The Things I Eat For You People: The Wendy’s Jalapeño Fresco Chicken Sandwich

To get to the jalapeño fresco spicy chicken sandwich, I first have to say a few words about spicy food. I like it, generally. I have no actual, factual beef with spicy food. It tastes good! Most of the things1 that spiciness ends up a crucial flavor component of are, simply put, the finest foods the world has to offer. But of course, there exists not a thing without rabid enthusiasts of that thing, and as with everything that people find themselves devoted to as a practice, spicy food now has the sort of sumo-wrestling attitude2 that has poisoned nearly everything else. So there exist people who treat spiciness as an end in and of itself, rather than as a component of something that a human would find worth eating. Since those people tend to be louder than regular people, we have the notion that the ghost pepper is some sort of pinnacle to be scaled rather than, you know, a chili pepper. Like, to be eaten.

1 tacos, curries, fried chicken*, eggs, hamburgers, noodles of basically any form, soup, actually, this list would go long to the point of nonsense, so you get the idea.

* which, y’know, keep in mind for this whole thing because that will be what we are, eventually, talking about.

2 this isn’t really the place to dig the sumo-wrestling back out, but I’ve talked about it a few times in the past here, and the shortest possible version is this: people (mostly young men) like a thing, and then, since bona fides are hard to prove, turn everything into a way to measure their own enthusiasm for the thing. So increasingly-spicy foods become a mark of how “into” spicy food you are, rather than a humble flavor element,.

And so you have the ad campaigns for Wendy’s jalapeño fresco chicken sandwich – these are generally ads that present the idea of eating this sandwich as a mark of exclusitivity. There is, predictably, an undercurrent of being “man enough”, since the hot-pepper-mania is one of those things that tends to skew toward outward displays of masculinity – the taste bud equivalent of bouncing the bar off your chest to make it look like you’re able to lift more at the gym. As with the previous entrant in this series, the KFC Wet Chicken Experiment, there’s a general “oh you wouldn’t want this it’s FORBIDDEN” sort of vibe, above and beyond the gender-based weirdness, which also makes it seem like eating this fast food sandwich is “special.”

Of course, none of this is surprising – fast food marketing exists pretty much entirely to try to convince people that this particular reformulation of the (mostly salt) ingredients at the restaurant is novel and original, and you should buy this particular formulation before it runs out. The trick here3 is that the template for the ghost pepper sandwich is literally the pinnacle of fast food engineering – the Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich.

3 i.e. the reason you’re reading about this and not, say, the Burger King hot dog or whatever other dumb shit is going on over there.

I do not regularly eat fast food. When I do, it is to solve a problem (i.e. I need food very quickly), or is the result of being in a car/with a group of people that do eat fast food. And generally, it’s whatever it is – I have no particular complaint about, say, a Big Mac or whatever, but if they up and vanished forever, I wouldn’t exactly cry about it. There are, however, a tiny handful of regular fast food menu items that are good enough that I sometimes desire to eat them in and of themselves, and atop that short list4 is the Wendy’s Spicy Chicken sandwich, a dish that not only justifies the existence of its parent, but that, alone among fast food dishes, represents basically the best possible version of its basic form. I’ve had fried chicken sandwiches that taste better, but they cost more. I’ve had fried chicken sandwiches that cost less, but they didn’t taste nearly as good. They’re available quickly, constantly and invariably. Every single one is perfect, and I will ride for them until the world goes up in flames.

4 the Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme, the Burger King Whopper Jr., the Culver’s Patty Melt, and, although it’s specifically highly regional, the Swenson’s Galley Boy are pretty much the entirety of it.
The jalapeño fresco chicken sandwich, then, is a riff on this, the finest fast food item known to man. It’s supposed to be spicier, it has a sauce that’s made with the titular pepper, and it has a different cheese. I’m going to have some things to say about the cheese later, but if this is all the further you plan on reading, I will say this: the One True spicy chicken sandwich does not have cheese on it for a reason.

Anyway. The JFSCS was actually introduced for the first time last year, and I ignored it. I ignore variations on the spicy chicken sandwich all the time, why would this one be any different? Well, it was brought back, which gave me some hope: perhaps the people were not wrong. After all, fast-food item demand is based on basically the most primal of feelings – people are eating it because they want it immediately, and the expectations are that it will taste good viscerally and not leave you feeling terrible afterward, and if this sandwich works in that way enough that people bought them over and over, then I can presume they are worth my time. Perhaps Wendy’s has found its McRib, an item they can trot back out from time to time to make people happy (this seemed unlikely, but it was heady days in the world of “a couple of weeks ago”). At the very least, this promised to be a Spicy Chicken Sandwich with cheese on it, which, y’know, two great tastes and all that. How wrong could the popular demand of the people be in terms of a fast-food sandwich?

Spoiler alert: they could be very wrong. The people are assholes, and their tastebuds are assholes.
OK so, I get the sandwich5. The impossibly perfect vegetal toppings of the mighty Spicy Chicken Sandwich Prime are replaced by jalapeño peppers, cheese sauce, ghost pepper sauce (there’s no reason to assume, even given the forthcoming, that the fine people of Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers are lying to me, after all) and raw red onion. It also purports to have a somehow jalapeño-infused bun, but honestly, I didn’t even know that until I looked it up for this piece.

5 there are also ghost pepper fries. I did not order these, as I was driving and didn’t want to  mess around with a saucy side dish. My brother assures me they are very good, but he also liked the sandwich, so his opinion is suspect.

It also has a thick, waxy slice of colby-jack cheese fused to it, and really, this is the beginning of the problem. Colby-jack cheese is never actually an exciting cheese – colby cheese is literally designed to be a mild, out-of-the-way cheese6, and monterey jack is a semi-substitute for fresh cheese7. Mixed together and made by commercial processes, you have a weakened version of a product designed to be as inoffensive as possible, and then it’s stuck on top of the chicken patty on this sandwich. The stuff Wendy’s is using doesn’t really melt, and it’s about twice as thick as I’d like it to be, so it’s just sort of….there. And bland. And ruining the sandwich.

6 the curds themselves are rinsed, to keep any sharp flavors at bay, and has water used in place of some of the whey. It’s really just there to be yellow, I guess? Wisconsin has a bunch of cheese-related miracles of which to be proud, and colby isn’t really one of them.
7 kind of. This is not a cheese history blog post, so please forgive that this is the easiest way to think of it, rather than 100% historically accurate. Also monterey jack cheese is so dull that it’s the cheese that migraine sufferers can eat. It’s literally mollycoddled cheese.

The presence of a terrible ingredient is not a disqualifier for the SCS: they all come with a tomato on them, which, as a fast-food tomato, is really not worthy of being called “tomato”. But it’s wet! It’s a moist ingredient in a boneless, skinless chicken breast that sort of mingles with the mayonnaise (itself also an industrial product, and also inferior to other versions of the same foodstuff) and generally acts as a pretty satisfying sauce component8. The cheese, I hasten to add, once again, does no such thing and also tastes bad and is bad. Bad cheese. Bad.

8 the thing I will say in favor of the colby-jack slab is that, like the tomato, it looks pretty. Colby-jack is a nice bellicose orangey color mixed with a pale, reassuringly-cheesish white color It’s not as visible as the tomato on the real SCS, so it doesn’t get full points, but it’s not entirely unwelcome.
Among the non-cheese elements, none is as offensive, but none really rise to the occasion of making up for the cheese in the first place. The chicken is the same as the spicy chicken sandwich, which I probably don’t need to tell you is grand and glorious. The red onion is fine. Hard to screw up red onion. The bun is not a standard Wendy’s bun, but, again, I needed to be told that in order to know it, so it’s not of much concern. The jalapeños that are replacing the crunchy, cool lettuce slab are boring old regular pre-sliced young jalapeños, so they don’t actually taste of very much, but they’re crunchy, and that’s nice.

The ghost pepper sauce is the focus of the ad campaign (and the beginning of this piece) and, well, I just don’t have anything to say here. There are better hot sauces available at other fast food restaurants. It doesn’t make the sandwich appreciably hotter, or even change the character of the thing very much. It’s not as good as the mayonnaise it should, rightfully, be.

Basically the whole thing is a dumb wash. I suppose if you ate a spicy chicken sandwich every single day, and desperately needed some variety in your lunch, it might provide a change (if you ordered it without cheese). If you’re a masochist who needs to hate the sandwich he is eating, then it’s probably even better (and you might want to order it with extra cheese). If you really hate the idea of people enjoying cheese, it’s probably the best sandwich currently available on the market (no, but seriously, how do you screw up cheese this badly9).

9 above when I was droning on about cheese species, I made it sound like this is regular colby-jack, but, honestly, it’s particularly bad colby-jack. If you’ve ever had the Kraft Singles version of monterey jack cheese (a food-like item I do support the existence of), it’s like a cheap version of that. It’s that bad.

For the rest of us, just order a spicy chicken sandwich. If you want to put hot sauce on it, I’m not going to stop you. It might even be a pretty good idea! I bet if you chose a vinegary hot sauce it would go a long way in terms of acid balance! But really. This sandwich is bad.

The 2016 Billboard Awards

So, the Billboard Music Awards. I did this last year, and I have to tell you: there are so many categories, guys. There are so many categories in the Billboard Music Awards, and they are mathematically derived! The winner is then chosen based on who sold the most! That is, as I mentioned last year when i finally got around to writing about them1, a fine thing in terms of actually awarding something concrete – an achievement award isn’t the most exciting thing ever, but it’s better than a Grammy, which is an award for being well-liked among a subset of people who might like anything, in the same sense that being, say, student council president is a separate and less-dumb award than being, like, the teachers’ official favorite2. It’s also much harder to argue about “rightfulness” when there’s a methodology that’s pretty clear-cut: you can’t argue that more people bought one song than another when the numbers actually exist3.

1 I almost didn’t again this year, actually. They’re really boring, and there’s a bunch of them. That’s why this is taking a different approach than they usually do.

2 actually, now I kind of wish schools had official elections among faculty members and that someone was declared the One True Favorite.
3 also, their period of eligibility, since they aren’t actually a promotional tool, but rather the televised wing of what amounts to a trade magazine, is the goddamned calendar year, which makes me endlessly happy.
So this year, with the Billboard Music Awards, as with the Oscars earlier in the year, I’m going to break with the form. Because the Billboard Music Awards aren’t really an awards show – they’re actually a showcase for pop music production numbers, and they’re also highly entertaining as visual entertainment. I genuinely like pop music, such as it is, and this is a pretty good way to get an idea of how the folks involved comport themselves as performers4. So let’s talk about the reason to watch it in the first place: the performances. So, without further ado, the likelihood of something being entertaining at the Billboard Music Awards. Thank you and goodnight.

4 especially since the likelihood that I’m going to make the time or financial investment of actually going somewhere to see them play in person is vanishingly low.

NB: When this piece was started, it had yet to go down that Ke$ha would not be performing at the ceremony. Since then, Dr. Luke’s company has put the smackdown on that, so she has had to pull out because of the draconian contract that has kept her from working in general. Obviously Dr. Luke is still a shithead, and that sucks. Not the least because Ke$ha is a generally-better television performer than a bunch of these people. I guess she was doing a Bob Dylan thing? I dunno. 

FURTHER EDIT: Ke$ha will be performing as part of a Bob Dylan tribute, so what follows is her entry (I don’t know where in the show it will be):

Ke$ha, Something To Do With Bob Dylan
THE DEAL: After being jerked around by her ubermanage, notorious shithead Dr Luke, Ke$ha will sing a Bob Dylan song. She did “It Ain’t Me Babe” with Ben Folds a couple of days ago, and has in the past covered “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, so it’s probably going to be a song you already know.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Oh, probably. I mean, I’m inclined to be kind to Ke$ha after all this, so I guess there’s no harm in thinking it’ll probably be fine.

Celine Dion, “The Show Must Go On”
THE DEAL: They’re giving some sort of achievement to Celine Dion this year. I’m sure they have their reasons4. Wikipedia suggests this is the Queen song, which means that hands-down my least favorite voice in pop music is covering a song by a band that generally fails to move me entirely when they’re not actively annoying.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: God no. It’ll be operatic and showy, and will also feature Celine Dion singing a song, which, y’know, is generally something I try to avoid pretty stridently.

4 I mean, her chart performance has undeniably been a big thing, I’m just not clear on why 2016 is the year to make a thing out of it. So the reasons in question are the reasons for doing it now, not the reasons for doing it in general.

Pink, “Just Like Fire”
THE DEAL: Pink is going to perform a song on which she raps. It appears originally on the soundtrack to what is most-assuredly going to be the worst Tim Burton movie.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Pink is pretty unfailingly an entertaining television performer, certainly. The song is probably godawful, but maybe she’ll do something neat with the staging? So a qualified yes.

DNCE, Song Unknown
THE DEAL: This is the band that Joe Jonas5 is in now. They were in Fox’s Grease: Live being a Crickets-style rock band. They’re fine, I guess? I am probably going to be disappointed that the band’s name is meant to be pronounced like “dance” and not like “dunce,” which would be a much better band name.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Oh, probably. Again, they’ve been pretty good on television before, and I see no reason why they wouldn’t manage to do so again. Consistency is an important part of the whole thing, after all.

5 who at least one member of this website’s readership thinks is “the hot one”

The Go-Go’s, “We Got the Beat”
THE DEAL: The Go-Go’s are riding the reunion train again, provided that everyone can manage not to injure themselves or sue each other6. This victory lap includes a stop at the Billboard Music Awards.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: I mean, I don’t know much about what the Go-Go’s do onstage anymore, but “We Got the Beat” is pretty much a slam-dunk, so yeah, probably. Or maybe they’ll just decide to start suing each other onstage. That’d be pretty fun.

6 this is part of their “farewell tour” which was announced in 2010, and postponed because of Jane Wiedlin’s knee. Also at least one of them (Cathy Valentine, who was in the underrated Brian Brain) just sued the rest of them, but last I heard, that was over.

Shawn Mendes, Song Unknown
THE DEAL: Proof that the power of being Taylor Swift’s opening act can make you famous enough to outlast the social media network that launched you to fame7, Shawn Mendes is almost certainly going to do something chummy, strummy, and utterly unremarkable.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: No. It’ll probably put people to sleep, though. That could be useful on a Sunday evening.

7 Shawn Mendes became famous for being on Vine, which makes him just about the only one.

Justin Bieber, “Company” and “Sorry”
THE DEAL: I probably don’t have to explain Justin Bieber to you people, but, y’know, maybe he heard that Shawn Mendes was cornering the “Loathsome Canadian Butt-Person” market at the Billboard award, and signed up to perform his PR-salvage attempts.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Barring some interesting backup dancers or something, absolutely not.

Nick Jonas and Tove Lo, “Close”
THE DEAL: Another former Jonas brother here, performing with Swedish saddo Tove Lo. This is one of the more obviously-promotional performances, this being the advance single from Nick Jonas’ forthcoming album. I have very little to say about it in and of itself. Obviously.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Aw, jeez. I really like Nick Jonas the public person, and I think Tove Lo is admirably weird for a pop star, but man, this song is pretty hard to get through. So probably not, but I bet they’d be entertaining to, like, meet.

Demi Lovato, Song Uknown
THE DEAL: Demi Lovato still exists, and is still on television. Billboard the entity clearly loves her, because she gets awards and things from them all the time. This stands in stark contrast to any of her actual material, which has universally failed to entertain me for even one damn minute.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Of course it won’t.

Britney Spears, Greatest Hits Medley
THE DEAL: The centerpiece of the whole show, Britney is receiving the Millenium award8. I don’t know if her “greatest hits” are determined mathematically or what, but she’s basically doing her greatest hits every night at her Vegas show these days, and this is a big show-stopping number, so she’ll be fully-staged with an eye toward spectacle.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Man, Britney has high highs and low lows. She seems to have it pretty well together currently and, as mentioned, she’s already doing heavily-staged greatest hits shows every night, so it’s probably related to that, and it’s probably fine. The only real problem is that some of Britney’s “greatest hits” are godawful terrible songs, and it’s unlikely to be a medley of “Toxic,” “Womanizer” and “Crazy,” (although it may include those songs), which means the music is going to flag somewhat as the thing goes on. I’m willing to say it’ll be entertaining, but that parts of it are going to drag and be kind of dull.

8 which is different from the Icon award, which is what Celine Dion is receiving. It is important that we remember the halcyon days when records used to sell, I guess.

Fifth Harmony & Ty Dolla Sign, “Work From Home”
THE DEAL: “Work From Home” is one of the rare pop-music sex metaphors that’s so brain-splatteringly stupid you can’t help but think it’s kind of smart. The song is execrable, no one involved is in any way fun to watch or listen to, but I suppose someone has to perform after Britney, so why not bury this dumb bullshit there?
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: It might be worth something someday as an artifact of “this was somehow a successful pop song in 2016, for whatever value of ‘succesful’ could be applied,” but in the moment it’s unlikely to be any damn good at all.

Troye Sivan, Song Unknown
THE DEAL: Uh…actually, nature of performance unknown? This dude played Wolverine as a kid in the terrible Wolverine movie from a bunch of years ago (the one with the blasphemous Deadpool). But I guess he’s made a bunch of records! Wikipedia tells me so!
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Well, 100% of the things I’ve seen this dude perform on have been terrible to the point of wishing bodily harm upon him, so maybe not?

Ariana Grande, Song Unknown
THE DEAL: Ariana Grande is going to wiggle-dance and scream-sing another of her seemingly endless parade of somehow-successful singles.

Blake Shelton & Gwen Stefani, “Go Ahead and Break My Heart”
THE DEAL: America’s most surreal celebrity love story continues apace, and they sing a song about inevitably not being a couple. It will probably continue to be surreal.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Oh, probably. They’re both good on tv. The song is nothing special, although it’s not the worst work either participant has ever done. And after the Fifth Harmony/Troye Sivan/Ariana Grande string before it, just about anything would look good.

Rihanna, Song Unknown
THE DEAL: It’s an awards show. There’s pop music people. Rihanna will be there. This seems, at this point, contractual.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: Oh, probably not. Rihanna is not a particularly dynamic performer. She sometimes does clever things with staging, and maybe there’ll be an exciting feature or something, but generally Rihanna performances aren’t the thing to get excited about.

Meghan Trainor, “No”
THE DEAL: You know, I have no idea what the function of the closing song on these sorts of things is meant to be. The people watching are probably going to bed, the people there are probably leaving to get their cars or the valet or whatever it is these people do. So this is exit music, then. Which I guess I’m willing to say is what Meghan Trainor is suited for, since I literally can’t imagine another circumstance under which this song (or any other Meghan Trainor song I have ever heard) would be any fun to listen to.
WILL IT ENTERTAIN: No, but you’ll be done watching anyway, so I guess it’ll do its job.

The 2015 Nebula Awards

The Nebula awards are, once again, upon us. The Nebulas (in case you weren’t reading last year in this space, or are otherwise unfamiliar) are given out by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America1, and they’re not currently plagued with vote-brigading weirdoes2. Their reliability intact for another year, let’s take a stroll through what should, obviously, be chosen from among their nominees.

1 The SFWA, which leaves out an F and a &. This is bothersome, obviously.
2 which is to say that the Puppies did their thing with the Hugos again, sadly but unsurprisingly.

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
I am the least grumpy about this category that I’ve been in the time I’ve been paying serious attention to the Nebulas in this space3. The best news is that while last year everything was dumb supernatural love stories, this year is a lot more adventure-y, which is going to be better pretty much across the board. That said, Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap is a competently-executed example of most of the things that make me grumpy about both YA and literary fiction, plus I find it frustrating structurally – it tends to spend a lot of energy on buildup and in-between moments without giving us much of the actual payout. It’s probably somebody’s favorite, and they might not be wrong, but I’m not the one to cosign on that. Daniel Jose Older deserves full credit for coming up with a nifty, visually-striking thing in Shadowshaper, but its execution is less than its idea, and it ends up seeming kind of thin. Tina Connolly’s Seriously Wicked is very funny, but slight. Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives is also slight, and although it’s a compelling read, it tastes too much like Hunger Games of Thrones to really sit well. Fonda Lee’s Zeroboxer might actually be the most fun of these books – it’s a real hoot, with a pretty great confidence plot and some fantastic action scenes – which brings it to the top of “entertaining, but not much more” section of the list. Fran Wilde’s Updraft is the good kind of weird, and is an interesting bit of worldbuilding, but that world is built around a really frustrating protagonist and a kind of small-world coincidence plot that never feels right. It is destined (spoiler alert) to be a bridesmaid twice here, despite being quite good. Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song has a barnstormer of a first half – fantastic premise, in an England that’s on the verge of changing forever, elements that are familiar without being overly so, great magic – but kind of drifts to a close. An excellent book, marred only by the fact that a couple of the other books are better. Nicole Kohrner-Stace’s Archivist Wasp, which creates a unique postapocalyptic world, but fumbles the ball at the very end, although it’s just about perfect right up until then. Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is everything you’d want – it’s self-contained, funny, bright, moves like a whipcrack, neither overdevelops nor overexplains, and contains a whole lot of layering and some brilliant art.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Noelle Stevenson, Nimona

3 this is the second year I’ve written about them, but there were a couple of years I didn’t quite get around to it. Plus there’s a Locus awards writeup back there somewhere where I’m really, really grumpy about it, a position I don’t really continue to hold, and don’t find tenable, and so won’t link to here, but it’s back there if you’re interested.

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
This is also an unusually strong field. It’s strong enough, in fact, that The Martian and Mad Max are dismissed for being merely unusually entertaining and well-executed movies. Ex Machina and Inside Out were uncommonly great movies, genuinely great. But also they weren’t the winners, literally only because there’s better ones, and through no fault of their own. The runner-up is clearly Star Wars: The Force Awakens, mainly for giving the world another good Star Wars movie, which really seemed like something that was never going to happen again, and that’s worth a whole lot. But really, there are few things as outright effective, as well-done, as perfectly-formed and perfectly-executed as the absolutely genius Jessica Jones series. The last episode is nominated here, which makes about as much sense as anything, as it’s very much the capstone on an excellent piece of work, and it’s the clear winner.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jessica Jones, “A.K.A. Smile”

Short Story
It seems like it was all or nothing with the short stories this year. None of them are bad, as such, but some of them are in a different league than the others. Amal El-Mohtar’s “Madeleine” and Sam J. Miller’s “When Your Child Strays From God” are mildly weird stories about the nature of reality and love (largely parental), and heavily sentimental. Martin L. Shoemaker’s “Today I Am Paul” and David D. Levine’s “Damage” are artificial-being-centered stories about the nature of identity, and heavily sentimental. Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures, Please” is very funny, and is also about free will and constructed identity, in addition to being a pretty thorough examination of the 2nd law of robotics, and what that would mean (in addition to other major rules governing sapient behavior). Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is a flat-out horror story that at least doesn’t run on sentimentality, and creates an interested set of characters with some interesting scary magic stuff in it. Either of the latter two would be excellent choices, but I like Kritzer’s better.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Naomi Kritzer, “Cat Pictures, Please”

This is generally a tough category – novelettes are longer than short stories, but not quite long enough to really dig into something. It was, this year as last, the category with the most things that just plain didn’t work. Michael Bishop’s “Rattlesnakes and Men” was much-ballyhooed, and I guess it wasn’t bad, but we can blame either high expectations or a really heavy hand with the allegory for why I can’t honestly recommend anyone go around reading it. Brook Bolander’s “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” wasn’t quite as clever as it seemed to want to be, and circling around to every slangy, vulgarity-strewn way of saying whatever thing was being said is a really tough way to write a story that’s readable. Or, for that matter, possible to follow. Rose Lemberg’s “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” is fine. It would be nice if it had a little more story and a little less literary flourish, but, as with Bone Gap, that’s a matter of preference4. Henry Lien’s “The Ladies Aquatic Garden Society” and Tamsyn Muir’s “The Deepwater Bride” don’t actually have much in common – the former is historical, socially-aware and sharp, the latter modern, self-contained and sillier5 – but they’re both funny stories about ladies making their way for themselves with huge, world-ending monsters in them (albeit very different monsters). But Sarah Pinsker walked away with this category with “Our Lady of the Open Road,” which is probably my favorite thing I ended up reading in the entire list of nominees. It’s concerned with the realities of live music, the mundanity of the future, and sticking to your principles, as well as all of the reasons those things matter. We need more stories like it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sarah Pinsker, “Our Lady of the Open Road”

4 and also kind of a weird one – I fully admit that I come down on “literariness” in some of these works while encouraging it in others. Much like weirdness, I feel that there’s a good kind of it and a bad kind of it, and I can’t always place my finger on exactly what the difference is, other than that it’s baked in – that is to say “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” wouldn’t be better if it were less literary, because it would be a different story. It’s like not liking a rock band’s guitar sound – it could change, but it would change way more than just the one thing.
5 silliness being another quality that has “good” and “bad” inflections, and “The Deepwater Bride” is definitely the best kind of silly.

This was probably the most entertaining category, on aggregate. C.S.E. Cooney’s “The Bone Swans of Amandale” is definitely the best use of the pied piper this side of The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, if nothing else. Kelly Robson’s “The Waters of Versailles” is a breezy, funny story about plumbing and water fairies in France, and is by no means bad. Beth Cato’s Wings of Sorrow and Bone6 is a pretty good story about (supernatural) animal rights and the power of the pen that should probably be something a little longer to be fully-realized. Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” is a twisty, fable-like bit of work that drifts by intriguingly enough, but doesn’t really stick around after it’s over. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti was a fantastic bit of space adventure that I’m glad to hear will feature more installments, and really, I look forward to loving the hell out of them. But I think in this case I’m going to have to go with Eugene Fischer’s excellent “The New Mother,” which manages allegory better than most of the allegorical material heretofore mentioned, and also provides a fairly complex and well-thought-out vision of a world in which a fundamental alteration to the nature of humanity has occurred.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Eugene Fischer, “The New Mother”

6 I’m taking my italics/quotation marks cues from the SFWA website’s listing for the novellas, which I presume has to do with whether they were published on their own or as part of a periodical. So take it up with them.

Alright, well first we knock off Charles E. Gannon’s Raising Caine. The first two books in that series were at least fun – he spends the third making sure he never builds up any narrative momentum, and that we never go more than a couple of pages without being bored to death by the minutiae of someone’s innermost scheming. Fran Wilde’s Updraft is nominated here as well as in the YA category, and it’s still pretty good, but still not the best. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy is the conclusion of one of the most consistently enthralling pieces of space opera writing in years and years, but it’s really only half a book – Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy are more like parts of a whole than standalone works. This is pretty much the only thing keeping it out of the top spot here. Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard is a well-told story (it was right up there with Leckie in terms of gripping readability, and it didn’t have the advantage of having a couple of books in a series before it), and it’s a complete story, which is just great, but I feel it falls just short of some of the others. The remaining three books basically come down to my preference that day. Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings would’ve been a surefire shoo-in pick the day after I finished it, and it hasn’t so much diminished over time as sort of revealed itself ot be flawed in precisely a way that I enjoy. Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is a surprisingly7 good piece of magic-heavy fantasy. It’s also very, very Polish. N.K. Jemisen’s The Fifth Season is probably the one of these last three that I enjoyed reading the least8, but I suppose it’s also the one of the three that I’m most likely to come back to get some additional things out of, and as such, it is, I think the one most deserving of the Nebula.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: N.K. Jemison, The Fifth Season

7 well, surprisingly to me – I never thought much of Novik’s prior work, so I was surprised to enjoy this as much as I did.
8 “least” being, after all, a relative judgment – I enjoyed it fine, it just didn’t have the same whipcrack narrative that Uprooted or The Grace of Kings did.

The Best Albums of April 2016

1. Beyonce – Lemonade (there are a million reasons for this to be in the number one spot – it’s a deeply personally-felt, universally-applied, idiosyncratic, highly accessible masterpiece of a record, just for starters – but very few records I can think of in a long, long time succeed on so many creative levels as this one, weird release system notwithstanding.)

2 Tim Hecker – Love Streams (I had high hopes, it met those hopes. The only thing keeping it out of the #1 spot is that the Beyonce record is just that good)

3.  Xiu Xiu – Plays the Music of Twin Peaks (Actually, I would like to go ahead and say that any album with tunes written by Angelo Badalamenti and arrangments by Jamie Stewart would be totally awesome. Please and thank you.)

4. Black Milk & Nat Turner – The Rebellion Sessions (An album made with Black Milk’s formidable touring band. Fantastic grooves, great playing.)

5. Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories (There are still no bad Robbie Fulks albums. This one is even a cut above his usual average, which is pretty high. Great country record.)