“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”
Category: Best Novelette
Although it starts with a bar brawl, this is mostly a “smart people solve a scientific mystery” story. A trio of cadets in an interplanetary explorer corps get into trouble (the aforementioned fight), and are sent off to help clean up a research expedition that is being ended after failing to communicate with the local intelligent life forms. Instead of closing down the site, the team figures out what’s going on and manages to make contact themselves.
Team leader Emily Asari narrates with a natural, friendly voice that gives the reader a sense of her character. Her teammates are drawn in more broad strokes: there’s Priam the arrogant genius, and Micah the quiet guy with hidden depths. (For most of the story Emily assumes Micah is not very bright, which seems strange given that he somehow got into this elite program.) Emily has a habit of apologizing to the reader for expository digressions, but this only highlights their awkwardness, and I think many of them could have just been omitted. (The “Golden Age Tale” part of the title makes me think there’s extra worldbuilding with the intent of setting other stories here, although I couldn’t find any others.)
The central puzzle about the nature of the aliens under study is set up in a way that the reader can try to figure it out before the characters do. I usually like this kind of story, but here we are also asked to believe that a team of researchers worked for thirty years and didn’t figure it out. This is way outside the bounds of plausibility. It’s equally hard to believe that a non-specialist, even a particularly smart one, could solve a scientific problem in just a few days if the experts couldn’t solve it in decades. This is an instance of the unfortunate myth that science advances due to Men of Genius having Brilliant Insights.
This is not the only suspension-of-disbelief problem the story has. The trio is going to be kicked out of the explorer corps if they don’t solve the problem, basically just as a punishment for Priam’s cockiness. This is so extreme that it just seems like an artificial contrivance to raise the stakes. Surely these explorers are expensive to train (and their biotech enhancements are specifically mentioned as being higher quality than what the military gets); I doubt the organization can afford to expel people at a whim.
I’m focusing on what I didn’t like, but this wasn’t a bad read, and I like what it’s aiming for. I just felt like it fell a little short of the mark. With some fixes—make Emily’s team the first to visit the planet, cut some of the irrelevant technology details, improve some of the descriptive passages—I think it could be a solid entry. But as it is I don’t think it’s quite award-worthy.