Fiction Reviews

Nebula Awards Showcase 2012

(2012) James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (editors), Pyr, 16.99 / Can$19 / US$17.95 , trdpbk, 335pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14619-1


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.

This anthology of short stories opens with an informative discussion between the editors concerning the reasons for and the history of the Nebulas. It lists all the winners since the awards began in 1965, as well as all the nominees and honourees for 2011. In deciding which works to showcase, they have looked at all that were nominated for the year and those selected here are not necessarily the winners. With such source material, it goes almost without saying that they are all very well written.

As discussed by the editors, science fiction and (science) fantasy is a broad genre these days, long departed from mere space opera, and many of these stories are not what I would call strict science fiction or (science) fantasy but voyage well into general fantasy and speculative fiction. That is a comment, not necessarily a complaint.

In 'Ponies', Kiv Johnson illustrates how horror lies in such simple things as our desire to be accepted and what we will do to achieve it. She amply reminds us that sometimes only a few pages are needed to get across a powerful idea.

Geoff Landis, in 'The Sultan of the Clouds', takes us to floating cities in the Venusian atmosphere for a tale of politics, greed, and power. Its ideas and descriptions, particularly of the cities and the technologies, are inventive and most enjoyable, though I found the ending to be a little disappointing.

Chris Barzak's 'Map of Seventeen' is set on a farm somewhere in the middle of Ohio and mostly tells of family life and family ties as seen by the younger son. When his elder brother returns home to live, the surprise is not his announcement that he is gay but that, due to an unusual gene, his live-in boyfriend proves to have an interesting difference.

In 'And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side', James Tiptree Jr. takes us to a space station where the aliens come to meet and do business with the humans. The problem is that to humans the aliens can seem very exotic and fascination can lead to addiction.

'Pishaach', by Shweta Narayan, tells of a young girl in Mumbai. From an early age she has been a little unusual, completely at home with lizards and small snakes, and she posses an uncanny way of playing the flute. As time goes on she shuns the company of most of her family and of the neighbouring children, preferring the quite places and the forest, until one day she charms a large cobra who speaks to her and asks if she would like to 'return to the tribe' with him. It seems that, like her strange old grandmother who simply disappeared into the jungle on the day of her grandfather's funeral, she is not entirely human.

In an excerpt from her novel Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis describes several scenes from wartime England. Unfortunately we only get a snippet; not enough to get any idea of where it is going or what it is about. From the little we get it looks like it might be interesting but, in the words of the late Sir Patrick Moore, we just do not know.

In 'Arvies', Adam Troy-Castro describes a world where death begins at birth. To be more accurate, those who are destined to be meaningful citizens, the Living, remain forever in the womb, whereas those who are born are promptly declared Dead and therefore become property and are raised for future use as hosts for the Living. This requires some interesting technology to achieve but means that the Living are almost immortal and can experience almost anything by means of their proxies. It presents us with moral food for thought.

The first Short Story Nebula, back in 1965, was awarded to Harlan Ellison for ''Repent, Harlequin!' Said The Ticktockman'. Since then I have enjoyed many stories from him and this year's offering, 'How Interesting: A Tiny Man', is no exception. He tells of the creation, in a laboratory, of a man who is perfectly formed but only five inches tall. The story is not about the technology but the impact this has on the world outside not everyone is pleased.

Aliette de Bodard's 'The Jaguar House, in Shadow' assumes a world in which the Aztec were not destroyed but became a powerful nation. Their culture has, like any other, evolved over the centuries and, whilst still sun worshippers, they are as concerned with politics and other worldly matters as anyone else. As with the nation's other religious-military establishments, the ancient Jaguar Knights are facing political and social changes at a pace faster than ever and deep sacrifices are called for if they are to survive - though there are those that will fight to the death to save the old ways.

In 'The Green Book', Amal El-Mohtar follows a discussion between scholars of a book and the book itself, which you might describe as haunted.

Eric James Stone takes us to Sol Central Station, a research station positioned nearly half a million miles under the surface of our sun, in 'That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made'. Unexpectedly, this has brought humans into contact with the swales, plasma creatures that live within the sun and which can travel instantly to other suns. The complication comes in that our lead character is a Mormon and gets into religious discussions with the swales, the eldest of whom most certainly does not believe in any god - unless, that is, it is her.

The excerpt from Terry Pratchett's young adult novel 'I Shall Wear Midnight' works very nicely. For those that have not met her before, we get introduced to Tiffany Aching, a young witch on the Discworld. She has the understanding of life and the witchcraft within it that you would expect from Terry, and her observations on the world and the people about her are a delight. I confess that I have been a fan of Terry (now Sir Terry) and his Discworld since The Colour of Magic first came out in paperback and this excerpt reminds me why.

'The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window' by Rachel Swirsky is a good old sword and sorcery fantasy. Our heroine's story starts the day she dies when her assassin captures her soul so that it can be recalled later if required. At first this happens after only short periods, as and when her ruler requires her knowledge, but before long their society has given way to others. Having thus been forgotten, she is none-the-less recalled by people, by magicians, that study the old ways and the old magics and thus she finds herself as a sort of time traveller, experiencing occasional 'resurrections' across the millennia. Being thus truly immortal, she reaches the end of time itself.

As well as prose, there are three poems: 'In the Astronaut Asylum' by Kendall Evans and Samantha Henderson, 'To Theia'by Ann K. Schwader, and the six-line 'Bumbershoot' by Howard Hendrix. I have never been especially fond of poetry and these did nothing to excite me.

All in all, whilst everything in this anthology was very well written, I found the content to be, at times, a little disappointing given that this should represent the best of the best. I felt that some of the stories had strayed so far to the speculative side of general fiction that I would have classed them as interesting but certainly not assigned them to my Science Fiction / Fantasy shelves. I was left wondering, at least somewhat, why some of the stories had been written, or at least did not have more to them, as they seemed to be written more for the sake of writing rather than written to tell a story. Perhaps I am being a little harsh, but that was my overall feeling as I put down the completed book, though I am also very aware that there was much that I had enjoyed.

Perhaps, as a reader (particularly of science fiction) it is the story I am after, the content, whereas to a writer it is how the story is written that matters and the content is merely the medium in which to embed the writing. From comments by authors in various anthologies, I have noticed that sometimes they have an idea and are then tasked with writing x-thousand words, perhaps by the end of a writers' workshop, with the result that the storyline itself is insufficiently developed and the pace and punch of the story is reduced by having been over diluted. I am sure that we could sit round discussing such matters until the cows come home, or at least until the bar shuts, but, taking the book as a whole rather than selecting particular stories, I have to say that there have been other anthologies that I thought had more filling to them, where I felt that every story had something to offer me.

Peter Tyers

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