Congratulations to the 2018 Nebula Finalists!

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It’s that time again, and the SFWA has come through with a really varied list. I’ll start some reviews with the next blog.

Novel
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Novella
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee (Semper Fi)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean)
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)

Novelette
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com 7/11/18)
“An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan (An Agent of Utopia)
“The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte (Lightspeed 1/18)
“The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen (Future Science Fiction Digest 12/18)
“Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (Expanding Universe, Volume 4)

Short Story
“Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
“Going Dark” by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
“And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3-4/18)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)

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Review of “Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This story was published in Strange Horizons. It currently has nine recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Sergio is a maintenance worker (in New York City?) with a work order to remove a graffiti mosaic from the wall of the Westchester Building. However, when he touches the mosaic, he has a vision, as if experiencing the scene where police evict a boy’s parents and shoot his father. It’s like an electrical shock. Not sure what happened, he goes home to his wife Carolina, who suffers from dementia. The next week, he avoids destroying the mural. On the way home on the bus, he sees another one on the side of an auto repair shop. He gets off the bus, climbs the fence and touches the mosaic, experiences a girl having a traffic accident. He’s nearly arrested by security, gets home late. The next day he calls in sick to work and rides the bus around town, locating more of the murals. In the evening, he’s approached by three people who seem to be the artists. He asks them to make a mural for him. The woman agrees, and puts together the bits of Carolina’s life into a mural that makes her remember–at least for a while.

Okay, I’m sort of charmed by this one. It’s another of the sentimental works that’s so de rigueur lately, but I like Sergio and his devotion to Carolina. It’s an interesting idea to put together the bits of her life into a magical image that will make her remember. There’s also a philosophical statement, that life is about loss, and a political one, that we should remember the ones lost and name the ones responsible. These messages are fairly subtle, pretty much obscured by the main theme about Carolina. The ending seems to be a bit abrupt.

Three and a half stars.

Potential nominee.

Review of “The Curse of Giants” by Jose Pablo Iriarte

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This story was published by Daily Science Fiction. It currently has nine recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Danny was born a “giant,” which means he never fits in. He is clumsy and is called Dumbass Danny at school, where he sometimes responds to the bullying by acting out, knocking over chairs and tables and kicking things. When this happens, he gets disciplined at home, as well. He tries to report that he’s being bullied, but nothing happens. When the acting out happens again, his father beats him with a belt. Danny goes to the principal’s office and lifts his shirt, showing the marks.

This is another feel good story with strong anti-bullying and anti-child abuse messages. However, like most of the stories I’ve read on the Nebula Reading List this year, it’s not fully developed. Danny has made a strong statement at the end, but the story should have gone on to tell what happens in Danny’s life when Child Protective Services intervenes. Also, I don’t think this one is SFF. I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy content at all, except that Danny thinks he’s a “giant” instead of a disabled child.

Three stars.

Comments on the Nebula Reading List top five short stories

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It takes 10 nominations to make a story a Nebula finalist, so these five stories I’ve just reviewed look to be the ones with the best likelihood to make it.

Since I’m reading down the list, there are a few trends sticking out. As far as I know, only SFWA members can make recommendations. Because the listing has been recommended by professionals in the genre, I’d expect to get good quality on the list. These stories I’ve just reviewed have recommendations in the double digits, but I’m just not finding a lot of what I’d call substance in the content. I’m thinking all those people are clicking the “recommend” button because they want to affirm the message. If I’m looking for quality stories to nominate, does that mean I can put any confidence in the number of recommendations the stories have gotten at all? Hm. Maybe not. Does this mean the trend to sentimental stories has shifted and this year message fiction is the in thing? Hm. Maybe so. Hopefully there’s more substance further down the list.

Next, I’m seeing a lot of repetition in the names. Caroline Yoachim, for example, has 5 stories on the list; A. Merc Rustad has three; José Pablo Iriarte has three, etc. I’m not sure what to make of this, except that these people must be very consistently high quality writers.

Third, I don’t see any real, serious hard SF in the top five. I commented on this trend a couple of years back after the awards cycle, the fact that hard SF is in trouble, being replaced (this year) with somewhat humorous message fiction dressed up in a thin veneer of SF or fantasy. I have to agree that the stories are entertaining and fun and that the messages are progressive, but there are no fully developed short stories in this group of five with, for example, strong character development, great world building, vivid imagery, thoughtful themes and universal questions about the human condition. What’s happened? Is this the influence of “Cat Pictures Please,” last year’s Hugo winner? Or has pressure from the Puppies encouraged the SFWA to promote progressive political messages at the expense of well-developed, serious science fiction and fantasy stories?

One last observation is that just a few magazines seem to be dominating the list. For example, Lightspeed has 20 entries in the current list, Daily Science Fiction has 12, Clarkesworld has 10, F&SF has 10 and Strange Horizons has 10. Glancing at the titles, I don’t think hard SF is the reigning paradigm. This isn’t a new trend, either. Analog did make a better showing this year than it sometimes does, with 5 entries. Where should I look for stronger substance? Is Asimov’s still the indicator there?

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