It Came From the Nebulas: Novelettes

nebulalogoNovelettes are odd birds—too long to be short stories, too short to be novels or even novellas. I have trouble seeing any significant technical distinctiveness that makes a story a novelette rather than something else. It strikes me as publisher-speak. When I see “novelette,” I think, “really long short story.”

Anyhow, this year’s Nebula novelette candidates, like the short stories, were a mixed bag, although three of them, most disappointingly Ken Liu‘s “The Waves,” were not freely available for public reading at the time of this post. Here are the four I did read. Once again, these are my reactions as a reader, not a critique of the art and skill employed by writers well out of my league:

Fade to White,” by Catherynne M. Valente – This story lost me almost immediately by setting itself in a post-apocalyptic alternate America where everything went to hell in a handbasket after Joe McCarthy was elected President, leading to a global nuclear war and a fertility-driven, bigoted society a few twists shy of The Handmaid’s Tale. Because we obviously deserved it. The story of two young people approaching adulthood in this benighted realm was interspersed with breathless 1950’s-style TV propaganda scripts providing, I suppose, context. Heaven preserve us from self-righteous cautionary dystopian political morality plays. Try saying that three times fast.

Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia” by Rachel SwirskyThere’s art, there’s magic, and there’s magical art. Ms. Swirsky weaves a haunting tale of an obsessive relationship between master and protége in a Renaissance Italy where the best art mingles skill and sorcery. Renn has magic to spare, but limited talent. Brilliant artist Lisane needs magic powerful enough to accomplish her final, defining masterpiece, a self-portrait—but using magic to paint human portraits is forbidden, for good reason. She takes Renn under her wing, but does she really care about her, or is she only using her as a tool to serve her artistic ambitions? Note: Some non-explicit content, integral to the story, indicating a sexual relationship between adult Lisane and teenaged Renn, and Tor chose a provocative picture as its cover art.

Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” by Meghan McCarron – Sibling rivalry from beyond the grave in a cheerless tale filled with interminable recitation of the minutiae that fill a preteen girl’s daily life. My childhood wasn’t exactly Thrills Central, but I don’t remember it ever being this dolorous. Maybe it would have been if I’d had a vengeful dead older brother. Ah, youth.

The Finite Canvas” by Brit Mandelo – Probably my favorite of these stories, though not something I’d choose for light reading. Molly, a doctor working in a tiny clinic somewhere deep in the steaming malarial swamp that is Earth in this particular future, is visited by Jada, a contract killer who wants a memorial to her most recent victim scarified into her arm. It’s an illegal procedure, but the patient insists, as underworld types are wont to do. Molly agrees, on one condition: the assassin must tell her the story of that death, from beginning to end. So, the two women begin their odd interlude—one with a scalpel and a question: “Who did you kill?” The response is nearly as keen-edged: “No one you know…My partner.” And it rolls on from there in words and incised flesh, grim, tragic, and shattering, as is Molly’s response, no less breathtaking for the knowledge that there was only one way for this story to end. Note: Some disturbing imagery (including, once again, Tor’s choice of cover art), strong violence, and harsh language.

UPDATE: The winner was one of the stories I didn’t read, “Close Encounters,” by Andy Duncan.


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