March 22nd, 2017


Nebula nominees: my thoughts on the novelettes

I’ve read the nominees for SFWA’s Nebula Awards in the Novelette category. I think most of them merit an award because they tell stories worth telling. Even the two I didn’t like were worth my time to read. The writing was more than competent, and clearly some people saw them very differently than I did. Overall, I think the stories cover a range of styles and subjects and create a good snapshot of the best that’s out there.

“The Long Fall Up,” by William Ledbetter (Fantasy & Science Fiction)
A straight-up, old-fashioned story about spaceships and orbits and technology — with a baby! What’s not to like? Great pacing, too. I didn’t want to put my Kindle down until I reached The End. If you don’t like this, you just don’t like science fiction.

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny)
A chilling story — a ghost story, sort of — set in a dying western town. Superbly told, although pretty soon it becomes predictable. The suffering, troubled kid is going to save the day.

“The Jewel and Her Lapidary,” by Fran Wilde (Tor)
A lapidary protects their Jewel. A lapidary who betrays their Jewel will be shattered. A lapidary obeys her Jewel. These rules and others like it were stated again and again (way too many times) until it became clear in this repetitive, slow-moving story that lapidaries are willing, toiling slaves to their Jewels, who are exploitive aristocrats, or, in U.S. State Department terms, MREs: morally repugnant elites. Soon I also began to believe this story takes place in what the Turkey City Lexicon calls a Second Order Idiot Plot, “A plot involving an entire invented SF society which functions only because every single person in it is necessarily an idiot. (Attributed to Damon Knight.)” Although the mythology of the jewels is carefully worked out, it amounts to a shabby justification for an idiotic, repugnant society that deserves to be destroyed, although that poor slave woman (the lapidary in the title) has to suffer unconscionably for her owners’ sins. As you can guess, I didn’t like this one for a couple of reasons.

“Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)
Deep personal loss is explored in this snapshot at the edge of dystopia. I found the switches in point of view and pseudo-flashbacks a bit confusing, but in the end the story rings true. A contender.

“The Orangery,” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
A woman guards a walled garden/forest from intruders, including Greek gods, but of course they break in, and the trees aren’t what they seem. In this pseudo-mythological and inhumane milieu, the conflict amounts to jousting between stereotypes and leads to a moment of conventional illumination. The story-telling was competent, but did this story need to be told?

“Blood Grains Speak Through Memories,” by Jason Sanford (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
This story does what science fiction does best: take an idea and run with it to its most distant but still plausible consequences. What would happen if technology to protect the environment turned against humanity? It wouldn’t be pretty, and humanity would try to fight back as best it could. I’m impressed by the complexity of the ideas in this one, so it gets my vote, but I’ll be just as satisfied if the story by Sarah Pinsker or William Ledbetter wins.

— Sue Burke