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.

Rating the Literature of Ideas

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One reason given as to why fiction written by women is suddenly so much more popular in the awards is that tastes in fiction have radically changed over the last few years. In the bad old days when men dominated the market, hard SF was the in thing. This term “hard science fiction” was apparently originated in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller, book reviewer for Astounding/Analog, who was looking for a way to describe stories with a strong science base. This caught on, and Miller’s legacy term is still broadly used. A while back, I wrote some posts on how to rate SF on the “hardness scale” to determine how well based it is on real science.

However, since the 1950s, the popularity of hard science stories seems to have dropped off considerably, and it’s getting harder and harder to find this kind of story. I’ve written some posts on the decline, and I notice these were joined by various others suggesting the obsolescence of hard SF. Here’s Jasyn Jones, for example, at Castalia House blog who calls it a “delusion.” Tor.com also published a discussion by various authors. I recall there was one publisher (Somebody help me—Superversive? Amazing?) which announced they would no longer even use the term.

So, if we’re not going to rate SF stories on the science content any longer, then what remains to help us pick out which are really the important stories? For one thing, the notion is still hanging out there that science fiction should be the literature of ideas. So, maybe we need to come up with a scale for this? Maybe the Ideation Scale? That would work for fantasy, too, or actually any kind of speculative fiction.

Using the new Ideation Scale, we could rate stories from 5-1 based on what kind of ideas they present:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Next, having a look at the 2018 award finalists on the Ideation Scale.

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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?

Guest Blog – A. M. Leibowitz on Young Love, Old Hearts: When Men Were Men

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Recently, I polled a group of mostly women about what kind of men they like to read about. I got a whole lot of interesting answers, but by far the majority said they like reading about “alpha” males and really masculine men, and they like them to be flawed or in need of emotional rescue. I find that sort of fascinating, since my ideal man is nothing of the sort—not in real life or in fiction. Neither of my characters in “The Artist as an Old Man” fit the bill for societally approved masculinity.

When I write, a lot of real-life people bleed ink onto the pages. Of course, this is true of most writers. In my case, that means I don’t tend to write the kind of heroic, culturally masculine men a lot of people like. That’s because I hardly know any men like that. Not one of the men who influenced me as a child fits into the cultural mold for Real Man, and the vast majority of my male friends as an adult tend to color outside the gender expectation lines.

There’s often criticism for non-men (meaning women and people of other genders) writing male/male pairings for a variety of reasons. Some of them I absolutely agree with, and for that reason I tend to stay away from writing on certain themes or subjects. However, one of the criticisms I’ve seen is that people who are not men can’t write men “properly.” I find that somewhat strange, given that men have been writing female and feminine characters for ages, and I rarely hear that as a complaint. I do hear criticism for misogyny, but not specifically that male writers don’t “get” how women interact with the world.

The thing is, most of my male characters don’t come across as culturally masculine because I’m writing with people I know in mind. I know a lot of men—I suppose my experiences have led me to conclude that on the whole, I love men and value my friendships with them deeply. So when I write, I’m drawing on real-life personality traits: strong, gentle men; artists and hippies; peacemakers; intellectuals; nerds and geeks; musicians; emotive and expressive guys. I often find myself puzzled when I hear, “But real men act like _____.” Last I checked, all the men I know are in fact real, and they generally don’t have a set of ways they behave that conform to some cultural notion.

oldloveyoungheartsfinalI suspect some of the criticism for non-male writers is rooted in two forms of misogyny. One, there’s a belief that women are not as capable as men of writing in certain genres—chiefly action, high fantasy, and science fiction. Two, there are many people who have a low-level of underlying dislike of anything perceived as “too feminine.” I don’t mean this in just a personal way. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to form romantic relationships with people who fit the kind of personality you like. But there’s a tone of fear with regard to men who aren’t masculine in particular ways. Men who defy cultural masculinity norms challenge us in ways that women who challenge norms don’t. For example, it’s considered “normal” for women to wear pants. Whole blogs are devoted to androgynous people who are wearing more culturally masculine clothes, and articles about the hotness of women in tuxes abound. Yet we don’t consider it acceptable for men to wear skirts, androgyny centers on the degree of presented maleness, and there are no articles devoted to the sexiness of men in ball gowns (though I would argue that they are equally gorgeous).

It speaks volumes that anyone would be expected to write a narrow, one-dimensional stereotype of manhood in which there’s a list of characteristics they must possess. I find it much more fun to read and write about guys who are outside those margins. Messing with How to Be a Man is incredibly freeing, and I hope in the future to see many more people expanding their boundaries.

Author bio:

A. M. Leibowitz is a spouse, parent, feminist, and book-lover falling somewhere on the Geek-Nerd Spectrum. Ze keeps warm through the long, cold western New York winters by writing romantic plot twists and happy-for-now endings. Hir published fiction includes hir first novel, Lower Education, as well as a number of short works, and hir stories have been included in several anthologies. In between noveling and editing, ze blogs coffee-fueled, quirky commentary on faith, culture, writing, and hir family at amleibowitz.com.

Find me on the Internet:
Web site: http://amleibowitz.com
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00OIC158W (A. M. Leibowitz)
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/AMLeibowitz
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/amymitchell29 (personal profile); https://www.facebook.com/UnchainedFaith (author page)
Twitter: https://twitter.com/amyunchained (@amyunchained)
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/amyunchained/

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