I just finished reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's novella "Recovering Apollo 8" in the February 2007 ASIMOV'S (I'm a little behind in my reading). Although I have always liked Kris's work, this is not my favorite among her fiction. But apparently many, many other people disagree, since on the ASIMOV'S forum, this story is often named as a favorite from the entire year. What am I missing? Or, more precisely, what makes a story a favorite?
There are as many answers to that, of course, as there are readers. But I'm after something here that increasingly strikes me as true of hardcore SF fans: It doesn't seem to be the quality of the story in literary terms (complex characters complexly drawn, sparkling prose, dead-on observations of human nature, going psychologically or atmospherically where no man has gone before, etc.) Nor does it even seem to be the gee-whiz technology and scientific and political speculation that SF is often known for. Instead, much successful SF seems to simply take as its subject matter things that SF fans are interested in -- space exploration, robots, warriors of all ilk, AI -- and whether it handles the subject well or badly hardly seems to matter.
Note: I am NOT saying that "Recovering Apollo 8" is badly handled. But neither does it have the polish and pace and insight of some of Kris's other work. However, it deals with an alternate reality that appeals to SF. Apollo 8, instead of being the first successful lunar orbital flight, ended in disaster. A hundred years later, the bodies of the three astronauts, Lovell and Borman and Anders, have all been recovered from deep space. This keeps the main character, who has spent a lifetime in this pursuit, from committing a suicide we never saw him contemplate.
Does subject alone guarantee a story's success? If not guarantee it, then help it along? How important to us is the "nifty idea" vs. the exexcution? Is this science fiction or science fiction?
And how many of you out there are going to hate me for even questioning it?