Brad Torgersen

Hugo Novelettes

Most of the Hugo-nominated novelettes are available online, and I’ve linked to them where I could. Attending and supporting members of Worldcon can read them all through the Hugo Voters Packet.

My thoughts on the short story ballot are here, along with links to the stories.

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Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders. The opening line is, “The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures.” I really like this setup, and the conflict it creates between the man who sees a fixed, unavoidable future and the woman who believes she has free will to choose from various possibilities. I love how Anders presents the characters, both of whom have known for a long time that this relationship was coming and how it would go, but who still stumble through the same awkwardness as the rest of us. I loved the details, like the game Judy plays with her friend, picking random destinations and predicting what would happen if they packed up and went there that very day. Anders’ characters are so very human, and the conflict between them — is the future really fixed (Doug), or can you choose your future (Judy)? — is thoughtfully explored.

The answer Anders gives to that conflict is simultaneously tragic and scary and hopeful, and felt right for the story. This is the first story I’ve read by Anders, but it certainly won’t be the last.

Fields of Gold by Rachel Swirsky. “When Dennis died, he found himself in another place.” While exploring the possibilities of the afterlife isn’t exactly new (really, what is?), I like a lot of what Swirsky did here. Structurally, the things Dennis did and didn’t accomplish on his various lists of goals worked well, giving insight into his life and character. I particularly loved the celebrities who showed up, not as actual dead famous people, but as collective manifestations of the mundanes.

Overall though, the story didn’t work for me as well as it might have, because I didn’t really like the characters. They tended to be a bit too unpleasant for me. It’s a stylistically interesting and well-written story, but purely as a matter of personal taste, not my favorite.

The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell. Instead of giving you the opening line, I’m going to jump to this bit about Isaac Newton:

“[O]ld Isaac’s in his garden, an apple falls on his head, he picks it up and sees this tiny worm crawling across its surface, and so he starts thinking about the very small…”

I read this as a key to the alternate history Cornell presents, one with carriages exploring the solar system, spies manipulating what act like tiny wormholes, and a very different and well-detailed present-day (I think?) world. Jonathan Hamilton is a spy who encounters a woman named Lustre Saint Clair, a woman he knew fifteen years ago…who appears no older than eighteen years of age.

This draws Hamilton into a plot involving twin arms dealers who have been exploring space, discovered the relativistic effects of near-light-speed travel, and made not-so-successful contact with aliens. (Though the ending calls all of this into question.)

I believe this is the third of Cornell’s stories about Jonathan Hamilton. I’ve not read the others, which might account for some of my disorientation. I love the ideas and the worldbuilding, but I felt a bit disconnected from the story. I may reread this one if I have time, to see if that helps.

Ray of Light ($1.49 on Kindle) by Brad Torgersen. “My crew boss Jake was waiting for me at the sealock door.” Max Leighton is one of the thousands of surviving humans who fled to the ocean bottom after aliens blotted out the sun for reasons we never knew. His daughter is part of the first generation to grow up never having seen the sky.

I liked the classic SF feel of this one. Torgersen does a nice job with mood, conveying the sense of desperation and desolation on the sea bottom. And I thought the idea of the children developing their own religion/cult, and setting out on a possibly suicidal mission to the surface ice, made for a good story.

But it wasn’t a great story. I think my main complaint was that it felt a little too easy. I didn’t feel the urgency, and the reward at the end of the story felt … unearned, if that makes sense. The weight of the setup didn’t match the weight of the resolution.

What We Found by Geoff Ryman. This story won the Nebula award for Best Novelette. Set in Makurdi, Nigeria, it presents two intertwined narrative threads. One of Patrick and his family, which includes a schizophrenic father, an abusive grandmother, and a brother I’d describe as a bit of a trickster. The other story shows Patrick as a researcher who discovers that stress and trauma are passed down from father to son. But over time, other researchers lose the ability to duplicate his results, leading to another revelation:

“Simply put, science found the truth and by finding it, changed it … Some day the theory of evolution will be untrue and the law of conservation of energy will no longer work … Atoms will take only 50 more years to disappear.”

The science is a fascinating game of “What if?” and also presents an interesting lens with which to examine family, whether we inherit the flaws and pain of our ancestors, whether recognition could give freedom from such inevitabilities.

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Having read through the short stories and novelettes, I have a lot of respect for the ambitious stories, and for authors who push to explore new ideas and possibilities, even if the end result isn’t perfect.

For those of you who’ve read them, what did you think?

Campbell Interview: Brad Torgersen

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is an annual award for, well, the best new SF/F author. (Meaning someone whose SF/F was first professionally published within the past two years.) I’ll be interviewing all five of this year’s nominees, beginning with Brad Torgersen, who was selected to go first by the highly scientific process of being the first to get back to me with answers…

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1) In exactly 23 words, who is Brad Torgersen?

Full-time healthcare nerd by day, part-time Chief Warrant Officer on the weekend, science fiction writer by night. Hugo, Campbell, Nebula nominee.

2) Tell us about the kind of fiction you write, and where we can find some of it!

I do mostly science fiction, with multiple appearances in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. My Hugo and Nebula nominee, “Ray of Light,” was the cover story for the December 2011 issue of Analog. It’s also available on-line through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble as an e-novelette, along with many of my other previously published stories. I also have some collaborative work coming out soon. “Peacekeeper” is a military science fiction story I did with Mike Resnick. It’s in Ian Watson’s anthology, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF SF WARS. Mike and I also have another military SF piece, “Guard Dog,” now out in SPACE BATTLES, edited by Bryan Schmidt. And there is the rarity — a fantasy tale — also by myself and Mike, already out in Phil Athans’s THE FATHOMLESS ABYSS shared world project. Coming in Analog later this year I’ve got a piece I did with friend and fellow Analog author, Alastair Mayer, called, “Strobe Effect.” As well as a solo military SF story called, “The Exchange Officers.”

3) What has been the best moment of your writing career thus far? What about the worst?

I think I have to quote actor Geoffrey Lewis on this: the best one, is the next one. It was a magnificent thrill to (finally!) be published in Writers of the Future 26, as well as the November 2010 issue of Analog — my double debut. It was a thrill selling my third story, and then my fourth, and then my fifth… I’m well over a dozen sold stories now, including collaborations, and each one of them has been a pleasure to write, sell, and see in print. Whether it’s been in concert with mentors and friends like Mike Resnick or Al Mayer, or solo. Heck, before I landed on the big awards ballots, I got a readers’ choice award for my novelette, “Outbound,” which was my first Analog publication. Before that story, I’d gotten dozens of rejections from Stan Schmidt. To see my first Analog story win the AnLab was a remarkable thing. I think all the many, long years of frustration and endless rejection have taught me to treasure the (new) successes, however humble they may be. Now, when I sell a story, or I make an awards ballot, I treat it like it’s a silver dollar discovered on the sidewalk: I scoop it up, I count myself lucky, I savor the sensation of it in my pocket as I go about my daily business. It’s a wonderful thing to be publishing and garnering acclaim, both from peers, and from readers. Simply wonderful.

As for the worst moment… I don’t dwell on those much, but I can say I was positively crestfallen when my first Finalist story for Writers of the Future did not win. It was summer 2009, and I was going through a hell of a hard time at my civilian job, as well as enduring the crucible of Warrant Officer Candidate School on the Reserve side. When I found out I was a Writers of the Future Finalist, I was certain my moment had come. At last! It was the best story I’d ever written, period. And it didn’t win! I went home from work that day and just sat at the kitchen: the picture of despair. My best work, and it didn’t even win Writers of the Future; supposedly the “entry level” market. How could I possibly hope to succeed with bigger markets, after so many years of zilch? It was a massive blow to my hopes and aspirations. But it was not fatal, thankfully. By that point I was old enough and had experienced enough hard knocks to realize that this too would pass. So I got back to work, after licking my hurt ego for a few days. The next story out the door, “Exanastasis,” actually did win Writers of the Future. Even better still: the non-winner, “Outbound,” was the story that went to Analog, and got the AnLab award, and has sold (and keeps selling) to new markets overseas. I think of it as my phoenix story. From the ashes…

4) And now for the most important question of the interview: What is the correct orientation for putting a new roll of toilet paper on the holder?

HAH! We’re bohemians in my household. We have vertical TP holders from Ikea. It’s not a question of over or under, it’s a question of left or right. And on that matter, I don’t think anyone in my family cares. (grin)

5) After years of worldwide bathroom conflicts, you’ve chosen vertical toilet paper? What madness is this? HAVE WE LIVED AND FOUGHT IN VAIN???

Ahem. What I meant to say was, as a writer, where would you like to be in ten years?

Still publishing a few stories a year in Analog magazine. Hopefully publishing books with one or more major publishers. Perhaps some ancillary projects like video games or even something for Hollywood? Again, the years of failure have taught me to value the recent successes, big or small. Everything that comes to me now? It’s like a great big Halloween candy bowl. I can’t complain. I’m getting more sales and more recognition in my first two years as a published pro than I ever dared hope for when I was unpublished and struggling. I am moving forward with reserved optimism. Working as hard as I can on the next manuscript, and then the next one after that, and then the next one after that. Et cetera.

6) You’re currently nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula awards as well as the Campbell. (Congratulations, by the way!) If you could only win one, which would you pick and why?

That’s a tough call. I think the odds are best for the Campbell, though this award tends to go to novelists rather than short story writers. I am told by men like Mike Resnick that the Hugo has the most prestige, among the three, and looking at the other writers who have novelettes next to mine on the Chicon 7 Hugo ballot, I have to say I think it’s an excellently represented category this year. Top drawer work by top drawer writers. I am honored to be listed. Then again my friend Eric James Stone took the Nebula last year, and since I was his room mate at the Nebula weekend I got to see his Nebula trophy up close and personal. It’s a lovely thing!

But really, even being on the short lists is satisfying in and of itself. I will forever after be able to count my name among the (very small) group of people who’ve managed to be on all three lists at once in their careers. People like Barry Longyear. Therefore my winning even one of these awards, much less more than one, is almost too much to hope for. There are so many talented, deserving men and women who are also on these ballots with me. It’s daunting. I know that’s a very wordy non-answer, but it’s the best I can do. (grin)

7) What’s the best piece of advice you can give to an aspiring author?

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your writing career. Very, very, very few authors ever sell their first books or stories right out of the box. Learning to be a proficient professional fiction writer isn’t much different from learning to play an instrument, or a sport, at the professional level. It takes exhaustive commitment and dedication. You have to burn for it, deep down, and you cannot let yourself fall into the trap of thinking and talking about writing, without actually writing. I advise setting monthly, weekly, even daily goals. One page a day. Five pages a days. Twenty pages a week. Whatever. Just make yourself sit down and do it. And don’t fret if the early books or stories don’t sell. It’s all part of your development. Embrace the struggle. Learn as you go. You will grow more as a writer through writing, than you will through almost any other type of activity.

Jim C. Hines