Monday, July 11, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novella - "The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov's, September 2010)

We’re back to our theme from the novelette nominees. This is a rather old-fashioned story with a simple plot and plenty of exposition to help us get our bearings. A few centuries in the future, humans have colonized much of the solar system, and a group of oligarchs control much of the colonized territory. Our narrator, David Tinkerman, is the assistant of a specialist on the terraforming of Mars named Leah Hamakawa. He’s also helplessly in love with her. Leah is invited by the young sultan of Venus for a visit, and we spend most of the story in floating cities that bob on the immense air pressure of the second planet in a temperate layer of the upper atmosphere.

It’s a cool concept for a world, and Landis makes sure to lay out the workings and history clearly (he even sets up an info dump as the narrator reading a history text on his trip to Venus). It’s a very simple story though, especially for its length. We get the physical world building and a little cultural world building with Venus’s marital practices, we get to see the sultan and a plot he’s hatched, and then there are some sky pirates. The end. We spend enough time with the narrator that this should be something of a character piece, but Tinkerman is pretty generic and Hamakawa is basically a non-entity. We’re told she’s something of a mystery, and we never really get past that. What exactly is Tinkerman’s attraction?

Some science fiction devolves into a delivery mechanism for ideas, and that’s definitely what’s happened here. Reading about Landis’s Venus is really thrilling, the rest is unnecessary trimming.

Grade: B-

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