Some Thoughts on the 2014 Nebula Nominees

So the 2014 Nebula Award nominees have been announced and I could basically just recycle my Nebula reactions post from last year and switch out the names, because my thoughts are largely similar.

All in all, this year’s Nebula shortlist is once again pleasantly diverse with lots of women, writers of colour and non-US writers included. But then – see, I am copying last year’s post – the Nebulas have generally been much better with regard to diversity than the Hugos, probably because they are less dependant upon “popular taste”, whatever that may be, and less vulnerable to ballot stuffing attempts.

Regarding the best novel slate, Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison and Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer have all gotten a lot of positive buzz this past year(not to mention that they’re all pretty damn good books), so it’s no surprise to see them on the shortlist. Never mind that Ann Leckie has won pretty much every genre award there is to win with Ancillary Justice. I’m also pleased to see The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu, on the shortlist. It’s still very difficult for non-US authors, let alone for fiction in translation, to get nominated for the big international genre awards*, so the nomination for Liu Cixin and his translator Ken Liu is a very positive sign. Charles E. Gannon and Jack McDevitt finally are both authors who seem to be popular with the Nebula electorate, since Gannon was nominated last year and McDevitt has been nominated several times and even won. However, neither author is really on my radar, since I’ve never read them. All in all, the nominees cover a wide range of speculative fiction from hard SF to secondary world fantasy and from avantgardistic to fairly traditional.

The best novella shortlist consists of well known and respected authors, though I’ve read only one of the nominated works, “The Mothers of Voorhisville” by Mary Rickert, which is also on my personal shortlist.

The best novelette shortlist looks very good. “The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson and “We Are the Cloud” by Sam J. Miller are also on my personal list. Though some people really hated “We Are the Cloud”, because it’s about feelings and stuff and set in a somewhat old-fashioned cyberpunk future and contains gay people besides. I’m also very fond of both Carmen Maria Machado and Alaya Dawn Johnson, though I haven’t read these specific works.

The short story nominees also look very good. I like the stories of Aliette de Bodard and Ursula Vernon a lot, so I’m pleased to see them here. Alyssa Wong has been getting a lot of positive buzz this past year and I really liked the one story of hers that I read. I’m also happy to see Pakistani author Usman T. Malik on the shortlist as well as what is apparently the final story by the late Eugie Foster.

The shortlist for the Andre Norton Award for young adult SFF for once contains the sort of book actual young adults might read, whereas in the past we often had the forays of well regarded authors of adult SFF like Cory Doctorow, China Miéville or Paolo Bacigalupi into YA, which are not necessarily all that popular with actual teens. I’m please to see Sarah Rees Brennan nominated. Alaya Dawn Johnson pops up again as well.

Unlike last year, I mostly agree with this year’s nominees for the Ray Bradbury Award for outstanding dramatic presentation. Okay, so I’ll never get just what so many people see in The Lego Movie. I didn’t even particularly like playing with Legos, when I was a kid (I preferred traditional wooden building blocks) and I have zero interest in watching somebody else play with virtual Legos on the big screen. And while I do get what so many people see in Interstellar, I personally don’t like it. But Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were both excellent, if very different movies (albeit part of the same continuity). Edge of Tomorrow was IMO hampered by its star Tom Cruise, since I heard a lot of people explicitly citing the presence of Tom Cruise as their reason not to watch the film. So I’m happy to see it get some love, especially since Edge of Tomorrow is that by now endangered beast, the fairly original science fiction movie. Okay, so Edge of Tomorrow was an adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill, but that’s hardly a well known property. Finally, Birdman is an interesting choice for this shortlist, though not one I would have made, since I don’t really view it as speculative.

At Far Beyond Reality, Stefan Raets has a round-up of reactions to this year’s Nebula nominees. Meanwhile, Jason Sanford collects various reactions from Twitter. So far, it’s mostly posts listing the nominees and “Squee!” reactions from the nominees themselves, but two posts stand out to me.

The first is this announcement post at io9, which points out that the Nebula shortlist contains a lot of new names. Now this statement baffled me a bit, because while several of the authors might be new to the Nebula Awards, they certainly aren’t unknown. Indeed, this year’s shortlist had a lower number of unknown quantities, at least for me, than those of previous

The second is this post by Larry Nolan in which he expresses his disappointment with the shortlist, which he finds underwhelming. He makes a couple of good points, such as that a lot of excellent speculative fiction is found beyond the traditional genre imprints and often beyond the English language as well, but such works are invisible to the Nebula electorates. I actually agree with this, but considering the Nebulas are voted upon by the members of the SFWA, an organisation which is both very genre and very US centered, the Nebulas are probably not the awards we can expect to honour literary crossover works. Juried awards like the Clarke Award or the World Fantasy Award are a better bid there and indeed literary speculative fiction has been repeatedly nominated and even won both awards. And the number of non-US/UK authors on the Nebula shortlist (I count four, Liu Cixin, Usman T. Malik, Aliette de Bodard and Alyssa Wong, though I may be missing someone) is actually progress as is the fact that a translated novel is on the shortlist, even if it’s very much a core genre work.

Another qualm Larry Nolan has about this year’s Nebula shortlist is that even though authors, characters and settings are getting more diverse, the stories themselves are still stuck in the same old paradigms of the past forty years instead of breaking new ground. I’ve heard complaints like this before from a certain corner of the SFF community that is vehemently pro-innovation and nostalgia.

In general, I think that this year’s Nebula shortlist and indeed many genre awards shortlists of recent years are indicative of a generational and demographic shift in the larger SFF community. Speculative fiction is getting younger, more diverse and more international, which influences the works we see nominated for or even winning awards. This is also why we see so many names on this year’s Nebula shortlist we haven’t seen there before.

Now not everybody is happy with this shift. On the one side, we have a block of more conservative and traditional readers and writers, spearheaded by the so-called “Sad Puppies”**, who are not happy with the shift away from stories heavy on the engineering and explosions (and often, but not always, rightwing politics in space) and light on the characterisation (as well as on women, people of colour, GLBT people and anyone who is not a straight white man) towards more diversity and more literary stories. They just want what they consider fun and entertaining stories and are often unaware that “fun” and “entertaining” are both subjective.

On the other side, we have a group of critics who want the genre to blow up and burn down all the old paradigms and who are vehemently opposed to anything they consider nostalgic. These people are actually in favour of more diversity and more literary speculative fiction, but often the writers and stories that actually find their way onto the ballot are not radical enough for those folks.

To this second group, I want to reply with this post by Ann Leckie from last year who sums up everything so much better than I ever could. Because if you are a writer from a traditionally marginalised group, just being allowed to enter the tree house and play in the sandbox you’ve admired all your life is a victory. You don’t necessarily want to burn down the tree house and blow up the sandbox. Here is a quote:

And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing. Sure, we all probably could profit from looking at our assumptions and cultural baggage, and being aware of that as we write.*** But burning the whole castle down? When we’ve uncovered and rebuilt these parts here, so painstakingly? When we love the castle so much and want so badly to be there, even when others are trying to push us out? “Burn it all down and start over!” doesn’t sound terribly appealing. Quite the opposite.

Both groups, the traditionalists and the anti-nostalgics, would probably never agree on what makes a good SFF story, though they are eerily united on which works they dislike, namely Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, last year’s Nebula award winning short story “If you were a dinosaur, my love” by Rachel Swirsky (okay, so I don’t particularly like that one either, though I can see why many do) and John Scalzi’s Redshirts (which I do like, but don’t necessarily consider it awards worthy). Both groups are also overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, though the traditionalists lean American, while the anti-nostalgics lean British.

Comments closed, because awards posts tends to attract trolls.

*German writer Patrick Süskind was nominated for and even won the World Fantasy Award with Perfume in 1987, beating Stephen King’s It among others, but that’s the only translated work to win a major genre award I can think of.

**Though they should be at least partly happy with this year’s Nebula shortlist, since they seem to like Charles E. Gannon as well as several of the nominated movies.

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