2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

It’s that (late) time of year again, in which I read through the Nebula short fiction nominees!

(I also plan on doing the Hugo’s this year, since this current ballot is not a trash fire.)

In reverse order of what I did last year, I’m reviewing the short stories first. An important caveat concerning my response to two of these stories, both of which were hugely popular upon publication, is that I am a cranky agender person who is still working through feelings about feeling obligated to relate to stories “about” “female experiences” (especially gendered violence). They’re lovely stories, but they’re not for me.

The above caveat applies. Prose-wise, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” to be a beautifully-forged weapon of a story. Brooke Bolander is a fierce, forceful writer with a supreme grasp of how to wield words and language like a metaphysical sword.

The above caveat applies. This fairytale, which intertwines the stories, and love, of a woman condemned to walk the world until she wears through the soles of seven metal shoes and a princess self-imprisoned on top of a glass hill, is a solid entry. Amal El-Mohtar’s prose is consistently lovely and elegantly crafted.

  • Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff, (Clockwork Phoenix 5, ed. Mike Allan)

A Prohibition-era story that amiably ambles along up to the very end, a coming-together that illuminates all that came before it. Malka, a nine-year-old Jewish girl, starts a budding friendship with David, an almost-thirteen-year-old African American boy. Despite her father’s irreligiousness, Malka invites David over the next night for Shabbat dinner, which causes her father to embark on a quest to obtain kosher wine in a time when alcohol has become scarce. An ostensibly simple, quiet story that ties together loss, racism and hegemonic brutality, and memory.

Sam J. Miller’s stories are trippy, constantly overflowing with seemingly disparate ideas and concepts and images that somehow fit together into a “this shouldn’t work but somehow it does and it feels right” kind of whole. Also like his other stories, “Things With Beards” is wholly rooted in the real world, with the speculative hiding in its very midst. A story of a white gay man who pretends to be masculine straight man, who suspects he has a monster hidden inside him, a story of New York City in the 1980s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis changing those infected from the inside out, the story of ongoing, never-ending police brutality against Black people, a story of being hidden, of monsters being hidden. It’s thinky and gut-punchy and real, it works really well, and it’s my favorite of the nominees.

A cute, brief story of a young child writing letters over the years imploring that the Gatekeeper reopen the door to a magical world where their best friend Zera lives. It’s sweet, if not substantive.

Alyssa Wong’s prose isn’t flashy or poetic—it just is. In this short story about two sisters who share powers to manipulate the weather and rearrange the future, Wong seemingly effortlessly captures the texture of grief, despair, futility, and loss as Hannah endlessly destroying the universe in order to keep Melanie alive and in this world. The story itself is ethereal, almost too much so, but damn that prose.

You have a weird rash on your arm, so you head to the medical clinic in search of a cure. In your way stand impenetrable bureaucracy, predatory aliens, nurses with a penchant for amputation, and your own mortal clock ticking towards your death. Good luck. Normally I’m not a fan of “Choose Your Own Adventure”-inspired stories. Caroline M. Yoachim’s version worked for me because it retains a somewhat linear narrative and meta-narratively taunts the reader for following—or failing to follow—the directions. A fun, quick read.

My vote: I am fully on Team “Things With Beards.” I suspect the actual outcome will be a toss-up between “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, and “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers.”

2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novelettes

And we’re back with my thoughts on the novelettes nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards.

Novelettes are tricky things for me, and I tend to like fewer of them on average compared to novellas or short stories. I suspect it’s something to do with the word count—either too few words or too many. As such, I don’t have quite the same amount of love for the stories I read in this batch. Which isn’t to say they aren’t any good, but there weren’t any I especially loved.

  • Rattlesnakes and Men” by Michael Bishop (Asimov’s 2/15)
    The allegorical story of the bunch, “Rattlesnakes and Men” is the story of Wylene, her husband, and their daughter moving to a small town in southern Georgia where everyone is legally required to own rattlesnakes genetically modified to sense and attack intruders. These snakes are a cornerstone of the town’s economy and identity, and men men walk around with snakes at work, in schools, and even hospitals. When Wylene and the town’s doctor engage in activism for tighter restrictions on rattlesnake ownership and usage after several kids are bitten, these men, part of a larger organization of rattlesnake proponents, grow ugly and violent.

As it turns out, this story was written in response to Georgia’s passing a law further legalizing open-carry. It’s transparent about being a political piece on American gun culture (many of the names are thinly-veiled references to Georgia politicians and other individuals.) As an allegory, it’s an effective piece of fiction. As a science fiction story, it’s less so, as the bioengineered rattlesnakes are incidental to the larger issue of the snake owners.

  • And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
    A Kameron Hurley-esque story if ever there was one—Rhye is a battle-hardened, foul-mouthed cyborg on a job with her partner Rack, a cyborg hacker, when he gets caught inside his own security system. Even though she’s far more comfortable in the physical world killing things than in the virtual world, Rhye will have to go in after him if she has any chance of bringing him back to life.This novelette reads like a combination action movie script/sordid cyberpunk story. It’s brutal and messy and I don’t even know how many swear words and rude metaphors are in it, but they are deployed with a kind of poetry. It’s the kind of writing that actually works really well for a piece of short fiction (there’s no way this could be sustained for an entire novel) and is  physically exciting experience to read.
  • Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/11/15)
    Technically a traditional secondary world fantasy, except not actually all that traditional in terms of characters or world-building. This novelette is part of Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse universe, of which I’ve only read this one story, which unfortunately negatively impacted my reading experience to a certain extent—I felt like I was missing some important context about the various groups of people and the magic system that I got the sense had been introduced or explored in previous stories.

It’s the coming-of-age story of sixteen-year-old Aviya, and with it comes acceptance of her own lack of magical abilities, her autistic sibling Kimriel, and her transgender grandparent, the latter of whom is also coming into acceptance of himself after many years of repression for the sake of his family. This description makes the story sound dry—really it’s a colorful, visually intriguing tale of desert peoples with different magical traditions and different uses of words and language, especially when it comes to gender and personhood.

  • The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien (Asimov’s 6/15)
    Henry Lien writes strange fiction. I don’t mean that in a bad way, or even in a New Weird or surrealist way—it’s just strange. The last story I read of his was about wayward girls in a reform school engaging in mandatory roller-blading competitions. This particular novelette is a ginormous parody of nineteenth-century socialite politics, complete with purple language and ridiculously dramatic escapades,  in the form of two women viciously competing to have the best themed garden to impress the richest, most influential wife in town, only to have their efforts descend into environmental catastrophe. This story is so grandiose and unabashed of itself that it actually works. I also feel like I’m incapable of judging it’s worthiness of being awarded a Nebula.
  • “The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir (F&SF, 7-8/15)
    Free version unavailable.
  • Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 6/15)
    And this is where my ambivalence towards the novelette format shows its face—the story of a middle-aged woman named Luce touring with her band across the United States and struggling to make ends meet due to the popularity of holographic technology that broadcasts concert performances and makes obsolete the need to attend actual concerts, this felt like the intro to or an excerpt of a larger story. The ending begged the question of what happens next in a way that didn’t feel satisfactory or like the novelette length was adequate to tell this particular story. I did enjoy Luce’s tough, world-weary demeanor, her dedication to her music, and her love for her van, Daisy.

My vote: There’s no particular story I especially want to win here. So I’m going to base this on enjoyment factor and cast my vote for Bolander’s “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead.”