I’ve read all the short fiction Nebula nominees this year.
The best part of the experience has been seeing how diverse the field is. These stories are widely divergent in style and voice, and they define “science fiction” and “fantasy” in very different ways.
This makes me happy.
You’re not going to like all of the stories nominated, but I think you’ll find something to appreciate in each one.
People are always worried about “trends” and how the kind of stories they like aren’t being written and read. But looking at the nominees this year, I’d say that such worries are misplaced. The field is still developing, growing lusciously in every direction.
“The Axiom of Choice,” by David W. Goldman (New Haven Review, Winter 2011).
What a great way to end my Nebula reading.
I have a weakness for second-person narratives. (And I love adventure games).
This story begins as a literary version of a choose-you-own-adventure book, but soon turns into something else. I can’t tell you what. You have to go read it. Have to.
I stood on the train platform to finish this story just so I wouldn’t have to stop. It was that good.
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 2011).
Almost done with all of the short fiction Nebula nominees…
Kij Johnson’s stuff is usually awesome (who can forget “Spar”?), and I like this one as well. The novella is an interesting selection for Asimov’s: it hovers half way between fantasy and science fiction.
The hero of this story is the lead architect for a suspension bridge over a river of “mist” that will connect a divided Empire. In so doing, he (and we) learn that a great engineering project like this knits together not only iron, stone, and rope, but also the people who work on it. In changing the landscape and the flow of trade and goods, the bridge also alters the lives of the people around it irrevocably.
I like the way the precise nature of the mist is never made clear: is it magical or just some kind of physical matter we don’t understand? Such questions are beside the point.
“What We Found,” Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September/October 2011): what if the notion of the observer changing the observed applied at the level of all of science? I have a soft spot for works that try to tackle difficult problems about justice and history. This one does not disappoint.
“Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son,” by Tom Crosshill (Lightspeed Magazine, April 2011): what happens to a boy who is experimented on to think like a quantum computer? I’m impressed by the skillful way in which the premise is introduced. The pacing and the laying out of information is perfectly executed. Not a word is wasted.
“The Ice Owl,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2011). A meditation on memory, genocide, and the luxury of the young to be judgmental and morally pure.
I love the speculative center piece at the heart of this story: a painting made out of butterfly wings which relies on the optical properties of the nanostructures on the scales to form a second painting. The painting then ties into the iteration of certain mathematical equations to create a metaphor for life.
Moving and beautiful, the tone is held like the sustained Note that marks the passage of time in the novella’s city.
“With Unclean Hands,” by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, November 2011). It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Castro’s work, and I’ve nominated his stories multiple times.
Being an Analog story, this one is very different in tone and style from his nominated short story, “Her Husband’s Hands.” I can’t say much about it because the story relies on the reader discovering the morality play along with the characters. Do read it.
“Sauerkraut Station,” by Ferrett Steinmetz (Giganotosaurus, November 2011): “Little House on the Prairie meets Space Stations” — in the author’s own words.
I found this Firefly-esque space opera featuring a young female protagonist very effective and affecting. The plot is carefully constructed to allow the emotional development of the YA protagonist — something that I can learn a lot from. I especially enjoyed the physics — one scene involving a dark, weightless space station in which our heroine must deal with floating specks of waste in a desperate struggle for survive is unforgettable.
The author has posted a first draft of the story with comments to indicate what has changed. This is the sort of DVD commentary track that’s of great interest to writers.
Continuing my march through the Nebula nominees.
“Kiss Me Twice,” by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2011): a science fiction mystery in which the detective’s partner is an AI who takes on the persona of Mae West.
A fun and engaging piece. Kowal’s strength in dialogue that sparkles with wit is on ample display here. Also, the main character is a Chinese-American detective, which is pretty cool.
My favorite parts are the discussion on how the AI takes on different personae when interacting with different individuals and a digression on the rights of AIs. There’s more here than may be apparent at first glance.
“Silently and Very Fast,”, by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld Magazine, October 2011).
I read this back when it first came out, and I wanted to re-read it again before writing this post in my series on the Nebula nominees. It is a far more ambitious work than many novels. It is the story of an “AI” named Elefsis and the family that gave birth to it (or perhaps it is the other way around). I put AI in quotes because … well, by the end of the novella you’ll question that label.
It is a story about love, growing-by-learning, having children, Otherness, Self, and the yearning for authenticity in a world inevitably succumbing to the forces of more artificiality, more created-ness. It is beautiful, moving, and alien, much like the Auden poem from which it takes its title.
Be forewarned that this is not an “easy” work. Valente’s style is justifiably famous, and much of the novella is structured as a series of recast myths and fairytales that hint at or echo events in “the real world.” I think the technique works. The way the story is told is very much part of the point.
In this post, I discuss three more Nebula nominees. I actually read two of them a while back but didn’t write down my thoughts.
“Shipbirth,” by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2011). A powerful tale that uses its “Aztecs in space” setting to examine assumptions about gender, life, compassion and empathy. What I like the most about it is its unflinching refusal to put its protagonist in a neat box. More fiction in general (and spec-fic in particular) should try to achieve this. Be sure to read the author notes, which are very enlightening.
“The Old Equations,” by Jake Kerr (Lightspeed Magazine, July 2011). An alternate history-of-science tale in which relativity isn’t discovered/confirmed until we try to send someone on an interstellar journey and notice the time dilation. The story’s premise allows us to see the device of time dilation, a staple in SF, through fresh eyes and to experience the emotional wonder anew with the characters. Amazingly, this is Jake Kerr’s first published story. You cannot debut in a better way.
“The Migratory Pattern of Dancers”, by Katherine Sparrow (Giganotosaurus, July 2011). In the future, after the extinction of migratory birds, men modified to be like birds recreate their dance. I think of this as more fantasy than scifi, but it works very well on a symbolic level. I admire this piece especially because it breaks so many rules and yet soars anyway. I wish more of us could pull this off.