Hey guys! The Nebulas are here! They’re named after the year all the books came out in, which is why the title looks weird! This is the first of the book awards I write about every year , which means it’s always exciting to look out upon the vasty expanse of finding the right things to say about all of these books, some of which I will address at least two other times over the course of the year.
This year, unfortunately, talk of the Nebulas is necessarily dominated by the accusations of slate-voting that are plaguing some of the nominees. The author Jonathan P. Brazee posted to the Facebook group 20booksto50k a list of indie authors that were eligible for Nebula awards this year, with special notation for the ones that were close enough to having enough nominations to actually make the shortlist.
Now, several of the nominees here below were on this list , and while there’s certainly things that one could surmise, given that the SFWA has allowed indie works into the Nebula nomination process since 2013, would eventually have bubbled up , it’s also true that some of the indies here promoted are in fields (military science fiction, mainly) that aren’t exactly commonly-trod (if not exactly impossible or unlikely) territory.
The accusations of slate-building, especially as it’s so close to the Hugos being basically completely turned aside for a couple of years there by slating antics , led to tensions running fairly high and people running fairly hot on the issue. The SFWA, for its part, says that it wants to take this sort of thing seriously and is looking into ways to try to keep stuff like this from taking over, without (as of the time of this writing) mentioning what steps it may be taking. I suppose that’s fine, but it’ll be interesting to see if anything is different about the nomination process next year.
Brazee himself, such as it is, insists that it was a SFWA-approved recommendation list that got out of hand and was phrased poorly, which I guess is a fair thing to allow for, except if that’s true, why would the thing go to such great pains in the first place to mention that it’s specifically not a slate? . The apology exists, anyway, so I guess there’s that. I’ll be interested to see how it goes forward, especially given how efficiently the SFWA dealt with the last time a slate-voting problem popped up.
Nevertheless, it’s a weird idea that became a bad one as it became more obviously a vote-influencing attempt, and turned into a rather ugly situation as tempers flared and the (reasonable, well-held) objections were met with a weird entrenchment and counter-arguments that seemed to be based more on an imagined idea of anti-indie prejudice than any actual situationally-appropriate counter-arguments . A bunch of books got nominated that wouldn’t, by any of the available secondary data, seem to fit into the general schema of the whole thing, and that means that it’s a weird, distortionary thing that has happened, whether it was specifically meant or just a side-effect of a poorly-planned outreach idea.
That said, there’s still lots of good work in here, and while there are some deserving works that almost certainly got squished out by this deformation, it isn’t quite the same rockslide-ruination that the puppies managed, so we can wade in and fish out the worthy winners from the pack without too much trouble.
Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book
I generally struggle with YA – I have no real natural head for it, but I read it when it’s here. I enjoyed a bunch of these (or at least a numerical majority of them, anyway), and have, as always, just chosen to evaluate them in the same way as everything else, since I pretty much can only come at things from my own perspective anyway, and trying to figure out how it fits into the picture of YA as it exists is basically impossible for me . I keep meaning to work on it. If I find my time-stoppage crystal and can catch up on everything I need to read to be more expert in things I’d like to give better due consideration, it’ll be near the top of the list. Sigh.
A.K. Duboff’s A Light in the Dark is one of the Brazee nominees, and it’s also the easiest one to discount. It’s the second in a series of books set in a universe where everything can be reset, so that the people doing the rest knows what’s coming. It’s openly inspired by video games and isn’t, in and of itself, a particularly bad idea. The book moves quickly and runs on its depiction of Cool Shit, but pretty well fails to dig into anything that would make the characters or stories vivid, moving from plot point to plot point almost like reading someone describe…a video game. If you’re interested in imagistic action-heavy space opera that’s all plot, then this is certainly some of that.
Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road is a spin-off of Hartman’s previous Seraphina books . It’s got a lot of society in it, and a pretty richly-developed world. It deals heavily with its cranky antiheroine, and spends a lot of time in her head, with her frustrations and often short-sighted actions. It’s not my thing, but it’s well-rendered and the world is suitably complex, and a couple of the things that aren’t the lead character’s place in society (which especially dominates the early part of the book, perhaps necessarily) are really interesting.
Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Sword and Skate wins full marks for the weirdness/bonkers originality of the world it takes place in. It’s also funny, which is nice, and throws a bunch of stuff into its slight-fantasy (there’s some magic, and it takes place in a made-up place, but that’s about it, in fantasy-type terms) blender and manages to keep the story together. That the story itself is the sort of thing that comes out several dozen times a year isn’t necessarily a mark against it – clearly the “fish jumps out of water to go to fantasy school” story is popular enough to keep being retold – but the lack of swords in a book with “sword” in the title definitely is. It’s not a bad read, but it’s too long, and it plays a lot of its fairly-standard beats as though they were a much bigger deal than they are.
Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time is part of the Rick Riordan Presents line , and deals in Hindu mythology. It’s well-written, a lot of fun to read, and also funny. If it isn’t a front-runner here, that says a bit more about it succeeding at a relatively-minor set of ambitions, and at lacking any real resolution, in favor of revealing itself to be a setup novel at the end. It’s the first in a series, so some of that is to be expected, but the remaining two books in the category are also setup novels for series that manage to swing an actual ending, so it’s muscled out of the way here.
Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is a bit of alternate history that exist in a world where it was the emergence of zombies that caused the end of the civil war. The protagonist starts out at a school that exists to train black girls to be zombie-killers for rich people, and it goes from there. It’s a lot of fun to read, and deals with a lot of the things that you’d expect a post-Civil War novel about a black protagonist to deal with, and does so capably. It also runs pretty hard on Cool Shit, but earns its Cool Shit, which is always nice to see. Some of the imagery in the book is positively indelible (the last active scene – the scene after the climactic battle – is especially great, and I think of it often). You can probably consider me signed up to keep on reading however many of these there end up being. It’s only the presence of a veritable nine hundred pound gorilla in this category that keeps it from the top spot.
Tomi Adeyimi’s Children of Blood and Bone is a pretty unassailable work of god-magic-oriented fantasy . It tells the first part of what is clearly a huge, sweeping story, but also manages to end the first part successfully. The prose itself is wonderful, and conveys both the story and the sense of rage and agitation that seems to propel it . While it wasn’t the book that entertained me the most effectively, it’s definitely the one that said the most. But even in the entertainment sense, the way that magic exists and is used in the book is really good, and I look forward to seeing how it motivates the remaining books in the series.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tomi Adeyimi, Children of Blood and Bone
The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
This is, I’m comfortable saying, about as good as this field has ever been. None of this is bad, and any of these could win and I’d be pretty happy about it. Of course, part of the reason I feel this way is that movies (and an episode of television) don’t really mean as much to me as books, so it’s easier for me to take it lightly.
Dirty Computer is a concept album by Janelle Monae, and is a pretty good album for all that. It’s less conceptually-sturdy than her other records, but also a bit better. All told it’s fun that it’s here, but I don’t think it’s the winner.
A Quiet Place is this year’s entry in the “cerebral horror movie that people go apeshit over.” It’s fine. The concept is good, John Krasinski clearly has an affinity for the form, and I’m, again, not sad to see it here or give it consideration as a potential winner, but I still don’t have much to say about it other than it probably shouldn’t win.
Sorry to Bother You is a fine comedy that makes its sff bones by being based on a (literally) fantastic premise, and is a strong plank in my platform for putting Lakeith Stanfield in absolutely everything. As a piece of sff it isn’t as good as the superhero/sitcom efforts, but it’s definitely up there.
Black Panther has only a few competitors for the best superhero movie ever made , as it actually grapples effectively with what voluntarily-assumed superpowers mean to the people that use them and the people that follow them, and what the responsibility (which is great, because it comes with great power, see) actually is to using it, and to using the mechanisms by which it is granted/implemented. It also has a first-rate villain, some amazing production design, and at least two first-rate action scenes. Great work, Mr. Coogler.
It’s difficult for me, in what might be the first time since the show premiered, to not declare an episode of The Good Place the rightful winner in one of these categories. “Jeremy Bearimy” is a phenomenal episode, and handles the time-weirdness aspects of The Good Place and is, thus, one of the more capable science-fictional things on television. It’s great, and I love it, and I’ll definitely watch it a bunch more times before I’m through.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, however, is the best super-hero movie ever made. It’s got everything one could ask for from a super-hero movie, from the best of all possible visuals to a hero learning how to behave heroically to defeat a villain. It’s got coming back from against the odds, it’s got a tremendously humanist message, and it delivers these things without weighing them down with “significance”/”import”. Without turning this into a very long missive about a movie, I will say that there is absolutely nothing that I have gone looking for in superhero stories that isn’t represented in Into the Spider-Verse. Literally not one thing. Plus, it delivered a bunch of stuff I didn’t know I was looking for in the first place. Salut, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, for you are made of great stuff, and I am very happy that you are in the world.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This was probably a long time coming, but man, you can multiply everything I said about YA up there by ten when I’m talking about my non-expertise when it comes to game writing. In a busy year, I play half a dozen games, and play a couple of them to anything like completion, and thus have no real idea. I’m generally listening to music while I’m playing them anyway. I am, in short, so wildly, hideously unqualified to write about this category that I’m going to declare a winner and move on in the interest of not embarrassing myself.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER (such as it is): The Road to Canterbury, which is really more of a sort of lightly-interactive story thing anyway, and thus has a better ability to guide the player through the narrative. Or at least to preclude people just listening to music while they shoot monsters or whatever.
There is very little thematically or subject-matterly linking this set of stories, which makes it hard to write a headnote here. Pity poor me, who must then blather words into this sentence for the sake of consistency. WOE! WOE IS ME! OH WAILY WAILY!
Richard Fox’s “Going Dark” is another of the Brazee nominees, and boy howdy can I not imagine it getting as far as the ballot in a year without the unseemly boost. It’s about the way that post-human bodies might fail in a military context , and about the duties of the military and also about shooting guns at things in extreme detail.
Rhett C. Bruno’s “Interview for the End of the World” is a little better, if only in the sense that it tells an actual story and doesn’t just hint at one. It takes place in the run up to a planet-ending collision with an asteroid, and is a sort of prequel series to a set of books about a post-Earth space colony, which I haven’t read. It may have been more satisfying if I had – it felt like it was trading on a lot of “significance” that it didn’t really earn, and it really hammers its message home. I’d skip it .
Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician” is mid-level Sarah Pinsker (which is to say that it’s great, but not as great as the stuff she’s done that’s really great), and is an extremely well-written bit of business about loss with an inventive magic system. It hits all the right notes, but it’s not as good as some of the other ones in the category.
Alix Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is a beautiful story about literalizing the portal aspect of portal-fantasy, and about rules-flouting librarians. It’s very moving, and tells itself well, albeit by being fairly reference-heavy. It does contain a bit about developing a seemingly-inexplicable attachment to books that are less “good” than other, similar books that should ring true to anyone that reads a lot, which is nice. It’s a good story, but often feels like fan-service, so it’s probably not the best one here.
P. Djeli Clark’s “The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” is a wonderful story about the personalities that still inhabit the teeth of slaves that actually real-life were incorporated to George Washington’s fake teeth. Or, well, his replacement teeth I suppose. The teeth are real teeth, they just didn’t start out in his mouth. You know what I mean. Anyway, it’s very good and is actually composed of several mini-stories, which is a device that I love. It also manages to use its grounding in history to tell real stories, through the stories about magic and possession. Good job, P. Djeli Clark.
A.T. Greenblatt’s “And Yet” is tops of this bunch – it starts out being about a weird haunted house, and ends up being about all sorts of other things. I say often that any given story is about “loss”, which is probably a weird thing to say , but this one is more about the way that the things we lose influence the things we gain, or perhaps the nature of gaining things that were once lost, or aw jeez just read it already. It’s great.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: A.T. Greenblatt, “And Yet”
This is also a strong group for novelette’s, a story-length that I go on and on about every year when I write a headnote for these writeups. It’s a weird length for a story, and I think it works better as “teeny tiny novel” than as “extra-long short story”, although I also confess that the distinction there is almost certainly as arbitrary as it is idiosyncratic. Anyway.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi’s “Messenger” is probably the worst of the slated nominees. It’s easy enough to appreciate an approach to invasion fiction ideas that beings with the premise “aliens would probably start by attacking the centers of population, i.e. Asia,” so I do admire that. The actual execution here is made up primarily of the worst parts of the most boring military sf, and the bits of it that are ok (some of the physical descriptions, and the general ending divorced of its execution) aren’t really enough to get through it. It might be an easier read if you’re into military sf , but I found it pretty challenging to invest enough in to get through.
Lawrence M. Schoen’s “The Rule of Threes” is a nifty first-contact story that also trades in non-standard ideas about the selection criteria for where an extraterrestrial would choose to start their earthbound work . It trucks mainly in its philosophy, and by the end takes a stand that is the exact opposite of the one it appeared to be working toward (which is nice, because I wasn’t real into where I thought it was going, call it a win for making it all the way to the end of the story). It’s nice, and clearly well-thought, but Schoen has created better work. There’s no way it would have worked as a Conroy story, certainly, but I would have liked a buffalito all the same.
Andy Duncan’s “An Agent of Utopia” answers the heretofore unasked question “what if Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was kind-of remade with the head of Thomas More? It’s funny, if nothing else, but it’s a little too long.
Jose Pablo Iritarte’s “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” is a story about reincarnation, and manages to also be about revenge in a way that doesn’t make my stomach feel awful . It’s got a lot of romance-type overtones that aren’t entirely unwelcome, but that kind of drag it down more than I’d like. That, again, is a matter of personal preference and I can very easily see how it could be someone’s favorite in the category.
Tina Connolly’s “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” is also an excellent non-stomach-pain-inducing revenge story, about a baker who can bake magic feelings and memories into his pastries and such. The story takes place over the course of a banquet at which the pastries are consumed, and is comprised largely of the memories and feelings that are thus invoked. It’s fantastic and beautifully-written, and loses out only because this is another category with a 900 pound gorilla. Or elephant, as it were.
Said 900 pound gorilla, or elephant, as it were, is Brooke Bolander’s peerless The Only Harmless Great Thing , which uses the real-life existence of both radium girls and Topsy the elephant to tell a story about constant, systematic oppression, and the reflex against it in the most tragic, moving, incredible way possible. If there were a Nebula award for “best thing in the whole entire field regardless of length,” it would probably be my winner for that, also.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Brooke Bolander, The Only Harmless Great Thing
It’s not super-pertinent, but this is the one category in which I was familiar with all of the authors going into it. It was the most consistent category in terms of baseline quality , and it’s also the one about which I probably have the least to say about the entire field. The upshot here is that of all the rightful winners here declared, this one is probably the least-sure, and I could see just about any of them (except one, which I’ll get to in just a moment) winning.
James P. Brazee is the guy who started the whole giant controversy, and he’s also nominated here for Fire Ant, which is the one that I think is probably the least-likely to win. It’s more military sf, this time about a civilian who is plucked from poverty and terrible conditions to be a hotshot fighter pilot. The beginning bit, about the oppressive corporate structure that’s keeping the protagonist down, is fantastic. Once it gets decidedly military it’s still a relatively-good pilot story, and doesn’t manage to get too swamped out by its descriptions of dogfights . It’s pretty exciting though, and certainly not a waste of time to read, but it’s pretty outclassed in this field.
Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective is a clever detective story with a clever setting, and her usual flair for prose makes it a lot of fun to read. It is, however, at the end of the day, still a detective story, which is yet another of those things that make something not for me. There was a lot of that this year. Actually, there’s a lot of that every year. Turns out everything isn’t for everyone! More’s the pity.
P. Djeli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums is almost certainly the most praised entry here, and is probably the real actual front-runner if you’re looking for some prognostication. It takes place in a steampunk New Orleans, and does some cool stuff with old gods possessing folks. I’m pretty into any story in which saving the world is the stakes, even if it is steampunk alternate history, so I enjoyed it mightily, and I think I’m happy to officially declare myself a fan of Mr. Clark, even though he works in idioms I don’t usually go for. Read it, it’ll probably win, but it isn’t a time-travel story so it’s not at the top of the list for me.
Martha Wells’s Artificial Condition doesn’t have any time-travel in it either, but it does have Murderbot. The Nebulas don’’t have a best series category , but if they did the Murderbot series would be a shoo-in. This one is good (better than the first one, even!), and avoids the middle-book problems in and of themselves, but still doesn’t feel like a complete work. I can’t wait to read the whole thing to the end to see how it all hangs together, but each installment feels more like a part, even if it’s a relatively self-contained part, of a whole, so it’s not the best one for this kind of award.
Kate Heartfeld’s Alice Payne Arrives is a time-travel story (you see where this is going, right?), which is nice, and it’s also a story about people trying to prevent wars, which is also nice. It’s an extremely exciting, well-plotted read, and I really like the main couple of characters a lot. The only way I could like it more is if you threw in some eco-horror and some evil corporations.
So that leaves us with Kelly Robson’s amazing Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach which is a time-travel story with evil corporations, the grinding suck of academic livin’, eco-horror and also a squid-woman (that’s the main character there on the cover, see). The fact that it’s also a gripping, well-told, fantastically-thought-out story is like the reward for thinking the premise and outset are cool as shit. What a terrific book. Even the title is amazing!
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kelly Robson, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach
So one of the things that’s true of this year’s Nebulas is that we’re in a kind of in-between, wide-open period, where the ongoing series that have dominated the category in previous years aren’t here because they either ended or are, for some reason, not here . And a couple of these are first-time novels, which is pretty cool. All told this is another category that could go to just about anyone, and most of the differences here are down to personal preference.
R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War has a lot of things going for it. She’s writes fantastic prose, and the recasting of the Sino-Japanese war as an element a god-magic inflected invasion story is pretty great. It’s extra-super grim ‘n’ gritty, which is forgivable, but it’s also fairly predictable, which is rather less so. Still and all, the words and the character-building are good enough that I fully expect to someday be a fan of Kuang’s work. Just not this one.
CL Polk’s Witchmark is also lovely, and also contains some really first-rate writing, as well as an interesting world with some interesting social dynamics. I managed to not figure out a major plot thing was happening for the first two-thirds of the book, which is entirely my fault . The stuff that isn’t the primary plot is heavily romance-inflected, and the ending seems to all happen at once, as though Polk needed another 30 pages and didn’t have it. It’s not bad, and it’s worth your time if you want a story about wizards who fall in love, but it’s not the best thing here.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is the first of two prequel novels to a short story (I know). It’s brisk and exciting, and deals well with the social issues of its setting. It’s elevated in my estimation by being largely joyful – it deals with its problems honestly and with clear eyes, but isn’t really a novel about the oppression, so much as the overcoming thereof – and not in the least bit meditative. It loses some points for containing tonnes of extra sex scenes , and by feeling a bit like half a book. Not a lot of points, just some points. Figuratively, I mean. I do not assign things points literally. But if I did it would lose some of them. Just not a lot of them.
Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is another plot-heavy, fun-heavy work of monster-hunting and god-magic. It’s also got some mysterious past stuff, and an eco-apocalypse that is mostly just backdrop for the actually-vivid world that it contains. It feels a lot like a cool Western, and if it’s a little too reliant on graphic violence and a gun-happy attitude, that’s just about its only problem. As the first book in a series, it’s terrific, though.
Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City is more of his excellent work, centering around the titular, which is one of the few places remaining that is hospitable to human life in an eco-apocalyptic future. It features a weird memory disease, a woman with an orca and a polar bear, and much chicanery in the name of taking back and/or destroying existing power structures to benefit the proletariat. While I think a couple of the books were better, this one was the most satisfying, and probably the one I’ll re-read the most. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it, in fact.
Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time . It’s a sort of evolution of her short story with the same title. It’s pitched as a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, which it mostly is, but it also hits all the notes I like fantasy novels to hit – it deals with responsibility, and what it means to have power over someone, and class imbalance, and the way that people take advantage of one another, and the importance of working to not do so, however unintentionally. It also has a cool fire demon in it. I’m pretty uniformly in favor of this sort of thing, and would happily read a hundred books just like it.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver
That’s it for the Nebulas. I’ll write about the Locus Awards (kind of) in July, the Hugo Awards later in July, and the World Fantasy Awards in October. Stay tuned!