A few words on the 2016 Nebula Awards, the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Awards and the Shadow Clarkes

Yesterday, the winners of the 2016 Nebula Awards were announced. You can find a full list of winners plus plenty of photos of the ceremony here at File 770. Joel Cunningham also offers a brief overview of the ceremony as well as a list of winners and nominees at the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

Back in February, when the 2016 Nebula Awards shortlist was announced, I wrote that it was a very good shortlist. This shortlist produced a set of very worthy winners, too, though most of them were not my personal favourites.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders wins in the novel category. It’s not an unsurprising winner, since the novel got a lot of buzz from the time it was released on. It also was one of two clear favourites, since both Everfair and Borderline are more niche works and The Obelisk Gate is a sequel to a novel which did not win the Nebula last year. Nonetheless, I expected Ninefox Gambit to win, though Ceridwen Christensen at the B&N blog correctly pegged All the Birds in the Sky as the eventual winner.

Three of the 2016 Nebula nominees in the best novel category are also Hugo finalists this year. Now I’m a Hugo voter this year and thanks to an excellent Hugo shortlist, I currently have three novels duking it out for the number 1 spot on my Hugo ballot. Only one of those three was also a Nebula finalists and it’s not All the Birds in the Sky. Now don’t get me wrong, I did like All the Birds in the Sky, I just didn’t love it the way so many other people apparently did. But then, I never quite got why last year’s Nebula winner in the best novel category Uprooted was so popular either.

On to the novella category, where the winner is Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Again, it’s a story that has gotten a lot of buzz and coincidentally is also a Hugo finalist. It’s certainly a worthy winner and a story I liked well enough, though once again I didn’t love it like so many others apparently did. I guess a story about a boarding school for children who once visited fantastic worlds, but can’t go back there, does not resonate with me as much as it evidently does with US readers. For while Anglo-American children’s fantasy is chock full of portal stories (Narnia, Oz, Alice in Wonderland), portal fantasies are much rarer in German children’s fantasy. I mean, there is Michael Ende’s Neverending Story and – well, that’s it, basically. So naturally, a novella which explores the aftermath that portal fantasies normally leave out would resonate more with US and UK readers.

The respective winners in all other categories are works I’m at least familiar with. However, the winner in the novelette category, “The Long Fall Up” by William Ledbetter, is a complete unknown to me, probably because the story first appeared in F&SF and print SFF mags are notoriously difficult to come by here in Germany. Greg Hullender has a summary and a mini-review at Rocket Stack Rank. Based on this, it certainly sounds like an interesting story. Coincidentally, “The Long Fall Up” is not just the only Nebula win for the big three print magazines this year, it’s also the only clear science fiction story among all the winners in the fiction categories. And those who worry that women and people of colour are taking over all the genre awards will be pleased that the author is a white man.

The winner in the best short story category is “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar. Once more, this is a story that got a lot of buzz and coincidentally is also a Hugo finalist in this category. And once again it’s a story that’s perfectly fine and certainly a worthy winner, but not really one that wowed me (I’m sensing a theme here). In many ways, my reaction to “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is similar to my reaction to the controversial 2014 Nebula winner in this category, “If you were a dinosaur, my love” by Rachel Swirsky. I can absolutely see why so many other people love this story – however, I don’t love it myself (though I liked “Seasons of Glass and Iron” quite a bit more than “If you were a dinosaur, my love”). Part of the reason is that – as I’ve said several times before – fairy tale retellings and new fairy tales rarely do it for me. And while “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is beautifully written, it’s also very predictable.

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic presentation goes to Arrival. Once again, this is hardly an unexpected winner, since Arrival is exactly the sort of serious science fiction movie that the Nebula and Hugo electorate loves. Plus, it’s based on a Nebula Award winning story by Ted Chiang. What somewhat marrs it for me is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis doesn’t work that way, no matter how many SF authors (not just Ted Chiang, but also Samuel R. Delany and Jack Vance) insist that it does.

The Andre Norton Award for YA SFF goes to Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine. It’s an excellent choice IMO, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it YA and indeed, it’s classified as regular SFF and published by Tor, not a YA publisher. But then, Locus seems to believe that Revenger by Alastair Reynolds is YA, too. And once again those who worry that women and people of colour are taking over the genre will be pleased that the author is a white man who managed to win even in the traditionally heavily female dominated YA category. So rest assured, white men can still win SFF awards in the year 2017.

The Damon Knight Grand Master Award went to Jane Yolen and highly deserved it is, too. The Kevin O’Donnell Jr. Service to SFWA Award went to Jim Fiscus and the Solstice Award went to Toni Weisskopf and (posthumously) to Peggy Rae Sapienza. Certain quarters will be very pleased with Toni Weisskopf’s win, I’m sure.

Finally, File 770 reports that the Nebulas will add a category for game writing in 2018 or 2019, which will once again please a lot of people.

In other awards news, the shortlist for the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award has been announced as well. It’s a pretty good shortlist, consisting of a Hugo and Nebula Award nominee (Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee), a Hugo nominee, sequel to one of last year’s Clarke Award nominees (A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers), this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and the literary speculative fiction novel of the year (The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead), a new novel by a former Clarke Award winner (Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan), a new work by an author nominated for multiple BSFA, British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards (Central Station by Lavie Tidhar) and a Locus Award nominated novel by an established and talented, but somewhat overlooked writer (After Atlas by Emma Newman). It’s also a nicely diverse shortlist, ranging from space opera and military SF via dystopian fiction to alternate history. The writer demographics are diverse as well – after the debacle of the all male, all white shortlist in 2013, in spite of a jury consisting of several women – and include three men and three women, two writers of colour, at least two LGBT writers and one international writer. At the Guardian, David Barnett also reports on the 2017 Clarke Award shortlist and praises its diversity.

So in short, it’s a good shortlist with lots of interesting works. I have my favourites, of course, but I wouldn’t mind if any of those books won.

Shortly before the official Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist was announced, the Shadow Clarke jury (shadow juries are apparently a thing in the UK, so this is not as presumptuous as it sounds) also announced its personal shortlist. The Shadow Clarke shortlist overlaps with the official shortlist in two points, namely The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Central Station by Lavie Tidhar. The remaining Shadow nominees are The Power by Naomi Alderman, a critically acclaimed feminist SF novel that would not look out of place on the actual Clarke shortlist, The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, a somewhat obscure novella that has gotten quite a bit of buzz in the run-up to the Hugos, and two to me unknown quantities, A Field Guide to Reality by Johanna Kavenna and Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. Both straddle the border between literary fiction and SF and are therefore representative of the sort of books the Shadow Clarke Jury tends to favour. Diversity count: three women, three men, one writer of colour, one international writer.

Unsurprisingly, the selections of the Shadow Clarke Jury tend towards the literary end of SF. Also unsurprisingly, the members of the Shadow Clarke Jury are not at all happy about the actual Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, as they explain at great length here, even though they got two out of six nominees right, while two more actual Clarke nominees, Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, were on the Shadow Jury’s longlist. So their hit rate is not bad at all. Nonetheless, there is a lot of complaining, because the actual Clarke Award shortlist (or at least those books the Shadow Clarke Jury doesn’t like) is too safe, too populist, too commercial (whereas the bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize winning, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama endorsed Underground Railroad apparently isn’t commercial and populist at all), too focussed on core genre works, too YA focussed (whereby YA seems to refer not to actual young adult fiction but to works that focus more on characters and emotions than on ideas) and too much like the Hugos and Nebulas.

They might have a point with the last bit, since IMO the biggest strength of the Arthur C. Clarke Award has always been that it honours books that the Hugos and Nebulas tend to miss, because they sit on the fringes of the genre. And it’s true that in recent years, there has been more overlap between the Clarke Awards and the Hugos and Nebulas. However, it’s not just the Clarke Awards that are changing direction (if indeed they are), but but the Hugos and Nebulas are changing direction as well and increacingly recognizing works one would rarely have found on a Hugo or Nebula shortlist ten or fifteen years ago.

As for the rest of the Shadow Clarke Jury’s complaints, those might be summed up as “The books we liked best weren’t shortlisted”. Well, the works I like best often don’t get shortlisted for genre awards either, let alone win. Since approx. 2010, the Hugo and Nebula shortlists have matched my personal preferences closer than they used to and I’m generally quite happy with the shortlists, puppy shenangigans notwithstanding. Nonetheless, in the four years I’ve been a Hugo nominator now, my favourite SFF novel of the respective year never made the shortlist or even the longlist (though at least one book I nominated always made it). SFF awards reflect the direction the genre as a whole is going in, not our personal preferences. Also, as my somewhat lukewarm reaction to the 2016 Nebula Award winners shows, sometimes the works that win awards are not the ones we’d prefer, even if they’re perfectly fine and worthy winners.

Though I honestly wonder why there is such a vehement dislike for Becky Chambers among the Shadow Clarke Jury and in the UK SFF scene in general? It’s okay not to care for her books, but the way Becky Chambers is singled out as an undeserving finalist and an example of all that’s wrong with contemporary SFF is quite remarkable. Sour grapes that Becky Chambers’ debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was not just shortlisted for last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award, but also longlisted for last year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, i.e. a literary award, alongside such writers as Anne Enright, Kate Atkinson and Geraldine Brooks? So much for hyper-commercial.

At Lady Business, Renay comments both on the actual Shadow Clarke and the actual Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist. Unlike the “Sharkes”, Renay is quite happy with the direction the Clarke Award is currently going.

I guess the Shadow Clarke Jury provides another illustration for my “Three Fractions of Speculative Fiction” theory, since the “Sharkes” (which is what the Shadow Clarke Jury members call themselves) are an excellent example of what I’ve called the anti-nostalgic fraction. Coincidentally, they also prove that the anti-nostalgic fraction and the traditionalist fraction can often sound eerily similar in their criticisms of works they don’t like (they also tend to dislike the same works, though for different reasons), even though they would probably never agree on what makes a good book.

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