Back again and some comments on the 2013 Nebula Awards

As mentioned in my last post, I was in Scotland for a few days on very short notice. The hotel WiFi was actually decent, but only free for 30 minutes per day, which is only just about enough to deal with vital e-mail that needs to be dealt with and maybe look up a few things. Hence there was no blogging these past few days. However, I managed to take a lot of photos.

Of course, neither the world nor the SFF part of it stopped, while I was away. And so the 2013 Nebula Awards were awarded last weekend. The full list of winners is here.

I already posted my thoughts on the nominees when they were announced. Short version: A very good and diverse slate of nominees except for the dramatic presentation category, which only left me baffled.

With a good and diverse slate of nominees, there was a high chance of a good and diverse list of winners. Though this wasn’t guaranteed, see last year where the weakest book in a very strong slate won in the novel category.

Luckily, this year the actual Nebula winners managed to keep the promise made by the shortlist. And – most strikingly – all five winners in the fiction categories are women and two of them are women of colour. I agree with the post I just linked that it’s sad that the fact that the winners of a major genre award happen to be all women is remarkable at all. However, given the many debates about gender, race and general diversity in the genre we’ve had these past few months and years, then yes, this is remarkable.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is shaping up to be the standout book of 2013. It has already won the Clarke and BSFA awards, just won the Nebula and is nominated for a Hugo. Ancillary Justice is a book I like quite a bit, though unlike the truly dreadful Hugo shortlist, there were other nominees in the Nebula best novel category I would have been equally satisfied with. Though if anything other than Ancillary Justice wins this year’s best novel Hugo, the Hugos will be even more of a joke than they already are due to the machinations of certain groups (for more background, see here, here and here).

For more on Ancillary Justice, here is a linguist’s take on the narrator’s use of “she” as the default pronoun.

The Andre Norton Award for the best young adult novel goes to Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson. Again an excellent choice, though personally I wouldn’t even have considered Sister Mine YA nor was it published by a YA imprint.

As for the short fiction categories, I haven’t read the winning novella by Vylar Kaftan. Of the ones I did read, Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages would have been my favourite. The winner for best novelette, The Waiting Stars by Aliette de Bodard, would have been my favourite as well, though I also like The Litigation Master and the Monkey King by Ken Liu.

As for the winner in the short story category, If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky, this is a story that doesn’t really work for me. It’s certainly a powerful story, once you get to the end, but getting there is a problem. In fact, my favourite in this category would have been Selkie Stories Are for Losers by Sofia Samatar, which is also my top Hugo pick. And in the category of “tragic tales of family/relationship grief and loss with SFF elements” (Why are so many SFF shorts so bloody depressing anyway?), I prefer Alive, Alive Oh by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley to If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love. Though it’s interesting that If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love seems to be a real love-it-or-hate-it story. People either really love it or they flat out hate it. I’ve heard the story called “gay dino porn”, which is factually incorrect, because the titular love is neither a dinosaur nor gay. I’ve seen people call the narrator sadistic, because she wants to see the people who put her fiance in a coma devoured by a T-rex. I’ve seen it called a “non-story” and “not really SF”. That last claim actually has some merit, since the speculative elements are only very tangential. Nonetheless, what is it about this story that is so polarizing?

In the dramatic presentation category, Gravity won in what was IMO a very weak slate. Now Gravity is a film I have zero interest in and indeed I have no idea why it gets so much awards love, both in mainstream and genre awards. To me, it’s the sort of very serious, very worthy and very dull science fiction movie that often is the darling of film critics and awards voters, but that I personally don’t care for at all. And I think it probably says a lot about me that my favourite in this category would have been Pacific Rim, a fun spectacle about giant robots beating up giant monsters and Idris Elba being awesome and badarse. I’d even have preferred the obligatory Doctor Who episode to Gravity and I’m very much over Doctor Who.

Finally, the grandmaster award went to Samuel Delaney and well deserved it is, too.

So in short, it was a good year for the Nebulas with strong winners and a strong nominee slate. So you’d think that the SFF community would be largely satisfied with the results. Well, in that case you’d be wrong, because the usual suspects had to weigh in to point out that the winning works did not win on their own merits, but that they only won because the authors were women with the correct politics. Because those works couldn’t possibly have won on their own merits, since they do not fulfill the criteria of what those people think is entertaining fiction. Nor are they groundbreaking because Heinlein or Clarke or Delaney or Joanna Russ or some other big name of the past did it first in the 1960s. And all this is the reason why SF is dying and a symptom of the imminent triumpf of communism and a sign that the end of western civilisation is nigh. For examples, see here and here (do-not-linkified for troll protection).

Now I sympathize with complaining about awards nominations and winners. Because there have been many years where works that were IMO pretty damn dreadful were nominated and even won, e.g. last year’s Nebula win for Kim Stanley Robinson or Black Out/All Clear taking both the Nebula and the Hugo a few years back. And if you want to know pain, you need only look at the fiction categories, particularly the novel category, on this year’s Hugo shortlist.

But what’s with this meme that rightwing writers only write entertaining fiction that is totally not political, whereas left-leaning writers, feminist writers and writers of colour only write boring message fiction? First of all, “entertaining” is just as subjective as “good”. For example, a lot of people love Tom Clancy’s thrillers for their realism and close attention to details and find them incredibly entertaining, whereas I find endless technical descriptions of submarines, weapon systems and any other piece of military equipment under the sun mindnumbingly boring. I only read that sort of thing when I’m paid to translate it, but certainly not in my leisure time reading, because I happen to find tech specs of submarines completely uninteresting, not to mention irrelevant to the actual plot. Yet thousands of readers obviously disagree.

Never mind that some readers might genuinely prefer books written by women or writers of colour, because experience has shown them that they are more likely to enjoy those books and that such books are less likely to offend or hurt them. For example, I definitely prefer books by women and have for a while now, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t read books by men. In fact, I read and like quite a few books by men. Of the last 12 books I bought, 4 – that is one third – were written by men and 8 by women. The last two books I read happen to be written by men. However, I am somewhat less likely to give a new male author a try, unless they come highly recommended, because with male authors the chance of accidentally coming across something like this is higher.

Besides, do these people honestly believe that anyone would nominate and/or vote for a book or a story they didn’t like just because it was written by the right sort of person and promotes the right sort of politics? It’s perfectly all right, if they don’t like Ancillary Justice or If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love (hell, I don’t much care for that one) or whatever. But the fact that some people don’t like it, doesn’t mean that no one does or that those who do vote for it are not doing it because they genuinely like the book/story.

If anything, the changing demographics of Nebula award nominees and winners are a reflection of the changing demographics of the field. The SFF community has been getting much bigger and much more diverse in recent years and the awards shortlists and winners are beginning to reflect this. And if some fans of more traditional fare are baffled by some of the winners or nominees, since they cannot see any merit in the works at all, well, this is how many of us felt whenever another technobabble feast with cardboard characters or a work that was blatantly offensive to large swathes of humanity won a major genre award.

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9 Responses to Back again and some comments on the 2013 Nebula Awards

  1. Mark says:

    Gravity is not your typical dull SF movie. It’s worse. Yes, part of it wants to be Apollo 13 or 2001, and I actually like the simplicity of the basic idea, but there is so much wrong about this movie:

    Hilarious dialogue, particularly George Clooney’s part, which feels like it comes straight out of a Hollywood film from the 1950s. Apollo 13 recasted with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

    A totally unconvincing back-story for Sandra Bullock’s character, which didn’t add any depth to that character at all. Or Bullock just didn’t manage to get it across. I don’t know. The first half of the movie she was stuck in a space suit and was constantly bumping into things anyway, so I wonder why anybody ever thought her performance was Academy Award worthy.

    The plot was just obstacle, obstacle, obstacle, end. No structure, no arc.

    Not a big thing, but I hated that the trigger for the plot was that a Russian missile strike on a satellite has caused that chain reaction. So the others messed it up again and we have to suffer. Extraterrestrial finger-pointing. Boring.

    • Cora says:

      The best description of Gravity I’ve heard was “Sandra Bullock moaning for 90 minutes. In space.”

      And of course it had to be a Russian missile. It couldn’t have been an American missile, because Americans never ever mess up, which will be a consolation to the doomed crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia. Armageddon was exactly the same – malfunctioning Russian space station sets off chain of problems. Only that Armageddon was at least so stupid it was entertaining. Funniest comedy of the 1990s.

  2. David Selig says:

    Yeah, all this whining how the non-right wing SFF writers can’t write entertaining stuff is really stupid. Especially silly to complain about this year’s Nebula’s ballot was extremely strong (IMO strongest best novel ballot for a SFF award in a very long time) and only someone with an axe to grind can find any “beating over the head with message” in most of the nominees.

    But it seems from reading the comments to the linked blog posts that the bashers haven’t even read most of the nominees, they just see that they are written by writers from “the enemy” and that is enough to be denounced. It is a sad state of affairs. But hey, if they don’t want to read Karen Joy Fowler or Nicola Griffith for political reasons, it is their loss.

    • Cora says:

      That was actually what baffled me most about the Nebula complaints from the right side of the SFF spectrum. The slate, particularly in best novel, was so strong (unlike the Hugo slate in the same category, which is a joke) that I couldn’t see how anybody could possibly complain about the winners. But I guess those people just saw a lot of books by women with non-traditional covers they’d never heard of (though all of them had gotten a lot of buzz and positive reviews beforehand) and just assumed it had to be politically motivated. Besides, some of the complaints I saw made it very clear that they hadn’t read Ancillary Justice, but had only read reviews, so they probably haven’t read any of the others either. Finally, these are people who believe that “this book entertained me and sold a lot of copies” equals “this book is award-worthy”, hence the Hugo nominations for that Monster Hunter book and applause for the nomination for Wheel of Time from that corner. Or maybe they were simply angry that the lone Baen book nominated (which I haven’t read, so I cannot comment on the quality) didn’t make it.

      But yeah, it’s their loss if they don’t want to read some very good books.

    • Mark says:

      “But hey, if they don’t want to read Karen Joy Fowler or Nicola Griffith for political reasons, it is their loss.”

      I loved Fowler’s novel, and I find Griffith’s novel very interesting, but I’m not particularly surprised that hardcore SF readers don’t want to read these books. It wouldn’t have been any different ten or twenty years ago. Maybe people wouldn’t complain about the politics (which in these cases is silly anyway), but they would complain about these books not being proper SF.

      So what this basically means in the context of the current complaints from the right: they don’t even understand WHY a particular book will not appeal to them. They don’t understand that there may be more than one reason why somebody likes or doesn’t like a book.

      • Cora says:

        That’s a very good point. Nicola Griffith’s Hild or Karen Joy Fowler’s novel or Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula winning short story are all borderline SFF (Hild is actually pretty pure historical fiction) and thus may not appeal to many more traditional SF fans. Which is perfectly fine – not everybody needs to like everything – but putting this dislike down to purely political reasons is silly. It also doesn’t explain the complaints about Ancillary Justice (which is a lot closer to traditional SF than Griffith or Fowler).

        I think the problem here is that we are dealing with people who both believe that their taste is absolute, i.e. that everybody will enjoy the same things they do, and that there is no such thing as art, i.e. that entertainment is the highest value. So they can neither recognise that some people might enjoy works they dislike nor why others might enjoy these works.

        • Selki says:

          I also liked Selkie Stories Are for Losers. :-)

          And I don’t see how Ancillary Justice is NOT considered science fiction. Of course it’s science fiction! What about it ISN’T science fiction?

          • Cora says:

            The story that has been accused of being “not proper SF” was not Ancillary Justice, at least not to my knowledge, but Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula winning short story “If you were a dinosaur, my love”. Now “If you were a dinosaur, my love” is borderline science fiction, so it might not meet some of the more narrow definitions of SF. However, “This does not meet my personal definition of SF” doesn’t equal “This isn’t SF.”

            Meanwhile, Ancillary Justice was merely accused of being “boring, politically correct message fiction”, usually by people who didn’t even bother reading it.

  3. Pingback: Of She-Hulk, Romance and Soylent Green – The Latest on Gender and Genre | Cora Buhlert

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