Fiction Reviews

Nebula Awards Showcase 2016
The Year's Best SF and Fantasy

(2016) Mercedes Lackey (ed.), Pyr, £15.99 / Can$19.00 / US$18.00, pbk, 407pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88138-9


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 2016 Showcase, confusingly the year refers to that of the publication of the Showcase. The awards were for items which were first published in 2014 and were nominated and voted on in 2015.

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 2014’s publications. A few other awards are also noted: the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation went to the writers James Gunn and Nicole Perlman for Guardians Of The Galaxy, the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy went to 'Love Is The Drug' by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Larry Niven won the Damon Knight Grand Master Award, the Solstice Award went to both Joanna Russ (posthumously) and Stanley Schmidt, and the Kevin O’Donnell Jr. Service to SFWA Award was won by Jeffry Dwight.

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. This year we are treated to all the final nominees and winners in the Short Story and Novelette categories, the winner of the Novella category and excerpts from all the final nominees in that category, and an excerpt from the winning Novel.

For those uncertain of the categories: the SFWA defines (as does the Hugo Award) a short story as having fewer than 7,500 words, a novelette is longer but has fewer than 17,500 words, a novella is longer still but has fewer than 40,000 words, and a novel has 40,000 words or more.

We start with the short stories.

In Sarah Pinsker’s 'A Stretch Of Highway Two Lanes Wide' Andy wakes up after an accident on the farm and finds that his arm has been replaced with an artificial one. It is one of the latest, with a Brain-Computer Interface. At first all goes well but slowly he becomes more and more convinced that he is a highway in Colorado. It is a neat little tale.

'The Breath of War' by Aliette de Bodard takes us to the planet Voc. Rechan is heavily pregnant and, despite the dangers and hostilities still left over from the war, she must get to the plateau and find Sang, the breath-sibling she carved from lamsinh stone when a youth; on Voc it takes a stoneman’s breath to quicken a baby when it is born else it will be stillborn. But when, all those years ago, she took her carving tools up to the plateau for her exhalation ceremony she was a teenager full of thoughts of freedom and rebellion and it was neither a man nor a woman that she carved.

Usman T. Malik’s story 'The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family' tells us of Tara Khan and her brother Sohail. He is so upset by the death of his girlfriend in needless violence, of one mass killing to avenge another, that he goes off bitterly to the mountains to seek answers. The years pass and although Tara sees and is involved in many good things, atrocities continue and it seems to her that there is a force behind them and there will be no end until all is destroyed. She too sets off for the mountains and finds her brother, or the spirit creature of hatred that he has become.

'The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye' by Matthew Kressel is set in the far future and tells of creatures that spend the millennia scouring all of space for the remnants of dead stars and tidying the place up. In fact there are many Eyes, each a part of the Great Corpus at the centre of the galaxy, and each has its own Meeker as a sort of servant. This pair find a stone floating in space, a remnant of the Long Gone. They decode the message within to create a life form - a human called Beth - but before she can tell her story she dies of the virus she carries. Great Corpus is nothing if not curious and so creates another Beth, and another, and never realises that curiosity can be a weakness. It is an interesting take on the ultimate fate of mankind.

Eugie Foster tells the tale of Asia, a dancer reliving her great days, in 'When It Ends, He Catches Her'. She dances alone in the ruins of the old theatre, having forgotten nearly everything, but Balege, her old partner, appears and joins her in the last moments of her performance. Whilst she lives only for the dance each night, he remembers the rest of the day, how they hunt and feed together, for they died a long time ago. I do not particularly care for zombie stories but this one is an exception.

The 'The Fisher Queen' by Alyssa Wong is a story of mermaids; in this case they are a type of fish, much treasured by the fisher folk of the Mekong delta. Out at sea, following a storm that has stirred up even the deep water species, the crew get a good catch of many normal fish, a number of the very valuable mermaids, and even a very rare deep-sea mermaid. Lily, whose father once told her that her mother was a fish, finds that she can understand the deep-sea mermaid; to her its cries are speech. In return for freedom, the mermaid will grant her a wish.

The award for Best Short Story went to Ursula Vernon’s 'Jackalope Wives' and deservedly so. There are times, out in the dessert on the right night, when you may come across a bunch of jackalope wives with their wild music and frenzied dancing; for just this short while they take human form. A young man, not the brightest, creeps up on such a group and manages to get himself one; the secret is to grab and burn her rabbit skin before she can put it back on, trapping her in human form. However, hearing her screams and being a fool, he retrieves her badly damaged skin from the fire and returns it to her, trapping her somewhere between human and rabbit. Knowing he has done a terrible thing he seeks help from his Grandma Harken, for she knows many things. And so she leads the poor, stricken creature out into the dessert in search of the Patterned People, intending to make a deal. The Father of Rabbits joins them and we learn that, before own her skin was stolen, Grandma Harken had herself been one hell of a dancer. As she says, it is all about choices. A charming and powerful example of the short story.

Moving on to the novelettes we start with 'Sleep Walking Now And Then' by Richard Bowes. It is 2060 and theatrical producer Jacoby Cass is currently living in the old, empty and defunct, Angouleme hotel which he has bought and in which he has set his latest masterpiece. The hotel first became notorious when, in 1895, Edwin Nance stepped into an lift (elevator) that was not there, falling to his death. Since then other residents have died unusual deaths. It is these events that his production will recreate as the audience wanders round the building, soaking up the atmosphere of bygone days. Sometimes I complaint that novels are longer than they need be; this struck me as a novelette that ought to have been a short story.

Kai Ashante Wilson’s 'The Devil in America' is set in the later 19th century. When the slaves were taken from Africa the Devil went with them. In the days of old he was little more than a trickster and the old knowledge was enough to control him but the forceful enslavement meant that the old knowledge got lost, left back in Africa, and now there is no controlling him. When young Easter, who has a magic about her and has her “angels”, makes a serious mistake she accepts the offer of help from a kindly man who appears in the nick of time; she has heard of the Devil, she has been warned about the Devil, but she does not recognise him. And so she makes a deal that, with the interest he charges, will spell disaster for black Americans to this day.

'The Husband Stitch' by Carmen Maria Machado tells of a girl and her boyfriend as they court, then marry, and have a child. She will give him anything he wants except that he must never remove the green ribbon she wears around her neck. Then one day, after years of pestering, she gives in and allows him to undo that ribbon. Although interestingly written, it takes a long time to reach its sudden conclusion.

Tom Crosshill, in his story 'The Magician And Laplace’s Demon', introduces us to an AI (an artificial intelligence) which has developed within a computer system and whose existence no-one has realised. Analysing the multitude of data that comes its way, the AI realises that there are people who can manipulate things in an unpredictable way; they are magicians and it must find out how they do so. It must also stop them if it is to remain benevolently and invisibly in control of everything that humans do - but can you really stop magic?

In 'We Are The Cloud', Sam J. Miller introduces us to a world where young people can earn money by allowing themselves to be connected to a cloud such that their spare brain power can be used for cheap computing. It should not be possible but one of them realises he can interact with the cloud and even control it.

The award for Best Novelette went to “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’I' by Alaya Dawn Johnson. The vampires have conquered the humans and, needing to feed, keep them in the equivalent of concentration camps. The deal is simple; the humans will be looked after and well fed in return for allowing their blood to be harvested in a humane way. Key remembers meeting her first vampire during the war between their races; it was one of those times when each saved the other’s life. She has been a loyal servant and her reward will be promotion to the ranks of her masters.

Now for the novellas. The nominees were 'Calendrical Regression' by Lawrence M. Schoen, 'The Mothers Of Voorhisville' by Mary Rickert, 'The Regular' by Ken Liu, 'Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)' by Rachel Swirsky, and 'We Are All Completely Fine' by Daryl Gregory. We are given short excerpts (between three and six pages) from each of these. Whilst these give a flavour of the writing, they give little idea of the story and thus, it seems to me, there is little point in them. The size of the book precludes their full length so I presume that the excerpts are there to honour the writers. Nancy Kress was awarded Best Novella for 'Yesterdays Kin'. The aliens have arrived and they turn out to be close relatives. It transpires that there is, out there in space, a cloud of 'spores' (to be more exact, virus-like molecules) and they are completely deadly to all humans - the aliens have not found even one survivor on any of their colonies which have passed through the cloud. As the Solar System orbits round the galaxy, it too will very soon pass through the cloud. There is now less than a year for both aspects of the human race to work together and find a cure. Nicely written, the story unfolds smoothly and the end is worth waiting for.

Finally, we come to the Best Novel category. It went to Jeff VanderMeer for Annihilation, the first book of his Southern Reach trilogy (the others being Authority and Acceptance, all of which were first published in 2014). We have an excerpt, the first sixteen pages of chapter one. It is an interesting start and one wonders where the story will go; however, the excerpt ends before you begin to have a chance to figure out in what direction that might be.

All the stories were well written (as you would expect given that SFWA regard it as the best of the best) and enjoyable reading. Unlike some years, most of the stories are definitely within the genre; though I do again wonder sometimes where the boundaries lie between general fantasy and science fantasy when it comes to including stories within SFWA’s lists. Once more it has been a pleasure to enjoy good shorter fiction.

Peter Tyers

See also Allen's take on the Nebula Awards Showcase 2016.

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