I'm starting this overview of the Nebula short fiction nominees with the novelettes because, as usual, one or two stories on the final ballot have yet to appear online. The missing pieces are Karina Sumner-Smith's short story "An End to All Things"--which is somewhat understandable as it was a jury addition and Sumner-Smith and her publisher have only had the news for a couple of days--and Michael A. Burstein's novella "Sanctuary"--which, as I've speculated in the past, may very well be a deliberate strategy on the part of Analog's editors. So, if any AtWQ readers have pointers to either Sumner-Smith's or (I can't believe I'm writing this) Burstein's stories, I would be very grateful. Meanwhile, thoughts on the nominated novelettes:
I first read Peter S. Beagle's "Two Hearts"--which returns to the universe of Beagle's cult favorite The Last Unicorn several decades after the novel's end--when I reviewed the nominees for the 2006 Hugo (which Beagle went on to win) last spring, and didn't think much of it. Coming back to it a year later, I find the story less objectionable. Although I still feel that, much as he did in the novel, Beagle spends more time talking about heroism, nobility, and grandeur in "Two Hearts" than he does showing them, the story feels less like an appendage to The Last Unicorn and more like a story in its own right. Unfortunately, "Two Hearts"'s main flaw remains unchanged--the narrative voice, and the narrator, are both unrelentingly twee. Nine year old Sooz, who sets out to find a hero to slay the griffin menacing her village, is the bestest, brightest, cutest, pluckiest little girl in the whole wide world. She earns the love and admiration of Schmendrick, Molly Grue, and Lir the hero, is blessed by Amalthea the unicorn, and has the world's greatest dog. It's one thing for Beagle to sham grandeur--that's a fairly easy trick to get away with. With Sooz, he attempts to sham ordinariness, to get inside the head of young peasant girl without having any idea of what actually goes on in there, and his failure to create a believable, flawed character leaves the story not simply twee, but hollow.
In Chris Barzak's "The Language of Moths", a family of four spends their summer vacation at a rural cabin. While their entomologist father searches for a new species of moth, fourteen year old Eliot does what young teenagers do in stories of this type--act petulant, make friends with the townies, get into trouble, and fall in love--and autistic Dawn does what mentally damaged children do in stories of this type--be a magical fool whose non-intellectual wisdom allows her to see past the mundane trappings of the physical world, and who uses that connection to the ephemeral to heal her family's hurts. Barzak's story is of a particular type of fantasy--feel-good wish-fulfillment fantasies in which in which the only thing more benign than the magic that does away with them are the character's emotional problems--whose existence and popularity continues to baffle me. There is barely a drop of tension or suspense in "The Language of Moths"--Barzak tries to tell us that Eliot and Dawn's father is desperate to find his missing moth, but we have trouble caring (we also know, because we've read fiction before, that Dawn is going to use her connection to the natural world to deliver the moth to her father), and although Eliot's infatuation and subsequent disillusionment with a local boy are moving, they are blatantly telegraphed. Is there really an audience, within genre circles, for stories so completely bereft of wonder, so bland and so thoughtlessly sentimental?
'Bland' might also be a good word with which to describe Delia Sherman's nominated story, in which a quiet, well-to-do suburban neighborhood is shocked by the arrival of two bohemian strangers, whose opulent Victorian house materializes overnight on a previously empty lot. Or perhaps a better word would be 'pleasant', and with a title like "Walpurgis Afternoon" it's hard to fault Sherman for delivering no more than what she promised on the tin. The problem is, however, that much like the narrator's 14-year-old daughter's obsession with Buffy, Sherman's choice to tell a story about witches who are benevolent, friendly, and, well, wicca-good-and-love-the-earth-and-women-power-and-I'll-be-over-here is so five years ago. (And really, would a contemporary 14 year old's primary cultural reference really be Buffy? I thought the fantasy-obsessed girls were all into manga these days.) Once again, tension and suspense are not in the cards--the narrator is invited to the new neighbors' (lesbian) wedding, discovers that they're witches (which, honestly, is something she might have suspected given that their house appeared out of thin air and their garden extends all the way to the ocean), and decides to become one herself. The only potentially interesting aspect of "Walpurgis Afternoon" is Sherman's exclusion of men from the witchy lifestyle. Once they embrace their abilities, the narrator and her daughter keep their husband and father carefully out of the loop, and another neighbor leaves her loud-mouthed, homophobic husband altogether and moves in with the witches. Sherman's treatment of gender issues, however, is all but reflexive--she takes it as read that men are a restrictive presence in women's lives, and that female empowerment requires either their absence or ignorance--which, once again, is in keeping with the story's primary objective, being pleasant.
Moving away from fantasy, we find Vonda N. McIntyre's "Little Faces". McIntyre invents an exclusively-female society, whose members live for millennia on organic spaceships. When these women take lovers, they have the option of accepting a companion--a male extension of their lover's body implanted in their own. When the time comes to procreate, a woman chooses one of her companions to fertilize her. At the beginning of "Little Faces", Yalnis, the protagonist, discovers that her latest lover, Seyyan, has killed Yalnis's oldest and most beloved companion, as a way of ensuring that Seyyan's companion will have the greatest chance of being the father of Yalnis's child. There follows a fairly straightforward story, in which a grief-stricken Yalnis exposes Seyyan's perfidy to the community and chooses a more worthy parent for her child. "Little Faces" is not, as one might expect, an attempt at writing Le Guin-esque anthropological SF, and nor does it try, in the vein of stories like Eleanor Arnason's "Knapsack Poems", to explore the ways in which biology, and gender in particular, affect personality and attitudes. Yalnis is recognizably human--recognizably female, in fact, and therein, I suspect, lies McIntyre's point. Attacking a prominent rival as Seyyan does at the beginning of a the story is, after all, a classic male reproductive tactic, and later in the story Seyyan responds to Yalnis's passive revenge--exposing the older woman's actions and shunning her--with violence. The companion Yalnis eventually chooses as the father of her child is the one who never strives for her affection or favor, a behavior she describes as gallant. Although it is better written, more inventive, and a great deal less benign, McIntyre's story boils down to the same message as Sherman's--that men, for the most part, are by their nature violent and destructive, and that women are better off without them and their way of thinking.
M. Rickert's "Journey into the Kingdom" put me very strongly in mind of Kelly Link's short stories, most particularly "Lull". As Link does in many of her stories, Rickert layers several levels of fictionality one on top of the other, telling stories within stories and then allowing elements from one level to infect the 'reality' overlaying it. There's also a similar juxtapositioning of the surreal, the magical, and the mundane--bereft widower Alex falls in love with Agatha, a waitress at a coffee shop, who may or not be a ghost who maintains her corporeality by stealing the breath of living people. I don't know whether Rickert was influenced by Link, or whether they share a common reference point, and I haven't read enough of Rickert's fiction to know whether "Journey into the Kingdom" is a departure from her usual style, but it seems to me that the surrealist tone she takes in this story is less suited to her talents than the strongly naturalistic tone of a story like "Anyway". As I've written in the past, Link's use of surreal elements often acts as an emotional barrier for readers trying to connect with her characters, and Rickert's writing lacks the dryly humorous tone with which Link sometimes manages to counteract this effect. Nevertheless, "Journey into the Kingdom" is without a doubt the most interesting story on the novelette ballot, and the only one that can't be easily summed up and dismissed.
So who should win? Flawed though they are, McIntyre and Rickert's stories at least make an attempt to take readers out of their comfort zone, and Rickert in particular succeeds in this attempt. I wouldn't be overjoyed by a win for either one, but at least I'd feel that wonder and weirdness--allegedly the underpinnings of the genre--had triumphed over ordinariness and sentimentality. My suspicion, however, is that Peter S. Beagle is going to walk away with a double whammy--there simply isn't another story on the ballot strong enough to challenge the potent combination of Beagle's status within the community and fans' affection for The Last Unicorn.
Over at Torque Control, there's been some discussion of genre awards in general and the reliability of the Nebula as an indicator of quality. I suspect that, by the time this overview is over, I'll have some thoughts to add to this debate as it relates to the short fiction categories.