Hugo Nominee: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled”

This is it: the final story. Read it here and comment below …
Rich Horton:

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” is fascinating SF about a human embassy to an alien city. The city is attacked, and everyone killed but one human, who escapes in the company of one of the aliens, wearing a spacesuit whose intelligence is based on his now-dead lover. The story deals with economics, with the biology and culture (and economics) of the aliens, and with the dangers of crossing an unfamiliar planet — it is intelligent, full of adventure, original, wry. This is really fine smart SF, and I particularly liked the economic slant to the whole thing. It’s not a breathtaking story, and I rank it behind most of this ballot, but it’s strong work.

Aliette de Bodard:

In “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” by Michael Swanwick, Quivera is a diplomat sent from Europa to a planet peopled with insect aliens—and most particularly to Babel, greatest of the alien cities. When Babel falls to the hands of other cities, Quivera and the alien Uncle Vanya have to carry the library of Babel—the only record of that civilisation—to safety, without being caught by the soldiers hunting them.

This is one of the two standouts of the issue. Swanwick keeps a taut pace throughout the narration as his protagonists try to rally the safety of another alien city, and he succeeds in making the aliens a fundamentally different species for whom the reader can still grieve. The ending is unexpected and a bit hard to accept at first, but in retrospect, it is perfectly in keeping with both the story’s theme and the various characters involved

Tpi:

Story starts straight away in action. Human station on an alien planet has been attacked, and sole survivor, his AI survival suit with a personality modeled on his girlfriend killed on the attack and an alien must make a hasty escape. The start of the story is a bit confusing, as fairly little back-story is given. The story improves a bit towards the end, when it comes a bit easier to understand just what the hell is going on. I wonder if this story is a part of some series?

Matt Hilliard:

Out of all the nominees this one is the most traditionally structured story, which these days is somewhat rare for this length (of course it just barely slides in under the novellette wire length-wise). The world was interesting and the writing was effective. In fact, pretty much everything was great except the story actually being told, which wasn’t all that interesting to me. Unfortunately I exalt plot over other things so this left me feeling vaguely disgruntled, but it’s worth still worth reading.

Best SF:

The opening paragraph is a doozy – it describes the titular city on Europa, and does so quite beautifully across several sentences, and then kicks into a higher gear as the narrator describes herself : a simulation of one of the humans killed in the destruction of the city, and then the story starts with a “Here’s what it was like…”

It’s an opening that you could use over the first month of a Science Fiction Writing 101 course, and the rest of the story lives up to that standard. The narrator, Rosamund, is embedded in the hi-tech suit of one of the survivors of the meteorite strike – Carlos, her lover. She has to care for him using the suit’s advanced medical capabilities to get him to the point of being in a state to be brought back to consciousness, and we follow them as she guides him, and one of the strange, definitely non-human race on the planet. In order to escape the armed warriors of his race, Uncle Vanya has to undergo the unkindest cut of all – “The first thing we have to do is castrate you..” is the kind of line you can only come up with after some years in the business. Swanwick takes the unlikely trio through an alien world, effectively getting across the alieness of Uncle Vanya through his speech patterns, and cleverly intertwining the action with backstory.

And the ending is just terrific – with Rosamund left embedded in the spacesuit, hanging up in a locker. It’s a story that is simply top class.

Russ Allbery:

Swanwick stories are often at a bit of an angle to the rest of the genre, and this one is no exception. The plot, once you dig it out of the story, is full of classic SF tropes of alien contact, diplomacy, misunderstanding, and cross-cultural confusion. There are some fun branching syntax diagrams of alien speech patterns thrown in, which I greatly enjoyed probably because they’re similar to, but more subtlely done than, something I played with in my own writing. But the story is told from the perspective of a protective suit worn by the nominal protagonist and is full of weird diversions and fun descriptions of how the suit works. It also has an unexpected ending that fits its viewpoint. Without the charming perspective, it’s a rather forgettable story, but the perspective makes it worth reading. (7)

John DeNardo:

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick starts with a meteor strike on a human city on an alien planet of millipede-like creatures. The human named Quivera is guided to safety by his armor suit AI, which is based on Rosamund, the woman with whom he had an affair. Quivera’s trek through the dangerous steam jungles of the planet with “Uncle Vanya” (a native millie with low social status) leads to several interesting discussions about their two economies: the humans based on information, the millies’ based on trust. As much as I usually dislike economics in my sf, I have to say this didn’t bother me a bit, as it offered up a nice contrast to the two characters whose relationship begins as one of mutual utility, but evolved in the face of their predicament and adventures.

Das Ubernerd:

Swanwick’s story also uses an ancient SF theme: two seperate aliens that cannot trust each other are forced together by circumstances to join together in order to cross dangerous territory. In this case it’s a human from a libertarian distopia joining with an alien from a society that holds trust as the highest virtue. Together they’re on the run from the destruction of the alien’s city which was betrayed and they carry with them a library containing information beyond calculable value. What makes this story work is the ambiguousness of it; while both character’s hold their society’s values in great esteem they also recognize the limitations of it even before the story begins. So while it plays with the “learning about other cultures” theme there is an undercurrent that both already know those lessons. It also helps that the story has a unique viewpoint: a ghost AI that runs one a spacesuit. It’s a subtle story that has some interesting layers and I appreciated it for that.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Johnson’s story makes for an interesting counterpoint to Michael Swanwick’s “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled,” which is good old fashioned Proper SF, set in the far future and on an alien planet, and featuring interplanetary intrigue, cataclysmic destruction, fights to the death, a mad scramble across hostile, alien terrain, and bug people. Swanwick is a pro at this stuff, and “Babel” finds him very much on top of his game. It’s exciting and well-done, cramming a hell of a lot of exposition, action and description into every single sentence until it draws a meticulously detailed portrait of two civilizations, their history, their cherished values, and the often fraught interactions between them. Still, given all the pyrotechnics and grand adventure involved in getting us to its end, “Babel” is somewhat underperforming.

Underpinning the story is a discussion of the economics of the two species–humans, represented by the diplomat Quivera, have an information-based economy, while that of the bug-like Gehennans, represented by the sole survivor of the recently destroyed Babel with whom Quivera flees its ruins, is based on trust–but Swanwick’s descriptions of of these systems are messy and difficult to follow, and I found myself unpersuaded by his conclusions. “Babel” ends with one half of its unlikley partnership sacrificing himself to save the other, and in order to safeguard the precious (in many different senses) cargo they are carrying, but it’s left to us to decide whether the survivor acted as an adventure hero would and honored his friend’s dying wish, or whether he cashed in on an unexpected windfall. Obviously Swanwick is trying to undermine the adventure plot, and remind us that in the real world, it’s cold hard numbers, profit and loss, that drive our decisions, but this feels like a petty sort of ‘gotcha!’ to the readers, whom Swanwick has worked hard to invest in the adventure aspect of his story only to snatch the rug out from under them at the last minute. I can’t help but compare “Babel” to last year’s Hugo-nominated novelette, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” by Daniel Abraham, which so much more intelligently and elegantly managed to fuse adventure and economics into a single, satisfying whole, without ever resorting to wagging its finger in the readers’ faces as Swanwick seems to be doing.

London Meeting: Michael Swanwick

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Michael Swanwick, who will be interviewed by Roz Kaveney.

As usual, the venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

The meeting is free (although there will be a raffle, with sf books as prizes), and any and all are welcome. The interview will start at 7pm, although there’ll be people in the bar from 6 onwards.

The Short Story Nominees

I am usually underwhelmed by the Hugo short story nominees. I accept that my tastes are out of step with the pool of Hugo voters, as I am not a big fan of Michael Burstein’s short fiction, and the less said about most of Mike Resnick and Robert J. Sawyer’s previous nominees the better, but the one time I voted in the Hugos I put No Award first as a protest against how uniformly terrible the stories on that year’s ballot were. So it’s pleasing to report that the short stories, while not all great, range from pretty decent to really pretty damn good. Here’s my ranking:

Bottom of my ballot I would put Mike Resnick’s Distant Replay. It’s the best Mike Resnick story I have ever read, and that’s why it wouldn’t end up below No Award, but the appeal of his work remains a total mystery to me. Yet another story about science fiction being used in some way to reunite a man with his love, (in this case, a man meets a young man and woman who are exactly like him and his (dead) wife, and hooks them up), it’s less cloyingly sentimental than usual and has a couple of nice ideas, and that’s about it.

A Small Room in Koboldtown, by Michael Swanwick, is a locked-room mystery noir in a fantasy setting. The internet informs me it’s a universe he’s written in before, and the setting is interesting, but then it uses the fantasy setting to pull a big cheat. I like mysteries, and they work best when they are clever enough that you can’t work out exactly how it was done but all the clues are there. When the resolution of the mystery is a magical solution I couldn’t predict, I feel cheated out of my ending.

Having dispatched with the bottom two, we get to two stalwarts of the UK SF scene who are harder to separate – Ken MacLeod’s Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? and Stephen Baxter’s Last Contact. Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? is space opera from Ken MacLeod, in the same setting as his BSFA-award-winning Lighting Out. Proper hard SF, it has AIs and seedships and lots of future civilizations, I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I expected. I think it could do with being longer, to flesh out the events around the ending, and give us more of the central character. There’s just nothing which particularly grabs me, so I put it at number three.

Last Contact is a very English disaster story – the big SFnal idea is the end of the world, but the story is about two women preparing for the end in Oxfodshire, planting flowers that will never grow and sitting in the garden drinking tea while they wait for the ground to be ripped apart under them. It’s a cosy catastrophe, with a much lower degree of looting and general chaos and anarchy than what I think would actually happen if you announced the world was going to end in six month’s time, but I found it rather charming. I don’t think Baxter quite pulls it off, but it’s in second place for me.

My pick of the short stories is Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline, which is a great example of how a small SF idea can turn into a lovely story. Lovely is the appropriate word, as it’s a heartwarming little tale of a shipwrecked war-machine, alone on a beach mourning her lost compatriots, and the human boy she meets and takes care of. The hints of worldbuilding fit around the well-drawn characters, filling out enough of the background to satisfy but leaving parts of it unknown, and Bear’s prose is probably the best of all the stories, bar maybe the Swanwick. It pulls off beautifully what Last Contact can’t quite do.

So I’d like the Best Short Story Hugo to go to Elizabeth Bear, but I won’t be upset if it goes to MacLeod or Baxter.

Other views:
Abigail Nussbaum mostly agrees with me, but doesn’t like Baxter as much. Nicholas Whyte doesn’t like the MacLeod at all, but agrees with my top pick. Karen Burnham agrees with my top two, but hasn’t read any of the others. John at SF Signal also isn’t fond of the Macleod, and likes the Resnick much more.