Nebula Awards 2017: My thoughts on the novellas

As a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, I get to vote on this year’s Nebula Awards, which will be presented May 19. Here’s a list of all the nominees and more information about the awards and process.

I get to vote for one work in each category. Here are my thoughts about the novella category.

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)
The Wild, Wild West with hippos. A man of few scruples and a thirst for revenge assembles a crew with even fewer scruples and a variety of essential skills to clear the fierce, feral hippos out of a Louisiana swamp. (The prologue explains how they got there.) Repeatedly, the man denies that his plan is a caper, but it is: a predictable story right down to the many reversals, much like a matinee movie except that this story has a lot of savage murders. Despite the bloodshed, this is a fun farce of an old-fashioned Western — with hippos! — but I was hoping for something more solid and original.

Passing Strange, Ellen Klages (Tor.com Publishing)
In San Francisco in 1940, the lives of several women in its lesbian subculture become entwined. When one couple faces a disaster, they pull together and solve it by — well, no spoilers. The story starts and finishes tense, and while it has some sharp moments, in other parts it spends more time exploring the city and the subculture. I enjoyed the chance to see that slice of history, but I think the story could have been shortened a lot without much loss.

“And Then There Were (N-One),” Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Sarah Pinsker (not the author) gets an invitation to a Sarah Pinsker convention being organized by Sarah Pinsker, the quantologist, who has found a way to connect alternate realities. More than two hundred Sarahs come from a wide variety of divergence points, some very similar to other Sarahs, a few quite different, and from similar or different Earths. In one, for example, Seattle has been destroyed by an earthquake. Then a Sarah Pinsker is murdered. Which one? By which one? Why? Sarah (the author) does a good job of showing the weirdness of being surrounded by people almost just like yourself.

Barry’s Deal, Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
The Amazing Conroy is back! This is the fourth caper of the galaxy-traveling stage hypnotist and his super-cute alien companion animal, a truly omnivorous buffalo dog. He comes to a hotel-casino that is planning an illegal auction, runs into some people he knows, and discovers a sinister criminal scheme. In the end, Conroy outsmarts the bad guy. What the story may lack in depth it makes up for in fun.

All Systems Red, Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
I was among those who nominated this, a straight-up science fiction adventure. The narrator’s mordant attitude makes the story outstanding: a robot who has killed in the past, who is sure everyone hates it because of that, and who hates itself, too. It’s possibly clinically depressed and spends its time trying to lose itself in a video series, secretly dreaming of not being a slave to a brutal, profiteering corporation. But it does its job to protect people on a dangerous mission, even risking its own life, which those people didn’t expect.

The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)
In a Asian-like culture with two moons and fluid genders, twins are driven apart by their tyrannical mother, also the land’s dictator, who rules with a bloodstained iron hand. Technology is managed by those gifted with the control of a sort of elements-based magic, and the tyrant and her family are among those gifted. But a rebellion against her, using mechanical technology, brings the twins, now adults, back together. At times, the writing seemed a little cliche and approached purple prose, and some characters, including the evil mother, get little development. The story doesn’t quite end, either, instead setting up a sequel.

I’ll vote for All Systems Red, but “And Then There Were (N-One)” is a close second, and Passing Strange third. I’m basing my decision on originality and execution, but reasonable people can come to different choices.

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