Nebula Awards Showcase 2009, ed Ellen Datlow, ROC, 2009

The latest volume in the handsome Nebula Award series is in the extremely capable hands of Ellen Datlow, and a publisher who knows how to present a book to extremely good effect.

But what of the content?

The volume starts with a short introduction, a similarly brief introduction to the SFWA, and to the Nebula Awards, and a list of the final ballot with all the nominees, and full publication details thereof listed. This is worthy of note, as previous volumes do not always provide this useful reference material so readily placed.

The fiction starts with the winner of the Nebula Award, Best Novelette, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ by Ted Chiang.

The story first appeared in the September 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction,

    From one extreme to another : from Reed, one of the most (probably the) most prolific short SF writers, to one who publishes only rarely, albeit to invariably excellent effect. And Chiang comes up with the goods again. This story score on several fronts. He’s taken time travel and used it to such good effect it’s likely to put others off writing on this topic for a while. What he does, which other’s don’t, or can’t, or won’t, is to weave it into a story that is just so subtle and clever.

    Set in Iraq in bygone days (when Baghdad was ‘City of Peace’), it is a tale as if from 1001 Arabian Nights. The traveller is entertaining the mightly Caliph with a tale, but it is a tale within a tale. He relates his experience upon finding an Alchemist who has a portal which enables travel back in time. There are constraints on the travel, for there must be a matching portal at the destination. The Merchant is a man whose heart has long been full of sorrow and remorse, having lost his young wife many years in the past.

    Can he go back and change events? He understands from the Alchemist that whilst travel to the past is possible, whilst it can be observed, and interacted with, the past cannot be changed. However, in his journeys to the past, the Merchant finds out more about his wife’s death, and finds that whilst he cannot change the past, he himself can be changed by seeing the past, to good effect.

    Chiang creates a believable setting, and addresses human emotions and motivations, and produces a story of the highest standard.

A worthy winner of the award. A neat touch at the end of each story is a short piece from the author reflecting on the story. For the record, the other nominated stories were (with my notes on them if previously read but not included in this volume)

  • ‘The Children’s Crusade’ by Robin Wayne Bailey (Heroes in Training, ed Martin H. Greenberg and Jim C. Hines, DAW, Sept 2007)
  • ‘Child, Maiden, Woman, Crone’ by Terry Bramlett (Jim Baen’s Universe 7, June 2007)
  • ‘The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change’ by Kij Johnson (Coyote Road Trickster Tales, ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Viking Juvenile, July 2007) (see below)
  • ‘Safeguard’ by Nancy Kress (Asimovs January 2007). Best SF Review : A classy piece of writing from Kress, who cleverly intertwines story and backstory to reach a shattering denouement [ more.. ]
  • ‘Pol Pot’s Beuatiful Daughter (Fantasy)’ by Geoff Ryman (Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 2007). (see below)
  • ‘The Fiddler of Bayou Teche’ by Delia Sherman (Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Viking Juvenile July 2007)

Next up is the winner of the Nebula Award, Best Short Story, ‘Always’ by Karen Joy Fowler which first appeared in Asimovs, April/May 2007. It’s a nice enough story, told through the perspective of a young woman in the late 1930s who joins a commune which offers immortality to its members, through the charismatic leader of the commune. She has faith, whilst others have less faith/wake up and smell the coffee and depart, her faith even surviving the death of the leader, finding herself at home on the site of the commune.

However, there’s not a smidgeon of SF or F in the story, so presumably the Nebula Award is open to non-SF or F stories, as long as they have been written by an author who does at other times write SF or F.

Other nominees for this award (a couple of which appear later in the volume, referred to further into this review) were:

  • ‘Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse’ by Andy Duncan (Eclipse 1, ed Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, October 2007) (see below)
  • ‘Titanium Mike Saves the Day’ by David D. Levine (Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2007) (see below)
  • ‘The Story of Love’ by Vera Nazarian (Salt of the Air, Prime Books, Sept 2006)
  • ‘Captive Girl’ by Jennifer Pelland (Helix, Fall 06 Issue) (see below)
  • ‘Pride’ by Mary Turzillo (Fast Forward 1, ed Lou Anders, Pyr Feb 2007) – ‘A young man rescues a strange furry animal from a research lab, only to find he has a sabre-tooth tiger cub on his hands. For the most part the story is light in tone, as he struggles to keep it fed, hidden and protecting others from it. The finale comes as somewhat of a shock as the now grown-up feline kills his erstwhile girlfriend’ (one of the weaker stories in that volume imho)

Barry Malzberg and Kathleen Goonan provide short features, leading into David D. Levine’s ‘Titanium Mike Saves The Day’, originally in F&SF April 2007, where I noted

    Another clever story from Levine. He starts with a grandmother and daughter facing imminent death by asphyxiation on the asteroid belt, and gramma uses stories of the legendary Titanium Mike, whose superhero powers have saved the day many a time. The stories of his derring-do sees them through a couple of dark hours before rescue. There follows a few further vignettes, going back in time, as the legend gradually becomes more human the closer to his real life. The final vignette, of Mike himself, shows a much more humble character, but who is able to make a very human, small scale gesture, in its own way as heroic as those adventures with which he will become immortalised.

Geoffy Ryman’s ‘Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy) appeared in F&SF all the way back in October/November 2006, and I was impressed

    An intriguing story – not only does Ryman give what feels like an accurate portrayal of modern Cambodia, but presents a story which has a feel of an Eastern one. A rich young girl finds love in a department store, but the ghosts of the many whose blood is on the hands of her father, stand in the way of that love finding a true course, and it is only by responding to the needs of these dead, and their living relatives, that she will throw of the shackles of her parenthood. A lyrical ghost story and well worth the admission price.

It was a runner up in the Novelette category, and could well have won if it had not been in the same ballot as the Chiang story.

There’s an excerpt from Michael Chabon’s ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’, winner of the Nebula Award Best Novel, followed by some Rhysling Award-winning pomes. Best SF eschews novels and pomes.

Back to the short SF with a novella nominee in the shape of Lucius Shepard’s ‘Stars Seen Through Stone’, another story from F&SF, this time from July 2007. I was a tad disappointed:

    I have a lot of time for Lucius Shepard, and he rarely disappoints. However, this one does for me. Had I read it in a mainstream fiction magazine I’d have been less disappointed. He draws on his personal experience of the music biz, which makes for a seemingly convincing portrayal of a Pennsylvania-based independent music producer. He finds some gold in panning for talent, a rather grimy youth with less than ideal personal hygiene and habits, who happens to have a rare musical talent. We follow their relationship, against the background of a local mansion, which appears to be having a regular (as in every two centuries) visit from the previous owner. And that’s really about it. Sure, its well written and extremely three-dimensional, but the fantastical element isn’t particularly great, and it certainly doesn’t get to the heart of the darkness that Shepard usually gets to. I’ve raised an issue about Robert Reed’s writing of late, where he seems to be drawing very regularly on personal experience to write stories that are ok, but not great, and the same result applies here : more of a mainstream story, as opposed to one where the creative juices are given free rein.

Howard Waldrop reviews movies, and Tim Lucas pays tribute to Pan’s Labyrinth winner of the Nebula in the film category.

Nominee in the novelette category, Kij Johnson’s ‘The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change’ was from an anthology of coyote trickster stories. The story provides a series of vignettes in which we learn about dogs, their relationships with humans, and very much about us humans.

Kim Newman provides an appreciation of Michael Moorcock, winner of the Grand Master Award, whose story ‘The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius’ is provided by way of memento.

Gwenda Bond looks at the state of YA SF&F, and Ellen Asher reflects on her time at the SFBC.

Back to the fiction with Jennifer Pelland’s ‘Captive Girl’, nominee in the short story category, and originally in Helix, in the Fall 2006 issue, a smaller-than-usual source for a nomnination.

It’s an intense, claustrophobic story in which a young girl who has lost her parents through an alien attack, has been willing to lose a lot more in order to defend humanity. Stripped of many of her senses, the better to sense the alien challenge, she has limited contact with other humans. However, one with whom she has contact has a very close relationship with her. However, when the politics change and the alien threat receded and she is returned to a more normal state, that relationship is threated, and the needy nature of her previous self has evidently been part of her attraction to her lover. How far will she go to retain that love.

Also a nominee in this category is Andy Duncan’s ‘Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse’ from Strahan’s ‘Eclipse 1’. It a folksy tale, nice enough, but give me Duncan’s SF any time.

Nancy Kress’ ‘Fountain of Age’ won the Nebula Award Best Novella appeared in Asimovs July 2007, where I noted

    A tight, lengthy story – what tends to be billboarded as a ‘science thriller’ lest potential purchasers be put off buying anything labelled as ‘SF’. As Kress invariably does, she presents some three dimensional characters, with backhistory, in a believable setting, and very cleverly works in the science and the tech to support the story, rather than overpowering it (unlike the Stableford story earlier – albeit that was a much shorter story.) The central conceit is of rejuve/longevity technology, setting up a story in which a love story across time is played out very cleverly.

Conclusion.

A handsome volume, with some strong stories, and some soso stories. Chiang the pick of the bunch, to stand foursquare with the best from the 43 volumes to date.

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