The Nebulas are happening! I mean, they’re happening online, but they’re also happening this weekend, which is very exciting for, say, bloggers with very little else to write about who happen to love the Nebulas anyway.
After all of last year’s business, it’s kind of nice that the move online is pretty much the only noteworthy wrinkle this year 1. It’s an unusually strong field, largely untouched by anything but the genuine excitement of some good work.
Which is, you know, nice, given that nothing else right now is going according to plan, and everything is on fire. Way to go, SFWA!
The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
I suppose there’s something to say for the fact that fully two thirds of these are television. I mean, what it says is “there is a whole goddamned lot of television and, proportionally, that increases the number of things that are good 2. The movies are both very good, but probably not awards-worthy. Captain Marvel was well-done, and had a lot of things about it that were fun and worth enjoying, but I’m not sure it makes it to the top tier of the things on offer, even though I’ve spent much more of my time on it versus, say, Watchmen. Avengers: Endgame was, as previously noted, largely a triumph of organizational skill and special-effects teams. While some of the performances were fine, the people that made the movie a triumph definitely weren’t the writers, except in the sense that they had to figure out how to glue all of the pieces together into something that provided a satisfying ending while still allowing for the story to continue. While these are impressive things in a circus-tricks mechanical sort of way, I don’t think they bring the movie into consideration for a writing award 3
That leaves us with the tv shows. Watchmen turned out better than anyone could have expected, and “A God Walks into Ambar” is a fine piece of work, but I feel that it only really works as a lynchpin of the series, and while for some that might not be a disqualifying thing, it is for me here – I generally prefer an episode that can stand on its own 4. Russian Doll’s “The Way Out”, then, falls into the same situation, although it’s also much better. The Mandalorian also worked better than I assumed it would, and while “The Child” is definitely the episode most worth talking about, I actually think it doesn’t work as well as several of the later episodes in the season, and don’t think it’s the best one here.
It surprises me, then, to say, that in this particular analysis, I’m leaning toward the rightful winner being an episode of Good Omens. I liked the miniseries well enough (and, naturally, adore the book to bits and tatters), but found that most of the deviations didn’t serve the story. One of the places where the differences did add to the experience were in “Hard Times” and its journey through time. It’s a satisfying treatment of the characters, it stands largely on its own, and it’s deeply satisfying both as an entire story and as an entry in the larger series. Well bowled, Mr. Gaiman.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Neil Gaiman, “Hard Times” (Good Omens)
I do not play a lot of games. My game-playing habits could best be described as “boring to outsiders” given how rarely I manage to incorporate new ones. That said, the Fate Accessibility Toolkit is an amazing and much-needed piece of RPG ruleset-incorporation (it provides rules for characters with disabilities), and I’m very much in love with it, even moreso than everything else associated with the Fate rule system, which I love.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Laura Bell, C.D. “Casey” Casas, Lillian Cohen-Moore, Philippe-Antoine Ménard, Zeph Wibby, Clark Valentine, Jess Banks, Brian Engard, with Mysty Vander, Fate Accessibility Toolkit
The Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction
This was a pretty enjoyable field this year, although it didn’t quite rise to the level of the rest of the prose-fiction categories. Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is part of the Rick Riordan Presents line, and it’s surprisingly free of the usual mythology content of that line. It’s a fun standalone novel about stage magic, actual magic and occasionally robots that moves well, and comes to some satisfying conclusions, but also suffers a bit from setting up a series that it doesn’t really need.
Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl (also a Rick Riordan Presents) is, similarly, a fun space opera flavored with Korean mythology, and while it was fun to read a straightforward adventure story told by Lee (an ONAT favorite), it wasn’t much more than a fun, satisfying read. Greg Van Eekhout’s COG was in a similar vein – it’s another standalone novel, this one about novels and a sinister corporation. The audience for COG skews a little younger, which makes it a little bit harder for me to judge. Rounding out the cool-shit-driven middle of the pack is Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, the second book in a series 5. It’s more fun to have read than it was to actually read, as it runs into one of the things I really find hard to engage with about YA: it has a protagonist that has to learn every single lesson the hardest possible way, and the narrative has to whack on it every single time. It’s a feature, and it’s probably not intractable for people that are into YA fantasy, but it’s really hard for me to enjoy. Still, it wins points for being admirably weird, and having a genuine twisty ending that I liked.
I oscillate on the top spot, and it could go to either of the remaining books. Fran Wilde’s Riverland is impressive and well-rendered, and was one of the most moving things I read for the whole series. It’s excellent, if heavy, and it’s stand-alone, which earns it points. Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CATnet 6 sets up a series, but it also has some terrific characters, and not just the AI that provides the title and the centerpiece of the story. It’s a well-executed thriller that starts out a tense, close-focus story and turns into a road piece, with a pretty terrific execution of artificial intelligence. It’s also got a heavy dose of wish-fulfillment and plenty of uplifting material in the end. Also, some very funny bits about bird ownership.
Honestly, I could go either way (I’ve changed my mind twice since I started writing this thing). Riverland is an entire story, and it’s really solidly put-together. But Catfishing on CATnet is just about its equal in prose, and I found it more gripping, and ended up thinking about a lot more of it outside of the narrative. It’s a close thing, but I think Kritzer has it by a nose.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Naomi Kritzer, Catfishing on CATnet
All of the stories here are very good, or at least very easy to enjoy. Seriously, this year was a genuine pleasure to get through. Perhaps the least-good, however, is Karen Osborne’s “The Dead, in their Uncontrollable Power,” an impressive, non-linear story about a space-faring civilization and their bifurcated memories. It’s well done for all that, but it gets by on style more than on ideas, and while it was fun to puzzle out 7 the events of the narrative and the way it was all set up, I didn’t like it as much as the other ones here. Similarly, AC Wise’s “How the Trick is Done” is a fine sort of reverse-chronology thing (we start at the end and then fill in the details) about the cost of men’s ego and the way that people in power manipulate the people that help them (or even provide for them). It is, however, a revenge story, and, as such, makes me pretty uncomfortable. It’s told well, and the writing is top-notch. Your mileage may vary.
Shiv Ramdas’s “And Now His Lordship is Laughing” is also, after its fashion, a revenge story, but for reasons that make me feel less uncomfortable 8 (there are spoilers in this footnote, if that matters to you). It’s surprising, very gripping, and very punchy. I would have liked to see it be a little longer but I will also admit here that I’m not sure what, exactly, I’d like more of. A.T. Greenblatt’s “Give the Family My Love” is a terrific space story, truly, the best story about a space anthropologist slash conservationist I read all year, but it’s also in two distinct parts and the transition between them is pretty jarring. It’s a quibble, but it’s enough to keep it out of the winner’s circle.
Fran Wilde makes another appearance in this year’s Nebulas for her terrific story “A Catalog of Storms”, a kids-eye view of a battle between storms and the “weathermen” that fight them. The “weathermen” are conscripted, leaving marks on the societies and families that, functionally, sacrifice them for the good of the fight against the storms. It’s basically an examination of the main character’s understanding of the events, and as such, turns out to be something of a character study more than a narrative, which works surprisingly well. Or, at least, I was surprised. I don’t know why. I love Fran Wilde.
The best of them, though, was Nibedita Sen’s “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island,” which tells its story through the device in the title, which is incredible, and also credibly puts forward a variety of responses to the titular events from an academic perspective, which is just a terrific way to tell the story. I’m not sure I have anything to say coherently than to say that it delivers on its title absolutely perfectly, and that I love it.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nibedita Sen, “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”
Once again, I find that Novelette is my least-favorite of the non-YA categories, and it’s for reasons pertaining to the stories either not having enough in them or having too much in them. That said, there’s plenty of good work here. Mim Mondal’s “His Footsteps, Through Dark and Light” is a really interesting piece of worldbuilding with a fairly-scant story laid over the top of it, and I’m hopeful that it will be seen in the future as a sort of “proof of concept” of some more elaborate stories built on this idea. Even if it isn’t, it’s fine, and it’s nice to read, but it’s not quite in the same league as some of the others. Sarah Pinsker’s “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” similarly seems like an interesting idea that got built out into something that was either a little too long (it could have been a wicked short story) or a little too short (it also probably could have been the beginning, or rather, early-middle and late-middle of a good story), but as it is it’s the closest to not loving a Sarah Pinsker story I’ve gotten in the entire body of her work 9
Cat Rambo’s Carpe Glitter 10 was a beautiful story about family legacies, and familiar problems, and also I’m stretching the rules to state that it technically includes a robot (and robots make just about everything better), and I was happy to read it. Similarly, Siobhan Carrol’s “For He Can Creep” was definitely the best supernatural story told from the perspective of a cat I’ve read all year, and I found the narrative device absolutely delightful. It also compelled me to learn about Christopher Smart, which I appreciate very much, so it unquestionably made my life better.
G.V. Anderson’s “A Strange and Uncertain Light” is a lovely story that starts out a creepy haunted-hotel story and twists itself into something else entirely. The twisting part is handled extremely well 11, and the story turns out to be a much lovelier, more engaging sort of thing than it started out as (if still not entierly not a horror story). It’s a very impressive outing.
Caroline M. Yoachim’s “The Archronology of Love” is, however, even more impressive. The narrative itself is buried in the incredibly cool concept of “The Chronicle,” which makes this a stealth time-travel story (which is excellent) as well as a sort of locked-room mystery for the end of an entire planet (which is excellent). The narrative turns out to be something else entirely, which I won’t mention here for the spoiler-averse, but which is both genuinely surprising and quite moving. It’s the head and shoulders stand-out here, even if it doesn’t have an awesome cat.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Caroline M. Yoachim, “The Archronology of Love”
This was a particularly challenging year for me here in this category, as many of these novellas I found particularly hard to engage with. If it’s long been a foregone conclusion that I’m going to love Ted Chiang the most in one of these categories, well, this year is definitely no exception, but I tried to make sure that everybody else at least had a fighting chance.
Vylar Kaftan’s Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is a well-drawn non-linear “what-is-real” narrative that I did not engage with even a little bit. I didn’t mind some of the setting choices, and I liked a lot of the ideas, but it seemed like every choice I wanted as a reader was the opposite of the choice made by the writer. It is frustrating to be unable to engage with something in this way, but it is also my darned website, so it doesn’t win. So there. Rivers Solomon’s The Deep is, similarly, something that I find difficult to get into, a problem I often have with Solomon. I expected an easier time given the connection to ONAT absolute-favorites clipping., but it speaks to the powers of Solomon as a writer that she comes through a lot more than they do 12, and while that’s impressive, it also just really doesn’t do it for me. Again, though, I liked many of the ideas and the world stuff, I just couldn’t really get into the execution.
The narrative and prose of AC. Wise’s Catfish Lullaby are pretty good, and it moved well and was engaging, but I kept being removed from it by the fact that it didn’t seem to take place in its setting as much as it had the setting painted in around it. The parts of it that could hav taken place anywhere seemed to work pretty well, and then it would run up against the swamp parts of it and I’d have to force myself through it. I’m not sure why that happened, to be honest, but it keeps it out of the top.
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War is good – it lives entirely in its world, and it tells its story well, and it has a really affecting ending. I also like the various devices used to deliver the letters that make up the text. It feels, however, a lot more like an exercise than a story at times – the ping-pong writing, the characters that are bas reliefs in the cipherious wash of the philosophies of their warring sides, even the epistolary nature of the story itself all contribute to this looking more like an experiment made real than a for-its-own-sake work of fiction. That said, people love it, so I guess it has a pretty good chance. Just not here.
That leaves us with the aforementioned Ted Chiang, and his incredible “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” an incredible story about causality, freedom of choice, guilt, and the nature of time and experience. Also opportunism, capitalism and loss. In short, it’s an incredible, perfect story 13. I can’t think of many years where it wouldn’t have won.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ted Chiang, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”
And here we are, at the 900 pound gorilla category. The grande dame. The big enchilada. The thing. They’re all pretty good, with one presumption. I didn’t read Charles E. Gannon’s Marque of Caine. I read the other three that were nominated when they were nominated, but had a very, very hard time with the third one. I skipped the fourth one and, rather than try to get back through them, I assumed that very little had changed 14. I’ll allow for the fact that it was fun if you’re into that sort of thing (I’m not, really), and that it probably wouldn’t have been in the top spot by my reckoning, with the caveat that it might be the best book ever written (this seems unlikely) and I’m really missing out. Ah, well.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow was a pretty good road book, with a really interesting take on its mythology, and a pretty well-drawn main character. It also takes place in jazz-age Mexico, a thing I know absolutely nothing about, and thus I also found the setting particularly engaging. That said, it doesn’t quite make it into the top echelon, as much as I did enjoy reading it.
Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a sort of semi-historical portal fiction, with a twisty narrative involving a book within the book that informs the story. It literalizes the notion of a story as a portal, and is satisfying self-contained. It’s a very good novel that would have stood a better chance without three titanic achievements in the field. Despite that, it has probably the best line-for-line prose of anything I read all year, and that can’t be discounted.
The remaining three (the aforementioned titanic achievements) are such a hugely-impressive thing that I’m having a hard time deciding on them. I’ll start with Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day. When it came out it was a terrific building-out of the world of “Our Lady of the Open Road” 15. As time progressed and the world we live in grew to resemble the world of the book – the book takes place in a world where fear of a contagious disease – and terrorism – meant that large gatherings are banned – it came to seem unusually, frighteningly prescient. Even without that (which is impressive enough) it’s still a wonderful story about navigating the world of live music performance, and what compels people both to perform and to be in the audience, and the symbiotic relationship between bands and their audiences. It shares the narrative out between two incredibly well-drawn characters, and, as lagniappe, describes a bunch of experimental music that I wish I could hear. It’s a very good book, and I might be undervaluing it’s rightfulness because it’s so completely, entirely the sort of book that I’d read all the time if there were more books like it. It’s entirely in my wheelhouse, and it’s definitely the book that spoke to me personally the most.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is the wild card here. It’s very good, and I don’t know that there’s a lot of dissenting opinion about its very-good-ness, but it inspires passionate fans 16. It does an impressive job of cramming every single Cool Shit object into itself – space necromancers, locked-room mysteries, conspiracies, swords, really gross magic (the result of the space necromancy), really well-done interpersonal conflict between the two leads, and lots and lots of really fun prose. If it loses something in some of the background characters and covers a huge amount of narrative ground in some giant steps, well, nothing is perfect, and the whipcrack-pace actually suits it pretty well. I’d probably have to read it again to firm up my opinion about it, but it’s definitely good enough to warrant a fair shot at the win (it will probably win), and I’m excited to read the rest of the books in the series. I’ll also mention that I was genuinely surprised at the ending, also, which was nice.
As far as it goes, though, I really think Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is the book to beat. It’s got a lot to like about it, certainly – it’s funny, and it does a terrific job of showing all of its cards about the conflict at the center of the book, as well as the nature of the colonizer/colony relationship without dumping information or leaving too many things shaded. The prose is wonderful (if not quite as good as that of The Ten Thousand Doors of January), and Martine’s use of language – the conflict between the languages the main character speaks and those of the colony she ends up on does a lot of the lifting for illustrating the differences between the two civilizations, and the naming conventions are flat-out great – is top-notch. All told, I think that, even though I emotionally liked it less than three of the books in this category, on a construction level it’s just about perfect, and I can’t think of a single thing about it that can be improved 17, and it’s therefore the rightful winner.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire
- it is also worth noting that the 20booksto50k people, who raised such ruckus last year, are starting their own organization, presumably with their own awards, which is just fine, and also probably not something I’m liable to pay much attention to, for reasons you can probably glean from what I had to say about it last year. .If you don’t like to ctrl+f, you’re looking for FN15. ↩
- ten percent of eleventy billion is more than the same ten percent of, say, twenty, is what I’m saying here. ↩
- this may leave the reader with the impression that I don’t like Endgame. That’s not the case. I enjoyed it a lot – I liked how it glued all the pieces together into something that provided a satisfying ending while still allowing for the story to continue, and I especially liked all the stuff with Captain America. ↩
- one may argue that this is counter to the point of serialized television to which I say: yes, probably, and also will remind the reader that I don’t much care for the medium, so there. ↩
- the first book of which was also nominated last year. ↩
- which takes off from her story “Cat Pictures, Please” from a few years ago, also a previous Nebula nominee ↩
- for a specific value of “fun,” it’s actually a pretty sad story for most of its run ↩
- I’m willing to accept that this isn’t an entirely consistent position, but in the Wise story they let the magician die because he’s abusive, and in the Ramdas the people that are killed by the laughing doll are oppressive colonialists. Again, I accept that this isn’t going to be the case for everybody. ↩
- even “And Then There Were (n-)One” had a joie de vivre that got it past its murder-mystery trappings. ↩
- I’m taking the italics vs. quotation marks rules from the Nebulas’ website, but it does annoy me that novelette’s straddle text feature types. Grrr. ↩
- well enough that it actually turned me around completely on the story, which I wasn’t that into before it was clear what was happening ↩
- I mean, the jury’s out on how much noise-rap can make it through an sff novella, but you know what I mean. ↩
- it’s one of the hands-down standouts of Exhalation, a top-flight collection in and of itself. ↩
- based primarily on the fact that reviews, presumably written by people who had read it, reported that very little had changed. ↩
- which you can find me gushing about when I wrote about it for its own Nebula nom ↩
- it’s got the same sort of response as, like, a Prince album, where people like it, and some people absolutely ape-nuts love it. ↩
- and it’s a first novel! It’s almost enough to make you want to curl up and cry! ↩