I started to read "The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi last year, and abandoned the story literally mid-stream, as the protagonists were making their way up the river to pick up a mysterious illicit passenger to bring out of the agricultural area of the Midwest. Going back to it in my review of the Hugo nominees, I remembered the vivid imagery (mostly of human squalor and the contrasts of greed and hopelessness), interesting ideas, and languorous pace. Bacigalupi has supposed a world where aggressive insects and fungi have caused the world to be dependent for food production on the few calori-producers who can grow crops resistive to the problems of infestation and ruined soil. Conspiracy theorists believe that AgriGen and the other Calorie producers seeded the world with the pests that gave them a monopoly on providing energy to the world, something they do through food and thus the power that comes of kink-springs, energy storage devices that have taken the place of engines and batteries.
The boat where most of this story takes place is run off of springs that are loaded by the labor of genetically modified animals, miniature megadonts or powerful mulies who walk in circles like old-time mules, turning treadmills and tightening the springs so that later they can unfurl in a gradual release of stored energy. This is a story about the benefits and risks of genetic engineering. Especially, it warns against letting genetic information and manipulation techniques become restricted, proprietary information. A hero story about that increasingly rare character, the farmer/geneticist who understands how to make seeds that will reproduce for generations, unlike the ArgiGen seed, which has been modified to grow sterile plants and thus maintain AgriGen's monopoly.
It's an interesting thought-experiment, but in my opinion Bacigalupi takes too long to make his main point while at the same time dragging the story down by repetitively re-emphasizing the aspects of the new world order that are unfair and awful. I don't expect this sentimental and heavy-handed story to take the Hugo award.
"Two Hearts," by Peter S. Beagle, on the other hand, is a contender. Here is a story peopled by characters you can relate to and care about, in a well-defined world described in the lyric, illustrative manner that only Peter Beagle can achieve. It is narrated in a no-nonsense way by a precocious nine-year-old girl named Sooz. When her best friend is eaten, Sooz sneaks away from home on a quest to get the King to come back with her and deal with the griffin that is terrorizing her village. Sooz meets up with a man and a woman she later knows as Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue, who turn out to be old friends of the king, and bound to see him as well.
The man…one minute he looked younger than my father, and the next he'd be looking older than anybody I ever saw, older than people are supposed to be, maybe. He didn't have any gray hair himself, but he did have a lot of lines, but that's not what I'm talking about either. It was the eyes. His eyes were green, green, green, not like grass, not like emeralds — I saw an emerald once, a gypsy woman showed me — and not anything like apples or limes or such stuff. Maybe like the ocean, except I've never seen the ocean, so I don't know. If you go deep enough into the woods (not the Midwood, of course not, but any other sort of woods), sooner or later you'll always come to a place where even the shadows are green, and that's the way his eyes were.
It has been a long time since Molly and Schmendrick last saw their friend. King Lir is now a doddering old man so far as the court is concerned. The travellers see, however, that he is still a hero, defender of his land: slayer of dragons, and perhaps of griffins too. They speak to him of a unicorn; invigorated by the thought of her love, King Lir places Sooz before him on his black mare and off they go, with Lir's stories filling Sooz's ears with tales of past adventures along the way.
A couple weeks ago my husband Bill and I passed a Semi parked by the side of the freeway. A car ahead of it had a flat and the truck driver had clearly stopped to help the woman driver change the tire. Bill commented that it was good to see such a thing, and that it had been a common sight back in the day when people called truck drivers the Kings of the Road. "Two Hearts" is about that sort of King: the King who goes out of his way to care for the people of his land, because that is who he is. This is, of course, a story about heart. It is about bravery and the love of friends, about struggle and about both loss and healing. It is about two transformations; those of an old man and a very young woman, so young many still take her for a child. Though the title may refer to the two hearts of the griffin (belonging to the lion half and the eagle half), it is the hearts of these two characters that are paramount in the end. I adored this story, and I hope you like it too.
I have to admire the themes addressed in "Telepresence" by Michael A. Burstein. This starts out seeming like a typical story about the fearful capacity of new technology in the hands of a bad egg. But it goes one step forward from that, an important step toward accepting risk and arguing that it is outweighed by important advantages. Not in an eyes-closed, technology-is-more-important-than-humani
"Telepresence" is a story about school violence. It's about violence in a virtual school, that's done in such a way that it has real, dreadful consequences. The perpetrator is described as a hacker, and as a programmer and computer interface designer I admit I had trouble with Burstein's description of how such a crime might be enacted, investigated and revealed in virtual reality, but I am a particularly critical reader on those topics. I found the main character, a teacher/administrator who is trying to get his distributed schooling program adopted by the state of California, highly sympathetic and reasonable, and the writing was consistently paced and smooth. At the end of the story I was glad to have read it.
In "I, Robot" Cory Doctorow extrapolates a future world where technological advances in the United North American Trading Sphere are stunted by governmental controls while Eurasian technology leaps ahead, virtually unbounded. The main character is Toronto police detective Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg, who has struggled to raise his 12-year-old daughter Ada by himself since his genius computer-scientist wife defected to Eurasia right after she was born. Arturo also struggles to collaborate with robots who seem like walking, talking descendants of Microsoft's annoying software assistant Clippy, with their peppy tone and attempts to intuit the best way to be helpful: positronic artificial intelligences that are controlled with Three Laws that will be familiar to those who've read Isaac Asimov's book or seen the movie with the same name as this story.
Doctorow's approach to this subject is (unsurprisingly) sympathetic to technological progress and against government restrictions on development and expression. When Arturo's wife resurfaces she challenges his beliefs about their personal history as well as his view of his country and his place in it.
"You live in a country where it is illegal to express certain mathematics in software, where state apparatchiks regulate all innovation, where inconvenient science is criminalized, where whole avenues of experimentation and research are shut down in the service of a half-baked superstition about the moral qualities of your three laws, and you call my home corrupt? Arturo, what happened to you? You weren't always this susceptible to the Big Lie."
The vehicle of varied parental response to teenage rebellion works well in this story, which takes yet another turn on personality uploading and robotics, and on human cloning. Doctorow doesn't address what might happen if this technology was freely available, but he does paint a pretty picture of what you get when it's available to a genius design engineer. A fun adventure, despite the fact that the main character is experiencing nearly constant emotional or ethical crisis surrounding his daughter, his ex, or his own dissatisfaction at work.
"The King of Where-I-Go" by Howard Waldrop was rather a more serious story than I expected based on Howard's reputation for being funny, and the whimsical-sounding title. It was also confusing, and I don't expect it to take the award due to that characteristic alone. Confusion is a risk in a time-travel story, which this is (I think). Did I mention it's also vague? Fans of Gene Wolfe might comment that some lack of clarity about what's going on is inherent to the human experience, which might mean that Waldrop is just using the first-person perspective with great skill. But I was confused and frustrated, as a reader, feeling like I was somehow missing something that he intended to tell me.
But that was in the future. This was the summer of 1954.
Waldrop does an amazing job of evoking the slow, drawling atmosphere of his 1954, and the boredom of a summer in the days when Polio was a national terror and kids weren't allowed to do most anything in public groups. Young Franklin (Bubba, to his family) gets to get away from Texas and fish at his grandmother's house in Alabama, and he seems fairly content. Then his sister Ethel comes down with Polio herself, and everything becomes more personal. Ethel stays in an Alabama hospital while Bubba battles his way through the third grade. She comes back after most of a year and appreciates the irony when the Salk vaccine comes along later.
Waldrop introduces the time travel theme with a reference to The Time Machine, and a conversation Bubba has with his sister sometime in their late teens. If he could travel in time, he answers her with a boy's innocence, he would go back to 1938 and buy ten copies of Action Comics #1 with Superman's first story, and then go write mash notes to Eve Arden. His sister asks if he wouldn't try to stop Oswald, or strangle Hitler.
"You didn't ask 'What would you do if you could travel in time to make the world a better place?' You asked 'What would you do if you could travel in time?'"
"Be that way," she said.
"I am that way."
Ethel ends up at a research institute, participating in experiments about paranormal abilities – Telepathy and PsychoKinesis and such. Here the narrative is broken up by phone calls and segments of letters and other communication from sister to brother. Strange things are afoot and Bubba gets involved despite the distance between them, and it all comes around to the events of the past, and his own sense of having been at fault for his sister's Polio.
The setting and the relationship between sister and brother as they move on through their lives are all very well portrayed. As for the rest of what's going on, well, as I said, it's a bit confusing. The historian in me will encourage you to read the story anyway for the characterizations and tone; if the plot turns out to make sense to you, well, bonus.
Short story nominee reviews