The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling, by Ted Chiang
When my daughter Nicole was an infant, I read an essay suggesting that it might no longer be necessary to teach children how to read or write, because speech recognition and synthesis would soon render those abilities superfluous. My wife and I were horrified by the idea, and we resolved that, no matter how sophisticated technology became, our daughter’s skills would always rest on the bedrock of traditional literacy.
This story alternates between two viewpoints running thematically in parallel — a father discussing the impact of a new technology that essentially gives everyone near-instant recall of every moment of their lives, and an African tribesman discovering the European technology of writing. Both are initially excited if apprehensive about the possibilities; both discover that an immutable record of unquestionable veracity may present hidden dangers and alter your life, even your civilization, unpredictably.
Well-written and definitely meeting the criteria of science fiction (something I could not say for all the short story entries), The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling presents a big idea in a very readable story, and the author demonstrates his skill by maintaining two completely separate (in space, time, and setting) narratives that still run together in an easily-linked way. Also, kudos for presenting literacy as a science fictional premise, which it is to the Tiv tribesmen to whom it is introduced.
Even so, the big idea felt a little lacking; this is a story that I'll remember for being well-executed, but it's not really something that lingers in your mind.
Opera Vitae Aeterna, by Vox Day
The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close. The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or penetrate the northern winds that seemed to gather strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains. Soon Arbhadis, Night's mistress, would make herself known as well.
I have already reviewed this story, which was one of three novelettes contained in The Last Witchking.
While I don't think it's as bad as his critics say it is, I cannot rate Vox Day's writing highly in terms of prose. Day and his fans argue that the merits of the story are largely in its themes and symbolism, being a religious allegory mixing traditional elven fantasy with Catholic Christianity. On that count, Opera Vitae Aeterna aims high in an effort to express its big, important idea. But while the elements are there and there's definitely a story here, its only real recommendation as a Hugo nominee is the number of people its presence on the ballot is pissing off... which I admit, is not an inconsiderable merit. I probably won't vote for Vox Day's entry, but I will laugh wildly if he should actually win.
The Waiting Stars, by Aliette de Bodard
On the sensors of The Cinnabar Mansions, the ships all appeared small and diminished, like toy models or avatars--things Lan Nhen could have held in the palm of her hand and just as easily crushed. As the sensors' line of sight moved--catching ship after ship in their field of view, wreck after wreck, indistinct masses of burnt and twisted metal, of ripped-out engines, of shattered life pods and crushed shuttles--Lan Nhen felt as if an icy fist were squeezing her heart into shards. To think of the Minds within--dead or crippled, forever unable to move...
This is, I think, a side story taking place in the same universe as de Bodard's novel On a Red Station, Drifting, which I have not read, and based on this novelette, might or might not yet.
Basically, this is a rather heavy-handed "diversity in SF" entry getting its accolades because of that. This is not to say the writing is bad: it's just very generic space opera made a little less generic with spacefaring Vietnamese and anvil-dropping allegory about Western colonialism.
Obvious metaphors are obvious in the form of the "Outsiders," or as they call themselves (groan) "the Galactic Federation of United Planets." Who slaughter the ship-minds of the Dai Viet (Anne McCaffrey and others did ship-minds decades ago) and assimilate surviving Dai Viet children by raising them in abusive convent-like orphanages and giving them
The best luck in the world--she and Jason and her new flat, and her old haunts, not far away from the Institution-- though she wasn't sure, really, if that last was a blessing--if she wanted to remember the years Matron had spent hammering proper behaviour into them: the deprivations whenever they spoke anything less than perfect Galactic, the hours spent cleaning the dormitory's toilets for expressing mild revulsion at the food; or the night they'd spent shut outside, naked, in the growing cold, because they couldn't remember which Galactic president had colonised Longevity Station--how Matron had found them all huddled against each other, in an effort to keep warm and awake, and had sent them to Discipline for a further five hours, scolding them for behaving like wild animals.
Subtle this is not. Catherine is stuck in an unsatisfying paper-pushing job, in a relationship with her pleasant but dull Galactic boyfriend Jason who of course is a symbol of internalized oppression and assimilation. We alternate between her and Lan Nhen, out among the stars trying to rediscover her people.
The writing sparkled a little bit here and there, though the narrative was sometimes a bit muddled. The setting had its moments — I would love to see some Vietnamese-themed science fiction that isn't just an extended metaphor for the history of Southeast Asia in the 20th century.
The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. She met me, she went on to say, when I was working next door to their farm under the shadow of the rocket gantry for the First Mars Expedition.
Kowal almost lost me with this opening. "If you're going to do a riff on Dorothy and Oz," I thought, "you are competing with Catherynne Valente, and lady, you don't have the chops for that."
Cute naming stunts aside, The Lady Astronaut of Mars was not bad. It's an alternate history in which an asteroid destroyed Washington, D.C. early in the 20th century, spurring the entire world to realize that maybe humanity needed an escape hatch. Hence, we colonize Mars (and the rest of the solar system) in the 50s, and computers are still operated by punchcards.
Elma York was the first lady astronaut, selected more for her visual appeal to other women, who were needed on Mars, than her Ph.D. Now she and her husband are both retired, living on Mars, and Elma dreams of returning to space while her husband slowly dies of a crippling terminal disease.
At this point, the plot of the story and the moral dilemma she will be faced with should be obvious.
Nathaniel and I’d made the decision not to have children. They aren't conducive to a life in space, you know? I mean there’s the radiation, and the weightlessness, but more it was that I was gone all the time. I couldn't give up the stars... but I found myself wishing that we hadn't made that decision. Part of it was wishing that I had some connection to the next generation. More of it was wanting someone to share the burden of decision with me.
This could be a rather interesting retro-futuristic setting for an entire novel, but the story is entirely preoccupied with Elma's internal monologue over her choices. Kowal is so eager to make her lady astronaut a brilliant and talented woman who deserves her opportunities while still being a conscientious and loving wife that she punts on the moral dilemmas by absolving Elma of any but internalized guilt for her decisions. Of course she is going to go to space. Of course her dying husband will tell her to go. Of course there are stakes higher than her own ambition.
At one time, this probably would have stood out as a Hugo-worthy classic, but newsflash: women SF writers and women in space are not novelties anymore. So while this character study written in a setting with shades of Bradbury and Baum was appealing, it still felt like retreading ground others have covered better.
The Exchange Officers, by Brad Torgersen
I liked Torgersen's The Chaplain's Legacy. This is his second entry on the 2014 Hugo list, and the weaker of the two, as he doesn't have enough space to really develop the story, which is, essentially, your basic military SF yarn about a couple of officers defending a U.S. space station against Chinese attackers.
Mission Control looked more like a penny arcade than a command center. No long desks populated with keyboards and computer displays. No super-sized jumbo screens on the walls. No bespectacled engineers with headsets perched on balding scalps. There were only control booths arrayed uniformly in neat bunches. And in each booth sat or stood an Operator, either male or female. Most of them were United States Navy or United States Air Force personnel—the facility being a joint USN-USAF operation. As the United States Army’s latest exchange officer to the Orbital Defense Initiative Station, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Both because of my rank, and because of my uniform.
Set in a near future, the "exchange officers" are two Warrant Officers from the Army and the Marines, under the command of an Air Force Colonel aboard a U.S. space station. They learn to become Operators of remotely-controlled robots, and then there is an attack on the station (described as a "probe" to see how the U.S. would react, though in reality, it seems like it would be a pretty blatant act of war by the PRC that could hardly fail to lead to full-scale hostilities) which the officers of course fight off, and that's pretty much the story.
Torgersen likes his military jargon, which did not lose me, being ex-military myself, but the story is laden with him showing off his own military background. Not coincidental, I think, that the two main characters I've read so far by Chief Warrant Officer Torgersen are Chief Warrant Officers.
This is another straightforward, almost retro piece of action-adventure sci-fi that was entertaining, but its inclusion on the Hugo list seems dubious to me. Literally nothing is new, and the writing didn't elevate it above average. I'd read more by Torgersen, but this (and, in truth, his other entry) did not make me say, "Wow, this guy is a serious up-and-comer in the genre!"