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Nebula Awards 32
edited by Jack Dann
Harcourt Brace Books, 325 pages

Nebula Awards 32
Jack Dann
Jack Dann was born in Johnson City, New York in 1945. He received his BA from Binghamton University in 1967. He has taught at Cornell University and Broome Community College, and ran an advertising agency. He still retains big busines links as a director of a New York insurance company. Perhaps best known for his short fiction, which has appeared in Omni, Playboy, Asimov's SF and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and his anthologies, including the multi-volume Magic Tales fantasy series with Gardner Dozois from Ace, Jack Dann is also a consulting editor for Tor Books. His work has resulting in him being a finalist for the Nebula Award eleven times and a World Fantasy Award finalist three times.

Jack Dann Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David A. Truesdale

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The thirty-second annual Nebula Awards banquet was held at the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 19th, 1997. A resident of this fair city, this afforded me the opportunity to attend my first-ever Nebula Awards weekend. As such, I am even more pleased to have this latest volume in my possession.

Jack Dann has done an admirable job of editing this current Nebula Awards anthology. The expected short fiction winners are present; the editor's own novella "Da Vinci Rising," Bruce Holland Rogers' novelette "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea," and Esther Friesner's short story "A Birthday." Nicola Griffith took home top honors with her novel Slow River, and is represented with the second novella in this anthology, "Yaguara" (The Jaguar), itself a 1995 Nebula finalist.

Four other runners-up are also included; new SFWA Vice-President Paul Levinson's "The Chronology Protection Case," and Harry Turtledove's "Must and Shall" in the novelette category, and, for short stories, we are given Jonathan Lethem's "Five Fucks," and Dean Wesley Smith's "In the Shade of the Slowboat Man."

The 1997 SFWA Grand Master Award given for Lifetime Achievement was presented to Jack Vance, who is represented here with his short story "The Men Return" from 1957. Despite editor Dann's use of the erroneous phrase "The Grand Master Nebula Award," the SFWA Lifetime Achievement award is not a Nebula. In the words of outgoing President Michael Capobianco: "The Grand Master is not a Nebula Award, despite the persistence of the error."

As is to be expected, the stories are impeccably crafted, and run the gamut from science fiction to (erotic) fantasy to (soft) horror. The thought-provoking, state-of-the-art, mini-essays by Lucius Shepard and Norman Spinrad in particular should be required reading and are worth the price of the book all by themselves.

In his introduction, editor Dann quotes a line from a past review from Locus: "This series may turn out to be the best record we have of how SF writers have wanted to represent their craft to the world." Looking to this larger picture, how then does this volume choose to represent itself to the world? Let's try a little experiment, for therein may lie an answer. Pretend, if you will, that you find these stories in manuscript form only, in a pile on your coffee table, with nothing to mark them as science fiction, fantasy, horror, or something else altogether. What would you find?

Jack Dann uses the past to illuminate his character study of Leonardo da Vinci which, while interesting for its historical setting and detail, remains a character examination of one of history's greatest iconoclasts, and the one flying machine (the hang-glider) he "invented" that worked. It's well known that da Vinci experimented with all sorts of contraptions, so would a story merely including one of them as the vehicle to study da Vinci qualify as SF, or simply interesting historical fiction? Place this manuscript on the right side of the coffee table.

Harry Turtledove's "Must and Shall" opens initially during the Civil War, but we quickly learn that it is not the Civil War we remember, for Lincoln is shot (not assassinated) early in his term and a new President sets the course for an alternate future history. The tale then jumps to the 1940s to examine the consequences of this change in events As We Know Them, to a South still besieged with racial hatred, albeit of a different stripe. This is a tried and true alternate history piece where the author takes an idea, says "What if?" and spins one set of consequences for the reader to ponder. Place this manuscript in the center of the coffee table.

Imagine a man and wife who've enjoyed a lifetime of shared experiences together and have remained deeply in love. As is life's way, one of them must die before the other. Imagine you are privy to their quiet, final days together. In the hands of a sensitive writer, this is a tender, sad story. A story of leavings and goodbyes. But whither any imaginative content to set it apart from a mainstream story? Dean Wesley Smith tries to add this element in his well wrought "In the Shade of the Slowboat Man" by making the female of the couple an immortal vampire. Aside from stating this fact (a SF-realized immortal would have worked just as well), the story has nothing to do with vampires, or horror -- just one partner outliving another, which happens all the time in the everyday world. While the story is touching, the concept isn't new, and reads like a mainstream character story. But it has a vampire in it, so it must be a horror story.... Nevertheless, place this manuscript on the left side of the coffee table.

Esther Friesner gives us a fascinating, if disturbing, piece of near-future social speculation in her story, "A Birthday." It traces the lonely, disaffected steps of a woman who is given the day off from her mundane job to celebrate her unborn daughter's "birthday." Bits and pieces of her society are given piecemeal as needed as the woman walks us through a world where women who have opted for abortion are allowed to view computer simulations of what their children would have looked like, year after year, had they been born. They talk to, and interact with their virtual children on a once-a-year-only schedule. Here, the idea is perfectly married to, and accentuated by, the characterization. This piece would have been right at home in the 50s heyday of Galaxy magazine, but reads as fresh as tomorrow's headlines. This manuscript definitely goes in the center pile.

The sole fantasy cum erotic horror entry, Nicola Griffith's "Yaguara" begins as a photographer finds herself in the jungles of Belize, ostensibly to chronicle a long-lost archaeological dig. She then soon falls in love with the female archeologist who is slowly being transformed/seduced, via ancient magics, into the Jaguar of the title. The smothering jungle ambience coupled with the allure of residual ancient magic is hard to resist, though "Yaguara" focuses on the relationship between the archeologist and the photographer. All in all, a captivating tale. This, too, will go in the center pile.

Jonathan Lethem's "Five Fucks" is, if you will, the "literary experimentation" addition to this collection. Told in five parts supposedly related only thematically, and written on a bet from a fellow writer, I frankly didn't make much of it, wasn't sure it had much of a justification to appear in an SF publication, and it certainly didn't deal with any issues one would think of as SF. As Lethem states in his introductory comments: "I wouldn't know an extrapolation if it came bearing flowers. I write about myself and my friends;..." True. Place this ms. in the left pile with the Dean Wesley Smith mainstream story.

One of the two best overall stories in the book ("A Birthday" being the other) is Bruce Holland Rogers' "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea." Combining the best elements of both the character story and the quintessential scientific extrapolation milieu, Rogers' shows how the two extremes can be artfully wed. The crux of the story deals with a highly controversial project involving synthetic consciousness, and how one man's obsession brings it to ruin for his own ends. Several timeless questions are asked, dealt with, and answered, making this a successful synthesis of style and substance. Add this one to the center pile.

Paul Levinson's "The Chronology Protection Case" (from Analog) speculates -- using the detective mystery format, and utilizing the sensibilities of the philosopher and the physicist to great effect here -- how an anthropomorphized Universe might protect itself (with deadly consequences) from time travel paradoxes, though time travel is, in theory, mathematically possible. (Levinson's personalized Universe hates the math and decides to do something about it, which forms the crux of the story. Imagine the Universe being held hostage to Math/Physics, and having an attitude about it!) Ever since the late Alfred Bester's classic 1951 novel The Demolished Man (first serialized in Galaxy) invited the detective and SF genres to the same party, they've been toasting one another to great success. As an aside, though this is a wonderfully thought-through "hard SF" extrapolation, I find it amusing that the core idea, that the Universe is a sentient entity protecting its own existence, would be equally embraced by New Age proponents. Nevertheless, this one definitely goes in our center pile.

Included with its late-1990's brethren, I find it ironic that the Jack Vance reprint (carefully chosen for this volume from 1957!) is set in the far future, displays his love of descriptive language and a larger theme, offers a quiet philosophical statement to boot, and comes as close as anything in this book to evoking the "traditional" sense of wonder. Though long overdue and highly deserved, it puzzles that Vance is awarded SFWA's highest honor -- that of Grand Master -- for a type of story that is in direct opposition to everything presented in this anthology. Thus is the "evolution" of the genre revealed here in sharp contrast.

So of the eight contemporary stories in this volume, what do our coffee table stacks look like? On the arbitrary left stack we have the Lethem and Smith stories which, for all practical purposes, are mainstream entries, lacking much (if any) SF (to be read as SF/fantasy/horror) elements, and whose emphasis centers exclusively on "character." On the right stack we have the Dann, which looks backward and "inward" via a character piece -- with no real SF element/speculation on Leonardo da Vinci, with an ultimately weak idea creaking to support its novella length. The larger center pile of easily recognizable "SF" stories reveals two stories with the Idea as the primary focal point of attention (the Turtledove -- which, like the Dann story, looks to the past for its inspiration) and the Levinson; but the Friesner, Griffith, and Rogers, all rely heavily on character to accentuate their SF/fantasy premises. Fine stories all, but the ideas, the imaginative speculations are inner-directed.

Though the core of this state of the art collection is recognizable as SF, its ideas for the most part -- its collective "vision" -- is perceptibly defined and thereby limited by its emphasis on character exploration despite its more or less (worthwhile) earth-bound ideas.

Let it be known that of these eight 1997 Nebula-winning stories or Nebula runners-up, we note a marked paucity of traditional SF trappings (for good or ill) -- no spaceships or space travel, no robots, cyborgs, androids or aliens, Faster Than Light (FTL) drives, no nano-tech or other future bio-tech stories (or for that matter, hardly any real science in any of the stories at all, save maybe for the Rogers', which deals with computers). Or any other SF trope you can divine. None of these stories takes place off-Earth.

There are no SF nuts and bolts here -- or anything close, to say the least -- in any of these stories. Only the simplest concepts in a few stories, and the ramifications of them (for those dumbed-down readers afraid of so-called nuts and bolts). Since the Levinson story ultimately prohibits time travel, this trope is non-existent as well, it being a "meta-time travel story" in the author's own words, nor do we glimpse any alien worlds or cultures. In short, the traditional SF tropes are virtually non-existent. Why is this? Have the editors and writers outgrown their outer sense of wonder and opted for inner revelation (reminiscent of the mainstream)? And if so, have they opted this outer vision to offer this inner equivalent to SF lovers, even the most lenient, broad-minded ones?

Two stories in this volume look to our past for their inspiration; one could have been a mainstream story, one (for all practical purposes) is a mainstream story, we have an erotic fantasy which focuses on its lesbian relationship (nothing wrong with this theme of course, but the point being that this is a societal/sexual character-driven story when all is said and done), a terrific near-future social SF extrapolation with a lonely woman at its core; the closest thing we have to "old-fashioned" SF is a mystery involving the Universe as a protective killer, and finally a fine example of the best of today's more sophisticated, yet true to genre, science fiction stories.

In James Gunn's marvelous book The Road To Science Fiction, Volume 4: From Here To Forever, I found the following to be most illuminating: "Isaac Asimov wrote that science fiction was "adventure-dominant" between 1926 and 1938, "science-dominant" between 1938 and 1950, "sociology-dominant" between 1950 and 1965, and "style-dominant" after that."

No one would argue against the well-crafted story. The better written, the more stylishly sophisticated, the better. But I think that, in many cases today, the pendulum has swung to the stylish end of the spectrum at the expense of the science-fictional vision. If a sizeable proportion of the stories included in Nebula Awards 32 are any indication, writers are looking either backward or "inward" for their thematic inspiration, rather than forward and "outward," which has characterized the genre from its beginnings.

With the few noted exemplary exceptions, the overall scope and range of speculative ideas in Nebula Awards 32... are small.

Is this an anomaly or a trend? Are the grand ideas, explored through character (if this is to be the fashion) not in vogue anymore? And if so, why not? There are countless examples in novels, but why not in short fiction (with exceptions, of course, notably Nancy Kress and Brian Stableford, among others).

It has been the purview of the traditional "literary" mainstream story to look inward, and to character, for its subject matter. While I applaud SF's finally catching up to the mainstream in the quality of its craft (since the mid-60s), why is it so in fashion today to forsake traditional SF elements altogether (as in the Lethem, and for all intents and purposes the Dann and Smith stories)? Or, if they are included, with an exasperated or tired nod to genre expectation? I seriously question the downplaying of SF elements in much of today's more "sophisticated" efforts, and the over-emphasis on mainstream "character" concerns. We're two separate genres, with two quite opposite agendas. What are we trying to prove, and to whom?

I would hate to see one of SF's most vital and unique defining characteristics -- the quality of its vision -- suffer, because of an undue emphasis placed on the mainstream preoccupation with character. Science fiction is in the highly unique literary position to deal with both. As shown in the stories here, we've achieved a high degree of quality writing. My only concern is that we not forget the precious quality of our vision.

Notwithstanding the above, I do recommend this volume of engaging, well-written stories. There are some fine, thoughtful pieces here, though they are scattered hither and yon across the SF coffee table. These are the stories the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have chosen to represent themselves to the world; its way of saying, "Here's the best of where we are right now."

Copyright © 1998 David A. Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has been reading science fiction and fantasy for forty years. For the past four years he has edited TANGENT: The Only Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Fiction Review Magazine. It was runner-up for the 1997 Hugo Award.


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