Wrap Up of the 2017 Nebula Reviews

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First, I have to admire how the SFWA manages to produce this much of what I think is real diversity in the finalists. I’ve been assured that the list is not produced by committee, but it does seem that some kind of grassroots movement must be working to make sure the organization is well represented and that no one much can complain about being left out. The list includes humor, military SF, urban fantasy, high fantasy, Asian fantasy, Native American fantasy, alternate reality, historical fantasy, satire, horror and absurdist fiction. This kind of representation is a big step, considering the political strife about inclusion that’s recently afflicted the SFF community. There was also a lot of diversity in the list of authors. The list of publishers/magazines includes both print and online sources.

Regardless of this bounty of diversity, themes did tend to repeat. For example, a high proportion of the works featured trans or non-binary characters and/or non-standard forms of marriage. In a couple of cases, this seemed peripheral and extraneous, as if an editor had recommended the additions. Several works addressed sentience in robots or similar constructs.

As is usual in the last few years, ordinary white men were frozen out of most categories. Several of the finalists (especially the men) had credentials as publishers or editors, which suggests they may have attracted nominations because of these connections. I’m also wondering why Amberlough was accepted for the list of finalists. Like last year’s World Fantasy finalist Roadsouls, this just didn’t seem to meet the requirements for SFF.

Also, the way names and publishers repeat among the finalists is troubling. For example, Sarah Pinsker and Vina Jie-Min Prasad appeared in more than one category, and some of the names repeated from last year. Four of 7 of the Best Novel finalists come from Orbit, and 4 of 6 of the Best Novella category come from Tor.com, plus one of the novelettes and one of the short stories. This outlines an inbred, elitist system. The SFWA recently broadened their membership qualification requirements, but the award finalists still look to come from a very small number of favored publishers. Surely there are other authors and publishers out there putting out deserving works.

It can be argued these publishers are the market leaders and so are attracting the “best” works, but this also speaks of how the list of potential candidates is put together. Small publishers and little known authors are often shut out by the “right” reviewers, so their releases have little chance of attracting notice. Somehow the SFF community needs to create a system to promote excellence in small presses and lesser known publishers who are doing good work in the shadows. Since major publishers have dropped the midlist, an award for self-published works might be helpful, too.

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Review of Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Knopf.

Teddy Telemachus is a con artist. Always has been. Always will be. He’s getting kind of old now, so it’s time he took care of some things. He approaches the wife of a local crime boss in the grocery story, and as usual, his charm pays off. With her on his side, he’s got leverage to deal. Besides this, Teddy is a widower and the head of a family of dysfunctional psychics. He, himself, is a card reader. His daughter Irene can’t keep a husband or a job because she can tell when people are lying. His telekinetic son Frankie is in debt to the mob. His youngest Buddy is a clairvoyant that is terrified of somehow changing the future. His grandson finds that masturbation causes astral projection. And then, there are the twins. Can this family ever find happiness and success, or is the future going to end for all of them on September 4?

Looking at this from Buddy’s point-of-view, it’s a steaming, tangled pile of past, present and future. For most of the novel, he’s working hard, trying to make preparations for Zap day, when the future ends in his consciousness. Luckily we have information from other points-of-view, too, which help us make sense of what’s going on. Because of Buddy’s aptitude and Teddy’s con artist leanings, this is tightly plotted in many ways. Because of the wild card character of the family gifts, we also get a lot of human failings. Besides this, government agents are lurking about, hoping to replace Teddy’s dead wife Maureen as their greatest weapon. Plus, the mob.

This is a smooth, delightful read with absorbing characters and slightly over-the-top humor. It has a tendency to carry the reader along to the satisfyingly tied up ending, so it’s hard to be aware of not so good points. I did wonder a couple of times about Teddy’s ploys, especially in his and Frankie’s contacts with the mob. Zap day turned out to be sort of manic, and Buddy’s trans girl/boyfriend looked a bit artificial, like an editor’s insert to make the book more attractive as award material.

Regardless of these little issues, I’m going five stars on this one. Highly recommended.

Review of “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and was published in Asimov’s September/October 2017 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Rosie Clay is a resident on a generation ship who teaches history and plays traditional fiddle in a weekly OldTime gathering. Rosie is third generation and never saw Earth, but she tries hard to maintain the history the ship has left. A few years out, a disgruntled programmer erased the databases of art, literature and history the ship carried, leaving the residents with nothing but memory to use in recreating them. Now the younger generations are starting to question why they’re required to learn and maintain this history when it is in no way useful to their own way of life. One group totally withdraws to form an artistic enclave and produce only new works. Is there any reason to save the past?

This isn’t just a question that people on a generation ship are asking. When should people expend resources trying to preserve the past and when should it all go in the trashcan? It’s a conflict between conservatives who want to preserve tradition and progressives who want to create a totally new future, all of it framed in music within this story. When Rosie accidentally creates a new song, she decides to document it carefully, creating a middle path. In the current political climate, this is a radical statement.

The music and efforts to recreate the past become the major players in the work. The story rambles, with Rosie’s narration moving from memories of her Grandmother Windy to music to events on the ship to encounters with students in her classroom. The author’s love of music comes through clearly, and anyone who has played in this kind of traditional group will share in her experience.

Not so good points: Because the narration centers so heavily around the music, generally the world building and the characters are poorly developed. We hear a lot about Windy and how she became a legend to the ship’s musicians, but know almost nothing about Rosie’s current family, the organization of the ship, the technology that runs it, etc. The conflict here is weak, too. The programmer’s act and the effort at recreation are both in the past, and at the point of the story, there’s nothing for Rosie to fight against except a minor rebellion in her classroom.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes

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This novelette is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF magazine. The title of the story comes from a song by Ewan MacColl.

The narrator describes his childhood years growing up in an Irish neighborhood of Boston. He is bullied by boys from school, and his grandmother gives him a magic charm to protect himself. One of the boys is Eddie Mackey, but after his grandfather intervenes, the two become friends. Later Eddie goes off to the Vietnam War and then goes to acting school. When they meet again, the narrator is a playwright and Eddie is a young actor getting started. They become lovers, but then separate as Eddie goes off to Hollywood. Later they get back together after Eddie wins a Golden Globe for his work in a TV series called Dirty Old Town. Can they make one of Eddie’s dreams come true together?

This story is heavily character driven, without any real plot. The narrator talks about his childhood and the magic his grandparents shared, about struggling as a playwright and meeting Eddie off and on over the years. It’s a rambling reminiscence that comes together suddenly into a meaningful story at the end. It’s also metafiction to an extent, as the narrator includes sections he’s apparently written about similar characters.

Not so good points: The main complaints I’d have about this story is the length of the reminiscence and the liberal inclusion of metafiction, which I thought confused the storyline. Also, the magical workings here aren’t very well defined. Grandmother’s charm clearly works, but the rest of what the narrator considers magic is pretty nebulous. I’m thinking the dreams are symbolic rather than magical.

Four stars.

Review of The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was released by Tor.com Publishing and is described as one of two stand-alone introductions to the fantasy Tensorate Series. The other book referenced is The Red Threads of Fortune.

Akeha is an extra child, an unexpected twin born to the Protector. Along with their twin, they are promised to the Grand Monastery, but as Mokoya develops a gift of prophesy, their mother wants them back, so Akeha comes, too. When their confirmation date arrives, Mokoya decides to become a woman and marry the new high priest of the Monastery, but Akeha decides to become a man. This further alienates him as his mother’s only son. He leaves the palace, and eventually finds himself aligned with the Machinist rebels fighting against the evils of the Protectorate. As events progress, the conflict begins to threaten Mokoya and her child. How can Akeha reconcile the demands of ideology with the family he loves?

There’s a clash here between the Monastery and the Protectorate on the one hand, and between the old order of magic and the new order of technology on the other. As this is only an introduction, there’s not much that happens in the way of development. We follow the children as they grow up together and then weather the rocky coming-of-age when they make the choice at confirmation that separates them. This process is not well explained. Apparently children in this world are born genderless, and their bodies are manipulated at confirmation to correspond to their choice. At least one character we meet did not undergo manipulation, but their sexual functioning isn’t addressed. As the novel ends, it feels like conflict is starting to heat up between the rebels and the Protectorate.

The plotting, prose, characterization and world-building here are adequate for a short novella. Even though the conflicts didn’t develop very far in this book, the tensions seem to be pretty well set up, and presumably the plot will thicken as we move into full length novels. The lack of a fully developed conflict is the biggest drawback to this story, as there’s not a lot at stake so far. People are just choosing up sides, which means there’s not much of a satisfying ending, either.

Three and a half stars.

Review of All Systems Red, Martha Wells

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This novella is a finalist for both the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com Publishing, and is also winner of the 2018 Alex Award. Three more installments in the Murderbot Diaries are scheduled for publication later in 2018.

Murderbot is bored. Most of the contracts it works on as a SecUnit are dull and boring. Because it has hacked its own governor module, it is able to access media while on the job, which is what it’s hoping to do today. However, this doesn’t work out because a giant, carnivorous worm suddenly erupts out of the crater where the team is taking samples and snaps up Dr. Bharadwaj. This requires a response, and has the unwanted effect of exposing Murderbot’s skills in a crisis to this particular group of the company’s clients. As problems continue on the contract, the team also discovers the hacked governor module. This is a serious problem that would normally result in a SecUnit being recycled. Can Murderbot solve the mystery of who’s trying to kill its human clients? Can it escape being stripped for parts?

This is extremely well set up. Murderbot is an AI security unit with cloned human parts, emotional capabilities and gun ports built in. There’s some dark episode in its past that the company techs have tried to wipe from memory that leads it to call itself Murderbot. (Presumably we’ll hear more of this.) The story is strongly plotted and the characters are extremely well drawn, from Murderbot itself to the touchy-feely team of clients that wants to help it get in touch with its human side. The worm is a great hook, and the ending is appropriately satisfying. It’s written in an engaging first person, which gives us Murderbot’s intimate, personal viewpoint on events. The SecUnits units are genderless, and (refreshingly) everybody goes right ahead and calls it an “it.”

Besides these strong points as a story, the novella investigates the issue of AI/human relations and AI ownership as a form of slavery. Murderbot is dangerous because it has established autonomy through hacking its own governor module—meaning humans are no longer able to control its behavior through punitive means. All the unit needs is a little shove to turn its attention from escapist media to actually dealing with humans on their own terms. And besides that, it’s got built-in weapons.

On the not so positive side: Even though the story is very engaging, some of this feels derivative. The worm reminds me pretty strongly of Dune, and the question of AI slavery is already pretty well investigated. Murderbot also sounds like the standard military killer robot unit, fairly indestructible, only updated with the “what if” of self-determination. Also, once discovered as a rogue unit, I thought its responses were a little too human.

Regardless of these little issues, this is pretty much everything I look for in SFF stories. I’m going to go five stars on it. Highly recommended.

Review of Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by NobleFusion Press, and is the fourth novella-length installment in the adventures of the hypnotist Conroy and his loyal buffalo dog Reggie. This review may contain spoilers.

Conroy and Reggie travel to a casino hotel on Triton with Conroy’s old friend, the gambler LeftJohn Mocker. Conroy is interested in an auction of Stonefish liqueur and Mocker is expecting to investigate allegations of cheating as an agent for the Probability Guild. The suspected cheater turns out to be Angela Colson, a young girl whose life Conroy saved a few years back, who has won $10 million from the casino. The auction turns out to be not exactly what it seems, which Conroy suspects. Can he unravel the mysteries, handle the auction and get Angela some legitimate work?

Good points: This work is strongly plotted and leans to potty humor. The characters are adequately rounded, and I’d probably be able to visualize a buffalo dog (aka buffalito) a little better if I’d read previous installments of the series. There’s a certain psychological element, as Conroy puts together clues to reveal the behind-the-scenes antics and tries to influence events.

Not so good points: This falls on the science fictions side, but there’s not really much in the way of SF here. All these events could have happened on Earth instead of Triton with just some minor adjustments in the story. Angela’s powers seem fairly magical, and the good guys were easy to separate from the bad guys right at the beginning. Because the work is so obviously plot-driven, I was expecting a definite twist ending, but it didn’t happen. All we got was Conroy’s revelation of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and what he meant to do about them.

Three stars.

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