2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novellas

(I know, I know, the Nebula ballot is yesterday’s news now that the Hugo nominations were released yesterday, but I refuse to touch at least half of that ballot with a ten-foot pole.)

I’ve been slowly making my way through the Nebula ballot in the short fiction categories. I always intend to do it every year, and sometimes I even achieve it! This year I’m actually on track to finish, hopefully before the awards themselves are presented.

So far I’ve read through all the nominated novellas and novelettes (with the exception of a couple that were either unavailable in a free version or inaccessible.) This post will go through my Nebula novella thoughts of those that I’ve read, and the next one will cover the novelettes.

  • Wings of Sorrow and Bone by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager Impulse)
    (Free version unavailable. Will potentially try to read after finishing everything else.)
  • The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
    A beautifully written fairytale combining elements of “The Two Sisters,” “Juniper Tree,” and “The Pied Piper.” It has a intriguing narrator in the form of Maurice the rat, a cunning and entertainingly vulgar individual who acts as both observer and participant in this story’s shenanigans. The word that most describes this novella for me is “solid.” It was a delightful and fun read, and probably the most straightforward of all the novellas nominated. I don’t really have much more thoughts beyond that, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the writing.
  • The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer (Asimov’s 4-5/15)
    The most traditionally-written SFF story of the bunch, this novella is a “what-if” story whose premise lies in a new and curious genetic condition, spread via sexual contact, that causes women to be able to reproduce asexually every time they ovulate and causes men to become sterile. Tessa, a reporter and a lesbian who’s halfway through her pregnancy, seeks to write an article covering the issue from scientific, political, and social angles, all of which take on a more personal meaning for Tessa as she sorts through her feelings of her own IVF pregnancy and the prospect of raising a child.

If you’re going to write a story in which men are potentially threatened with extinction, you might as well write it this way—Fischer’s story effectively highlights how a drastic upheaval in the way human reproduction works, one that renders men obsolete in the act of propagation, would likely be received in the context of the United States’ current turmoil over gender equality, reproductive rights, and the legal definition of a human being. This story is a bit short on character and very heavy on the “what-if” scenario, and the writing itself leans towards overly describing the setting several times, but the “what-if” scenario is realized enough to carry the story.

  • The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik (Tor.com, 4/22/16)
    This novella blew my mind. A story-within-a-story in which a Pakistani-American man who was raised on his Gramps’ stories of his childhood travels to Northern Pakistan for the first time, seeking to uncover the truth behind Gramps’ story of the Pauper Princess and her jinn who lived inside a eucalyptus tree, it mixes magic and science and mysticism and history and folklore and math and religion and cultural identity in equal measure. It’s beautifully written, and the ending comes together in a mind-bendingly satisfying way.
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
    It’s a novella written by Nnedi Okorafor, therefore I would have bought and read it regardless of whether it appeared on the ballot (which in fact I did, a month or so before it was released.) Binti is going to be the first person from the Himba people to go to space. Against her family’s wishes, she’ll attend Oomza University, a school of great cultural renown run by the Khoush, the majority ethnic group. Halfway to the university, Binti and her fellow travelers are attacked by the Meduse, jellyfish-like aliens looking to confront the university for stealing a vital item of cultural significance from their leader. Again, a solidly-written story mixing action and adventure with questions about cultural interaction, appropriation, and imperialism.
  • Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson (Tor.com, 6/10/15)
    I’m not even sure how to compare this novella to the others on the ballot. It’s a light, hilarious yet touching story of a French soldier-turned-courtier with plumbing problems. He’s installed toilets all over Versailles, and every noble is clamoring to have this latest fashionable contraption. Powering this vast network of plumbing is a mischievous, child-like nixie, who may or may not be interested in doing the job Sylvain has set her to do. It’s strange and unusual and ridiculous (as is appropriate for a story set in the court of Versailles), and it’s also clever and tightly-plotted, and why am I having all these feelings for an “Enlightenment-era French slut” (author’s own words)?

My vote: If I had the ability to cast a vote, I’d pick “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” All the novellas I read were strong in their own ways, but Usman T. Malik’s story stands out for me as one that will continue to have an impact upon re-read and will stand the test of time the best. If I were going solely by enjoyment factor, I’d probably pick “Waters of Versailles” since it pushes all my buttons, and again I must ask why I have so many feelings about a story about MAGICAL PLUMBING?

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