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Nebula Awards Showcase 2000
edited by Gregory Benford
Harcourt, 320 pages

Nebula Awards Showcase 2000
Gregory Benford
Gregory Benford is a physicist and astronomer at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of a series of hard SF novels, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1978) and following quickly with works such as Timescape (1980) and the popular Galactic Centre series, including Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989) and Furious Gulf (1994). His latest novel is Eater.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Deep Time
SF Site Review: Against Infinity
SF Site Review: Artifact
SF Site Review: Cosm
SF Site Review: Foundation's Fear

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

I might have enjoyed this year's Nebula Awards anthology more were it not for John Clute. Up until I had read his "Thirty-Three Years of Nebulas" in the July 1999 New York Review of Science Fiction, I had just thought of this series as a way for writers otherwise marginalized from the mainstream to pat themselves on the back a bit and honour their own. But then Clute had to go and blow the seemingly collegial veneer off the way the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) actually selects winners:

"...eligibility for any one year's awards are so deemed according to an opaquely and tortuously complex system; those writers who know how to operate that system routinely manipulate its rules almost at will so as to position their offerings for a successful victory at the polls... [the rules] are meant to exclude outsiders... SFWA members routinely subject other SFWA members to floods of copy, begging them to vote for their stories. SFWA members currently nominate other SFWA members' stories in the expectation that the favour will be reciprocated... At least one writer... has been known actually to telephone other writers he (or she) had previously nominated to ask them to return the favour."
Well, I guess it shouldn't come as any surprise that SFWA membership includes egos engaged in shameless self-promotion. It is, after all, an organization (almost by definition a source of political in-fighting) comprised of human beings (ditto) who, to make matter worse, are writers (ditto again).

How then to evaluate this year's anthology, which has dropped its historical numerical appellation (this is the 34th volume for those counting) in favour of calling itself Showcase 2000, a designation with deep science fictional connotations, though the actual stories were published in 1998? Well, it would seem as if editor Gregory Benford is responding to Clute's charges when he writes in the introduction:

"Nebula volumes are not collections of the best of the year; for those, see the annual productions of Messrs. Hartwell and Dozois. Instead, Nebula nominees and winners are the favourites of a club... which is as riddled with highly opinionated folk as any small town. Winners can represent a compromise, the result of divergent forces. Factions and even bloc voting can carry the day, and have... So any Nebula volume is more like a momentary reading of the pulse than a pinnacle of effort."
I may be guilty of reading something into this that isn't there, but I detect a little politicking (or complaining) by Benford himself -- a writer from the hard end of the SF spectrum -- when he remarks,
"Since a large number of fantasy writers migrated into the SFWA, making it the SFFWA, we see more fantasy among those nominated."
Perhaps Benford has a hidden agenda, then, by including Walter Jon Williams' "Lethe" which lost out to Jane Yolen's "Lost Girls" for Best Novelette. While the latter is a kind of cute retelling of what would happen if Peter Pan picked a Wendy with modern feminist sensibilities, it pales in comparison to the depths explored by Williams in a science-fictional foreground. Don't get me wrong, I liked Yolen's story, but it is hardly on the level of Williams's thoughtful philosophical tale of particular relevance to how our nascent biotechnological capabilities may lead to undermining what makes us human.

I think I might have come to that conclusion independent of reading Clute's criticisms of the selection process, but now it makes me wonder what political machinations may be behind why Yolen got the award over Williams. Is she better liked? Or more feared? Or is it, as Benford seems to imply, the fact that fantasy writers have "taken over" the SFWA?

Well, based on the list of winners, I would say not, though the distinctions blur. I haven't read Joe Haldeman's Forever Peace, which is excerpted here for Best Novel, but I suspect it's more solidly in the SF camp. As the Best Novella, Sheila Finch's "Reading of the Bones" is grounded in the science of linguistics but blends in the quest motif typical of much fantasy. The story makes a nice metaphor of psychiatrist R.D. Laing's observation about how we confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself -- i.e., the symbol for the thing -- in depicting a race whose crusade to develop a formalized written language literally requires the sacrifice of a finger, the bone from which is fitted to the layout of a physical alphabet.

"Thirteen Ways to Water" by Bruce Holland Rogers, named Best Short Story, involves an exorcism of war's horrors in which the exorcist wins the cured veteran's wife, runs more along the lines of literary fabulism, characteristic of most of Holland's work that I've read, than outright fantasy. Runner-up short story nominee "Winter Fire" by Geoffrey A. Landis, shares with Williams the use of an SF conceit to depict how a single person rising above the horrors of a man-made plight can personify the better inclinations of our species. Unlike the contrast between the Novella runner-up and winner, I couldn't necessarily say that the Landis story is better than that by Holland, just different. Another nominee for Best Novelette, "The Mercy Gate" by Mark J. McGarry, strives for the same height as Landis and Williams, but, for me at least, fell short.

And let's not forget the Rhysling Award for Poetry. John Grey pays tribute to the godmother of SF, Mary Shelley and the central theme of Frankenstein, though it's hardly an original observation. In contrast, for originality see Laurel Winter's "Why Goldfish Shouldn't Use Power Tools" -- SF, fantasy, I don't know what the hell it is, other than the fact that it's powerfully good, a poetical counterpart to the territory covered by Williams and Landis.

Finally, there's "Uncommon Sense," selected to commemorate the induction of Hal Clement as a GrandMaster, which is pure hard SF. This is classic stuff in which the story centres on the protagonist's ability to solve a scientific puzzle in the context of the conditions of an alien world. This usually isn't my cup of SF tea. What made it even less so is that it seems to violate its own principles of scientific logic. For various reasons, the plot hinges on the fact that the repair crew of a grounded spaceship works during the day, when radioactive levels are the highest. It seems to me that the common sense approach, unless Clement want us to believe that humans technologically sophisticated enough to travel in space are incapable of artificial illumination, would be for the crew to work at night when it is less dangerous and more comfortable.

In his introduction, Benford laments that the "pure" science fiction he and Clement represent has lost its cultural impact now that it is actually the year 2000, when much that once could only have been imagined has become commonplace. In Benford's complaint that science fiction today has become primarily a visual medium, I detect a whiff of envy of all those fat fantasy tetralogies that plumb a vast base of readers and, for whatever their faults, at least aren't based on 60s television.

Perhaps the problem is that Benford's limited definition of SF as a technological predictor, whatever its traditional merits, is as outmoded as Clement's tale. The best SF today is not about foreseeing where the future may live (because, as Benford notes, we're already living in the future), it's about how humanity responds to technology, for good or bad, as both the Williams and Landis stories exemplify. That neither is an award winner may say something about the state of the genre as its own practitioners see it.

Interestingly, the Nebula anthology's traditional roundtable of essays about SF tries to address this with divergent opinions about "the death of SF" and "why we don't get no respect" from Jonathan Lethem, Gordon van Gelder, George Zebrowski, David Hartwell, and Bill Warren. Lethem's essay (which originally appeared in The Village Voice) semi-fancifully posits that the SFWA blew it back in 1967 when instead of awarding Thomas Pynchon's Gravity Rainbow the Nebula for Best Novel (it went instead to Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama; Lethem quotes Carter Scholz's comment that it is "less a novel than a schematic diagram in prose") marked a missed opportunity when the genre could have claimed the intellectual high ground staked by the New Wave and merged into the literary mainstream.

Of course, neither Pynchon nor Lethem, for that matter, write SF, at least not, most certainly, in the Benford sense, and both have enjoyed some degree of mainstream success. But according to van Gelder and Zebrowski, SF by definition hasn't any business being in the mainstream, so why would you want it to be? Taking up Benford's complaint that SF today is a more popular subject for visual media, Bill Warren points out why you can't blame SF for movies that never realize the sophistication of the written form (which is true of any book adaptation), so quit your bitchin'. Meanwhile, David Hartwell says that reports of SF's death to the contrary, in the book publishing business the genre is doing quite nicely, thank you. And he should know.

The funny thing is that you can read these conflicting viewpoints and find yourself agreeing with all of them. That such conflict exists, as Emertius Author William Tenn points out in his hilarious acceptance speech, is one of the things that makes SF notable:

"Is the Essence of Science Fiction prediction? Is it, as I've often tired to believe, preparation for a brave new world a-coming? Is it, as I used to tell my classes at Penn State (lying in my very dentures) the new form of literature for modern industrial man? No. That is not The Essence of Science Fiction. As I sat and thought about it and went through as much literature as I could in preparation for this talk, I concluded that The Essence of Science Fiction is -- quarrelsomeness. Science fiction is the most quarrelsome genre that has been seen, on land or sea or in intergalactic space."
It'll be interesting to see where the quarrel leads for the 2001 showcase. I'm looking forward to it.

Copyright © 2000 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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