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2001 Nebula Award Nominees: Short Stories

Nebula Award
Photo by Laura Mixon

Nebula Awards
Founded in 1965, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America began with about 80 writers. It now has over 1,000 members. Active members of SFWA vote for the Nebula Awards. The awards are given each year for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story eligible for that year's award. The script category was added in recent years. Each year, an anthology, including the winning pieces of short fiction and several runners-up, is also published. Each spring the awards are given out at the Nebula Awards Banquet over a weekend of meetings and panel discussions.

The Grand Master Award is given to a living author for a lifetime's achievement in science fiction or fantasy or both. Nominations for the Grand Master Nebula Award are made by the president of SFWA and awarded after approval of a majority of the SFWA officers.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

Who deserves the Nebula for best short story? "Oh, come on," you say, "what does it really matter? The Nebula is just a political, personality contest." You've heard it said (rather, spouted quite vehemently by a few SFWA members) at conventions. The allegation is not new (nor are complaints about SF particular to the Nebula award, as witnessed in recent essays by Judith Berman, Elton Eliott, Adam Roberts -- more on this to follow). Thumbing through the old Nebula Awards volumes, you'll spot James Blish's commenting on the phenomenon with a demonstration to prove that it could not be the case.

However, others have brought up interesting cases for the contrary opinion. In one of Robert Silverberg's "Reflections" columns for Asimov's, he commented on how Richard McKenna's "The Secret Place" won the Nebula when its competitor -- "Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw -- has since been reprinted a dozen more times (six to eighteen, respectively, by William G. Contento's count). Silverberg wasn't bad-mouthing McKenna or his craft but pointing out the better crafted story idea which lost due to the sympathy vote upon McKenna's early earthly departure.

Jonathan Lethem commented that if SF wanted to be taken seriously, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow should have won the Nebula over Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. While Clarke's work was an incredible feat of speculative imagination that deserved the Hugo which usually focuses on entertainment, it lacked convincingly three-dimensional characters to carry off the award focused on craft. One suspects that the [figuratively speaking, of course] French and Russian ice-skating judges conspired in a backroom.

Similarly, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series sparked the speculative imagination and three-dimensional characters, but where was the connective thematic gel that cohered the work? However, this may be an unfair judgment based solely on the first novel. Proust also got a bad rap for taking eight books to develop his theme fully (it didn't help that he courted, wined, dined the critics and judges of the France's major award -- literary politics back then? Perish the thought. But then, despite politics, Proust is considered one of the best 20th century novelists). Certainly, the art and craft of Robinson's "Blind Geometer" earned its keep. Rightly so, Isaac Asimov altered his craft for The Gods Themselves in order to capture the long coveted yet elusive Nebula.

The Hugo also picked a few head-scratchers. Hugo Gernsback, for whom the award was named, created the first SF magazine, Amazing, to illustrate how science can be entertaining, coining the term "scientifiction." So should a book of fantasy win a scientifiction award? Yes, the Rowling series entertains but other awards exist for fantasy (to devil-advocate the reviewer's point but not to excuse the practice, Blish points out that Silverberg's "Passengers" is also fantasy and Larry Niven had a fantasy in the same volume. As strange as it may seem, SF has had a history of nominating fantasies for a science fiction award). While Kristine Katherine Rusch has written many compelling and entertaining works and "Millennium Babies" was competent and apropos to the changing season, this reviewer never reviewed it because it failed to engage. Of course his may be another case of a marcher listening to a different drumbeat. On the other hand, though G. David Nordley's "The Tree Between the Worlds" lacked a perfect craft, its incredible feat of credible imagination comparable to Niven or Clarke science fiction certainly deserved at least a Hugo nomination.

Sadly, "politics," if they truly exist, have eroded some of the awards' potency. The Hugo meant that a book would be good science-fictional fun while a work labeled Nebula-winner or -finalist meant stylistically and intellectually well-crafted science-fiction. The SF community has complained of a loss in readership for the past decade of so, but if a reader picks up a Hugo that isn't fun or a Nebula that isn't intelligent, the awards become meaningless.

Judith Berman's essay, "Science Fiction Without The Future" in the May 2001 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction (vol. 13, no. 9:pp. 1, 6-8) pointed toward the Baby Boomer majority themes of failing to adapt to technology as one possibility for the loss. Maybe (again, more on this later). But another reason may be the ability to create a variety of entertaining and intellectual worlds for readers. This reviewer doesn't mean to single out SF awards. The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award committees have also made poor choices, but that's another review (nor should voters, having screwed up, excuse their responsibility to vote responsibly). The purpose of mentioning this is not to lend credence to the allegations but to guilt-trip any possible perpetrators into realizing that their vote has more meaning to the field than they may have guessed previously.

"Oh, you whiny bastard," another you says, "you're just another stuck-up intellectual whose idea of fun is sleeping on a bed of nails." Nope (okay, but only on the new moon of every 13th month). This reviewer cringed when Bilbo turned on Frodo in Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring" in the seat next to yours. He wants to be entertained as much as you do, which accounts for his disappointment in literary artists who insist it ain't art unless it fails to entertain. In the early 70s, Martha Foley asked where all the literary adventure story went. Due to its prolonged absence, everyone now assumes that literary and adventure don't mix.

That said, here's one reviewer's view of the Nebula nominees he managed to locate (Caveat: Even toward his friends, this is one tough reviewer -- at times too lenient, at times too harsh -- who believes every story has flaw and strength, who judged these more harshly standing as future representatives of the genre, and who believes in the power of the genre's possibilities with hope eternal. Please, dear reader, forgive his inconsistencies and read between the lines for the strengths or weaknesses that you personally can or cannot live with):

Richard Bowes' "The Quicksilver Kid" [Sci Fiction, 01.17.01] no doubt lost out on the Nebula finals for either sauntering up to the story proper or compressing a novelette into a short story's. The war (an alternate Vietnam?) ravages the young, leaving behind only the girly girls. Jess Quick not only skips town and exchanges the outer appearance of her gender for the other, but also skips into the next dimension to use her boyish appearance to spoil an election. Jess Quick's story through time alongside the time-traveling Hermes (whether literal or figurative is not directly stated, but we'll assume the latter in favor of a science fictional reading -- of course, who is to say that Hermes or any other God doesn't exist?) is told with a modicum of awkwardness: "My parents were afraid to talk to me. I miss them. Sometimes it's like a knife inside. But after my brother went, it was like watching them die" and "They both knew she going to stay. Jess gave a shrug. 'I guess that's why I'm here.' Then, she realized how badly she needed to talk." The story relies on its powers of observation concerning differences in physical mannerisms between men and women (though one observation came closer to cliché: boys wipe tears from their eyes angrily; and one dubious: men shake hands upon introduction: rather the woman or the man with more respect due to age or rank offers their hand first, but this is just nitpicky details). It would be interesting to hear the opinions of those who nominated the tale.

Michael A. Burstein offers a "Kaddish for the Last Survivor" [Analog, November 2000] of the W.W.II holocaust (thankfully not of the television "real-life" melodrama) that their memory not be forgotten lest we pretend the horror of what happened did not happen (kaddish is a prayer offered for the death of a close relative). Reporters have gathered at the house of the last survivor of the holocaust. Sarah, the granddaughter, manages to dodge most of them out of their respect for the dying; but one reporter accosts her to ask why her family chooses to perpetuate the hoax. Inside, Sarah spats with her mother over her gentile boyfriend and finally comes to say goodbye to her grandfather -- the point at which the story gains its potency, original characterization and speculation when her grandfather hands her the opportunity to carry on as the last survivor. With a climax as powerful as the one Burstein renders, one wonders why he didn't consult Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barallel" for more original characterization of Jewish characters (this and Malamud's "The Jewbird" are powerful examples of magic realism and should be counted among the fantasy genre's favorites -- the latter nearly brought this reviewer to tears and couldn't concentrate on anything else for an hour after).

Maria, an Irish-African albino in Brazil relocating local tribes, stumbles upon N'Lykli's secret relocation project, aimed at maintaining a perfect gene pool of a tribe that had remained isolated for five hundred years. N'Lykli promises Maria a little piece of "The Cure for Everything" [by Severna Park in Sci Fiction, 06.22.00]: sperm from the perfect race in order to have viable children in exchange for her silence. She agrees until guilt drives her to free the tribe from their scientific captivity. The question for the tribe becomes does she have something better to offer them. A minor flaw is the biology of a perfect race with genes to cure diseases. The advent seems unlikely. No doubt Park is banking on the knowledge that tropical plants have offered cures to otherwise incurable human ailments, so wouldn't humans offer even more? It is doubtful that an isolated group would. The genetic pressure of competition in a rain forest environment is tremendous, creating an incredible variety of vegetation and gene pool. An isolated gene pool, however, should create the opposite effect -- something that Park appears to half-recognize by worry over whether Maria's germs will infect the isolated population. To create a perfect race, one needs a selection process, meaning one which allocates death to many until "The Cure" from that selection process is found. However, this, too, would result in a futile effort since diseases and organisms with their frequent reproductions adapt more quickly than humans can. The matter of genetics aside, the story has a thread of adventure to thrill.

A reader might want to ask Mike Resnick how to get "The Elephants on Neptune" [Asimov's, May 2000], a Bradbury-esque science fantasy in the vein of The Martian Chronicles. The men and their male leader arrive on Neptune only to discover elephants. They pursue extensive discussions with the elephants about how horrible men have been to elephants throughout history, metamorphose into the other because Neptune is metamorphagenic donchaknow, and meet their end in irony. Resnick grips the reader immediately with his story but skimps on plot and character in order to relate everyman's complicity in the crime and punishment. Though the story is a science fantasy, this reviewer does not believe in the domination of one form of fiction over another. All fiction is fiction and should serve to enlighten the human condition. Their difference lies in their power to render enlightenment, entertainment, and art. Definers of SF, on the other hand, have unnecessarily tripped themselves up in semantics and complexity: from Knight's enigmatic and subjective SF is whatever I point at and call SF to Campbell and Spinrad's problematic SF is whatever an SF magazine publishes to Delany's nebulous inability to define and to Gunn's long and subsequently explicated "Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It concerns itself with scientific or technological change and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community: often civilization or the race itself is in danger." Science fiction is simply focused on extrapolation of known principles. Resnick extrapolates mostly not known to be valid principles ("Elephants never forget" or elephants communicate complex principles of human philosophy) in a science fictional milieu, which is wonderful, but not science fiction. And, no, FTL and ESP are not known to be valid either, which makes a work science fantasy as well if that is its focus. ESP gained through evolution, however, is science fiction. See? Simple. Some will want to argue that it is SF since Resnick implied that aliens brought about these changes to which the reviewer responds, it ain't in the story. Some will argue that it is SF since Resnick implied that it's all in the astronauts' minds, a mass hallucination questioning the nature of reality, but then one will have to argue in an unreliable narrator who is auctorial in nature and one may as well find such a reader interpretation of unreliable authorial authority as unreliable as the author. Multiplying two negatives makes a positive in mathematics; therefore, we must trust Resnick authority (laugh it up, Fuzz-Ball, but I only half-jest, resolving convoluted reasoning with a convoluted resolution).

William Sanders' "Creatures" from The Age of Wonders and "Looking for Rhonda Honda" from The Chick is in the Mail were unavailable for questioning but fell out of the running, anyway.

In another fantasy, "Mom and Dad at the Home Front" [by Sherwood Smith in Realms of Fantasy, Aug00; also in David Hartwell's Year's Best Fantasy] discover that their children scamper off to another world every night. The disappearance of their children worries them. When the children return to their room, they steal into the room and steal the magic wand that transports them. The children droop until the parents choose between their children's happiness or safety. This fantasy though fulfilling and meaningful takes few chances; yet, as Hartwell and Cramer note, it's a new perspective on an old theme.

The "Original Child" [by B.J. Thrower in Extremes: Fantasy & Horror From the Ends of the Earth] fell out of the running but still pleasantly plays double duty: that of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima and those of the narrator's. In a cave when the bomb hit, the narrator crawls out to wander the streets of Hiroshima and encounter a child who leads him to an orphanage where children are dying. If you've read Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, you can guess what happens next. The story is moving and well told but the narrator is mostly an observer in cataclysmic events and the speculative events are neither science fiction nor particularly original, yet worth the time to download off and read.

George Zebrowski wrote two wonderfully artful, double-minded stories in "Augie" [Analog, January 2001] and "Wound the Wind" [Analog, May 2001], which read like poetry: both the surface and present-related meanings co-exist. The former relates the future of parenting. Pulled two ways, Jimmy reluctantly yet romantically visits his ex-wife regarding the sanity of their child, an A.I. The reader feels the force of questions relevant to present day parenting: Is their upbringing to blame? Could they have done things differently? Are A.I.s people worthy of psychological repair or wiping (present-day comparisons may be abortion or the prison system)? Unfortunately and unnecessarily, Jimmy presumes upon his ex-wife's emotional state. Still their new child's appearance as a cherub or Cupid rings in a profound yet sad symbol for what they've done and what is to come. "Wound the Wind" relates the travails of getting the uneducated educated -- the old battle of bringing the tribesmen into the technological fold. Is technology better than living to suit one's needs? In this instance the narrator has to decide whether he is helping or harming the people he rounded up for a literal and figurative conversion to everlasting life. The layered meaning for the present and the future enriches both texts.

All of the nominees have their strengths, but few have the complexity to empower it to impress those unfamiliar with the science fiction genre. Based on stringent criteria (enlightenment, entertainment, and art), the top science fiction stories of the Nebula finalists were Severna Park's relatively daring speculation (in spite of a basic technical glitch) "The Cure for Everything," the emotional punch of Michael Burstein's "Kaddish for the Last Survivor," and both of Zebrowski's which features elements of both stories. Had Burstein written a beginning and middle of comparable potency to his ending, his story would have been the hands-down, shoe-in Nebula winner. Had Zebrowski's "Augie" not presumed upon the thoughts of another character (and not fallen out of the running), it might have been a contender. So that brings us down to one story per Park and Zebrowski, the former being more imaginative, the latter more artful. May the best story win. The reputation of the genre depends upon it.

It's great that fans and writers are complaining about the non-SF state of SF -- or of the awards and whatnot. May it begin a revolution within. I was more-or-less with Adam Roberts in his on-line LOCUS article up until the absurd statement "the mainstream novel is by and large an exhausted, backward-looking, unimaginative mode of art. I think that SF makes for the greatest art if it is uninhibited in its imaginative scope." If you don't understand mainstream, don't criticize (likewise, if you don't understand SF or fantasy, shut your butt up). It's statements like these that -- while wonderful in the sense of tremendous pride in Roberts' chosen genre -- turn away readers that might give the genre a try. We have no reason to be elitist, nor should we feel ashamed of SF which can be just as powerful as any literary masterpiece now read in college freshman Norton literature surveys.

Greg L. Johnson states in his review of Amy Sterling Casil's work that it "is a solid example of what I believe to be a truism: that writing quality science fiction requires more skill on the part of the author than writing traditional mainstream fiction, not less." While this reviewer is only marginally familiar with Casil's work (a few minor works appearing in F&SF), Leslie What's higher quality literary art ("Sweet & Sour Tongue" and "Uncle Gorby and the Baggage Ghost") or high quality fantasy ("Love, Art, Hell and the Prom") appeared before her richly textured science fiction (see her latest "Thanksgiving" on When primarily literary writers dabble in SF, the texture of their creations are what Gordon van Gelder dubbed "reinventing the wheel," which, in addition to misunderstanding, no doubt scares literary talents away. Science fiction authors themselves have difficulty nailing down what it is they're accomplishing, so that the difficulty in writing SF should come as no great revelation.

This isn't to say that literary fiction's easy either. SF writers often get comfortable in their achievements and never try for more, or perhaps a literary achievement is too difficult to fathom for those that writing SF comes easily. Who knows? High art in whatever genre is as Howard Waldrop puts it "hard" (of course, the statement may have been egotistical since he also pronounces his first name as "H'ard").

Judith Berman's assumption of negative views about the future being the cause of "missing mass" in readership, however contributory, is misleading. How much more negative view of the future can you get with Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag" or Heinlein's grotesque "All You Zombies?" To assume Analog publishes the older writers because it publishes Gunn, Clement and Williamson is also misleading since Analog does most of the professional recruiting and training for new writers. How many stories do you hear of nowadays of an editor like Campbell or Gold or whomever ad nauseum who actually works with a young writer? Silverberg writes how he waded through poor misspellings and non-SF pieces to take a chance on an unknown like Gardner Dozois because he like his style (one might argue that Silverberg also avoided the tremendous slush pile that the magazines have to wade through. If the pro magazine slush piles are insurmountable, perhaps the weight of training new writers should fall into the hands of semi-pro magazines. As a former small press editor of Mythic Circle which printed a few works as strong as those appearing in professional magazines, this reviewer earned negative hundreds of dollars, "wasting" personal time and money working with new writers, so please stop slandering small press -- you know who you are -- the small presses who do the jobs that few others are willing to do). Others complain the only magazine they consistently like is the small press like Absolute Magnitude. This reviewer overheard a gentleman at a booksale say he switched to history because SF gives him nothing new.

The missing mass may be more attributable to missing what makes Heinlein's aforementioned story so damn wonderful: the fun and sense of wonder. This wasn't missing in Nordley's "The Forest Between the Worlds" in Asimov's February 2000 issue but it is in many. Meanwhile, the January 2000 issue of Asimov's didn't get reviewed because despite its competency and Hugo-winner it lacked vibrancy or distinctiveness.

Elton Elliott's recent essay "Fear of the Future" fires closest to the target, indicating that writers aren't willing to take a chance on a wild nano future (the complaint of "too much like magic" you've heard but didn't Arthur C. Clarke tell us that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic? Really, this strikes the reader as a cop-out. Science, like magic, always has its bad days and what present day technology doesn't have problems? Who says nanotech will ever be perfect? Likely, the disasters will be more disastrous).

Yet even this misses the heart of the matter. Variety. Variety = vitality. Where are the experimenters? Where is the fun? the funk? Where are the SF stories with voice? with humor? with horror? Where are the new R.A. Laffertys? the Avram Davidsons (God rest their souls)? Where are the non-present-day-political-faction-derivative bizarre (albeit didactic which is why pigeonhole people love to pigeonhole their) philosophies of Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strang Land? Nobody has to agree or believe with any weirdo philosophy but challenge themselves to think differently than today's polarized politics will allow. Where are the Dangerous Visions? New Dimensions? New Worlds? and Orbit? The on-again, off-again Century proclaimed to take chances with the "different yet literary" but soon published only a few chance takers alongside the overstock of Asimov's (of course, the reviewer exaggerates but only to make the point of why introduce a venue if it doesn't do something new? Not to pick on Century since it publishes the occasional "new" and since other magazines also appear to cater to taste-makers instead of taste-testers). Asimov's under Dozois' expert helm is a wonderful and key magazine of the industry, but how many Asimov's does the genre need? The definition of what SF is has narrowed from the genre-expanding 60s and 70s down to where readers dipping a toe in the genre find the waters tepid, not taking chances. This is not to say that the New Wave was the end-all-be-all, but it encouraged even the Old Wave like Asimov to take chances they might otherwise not have. That's what makes chance-taking exciting: the entire genre pushing its craft and ideas beyond their present limits -- whether it's conservative or liberal. But this is only a minor factor that the genre can control that presently does not.

The major factor that cannot be controlled is the lack of good SF in the theaters. Malign Star Wars and Star Trek all you want, but what do you think caused the big boom of the early eighties? This reviewer unashamedly enjoyed the first three flicks of Star Wars as much as he did when he was a kid. Despite athletic arthritis and paunches, Geriatric Trek VI had a wonderful plot. Moreover, the reviewer dares you to slander a long-time Trekkie like Stephen Hawking. The movies were fun, by gar. The questions to ask in this regard are what percentage of the young reading public reads SF and do they even know of the magazines' existence. If Hollywood can ever swing another multi-phenomena like Star Wars, more will stumble upon the SF magazine and we'll be wading in prosperity once again, patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.

But no worries. Its momentary lack of variety aside, SF will never die. A lot of good SF is out there, getting published. As always, you have to wade through the mediocrity to find the gem -- whether in the pro or semi-pro magazine. People keep predicting SF's death like the death of the novel or the short story but the rumors have been greatly exaggerated.

Copyright © 2002 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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