Two Literary Deaths and Some Thoughts on the 2015 Nebula Nominees

It’s been a sad day for the literary world, because on Friday we lost both Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.

Of the two, the death of Umberto Eco probably affects me more, because I vividly remember reading (and shuddering at) my mother’s copy of The Name of the Rose as a teenager. Of course, I didn’t get the many literary allusions until many years after. Except for William of Baskerville – I got that reference, only that I didn’t understand it was a literary allusion and instead assumed it meant Baskerville was a real place. I was also thrilled that Eco had mentioned Melk, where our partner school was located (the Abbey school in fact, the bus of our school musical group infamously got stuck while passing through the gates). References to Melk aside, I enjoyed the book as a straightforward historical thriller about murder and execution in the Middle Ages. Coincidentally, I’m pretty sure my Mom didn’t get the literary allusions either. But the genius of Umberto Eco was that his novels worked on multiple levels – you could read them as straightforward thriller or adventure novels or you could get so much more out of them.

By the way, the film version of The Name of the Rose also has the distinction of being the first “adult” movie I watched in the theatre. I enjoyed it, too, except for the sex scene between Christian Slater and Valentina Vargas (fairly tame by current standards and focussed on the bobbing backside of Ms. Vargas), which squicked out my thirteen-year-old self and caused me to vow that if sex looked like that, I’d never ever have any. I still think it’s a badly shot sex scene, by the way.

Unlike most of my American friends, Harper Lee means less to me than Umberto Eco did, because I came of age in the 1980s, at a time when To Kill a Mockingbird had fallen out of fashion in Germany and was little read in schools. I eventually encountered the novel, while at university, and though I enjoyed it, I was also keenly aware that I was past the age where you should discover the book.

Interestingly enough, in the twenty plus years since I graduated, To Kill a Mockingbird has experienced something of a renaissance and is once again read in grade 11 or 12, usually in the context of a unit on the American South and sometimes substituted by or complemented with John Grisham’s A Time to Kill (WTF?) and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. The teens usually enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird a whole lot, but then they are at the right age for it. At least one loved it so much that he voluntarily read Go Set a Watchman once it came out (as well as The Help).

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In happier news, the nominees for the 2015 Nebula Awards have been announced.

Once again, I could just recycle my Nebula reaction posts from last year and the year before, because my comments are quite similar. For the Nebula shortlist is once again pleasantly diverse, with women, writers and colour and international writers well represented (though as Joyce Chng pointed out on Twitter, we tend to see the same few writers of colour and international writers pop up again and again, even though they are hardly the only marginalised writers out there). And once more, I suspect that the Nebula shortlist will be a lot more representative of my personal tastes than the Hugo shortlist.

More detailed analysis under the cut:

Delving into the categories, I am pleased to see Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin nominated in the best novel category. I haven’t read Updraft by Fran Wilde and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, but I have heard good things about both and they’re definitely on my to-read list. I have also heard a lot of buzz about Uprooted by Naomi Novik and Barsk by Lawrence M. Schoen, but I have little desire to read either (though I will give them a shot, if either gets a Hugo nomination). I don’t much care about animal protagonists, which knocks out Barsk. As for Uprooted, in spite of all the buzz, the description just didn’t grab me enough to pick it up. Plus, Foz Meadows’ review suggests that it might push some of my personal buttons. As for Charles E. Gannon, this is his third Nebula Award nomination in a row, so he clearly has a fanbase among the electorate. However, I find that I have zero interest in his work. His novels strike me as “ye olde Nutty Nuggets” basically and that’s just not my thing.

Fran Wilde’s Updraft also shows up on the shortlist for the Norton Award, which is if not a first, at least very rare for the Nebulas. I’m also pleased to see Court of Fives by Kate Elliott and Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older nominated. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge, Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace and Nimona by Noelle Stevenson got a lot of buzz, though I haven’t read either. However, I’m surprised that Nimona is eligible, considering it’s a graphic novel. The unknown quantities for me are Seriously Wicked by Tina Connolly (though it sounds great), Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (from the cover and blurb, I wouldn’t even have thought this was SFF) and Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee (sounds a bit like a YA version of Rollerball).

The nominees for the Ray Bradbury Award for best dramatic presentation are largely good choices as well. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road were pretty much the obvious nominees this year and Ex Machina has gotten a lot of positive buzz as well, though I haven’t seen it (not sure if it even had a German theatrical release, in fact).

The Martian was another obvious nominee and I have resigned myself to the fact that I am apparently one of the very few people in the world who intensely dislikes both the novel and the film, because I consider them throwbacks to a type of science fiction I thought we’d moved beyond. But then, retrograde SF is exactly what the traditionalist crowd tends to like, so I’m not surprised The Martian popular.

The Pixar film, Inside Out, is probably another obvious nominee, because Americans – and the overwhelming number of Nebula nominators are Americans – just love Pixar films. But whatever magic Pixar movies possess, it doesn’t work on me nor on most Germans I know. My cousin falling asleep during one of the Toy Stories pretty much sums up how I feel about Pixar movies. And for the record, I love both classic Disney films and anime movies, but Pixar’s output is just “meh” to me. And in fact, I tend to place the annual Pixar or similar (since last year’s Lego Movie was not made by Pixar, apparently) movie under “No Award”, when it shows up on the Hugo ballot and I have voting rights.

Seeing an episode of Jessica Jones nominated in the dramatic presentation category was a pleasant surprise, because I’ve been very impressed with Jessica Jones, but felt that it was probably too female-centric for mass appeal. And indeed, I have seen a couple of comments – inevitably by men – that they didn’t like Jessica Jones and that Daredevil (which was the first thing produced under the Marvel banner that I didn’t like, even though I wanted to) was so much better. Though I’m a bit surprised that Jessica Jones is the only Marvel Studios production to make the Nebula shortlist this year, since I suspected Avengers: Age of Ultron and/or Ant-Man might make it as well. But then, Ant-Man was one of Marvel’s slighter entries (though fun) and a lot of people seem to dislike Age of Ultron, though I liked it quite a bit. I may talk some more about that eventually.

The short fiction categories look very good as well. In the novella category, I’m very pleased to see “The New Mother” by Eugene Fisher nominated, since that novella is definitely on my Hugo shortlist. I also enjoyed “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik, “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor and “Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson. I tried reading “The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney, but bounced off it. For me “Wings of Sorrow and Bone” by Beth Cato is the only unknown quantity in this category.

In the novelette category, I enjoyed “And you shall know her by the trail of dead” by Brooke Bolander very much and it will go on my Hugo ballot. I also liked “Grandmother nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg. The other four stories are unknown to me, because they are from print magazines, which are pretty much impossible to get in Germany. Though I have heard praise for “Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker.

The short story category looks very strong as well. “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer was a personal favourite last year and definitely on my Hugo list. For that record, I also loved Ms. Kritzer’s novelette “So Much Cooking”. I’m a big fan of Sam J. Miller’s work, though I haven’t read the Nebula nominated story of his yet. My favourite Sam J. Miller story last year as “Calved”, though I also liked “Ghosts of Home” very much. “Damage” by David Levine is another 2015 short story I liked a lot. IMO it was much better than “Turncoat”, last year’s Hugo nominee with a similar theme. “Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar and “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong are both very fine stories as well. The only short story on the Nebula shortlist that didn’t work for me is “Today I am Paul” by Martin L. Shoemaker. I like the idea behind the story, but the execution didn’t work for me and that fire was way too contrived. Besides – and that’s a personal thing – I just don’t like Alzheimer stories.

Coincidentally, the Nebula nominees once again prove that there are certain themes drifting both through the zeitgeist in general and the SFF part thereof in particular. Because if you look back at Hugo and Nebula nominated works, particularly in the short fiction categories, or check out the Year’s Best anthologies, you tend to find clusters of stories with particular themes showing up in certain years.

For example, approx. five years ago there was a flurry of really depressing stories about parents and dead children, all set in environments hostile to human life like an undersea base or an alien planet.

This year, I’m seeing a bunch of Alzheimer stories on the Nebula shortlist. Both “Today I am Paul” and “Madeleine” deal with the subject of Alzheimer’s disease, though only “Madeleine” manages to do something unexpected with it. One might also include “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers”, though the mother of the narrator is a reclusive hoarder (and not human anyway) rather than suffering from some form of dementia. Last year’s Hugo nominee “Totalled” by Kari English deal with cognitive decline as well, though it uses the old trope of the “brain in a jar” story to do so. Of course, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are also big themes in the mundane media to the point that I coined a name for this subgenre, dementia dramas. I talk some more about dementia dramas and why I dislike them in these posts on the Oscars, where dementia dramas tend to do well.

Artificial Intelligence is another theme currently drifting through the zeitgeist, both genre and beyond, and so we’ve been seeing a flood of artificial intelligence stories of late. On this year’s Nebula ballot, there’s the delightful “Cat Pictures Please”, “Damages”, “Today I Am Paul” and of course Ancillary Mercy, the finale of the Imperial Radsch trilogy which probably started the trend. Ex-Machina in the dramatic presentation category would also fit right in here. Last year’s Hugo nominees “Turncoat” and “Big Boys Don’t Cry” also fit into this category, as does Avengers: Age of Ultron and the human/AI romance in Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s not a new theme, of course, AI stories have been part of science fiction for a long time now. But the current cluster of AI stories is certainly notable and it dovetails the fact that we’re also currently seeing a lot of articles about artificial intelligence in the media, from “AIs can’t even successfully solve an 8th grade science test” to “OMG, AIs are going to exterminate us all”.

Though the AI story is involving, for the AI protagonists of previous years were often military systems and autonomous weapons of some kind such as Breq from the Imperial Radsch trilogy, Maggie from “Big Boys Don’t Cry” or Benedict from “Turncoat” and the focus was on these weapons breaking away from their masters. This year still has military systems such as the narrator of “Damage” and of course Breq ditching their programming and finding their own moral compass. But there are also more benevolent AIs such as the meddling and cat-obsessed narrator of “Cat Pictures Please” and the care-bot from “Today I am Paul”.

Meanwhile, the fairytale retelling or faux fairytale (a.k.a. Kunstmärchen) trend of the past few years seems to be fading somewhat, which is fine by me, because I never much cared for it. Part of this is cultural protectiveness, because no one likes to have their culture appropriated, and part of it is that a lot of fairytale retellings are not nearly as clever and innovative as they think they are. Cause if thirty to forty year old Czech TV movies did it before (and often better), it’s neither new nor innovative.

Notable by its absence is climate change as a theme. Because nary a week goes by without another article about cli-fi a.k.a. fiction about climate change. Here are two fairly recent examples by Rafi Letzter and James Wallace Harris; there are many more. However – and that’s interesting – I don’t really see this alleged rise of cli-fi reflected in the SFF fiction I read and in the SFF fiction that is nominated for awards all that much. Paolo Bacigalupi tends to write about climate change and received a number of awards nominations and even wins for The Wind-up Girl and Shipbreaker, but that was a couple of years ago and his latest book hasn’t received the same attention. Of recent short fiction, “Calved” by Sam J. Miller is set in a world ravaged by climate change, while last year’s Hugo nominated novella “Flow” by Arlan Andrews Sr. is a sort of anti-climate-change story set in a post-apocalyptic world during a new ice age.

Another trend I’ve noticed in recent years are stories about parents, children and legacies. Of this year’s Nebula nominees, “The New Mother”, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” and “Madeleine” all fall into this category. Other 2015 stories with this theme are “Calved” by Sam J. Miller (I suspect his Nebula nominated story “When your child strays from God” would fit in there as well) and “Points of Origin” by Marissa Lingen. In the past few years, “Selkie Stories are for Losers”, “The Water The Falls On You From Nowhere” and “Totalled” would also fit into this category. In some ways, this even ties into the taste for really depressing stories about the grieving parents of dead children that were popular approx. five years ago.

In recent years, we’ve also had a cluster of stories about LGBT relationships (which inevitably infuriated the canine fraction of fandom), such as John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers” or Sam J. Miller’s “We are the Cloud”. This continues in this year’s Nebula Awards, since among the nominees, “The New Mother” by Eugene Fisher, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong and “Grandmother nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg feature LGBT protagonists, ditto for Sam J. Miller’s not nominated story “Calved”.

This looks like a trend at first glance, but it’s actually a case of normalisation, for until fairly recently, the SFF genre was extremely heteronormative and such stories were plain not published. So now we’ve finally broken through this heteronormativity to some degree, we suddenly start seeing a lot more stories with LGBTQI protagonists, so it seems like a cluster, even though it’s actually due to the SFF genre finally reflecting the wider world. Ditto for the increase in stories with non-American and non-Western settings and protagonists. SFF was so US and western-centric for so long that what is actually a normalisation, namely an increase in non-American and non-Western settings and characters, seems like a trend.

I wanted to link to some other reactions to this year’s Nebula nominations, but so far I haven’t found a lot of them beyond the wholly understandable squeeing of the nominees.

Nicholas Whyte has ranked the best novel nominees by Goodreads/Library Thing stats and Rocket Stack Rank offers an annotated list of the 2015 Nebula nominees in the short fiction categories with links to reviews, etc… There is also a bit of discussion going on in the comments of James Nicoll’s livejournal and File 770.

Comments are off, because awards posts tend to bring out the ugly.

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