Some Thoughts on the 2018 Nebula Award Finalists

The finalists for the 2018 Nebula Awards have been announced today, as have the finalists for the 2018 Aurealis Award and the finalists for the 2018 BSFA Awards were announced a few days ago. If you want to read the 2018 Nebula Award finalists, at The Verge, Andrew Liptak has compiled a list where to find the 2018 Nebula Award finalists online for free.

ETA: JJ at File 770 also has a more comprehensive list regarding where to find the 2019 Nebula Award finalists with both free and buy links.

So let’s take a look at the different categories:

Best Novel

The six finalists in the best novel category are all fine choices. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and Witchmark by C.L. Polk are all debut novels that got a lot of buzz last year, plus Rebecca Roanhorse won the Nebula, Hugo and Campbell Award for her short story “Welcome to You Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” last year. Sam J. Miller, author of Blackfish City, is an excellent short fiction writer and won the Andre Norton Award last year for The Art of Starving. Mary Robinette Kowal, who is nominated for The Calculating Stars, a novel in her Lady Astronaut series, is a fine and popular author and will probably be the new president of the SFWA soon. Naomi Novik is another longterm Hugo and Nebula favourite (and a previous Nebula winner for Uprooted), though I haven’t read this year’s finalist Spinning Silver yet, because I don’t much care for fairytale retellings.

There is surprisingly little overlap between this year’s Nebula finalists and my personal Hugo picks (though I haven’t yet finalised my ballot) in this category, but then I have only read one of the Nebula finalists, namely Trail of Lightning, which I enjoyed a whole lot. Two more are on my “Check this out sometime” list and the remaining three are books I passed on, usually because the theme, blurb or subgenre is something that does not interest me. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be sad if the Hugo best novel shortlist looked like the Nebula shortlist this year.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 3 writers of colour, at least one LGBT writer.

Best Novella:

Again, this is a very good and not overly surprising shortlist. Artificial Condition by Martha Wells is part of the hugely popular Murderbot series and a sequel to last year’s Nebula and Hugo winner in this category. Though I’m a bit surprised that the Nebula voters went for this particular Murderbot novella rather than Exit Strategy or Rogue Protocol. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard is a lovely Sherlock Holmes variation and part of her Xuya Universe. The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark is a great Steampunky alternate history novella set in New Orleans, i.e. pretty much the sort of thing I’m guaranteed to enjoy. Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield is a cool Steampunky time travel novella with a highwoman protagonist from a fairly new author. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson is a post-apocalyptic tale cum time travel novella that made quite a splash last year. What is more, Kelly Robson won the Nebula Award for best novelette last year. The only finalist that is a bit out of the left field is Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee, a self-published military science fiction novella. But then, Jonathan P. Brazee is a popular indie SF author and was a finalist in the novelette category last year, so his nomination isn’t that surprising.

In this category, the overlap with my personal Hugo longlist is fairly high, because three and a half of the Nebula novella finalists also appear on my personal Hugo longlist. The half is because I’m planning to nominate a different Murderbot novella. And those that are concerned about Tor.com’s domination in the novella categories at the Hugos and Nebulas will be pleased that only four of the six best novella finalists are Tor.com novellas. One was published by Subteranean Press, another is self-published.

Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, 2 writers of colour, at least one LGBT writer, 2 international writers, 1 indie writer.

Best Novelette:

This is where it gets a little strange, because there are quite a few “Huh?” finalists in this category that at least were not on my radar at all. But let’s start with a finalist that’s not only on my radar, but will almost certainly make my Hugo ballot, namely The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, an alternate history novelette about elephants, radium girls and the general shittiness of human beings. Brooke Bolander writes great and hard-hitting short fiction and has been nominated for both the Hugos and Nebulas before. She’s also one of those authors I inevitably check out, whenever their name shows up in a table of contents. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly is a fine fantasy novelette and also on my personal Hugo longlist. “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte did briefly surface on my radar, since the evocative title rang a bell. Besides, it was published in Lightspeed, which I normally check out. Though I haven’t read this particular story, at least not as far as I recall. “An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan was the lead story in the eponymous collection, which got some attention last year, though again I haven’t read it. “The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen is another story I haven’t read. It was published in Future Science Fiction Digest, a newish magazine I’m not familiar with either. It publishes a lot of international writers, which is always good, and seems to be published in conjunction with a Chinese science fiction group called the Future Affairs Administration. But though the venue is a tad obscure, Lawrence M. Schoen isn’t exactly a surprising Nebula finalist, since he has been nominated several times before. The most surprising (at least to me) finalist in this category is “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a military science fiction story which was published in an anthology called Expanding Universe Vol. 4, which was edited by popular indie science fiction author Craig Martelle. R.R. Virdi also was a two times finalist for the Dragon Award, an award which I hadn’t expected to have much overlap with the Nebulas.

By the way, if you’re wondering whatever happened to the Dragon Awards, Camestros Felapton posted about the latest progress or lack thereof on his blog.

Diversity count: 2 women, 5 men (which will hopefully appease those folks worried about men being crowded out of the major science fiction awards), 3 writers of colour, 1 international writer, 2 indie writers.

Best Short Story

This is another category where several finalists were not on my radar at all. Let’s start with the ones that were: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compensium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow is a lovely fantasy story, which is also on my personal Hugo longlist. Sarah Pinsker is a fine writer whose stories frequently show up on awards shortlists, though I haven’t yet read her nominated story “The Court Magician”. A.T. Greenblatt’s name has been popping up in various science fiction magazines last year, though again I haven’t read her nominated story “And Yet”. It seems to lean towards horror, which is not exactly a common genre for the Nebulas. I also haven’t read “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark, though it has one of the coolest titles I’ve seen in a long time. The two remaining finalists are “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno and “Going Dark” by Richard Fox. Rhett C. Bruno and Richard Fox are both popular indie science fiction authors. Fox writes military SF and is a Dragon Award winner (hmm, more overlap), while Bruno writes both science fiction and fantasy. The Nebula nominated stories were both published in indie science fiction anthologies, namely the science fiction anthology Bridge Across the Stars (Bruno) and the military SF anthology Backblast Area Clear (Fox).

Diversity count: 3 women, 2 men, 1 writer of colour, 2 indie writers.

Game Writing

This is a brand-new category and one I cannot say much about, because I don’t do games. I was a bit surprised to see Bandersnatch, the interactive installment of Charlie Brooker’s anthology series Black Mirror here, because I would have put it under dramatic presentation (and that’s where it will go for the Hugos, if it makes the ballot). God of War is a popular video game. The remaining three finalists all come from Choice of Games, which is apparently a videogame company specialising in interactive fiction. Kate Heartfield, who is also nominated in the novella category, makes a second appearance here and Natalia Theodoridou is a name which pops up in the various genre magazines on occasion.

Diversity Count: 3 women, 6 men, though five of those six men are nominated for the same video game. At least 3 international writers, maybe more.

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

This is another weird shortlist, but not because the finalists weren’t on my radar – they were – but because I didn’t expect many of those works to be nominated. Black Panther is probably the least surprising finalist, because it’s a great film and one of the highest grossing movies of all time that deserves to win all the awards. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is another unsurprising finalist, because it’s a well-made and extremely popular film that has already won a Golden Globe and been nominated for various other awards. Sorry To Bother You is an satirical science fiction indie movie, which got quite a bit of attention last year, though I didn’t expect that it would make the Nebula shortlist. A Quiet Place is part of the current wave of popular horror movies that are a bit more cerebral than your usual zombie or slasher film. It also had an interesting gimmick – you have to be quiet or the monsters will get you. It’s probably not a bad film, though I haven’t seen it, because horror isn’t my genre and because I really don’t like John Krasinski. Again, I didn’t expect this to get a nomination. If a new wave horror movie got a nomination this year, my money would have been on Bird Box rather than this. Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe and Chuck Lightning is a beautiful music video and the first song/music video to be nominated for a Nebula Award, as far as I know. It’s also certainly a deserving nominee, though given the recent trend towards music videos and albums popping up on the Hugo and now Nebula shortlist with increased frequency, I wonder whether it’s not time to create a music category. The last finalist in this category is yet another episode of The Good Place, that unwatchable but inexplicably popular afterlife comedy, which was nominated for a Nebula and won a Hugo last year. I have already expressed my intense dislike for The Good Place at length and I have really no idea why this blasted show is so popular, when there are so many other great SFF shows out there.

Talking of which, Avengers: Infinity War is really notable by its absence. Ditto for Annihilation, which was probably hampered by coming out very early in the year. It’s also notable that no TV show except for the bloody Good Place made it, even though there are so many great SFF TV shows these days. But there is no Handmaid’s Tale, no Expanse, no Outlander, no Star Trek Discovery, none of sadly cancelled Marvel Netflix shows, none of the various DC superhero shows, no Doctor Who, no Hard Sun, no Altered Carbon, etc… Yes, I know that my tastes in SFF movies and TV shows is really out of whack with the majority of the Hugo and Nebula electorate, but this is nonetheless a strange shortlist.

No diversity count, it takes too many people to make movies.

Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Book

Compared to the previous category, this shortlist is largely unsurprising. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is a hugely successful book that was probably the YA debut of 2018. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman and Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien are also highly popular YA novels that got a lot of buzz last year. And Roshani Chokshi is another extremely popular YA author, though I must have missed her nominated novel Aru Shah and the End of Time. Meanwhile, the last finalist, A Light in the Dark by A.K. DuBoff, is one I’ve never heard of. Some research revealed that it’s a space opera/military SF novel and apparently another indie book. This is very surprising, because YA fiction is still very much dominated by traditional publishing.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 4 writers of colour, 1 indie writer.

Thoughts and Musings

This year’s Nebula Award shortlist is a mix of the expected and the surprising. Once again, it’s a fine and diverse shortlist.

One notable trend is that there is a lot of alternate history on this shortlist (I count at least six alternate history nominees, maybe more), which is pretty surprising, because alternate history is normally a fairly small subgenre. We also have stories about articial intelligence and fairy tale retellings on the shortlist, though fewer than in previous years. Smaller trends seem to be historical fantasy tales, which bleed into alternate history, and time travel stories.

The split between science fiction and fantasy is fairly even. Fantasy is mainly secondary world fantasy and historical fantasy. I saw very little in the way of urban or contemporary fantasy, which isn’t unexpected for the Nebulas. Science fiction seems to be split between near future post-apocalyptic and dystopian SF on the one hand and space opera and military science fiction on the other. However, what’s really notable is that with the exception of Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective, all space opera and military SF finalists are works by indie writers.

Which brings us to the other notable trend on this year’s Nebula shortlist, namely the surprising amount of indie writers nominated. There are six indie writers and five indie books/stories nominated for Nebula Awards this year, which is a lot more than we’ve seen before. Now the SFWA opened membership to self-published writers a few years ago, so it was only to be expected that we would start to see more indie books on the Nebula shortlist (disclaimer: I’m not an SFWA member).

I also guess another disclaimer is in order: I don’t hate indie authors. I’m one myself, for heaven’t sake. I also promote a lot of indie books, both on this blog and over at the Speculative Fiction Showcase and the Indie Crime Scene. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I included Jonathan P. Brazee’s nominated novella Fire Ant in one of my new release round-ups last year – at any rate, the title rings a bell.

Because what’s really notable is how different the five indie finalists are from the rest of the finalists. For starters, the indie finalists are all space opera with strong military leanings or outright military science fiction. Again, this isn’t too surprising, since a whole lot of indie SFF writers, including the massively successful ones who are most likely to be SFWA members (there is a minimum income threshold for SFWA eligibility), write space opera and military SF.

Furthermore, most (five of six – I’m not sure about Rhett C. Bruno) of the indie Nebula finalists are affiliated with the 20Booksto50K group founded by Michael Anderle. For those who don’t know, 20Booksto50K started out as a Facebook group for business minded indie writers (the name implies that 20 books should bring you an income of 50000 USD), but by now they are also holding regular writers’ conferences. 20Booksto50K is a huge group – I think they have twenty thousand members or something – and because of their business focus, a lot of financially successful indie writers, i.e. the ones also most likely to join SFWA, are members. Plus, many of the early members including the founder were SFF writers, though they’ve since branched out to cover other genres. I’ve never been a member, largely because I don’t do Facebook, but I know some members and have seen videos of their conferences, so I’m familiar with the ideas behind the whole thing, which is basically “write fast, publish fast and create a ‘minimum viable product’ in highly commercial genres”. I’ve also read their manifesto, which may be found here. 20Booksto50K also encourages collaboration between authors and I wouldn’t be surprised the some of the indie anthologies, where the nominated stories were published, grew out of this or similar groups. What is surprising, however, is that several writers affiliated with 20Booksto50K hit the Nebula shortlist this yar, since critical acclaim and awards recognition is not really a main aim of this group. Though I guess they’re happy enough to take the publicity boost it brings.

So is the relatively high number of Nebula nominations for indie writers this year the result of changing SFWA demographics? Is it that action heavy space opera and military SF appeals to parts of the SFWA membership that doesn’t see its tastes reflected as well in traditionally published works? After all, action heavy space opera and military SF has been present on the Nebula shortlist before, e.g. Jonathan P. Brazee’s Nebula nominated novelette last year or the various Charles E. Gannon and Jack McDevitt books nominated a while ago?

Anyway, it’s certainly an interesting development.

ETA: Camestros Felapton has dug a bit into the 20Booksto50K group and unearthed a “not a slate” reading list. He confirms that Rhett C Bruno is affiliated with the group as well. It also turns out that I missed a nominee affiliated with 20Booksto50K, mostly because it’s a traditionally published author (and not an overly unlikely finalist) and 20Booksto50K is mainly an indie group.

ETA 2: Camestros Felapton has also dug up an earlier “not a slate” reading list at 20Booksto50K, which confirms that there was definitely an organised campaign going on.

ETA 3: Aaron Pound also weighs in on the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate issue and how it causes him to question even nominations that were likely come by honestly. Meanwhile, Nicholas Whyte analyses the Goodreads and Library Thing ratings of several Nebula nominees and finds that the 20Booksto50K finalists have a much lower rating count than the traditionally published finalists.

ETA 4: At nerds of a feather, Adri Joy and Joe Sherry talk about the 2018 Nebula finalists, compare the shortlist to their predictions and also briefly address the 20Booksto50K issue.

So far, there aren’t a lot of reaction posts (well, it’s early and I’m sure we’ll see more), but here are some I’ve found: Beth Elderkin has a brief write-up at io9, which focusses mainly on the finalists in the media and gaming categories. At the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, Joel Cunningham lists the finalists and offers a short write-up of the six best novel finalists. Abd The Ottawa Citizen has a lovely write-up about the two Nebula nominations for Kate Heartfield, who used to be the editor of their editorial pages.

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