The Nebula awards are, inexplicably, titled after the year when all the works were published (in English1) rather than the year in which the ceremony happens (i.e. this year’s are the 2014 Nebula awards, despite 2015 being almost halfway over). I don’t approve of this.I do, however, generally approve of the Nebula awards.
1 or possibly in North America, I couldn’t really tell. In any event, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem came out in China a few years ago, but is nominated this year.
The Nebula awards have always been (along with the Locus awards) my sort of go-to for figuring out what happened in any given year, sff-wise. Using the nominees as a booklist is something I did when I was younger, and generally they aren’t a total fiasco, awards-granting- wise. They also lack the weird popular-vote aspect of the Hugo awards2, which sometimes comes off as an up-with-people, everything is awesome positivity, but this year doesn’t (see FN2).
2 I haven’t much to say about the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies Hugo nomination-bloc scandal that hasn’t been said already and better by, say, John Scalzi, Connie Williis or George R.R. Martin. If you don’t know what it is: The Hugo ballot was vote-brigaded by a pretty awful group, and then an even more awful group piggybacked on that. None of this was cleared by most of the creators, and it created a huge problem with the Hugo system. It was a huge, award-breaking deal for most of the constituent fandom, and the Hugos have officially been declared the battleground for the puppies people* and it’s just a big ugly mess, which is a thing that doesn’t tend to happen to the Nebula awards, which is where we are now.
* I am unsure of how much the two groups – The Sad Puppies and The Rabid Puppies –
are coordinated, or how much they agree upon, but the elements of the platform they share is that they perceive that science fiction is getting away from its roots, and is overly-politicized, and they would like a return to the sorts of things that they like. For a discussion about what I think of politicization in science fiction, and as much history as I can tell, buy me a drink sometime. This footnote is already plenty long enough.
There are some things that make the Nebula awards attractive both as a guide and to write about, but chief among them is that there are, like, seven awards, and they’re all pretty cut and dried in terms of what the categories mean (word counts, generally, with the exception of the Bradbury Award, which goes to a film, and the Norton Award, which goes to a Young Adult novel), if not precisely what they’re meant to contain.
This makes them easier to wade through. A note at the top, however. A special awad must be given out for our purposes. We’ll call it the There Are Only Seven Categories And I Can’t Really Skip One award for Mrs. Coach’s hair which, unlike many of these works, is never the wrong length, is always sufficiently filled out, and, while it doesn’t tackle complex interpersonal, scientific or social issues, is pretty classically enjoyable.
Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
Ah, the YA category. It’s hard for me to gauge, but I think we’re over the hump of the YA obsession. Oh, it’s still the biggest seller, and it will probably always be – it seems to have been paradigmatic, rather than just a trend. Although the last year continues to see a bunch of backlash3 and counter-argument. But while it’s still the case that I am disappointed when writers whose work I respect and enjoy feel they need to branch out into separate marketing categories, it becomes increasingly unsavory to continue yelling about the market-dominance of YA, for a couple of reasons. The first of these is that YA is dominated, both in terms of purchase and creation, by women, and yelling about how it’s “ruining” whatever any given article-writer thinks it’s ruining looks pretty uncomfortable in that light. The second is that there’s nothing wrong with young people reading, and they’re doing it more, and there’s every indication that when they stop being Young Adults and start being Old Adults, there’s every chance that a significant proportion of them will also read Old Adult books. That being said, I still find a lot of it samey and marketing-driven4, especially with regards to inter-character romance. Even bearing in mind that I have very little tolerance for the sort of hand-wringing-y tortured romance that proliferates among the subgroup, in one case (Alaya Dawn Johnson’s otherwise good Love is the Drug) the romance derails a perfectly-good conspiracy plot, in another (Sarah McCarry’s Dirty Wings) it prevents the plot from actually happening5, and, most disappointingly, it derails Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unmade so badly that it ends up not so much capping off the series as largely failing to live up to the previous two books (which, while not without their rough spots, were at least better). Alexandra Duncan’s Salvage includes a love triangle, although it’s only a half-hearted one, which at least prevents it from taking over the story, which, additionally, is more interesting in premise than in execution. Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, by YA titan A.S. King, isn’t brought down by its all-but-contractually-mandated romance, but is also built around the less-interesting part of its story6. Kate Milford’s excellent Greenglass House is about smugglers, roleplaying games and a story where nobody is telling the truth about who they are. It plays some of its cards too soon, but is otherwise a lovely journey. But the clear standout here is Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, which, despite containing an entire truckload of romance, is handled capably, written beautiful, and is a fantastic piece of weird, funny magical realism7.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Leslye Walton, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
3 largely led by The New York Times, which has been blowing into this trumpet for at least the past half-decade.
4 there is a huge amount of tortured romances in these books, many of which are supernatural love triangles. We still live in a post-Twilight world, after all.
5 in Dirty Wings’ defense, it’s the Persephone story, so we all knew the plot anyway.
6 it has a high-concept framing device, whereby the titular character ends up seeing the future, the ensuing parts of which are pretty compelling post-Atwood, but also frustratingly brief.
7 it’s also worth noting that I have no idea what makes it a YA book, other than that’s obviously what the publisher said it was.
The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
This is probably as good a slate as any, and could probably really stand up to some robust analysis and totally not being a fanboy about stuff. It’s a shame that’s not what’s about to happen, then. The Lego Movie is pretty great, much better than it needed to be, and makes me happy to live in the world. Unfortunately, it still loses.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Guardians of the Galaxy
Eugie Foster’s “When it Ends, He Catches Her” continues my streak of not “getting it” when it comes to Eugie Foster. I’ll try again next time, Eugie. Usman T. Malik’s “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” has a bunch of pretty good ideas and some great images, but Mr. Malik forgot to tell us the story. Sarah Pinsker’s “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” Alyssa Wong’s “The Fisher Queen” and Matthew Kressel’s “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” are all fine, imaginative stories (about a prosthetic arm, a mermaid, and an alien superintelligence, respectively), that don’t quite make it over the winner line. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Breath of War” is the only story in this category that I wished was longer – there’s a pretty incredible piece of a world in there, and I’d love to read more stories, or a longer story, or anything more about the world and its people. Thus it seems weird to deny someone the rightful winnership because their story made me want more of it, but Ursula Vernon’s “Jackelope Wives” is perfectly-formed, exactly the right length, and really just a great piece of fiction.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ursula Vernon, “Jackelope Wives”
This was by far the category most full of clunkers. The YA award had its problems, but at least the examples were good sui generis. Tom Crosshill’s “The Magician and Laplace’s Demon” is aiming for a breezy, possibly-funny tone (I think?) but is so bogged down in winks and references that it throws up a whole lot of barriers to actually reading it. Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” seems to be going for a post-Kelly Link vibe, only all sexy and whatnot, but the erotica (which appears to be the point) distracts from the story (which barely exists), and the whole thing just seem kind of underdeveloped. “Sleep Walking Now and Then” is slight, if entertainingly-written. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” is well-written, and even does a couple of interesting things, but is (like her YA entry, Love is the Drug) bogged down by an unmanageable romance plot. Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America” is about a deal with the devil, and its toll, as taken through a particular black family, and also about what “family” means. It’s fine, but would have been better by either expanding its scope or narrowing it (and there’s some “meta” readers notes throughout that, while interesting, are also a better idea than they were an item)8. Sam J. Miller’s “We Are the Cloud” is about a future where poor people sell part of their brains off for computing power, and, as a story, manages to be challenging and surprising on top of its idea, which makes it the one unqualifiedly good piece that got nominated here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sam J. Miller, “We Are the Cloud”
8 In Kai Ashante Wilson’s defense (and he seems like a very good writer), this story is a piece of historical fantasy, a subgenre that I have almost no ability to get into (the lone exception I can think of is Octavia Butler’s Kindred, but everybody loves Octavia Butler’s Kindred). It’s probably better if your tastes run more toward that sort of thing,
This category, on the other hand, was an nigh-embarrassment of riches. Lawrence M. Schoen’s Calendrical Regression is another of his Amazing Conroy stories, which are all pretty fun, if not quite doing the same thing as some of the other works that were nominated9. Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine is a highly-entertaining horror story that kind of crashes into its own ending. Nancy Kress’ Yesterday’s Kin, on the other hand, is a genuinely suspenseful first-contact story with a hell of a rug-puller. The remaining three works, on the other hand, are each in a separate league. Mary Rickert’s The Mothers of Voorhissville10 is a sticky, intense horror story, and would be the winner for imagistic reasons (it also would have been the winner if I’d written this a couple of days earlier, that’s how close these top three are). Rachel Swirsky’s Grand Jete (The Great Leap) is about not only what it means to be a person, but what it means to be the actual, specific person that you are, and tackles the question through the lens of Jewish folklore, Pinocchio, and dance. Ken Liu’s The Regular looks at posthumanism11 as an average part of a day, and what it means to the humanity of the people that do it.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rachel Swirsky, Grand Jete (The Great Leap), but only just. I genuinely thought that, by the end of the paragraph, it was going to be The Regular, but Swirsky’s story is so unlike anything else in the category that its singular-ness elevates it above the rest.
9 there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but since this is my piece, and I’m deciding the rightful winners, my taste is more important. So there.
10 The Nebula awards webpage is inconsistent in when, exactly, a novella gets quotation marks and when it is italicized. I have decided to italicize all of the novella titles, because that’s how I do.
11 can we take this moment to give thanks that we aren’t still living through the constant nightmare of every fucking thing being poorly-thought-through posthumanism? ?YA can dominate the charts forever as long as posthumanism is left only to the people that can actually fucking write it.
There were lots of good novels, and even a couple of great ones, but this one was pretty much a curb-stomping. Charles E. Gannon’s Trial By Fire is a throwbacky piece of sub-Heinlein alien work, about an old-style ubermensch (written as such to a near-cartoonish level12) who, through nothing more than his peerless intellect, perfect physical condition, impossible good looks and all the deuses he can stuff into a machina, manages to handle negotiations for the entry of Earth into a federation of planets. It’s the second book in a series. Jack McDevitt’s Coming Home is definitely a good time, and I’ll argue that making the main character in your long-running sf series an antique dealer is pretty inspired. It’s been inspired for him for something like eight billion books, though, and this one is ok, but is kind of interchangeable with the other ones in the series, which makes it hard to recommend for an award. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword is the follow-up to last year’s Nebula winner for best novel, Ancillary Justice. Ancillary Sword is ok, but isn’t of the same caliber as Ancillary Justice, and is probably nominated more on momentum than anything else. The third book, Ancillary Mercy, will almost certainly bounce back – being able to end the story will do wonders for it – but Ancillary Mercy seems like it spends too much time spinning its wheels. Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor features a great main character, a really impressively-built world, and a compelling “commoner-thrust-into-the-throne” plot. I don’t, as I’ve mentioned in this space before, read a lot of fantasy anymore, and usually the “steampunk” descriptor only exacerbates the problem, but The Goblin Emperor manages to dodge both of those things by remaining about the characters13 and the impressively-built world. Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is, presumably, standing in for the entire Southern Reach trilogy, which is really one longer work split into three parts. As such, Annihilation doesn’t stand up as well as it does when re-integrated with its brother/sister works. Nevertheless, it’s of a very specific kind of biological sf14 that there isn’t a whole lot of, and VanderMeer’s mastery of tone, compelling narrative style, and ability to advance the plot given an extremely limited narratorial perspective are all truly impressive. In any other year, this would be a stand-out winner.
12 this was present on the Sad Puppies slate for Hugo nomination, but wasn’t nominated. That’s how throwbacky it is. It’s got a real Dances With Wolves/Avatar vibe, with a protagonist who’s Sherlock Holmes and Lazarus Long and James Bond, and every character will stop what they’re doing to tell you so. This is why it’s hard to take the people crying for a return to what they think of as the origins of the genre seriously.
13 specifically the main character, who is exactly the sort of low-key good guy (as opposed to the bright-color-black-outline Good Guy) that fantasy can do really well – contrasting the basic humanity of the goodness of a character who’s surrounding by, say, airships and elves and religious magic and stuff – but almost never does.
14 it’s the sort of thing I associate with Greg Bear’s Blood Music, which parts of Annihilation resemble a great deal, but this could also be the result of Blood Music being the first book of this flavor I ever read.
But I said this category was a curb-stomping, and I meant it. For all that The Goblin Emperor and The Southern Reach trilogy (and presumably the Ancillary trilogy) will hold up well for a long time and are welcome additions to the world, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is in a class all by itself. It’s about astrophysics, the limits of scientific observation, video games, China, post-communism, the duty of humans to other humans, and the limits of understanding, both literal and figurative. It’s lyrical, funny, and compellingly-told. There’s a lot of science in it that never leaves the audience behind, also without the book grinding to a halt for an exposition bomb. Translated wonderfully by Ken Liu15, who provides helpful translator’s notes when the language prevents a communication, or when it relies on something that requires specific knowledge of China, The Three-Body Problem is not only the best thing nominated for a Nebula award, it’s probably the best thing I’ll read all year. Go read it now, you’ll be a better person for it.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem
15 the same Ken Liu who wrote the excellent The Regular in the novella category, and who wrote the much-awarded all-time great “The Paper Menagerie” a few years ago.