Wrap Up of the 2019 Nebula Reviews

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This was pretty much a whirlwind tour, as I had only read and reviewed a couple of the Nebula finalists this year before the list was announced. As usual, I’m now going to have a look at what patterns seem to emerge.

First, the diversity count. Here’s what I get from a quick search—apologies if I’ve missed or mischaracterized anybody. The gender count in the novella category adds up to 10 people and is slanted to male because of the two works with multiple authors. The other categories follow the recent awards pattern of leaning heavily to white, female, LGBTQ authors. In all, 24 works and 28 authors were nominated, with the approximate percentages as follows:
Gender: 8/28 (29%) men, 18/28 (64%) women, 2/28 (7%) non-binary.
Ethnicity: 4/28 (14%) Jewish, 1/28 (4%) Hispanic, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 3/28 (11%) African American, 5/28 (18%) Asian, 18/28 (64%) white.
Sexual orientation: 7/28 (25%) LGBTQ.

The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% this year because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. Whites at 64% were slightly above the US demographic of 61%; Asians at 18% were well above the 5.6% demographic in the US population, and Jewish at 14% were also well above 1.8-2.6% of the US population. All other ethnicities were underrepresented. The 25% representation of LGBTQ authors leaned heavily to women and remains well above the estimated US national demographic of 4.5%. This strong trend to LGBTQ and Jewish writers continues from previous years. Besides these forms of diversity, there was also a good representation of non-US authors in 2019, including several UK and Canadian residents. As far as main characters go, 19/24 (79%) of the works had a female protagonist, 4/24 (17%) had a male protagonist and 1/24 (4%) had a cat as the main character.Two of the male protagonists were gay, a good showing for a group that is so underrepresented in the authors.

It was a little hard to sort out genre this year because of the extremes in creativity and style. I count 12/24 (50%) works that made some attempt to be science fiction, 10/24 (42%) that look like pure fantasy and 2/24 (8%) that look to be a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. Although a fairly high percentage used SF settings, there was nothing here that really rates high on the SF hardness scale. Gannon and Chiang’s works are more traditional, as they include some discussion and hands-on tech action, but none of the rest rate more than a 1.0 on the hardness scale, meaning that they use a SF setting, but include little or no actual science. Space opera was clearly popular in the novel category, and absurdist and surreal works dominated the novella category, a style that seems to be rising in popularity.

A quick look for the dominant publishers shows Tor with 6/24 (25%) and Uncanny Magazine with 4/24 (17%) of the finalists. F&SF squeaked in a nomination for 2019, something that’s getting to be rare for the paperback print magazines.

As far as themes go, angry political messages seem to be down slightly this year. These were more common in the short story category than in the longer works. Political screeds include Wise, Sen and Harrow with the theme of women killing men and taking over their power. Greenblatt covered climate change and ecological disaster. Other themes seem to be more related to social change. In the novel category, both Pinsker and Gannon offered the dangers of addiction to virtual reality. Solomon and Osborne’s works considered the subject of erasing history. Several other works, taking the opposite position, presented real-world historical outrages like past treatment in asylums and colonial injustices. Love and revenge both seemed to be highly popular as topics.

After noticing last year that a high percentage of Nebula finalists were also officers or directors of the SFWA, I checked this statistic again. Sarah Pinsker, currently with two nominations, is a director-at-large of the SFWA, and Cat Rambo was the outgoing president in 2019. Several of these authors are perennials, notably Gannon and Pinsker, and Wise is also a finalist in two categories, but nominees also included several new voices this year.

As an extra bonus, see comments for a guess at who will win.

Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It’s listed as the author’s debut novel, published 10 September 2019 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 385 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the early 1900s, and the wealthy William Cornelius Locke is the founder of an amateur archaeological society that collects ancient artifacts. When he runs across Julian Scaller, a needy black man with a baby girl, he employs Scaller to find artifacts for him and takes in the girl as his ward. January Scaller grows up with wealth and privilege, but also carefully protected, as her nursemaid works to turn her into a fine young lady acceptable for polite society. Scaller sends Jane, an African companion for January, and Locke takes her in, too, plus a big, protective dog named Bad. January finds a magical chest in Locke’s study that presents her with messages and gifts from her father, including a book about another girl and Doors to other worlds. After her father disappears and is presumed dead, January gets drunk at one of Locke’s parties and rejects his birthday gift, embarrassing him. Her wealthy, sheltered life comes crashing down then, as he fires Jane and has January sent to the local asylum. Is he really a monster, and has she been a hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation all this time?

This has the feel of young adult. On the positive side, Harrow’s style has been described as “lyrical” and the sweet love story between January’s parents evokes childhood’s wonder at the wide possibilities in the world. The timeline catches the end of the imperialist Victorian period when polite young ladies were carefully controlled and expected to be seen and not heard, and the resulting themes are about what you’d expect from this period, including repression, personal freedom, racism, cultural appropriation, wealth, and power. At one point, Locke comes right out and equates whiteness with power and influence, and later an epiphany dawns on January that it’s dangerous to be quiet for too long. The Doors represent diversity and opportunities for change.

On the less positive side, the plot doesn’t really get moving until the second half of the book, and then it seems to get seriously confused. The fact that almost all the principal characters turn out to come from other worlds undermines the racist statements Locke has made. We’re expected to automatically condemn the man and his strange friends because they’re wealthy, powerful and racist, but when you look at the situation critically, Locke is offering the talented January a chance at high station, privilege and power herself. At this point she has a choice: 1) go with it, become wealthy and powerful and try to destroy his organization from within, or 2) get drunk, publicly rebel, get her dog hurt, herself tortured in the asylum and her friends Samuel and Jane injured and nearly killed. January takes choice #2 and suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, she has no idea how to survive in the world without Locke’s protection. Jane even has to warn her that she has no skills and needs to be smarter. In the end, January commits fraud, forging documents in order to take over Locke’s wealth and position herself. Are we supposed to applaud? What are young readers expected to take from this story?

Two and a half stars.

Review of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It is apparently Martine’s debut novel, and is listed as #1 in this series, suggesting we’ll see more on the same topic. It was published by Tor on 26 March 2019 and runs 472 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the multi-system Teixcalaani Empire. She has been dispatched in haste, and her imago implant holding the memories of her predecessor is hastily installed and out of date. When she arrives, she finds political unrest related to the Emperor’s impending death and a planned expansion war that will annex Lsel Station. Besides that, the previous ambassador Yskander Aghvan has apparently been assassinated, and Mahit and her liaison Three Seagrass seem to be next on the list. With the help of Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, Mahit threads her way through the politics, where it becomes clear Yskander made inappropriate deals with the Emperor Six Direction, plus political heavyweights in the succession fight, Minister Nineteen Adze, opposition leader Thirty Larkspur and General One Lightning. Mahit’s imago fails, apparently because of sabotage from back home, and she receives frightening messages that Lsel Station pilots have encountered alien spacecraft—apparently the leading edge of some other inimical space empire. Is there a way Mahit can sort through the mess, straighten out her imago and save Lsel Station from annexation?

This is an impressive space opera intrigue, strongly plotted, with highly complex world building and attractive, well-developed characters. There’s a solid political structure and workable economics underlying the empire versus the independent mining stations, and notable cultural differences between the practical Lsel Station and the Empire, which seems highly literate and given to layered, nuanced communications framed in poetic verse. There are shocks and speed bumps, of course, but Mahit manages to sort out the issues, and at the end of the book is headed back to Lsel Station, apparently to report to the Council and confront Councilors Darj Tarats and Aknel Amnardbat about the sabotaged imago. This signals where the next book might lead.

On the less positive side, I had an issue with the imago timeline. The implant Mahit is given on the Station is fifteen years out of date, but after it fails, she experiences flashes of memory that seem more recent. I thought maybe the implant had picked up some of the dead Yskander’s memories when Mahit viewed his preserved body, but given later events, this doesn’t seem likely. So, either I’ve misunderstood the timeline or else this is just unexplained. Next, I’m a bit surprised that Mahit has only a single liaison for staff—considering her position and the political unrest, it seems she ought to have a security force, at least. And last, Mahit develops a sexual interest in Three Seagrass, her liaison and junior staff member. In the age of #MeToo, this is romantic, but also definitely transgressive, and the narrative skims over it. Mahit doesn’t even seem to repent for overstepping her bounds.

This will likely seem slow and boring to action-adventure space opera fans, but it’s highly recommended for the poetic at heart.

Five stars.

Review of Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 27 July 2019 by Del Rey and runs 367 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the 1920s in Mexico, but the Jazz Age hasn’t come to the small town of Uukumil, where Casiopea Tun and her mother, as poor relations, work as near-servants in her wealthy grandfather’s house. Casiopea is especially annoyed by her cousin Martin, who constantly demands she run errands for him and polish his boots. He gets her in trouble with their grandfather, and Casiopea is left at home while the family goes to a nearby spa. Casiopea goes to her grandfather’s room to mend his shirts and notices he has left the key he normally wears on a chain around his neck. She uses it to open his old chest, expecting to find treasure, but instead she finds a pile of old bones. She gets a shard of one stuck in her hand, and suddenly Hun-Kamé, the Mayan God of Death, assembles from the bones. He explains that she is now his captive, and that she must help him regain the throne in Xibalba, the Underworld, stolen by his brother Vukub-Kamé. He buys her a new, modern wardrobe and they set off on an adventure that passes through Mérida, Veracruz, Mexico City, El Paso, and ends in Baja California. The two are linked by the bone shard, and as they travel, Casiopea is slowly dying, while Hun-Kamé absorbs her life-force and becomes constantly more human. When the contest comes with Vukub-Kamé, Casiopea finds he has recruited Martin to help him. Can she successfully outwit her cousin and place Hun-Kamé back on the throne? Or should she look after herself, instead?

This is basically a dream-come-true romance with the feel of young adult, as Casiopea transforms from a Cinderella figure in a small town to a grand adventurer traveling with a handsome prince. Along the way, they meet various supernatural entities who call Casiopea “Stone Maiden” (another figure from Mayan tradition, associated with an archaeological site at Xunantunich, Mexico). The subtle and gradually shifting relationship between the two main characters stands out as the best feature of the narrative. This has a strong Latin flavor, a slight tongue-in-cheek quality, and regardless of the romantic content, avoids a trite ending.

On the less positive side, Martin is pretty much the stereotype of an evil stepsister, and other characters are hardly present. Most of the text is about Casiopea’s journey, and somehow there never seems to be a real threat of failure. Hun-Kamé fills the shoes of a handsome prince fairly blandly, and I’d have preferred a little more darkness from the God of Death.

Four stars.

Review of A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

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This near-future science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Berkley on 10 September 2019 and runs 384 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Luce Cannon has the doubtful honor of playing the last live music show in the Before. That’s before plagues and terrorism led to anti-congregation laws and music and sports moved online in the After. Years later, one of her songs has a revival and generates enough royalties to fund an illegal performance venue. Rosemary Laws grew up in the After on a farm where everything was virtual hoodspace. In her tech support job for Superwally, she connects with a StageHoloLive (SHL) band and accepts an invitation to a holoconcert. Hooked, she quits her tech support job and gets accepted as a recruiter for SHL. She’s horrified to find they track her and call police raids down on the secret venues where she finds bands. When Luce’s club is raided, she goes back on the road solo, playing more secret clubs. She loses it at the gates of Graceland and is filmed by a drone, becoming a viral sensation, and Rosemary suddenly sees the future. Is there anything the two of them can do to defeat Superwally and StageHoloLive?

This novel is based on the novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road,” published by Asimov’s Magazine and winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 2015. First, this is absolutely prescient. Who would have thought Pinsker could so accurately forecast upcoming events? Only seven months from the release date of her novel, we’re already in the world she’s visualized—i.e. all the places where one would normally play music have closed up shop because of coronavirus. The novel length has a big advantage over the novelette, allowing space to better investigate and develop the themes the author presents in the original. The novel features Pinsker’s smooth, trademark style, and is heavily character driven. We especially get to feel for Rosemary, trapped in a world where she’s afraid to come out of virtual space and actually touch anyone, as she works toward independence and self-determination. The details ring true, as Pinsker is a musician as well as a writer, and clearly has experience at slogging it out in back rooms and cow pastures. A last note: this also echoes the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, when Jewish musicians were barred from performing and forced into underground, illegal venues.

On the less positive side, there’s a definite sense of déjà vu here for anyone who has read Pinsker’s novelette. We get a nice warm feeling at the end that Rosemary and Luce are going to succeed, but that doesn’t consider the economic power of Superwally and SHL. It’s not Congress that sustains the status quo, but the economic interests behind it, instead. Luce Cannon’s stage name (a.k.a. loose cannon) seems a bit cliché, too. I don’t see how it enters into the story.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom by Ted Chiang

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This science fiction novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published in the author’s collection Exhalation by Knopf on 7 May 2019 and runs 70 pages. This review contains spoilers.

A new quantum technology “prism” makes it possible to communicate with one’s paraself in an alternate universe. Nat and Morrow run Selftalk, a shop where customers can pay to chat with themselves. At Dana’s support group, Lyle confesses how contacting his paraself has screwed up his life—his jealousy of his other self’s success is affecting is own actions for the worse. Morrow comes up with a plan to scam elderly people into giving him money for their paraselves, and sends Nat into the support group to try to buy Lyle’s prism, which he wants to sell at a high price to an accident survivor so they can contact their dead spouse. Will his plan work?

This is basically a thought piece. It consists of setting up the idea of the prisms to communicate between realities and then looking at possible social and personal impacts. One result might be research on probabilities, another might be scams, another might be the opportunity to collaborate with your alternate self, and another might be contacting a loved one who has died. There is a set of characters that threads through this, as Nat and Morrow try to run a scam where they buy Lyle’s prism because it’s well suited to connect accident survivors in different realities, but the investigation of possible scenarios seems to take precedence, finishing with a discussion of how choices shape character.

On the not so positive side, this comes across as clunky and underdeveloped. The characters are flat and the story never takes on any kind of life. Nat sees Morrow murdered, and there’s no drama; it makes no impression on her at all, and the narrative just skips to her calmly figuring out how she can continue the scam. Dana receives an anonymous gift at the end that leaves a faintly warm feeling for the reader, but it’s not enough to provide any kind of emotional heart for the work.

Two and a half 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.

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