Subjectively speaking: SF novellas

Black and white photo of some pebbles, each painted with text: Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards

Much to my own surprise, I seem to be down to between 1 and 7 books left to read for the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards shortlists (depending on how many series I finish). I’ve now finished reading the novella nominees, so time for a quick round-up of the last two and a muse over where that leaves me…

Novella is our biggest category. I discussed the fantasy novella nominees recently; today I’ll focus on the SFnal side of the category. This is incredibly strong, featuring 2 Premee Mohamed novellas, which were my two favourite novellas last year and remain strong contenders for my votes; the excellent & This Is How We Stay Alive by Shingai Ngeri Kagunda, also clamouring to be placed; A Psalm For The Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, which is objectively interesting but may have aggravated me more than any other book this year (that’s not fair; Dex aggravated me); Adrian Tchaikovsky’s One Day All This Will Be Yours, again well-executed, but which also did nothing for me; and the two novellas I’ll discuss today: The Past is Red by Catherynne Valente and Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden.

The Past Is Red – Catherynne Valente


Book cover: The Past is Red - Catherynne ValenteThe past may be red, but this is the future: an Earth devastated by climate change, where humanity clings to life on floating rafts of garbage endlessly circling the oceans and dreaming of dry ground.

Tetley Abednego is the most hated girl in Garbagetown: outcast and condemned for a breach of trust that the community will never forgive. She is anathema, subject to any punishment anyone chooses to mete out (short of killing her); and while the novella glosses over most of the details, the implications here are pretty clear (so, content warning for implicit sexual abuse and explicit physical and psychological abuse).

The first part of the novella introduces us to Garbagetown as Tetley – as yet unnamed – goes in search of her name and falls in love with a boy from (comparatively) wealthy Electric City. The future, like the present, is not equally unpleasant for everyone, and there’s plenty of room for prejudice between the have-somes and have-lesses. The second act reveals what she did to become outcast; and the third – well,  I have no idea, because I’d DNFed by then.

The Past Is Red was always going to be a long-shot for me, and that DNF is entirely subjective. The only Valente I’ve enjoyed was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. I finished Palimpsest, but bounced off Radiance and Deathless; and I hate-read Space Opera to the bitter end. I can see why others like Valente so much – there’s much to admire – but I find her style entirely Too Much. Her narratives open with the imagination hose full bore and proceed to spray ideas everywhere until I just want to duck for cover. I didn’t dislike The Past Is Red, but it exhausted me by the end of its first chapter; and by halfway I had a head full of darkly whimsical world-building but no investment in any of it, although Tetley’s commitment to positive thinking in spite of her circumstances had certainly bruised my heart.

Your mileage will certainly vary. I’d recommend this to those who enjoy Valente’s work as a rule; but it’s just not my bag.

Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters – Aimee Ogden


Book cover: Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters - Aimee OgdenAtuale was once a prince, who rejected the undersea kingdom to become the wife of her land-bound lover. But now plague is killing her adopted people and she must return to the sea to beg the help of former friend and lover the treacherous World Witch.  

I wasn’t wildly excited to read a reimagining of The Little Mermaid – not my favourite Andersen – but Aimee Ogden’s space opera makes To Kill A Kingdom look traditional. Gene-edited humanity has spread across the stars; the merfolk are just one of many ways we have adapted ourselves for a particular planet. The action focuses not on Atuale’s love affair or subsequent happy marriage, but the decades-later ramifications: her father the sea-king still raging at what he considers her betrayal; the bone-deep bitterness that lies between Atuale and the World Witch; Atuale’s desperation and risk-taking to save her sick husband and his people.

The result is is a fantastical mash-up of fairy tale, space stations and turret guns. I was fascinated by Atuale’s seething history, beguiled by the political factions and culture of Farong space station where Atuale seeks aid – although there’s not enough smoke and mirrors to hide the gaps in the world-building, which was far too interesting not to provoke a whole lot of questions and leave me wanting to see far more than we do. But this is primarily a story of charged personal relationships, not a sprawling space opera. While Ogden does just enough to give the story an emotional punch, it was hard to be invested in the survival of Atuale’s husband at second hand – we never actually meet him, when the World Witch was captivating and right there. Consequently, I enjoyed this but I didn’t love it – I found myself wishing it had been a novel, so it could tell its story on that bigger stage – although I did love the ending.

So, where does this leave me? I’m glad to have (partially) read these two novellas, but they won’t make my final shortlist. That’s just as well, since I’m already torn between four favourites (I must pick two for this round). I have a lot lined up for June already between the other SCKA categories, the She Who Became The Sun read-along and ARCs, but I’d love to sneak in rereads of Fireheart Tiger, These Lifeless Things and The Annual Migration of Clouds before I make my decision to refresh my memory of those – and possibly & This Is How To Stay Alive as well, even though I read that much more recently. Just to be sure.