Summing this up is difficult. More than one person has said this novella has enough ideas for a trilogy of novels. That’s not a downside, the vast scale of the story doesn’t feel compressed, or too dense for enjoyment.
It starts: “On the night that Ptey voyaged out to have his soul shattered…”
This turns out to be a cultural norm for the sea-faring people to divide their psyches into eight Aspects, each with characters of varying differences; Nebjen and Serejen are fairly similar, but they have separate lives and lovers. (I like that one of the lovers, a star-faring post-human who’s seen a vast array of human diversity, never really understands how the culture works.)
Although the story starts low-tech and fantasy-esque, the genre changes towards space opera when the person who was once Ptey (which I’ll keep calling him for simplicity) gets involved in the aforementioned post-human. She belongs to the Anpreen, and their habitats came to the solar system a few decades before to replenish their water supplies. But it turns out that the Anpreen are fleeing from another human faction trying to eradicate them. When the Anpreen move on Ptey elects to come with them, even creating a ninth Aspect that would be better suited to space travel.
As I said, I’m finding it difficult to sum up grand themes in this story, but that’s partly because there’s a huge amount of things going on anyway. It’s a poignant, satisfying tale that never loses its regard for its characters even as the story scope grows ever vaster.
The Tear by Ian McDonald
Availability: Print, e-book
Word count: 18,000
Awards: Hugo award nominee, third place Sturgeon Award nominee
First published: Galactic Empires, edited by Gardner Dozois, 2008, Science Fiction Book Club
Where to find it: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, 2009, St Martin’s Griffin
The Year’s Best SF and Fantasy 2009, edited by Rich Horton, Prime Books (e-book available from Weightless Books here)
The Hugo Award Showcase: 2010 Volume, edited by Mary Robinette Kowal, 2010, Prime Books (e-book available from Weightless Books here)