Some Comments on the 2021 Nebula Finalists

The finalists for the 2021 Nebula Awards were announced today, again very close to the Hugo nomination deadline, though not quite as close as last year.

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

Best Novel

None of the 2021 Nebula finalists for Best Novel are entirely unexpected, but they’re also not entirely expected. But then it seems to me as as 2021 had fewer obvious standout SFF novels – the ones everybody talks about – as 2019 and 2020, both of which were extremely strong years for longform SFF.

The Unbroken by C.L. Clark is a novel that’s also on my personal Hugo longlist (I haven’t finalised my nominations yet) and I’m glad to see it recognised here.

I pleasantly surprised to see A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark nominated for the 2021 Nebula Award, since I have been enjoying Clark’s alternate Cairo stories a whole lot. This one is also on my personal Hugo longlist.

Machinehood by S.B. Divya got a lot of buzz, when it came out early last year. I haven’t read it yet, though I’m looking forward to doing so.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine is a sequel to the 2020 Hugo winner A Memory Called Empire and probably the most obvious finalist in this category. It’s also a great book.

Finally, Plague Birds by Jason Sanford is another very pleasant surprise on this ballot, since it got less attention than the other novels, probably due to being published by a small press, Apex Books. I’m also really happy for Jason, who’s one of the hardest working people in SFF. Plague Birds is a great novel as well, which hits a lot of my personal buttons.

Diversity count: 3 women, 2 men, 3 writers of colour

Best Novella

This category is a mix of the expected and the unexpected.

Tor.com makes another strong showing with four of seven nominees. Neither Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard (which is also on my Hugo ballot in this category) and A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers are a big surprises, since both are fine stories by popular and well regarded authors.

The other two Tor.com novellas, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden and Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn are more of a surprise, since I did not see a lot of buzz for either of them. I haven’t read either, though they both sound interesting. Sun Daughters, Sea Daughters is an SF-nal retelling of The Little Mermaid, continuing both the trend for fairytale retellings and also for fairytale retellings to move further away from the originals than the first wave did. Flowers for the Sea, meanwhile, continues the trend of horror fiction winning nominations in the Hugos and Nebulas, which have traditionally been not all that open to horror.

The small press Neon Hemlock represented in this category with two novellas, And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed and The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler, which makes me happy, because Neon Hemlock does good work and was the target of a vicious harassment campaign last year. I haven’t read either novella, though both seem to be dystopian (as is Flowers for the Sea), so we have another trend here.

I’m afraid that “The Giants of the Violet Sea” by Eugenia Triantafyllou passed me by, when it was published in Uncanny last September, probably because I was busy with other things at the time. However, Eugenia Triantafyllou is certainly a name to watch out for as well as one of my TOC mates in the upcoming Volume 7 of The Long List Anthology.

There’s also a note that Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells received enough nominations to make the ballot, but that Martha Wells graciously decline, declaring that Murderbot has already gotten so much love and acclaim that she’d rather open the floor to other voice. And that’s why Martha Wells is one of the best people in the industry.

ETA: Martha Wells explains that she asked SFWA president Jeffe Kennedy what would happen, if she declined the Nebula nomination and it turned out that there was a three way tie for sixth place, so three authors got to move up. As I said before, Martha Wells is a class act.

Diversity count: 7 women, 3 authors of colour, 3 international authors*

Best Novelette

I have to admit that this category was a big surprise to me, because I haven’t read any of the stories and none of them are on my personal Hugo ballot. That said, I’m looking forward to checking them out.

Nigerian author and editor Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is one of the most interesting emerging voices in our genre, as is John Wiswell. They’re both wonderful people as well. P.H. Lee is a name I’ve increasingly noticed in the SFF magazines I read, though this particular story passed me by. Caroline M. Yoachim is another great short fiction writer who has popped up on the Hugo and Nebula ballot several times in recent years. Lauren Ring, finally, is another new writer and artist as well as another of my TOC mates in Volume 7 of The Long List Anthology.

This category also has a nice range of places where the stories in question were published. Uncanny is represented by two stories, GigaNotoSaurus and Galaxy’s Edge, two magazines that don’t get a lot of awards love, are presented by one story each, while the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction holds up the flag for the traditional print mags.

Diversity count: 2 men, 2 women, 1 non-binary, at least 2 writers of colour, at least 1 international writer

Best Short Story

Once again, there are a lot of excellent writers nominated in this category, even if there is little overlap with my personal Hugo ballot.

“Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow is the one story here that’s also on my Hugo ballot and a great story (and a real tearjerker) it is, too.

“Let All the Children Boogie” by Sam J. Miller is a lovely retro story about two small town kids bonding over radio in a not so alternate 1980s, where the Cold War is about to turn hot. As someone who’s about the same age as these kids and who also messed with the radio to listen to snatches of police radio or the weird beeps you got when you pushed the tuner all the way to the edge of the frequency range, this one really spoke to me. It came out very early in the year, so I had forgotten it was a 2021 story, but this might change my Hugo ballot.

“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker is a fascinating story in the form of a Wikipedia article plus discussion page about a (fictional) folk ballad.

“Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte completely passed me by, I’m afraid, though I look forward to reading it.

“For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell also passed me by, but as I said above, John Wiswell is one of the most interesting new voices in our genre as well as one of the nicest people. I look forward to reading this story.

“Laughter Among the Trees” by Suzan Palumbo is another story that passed me by, though I normally check out The Dark. This is another horror story nominated and more proof that the Nebulas are more open to horror than they used to be.

Once again, we have a nice range of places where the stories originally appeared. We have two stories from Uncanny, one from Tor.com, one from Apex, one from Diabolical Plots and one from The Dark.

Diversity count: 2 men, 3 women, 1 non-binary, 2 writers of colour, 1 international writer

Andre Norton Award for YA and Middle Grade SFF

There are comparatively few surprises and a lot of very good books in this category.

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders was one of the most buzzy YA SFF novels of last year (and also a really good book), so I’m not at all surprised to see it here.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko is the sequel to last year’s Nebula and Lodestar finalist Raybearer and another fine choice.

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao was another buzzy and much discussed YA SFF debut. I haven’t read it yet, though it’s on my list.

I haven’t read A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger yet, though I enjoyed last year’s Nebula and Lodestar finalist Elatsoe a whole lot.

Leah Cypress has been active in the SFF field for more than twenty years now, though I haven’t read her nominated novel Thornwood, which is yet another fairytale retelling.

Eden Royce is best known for her gothic and horror short fiction. Root Magic is both her first novel and her first foray into fiction for younger readers. I haven’t read it, but it sounds like something that should be right up my alley.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 non-binary, 4 authors of colour, 1 international author

Ray Bradbury Award for Best Dramatic Presentation

There are a few surprises in this category, the most notable being the absence of Dune, which I fully expected to see here.

I’m not at all surprised to see both Loki and WandaVision here, since both shows were hugely popular as well as a lot better and weirder than most of us expected. Of the Disney+ Marvel shows, these two were clearly the highlights of 2021.

Marvel is also represented by Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings. Again, this isn’t much of a surprise since Shang-Chi was a thoroughly enjoyable movie, largely independent from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe and it also nicely showed how the Marvel movies and TV shows absorb different influences to tell a broad range of different stories. The same goes for Loki and WandaVision, by the way. The reason Marvel is so successful, in spite of the many naysayers, is because they produce a lot of fun and well-made movies and TV shows.

I’m very happy to see The Green Knight here, since it was a beautiful movie and one that IMO got way too little attention. I guess the viewers were expecting Ridley Scott or Game of Thrones type knightly action and got something quite different.

I’m also very happy to see the South Korean film Space Sweepers here, a) because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie and b) because non-English language films often have a hard time getting recognised by the Hugos and Nebulas. That said, I’m surprised not to see Squid Game, also from South Korea, here, since that was a worldwide hit.

What We Do in the Shadows is one of those shows I’ve been meaning to check out for ages, only that there is more good SFF TV than I have time to watch. It’s definitely an offbeat show, so I’m happy to see it recognised.

Encanto is a hugely popular animated film with an earworm soundtrack, so I am not at all surprised to see it  nominated. Though I have to admit that the sing-songy Disney/Pixar animated movies aren’t my thing at all, but then I’m not the target audience and haven’t been for decades. The Black Cauldron was the last animated Disney movie I saw at the theatre. I remember enjoying it a lot – probably because I was at the right age for it – though oddly enough it’s one of the least well remembered Disney movies.

Arturo Serrano has a really great essay about Encanto from the POV of someone who’s from Colombia, i.e. the country where Encanto is set, at nerds of a feather BTW.

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

Best Game Writing

I can only repeat what I said about this category last year and the year before, namely that I’m not a gamer, don’t recognise any of the titles and can’t really say anything about them.

That said, Thirsty Sword Lesbians is an awesome title.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make games.

All in all, this is another excellent Nebula ballot. Those who are worried that not enough men are being nominated for the big genre awards will be happy to see that there are several men, including white men, on the ballot this year. Though I’m sure they will find something wrong with the men in question.

Tor.com is still fairly dominant in the novella category, though not as dominant as they used to be. Besides, the current novella renaissance wouldn’t exist without Tor.com. Uncanny still does well, but is no longer as dominant as they used to be either. Meanwhile, the print mags are declining further in importance and have nabbed only one nomination this year. Small Presses like Apex and Neon Hemlock are doing well this year and we’re also seeing a couple of magazines like GigaNotoSaurus, The Dark, Galaxy’s Edge and Diabolical Plots, which we rarely see on the Hugo and Nebula ballot. It is also notable that Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Beneath Ceaseless Skies have not gotten a single nomination this year.

There are no indie writers on the Nebula ballot for the third year in a row. Is it because indies don’t have a marketing budget of a big publishers and are thus invisible to many nominators (but then we have a lot of small presses here) or because indies don’t write the sort of thing Nebula voters are looking for or did the indies all take their ball and went home after the 20Booksto50K uproar of 2019?

With regard to trends, we see a couple of longstanding trends continuing such as stories about and from the POV of robots and AIs, fairytale retellings, Lovecraftian horror and horror in general. We have several dystopian tales on the ballot this year, which is probably a response to the generally sorry state of the world. Science fantasy, i.e. stories which mix elements of science fiction and fantasy, also continues to make a good showing. Finally, we also have several dark-tinged fantasy stories which are closer to sword and sorcery moodwise than to epic fantasy.  I see very little of what might be called “squeecore” on the ballot, though I’m sure this will not stop the people trying to make “squeecore” a thing from claiming it dominates the ballot.

All in all, it’s a very strong Nebula ballot.

*International authors means authors living and writing outside the US.

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5 Responses to Some Comments on the 2021 Nebula Finalists

  1. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 3/8/22 I Think There Is A World Market For About Five Pixel Scrolls | File 770

  2. Dave Hook says:

    Cora,

    My thanks for the timely and extensive commentary on the Nebula nominations. I’m still in the last push for Hugo nominations, so I’ll probably look again at the choices but still avoid detailed discussion and commentary until after I have formed my own opinions and made my Hugo nominations.

  3. Pingback: Some Thoughts on the 2022 Hugo Finalists | Cora Buhlert

  4. Pingback: Some Thoughts on the 2021 Nebula Award Winners – and Two SFWA Uproars | Cora Buhlert

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