Fiction Reviews

Nebula Awards Showcase 2015

(2015) Greg Bear (ed.), Pyr, £12.99 / Can$19 /US$18, pbk, 349pp ISBN 978-1-633-88090-0


The World of Science Fiction has many awards and two of the most important are the Hugos and the Nebulas. The Hugos are nominated by and voted on annually by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention whereas the Nebulas are nominated by and voted on annually by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). You might say that the former represent the fans’ views and latter the writers’ views.

Although this is the 2015 Showcase, the year refers to that of the publication of the Showcase. The awards were for items which were first published in 2013 hence nominated for the 2014 Nebulas.

The book includes a list of all the winners since the awards began in 1965, as well as all the nominees for the final ballot for 2013’s publications. The editor starts with an introduction which is followed by short articles on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and on the Nebula Awards, the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation, and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. This year we are treated to all the final nominees in the Short Story and Novelette categories, the winner of the Novella category, and an excerpt from the winning Novel.

In 'If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love' Rachel Swirsky writes a short (just over two pages) but moving story in memory of a loved one. To start with I thought it was merely whimsical but by the end there were tears in my eyes. It is a powerful demonstration of the short story. [Best Short Story].

Matthew Kressel’s 'The Sounds of Old Earth' tells of an old man who is happy to remain where he is, living in his old house in its fifty acres of forest; he particularly enjoys the pond behind the house and its wildlife. However, the Earth is in a terrible state and it is only the protective stascreen that keeps his forest so habitable. Like it or not, he is forcibly moved to New Earth, a planet humans have created to escape their ruined old one, and he watches as the Old Earth is torn apart, cut into sections to provide materials for its replacement. The years pass then his granddaughter takes him to her graduation project, a recreation of an Old Earth environment - he has a pond again, complete with the croaking of frogs.

A selkie, in many examples of folklore, is seal who has come ashore, shed his/her coat temporarily, and taken on human appearance. If one finds and hides such a coat, the selkie is trapped on land and is captive, often becoming the husband or wife of the finder, until such time as (s)he can recover the coat and return to the sea. Sophia Samatar uses 'Selkie Stories Are For Losers' to provide us with a lament by the daughter of a selkie; how was she to know the significance of the grey coat she found in the attic and showed to her mother?

In 'Selected Programme Notes From The Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer' Kenneth Schneyer tries to tell us something of the life of the artist by quoting sections from the programme notes, as per the title of the story. Maybe I missed something important in the way I read it, but it told me nothing of her; indeed, I was left wondering what the whole story was about.

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley’s 'Alive, Alive Oh' tells of a couple who take up positions on a terraforming expedition to a new planet; the very attractive contract is for ten years after which they will return home with a full pension. The planet proves toxic in many ways and it is discovered that those who return home always become immediately sick and die; they have all picked up an untraceable something which is dormant in their new home but becomes deadly back on Earth - effectively they are all trapped on G851.5.32 for the rest of their lives. They have a daughter, Megan, born on the planet and who will never see her real home; all they can do is tell her about it. In the end, living in the dome and being unable to go outside without protection, to enjoy the beach and the sea, indeed to touch anything out there, proves too much.

'The Waiting Stars' by Aliette de Bodard, tells of Catherine and what she really is. The Dia Viet have Mind-ships and the Minds for their ships are organic-mechanical, birthed from Dia Viet women. Catherine is one of a number of girls living in the Institution, the Outsiders having rescued them as children from the Dia Viet and the terrible fate that awaited them as mothers of Minds; however, none of them are happy with their situation. Meanwhile, Lan Nhen, of the Dia Viet, is aboard the Mind-ship Cinnabar Mansions as they search secretly through the derelict ships ward in an isolated section of Outsider space, looking for her great-aunt, who was also the Mind-ship Turtle’s Citadel. Boarding the stricken ship, Lan Nhen discovers that its Mind, indeed the minds of all the ships, have been connected to Outsider data transmission systems and communicate constantly with the planet Prime, that the consciousness of the Minds are now located on Prime. As Lan Nhen works on the connections, Catherine starts to realise who she really is. [Best Novelette].

In 'Paranormal Romance' Christopher Barzak sets the scene for Sheila, a modern witch, a purveyor of love charms and the like, whose her mother sets her up with an unwanted date. Lyle turns out to be a werewolf and, over dinner, Sheila realises he is a rather boring one at that. She is rescued by their waitress who happens to be another witch, one who can open doors to anywhere, and so they step through to somewhere much more to their liking.

'They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Glass', by Alaya Dawn Johnson, opens on a farm during harvest. It soon becomes apparent that all is not well and they have recently lost one field to a cluster bomb and its explosive glass beads, dropped by an enemy that may, or may not, attack according to whim. There has clearly been an invasion of some sort, though we never find out from whom or why, and normal life is slowly falling apart due to the random attacks. Libby has to take her sister Tris for medical attention, a dangerous journey, and is surprised to be helped by one of the enemy’s drones.

Henry Lien’s 'Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters' is set in a Chinese-like society where badly behaved young girls are sent to a harsh school which tutors them mercilessly in Wu-Liu, a type of martial art. Clearly they are already well versed in the art but, over the next few months, they are pushed to their very limits. The story is told by Suki, an unpleasant, selfish girl, who is thoroughly deserving of rehabilitation but whose hatred never lessens. We have much description of the art, the practice sessions, and the competitions, but this remains a story about Suki’s general nastiness and hatred.

'In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind' by Sarah Pinsker, opens as George suffers a stroke. He has been married to Millie for sixty-six years and she finds herself looking back over those times. He had been a brilliant architect but, after a few weeks away working on a secret government project, he returned with something terrible on his mind and it has haunted him ever since. This is almost entirely a normal story of reminiscence, the only hint of SF being that maybe (maybe?) the project had been to design a jail to hold aliens.

Ken Liu’s 'The Litigation Master and the Monkey King' tells the story of Tian who lived in China in the days of the Qing Dynasty. He was injured as a young man and struggles to survive; most of his earnings come from being one of the few in the village able to read and write and, when necessary, represent the villagers when dealing with the local magistrate. Ever since a child, he has been obsessed by the Monkey King, the trickster demon of legend, and often converses with him in his mind. He finds himself reluctantly caught up in helping someone escape from the Emperor, someone who is carrying a banned book. It is an eye-witness account of the massacre in Yangzhou a hundred earlier, an event the Emperor is determined shall remain forever deleted from the history of the Manchus. It would go well for Tian if he volunteered what he knows to the authorities but if he does not then he knows he will face an excruciating interrogation and execution - a moral dilemma he discusses in his mind with the Monkey King.

In an after-note the author explains that, whilst his story is a work of fiction based on folk tales from the period, the massacre was real. Furthermore, the book (An Account of Ten Days at Yangzhou) is real and it was smuggled from China into Japan for protection until such time as the truth could eventually come out.

In 'The Weight of the Sunrise' Vylar Kaftan takes us to the Inca Empire, one where Pizzaro and his handful of men were defeated by the vast numbers of Incas he had challenged. Spain never gained a foothold in South America but they did bring smallpox with them and it ravaged the Incan civilisation. In 1806 Lanchi Ronpa finds himself summoned by the Emperor as he knows how to speak English. An American party has arrived and are offering an immunity, something called a vaccine, against the smallpox - in exchange for four thousand times a man’s weight in gold, enough to finance a war of independence against the British. Gold has no financial value to the Incas but it is of great religious value, it comes from the sun god, and it will require the sacrifice of hundreds of children to appease the gods. Before the Emperor can agree to the price Lanchi must verify that the vaccine exists and it works and also ascertain if the Americans can be trusted. [Best Novella.]

The Best Novel Award went to Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice. The short excerpt, just six pages, was not enough to get any feeling for what the story was about.

Frank M. Robinson was awarded the title Distinguished Guest in the 2014 Nebula Awards. He is remembered in Robin Wayne Bailey’s article 'Finding Frqnkie: Remembering Frank M. Robinson'.

The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy went to Nalo Hopkinson for 'Sister Mine'. Again there is a six page extract but it is enough to give a feel for the story, or at least the setting. It introduce us to conjoined twins and we learn that their father was not a mere man but a Celestial, an immortal who communicates with the powers above, and his family have not been happy about the babies.

The 2013 Damon Knight Grand Master Award went to Samuel R. Delany. Nalo Hopkinson presents us with the article 'A Life Considered As A Prism Of Ever-Precious Light: An Appreciation Of Samuel R. Delany'.

This is followed by 'Time Considered As A Helix Of Semi-Precious Stones', an example from 1968 of Delany’s work.

Finally there are the Rhysling Awards for poetry and we have 'The Cat Star' by Terry A. Garey [Best Short Poem] and 'Into Flight' by Andrew Robert Sutton [Best Long Poem]. In addition, the Dwarf Stars Award (for extremely short poems) went to 'Bashõ After Cinderella (iii)' by Deborah P. Kododji; all three lines of it. I have never appreciated poetry and none of these encouraged me to think otherwise.

All of the stories are very well written, which is what you would expect given that the members of SWFA regard these as the year’s best examples of writing. I found most of them to be interesting, with good ideas, and well worth reading.

However, as with earlier Showcases, I have to ask how some of these stories fit within the genre of Science Fiction / Fantasy. Ken Lui’s 'The Litigation Master and the Monkey King', for example, is historical fiction (or does talking to the Monkey King in one’s head somehow make it a fantasy?). As another example, I saw no trace of Science Fiction / Fantasy in Kenneth Schneyer’s 'Selected Programme Notes From The Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer'. There were several others on which I could comment similarly. I am not saying that they should always include spaceships or aliens but I do think they need something that particularly puts them in this genre rather than any other; I would have classified several of these as general fiction.

Peter Tyers

See also here for Ian's take on the Nebula Awards Showcase 2015.

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