The SFF-Award season can probably be said to exist in the summer, and the first of the major sff awards 1 is also my favorite: the Nebulas. This year they are terribly close to the ONAT headquarters 2, and so there is an extra frisson from knowing they’re right there.
Anyway, it was a pretty good year, all told – nothing was actively a slog to get through, and even some of the things that I wouldn’t ordinarily like were better-than-usual examples of it. Peter S. Beagle 3 is going to be declared a grand master, and we’re all going to live happily with that.
Without further ado, the rightful winners of the 2017 Nebula Awards.
The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
This one is not technically a Nebula, but it’s given out at the Nebula ceremonies, so I’m including it. Feel free to sue me. Both Cindy Pon’s Want and Fonda Lee’s Exo found teenage protagonists negotiating violent rebellion situations while also falling in luuuurrrrrrve with someone deeply entrenched in the situations (On opposite sides! They’re crossed by the very stars!) themselves. They are both fine 4 novels, but neither of them is ahead of the pack here. The “pack”, then, also includes Kari Maaren’s Weave a Circle Round, which propels itself along nicely and manages some good ideas, but which I found didn’t cohere as nicely around its central mythology as I would have liked. It was good, though. Sam J. Miller’s The Art of Starving is an incredible book – probably the best YA book I’ve read since I started doing this 5. It hits all sorts of fantastic notes about all sorts of subjects both near to me and otherwise, and doesn’t miss a step in its treatment of some pretty fraught territory.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sam J. Miller, The Art of Starving
Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
This is also not technically a Nebula, but the same deal applies down here also. This is a tricky category this year. One of the things that must be considered here is the work’s ability to hold up to an audience that isn’t already a part of its “thing.” That is to say: each of these things must be attended to singly and without consideration for its role in a larger sense – even though there is every hint that some things are included here for their role in a larger narrative. This comes to bear primarily on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is a very good Star Wars movie, but which is almost impossible to evaluate outside of its place in the Star Wars milieu. However 6, it’s not like Star Wars’s milieu is somewhere outside the mainstream or difficult to find out about, so it isn’t docked that severely. The question of where something falls in the narrative is actually going to affect “Michael’s Gambit,” the last episode of the first season of The Good Place, and a thing that’s impossible to talk about in good faith. I suppose there’s probably a rule about only single episodes being nominated, because otherwise it would just be the entire season, but as an episode itself, it hinges too severely on the rest of the season to work, awards-wise. The first season in toto would be an eligible recipient, though. The Shape of Water is the best movie about the love between a mute woman and not-Abe not-Sapien ever made. Wonder Woman and Logan are both exemplary superhero movies – among the best ever made, but they also each have their ending-troubles 7. Get Out was originally conceived with a better ending (look it up, folks), but the one we got was good enough to call it “not a flaw.”
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Get Out
Best Short Story
Rarely are these categories disparate enough that it’s genuinely difficult to figure out which of them is the best 8, but this one was pretty close. Fran Wilde’s “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly-Steady Hand” was good, but was a lot more “tone” than “story,” and seemed to have lost some effectiveness as a result. It’s nice to see something so oblique, and I like Fran Wilde generally, but it was the easiest to rule out. “Utopia, LOL”, by Jamie Wahls, was funny, but also relied heavily on a reveal that was…not actually much of a reveal, and so lost it at the end 9. Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots” was also funny, and not as slight as it might have seemed, but isn’t quite ahead of the rest. Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” was also funny, but angrier and more pointed, and was very effective. It was probably more effective than Matthew Kressel’s “The Last Novelist (or a Dead Lizard in the Yard),” which was good, and about the finite-nature of lifespan, and contains some effective metaphorical storytelling and is very moving. But the winner here is Caroline Yoachim’s “Carnival Nine,” which is allegorical more than metaphorical, and tackles many of the things that “The Last Novelist” also deals with, only more effectively, and in a more emotionally-engaging way. I know, I know, the affective fallacy. Good thing I’m not a New Critic.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Caroline Yoachim, “Carnival Nine”
As usual, many of the novelettes were either too long or too short. Richard Bowles’s “Dirty Old Town” is probably the former – the story spends a lot of time explaining a lot of information about the people and what happens to them that it might not have if it had been able to stretch out a bit in a longer form. Kelly Robson’s “The Human Stain” is the latter – there’s a lot of asides and showing-of-her-work, and it gets in the way of an elliptical, admirably mysterious bit of weirdness. Jonathan P. Brazee’s “Weaponized Math” is a military-sf novelette about how marines are super good at shooting things with guns and have a wealth of camaraderie from all their time spent shooting at things and learning how to shoot at things. It is 75% one fight scene 10. K.M. Szpara’s “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” manages to get over on wrapping its fairly-lurid romance tale in a really interesting piece of world – a world in which vampirism is regulated, and additionally an examination of how, in such a world, a trans* vampire 11 would be dealt with. Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s second appearance here, “A Series of Steaks” contains a Spoon reference in the title, and an internal Mclusky reference (among others), and is a cracking good caper story about a meat fabricator. Sarah Pinsker, however, contributed another tremendous, incredible story about the intertwining of lives and music, with “Wind Will Rove,” which is not only the best thing in this category, but possible the actual best work nominated for a Nebula. Or, at least, my favorite, which isn’t quite tantamount to the same thing, but makes it harder to distinguish.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sarah Pinsker, “Wind Will Rove”
I suppose with as great as “Wind Will Rove”, we can forgive how relatively-unfulfilling “And Then There Were (N-One)” is. It’s a reasonably good murder mystery/love letter, although to what I won’t say in case you haven’t read it yet, but it’s not much of a standout here. Lawrence M. Schoen’s Amazing Conroy stories continue to reliably be a blast to read, and Barry’s Deal is a particularly good one, but they also aren’t really elevated beyond “a fun science-fictional time”. J.Y. Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven was built around a fantastic character who I loved a lot, and came to a very satisfying conclusion, but also feels like it’s only part of the story, and is without its other half 12. Martha Wells’ “All Systems Red” is brilliant, tremendously entertaining, and deals with the what-if AI stuff really well, but also very much is an introduction. I would bet, if I were the sort of person to do so, that future Murderbot books will be nominated for similar such awards, and will probably deserve them. From here I’m torn. Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange is a fabulous piece of magic-oriented fiction, that deals with visibility and identity and all sorts of other such things. On the other hand Sarah Gailley’s River of Teeth is about cowboys who ride hippos and herd hippos and, well, there’s a lot of hippos in it. And it’s a western about a down-on-his-luck lawbreaker who has to get the band back together for One Last Heist. So Passing Strange is the sort of thing I’d like to encourage there to be more of in the world – satisfying emotionally and intellectually, carefully drawn, very much like the fluid, androgynous characters at its center, or the delicate chalk pictures that provide one of its plot points. River of Teeth, on the other hand, is a damn hippo. It’s bulky and pushy and bitey and totally rad. So I mean, it’s going to be River of Teeth, but definitely also read Passing Strange.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sarah Gailley, River of Teeth (or possibly Ellen Klages, Passing Strange. I’m only making this decision because I have to here, by my own rules).
This is a real “best of times, worst of times” category right here. Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough is, presumably, sff because it takes place on a world that isn’t Earth 13, but contains basically no further sff elements. Maybe they’re forthcoming. In any event, as retellings of Cabaret go, it’s not so bad, but it’s not really up to part in this category. Fonda Lee’s Jade City builds an interesting world and includes a couple of really great subplots, but the action is diffused a little too much, and the book takes on more than it seems to be able to handle effectively. Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentledamsels, and it seems like it was a lot of fun to write, but was a little too self-conscious and not quite direct enough to go over 14. Muir Lafferty’s Six Wakes is a fun little mystery, but the ending is either so audacious that it has to be entertaining or utterly stupid, and I oscillate between these two positions every time I think about it. It has some nifty world-building, but not a whole lot of structural integrity as a story (i.e. there are huge whacks of it that don’t, in specific terms, make any actual sense). I’m a sucker for a book about a robot, and even more of a sucker for a book in which a robot decides to see how human it can be, and even more a sucker for a book in which corporations are dystopian generators of evilness, so Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous basically triple-suckered me into loving it to bits and pieces, which I do. It’s fantastic, but not quite as good as the last two. Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders is a fun, deeply moving story about people with actual superpowers. It deserves high praise for its plotting, even if nothing else, but it has tons of great stuff to dig into in its portrait of a family, and the huckster that holds them all together. But really, this one belongs justly and rightfully to N.K. Jemisen’s The Stone Sky. While it’s true that I thought The Obelisk Gate had a bit of a draggy case of second-book syndrome, The Stone Sky manages to stick the landing and create a deeply satisfying ending to the trilogy.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: N.K. Jemisen, The Stone Sky
- I am not being fair to a bunch of awards right now when I say this, but I think the “major” line has to be drawn somewhere, and I’m drawing it at the Nebulas. ↩
- they’re just right over there in Pittsburgh!\ ↩
- whose work I am almost completely – barring a couple of short stories here and there – unfamiliar with. This is a large hole in my awareness, that I confess here to you fine people. ↩
- and don’t actually have that much in common beyond a similar approach – one has aliens in it, the other just the regular Earth future. ↩
- unless it’s Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, but this isn’t the space for this argument. Could be Nimona, also, now that I think about it. ↩
- and you’ll notice that I did not take this into consideration at all when I talked about last year’s Nebulas, awarding it to Rogue One because it was, as I said at the time “the best Star Wars movie released in my lifetime.” It still is, too. In that case, the field for the Bradbury award wasn’t as strong, and it fell upon me to declare something’s rightfulness given the candidates. Also I contain multitudes and all that. ↩
- WW in the form of yet another giant-CG-villain showdown for the last half hour or whatever, Logan’s in the dumbest macguffin known to man, an adamantium bullet. Either movie would be considerably better with a different ending by which the ending was to work/the villain to be defeated. ↩
- longtime readers will know that I rarely actually have any problem declaring something the winner, but I do acknowledge that this was a little trickier than usual. ↩
- I suppose if there’s a unifying trend here, it’s this: good setups with bad endings. ↩
- military sf is fine. I am not opposed to it as a matter of course – Jack Campbell! Lois McMaster Bujold! Joe Haldeman! – but this is particularly not-good. I’m sure it’s fun for people that like to read detailed descriptions of people shooting guns and then are rewarded with some entry-level pandering about the brotherhood of the military or whatever, but of all the things whose nomination I disagree with, this is the one that baffles me the most. At least this year. ↩
- NB: this is a trans* person who is changed into a vampire, as all vampires are sort of trans-vampires, given that one cannot be born a vampire. Y’know, by the standard vampirism model. I’m sure there are exceptions. ↩
- well, sort of. The Red Threads of Fortune isn’t really the other half of the story – they’re both self-contained – but it is the companion piece, and it does make the whole thing better. There’s also meant to be a third volume, but I haven’t read it. ↩
- it’s also published by awards-juggernaut Tor ↩
- there is also a narrative device throughout the book – which is being written by one of the characters – of the other characters interrupting her to put in their two cents. I kept thinking it would amount to something, but it’s just a way to provide metacommentary on the book itself while you’re reading it. It is not the most effective device, is what I’m saying here. ↩