Wrap up of the 2018 Nebula Reviews

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I’ve already reviewed Artificial Condition by Martha Wells and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, so this finishes up the works in the 2018 Nebula fiction categories—I may get to the Norton works later, but I won’t get them done before the voting deadline on March 31. I already wrote a blog on patterns after accusations of irregularities in the voting flew around a while back, so now I’ll look for a few more.

Similar to last year, this list of fiction finalists contains what I think is real diversity. There’s a wide variety of different voices, styles and types of fiction, though some categories feature more than others. For the demographic breakdown, there appear to be 4/24 (17%) writers of African ancestry, 4/24 (17%) writers of Asian ancestry, maybe 3/24 (12.5%) Hispanic/Native Americans and 5/24 (20.8%) Jewish. That leaves about 32.7% other. For the gender breakdown, it looks like 14/24 (58%) are women and 10/24 (42%) men. It’s a little harder to pin down sexual orientation, but about 4/24 (17%) look to be LGBTQ. This is a pretty good fit to US population demographics except for Hispanic/Native Americans, currently about 35% of the US population and underrepresented again this year. I don’t see any writers of Arab ancestry on the ballot, currently about 1% of the US population and 6% of the EU population.

A rough breakdown by genre looks like 10 (42%) works of science fiction, 12 (50%) works of fantasy and 2 (8%) hard to classify/sort of alternate reality. Three were military SF and maybe 2 to 3 would qualify as hard SF. Nine of the works (37.5%) would likely qualify as “own voices” where the writer presents a viewpoint from his or her particular ethnic background. Interestingly, I’m wondering if this trend in the marketplace may have encouraged Jewish writers to feature their ethnic backgrounds more prominently.

There was also pretty decent variety in the themes and devices this year, although these seemed to me a bit too predictable. Four out of six of the short story finalists (17% of the total), for example, used endangered children as a device to create emotional content. Eight of the works (30%) used threat of climate change or environmental poisoning as a device to create conflict. Five of the works (21%) included gender, sexual orientation or sexual abuse as devices to create progressive content. There were also a couple of folks who used the same basic plot lines, or plot lines similar to recent winners. I’ll get to that comparison in future blogs.

As far as quality goes, these are generally well-written stories with the standard devices, plot lines and themes meant to appeal to the writer’s particular audience. I don’t think anyone could point out that indy or traditionally published works, for example, were any worse or better than others. The increase in military and hard SF over recent years has reduced the amount of “literary” work on the list, but that just reflects the current makeup of the SFWA organization. I do think some of the works could have used an editorial reality-check, but that’s not a problem you can pin down to any one particular group.

Review of Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It runs 466 pages and was published by Del Rey/Macmillan. This review contains spoilers.

Miryem comes from a family of moneylenders, but her father is really poor at it. He’s lent out his wife’s dowery and can’t collect payment, so the family falls into poverty. Winter seems to extend longer and longer. When her mother Panova Mandelstam gets sick, Miryem takes things into her own hands. She goes through her father’s books and begins to make collections for him. This angers the people in the village, but Miryem continues to work at it until her family is back on the road to prosperity. When one angry, alcoholic debtor says he can’t pay, she contracts for his daughter Wanda and later his son Sergey to work off the debt as servants in her family’s house. After her success, Miryem makes an unfortunate boast about being able to turn silver into gold, which attracts the fay Staryk king. He sets her three tasks as a test, and in a panic Miryam carries the Staryk’s silver to the city of Vysnia where her grandparents live. She asks her cousin’s fiancé Isaac to help, and he fashions the silver into a ring, a necklace and a tiara that he offers to the duke. The duke buys the fay works for his daughter Irina and then presents her to the young Tsar Mirnatius as a bride. Because Miryem has passed his tests, the Staryk king carries her away to his frozen kingdom to be his queen, leaving Wanda to manage the Mandelstam household and business. Mirnatius is possessed by the demon Chernobog who wants to devour Irina, but she has a strain of Staryk blood and uses the silver to pass through into the Staryk kingdom every night when the demon manifests. Miryem and Irina meet and develop a plot to be rid of their evil husbands. Can they make it work without destroying both worlds?

On the positive side, this uses Russian folklore to create a complex and suspenseful tale that’s both strongly plotted and character driven. It also provides great role models for girls. Miryem and Wanda both grow into excellent businesswomen and managers at a young age and Irina develops into the power behind the possessed tsar that will deal with politics and keep the kingdom running on an even keel. It’s clearly about women taking care of things themselves and not waiting for someone else to do it for them. There’s also a certain symbolism underneath: As Miryem becomes colder, more prideful and harder-hearted, the winter king comes for her. Also on the positive side, Novik has come out in support of capitalism for women when other authors seem to be fairly unsupportive just lately.

On the less positive side, there’s never much chemistry that develops between these characters. The secondary characters are the warmest and most caring, while the three female protagonists remain cold and hard-hearted through the whole thing. Regardless of the strength of the role models they present, I’m not sure this coldness is a great message to send to young girls. Miryem and Irina also seem fairly single-minded, coming up with their plot without actually investigating what’s going on behind the scenes, where the Staryk king is trying to balance the effects of the tsar’s demon. Irina’s father suggests this, but I thought his sudden acumen and respect for Irina at that meeting was inconsistent. He’s not been represented as highly intelligent, politically incisive or respectful of her up to this point.

Four stars.

Review of Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

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This novel is science fiction and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It runs 325 pages and was published by Ecco/Orbit. This review contains spoilers.

Qaanaaq is a city resting on a grid platform inside the Arctic Circle, built by a group of investors called shareholders. Because of an influx of refugees from climate-damaged countries, there is now an acute housing crisis, rising crime syndicates, a huge gap between rich and poor and a spreading epidemic of illness called the “breaks” caused by nanites. A woman named Masaaraq arrives, bonded to an orca and accompanied by a caged polar bear. She brings together a group of diverse characters who didn’t know they were family in order to rescue her lover Ora, a subversive imprisoned in the Cabinet. These are Kaev, a cage/beam fighter; Ankit, an administrator for the city manager; Soq, a slide messenger, and Go, a female crime boss. Can they deal with shareholder Martin Podlove and his grandson Fill to resolve any of the city’s problems? Can they come up with a workable plan to get Ora out?

On the positive side, this is a well-imagined future-tech scenario with an idealistic, come-together theme. The nanites were originally intended for bonding, but when the host remains unbonded, they cause mental deficiency and an eventually fatal mental illness. The cure is to bond with other people or with harmonious animals like the orca, the bear or Ankit’s monkey. The scenario also features the results of climate change and an indictment of power structures including wealthy shareholders, city government and crime syndicates. In this case, the city manager is a helpless civil servant manipulated by others who can’t deal with the problems and is mostly concerned with reassuring the population and winning reelection. There’s gender diversity here and the story includes gay sex, something that seems unusual in mainstream publishing and lists of awards finalists.

On the less positive side, this was another long, slow development and the characters never quite catch fire. Masaaraq’s arrival provides a spark of interest in the action line, but then she drops into obscurity. There isn’t really any further development in events until about half way through when Soq and Fill meet, and then Fill becomes a sacrifice to Martin’s past dealings. This story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, as it’s hard to believe Masaarq, armed with her primitive halberd, is superhumanly successful in battles within the high-tech city. It’s also hard to believe this motley group can carry out a successful assault on the well-protected Cabinet. I know it’s all about the idealism and the symbolism, but I wasn’t pleased with the ending, either. Does this group think they’ll be any less corrupt than the previous owners of the city?

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It is fantasy, Kuang’s debut novel, runs 527 pages and was published by Harper Voyager. This review contains spoilers.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is a dark-skinned peasant girl, orphaned as a toddler and taken in by a family of opium dealers. They plan to give her in marriage to the disgusting, old village import inspector to improve their business opportunities. Rin frantically studies for the Keju test and scores high enough for admittance to the elite Sinegard military academy. With her tutor’s help, she leaves the village and travels to the school. As a backward peasant girl, she has to work harder than most, and she makes both enemies and friends among her new classmates. After the first year, she finds a master in the strange lore master Jiang, who teaches her meditation and tells her she has the ability to channel the gods and become a great shaman. Her studies come to an abrupt end as war breaks out between the Nikara empire and the nearby Mugen Federation. Students at the academy are conscripted and given posts within the military, and because of her studies, Rin is sent to the Cike, a small, disrespected division of warriors with shamanistic powers. The commander of the unit dies, and Altan Trengsin, a recent graduate of the academy, moves into his place. Can this motley crew of shamans save the empire? Or will Rin lose her soul instead?

This story is written in two parts. Part I starts off as a great adventure story set against some excellent world-building. Rin overcomes prejudice because of her complexion, her gender and her poverty, and through hard work and determination gets on track for a successful military career. She makes a non-traditional choice for a master, and with Jiang’s help, goes on to explore her heritage and her unusual talent for channeling magic. Then in Part II, the Third Poppy War and a lot of bad politics interferes in Rin’s life, leaving her struggling in a world she doesn’t understand. For anyone familiar with Asian language, there are some interesting associations in the names Kuang chooses. There are also some good descriptions of the military strategy and martial arts study. In Part I, I thought the theme was going to be success against adversity, but later in the story it’s trending more to ignorant misuse of power.

On the not so great side, Part II is full of gross inconsistencies in the characters, their powers and the progress of the war. The story degenerates into a Disneyesque state where Rin, instead of applying discipline and intelligence, screams at everyone, can’t carry her weight as a shaman because she’s blocked by a ghost, and makes a series of emotion-driven choices in defiance of all warnings. What happened to all that study at the academy? Didn’t she learn anything at all? The action line starts off well in Part I, but in Part II the author tries to raise the ante through detailed descriptions of torture and atrocities committed in the war. This book got really unpleasant, and the ending didn’t resolve anything at all. Presumably all the hate and self-destruction will continue into an upcoming sequel.

Two and a half stars for the gross inconsistencies.

Review of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

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This novel is alternate history/science fiction and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It was published by Tor and runs 424 pages. Full disclosure: Kowal is the incoming president of the SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

Physicist Elma and her husband aerospace engineer Nathanial York are vacationing in the Poconos when a huge meteor flashes overhead. It strikes in the Chesapeake Bay area, destroying Washington D.C. and much of the Northeastern US. The Yorks shelter under an overhang and end up cut and bruised but okay. They find Elma’s Cessna is intact inside a hangar at the local airfield and fly out to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Elma was a pilot during WWII and tries to volunteer to help relocate refugees, but is refused. She, Nathaniel and her brother Hershel do some research and predict that the meteor strike will result in first, colder weather because of dust, then rising temperatures because of steam in the air. They think this is an extinction event. They successfully pitch this analysis to the new President (previously Secretary of Agriculture) Brennan. As a result, the government pours resources into a space program with Nathaniel as lead engineer, hoping to establish a space station and a moon base before the earth becomes uninhabitable in about 50 years. Meanwhile, Elma lobbies to be included in the program as a female astronaut. Can they develop successful space colonies before it’s too late to save the people of Earth?

This seems to be a mashup of Stephenson’s Seveneves, Shetterly’s Hidden Figures and maybe a couple of other works, where a massive disaster forces humanity to consider evacuation of Earth, while women scientists and pilots are brushed off as not really qualified to help. It also points out the sexist attitudes of the US 1950s, when women were forced from factory jobs back into domestic roles after WWII, and racism where Jim Crow laws kept African Americans from equality. This is very character driven with strongly developed characters who agonize over heavy responsibilities and upcoming disasters. Events feel very real. Elma and Nathaniel’s relationship is very tender and supportive, and Elma (regardless of her anxiety) manages to establish herself as a strong role model for young girls.

On the not so positive side, there are some big suspension of disbelief issues here. First, Wernher von Braun was the father of the US space program for a reason. The Third Reich stole billions from Jewish families that went into research and development for the German war effort. At the end of the war, captured scientists from these programs were divided up between the US and USSR, which gave both governments a head start in space technology. The USSR made the first advances all the way along, until the US managed to land the first men on the moon in 1969. So, it’s not that easy to move Von Braun out of the picture. How are his experience and know-how going to be replaced by a homegrown Jewish aerospace engineer with black friends in 1952? I know it’s a nice thought, but it ain’t going to happen. Next, Elma is represented as a hotshot war-time pilot who brought down three Messerschmitt fighter planes while flying an unarmed Mustang. However, she suffers from crippling anxiety attacks at the very idea of people looking at her (especially men), apparently because she went to university as a young teen and was stuck in STEM classes with jealous, unwelcoming males. This means she is paralyzed at the idea of speaking in Congressional committee meetings and vomits repeatedly backstage at the Mr. Wizard show. Dear, Elma: You’re going to have a hard time making it as an astronaut. It’s a tough job and requires that you deal well with people, politics and the media. You can’t do it hiding in the bathroom. Plus, taking tranquilizers to deal with it is the worst feminine stereotype. Next, with the Northeastern US pretty much devastated by the meteor strike, the government moves the capital and the new space program to Kansas City. Proximity to the equator gives a speed boost to any launch; plus rockets that fail in Kansas City take out farm families. Dear Nathaniel: There are reasons why the US launches from Florida and Southern California out across the oceans. These are called the Eastern and Western Test Ranges—your wife should not have to tell you this. Next, I dunno what the government is thinking in pouring all those resources into an iffy space program while everyone seems totally blasé about the world ending. Where’s the urgency here? Maybe they don’t want panic? Then they better get their butts in gear for a real solution. A space habitat they can build in 50 years from a dead start is only going to hold a few hundred people; plus, the rocket launches are a huge offender for greenhouse gases, making things worse. And Elma has her nose out of joint because she’s not going to be the first woman in space? Suck it up, girl. And last, I don’t know why Elma is in such a lather that women will be excluded from a moon colony. In 1608 the Virginia Company of London offered huge incentives for women to immigrate as brides to the Jamestown colony. The French emptied women’s prisons and kidnapped women off the streets to populate New Orleans. Dear Elma: Don’t worry. This problem will take care of itself.

Well written story in many ways, but full of eye-rollers. Three and a half stars.

Review of Witchmark by C.L. Polk

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Polk is a Canadian author. This is her debut novel and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and billed as Book 1 of the Kingston Series. Book II, Stormsong will be available in June of 2019. This runs 318 pages and was published by Tor.com. It’s also a finalist for the 2018 Lammy Awards. This review contains spoilers.

Sir Christopher Miles Hensley was born a witch and a healer, which means he is unvalued because the aristocratic leadership of Aeland needs storm-singers instead to maintain a livable climate. To avoid being enslaved to a storm-singer as a secondary or imprisoned in a witch’s asylum, he runs away and joins the war effort against neighboring Laneer. As the war ends, he fakes his own death and returns as Dr. Miles Singer to work in the capital city of Kingston as a psychiatrist in a veterans’ hospital. This comfortable career is destroyed when Tristan Hunter brings a dying witch to the hospital’s emergency room. Singer is unable to save him, but when the man’s body mysteriously disappears from the hospital morgue, he and Hunter embark on an investigation, looking for evidence to present to the police. Complications to Singer’s life immediately set in: Returning veterans start committing mass murders. Another doctor at the hospital begins to suspect Singer is a witch. Singer meets his sister Grace at a hospital fundraiser; and under his human disguise, Hunter turns out to be one of the fay and beautiful Amaranthine investigating the loss of souls from the mortal world. The Laneer are arriving in the Capital to officially surrender, but are they planning a last effort to win the war? Can Singer solve all these mysteries and still maintain his freedom? And what should he do about Tristan Hunter?

This starts off like a wonderfully charming little Edwardian mystery, enhanced by the extra fantasy dimension, but as we move along, the plot unfolds into complexities. Miles’ aristocratic family turns out to be deep into politics and his father behind a horrific infrastructure that keeps Aeland prosperous and successful but consumes souls. The loss of souls in this scenario is so bad that it has attracted the attention of the otherworldly Amaranthine, whose leadership is thinking of interfering. There are some pretty serious structural horrors in the society, but it’s all low key and background enough that you have to think about it to reveal the symbolism about slavery and consumption of souls. Instead, the main storyline is the developing relationships between the characters, the evasions of the guilty, and how Miles, Tristan and Grace work to expose the underlying horrors in their world and deal with them to create a better tomorrow.

On the less positive side, it’s a little hard to believe that Grace is in line to replace her ailing father and still doesn’t know what Aeland’s infrastructure is built on. And how does Miles transition from a surgeon to a psychiatrist? Did he fake credentials, too? Next, there might be a touch too much complexity in the plot, as either the Laneer’s necromancy plot or the Aeland infrastructure issue would have been plenty to fill out a novel of this length. These are two competing subplots for a long time, and it seems a stretch that Miles manages to deal with both problems in one huge wrap-up at the end. Also, I’m wondering why someone with healing gifts would be so undervalued. Don’t the Aelanders understand what witchy healers could do for all those sinus infections? And last, I think the romance between Miles and Tristan was a little too pat. We’ve been warned about the Amaranthine all the way through this book, and now Miles is going to fall into his arms? I wouldn’t rush into anything, Miles.

I’m going to go 5 stars on this one.

Review of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

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This novella is science fiction and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It was published by Tor.com and runs 227 pages. Full disclosure: Kelly Robson is on the Board of Directors of the SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Award. This review contains spoilers.

Minh is a plague baby, one of the generation that moved out of the underground hells in 2205 and made an effort to reclaim the Earth’s surface. She works for ESSA, along with Kiki, a young fatbaby admin, but there haven’t been any new projects for decades. Now, the Mesopotamian Development Bank is planning an initiative to remediate the Mesopotamian Trench. The bank has put out a request for proposal (RFP) for a team to travel to the Mesopotamian Trench in 2024 BCE in association with the organization TERN (which operates time travel) to do a past state assessment. ESSA decides to compete, and Minh manages to win the bid. A team consisting of Minh, Kiki and biologist Hamid meets with TERN historian Fabian in Bangladesh hell, where he explains that the trip will also transport tourists, and that there is absolutely no risk because the particular time line they create will collapse once they’re all returned. Once in the past, they establish a base and begin their assessment. Surprisingly, there are a lot of people making their homes around the rivers, and these people seem disturbed by the weird monsters wandering around. Can the team really make it back safely?

On the positive side, this brings attention to the problem of environmental degradation. Besides the team’s narrative, a paragraph or two at the beginning of each chapter gives us an entertaining viewpoint from the ancient Mesopotamians, where King Shulgi and High Priestess Susa get word of the strange goings on and try to interpret and use these for their own political ends. We also get a lot of background on how environmental grants work. Also, the surprise ending is fun.

On the not so great side, this feels mostly dry and technical, and there’s hardly anything of a rising action line at all. Lots of text goes into establishing the situation, the setting and the characters. There’s also a lot of emphasis on personal issues and on dealing with the RFP and the various banks and organizations, then the sampling, etc., all of which might be totally boring without the promise of the Mesopotamian narrative. Near the end of the book, the two story lines suddenly converge and we realize there’s going to be trouble. In my opinion, this should have happened about chapter 2 or 3—the adventure is just getting started when it ends. Is there going to be a sequel, maybe? I checked, but don’t see any signs of one yet. Also on the negative side, I can’t see any reason for the “monster” part of this. Minh needs prostheses because she’s lost her legs and chooses octopus tentacles. Kiki has her legs cut off to reduce her size and weight and then chooses ungulate legs. Why are they doing this? Shulgi even notices how clumsy it is. Are they total idiots?

Interesting but flawed. Three and a half stars.

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