polansky, uses animals in ways that remind you of the best of Watership Down (but not as heavy) or Redwall. If Jacques had written his Redwall books for adult lovers of action and adventures, we would have gotten The Builders much sooner. Maybe with some Quentin Tarantino thrown in…. I smiled a lot as I read it, racing from page to page to get to the finish. If you’ve never imagined a salamander as a character in Firefly … well, now I know your imagination is actually missing out. The characterization just sparkles in this tale, and I hope you find a copy and read it.
Penric’s Demon was authored by one of established fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold, and her experience crafts each sentence in this story to fit the mold perfectly. It’s not stunningly original, but it’s well written and fun to read. I liked the characters, I liked the story, and her world needs little exhaustive introduction. If you’ve ever read a fantasy story, played a tabletop RPG or delved into a fantasy video game, you’ve been there. And that’s ok. It gives us room to enjoy the story, which features a man coming to terms with his literal inner demons.
Brandon Sanderson’s Perfect State hardly deserves to be listed last, but I felt the others were a little more original and maybe a shade better written, if one can split hairs like that at this point? Imagine The Matrix, but spin the central question more toward the boredom that would set in for the intelligent minds occupying known cyber-reality. What happens when some just can’t stomach the fact that programmed antagonists and crises aren’t as interesting as human to human conflict? The cyber-reality subgenre is a little tired for me, but the story does ask a good question, and I absolutely agree that Sanderson’s work deserves the nomination.
Thumbs-up all around to the long-form story writers. Good stuff here, and I’m sure several more great ones that never hit my radar since they weren’t nominated.
I did read several of the ancillary works, fan writing, semipro-zines, etc etc. But I won’t take time to blog about those.
I’m glad that sci-fi/fantasy has such an active fan culture, especially in the blogging age, but I’ll be thrilled to put the Rabid Puppies nonsense far behind us. Bottom line: I want to read good stuff in each of the nominated categories. And by “good,” I mean a) well-written; b) centered on interesting questions or content; c) not trying to beat me into a particular point of view. Of course, we’re all going to haggle over the details, but perhaps we could move back toward haggling with some grace and kindness.
Not sure what’s up next on my fiction reading list. I subscribe to Lightspeed magazine but rarely have time to read it each month. Might return to more short stories, since I love those, and try to plow through my massive backlog of Wired magazines and Comment.