Some Comments on the 2020 Nebula Award Finalists

The finalists for the 2020 Nebula Awards were announced yesterday night, uncommonly late in the year, since the Nebula finalists are normally announced several weeks rather than four day before the Hugo nominations close.

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

Best Novel

There are no big surprises in this categories – all six finalists are highly regarded novels, which got a lot of positive attention.

Piranesi is Susanna Clarke’s first novel since the Hugo and Nebula winning Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell back in 2004 and got a lot of attention well beyond the SFF sphere. I have to admit that I haven’t read it yet and that I don’t have a great desire to read it, even though I liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell quite a bit back in 2004. But then, I’ve also changed quite a bit since 2004 and my tastes have changed as well.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin is an expansion of her 2016 short story “The City Born Great”. It’s an excellent novel by one of the top writers in our genre and in fact, I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the Broken Earth trilogy. Heresy, I know.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is another novel that got a lot of attention beyond the SFF sphere. I enjoyed it a lot and it’s on my Hugo ballot. With The City We Became, Mexican Gothic and Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark in the novella category as well as Lovecraft Country in the film and TV category, it’s also notable that the trend towards Lovecraftian horror featuring protagonists that Lovecraft himself would never have accepted in his fiction continues unabated.

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk was the only finalist in this category that surprised me a little. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say anything about it, though C.L. Polk has been a Nebula finalist before.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse is a fine fantasy novel by one of the most exciting newer writer in our genre. It’s another unsurprising finalist.

Network Effect by Martha Wells is the latest installment and first novel in the beloved Murderbot series. It’s also on my Hugo ballot and I’m not surprised to see it here at all.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 non-binary, 4 writers of colour, 2 international writers.

ETA: It’s actually three international writers. C.L. Polk is Canadian.

Best Novella

This category is a mix of expected and unexpected finalists. The three novellas Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi and Finna by Nino Cipri all got quite a bit of attention. I did like Ring Shout, though not quite enough to put it on my Hugo ballot. Haven’t read the other two.

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg is a novella I’ve heard of, though it got a little less attention than the previous three, probably because Tachyon’s marketing budget is smaller than Tor’s. Again, I haven’t read it.

“Tower of Mud and Straw” by Yaroslav Barsukov appeared in the magazine Metaphorosis. I’m afraid I’ve never heard either of the novella nor of the magazine, though it looks interesting. Yaroslav Barsukov is a Russian author currently living in Vienna BTW.

“Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki appeared in the anthology Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora by small press Aurelia Leo. I have interacted online with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and Aurelia Leo does good work, though I haven’t read this particular novella. Together with Riot Baby, there are two novellas by Nigerian writers/writers of Nigerian origin on the Nebula ballot.

Diversity count: 4 men, 1 woman, 1 non-binary, 3 authors of colour, 2 international authors (4 if you include first/second generation immigrants to the US), at least 2 LGBTQ+ authors*

Best Novelette

“Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker is a fine SFF mystery that’s also on my Hugo ballot.

The “Shadow Prisons” triptych by Caroline M. Yoachim is a chilling dystopian serial that stuck with me for a long time after I read it. One of the individual stories is on my Hugo ballot, though it didn’t occur to me to nominate the serial as a whole. I’ll have to think about whether to change my Hugo ballot accordingly, because the three stories really belong together.

“Burn or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A.T. Greenblatt is a story I enjoyed quite a bit, though it didn’t quite make my Hugo ballot.

“Where You Linger” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is unfamiliar to me, though I normally read Uncanny. I probably missed it, especially since it came out at a time when I was busy with the Retro Reviews project and new fiction fell to the wayside for a while.

“Stepsister” by Leah Cypress is another story I’m not familiar with, probably because F&SF is difficult to come by here in Germany. This is one of only two Nebula nominations for the so-called “Big Three” print magazines this year BTW.

“The Pill” from Meg Elison’s collection Big Girl is another story I haven’t read, so I can’t say anything about it.

Diversity count: 6 women, 1 writer of colour

Best Short Story

“Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson has a great title, though it’s a story I completely missed due to it coming out at a time when I was otherwise occupied. Ditto for “My Country Is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou.

I very likely read “Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math” by Aimee Picchi, since I usually read Daily Science Fiction‘s story of the day, when it lands in my inbox. However, I don’t remember this particular story.

Vina Jie-Min Prasad is a great newish author, though I haven’t read her story “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad from the anthology Made to Order: Robots and Revolution.

I haven’t read “The Eight-Thousanders”, since Asimov’s is as difficult to come by here in Germany as F&SF. However, I’m really happy for Jason Sanford, especially after all the crap and harassment he got following his exposé of far right murder fantasies posted at the Baen’s Bar forum. You can find a summary of the whole ugly situation here, here and here. For that matter, this is the other Nebula nomination for one of the “Big Three” print magazines.

“Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell from Diabolical Plots is another story I haven’t read, I’m afraid.

Diversity count: 2 men, 4 women, 1 author of colour, 2 international authors

Andre Norton Award for YA SFF

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar and A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher are two great YA fantasy novels that are also on my Lodestar ballot, so I’m thrilled to see them here.

I have heard a lot of good things about Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, though I haven’t read it.

I hadn’t heard of Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko before, though it looks interesting.

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese is another book I’m afraid I haven’t heard of.

Diversity count: 5 women, 3 writers of colour

Best Game Writing

I’m not a gamer, so I can’t say anything about this category at all. Hades is the only game I’ve even heard of.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to write games

Ray Bradbury Award for Best Dramatic Presentation

I’m not surprised to see episodes of The Expanse and The Mandalorian as well as the whole 1st season of Lovecraft Country here, since all three are great SFF shows. The Mandalorian and Lovecraft Country also appear on my Hugo ballot. The Expanse doesn’t, largely because I’m woefully behind with the show.

I really loved The Old Guard, so I’m thrilled to see it here. It’s also on my Hugo ballot.

I have to admit that I was surprised to see Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn on the Nebula ballot, largely because I had completely forgotten that the film even existed. I remember that the trailers put me off at the time. Maybe the movie is better.

Finally, we have yet another episode of the execrable The Good Place. I guess I will never understand why so many people seem to love this show, especially in an age of so many great SFF TV shows. However, thankfully The Good Place ended in 2020, so this is the last year we will see it on SFF awards ballots.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make movies and TV shows.

And that’s it for the 2020 Nebula Awards. All in all, it’s a good ballot, which includes a mix of the expected and the unexpected. Writers from Africa and the African diaspora are making a strong showing and we also have two indigenous writers on the ballot, which is a first.

The decline of the “Big Three” print magazines continues, though they did manage to nab two nominations this year. The reasons for this is that there is so much great short fiction available in the online magazines that many people don’t look beyond the online zines. Which is a pity, because the print mags – well, F&SF and Asimov’s – publish a lot of good stories. They just don’t get the attention they deserve.

Though in general, we are seeing more variation in the sources for Nebula short fiction, which is a good thing. no longer dominates the novella category like they used to. And while Uncanny is making a strong showing in the novelette and short story categories, it’s no longer as dominant as it used to be. Finally, four nominees come from anthologies and collections, which is something we haven’t seen as much in previous years.

Small presses are making a good showing on the Nebula ballot this year, though there are no self-published works for the second year in a row. It seems as if the 20Booksto50K dust-up of two years ago has soured a lot of Nebula nominators on indie authors and books, which is a pity, cause there is a lot of good work out there.

Beyond the Lovecraftian horror reimagined theme I already mentioned above, I don’t really see any notable themes this year. We have a wide variety of different stories and themes, which is a good thing.

All in all, another strong Nebula ballot.

*I’m only counting writers where I know for sure that they are LGBTQ+. Most likely, there are several others on the ballot whose orientation I simply don’t know.



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11 Responses to Some Comments on the 2020 Nebula Award Finalists

  1. JJ says:

    I’m really disappointed; most of the novels and novellas are horror. And I understand why horror resonates with a lot of authors and readers — especially right now — but I am so, so tired of horror. And so tired of stories about witches, and zombies, and superheroes.

    I’m in the middle of TMB right now, and it’s a bog-standard “Regency-style romance in which women with magic are forced to marry, stop doing magic, and reproduce”. I’ve set it aside twice now to read other novels which are less predictable. (And this was a real disappointment to me, given how much I liked the author’s Kingston Cycle novels.)

    • Cora says:

      Yes, this year’s Nebula ballot is very horror heavy, particular Lovercraftian horror heavy. Not that I mind Lovecraftian horror, but there’s a bit much of it right now. I also hear you on the witches, though the zombie boom thankfully seems to be fading a bit. And the fairytale retelling boom, which I never cared for, seems to be trailing off as well.

      I don’t mind a bit of romance on occasion and Regency romances with magic can be great fun if I’m in the mood for them, e.g. I loved Mary Robinette Kowal’s series a while back. However, right now I’m not really in the mood, hence also my reluctance to try Piranesi.

  2. Juan Sanmiguel says:

    Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn was perhaps the last big film to come out before COVID shut the theaters down in the US. I wondering if that had any influence. It is a good comic/superhero film about Harley trying to find herself after leaving the Joker.

    I use Weightless books when I want a copy of F&SF. They can provide e-copies in epub, mobi and pdf. It is legit since I found the link to their site on F&SF’s site. I think they may have access to Analog and Asimovs.

    Analog and Asimovs last year had all the finalists of their reader’s poll available on their website in time for Hugo voting. I do not think it influence last year’s ballot but it should help get attention for their work. This year the poll have not come out yet.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, Birds of Prey and the very long title was still in cinemas, when everything shut down, as far as I recall, so it may well have been the last film many people saw in the theatres. I’m surprised there isn’t more love for the 2020 version of The Invisible Man which also came out shortly pandemic and was really good, too.

      Thanks for the tip regarding Weightless Books. And yes, in previous years I’ve seen the finalists for the reader polls on the respective websites, but I think too few people check that out.

  3. StefanB says:

    The more I think about it, Birds of Prey may have a few genereelements, but it is a generemovie light. It is if you don’t hate Harley Quinn a fun movie, hopfully not with a bad german syncro.
    Re Horror, after reading the short storys, I can say that the horrorelement is there, but I wouldn’t call most of the storys Horror. The Carson is (Zombies), the two ghoststories are not horror, imho. I liked the Prasad and the Wiswell best from the storys, the Picci is unread.
    A team at the storys, is loss of familymembers, in 3 of the shorts storys we have this.

    • Cora says:

      “Birds of Prey” probably counts as genre under the same rules that e.g. “Joker” counts as genre, because superheroes and -villains are considered, even if they don’t use magic or advanced science.

      Good point about the loss of family members. I wonder if this theme resonates, because many people have lost family members to covid, particularly in the US, where the death rate is much higher.

  4. garik16 says:

    Raybearer got a lot of press push when it came out and I believe was on the NYT Best Seller list here in America (I would see ads for it online everywhere). I enjoyed it a bit, although it isn’t on my hugo ballot (Legendborn, which surprised me by missing here, was one I enjoyed a lot more).

    I have read The Midnight Bargain and enjoyed it a lot – it’s fun magic-filled take on the victorian-romance genre – but I was also still stunned to see it make the ballot…it just didn’t seem the same caliber. Of course I also didn’t love Piranesi as much as the critical assessment so take my views for what they’re worth.

    Still, overall strong ballots, so I can’t complain much.

    • Cora says:

      I saw that Raybearer was a NYT bestseller and it does look interesting, though I don’t recall coming across ads or reviews for it. But then I don’t follow YA publishing that closely and if ads and reviews were mainly aimed at the YA market, then I might well have missed it.

      The Midnight Bargain might have profited from the fact that many people are looking for some fluffy escapism during the pandemic and from your and JJ’s description, it looks like The Midnight Bargain would fit the bill.

      And yes, it is a very strong ballot.

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