A handsome book, with a cover with an eye-catchingly attractive colour scheme and illustration.
Kelly and Kessel introduce the volume by means of a dialogue, during which they ponder the F in SFFWA (I often ponder the effing SFFWA), and what constitutes speculative fiction. You could fill a book with that kind of discussion, but fortunately the pair keep it short and sweet, and, huzzah!, the volume is chock-full of fiction, as it always should be (but hasn’t always been).
So here is a run-through of the fiction in the volume.
Kij Johnson. Ponies.
Originally online (and still there) : Tor.com
Joint Winner of the Nebula Award, Best Short Story. If you though Alex and his mid-teen droogs were scary, the pre-teen girls in this story will unsettle you as well. It’s a short exploration of the cruelty in childhood involved in ‘friendships’, being part of the crowd, and the real hurt that can come in terms of what you have to pay to be accepted.
For me the story is fine enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t go that (ie Nebula Award winning and echoing down the decades) far, and if I was given it to read without being told the author and asked if it was a Nebula Winner or a first-published story in a semiprozine, and forced to pick, I’d have opted for the latter. Had I been told it was a Kij Johnson story, then I would have chosen Nebulahood (not on account of any different opinion of the story, but just knowing the author).
But anyhoo, it got the gong, shared with Harlan Ellison’s ‘How Interesting: A Tiny Man’, and ahead of Adam-Troy Castro’s ‘Arvies’, Amil Mohtar’s ‘The Green Book’ (all three in this volume and pondered below) and Vylar Kaftan’s ‘I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno’ (my review and link to online story, and Felicity Shoulder’s ‘Conditional Love’ (my review here).
Geoff Landis. The Sultan of the Clouds.
Originally in : Asimovs, September 2010
When I read it last year I wrote:
An intriguing political background, and an imaginative setting amongst the clouds of Venus, to which the story doesn’t quite live up.
Humanity had spread outwards across the Solar System, thanks to private rather than governmental initiative, and as a result wealth beyond imagination rests in the hands of the small group of commercial enterprises who know effectively own the transport and the infrastructure on which travel relies.
There’s a feel of the Golden Age about it, a touch of the Brave New Worlds/Metropolis, and the occasional bit of anachronistic language (‘darn’ is the oath of choice), and a tad of teenage wish fulfilment – a teenager is the titular Sultant of the Clouds, and he has not only massive wealth but the opportunity to have a bride – an older woman wise in the ways of the marital bed.
At heart there’s a scientific conundrum to be de-conundrumised, wrapped around some derring-do, with the help of ‘Pirates’ who oppose the current regime. David Tinkerman has to solve the conundrum, whilst protecting the beautiful female scientist who is aloof throughout (and who remains an enigma). So, a bit on the retro side, but the story skips along nicely enough.
‘..skips along nicely enough..’ sez I, nominee Best Novella, sez SFFWA.
Chris Barzak. Map of Seventeen.
Originally in : The Beastly Bridge: Tales of the Animal People (ed Datlow/Wilding)
Picked up in Strahan’s take on the best of the year last year, and I noted, clearly not overly taken by the story :
A 17-year old girl is about to discover the world beyond the small rural community that she has known (and has been restricted by) all her life. Her gay brother returns to the family with his lover, and that lover opens her eyes up to a number of issues.
Again, it’s one of those stories that is plenty fine enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go that far. In the author notes in this volume (which add a lot of value, but I’d rather see the notes after the story as there is often enough about the story ahead of reading to fractionally impinge on the full appreciation of the story, and I hate my reading to be impinged fractionally!) Barzak notes he wanted to address issues around norms and the differences between people that lead to some being perceived as beasts or monsters (the original anthology in which the story appeared being an ‘animal people’ themed one), but a lot of these issues have been covered by mainstream fiction for decades/centuries, and this same sex relationship with a half man/half fish doesn’t really explore boundaries not explored before.
James Tiptree, Jr. And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1972.
Included to commemorate Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr’s ‘Solstice’ Award, and back in the day it was a Hugo and Nebula nominee.
The beauty of the story is that had it been published in Asimovs or F&SF today, it would be a standout story in 2012, so what people made of his 40 years ago, heaven knows. Well, we do know, it was a Hugo and Nebula nominee. It’s a conversation-cum-monologue as a journalist standing at a spaceport terminal, excitedly waiting for his first sight of aliens, listens to the ramblings of a human with much more intimate experience of life, and love, with another species, and the implications for humanity.
Shweta Narayan. Pishaach.
Originally in : The Beastly Bridge: Tales of the Animal People (ed Datlow/Wilding)
As Narayan notes in her intro, she primarily writes mythic fiction, and there’s myth, and magic and more in this story, but not enough SF for me to comment.
Adam-Troy Castro. Arvies.
Originally in : Lightspeed Magazine, August 2012
I upbraided Castro for ‘Her Husband’s Hands’ in Lightspeed (like he’s worried) recently, for looking into issues of veterans coming back from combat less than whole, but through the lens of a rather extreme conceit (only a pair of hands left, and those linked to a backup memory dump). He skirts close to the same issue here, looking at how those in-utero become the norm for humanity, living long lives whilst being carried by humans of limited intelligence, trading in their carrier as you trade in a car.
It’s multi-perspective, with the fate of the Arvie, once no longer needed, being the closing of the story. FWIW she doesn’t get fast-tracked into the incinerator, which would really have been a contribution to the abortion debate.
Harlan Ellison. How Interesting: a Tiny Man.
Originally in : Realms of Fantasy, February 2012
In terms of being a Big Name and having that help your story get in front of the judging panel, you don’t get much bigger than Harlan Ellison. His ‘Repent, Harlequin’ is the kind of standard against which I would judge the Nebula, and I’d opt for ‘No Award This Year’ if I felt the stories to be judged didn’t come up to that kind of standard.
It’s a short story, with a palpable sense of detachment to it, as the creator of a tiny man finds that public reaction to his creation isn’t as he anticipated. He offers the reader alternate endings, and the story does stick in the mind in the way Harlequin did. And it will have people asking ‘what is it about?’ in the same way that Harlequin does. Which, to my mind, is A Good Thing.
Aliette de Bodard. The Jaguar House, in Shadow.
Originally in : Asimovs July 2010.
When I read it a couple of years ago I wrote :
Part of AdB’s ‘Xuya’ alternate history sequence, of which you can find more about on her website, but suffice to say the conceit is that North America is shared by China and the Aztecs.
The alternate history is played down here, and sfnal elements limited to brief mention of emergent AI’s in America. The crux of the story is how three colleagues have grown apart over the years, as each takes decisions based on where they draw the line as to what is acceptable in taking forward the society which they wish to see prosper. The narrative is taken forward as the backstory is gradually revealed to us, so that the denouement of the narrative reaches a climax as the earliest days of the characters are revealed. It’s well constructed and well handled. Now if only the author would write a big canvas space opera, that would be something I’d be really interested in reading
Amal El-Mohtar. The Green Book.
Originally in : Apex Magazine, November 2012
Within the pages of a book a man falls in love. You can read it online here. El-Mohtar eschews a traditional narrative, providing ms. transcripts to reveal a story within a book, or, rather, stories within stories.
Eric James Stone. ‘The Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made’.
Originally in : Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 2010.
On its original appearance I gave it fairly short shrift :
The protagonist is a Mormon elder on Sol Central Station, with a small human congregation in the multi-denominational chapel. There’s also a number of alien ‘swales’ and in coming in contact with one of them he finds out about an aspect of their society that by his/our standards is wrong, as stories of this type tend to do. He resolves to confront the aliens, and in doing so succeeds in changing their millenia-old practices, through demonstrating the love of our saviour, the Lord Jesus. Fortunately, Stone doesn’t let him get the earth girl!
The story won Best Novelette, ahead of Christopher Barzak’s ‘Map of Seventeen’, Aliette de Bodard’s ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’, Shweta Narayan’s ‘Pishaach’ (all in this volume), and James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Plus or Minus’ (a story whose focus on teen angst I struggled with – review here), Christopher Kastendsmidt’s ‘The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oludara’, and Caroline M. Yoachim’s ‘Stone Wall Truth’ (I noted it as an excellent Asimovs debut – click here for review).
Rachel Swirsky. The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window.
Originally online (and still there) : Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2012
So I finally got round to reading the much lauded fantasy story The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window, originally published two years ago, and still online on Subterranean Magazine.
Read it on account of having a long train journey, and a copy of the Nebula Awards volume in my briefcase. Magic, queens, dwarves, spells, exactly the kind of stuff that hasn’t ever grabbed me. But I stuck with it, and can see the reasons why those who worship the second F in SFFWA lauded it with the Best Novella Award this year.
The one odd thing that struck me -it may well have struck many others, but I don’t have any time to spare to read other people’s ponderings on SFF – was that the extent to which it was very similar to hard SF in some ways. Partly in the use of a construct to enable a person to live a massively long time, which, in an sfnal form is used often by Baxter and Reynolds, to get their protagonist towards distant millenia, and often the end of time. With them it is cryogenics, or self-repairing dns, or wormholes or such, whereas with Swirsky it was magic. And one of the failings of hard SF is the focus on the technology at the expense of the story or the people in it (I’m thinking more Analog authors here rather than Baxter or Reynolds). “They constructed their spells into physical geometries by mapping out elaborate equations that determined whether they would be cylinders or dodecahedrons, formed of garnet or lapis lazuli or cages of copper strands” is very resonant of techno-babble often used to describe the tech in hard sf.
Swirsky got the Best Novella for the story, ahead of Geoffrey Landis ‘The Sultan of the Clouds’ (in this volume), Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The Alchemist’ (which I noted as excellent in my review), J. Kathleen Cheney’s ‘Iron Shoes’, Ted Chiang’s ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’, and Paul Park’s ‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’ (which I enthused over in my review).
Also in this volume..
Warious pomes and novel extracts, and listings of previous award winners and nominees. And two tickets for the opening weekend of the Epping Ongar Railway, used as bookmarks, as I like to leave such bookmarks in the volumes once they head to the shelves, so that perhaps in 25 years time when I pull the book off the shelf I’ll see the tickets and a remembrance of a sunny Sunday on a steam train will take me back in time…
So, in conclusion, a handsome book that is going to sit nicely against the 44 previous volumes on my groaning bookshelves. There’s some excellent SF in there, some average SF, and some so-so SF. And there’s fantasy. And two train tickets.