I had intended to write a single post covering all of the novellas on the Hugo shortlist but, well, a novella is pretty much a short novel. So I'm going to split it into a post on each.
First up is 'The Erdmann Nexus' by Nancy Kress (Asimov's Oct/Nov 2008).
I quite like that branch of science fiction which uses the quotidian to explore the extraordinary. But it has to be done right. Sf operates using an open mechanism: the workings of its plot are visible to the reader. Unlike in a crime novel, which must hide those workings so that the final reveal is satisfying to the reader. So for sf, the explanation for the extraordinary has to be presented up front, and then the story should show - or ramp up - the consequences.
In 'The Erdmann Nexus', a group of residents at an old folks' home have been experiencing odd "events", moments of what seems to be merged consciousness. The story hops between those involved, one of the helpers, a neurological researcher working on a project at the home, and a pair of detectives investigating the mysterious death of the helper's legally-separated husband. The search for an explanation is led by Henry Erdmann, one of residents, a brilliant physicist who now teaches at a nearby university. It is not until the end of the novella that the reader learns what the events were and what caused them.
Unfortunately, hiding the extraordinary's explanation, and only revealing it at the end, doesn't work because it makes for an uninvolving narrative. And, for all its many viewpoints, 'The Erdmann Nexus' is pretty dull. (For an example on how to do it properly, see Ted Kosmatka's 'Divining Light'.)
Kress throws in a framing narrative, describing a sentient spaceship approaching Earth, but it seems entirely gratuitous. The plot certainly doesn't require it. And the mentions of split photons, quantum entanglement and emergent complexity just obfuscate. When an author holds the explanation close to their chest, it has to be a damned impressive explanation to redeem the story. Kress's isn't. We've seen it before, in both science fiction and fantasy. In that respect, it's not very different, truth be told, to Mike Resnick's terrible 'Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonders' on the novelette shortlist (see here); and not just because both feature OAP characters.
The single-note characterisation in 'The Erdmann Nexus' doesn't help either - gossipy granny, bible-basher, ex-ballerina who pines for her past, blue-collar retiree out of his depth.... And detective Geraci - Kress might as well have named him Goren since he's plainly based on Vince D'Onofrio's character in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Kress has appeared on Hugo ballots an impressive number of times - 11 nominations and one win, according to the Locus Index to SF Awards. This should not have been one of them. I have to wonder if it was another choice driven by nostalgia....