Nebula Awards 2017: My thoughts on the novelettes

As a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), I get to vote on the Nebula Awards. They’ll be presented May 19. You can see a full list of the nominees here and more information about the awards and process here.

I’ve been reading the short fiction nominees, and here are my thoughts on the novelette category. Let me add that last year, none of my choices in the three short fiction categories won, and the year before that I was one for three. That shows what I know. Or it shows how high the quality is.

“Dirty Old Town,” Richard Bowes (Fantasy & Science Fiction 5-6/17)
Boys who were rivals in grade school become close in adulthood and retain a magical bond. That’s it — not much plot to this rambling story. Yet it remains captivating to the end as the two men continue to struggle with mutual antagonism and affection while their bonds deepen.

“Weaponized Math,” Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
This is military SF, a noble subgenre. A sniper is on assignment, protecting a meeting in a war zone, and an attack comes. The site of the fighting and the reasons behind it aren’t clear, but the professional determination of the United Federation Marines shines through. The story’s tension never flags. Outside of some highly technological weapons, however, there’s not much science fiction, but this is from a larger series that I know provides more SFnal context.

“Wind Will Rove,” Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
On a multi-generational ship, the older generations cling to what they recall from Earth or have learned about it. For the narrator, this means music. Younger generations grow rebellious, eager to create their own music and arts or to forget Earth’s culture and history altogether. These children know they will grow up in a static society on a voyage that seemed romantic to their elders but is confining to them. Despite the skill in storytelling, the focus seemed a bit off to me. I learned a lot about the narrator’s family and music, especially one particular song, but not as much about what is going on in the ship. The need to change and adapt became symbolized by that song, but the story got stuck on the symbol rather than a resolution of the on-board problems.

“A Series of Steaks,” Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
This was one of five finalists for Clarkesworld magazine’s Reader’s Poll. My story “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” was also a finalist. As soon as I read “A Series of Steaks,” I knew I was likely to lose. A woman in China agrees to make counterfeit beefsteaks for a client, then the deal starts to go sour. Three things impressed me: the quiet desperation of the main character, the philosophical musings about the art of forgeries, and the thoroughly satisfying ending.

“A Human Stain,” Kelly Robson ( 1/4/17)
A woman takes a job as a governess of sorts at an isolated old manor house/castle, where the staff is strange, her young charge is stranger, and the man who employed her flees from the place on a business errand as fast as he can. I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but you can easily guess that there’s a horrible secret, and things are going to end badly. I felt like I’d read this horror story before.

“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)
A man in the process of transitioning from female to male gets turned into a vampire. The difficulties of his human-to-vampire transition become more complex due to his gender transition, and he struggles. There are hot sex scenes. Beyond the transitional complication, though, there’s not much of a new take on vampirism in this story.

Every story here is expertly written and worth reading, and each one got on the ballot for good reason. Still, as you can tell from my comments, I think some have flaws in their development or originality. For that reason, I’m voting for “A Series of Steaks” because I think it pushes the genre into the newest territory. Second on my list is “Dirty Old Town” for its deep characterization. After that, I’m neutral — but to reiterate, if any of these stories appeals to you for some reason, don’t hesitate to read it.

— Sue Burke

Ask Me Anything on Monday at Reddit

Once was not enough fun! I’ll be in another Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), this time in the Books subreddit on Monday, March 19, starting at about 1 p.m. CST.

At the Fantasy subreddit last week (you can see it here) I got some serious questions about my novel Semiosis. In the Reddit spirit, I also got some lighthearted questions to probe my personality. For example, “If you were a worm, how long would you be?” “What’s your favorite pasta?” “What’s the dumbest way you’ve ever been injured?”

When you say “Ask Me Anything” at Reddit, redditors really might ask anything — all in good fun.

You can join in or follow along here:

Nebula Awards 2017: My thoughts on the short stories

For the 52nd year, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America will present the Nebula Awards to outstanding novels and shorter works published in 2017. At the ceremony on May 19, it will also present the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and the Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book.

You can see a full list of the nominees here and more information about the awards and process here.

As a SWFA member, I’ve received a voter’s packet. I get to vote for one work in each category. So far I’ve read all the short story finalists, formed opinions, and decided who to vote for:

“Fandom for Robots,” Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
A sentient robot discovers an anime series about another sentient robot, Hyperwarp, and becomes a “hyper-big fan.” Then it discovers fanfiction and makes friends. This is as funny as it sounds but also touching as the robot, which has no emotions, responds in a pseudo-emotional way and becomes accepted as a human on the internet. (On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.) Both fandom and technology are efficiently dissected with a loving, razor-sharp knife.

“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM,” Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
An Indian guide for cyberspace tourists offers Native American “Vision Quests” that are as authentically Indian as the Lucky Charms leprechaun is authentically Irish, but white people seem fine with that. Then a customer wants too much. Unrelenting cynicism about commercialization and stereotypes underlies this story’s quiet fury. It’s already won an Apex Reader’s Choice Award and a Locus recommendation.

“Utopia, LOL?” Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons 6/5/17)
A human is revived in a post-singularity age when most people spend their time in computer-generated simulations. He’s welcomed by an energetic and enthusiastic Tour Guide to the Future, the story’s narrator. They slowly come to trust each other, and then there’s a twist (no spoilers). As a result, a fun, almost frivolous story takes on a sudden, satisfying solidity.

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
A visitor is led through an exhibition of what might have once cruelly been called a freak show. Beautifully written, the story effectively evokes the bitter anger of those on display, and perhaps it’s meant as horror reflecting the way society treats those who are different, but I don’t think it quite fulfills the noble goals of horror. Horror stories are modern tragedies, and a tragedy requires the protagonist to suffer for some fault within him or herself. The visitor is tortured apparently to avenge the general cruelty of society, but his or her participation in this cruelty is never established. As Aristotle argued in Poetics, unmerited misfortune merely shocks us: it isn’t tragedy. I see this story as torture for torture’s sake, and there’s no merit in sadism.

“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard),” Matthew Kressel ( 3/15/17)
An author travels to a distant planet to finish his final book, and meets a child who becomes his muse and student. The story’s genuine sweetness — in the best, most beautiful sense of sweet — can’t make up for what I think are two flaws: 1. The science fiction amounts to mere scenery, and the story, right down to the girl’s creole-like accent, could take place in the present on a Caribbean island. 2. Its narrator insists on the supposedly dying art of writing with pen and paper and printing actual dead-tree books. This also sounds just like the present, like bitter Baby Boomers complaining about Millennials and their supposed over-reliance on their cell phones. That kind of grumpy, defeatist rant makes me ashamed of my age cohort. I don’t know what the future will be like, but it won’t be like the present, and this story is the present pretending to be the future.

“Carnival Nine,” Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)
A wind-up toy robot mother makes great sacrifices to care for her robot son who has mechanical problems. The tale is obviously a analogy to what happens in real life to families with children with disabilities — a bit too obvious an analogy, perhaps, almost a parable, and the story never explains who does the winding up or why some toys live in a closet. Heart-strings are tugged, but logic is stretched, and that weakened the overall effect for me.

Verdict: I’m voting for “Fandom for Robots” because I was charmed by Computron the robot, but I’ll be just as glad if “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” or “Utopia LOL” wins.

— Sue Burke

Capricon 38 report

Capricon 38
Westin Chicago North Shore Hotel, Wheeling, IL
February 15 to 18, 2018

In an interview with the Capricon newsletter, Goat Droppings, Dave McCarthy, the fan guest of honor, spoke of Capricon as a family reunion. Well, yes, if your family has about a thousand members of different ages and interests, all of them, like Dave, intent on having a good time – which as far as I can tell, we all did.

This year’s convention theme, “Expanding Universes,” referred to the way written works, television shows, movies, games, and new media form a creative loop with each other: hence the eight-like loopy logo for Capricon 38. Guests of honor, besides McCarty, were Timothy Zahn, author; Sarah Wilkinson, artist; Monica Valentinelli, gaming; and Matt McElroy, special guest.

Although I am tunnel-vision devoted to print, I could have spent my weekend exploring any of those other creative avenues. Plenty was on offer: panels, an always-busy gaming room, a starship bridge simulator, anime, crafts, cosplay, children’s programming, an art show, a dealer’s room, music, filk, and two floors of evening parties.

In a world growing crowded with commercially organized genre events, Capricon remains a volunteer-run “literary” (book-focused rather than media-focused) science fiction convention. Everything seemed to flow smoothly, and even the weather cooperated with no cold snaps or major snowstorms, just heavy flurries on Saturday.

I missed Thursday evening’s activities, which included panels on topics as varied as brewing alcohol, military science fiction, and a critique of Blade Runner 2049, along with an ice cream social and opening ceremonies.

Friday, February 16

Because mass transit doesn’t quite reach the Westin Hotel, my husband dropped me off on the way to work at 7:30 a.m. I consigned my suitcase, got some coffee, wandered around, met friendly people in the Green Room, got my badge, and began the busy task of attending panels and having fun.

“Working Toward Social Equity in Speculative Fiction” considered demographic changes in the US and how that is being reflected in literature: slowly and with bumps in the road, according to the panelists.

I couldn’t stay long, though, because I had to moderate a “Rapid Reading” with four other authors. The audience never outnumbered the panel, alas, but we had a fine time getting to know each other and forging friendships.

The panel “Imaginary Races Doesn’t Erase Racism,” considered what an author can or should be trying to accomplish in their writing, and panelists suggested that over-reactions and an erroneous sense of scarcity in science fiction affect the way works are received. Next I was on the panel for “Exobiology for Dummies,” moderated by the voluble Bill Higgins; I discussed how as an author I invent the biological aliens that serve my story.

I attended “Diversity Backlash,” where Dave McCarthy spoke a lot, and for good reason. He had been a Hugo administrator for several years, including 2015 when “No Award” prevailed in an unprecedented five categories. He summarized the history and said he hoped that the attempts to “game the system” and “hijack the award for political purposes” was the dying gasp of a small minority.

McCarty moderated the next panel, “Someone Is Wrong on the Internet,” a playful look at good topics to debate, good tactics, and the art of the rant. I was on the panel and suggested a few rantable topics, such as the Oxford comma or evaluating history.

By then it was late afternoon. I took some time to check into the hotel, cruise through the Art Show and Dealer’s Room, and buy a small gift for my husband. I spent the rest of the evening at a gathering called “Writers and Donuts,” hosted by Richard Chwedyk, where we noshed on donuts and discussed writing. Then I attended various parties until midnight. The festivities were still going strong, but I was tired.

Saturday, February 17

After a light breakfast in the Con Suite, I began Saturday by attending a panel on “Care and Feeding of a Debut Novelist,” since I am one, and learned I can expect my life to get much busier. “Characters That Don’t Suck” considered craft and techniques for stock, static, and dynamic characters. Then I went to an author reading. Ada Palmer told how the 18th-century novel Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot affected her story-telling choices in her Terra Ignota series; the first novel, Too Like the Lightning, won a 2017 Hugo.

After lunch with a new friend, I attended the fun-sounding panel “How to Piss Off Dave McCarty.” Any question related to Hugo voting software provoked a bitter, heartfelt, entertaining rant. At “Who’s the Boss?” a panel about working on joint projects, Eric Flint offered a cold-hearted analysis of Hollywood and its sometimes sophomoric behavior. That made co-panelist Monica Valentinelli, who has had her own adventures in that realm, exclaim, “I love you so much right now!” The next panel, “Science Fiction Cover Art: A History to Modern Day,” covered a lot of ground despite loose organization, and panelists anguished over how little value was paid to art in the early years of the genre.

By then I’d been serious for too long, so I attended a concert by the a capella group Sassafras with its tight harmonies, heard some of Kingon Pop Warrior’s music and her powerful voice, and then laughed a lot at SpaceTime Theatre Troope’s improv comedy, led by Bill Roper.

After that, I wandered from party to party until 1 a.m. Again, celebrations continued after I was snug in bed.

The Best Overall Party Award, voted on by attendees and presented at Closing Ceremonies, went to Bar Fleet, hosted by the U.B.S. Abandon crew. I can attest that it lived up to Bar Fleet standards for libations and dance music, although it faced stiff competition for the title of “best.”

Sunday, February 18

I was among the five people at the start (more stumbled in over the next hour) of a 10 a.m. panel on “The Critical Eye” about how to write a review, “a creative response to a creative work.” The next panel, “The Singularity: Mechs or Shapers?” suggested that we will only identify whatever the singularity is – a disruption or AI breakthrough of some sort – after it happens.

“The Expanding Universe of Fandom” compared large commercial cons like Dragon*Con, which draws 80,000 people, comic cons, and media cons to smaller fan-run literary cons like Capricon: huge versus up close and personal. Eric Flint observed that, like fan-run cons, some of the big commercial cons had their uses for professional authors, including reaching readers. The commercial cons’ success, he said, reflected the growing popularity of genre among the general public, although some fans bemoan them: “There’s a strain in fandom that resists and almost resents the fact that it’s won.”

The Closing Ceremonies followed, but they had just begun when my husband called from the parking lot. He’d come to pick me up, and my weekend of fun with a thousand-member fan family was over. It was time to go home and rest, full of enthusiasm to read and write a lot more.

Capricon 39 will be held February 14 to 17, 2019, again at the Westin North Shore, with the theme of “Strange Beasts Arise.”