Saturday, March 17, 2007

The 2006 Nebula Award: The Short Story Shortlist

This year's short story Nebula ballot started out with a strike against it. It would have to be an exceptional bunch of stories indeed to justify the choice to lop M. Rickert's "Anyway"--a story which effortlessly introduces a dollop of the fantastic into the life of an ordinary woman, and then stands back as that life unravels under the weight of an impossible choice--off the preliminary ballot. Unsurprisingly, the final ballot is not such a group--although it is by no means exceptionally bad either--and any attempt to evaluate its individual members and overall quality must take into account the shadow that Rickert's story, and its absence, cast. I often wonder, while in the process of excoriating yet another award ballot for aspiring to mediocrity, whether I'm not simply giving too much credit to the overall quality of the year's short fiction crop. As Dan Hartland put it in his review of a whole slew of year's best anthologies a few months ago, the "year's best" is the "decade's largely forgettable." This year, I know for a fact that worthy fiction has been left off the ballot, and that the Nebula voters--the arbiters of one of the genre's most prestigious awards--have hopelessly confused the wheat and the chaff.

There's a much-maligned SFnal cliché in which the hero arrives on a distant planet and, after many trials and tribulations, discovers that this planet is Earth, unrecognizably altered by some catastrophe or simply the passage of a great deal of time. It's part of a larger subset of twist ending stories, and to my mind these stories are problematic not simply because their twists have become predictable from over-use, but because they stop where an actual story would begin. What if you did find out that your home had been irrevocably altered? What would you do? Telling a story for no reason other than to get to the twist at the end reduces it to a gag, a joy buzzer. If the twist is shocking enough, and the path leading to it is artful enough, stories like this can make for an enjoyable reading experience (if not a rereading experience). Unfortunately, Jack McDevitt delivers neither in his nominated short, "Henry James, This One's For You", in which the publisher protagonist discovers that the brilliant piece of fiction submitted to him was written by an AI, and promptly throws the program's writer and his creation into the path of an oncoming car. The end.

There is no sentence in "Henry James" whose purpose extends beyond getting the readers to the story's end, and McDevitt writes like a man who hasn't yet figured out that there's a vast middle ground between the protagonist telling the readers that he's just read the greatest book ever written and actually reproducing said immortal prose. Worst of all, McDevitt doesn't actually seem to understand the ramifications of his premise. "A few years ago they were saying no computer would ever compete with a chess master. You look recently to see who's world champ?", the AI's programmer offers by way of an explanation when the protagonist questions a machine's ability to write a great novel, and at the risk of sounding like one of those people who can't read SF set in their field because of all the factual inaccuracies, this is crap. Chess is finite--there's a fixed-size board and a limited number of moves from every possible configuration of it. As such, it is perfectly suited for the computer's advantages over humanity--speed, accuracy, a large and reliable memory. Novel writing--exceptional novel-writing, at any rate--requires several other skills, including creativity, and while it's obviously possible to posit a computer capable of being creative, there are questions arising from this premise (for one thing, I'd argue that a creative machine is no longer a machine in any meaningful sense of the word) that McDevitt is completely uninterested in exploring. What he offers instead is a splat--the twist having been twisted, there is no longer any point in going on. Just before I sat down to write this entry, I came across a copy of Nebula Awards Showcase 2007, which includes an essay by McDevitt titled "Why Nebulas Matter" (although it seems to me that the essay is more concerned with explaining why SF matters, and the answer to the titular question is that the award helps draw attention to worthy SF). McDevitt concludes the essay by stating that SF "is not so much a literature of the future as of discovery. It is a way to look past narrow horizons. To see ourselves in a different perspective." I couldn't agree more, but McDevitt should either find a way to express these lofty principles in his fiction, or stick to commenting on the sidelines.

I read most of the Nebula-nominated shorts in a single day. By the end of that day, it was a struggle to remember what Eugene Mirabelli's "The Woman in Schrödinger's Wave Equation" was about. Having gone back to take a look, I can report that the story is a fluffy but ultimately unaffecting romance (he's a physics doctoral candidate with a bitchy girlfriend. She's an artist who waits tables to pay the rent. He dumps the bitch and falls in love with her) with only a flimsy SFnal aspect--the assertion, made by The Girl, that Schrödinger was inspired to formulate the wave equations by a woman, whose identity can be determined by examining the math. Only, not really--the story is much too flimsy for such metaphysics, or for such romance. "Amy and John are together, that's certain," is Mirabelli's concluding sentence, which seems to imply that such an outcome should come as a great joy, a great relief, even, to his readers. Since the readers could not possibly have been in doubt--could not have felt any uncertainty--about this outcome, there hardly seems any point in reading the story. Certainly, there's no point in working hard to remember it.

A romance is also at the heart of Elizabeth Hand's "Echo." This time, however, the romance is a tragic, affecting one. Hand draws a parallel between her protagonist's desperate hope for a sign from her lover and the titular myth about a nymph incapable of expressing her love except by repeating her beloved's words, who languishes away waiting for him to respond to her, and sets both stories--the mythical and modern romance--in a post-apocalyptic future. The narrator is holed away in a remote location, sending out e-mails whenever the rapidly deteriorating satellite network allows her to do so, and hoping that her lover is still out there somewhere, alive and trying to contact her. Hand does a fine job tying together the three story elements, shifting from the mythical to the personal to the communal and then back again in the space of a few paragraphs, and establishing a palpable emotional tone--the narrator's warring feelings of hope and despair, her longing for contact. Unfortunately, a sustained emotional tone is all "Echo" amounts to--it ends precisely as it started, with no variation having taken place in between--and even on such a small canvas that uniformity, that lack of resolution or even change, eventually becomes wearying (I had a similar problem with Richard Bowes's "There's a Hole in the City"). For all of Hand's impressive construction work, "Echo" amounts to a great deal less than the sum of its parts.

Karina Sumner-Smith's "An End to All Things" (PDF) is unique among the nominated shorts for taking place in a universe different from our own. Alone among the nominated writers, Sumner-Smith has gone to the trouble of creating her own world, establishing its guiding principles, identifying a few of its institutions, and imagining how life in that world might work. Specifically, her imaginary city runs on magic--a quality with which its inhabitants are imbued, and which to them is synonymous with life itself. The story's protagonist, however, was born with no magic. She therefore can't take part in life, as the city doesn't recognize her as being alive. Doors won't open for her. Elevators won't carry her. Vendors won't sell her anything because she has nothing to give them in return. Worst of all, Xhea doesn't actually feel alive. She lives a drab, monochromatic existence, cut off from the intensity of feeling and experience that her magical contemporaries take for granted. What she can do, however, is see the dead, and sometimes perform services for them or for the people they haunt. It is such a customer who catalyzes the plot of "An End to All Things," at the end of which Xhea comes to an understanding of her abilities and her role in society. There's a very real sense, when reading "An End to All Things", of a writer making her first steps--a slightly unbaked quality to the prose, a tendency to prioritize exposition over action, and, ultimately, a resolution that is a great deal less meaningful or profound than the author would have us believe. Xhea's realization that she possesses a different kind of magic seals her universe off from our own--instead of pitting the mundane against the magical, Sumner-Smith turns out to have been pitting magical particle A against magical particle B, and although the story tries to paint this opposition as representing a necessary balance between life and death, Sumner-Smith's handling of this theme never rises above the level of platitude--“There must be an end to all things.” Nevertheless, it seems as though Sumner-Smith is trying to extend herself and develop her skills--as opposed to McDevitt and Mirabelli, who aren't even trying to challenge themselves--and for that alone she deserves praise. Her fiction may not belong on a major award ballot right now, but it's entirely possible that one day it will.

Esther M. Friesner's "Helen Remembers the Stork Club" is yet another entry in the 'immortal mythical creature living in modern times' subgenre. This time, it turns out that aging Manhattan socialite Helen is actually that Helen--the thousand ships, the city, the horse--a demigod who has spent millennia bouncing from one happening social scene to another while her looks ever so slowly fade. Now she's a woman of a certain age in a city full to the brim of thoughtlessly young and effortlessly beautiful mortals, forced to get her attention fix from gigolos and cosmetics-counter saleswomen. At first glance, it seems that Friesner has very little to add to a theme that has been practically done to death--between Sandman and American Gods, Neil Gaiman alone seems to have had the final word on ancient beings who immerse themselves in a modern lifestyle--but as the story progresses it becomes an extremely disturbing meditation on beauty and its value. Helen rails against the mindset that a woman's value is couched solely in her attractiveness to the opposite sex, and that her only power comes from her ability to entrance men with her looks and allure, but she also buys into it wholeheartedly. Friesner's tone is breezy, at times jokey, but as she takes us deeper into Helen's headspace the contrast between that tone and Helen's harsh perspective on gender relations creates an almost horrifying effect, until finally we understand how terrible it must be to believe that your worth is defined solely by your looks, and then spend an eternity losing them. It seems to me, however, that Friesner could have written a story about a 60-year-old mortal and achieved the same effect. "Helen Remembers the Stork Club" is weakest when it tries to veer into the realm of the purely fantastic--in part because, as I've said, this is such well-trodden ground and Friesner doesn't seem to have anything new to add to the subgenre. That said, of all the stories on the ballot Friesner's is the only one that is truly disturbing, and for that alone it should be lauded.

I first encountered Theodora Goss's "Pip and the Fairies" when I reviewed Goss's collection In the Forest of Forgetting. At the time, I thought the story was one of the collection's weaker entries, and although it fares better when consumed on its own, there are other eligible stories in the collection which, in my opinion, would have better deserved the nomination ("Lessons With Miss Gray" and "The Belt" were both published in 2005, and I'm serving notice right now that if "Letters From Budapest" isn't on this year's Hugo and next year's Nebula ballot, I am going to be very put out). Like "Helen Remembers the Stork Club", "Pip and the Fairies" starts with a very familiar trope--a grown-up returns to their home to discover whether the magical adventures they had as a child were real or a figment of their imagination--and like Friesner, Goss injects a much-needed dose of vinegar into this sugary premise by stressing the poverty that has haunted Pip since childhood and informed her adult choices. In order to make ends meet, Pip's mother transformed her daughter's tales of meeting with fairies into a successful children's book series, her art motivated by desperation, not inspiration. As we learn more about Pip, we discover that she has made a similar choice to sublimate art to commercial considerations--she's an actress, but has been working for a soap opera for years. Whether or not the stories Pip's mother wrote were based in fact, "Pip and the Fairies" argues that the choice to commercialize them, although necessary for Pip and her mother's survival, tarnished both of their souls, and the story ends with Pip reconnecting with her childish imagination, and perhaps even with real magic. "Pip and the Fairies"'s greatest asset is the strength of Goss's prose, but once again, I don't feel that the author's twist on a familiar premise is enough to claim it as her own, and ultimately the story is more saccharine than biting.

So, who should win? Mary Rickert, of course, but unfortunately that's no longer an option. Failing that, giving the award to either Friesner or Goss would not be a completely embarrassing choice, and Hand will do too at a pinch. I'm at a complete loss, however, to guess who will win, unless the pool of voters is made up of people whose tastes are diametrically opposed to mine and Jack McDevitt takes the award. I suppose, after the way "Anyway" was treated by those same voters, that wouldn't be such a great surprise.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

**If "Letters From Budapest" isn't on this year's Hugo and next year's Nebula ballot, I am going to be very put out.**

Well, then, I hope you'll be put out. It's a very ordinary story.

Niall said...

I admire your use of evidence, argument, and willingness to stand behind your position there, Anon.

(That said, it strikes me as an unlikely Hugo nominee, at least; it hasn't had the exposure or the attention stories usually need to make that ballot, independent of its actual quality.)

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