The ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2013’ is the fourteenth anthology in a row dedicated to getting the winning stories from the Science Fiction Writers of America’s annual awards out to a wider audience. This volume covers stories published during 2011, for which the awards were given out in May 2012. The editor of this book is professional physicist and two times Nebula Award winning SF author Catherine Asaro, probably best known for her ‘Saga Of The Skolian Empire’ series of novels.
Inevitably, not all of the shortlisted stories can be reproduced in the volume as it would be too large. Asaro has chosen to include sixteen pieces, including all of the Nebula winners, the winners of the other awards announced at the same time and a selection of the Nebula-shortlisted novellas, novelettes and short stories. To me, it looks like a pretty good cross-section.
The anthology opens with an introductory essay from Asaro. She uses it to explore her own reactions to the featured stories and poems, through the lens of her contention that the artistic and analytical sides of human endeavour are not as easy to separate from each other as our culture tends to assume. I found the essay insightful, enjoyable and thought-provoking and it set me up nicely for the stories that followed.
Below are comments on the four stories I enjoyed most, along with a couple that didn’t work for me.
Probably my favourite story in this book was Ken Liu’s ‘The Paper Menagerie’, which won the Nebula for best short story. This tells a deeply poignant story of a mixed-race boy called Jack, born to an American father and a mail order Chinese mother. When he is small, he is enchanted by the living origami animals his magical mother makes for him. However, when he gets older and is bullied about being half-Chinese, he grows to resent his mother, with tragic results. The emotional intensity that Liu manages to create in this short piece is extraordinary. It’s a story that will live in my memory for a very long time.
The oldest piece in the anthology is Connie Willis’s short story ‘Ado’. This dates from 1988 and is included here to celebrate Willis winning the Damon Knight Grand Master Award. It is set in a future where schools routinely censor everything they teach in order to avoid offending anyone at all. When one of the teachers decides to introduce her class to Shakespeare, the result of taking out all the potentially offensive material is funny and alarming at the same time. This is a brilliantly witty piece of satire with a serious message at its heart.
The longest piece in the anthology is Kij Johnson’s Nebula Award-winning novella, ‘The Man Who Bridged The Mist’. This tells the story of Kit Meinem of Atyar, an architect who is sent to a far-flung village on one side of a river of mist in order to build a gigantic bridge to the other side. What I loved most about this story was its optimism. Although the realities of life and death intrude throughout the tale, Johnson repeatedly shows us the opportunities and potentialities that life also presents us with every day, not least the chance of building friendships with strangers if you just try to see the world from their perspective. Compared to the dystopian tone of so much contemporary Science Fiction, this is a wonderfully life-affirming story that left me with a huge smile on my face when I finished it.
One of the great things about the Nebula anthologies is that they allow you to compare the Nebula winning stories against some of the nominated pieces they were up against. In the novelette category, I ended up preferring Brad R. Torgersen’s nominated tale, ‘Ray Of Light’, over Geoff Ryman’s ‘What We Found’, which won the award. Both are great stories but Torgersen grabbed my throat from the very first paragraph and didn’t let go. His protagonist, Max Leighton, is one of just a few thousand humans who have survived first contact with aliens who blotted out the sun with millions of mirrors, turning the Earth into a frozen snowball. He and his fellow adults have got used to living thousands of metres below the surface, in underwater complexes sat on the floor of the deep ocean, where heat from hydrothermal vents provides them with enough energy to survive. However, Max has a fifteen year-old daughter and when she goes joyriding with one of the colony’s submarines and doesn’t return on time, Max is thrown into the same nightmare that any parent would be. When it becomes clear that she’s not the only teenager missing, Max really starts to panic. What are the idealistic young people up to and do they realise the dangers? This is a really interesting SF scenario brought vividly to life by the characters and plot. I couldn’t put it down.
There were two pieces in the anthology that I personally got less out of. One was Amal El-Mohtar’s ‘Peach-Creamed Honey’, which won the Rhysling Award for best short poem. It is beautifully written but even after multiple re-reads I still have no idea what it’s about. Consequently I couldn’t get much satisfaction from it.
The other piece I found less worthwhile was the short extract from Jo Walton’s ‘Among Others’, which won the Nebula for best novel. I can fully understand the desire to include an extract from the winning novel in this anthology. However, if you’re going to do so, I think you need to either choose your extract very carefully or include enough of the text to give the reader a strong idea of what the novel is all about. The extract from Walton’s novel didn’t score on either front. It was enjoyable as far as it went but it didn’t grip me by the throat or give me an overwhelming reason to go out and buy the novel. It was also too short at just eighteen pages taken from a four hundred page long book. I’m sure the novel is a deserving winner of its Nebula Award. For me, though, the extract didn’t do it justice.
These minor niggles aside, the ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2013’ once again provides an excellent opportunity to read some of the best fiction in our genre. Asaro has done a great job of selecting an interesting cross-section of the winners and nominees, putting together an anthology to be proud of. If you want to understand where modern Science Fiction and fantasy are going, I’d strongly recommend this volume.
(pub: Pyr/Prometheus Books. 406 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US). $19.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-61614-783-9)
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