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.

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 (Tor.com 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:

https://www.reddit.com/r/Books/

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 (Tor.com 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