The 2005 Nebula Award: The Short Story Shortlist

Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" is still MIA on the internet. I just know that five minutes after I post this incomplete review, someone will make it available. Which means that posting the review now will not only gratify my twitchy posting finger--it can also be construed as a public service. Everybody wins!

Those of you hoping for another rant are in for a disappointment. The overall quality of the short story ballot is not exceptional--there are no "The Faery Handbag"s here--but it is nevertheless quite strong, with only one story obviously out of place. The highs aren't as high as the ones on the novelette shortlist, but the lows aren't as low--not an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly an improvement over last summer's embarrassing Hugo shortlist (how very pleased I was to discover that Mike Resnick's longlisted "A Princess of Mars" didn't make the cut).

As I wrote when I reviewed the Hugo nominees, however, it's hard to read recent award ballots and escape the conclusion that SFFH authors can't handle the length restrictions of the short story. Even the best pieces on the Nebula ballot don't always manage to create a fictional universe, inform us of the ways in which it diverges from our own, people it, describe those people believably, and tell an actual story in less than 7,500 words.

Probably the weakest story on the ballot, and the one I'd knock off if I were in charge of such things, is K.D. Wentworth's "Born-Again". There seems to be a run on disaffected teenaged narrators this year--Eileen Gunn and Lesley What's "Nirvana High" and Kelly Link's "The Faery Handbag" were also narrated by flighty teenage girls--and although Bailee, Wentworth's narrator, is less annoying than Gunn and What's, I didn't find myself feeling for her problems as I did for Link's, in spite of the fact that said problems are fairly dramatic: how would you like Jesus--the Jesus--as your baby brother? Apparently, in Bailee's universe, DNA extracted from the shroud of Turin made the cloning of Jesus possible. And people actually did it--their own personal Jesus to raise from infancy. Bailee's Jesus is currently fifteen, spotty and with bad hair, and is crushed by his failure to turn water into wine. Wentworth gets a lot of mileage out his premise--crossing teenage alienation in the mall culture with the life of a boy who believes himself to be the savior of humanity but is, in reality, just an annoying kid. Sadly, the neat joke can't carry the story across the finish line. There's a rather absurd twist towards the end in which a secret Jesus society tries to raise the dead and stops at nothing to procure its source material, but it is as unfunny as it is out of place. Ultimately, the story boils down to a rather basic tale of siblings bonding, hardly justifying the hoops we had to jump through to get to its end.

It wasn't until I read Nancy Kress' "My Mother, Dancing", that I realized how very few of the stories on the Nebula ballot were even close to hard, space-set SF. Kress' far-future tale about highly evolved post-humans arriving at the site where, a century and a half earlier, they seeded a planet with artificial life, seems almost anachronistic amidst the lyrical ghost stories and surreal fantasies that make up the rest of the short story and novelette ballots. This is largely a matter of personal preference--my tastes in science fiction have changed over the last few years, and I was never one for hard SF to begin with--but Kress' story doesn't make me regret that absence. In the future she describes, humanity was shocked by the discovery that they were truly alone in the universe. Their reaction was to seed the planets they discovered with nano-machines, leave them to their artificial evolution, and return to discover this new 'alien' life. It's a game that Kress' characters take very, very seriously--almost religiously, although these hyper-rationalists would be appalled to think of it in those terms. When first contact is established, the humans discover that their artificial lifeform thinks of them as its god, and that it is under attack by what may be genuine alien life. At this point, Kress' story diverges into two plots, each confusing and diluting the resonance of the other. In one story strand, the human travelers, allegedly in search of the new and the different, are terrified by the presence of the truly alien. In the other, the artificial aliens on the planet beg their creators to intercede on their behalf with their enemies, and are disappointed and left bereft when the frightened humans all but run away. It's hard to know which of the stories to pay attention to, and the ending doesn't bring the two strands together into a single whole. I also can't escape the feeling that Kress intends for me to mock her human characters--maybe even feel disdain towards them--but if she does she hasn't done enough to justify that reaction, and I ended up unable to either like or hate them.

Carol Emshwiller is a name that cropped up a lot when I was reading through the SciFiction archives earlier this winter (1,2,3,4,5,6), and I very quickly learned to avoid her stories. There's no question that she's a fine and intelligent writer, but she doesn't seem to be the writer for me (I have a similar problem with Ursula K. Le Guin). Invariably, I find her stories overwrought, and occasionally, overwritten. I usually don't have a problem with fantastic fiction in which surreal events and situations are dropped into the real world with no explanation and minimal description, leaving room for the characters to shine, but when Emshwiller does it I am always annoyed. Such is the case with "I Live With You", in which the narrator, who may or may not be a ghost but describes herself as an invisible person, at first haunts and then begins to alter the life of a similarly bland and unnoticed woman. From moving furniture and finishing the butter in the refrigerator, the narrator soon graduates to buying her host new clothes and trying to set her up with a lonely neighbor. Emshwiller uses the SF-nal trope of invisibility to talk about grey people who live lonely lives (which, in itself, strikes me as a slightly melodramatic trope), but while I can recognize her characters as real people, I can't care about them. They remain, throughout the story, as alien to me as Emshwiller's fantastic premise, with the result that I have nothing to hold on to in the story and nothing to invest my emotions in.

Anne Harris' "Still Life With Boobs" opens with what is probably one of the most amusing sentences I've ever read--"She could no longer ignore the fact that her breasts were going out at night without her"--and then delves even further into the absurd and the outright hilarious--"An assemblage of fruit; apples, pears, bananas and peaches, and among them two round, disembodied breasts, almost indistinguishable from the fruit until you looked at it a while. And then you began to wonder about that banana." Gwen, the story's protagonist, is stuck in a mind-numbing job, longing for her exciting and artistic ex-boyfriend, and oh yes, at night her breasts go out and have fun without her. Like Wentworth, Harris milks her absurd premise for all that it's worth, and unlike him/her, she manages to sustain that absurdity all the to the story's end. The result is amusing and at times laugh-out-loud funny, but I can't help but wish it had been more. There are hints throughout the story of the more disturbing, horrifying piece it might have been, and although I don't wish to criticize an author for not writing the story that I wanted to read, I can't help but be disappointed that instead of exploring the disturbing aspects of her premise, Harris chose to tell what is essentially a chick-lit story, complete with an arrogant boss, a nagging mother and a best friend who complains that the protagonist "[has] to get out of this rut". I would have liked to see Harris darken her humor--I think that this clever but ultimately forgettable piece could have been something very special.

I missed Richard Bowes' "There's a Hole in the City" when I made my exhaustive review of the SciFiction archives. With so many stories to read, I was ruthless in my selection process--if a piece didn't grab me within a few paragraphs, I dropped it. I'm glad that this review gave me a reason to read Bowes' piece, as it improves considerably after a slow start and is in fact a thoughtful and touching story. In the days following the World Trade Center attack, the narrator and his friend Mags wander the city and talk about old times. Aging hippies who have lived in Grenwich Village since before it was the cool place to be, they express their communal grief through an ancient, personal one--for the narrator, the memory of Geoff, an old friend who didn't make it through the years of drugs and hard living; for Mags, the ghosts of New York's victims, women who died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and children who drowned on a steamship, drawn back to the world of the living through the hole torn by the towers' collapse. Bowes' characters accumulate ghosts, and through the apparitions of these ghosts he describes New York (or any other human settlement, really) as a place in which the living share space with the uncountable, melancholy dead. Melancholy is a good word to describe the entire story, in fact, including a sub-plot about a young student whom the narrator takes under his wing and whose social circle mirrors the one disrupted by Geoff's death. Unfortunately, by its very nature melancholy isn't an emotion that can build to crescendo, and neither does "A Hole in the City". Bowes manages to sustain the story's emotional tone, but, however well-written, it doesn't amount to more than a mood piece.

Dale Bailey's "The End of the World As We Know It" is, unsurprisingly, a story about the end of the world. It is also, more surprisingly, a story about stories about the end of the word--I caught references to The Stand, On the Beach, The Postman, and Left Behind, not to mention plenty of real-world disasters--and about what the end of the world means for each of us. It's clever, and it's moving, which as far as I'm concerned is the ideal form of short genre fiction. Interspersed with the author's own thoughts about the end of the world and end-of-the-world fiction is the story of Wyndham, one survivor after what is actually, no kidding this time, the end of the world. Everyone is dead but him. He doesn't know why and he's not going to find out, and his reaction is as human and as heartbreaking as you might expect. Bailey manages a delicate balancing act between the tragedy of Wyndham's story and the narrator's jokey asides ("Here's one of my favorite end-of-the-world scenarios by the way: Carnivorous plants.") by ensuring that his narrative doesn't become inured to the horrors it describes on one hand, and doesn't succumb to sentimentality on the other--there's humor in Wyndham's story, albeit a dark kind that doesn't make you laugh, and a genuine sense of tragedy when Bailey recalls the destruction of Pompeii or (again) the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It's a highly skilled and impressive display of talent, and precisely what I look for when I read short stories in any genre--a demonstration of the author's ability to control their medium and work well within its constraints.

Bailey's piece is my choice for the Nebula (although I wouldn't be crushed if Bowes got it). By all rights, however, Margo Lanagan has this award cinched. I've heard nothing but good things about "Singing My Sister Down", and the excerpt on Amazon (the Look Inside feature lets you read the story's first half) is quite intriguing although not, to make a completely unfair determination, enough to tempt me away from Bailey. I'm not sure, however, that this shortlist indicates a step in the right direction--its overall mediocrity on the one hand and the nominated authors' apparent inability to create a complete world on a small canvas on the other give me very little hope for the future of this literary form.

UPDATE: What did I say? Here is information on how to read "Singing My Sister Down" online (thank you, Chance), and it is, I have to admit, quite as good as the press made it out to be. The story, as I suspect everyone knows by now, is about a family trying to make their daughter and sister's last hours, as she is executed by a slow descent into tar, as memorable and pleasant as possible. Lanagan keeps such a careful control of her story--this is a premise that so easily could have descended into melodrama, but Lanagan makes the readers feel the horror of the situation, the family's grief, and the sister's fear without overindulging in sentiment. It's a harrowing piece and, yes, better than Bailey's. I'd be shocked if it didn't win the Nebula.


chance said…
info about reading "Singing My Sister Down" is here
chance said…
I'm generally happy with the final short story ballot, though I would have dropped the Bowes, Born Again, and Still Life With Boobs and added "Start the Clock" by Ben Rosenbaum and "Cold Fires" by Mary Rickert.

I'm pleased that none of the truly undeserving stories made it on the final ballot.
Hah! I knew it! Thanks for the link - I've updated the post to include my thoughts on the story.

I'm think I'm the only person I know who wasn't blown away by "Cold Fires". It's a good story and Rickert is a good writer (I sincerely hope to see "Anyway" on the Hugo ballot this summer), but I don't see that it's quite as fantastic as it's made out to be. The ending in particular has always annoyed me - it has a manipulative, sensationalistic whiff to it that turns me off the whole piece.
niall said…
Kress: oh, I really liked this. (I haven't read much Kress, but every time I come across one of her stories I enjoy it; must seek out her novels at some point.) I don't think we're intended to disdain the human characters, just notice that hey, they're not actually the centre of the universe. Which is a good thing.

Emshwiller: I have a similar problem--something in my brain just doesn't mesh with how she writes--but ascribe it to the opposite reason, which is that I find a lot of her stories *under*written. Her language is often simple to the point of being boring, even while the things she is using that language to do are clever and subtle. That said, 'I Live With You' is one of her stories that worked for me.

Bowes and Bailey: agree completely. Particularly on the Bowes, which seems to have been disproportionately praised--it's good, but 'Anyway' and 'Heads Down, Thumbs Up' are better.

Lanagan: Yes. And 'Singing My Sister Down' isn't even the best story in the collection. (Whatever everyone else will tell you.) But I hope it takes the Nebula, and I wouldn't complain if it got the Hugo as well. (It has extended eligibility, although the other stories in the book do not.)
chance said…
I'm just happy the jury was able to come to a consensus and put one of her stories on. (I lobbied for "Red Nose Day" but alas. "Singing My Sister Down" has appeared in a couple year's bests so more people were aware of it.)

My thoughts on the preliminary ballot are here.
ca said…
This is great-- I love reading this blog because it leads me to so many great stories! I really liked "Singing My Sister Down."

I will, however, rant about "End of the World"-- I liked it very much; I often like that sort of story, and this one was quite well done-- *except* that Job's wife did not die. All his kids did, but not the wife. So at the climax of the story, at the very point where we've gotten emotionally invested in Wyndham and caught up in these individual tragedies, and wrung by the impossibility of replacing one individual person with another, all I am thinking about is, "Gee, I didn't think the wife died! Gosh, can that be right? I definitely didn't think he got another wife! I need to go look that up now!"

A minor misstep, but it kind of ruined the whole (otherwise very well done) ending for me, and could have been avoided so easily...
I think I noticed that too when I read the story, ca, and it did bother me, but obviously not so much that when I sat down to write a review two days later I even remembered it.

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