Congrats to the 2019 Nebula Winners!

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The Nebula Conference was virtual this year, but here are the fiction awards announced on May 30:

Best Novel : A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)

Best Novella: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)

Best Novelette: Carpe Glitter by Cat Rambo (Meerkat)

Best Short Story: “Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)

Additional awards:

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Riverland by Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing: The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Good Omens: “Hard Times” by Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)

Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award: Lois McMaster Bujold

Wrap-up of the 2020 Hugo Reviews

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That finishes the reviews in the main fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year, so here’s the wrap-up for anyone looking for patterns in the nominations. There was an approximate 60% overlap with the 2019 Nebula finalists, so I didn’t have to read that many stories to fill in the gaps. In addition to the Nebula correspondence, about 85% of the finalists appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List, issued in February of 2020.

There was fair diversity among the nominees, both in ethnicity and gender of the authors and in the variety of settings and themes. There were 24 works nominated, but two were co-written, resulting in 28 authors. In the case of The Deep, Rivers Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are credited for the previously Hugo-nominated song that inspired the novella. This Is How You Lose the Time War was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As usual, apologies if I’ve missed anybody. I’m sure I’ve way undercounted disabilities, for example, as most authors don’t post their health status.

Best Novel: 6 women, 0 men, 5 LGBTQ, 6 white, 0 ethnic minorities
Best Novella: 3 women, 6 men, 1 non-binary, 2 LGBTQ, 4 white, 1 Jewish, 3 black, 1 Arab American, 1 Asian
Best Novelette: 5 women, 1 man, 3 LGBTQ, 3 white, 1 Jewish, 1 black, 2 Asian, 1 disabled
Best Short Story: 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 4 LGBTQ, 2 white, 1 black, 3 Asian

Here are the percentages: 18/28 (64%) women, 8/29 (29%) men, 2/28 (7%) non-binary, 14/28 (50%) LGBTQ, 15/28 (54%) white, 2/28 (7%) Jewish, 5/28 (18%) black, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 6/28 (21%) Asian, and 1/28 (4%) disabled. The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. The results above follow the current trend toward white, LGBTQ women authors in the Hugo nominations, and the only way white men made it in at all was through co-written works. No Hispanics or Native Americans received nominations this year. White authors at 54% were below the US demographic of 61%. Black authors at 18% were somewhat above the US demographic of 13%. LGBTQ authors at 50% were well above the US demographic of 4.5%. Asian authors at 21% were above the US demographic of 5.6%, and Jewish at 7% and Arab-American authors at 4% were above the US demographics of and 2.6% and 1% respectively.

Looking at the lead characters in the works: 18/24 (75%) had female leads and 2/24 (8%) had equal male and female leads. Only 1/24 (4%) had a clearly male lead. The others were gender-indeterminate, cats, etc. 7/24 (29%) had non-white lead characters, and 7/24 (29%) had clearly lesbian characters. There was a noticeable shortage of male LGBTQ authors and/or characters in the nominations, which is is a recurring pattern from past years. This suggests there may be active discrimination against this particular group.

Looking at the genres: 11/24 (46%) had science fictional settings, and 13/24 (54%) had settings that look like mainly fantasy. The definitions have to be pretty loose, because a number of the works seem to mix science fictional and fantasy tropes. None of the works would qualify as hard SF, except maybe Chambers’ work about the dangers of space exploration. All the other SF stories had mysterious far future or alternate reality settings.

As far as publishers go, there were no finalists from print-only magazines this year. Tor dominated the list with 8/24 (33%} entries, and Uncanny Magazine came in next with 3/24 (12.5%). This suggests that the style and philosophy of Tor’s editors is popular with WorldCon members. Heavy promotion may also be a factor, as again, I could have almost predicted some of these results from the levels of advertising.

Themes were varied, but in style there was a clear trend toward surreal effects. The Hugo’s tendency for political commentary showed up in a number of cases, especially the short stories. Killing people to take their power appeared as a theme in three works, and revenge for past abuse appeared in four works. Interestingly, a couple of the novels this year frankly addressed socialist revolution. Hurley’s Light Brigade strives against authoritarian control and toward a panacea of living free in communism, but Anders’ novel has a more realistic and cynical view of how well this works. At least two pieces looked directly at the issue of power. Outside the fiction category, Ng’s acceptance speech from last year also made the list of finalists, an interesting choice, as it was denounced by some in the audience as both sexist and racist. All the finalist works had a strong emotional component.

Other observations: A few of these works came across as ordinary, but in general, the quality level ran fairly high, including both concepts and execution. The reading list seems to have been limited, as McGuire, Solomon, Harrow and Chiang were all nominated in more than one category. Also, some of the authors are perennials: Chambers, McGuire, Clark, Pinsker, Gailey and Harrow were also nominated last year. This repetition seems to be a developing standard for the Hugos. It’s a trend that can increase the minority count, but it also clearly reduces diversity. Surely there are plenty of qualified authors out there who could provide more diverse voices.

Review of “Omphalos” by Ted Chiang

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This alternate reality novelette is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was released in the author’s collection Exhalation, published 7 May 2019 by Knopf. This review contains spoilers.

Dr. Dorothea Morrell is an archaeologist working on a dig in Arisona. She is scheduled to give a public lecture in the Chicagou area on how tree rings and other artifacts date the creation, which goes well, but afterward she finds evidence of the illegal sale of museum relics. With only a post office box address to go on, she lays a trap for the thief and catches Wilhelmina McCullough, daughter of Nathan McCullough, director of the University of Alta California’s Museum of Natural Philosophy in Oakland. Wilhelmina explains that she is not really a thief, but she feels the relics not being displayed should be in the hands of the faithful, especially considering the huge crisis of faith that will be coming soon. Her father is in possession of evidence that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Can Dorothea’s own faith withstand this knowledge?

In case you’re wondering, omthalos is Greek for “navel,” and this story is a play on Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, by Philip Henry Gosse, published in 1857, where the author tries to reconcile the events of the Biblical Genesis with the evidence of science. In Dorothea’s alternate world, tree rings and ridges on clam shells stop at a certain point, the Atacama mummies have no navels and someone is carving the Yosemiti Cathedral into a cliff face in California. The date of the creation is clear. Faith is clearly a huge part of everyone’s existence, and the narrative mostly comes from Dorothea’s conversations with God. The number of stars is limited, and the center of the universe turns out to be approximately at 58 Eridani. This is a catastrophe on par with Copernicus’ observation that the Earth actually revolves around the sun and not the other way around, meaning that humans aren’t really the navel of creation. In this case, it looks like the inhabitants of 58 Eridani are, instead.

This story is satire, a gentle but fairly direct questioning of Western religion, and as such, I can imagine it might be offensive to some readers. I’m personally disappointed that the story didn’t give us any real glimpse of God’s chosen people out there at 58 Eridani. Dorathea wonders where that leaves us. Just an accident, I guess.

Four stars.

Review of “Away with the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine September-October, 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Suss hurts when she lives in human form. She is much more comfortable as a wolf, but she worries that she causes problems for her friend Yana and the other village folk. When she wakes as a girl this time, Yana tells her she has destroyed three chickens, two gardens, the apothecary, and possibly the widow Nan Gideon’s goat. Suss and Yana make the rounds to apologize and offer amends for the damage, but the goat is a problem. It’s clearly been killed by a canine, but Suss doesn’t remember doing the deed. Is she spending so much time as a wolf that she’s losing touch with her human self? Or is something else going on?

Contrary to the traditional, horrific werewolf story, this narrative leaves a warm feel because of how Suss is accepted, loved and supported by her friends in the village. It’s written in first person, giving us a good feel for the characters through description and interaction, but not that much of an image for the village. Suss had Yana follow up on the mystery of the dead goat, providing practical advice to Nan for defraying the cost by selling the meat and cleaning up the pen. Because the goat shakes Suss’ confidence in herself, she considers giving up her life as a wolf, but Yana offers her an alternative that works out well, where she can live at the edge of the wilderness and become the village’s protector instead.

On the less positive side, there’s not much plot here, and the question of what actually killed the goat isn’t hard to figure out. The story is fairly straight forward and depends heavily on the emotional content for its impact. Suss’ pain is represented as physical in the story, but symbolically this suggests that she’s actually retreating from the problems of functioning as a human being. It’s good she finally finds her niche.

Three stars.

Review of “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang

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This fantasy/alternate reality short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 23 October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nyma is ten years old and the chosen child. Her country is at war and Otto Han has just been elected president. The military has the seres missiles that will most certainly stop the war, but will also cause terrible destruction to the cities of the enemy. Nyma has the access codes for the missiles buried next to her heart, and the president has a ceremonial dagger that can be used to retrieve them. Nyma’s tutor Tej tells her to establish a relationship with Han, so she reads him poetry, and after a book of her poems is published, she becomes recognized nationally as a poet. However, their country is losing the war and pressure is mounting to use the missiles. Will Han sacrifice her to get the codes?

This is a highly creative mashup of atom bombs and access codes with human sacrifice. The Order, creators of the system, have put a human face on the codes, a child that the president has to kill with his own hands and that the people in the country know and love. Han has to complete this step before he can bring the missiles to bear on the enemy, a task that might otherwise be easy, callous and unfeeling. Stress builds, while we wonder if Han has the stomach to do it. As I was reading, I had visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where people had no warning of the firestorm coming down on them.

On the less positive side, this is a little too pat. The characters carry out their roles and we get the message, but there’s really very little conflict other than the inevitability of the decision Han will have to make. Everybody remains obedient to the system, even though I expect military interests could come up with several ways to get around the issue of killing a child. We get to know Nyma through her poetry, but she remains mostly a cipher. The world and the situation also remain vague, and I ended up with very little in the way of solid images or details. Shouldn’t Nyma have had a security detail?

Three stars.

Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes

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This sort of science fictional novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Saga on November 5, 2019, and runs 175 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The wajinru are the descendants of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard to drown during the slaving years. Their young were taken in and nurtured by whales, and these children evolved into water-breathing apex predators with scales, fish tails, intersex genitalia, massive jaws and sharp teeth. They live serene lives without the distractions of history. This burden is currently carried solely by the Historian. The time of Remembering is at hand, and the wajinru assemble and build an artificial womb for the ceremony. Yetu, the current Historian, invokes the trance and starts the Remembering, but she is weak and the memories are painful. She abandons the ceremony without finishing and flees, leaving the wajinru in limbo. Yetu ends up injured and exhausted in a tidal pool, where she is discovered by land dwellers. It has been many years since the wajinru destroyed the civilization on land with massive storms. Yetu is cautious, but establishes a close relationship with Oori, one of the land dwellers. Is there some way she can bring the land and the sea back together?

First, the credits: This novella was inspired by the Hugo Award-nominated song “The Deep” by the rap group Clipping for the This American Life episode “We Are In The Future.” Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are members of the rap ensemble.

The novella is another of the currently popular imaginative, absurdist narratives that have very little in the way of plot, characterization, or world building, but do coalesce into eventual meaning. In this case, the interesting point is that these undersea people have no memory for history, nor do they seem to want it. It’s painful after all. So they have arranged for one person to carry the burden, and only have a brief Remembering ceremony now and then, after which they’re rid of the memories again. Part of the question here is whether Yetu should permanently give them back their racial memories. I’ve found this issue of erasing history to rewrite the future in a couple of other recent cases from Millennial writers, suggesting it’s an emerging question of the current Zeitgeist.

On the not so positive side, there’s a lot of bad science here. How is it that mammals have evolved to breathe water and developed fish scales and fish tails? And how do babies born into the ocean live on whale milk? Plus, these people are carefree because they don’t remember anything. How will that translate to nuclear bombs, for example? Or the Holocaust? Sure, these things can cause depression and anxiety, but is it really safe to erase them?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

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This horror novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Broken Eye on September 3, 2019, and runs 118 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Caleb is the biracial son of the Lewis town sheriff, and his grandparents’ house is just through the woods from the Royce property. There are rumors that Archie Royce coerces women into some kind of weird religious cult. The house burns one night, and Caleb goes with his dad to try to help out. It seems too late to save anyone but a girl named Cere. While they’re waiting to find her a foster family, Caleb’s dad takes her in. She becomes like a sister to Caleb, and he learns that her evil father taught her magic and expected her to end the world. A woman is murdered, and it starts to look like Cere might not be the only survivor of the fire. Years later when Caleb becomes town sheriff himself, the murders start up again. Is there any way he and Cere can stop Archie’s plan?

On the positive side, this includes some good imagery and manages to capture a faint flavor of the South. It’s based on a legendary figure called Catfish John, a sort of gator bigfoot of the swamp, and the creature makes several appearances, both in dreams and in real life. There’s also a faint flavor of cults, and how charismatic men can twist reality for their followers. On the diversity side, it features a biracial, gay sheriff, someone you wouldn’t exactly expect in a small Southern town.

On the less positive side, this has a disjointed feel, and fails to produce much in the way of plot, theme or meaning. It’s clear early on that Cere is a powerful witch, but we don’t see much of the battle she carries on against her father and brothers. Instead, we get confused dreams from Caleb, unsolved murders and cases of rot that are never explained. There’s no description of the town or any feel for town life, only a few ugly bullies that plague Caleb when he’s a kid. Nobody seems to have any plan to deal with the Royces’ evil cult except to call on Catfish John.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “A Strange Uncertain Light” by G.V. Anderson

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This dark fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF Magazine 7-8/2019. This review contains spoilers.

Anne is a chime baby, which means she was born during the ringing of church bells. This gives her the ability to see spirits, but everyone thinks she’s just crazy. She works in her father’s clinic, but wants to escape the small southern town where she lives. She connects with Merritt, an older man wanting to recapture his youth lost during WWI, and the two marry. They intend to spend their honeymoon at Rannings, a nice hotel in Yorkshire, but Anne starts seeing ghosts right away. It turns out the building was an asylum in the last century. Is there anything Anne can do for these spirits? And is it already too late to save her marriage?

This is a smooth traditional narrative, faintly gothic, with the point-of-view/timeline varying between Anne and Mary, a servant girl who stormed the asylum in search of her lost friend Benjamin. The characterizations and world building are excellent. It rains a lot. While Merritt drowns his PTSD in alcohol, sleeping through most of the honeymoon, Anne meets ghosts who need her help and a spirit rector who gives her guidance. There’s mention of Anne’s treatments for hallucinations, and the state of the asylum inmates is fairly horrific, giving us an ugly window into past methods of mental health care. There’s a moment when Merritt and Anne come clean with one another, suggesting they might save the marriage after all, and a nice twist at the end that leaves a warm feeling.

On the not so positive side, I had some issues with the timeline here. I was under the impression that the asylum was well in the past, maybe a hundred years, but Benjamin still turns out to be alive and ambulatory? Maybe this is his special talent as a chime baby? It’s not clear.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 10 July 2019. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the eighteenth century, and poet Christopher Smart thinks God has commissioned him to write The Divine Poem. As a result, he’s been committed to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. He works away at his poem, writing it in blood on the walls when he’s short of pen and paper. Meanwhile, the poet’s cat Jeoffry and his friends protect the inmates, fighting off the imps and demons that plague the halls. When he devil himself comes around, demanding an evil poem from Christopher that’s due from an old bargain, it seems Jeoffry will have to stave off the apocalypse, too. Is he up to the task? Or is he over matched this time?

This story seems to be a tribute to real poet Christopher Smart (11 April 1722 – 21 May 1771), best known for religious works and for serving stints in both an asylum and a debtors’ prison. We know he had a cat named Jeoffry, because the cat appears in his poem Jubilate Agno. This story is written from Jeoffry’s point of view, and is highly entertaining. I have to give special mention to the style and imagery, and also the devil’s wig gets a special shout out.

On the less positive side, this was way too short. I’d love to follow more of Jeoffry’s adventures in the defense of his poet. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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