Friday, March 9, 2018

Thoughts on the Nebula Shortlist (Short Fiction)

Thoughts on the 2017 Nebula Ballot (Short Fiction)
The Nebula Awards are dated, sensibly enough, by the year of publication of the stories involved, unlike the Hugos, which are dated by the year of the award. So the 2017 Nebula Ballot is the current ballot, for the best stories of 2017.

I’m not ready to write about the novels yet – I’ve only read, I think, four of the seven. My impression is of a strong field – no bad novels – but still a field missing some of the very best of the novels of 2017, most obviously Ka, by John Crowley; and The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel.

Short Fiction


The Nebula Nominees for Best Novella of 2017 are:

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey ( Publishing)
Passing Strange, Ellen Klages ( Publishing)
“And Then There Were (N-One)”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Barry’s Deal, Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
All Systems Red, Martha Wells ( Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang ( Publishing)

The first thing I’ll note is the continued strong showing of for their line of slim books, most of which are novellas. Even though I would not have nominated all of these for an award, their success is completely deserved – they really are doing a great job publishing a wide variety of first-rate novellas. At least one more of their books was on my list of the best novellas of 2017: Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie.

That said, I do think we risk forgetting the print magazines. There were very good novellas published in the magazines, such as Damien Broderick’s “Tao Zero” in Asimov’s, Alec Nevala-Lee’s “The Proving Ground” in Analog, and Marc Laidlaw’s “Stillborne” in F&SF (and that merely scratches the surface). Even so, I have to admit my nomination ballot for the Hugos probably won’t include any of those stories (maybe the Broderick). It will include a story from an original anthology (“The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse”, by Kathleen Ann Goonan), a story from a collection (“Fallow”, by Sofia Samatar), a story published as part of an Indiegogo project (Prime Meridian, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia), and very possibly a story serialized in an online magazine (“The Dragon of Dread Peak”, by Jeremiah Tolbert).

The third thing to note is the absence of men from the ballot – only one (and his story is clearly the worst). Four women, and one non-binary person. I believe four of the nominees are queer as well. On the one hand, that’s statistically unlikely, but on the other hand, it’s a small sample size. And my nomination ballot for the Hugos will be just as heavily weighted toward women. This weighting continues through the short fiction categories (and the novels as well), and I think it’s fair to ask: if people complained about many previous ballots that were heavily masculine, and rightly asked if nominators were checking their predispositions, were reading widely enough, etc. – are nominators doing the same now? For all that, as I noted, my personal nomination lists, at least for novella and short story, have similar proportions (novelette and novel are more weighted to men). In any small sample size, all kinds of strange things can happen. 

If I had a ballot (and I don’t), I would order them:

1.       “And Then There Were (N-One)”, by Sarah Pinsker
2.       All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
3.       Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages
4.       River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey
5.       The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang
6.       Barry’s Deal, by Lawrence M. Schoen

I’ve already discussed the first two in my Hugo Nomination post, and also in my Locus reviews. They are both very strong stories, head and shoulders above the other nominees. Here’s what I wrote before:“And Then There Were (N – One)”  is a story about a convention of alternate Sarah Pinskers, complete with a murder. It is warmly told – funny at times, certainly the milieu is familiar to any SF con-goer. But it’s dark as well – after, there’s a murder – and it intelligently deals with issue of identity and contingency. And All Systems Red is a ripping good novella about a security android which calls itself a murderbot, guarding a group of researchers on an alien planet. The murderbot mainly wants peace to watch its favorite TV shows, but that becomes impossible when the team comes under threat. It soon becomes clear that there is an unexpected group on the planet that doesn’t want any rivals, and the murderbot has to work with its humans to find a way to safety. That part – the plotty part – is nicely done, but the depiction of the murderbot is the story’s heart: convincingly a real person but not a human, with emotions but not those that humans expect: very funny at times but also quite moving.

Passing Strange is a sweet story about the gay underground in San Francisco in about 1940, and in particular about two women: Emily, a singer, kicked out of college for sleeping with a woman; and Haskel, a bisexual artist who does covers for pulp magazines. (Haskel is obviously to some extent inspired by the legendary Weird Tales artist Margaret Brundage.) The two meet and fall in love, and get in serious trouble, the resolution of which is a pretty cool and moving variation of a familiar fantastical trope. My main problem – and it’s not really a problem – is that the fantastical elements are really minor (though the final resolution is wholly fantastical and pretty neat). The main interest in the story is essentially historical, and pretty convincing (with maybe one or two slips – was “queer” really claimed as a positive identity as early as 1940? My (admittedly slim) research suggests that happened in the ‘60s.) All that said, while I wouldn’t put this on my personal nomination list, it’s a pretty worthy nominee.

The next two stories strike me as nice stories, good fun with some interesting stuff, but not stories I really consider award worthy. River of Teeth is a caper story (OK, not a caper – an operation!) about a mixed team of “hoppers” (hippopotamus wranglers, basically) assembled to clear the lower Mississippi of feral hippos. Their leader, Winslow Houndstooth, also wants revenge, against the man who burned down his hippo farm years before. There’s a lot of violence, a truly evil villain, and a fair amount of believable darkness. I mean, I enjoyed it. I just didn’t see it as special – in particular in a speculative sense – yes, there’s the fairly cool alternate history aspect involving the hippos in Louisiana, but nothing with real SFnal zing. Still – it’s pretty fun. As for The Black Tides of Heaven, I confess some of my reaction is based on the rather excessive hype this story (along with its sequel/companion, The Red Threads of Fortune) has gotten. The story concerns the twin children of the Protector, originally promised to the local Monastery. But one of them turns out to have precognitive powers, and the Protector claims them … the other strikes off on their own, ending up in a rebellion against their mother. The good – a decent magic system (alas, treated in a clichéd fashion on occasion), interesting if seemingly inconsistent treatment of gender (to be fair, the supposed inconsistencies may well be eventually explained), and decent characters. The not-so-good: a fairly clichéd plot (which doesn’t really resolve, though to be sure its companion novella was released in parallel, and perhaps the plot is resolved there), rather ordinary prose, and some pacing issues, mainly in the opening section (about a fourth of the story), which really should have been almost entirely cut. Bottom line – an okay story that has been somewhat overpraised.

Finally, Barry’s Deal is, well, really not very good. It’s another of his tales about the Amazing Conroy and his buffalito Reggie, who can eat literally anything (including nuclear bombs). I’ve read some of the previous Conroy stories, with some enjoyment – they have been pleasant entertainment, though to be honest never close to award-worthy. This is a step below. They come to a space-based casino, Conroy looking to bid on an extremely expensive bottle of liquor, but the casino owner is obviously up to something, not to mention that one of Conroy’s old friends (and her stuffed animal Barry) seems to be cheating. After a lot of illogical maneuvering, Conroy and his friend Leftjohn Mocker, figure out what’s really up. The story quite simply makes no sense, and it isn’t fun enough to make up for that. I truly can’t comprehend this getting a Nebula nomination.


The Nebula nominees are:

“Dirty Old Town”, Richard Bowes (F&SF 5-6/17)
“Weaponized Math”, Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
“Wind Will Rove”, Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“A Series of Steaks”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
“A Human Stain”, Kelly Robson ( 1/4/17)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

The good news here is that two of these stories are from print magazines, and one from a print original anthology. Yay! Four women, two men, I believe five of the authors identify as queer. My favorite novelettes this year (“Extracurricular Activities”, by Yoon Ha Lee; “The Hermit of Houston”, by Samuel R. Delany; “”, by Will MacIntosh; “The Secret Life of Bots”, by Suzanne Palmer; “ZeroS”, by Peter Watts; and Hanus Seiner’s “Hexagrammaton”) include five men (one transgender) and only one woman, and two people who identify as queer (as far as I know).

My favorites are couple of stories that I might have picked for my Best of the Year book except that I chose another Nebula nominated story instead by each author: “Wind Will Rove”, by Sarah Pinsker (a lovely and loving story about the folk process and the conflicts between remembering the old and inventing the new, set on a generation ship); and “A Series of Steaks”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, about a couple of people who forge steaks (made by “printers”), and their eventual revenge on a rich client.

Of the other stories, Bowes’ “Dirty Old Town” is another solid entry in a long series of seemingly autobiographical fantasies set in Boston and New York. I just found it solid, not new enough to wow me. “A Human Stain”, by Kelly Robson, is horror, and I think pretty good horror, but I confess it takes a lot for horror to truly win me over. I’ll call that a weakness in me, not in the story – so your mileage may well vary! Likewise K. M. Szpara’s “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” is a vampire story – and a gay/transgender story, and I thought it well-executed but it didn’t thrill me. Jonathan Brazee’s “Weaponized Math” is a step below – ordinary Military SF, with nothing really interesting in a Science Fictional sense. It tells its story efficiently, but there is nothing here to elevate it above dozens of other stories. My putative ballot would be:

1.       “Wind Will Rove”, by Sarah Pinsker
2.       “A Series of Steaks”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
3.       “Dirty Old Town”, by Richard Bowes
4.       “A Human Stain, by Kelly Robson”
5.       “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, by K. M. Szpara
6.       “Weaponized Math”, by Jonathan Brazee

Short Story

The Nebula shortlist is as follows:

“Fandom for Robots”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”, Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“Utopia, LOL?”, Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons 6/5/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)”, Matthew Kressel ( 3/15/17)
“Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

None of these stories are on my prospective Hugo ballot, and I do think the Nebulas are pretty clearly missing some of the very best stories of the year – Maureen McHugh’s “Sidewalks”, Charlie Jane Anders’ “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue”, Karen Joy Fowler’s “Persephone of the Crows”, Giovanni de Feo’s “Ugo”, Sofia Samatar’s “An Account of the Land of Witches”, Linda Nagata’s “The Martian Obelisk”, and a couple of excellent Tobias Buckell stories, “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” and “Shoggoths in Traffic”. There are four women and two men on the ballot, not too different from the proportions on my prospective ballot.

I note that all – all – of the nominated stories were published for free online. The stories I have listed above on my prospective ballot include one from an original anthology (Buckell’s “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”), three from print magazines (McHugh’s story, Anders’, and Fowler’s), and one from a collection (Samatar’s, though to be fair it is also available online, but at The Offing, which is somewhat out of the normal notice of SF readers). The other stories were in free online places. I will reiterate that I think the disadvantage stories from print sources have in award nominations these days is a problem, though not one with a solution I can see.

That said, none of the nominated stories are bad, and indeed all of them are interesting. I have two clear favorites here, the two I’m reprinting, Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots” and Jamie Wahls’ “Utopia LOL?”, both of which, notably, are pretty funny. Prasad’s story (to some extent reminiscent of one aspect of Martha Wells’ All Systems Red in the novellas), is about a robot AI which becomes a fan of anime, and even contributes to fan fiction. Wahls’ story is even funnier, about a man who gets unfrozen in the far future and the guided tour he gets of his options in this utopia – with a strong slingshot ending.

Next on the list is Caroline Yoachim’s “Carnival Nine”, a pretty moving story about a windup family, and in particular the boy whose mainspring isn’t quite as strong as most. This is solid work – and I know a lot of people loved it (indeed, I’ll suggest in might be a betting favorite for the award) – and I liked it but wasn’t wholly convinced.

The other three stories are all pretty original. I didn’t love any of them – but I could see them all doing challenging stuff, and I can see why other people do love them. I think Fran Wilde’s “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” is my favorite, about a visit to a very odd sort of museum.

My ballot would look like:

1.       “Fandom for Robots”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
2.       “Utopia, LOL?”, by Jamie Wahls
3.       “Carnival Nine”, by Caroline Yoachim
4.       “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, by Fran Wilde
5.       “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”, by Rebecca Roanhorse
6.       “The Last Novelist (or, A Dead Lizard in the Yard”, by Matthew Kressel


  1. I've said this in the past during complaints about a preponderance of works by men, but it still applies. It's really too bad we can't evaluate the works without any knowledge of gender and/or sexual preferences. After all, it's the WORK that matters and should be evaluated!

    1. Indeed -- that said, if we find ourselves reading a preponderance of work by men -- or of work by women -- or of work by queer writers -- I think we do well to ask ourselves -- What are we missing? Why aren't we reading other work? Are we stuck in a comfort zone? These questions were asked -- appropriately -- when women complained that awards lists were too male-dominated, and they deserve to be asked now, when the pendulum as swung.