This is the first in a projected series of posts discussing the various categories on the 2005 Nebula final ballot (here, and here's the preliminary ballot if you'd like to make a comparison). By all rights, I should be starting with the short story shortlist, but I've yet to locate an online copy of Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" (I would appreciate any pointers AtWQ readers could give me in that regard). I should also point out that it may be a while before I can get to the novella category, the next few days being somewhat full of real life matters.
While hardly a travesty, this year's novelette ballot is a great deal weaker than the corresponding Hugo ballot, to the point that the weakest story on the Hugo ballot is actually somewhere near the middle of the range, quality-wise, of the Nebula list. Ideally, with so much good short fiction being published, an award ballot should feature no extraneous pieces, but there are at least two on the Nebula ballot that I could take or leave, and I'm frankly baffled by the absence of Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State" (although I suppose it's possible that Rowe's story falls out of the confusingly defined eligibility period).
Eileen Gunn and Lesley What's "Nirvana High" is a story that I read early last year when a friend lent me Gunn's collection, Stable Strategies and Other Stories. I think it probably says something about the piece's quality that, for the life of me, I couldn't remember a single detail about it and had to track down an online copy. The story centers on Barbara, a special ed student at Kurt Cobain High (a common catchphrase of both teachers and students: "Entertain us!"). Barbara's specialness manifests itself in an ability to see the future, and her fellow "speshes" can read minds and manipulate people to their will, which as one might imagine makes for a unique classroom experience. Over the course of the day described in the story, Barbara loses her favorite teacher (in an accident which she predicts but is unable to prevent), falls in love with a cute new student, and effects a subtle but profound change in the social dynamics of her homeroom class. Nothing, in other words, particularly unusual if you ignore the people walking on the ceiling and the substitute teacher who channels the dead. Sadly, these details are very easy to ignore. The ordinariness of Barbara's problems overwhelms the extraordinariness of their setting. Call me mean and say that I've lost touch with my youth if you like, but I have no interest in the tedious problems of a troubled teenager, and Gunn doesn't manage to force me into caring. "Nirvana High" is essentially plotless--just a day in Barbara's life, and that life didn't manage to hold my interest.
"Men are Trouble", by James Patrick Kelly, is another entry in the 'Marlowe-esque PI story with a futuristic twist' sub-genre that seems to crop up so often in science fiction. Kelly does an excellent job of recreating the hardboiled detective's voice and the details of their existence, and his twist is, if not particularly original, at least similarly well-crafted. His hardboiled detective is a woman, Fay Hardaway, which is hardly shocking because all of the people in Fay's world are women--several decades ago, before Fay's birth, a race of visiting aliens whisked all human men away. Through Fay's investigations into a young woman's disappearance, we gain insight into the shape of this new world--women impregnated without their knowledge or consent by their alien masters; robots who take over menial labor, and later more sophisticated work, until the remaining humans come to feel pointless and out of place; a rampant suicide sub-culture; older women, nicknamed 'grannies', who still remember a world with men in it, and the difficulty that women like Fay have understanding their grief and fear. Perhaps wisely, Kelly chooses to ignore blatantly feminist issues--this is a story about people, who just happen be all of the same gender. What point is there, after all, in discussing issues of gender relations or feminism when there is only one gender left? Kelly describes a wide and multi-layered world, and Fay is an insightful, observant guide. Unfortunately, this tour through a future existence is all that the story amounts to. Fay guides us through her world, but her investigations of it yield very little that's new to her. She achieves no revelations, and the mystery that drives the story has an unsatisfying and ultimately pointless solution. It seems that Kelly chose the detective format for purely aesthetic reasons, and possibly as a neat exercise in writing a Marlowe-ish character who gets her nails done, but to my mind this is doing a disservice to the readers. There are certain expectations that arise in the readers when they recognize the setting of Fay's story, and Kelly disappoints those expectations without offering much of value in return.
Paolo Bacigalupi's "The People of Sand and Slag" is a story I would have knocked off this summer's Hugo ballot. It works better in the weaker Nebula ballot, but I still worry that it's too gimmicky to truly deserve both nominations. Bacigalupi's story discusses weakness, and what happens to human beings when they become incapable of it. Jaak, Lisa, and Chen have been physically and biologically enhanced to the point of near-invincibility. They can regrow detached limbs, are impervious to disease, and feed off mud and sand. In a blasted and possibly post-apocalyptic future, they are employed as low-level grunts, guarding the perimeter fence of a mining operation and entertaining themselves with violent video games and equally violent games with one another. Bacigalupi draws a fascinating portrait of individuals who have moved so far beyond vulnerability that they can't even imagine it--towards the end of the story, Chen hacks off Lisa's limbs as a sexual game of trust. Without the capacity for weakness, the capacity for empathy and sympathy atrophies, as we discover when the trio are confronted with a truly helpless creature--a dog. Equally fascinated and disgusted by the dog's weakness, the three young people uneasily make it their pet. They are baffled by its constant needs--to be fed, to be cleaned after, to be protected--and only vaguely touched by its attachment to them. The ending isn't hard to guess, and it's that ending--or perhaps even the entire dog plot--that turns me off the story. There's something manipulative about Bacigalupi's use of the animal--this helpless, loving creature--to appeal to our sympathy. To his credit, Bacigalupi keeps the sentimentality of his premise largely in check--this isn't a cute animal story--but I can't help but wish that he had found some other way to contrast the new humans' invincibility with our own vulnerability, and to draw attention to their innate cruelty.
"The Faery Handbag" by Kelly Link has already won the Hugo award. It's an excellent story, and in contrast to Gunn and What's entry it makes good use of the teenage voice, giving us a narrator who is believably young but not completely alien in her self-absorption and disaffection. Genevieve is looking for her grandmother's handbag, and her not-quite-boyfriend. The latter is inside the former, and so is the village of Baldeziwurlekistan, the birthplace of Genevieve's grandmother which was hidden away from a raiding party. Link's stories are often written in a matter-of-fact voice that makes even the most egregious events in them seem factual, and in "The Faery Handbag" she laces that voice with a jokiness that makes the entire story seem like an inscrutable cross between fairy tale and fact. Underlying Genevieve's childish voice is the voice of her grandmother, who may be telling a child a fantastic story, and may be reporting the stone cold truth--after all, the true magic of a fairy tale lies in the inability to tell the difference. "The Faery Handbag" is also a love story, and a story about dealing with the loss of a loved one--whether through death, abandonment, or leaping into a handbag. It deserved the Hugo (although I would have chosen "The Voluntary State") and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it wins the Nebula, but it also isn't nearly as difficult and as complex as most of Link's stories (which makes a certain amount of sense as it was written for a YA anthology). I can't quite decide whether I should be disappointed by the fact that Link is being rewarded for toning down her innate weirdness (which, and I can't stress this strongly enough, is not to say that the story is dumbed-down. This is a very smart piece).
Daniel Abraham's "Flat Diane" is a quiet piece that insinuates itself into the reader's thoughts--the best kind of horror story. Newly single father Ian is trying to reassure his young daughter Diane that the world is full of people who love her and wish her well. Together, they trace Diane's outline onto a piece of paper, which they christen Flat Diane, and send it out to Ian's family and friends. When photographs of Flat Diane on her travels begin to appear in the mail, the real girl's behavior begins to change. She begins fighting and lashing out at friends and family. She reports events she couldn't possibly have witnessed. When Flat Diane moves away from the circle of the family and falls into the hands of strangers, Diane begins exhibiting the symptoms of serious trauma. Ian is desperate to believe that he can protect Diane from the world, and "Flat Diane" takes this quotidian and familiar human situation--a father's terror and despair at his inability to maintain an imaginary perfection in his child's life--and laces it with the supernatural. To protect Diane, Ian must retrieve her counterpart, the piece of her soul that he has thoughtlessly cast out into the world where, as he really ought to have known, there are plenty of people who don't love her and don't wish her well. Abraham's story ends on an ambiguous note. Ian protects his daughter for the moment, but both he and she come to realize how fundamentally unsafe they are, and how little protection they can offer each other. It's a harrowing piece with almost no missteps (my only complaint is that Diane's mother is painted as a ghoulish person who genuinely doesn't understand how damaging her absence is to her young daughter).
I'd be very pleased to see either "The Faery Handbag" or "Flat Diane" take the Nebula, although I lean towards the latter. As I said, this is a weak shortlist--at least two stories that blatantly don't deserve the award and another one that I'm ambiguous about--but Link and Abraham's stories are very strong, and I think they'd both have a chance of carrying the day in a much stronger ballot.