The 2005 Nebula Award: The Novella Shortlist

[Ed Champion has the first complete list of links to the nominated stories.]

Here's an interesting fact about the novella ballot: unlike the short story and novelette shortlists, it is dominated by futuristic, space-set SF. Here's another interesting fact about the novella ballot: unlike the short story and novelette shortlists, it is dominated by crap. That Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners" is going to take the Nebula would probably have been a given no matter what pieces the story competed against, but I am frankly baffled by the fact that the rest of the nominated stories were even published by professional venues, much less nominated for a major award. The ballot is nearly an insult to Link's artistry--she deserves to win over deserving fictions, not these inexplicable failures.

But to get the good news out of the way: "Magic for Beginners" is superb, and really drives home how atypical Link's nominated novelette, "The Faery Handbag", is. This is a complicated, confusing story, about the difference between fact and fiction, the connections between the two, and the way that we choose to believe in one and not the other. Or maybe it's about something else entirely--I don't feel qualified to say. I will, however, say that Link's fierce intelligence shines through every word, and that while I may not be able to explain "Magic for Beginners", I certainly do feel that the search for an explanation would be a worthy and fascinating endeavor (have there been any critical discussions of Link's fiction? Would somebody smarter than I am please start writing about these stories?). Inasmuch as its plot can be described, "Magic for Beginners" is about 15-year-old Jeremey (yet another pitch-perfect teenage narrator), his parents' troubled marriage, and his close-knit circle of friends. Or, it could be about The Library, a pirate television series that the characters follow religiously. Or maybe Jeremy's in the television show. It's all very unclear, and very well written, not to mention whimsical and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

Paul Witcover's "Left of the Dial" is a perfect demonstration of how not to use the novella format. Ideally, this long-short form should be the perfect synthesis of novel and short story--the story should be brief, its plot and characters concentrated into a few concepts, but their execution should be broad. The extended canvas gives the author the chance to deepen their character arcs, to complicate and proliferate plotlines and themes. When done well--as in Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" or John Crowley's "Great Work of Time"--novellas can be as precise as vignettes and as profound as thick novels. Witcover's story, on the other hand, is a novella for the simple reason that he didn't know where and when to hack away at his prose. It is a bloated, underperforming piece, the bare hints of a plot almost indistinguishable beneath swathes of dull description and ponderous narrative. Witcover's story is also an excellent example of how not to use the first person voice. Instead of describing his actions or his emotions, Witcover's narrator describes his precise psychological state at every moment, leaving nothing beneath the surface--he actually feels the need to explain to us, for instance, why after burying his mother he behaves atypically and regresses to his teenage habits of solitary wandering. The result, paradoxically, is that the narrator is thoroughly unbelievable as a person. Even those of us with a profound understanding of our own inner workings, after all, wouldn't narrate our lives with this obsessive degree of self-analysis, if for no other reason than that we'd trust that human beings reading our story would be able to make the obvious connections between emotion and action. "Left of the Dial"'s plot, once it actually gets started, revolves around a youthful tragedy that the narrator was involved in, and an amorphous connection between the past and the present that may allow him to make things right. Frankly, I found it very difficult to give a damn, so unappealing were the characters. It's not quite right to say that the story's ending is disappointing, as I was hardly expecting great things by that point, but even so I was left flabbergasted by the fact that Witcover had wasted tens of thousands of words to reach this pointless and uninspiring conclusion.

While reading Bud Sparhawk's "Clay's Pride", I frequently paused to wonder whether the story was intended ironically, as a parody of mid-century boy's-own-adventure SF stories starring clean-cut military spaceship commanders who face off off against evil aliens on the one hand and slightly less evil bureaucrats on the other. Sadly, I must conclude that Sparhawk is entirely in earnest, and that Analog magazine's editors genuinely thought that there is still an audience for turgid, badly written space adventures which pit a military fleet, made redundant by the end of a civil war, against the mincing civilian government of the planet which now partly funds them. The story's protagonist, Simon Clay, is the first officer on such a spaceship, saddled with a cartoonishly incompetent commanding officer whom he is forced to circumvent when their ship is attacked by what may be an alien vessel (the alien plot is soon dropped except for some dull technobabble that ultimately comes to nothing). The aftermath of this incident is a show-trial in which the fleet (whose officers all have Western names) struggles against the civilian government (whose members all have Asian-sounding names, not to mention a cod-Asian obsession with honor and face-saving)--specifically, against its corrupt and power-hungry members who wish to humiliate the hard-working, decent military by placing Clay on trial for insubordination. Sparhawk lacks the subtlety to convey this political struggle with any intelligence, and the result is a dull and predictable dance, with good guys and bad guys carefully labeled. Clay himself is painfully dim, a middle schooler trapped in a man's body (the most amusing aspect of "Clay's Pride" is his transition from "Girls have cooties!" to "Gosh, this sex thing is sort of fun!" as he inexplicably acquires a girlfriend). There is allegedly a mystery that drives the story's second half--the identity of a spy in the military camp--but its solution is obvious almost from the moment it is introduced. Sparhawk may have recreated the trappings of the simplistic adventure stories that he is emulating--complete with xenophobic, misogynistic, militaristic attitudes--but he failed to capture the qualities that got kids reading them in the first place--a sense of wonder, swashbuckling adventures, and just plain fun.

Robert J. Sawyer gives us another futuristic PI in "Identity Theft" (available here as a pdf or doc file). This time the detective lives on a tiny martian settlement, whose inhabitants scour the martian surface for fossilized evidence of what little life might once have existed on the planet. The fossils fetch enormous prices on the open market, inspiring a latter-day gold rush--dozens of prospectors looking to make their fortune off a piece of rock. Some of them, seeking to maximize their time in the harsh conditions on the planet's surface, have transferred their consciousness into super-strong robotic bodies, and it is one of these 'transfers' who hires our detective to find her missing husband. Unlike James Patrick Kelly on the novelette shortlist, Sawyer makes only a few half-hearted attempts near the story's beginning at recreating the hardboiled detective story style, and quickly abandons the attempt for a plodding narrative voice. Even worse, Sawyer's detective is quite stupid. It's a requirement of mystery fiction that the detective make connections that the audience can't, and draw the readers along the chain of clues to the mystery's solution. Sawyer's detective, however, fails to make obvious connections until they stare him in the face, and sometimes not even then. There's a desultory attempt to discuss the morality of transferring consciousness into a robotic body--the old 'but what happens to the soul' canard gets trotted out, as do dual copies of the same individual--but it mostly serves to draw an unflattering comparison between Sawyer's story and superior attempts at the same subject such as David Brin's delightful Kiln People.

After these three winners, even Albert Cowdrey's decent but unremarkable "The Tribes of Bela" shines like a masterpiece. It starts out as yet another mystery--this time, the detective is the stranger, a security officer summoned to a mining colony on an alien world to investigate a rash of murders. At its halfway point, however, "Bela" becomes a cookie-cutter horror flick--the miners are quickly decimated by an implacable and powerful foe, forcing a handful of survivors into hiding while they wait to be rescued. There is allegedly an important sub-plot about the nature of the alien menace, but as the story's stereotypical plotline takes over, it is rendered insignificant--it's difficult for us to pay attention to yet more revelations about how the aliens' biology works when the characters are constantly being consumed by said biology. Cowdrey does a good enough job of working within the shlocky horror film's formula--you've got your young lovers, your grizzled old veteran, your surprisingly tough scientist--and the narrative moves confidently from one standard plot point to the next. If it weren't for the fact that Cowdrey shies away from killing any of the main characters, I'd say that "The Tribes of Bela" would make some movie studio a great low-budget film some day. The notion of this story as potentially prize-winning fiction, however, is the only truly frightening thing about it--Cowdrey is a decent craftsman, and unlike Witcover, Sparhawk and Sawyer, he actually manages to make us feel and fear for his characters, but no piece as predictable as "The Tribes of Bela" belongs on a major award ballot.

I really did think that I was going to get through the Nebula nominees without descending into rants. Sure, the short story ballot is a bit dull and the novelette ballot is uneven, but overall there's a clear indication in both of them of the ability, sporadically applied though it may be, to recognize good genre fiction and, far more importantly, to distinguish if from the bad. The novella ballot, in contrast, is inexplicable, perhaps even more so because of the presence of Link's story. It shouldn't be possible for any intelligent reader to mistake Witcover, Sparhawk, Sawyer and Cowdrey's pieces for award-worthy fiction, but that the novella jury did so after comparing them with Link's is nearly a schizophrenic act. Which leads me a genuinely scary thought--that a jury so blind as to create this shortlist in the first place might just be blind enough to bestow the Nebula on someone other than Link.


Anonymous said…
I'm completely baffled by Robert J. Sawyer's continued apprearance on award shortlists.
Anonymous said…
Huh. I usually really like Paul Witcover's writing - I thought his first novel ("Waking Beauty"??) was terrific - but your account sounds plausible. As you say, the Nebula process is so dysfunctional there's no real guarantee the obvious candidate will win.
Sherwood said…
The short fiction jury only placed one choice on the ballot--it's fairly obvous they picked the Margo L. piece, "Singing My Sister Down."

The membership votes for up to five of the nominee list--which is chosen by ten recommendations. It's probably the recommendation process that is the weakest link: some feel that the Analog writers, who support one another tightly, recommend one another's stories with regularity. I have no opinion on that--I don't know too many of these folk, so I am not going to impute motive. I suspect they really love one another's work. What I have seen, over and over, is new writers bombard friends and acquaintances, pretty much hustling them to recommend their first story, so some pretty odd stuff will get on that nominee list, while great things never appear because there are so many members who don't bother to nominate (out of ennui with the entire process, or out right disgust, or they are too busy) and then don't vote.

Then of course tastes differ. I was glad to see AIR on the final ballot, and in short fiction, the Emshwiller. And as you say the Link is first rate. Though the hard sf writers might not be able to make heads of tails of it, and thus genuinely prefer something else.
Anonymous said…
I hope you don't mind me quoting part of your review of 'Magic for Beginners' on my blog, as I want to stimulate some discussion, and your description I think will pique people's interest.
chance said…
Yes, the novella list is disappointing - partly because there were only five nominees on the preliminary ballot, so they got an automatic pass through to the final ballot.

Though I did rather like "Left of the Dial" though I didn't care for the ending.

(and Martin - I one hundred percent agree.)
chance said…
It shouldn't be possible for any intelligent reader to mistake Witcover, Sparhawk, Sawyer and Cowdrey's pieces for award-worthy fiction, but that the novella jury did so after comparing them with Link's is nearly a schizophrenic act. Which leads me a genuinely scary thought--that a jury so blind as to create this shortlist in the first place might just be blind enough to bestow the Nebula on someone other than Link.

The award is voted on by SFWA membership at large. The only thing juries can do is add a single work to the final ballot in each of the categories. This year's jury did not add any works to the novella category because we could not come to a consensus. (I was on the short fiction jury - as Sherwood points out, the only story we added was "Singing My Sister Down.")
Alison, be my guest - I hope it works.

Chance, Sherwood, I stand corrected re: the nomination and voting process. I've been following the Hugo and Nebula awards for several years now and I still can't wrap my mind around the byzantine rules that govern them.
Anonymous said…
Another opinion:

I've had the issue of F&SF with "Magic for Beginners" sitting since it was new, and finally read this story after it was nominated. A week later, and I can barely remember it. Never a good sign.

So far, Kelly Link's appeal has escaped me. I read/skimmed her first collection some time ago -- some stories were pleasant enough, most caused me to flip over to the next. So I may have a blind spot for Link

The only other of these nominees I've read so far is the Cowdry, which I quite liked when i first read it. However, I just reread the first 5 pages (online) before figuring out that I'd already read the thing. Again, not a good sign, but I certainly preferred the Cowdry to the Link.

Incidentally, Abigail, I'm enjoying poking around in your weblog. Always a pleasure to encounter an articulate short-fiction fan.

Happy reading--
Pete Tillman
Book Reviews:
Anonymous said…
I think Kelly Link's novella "Magic For Beginners" was really bad. I like her prose...but what the heck do people see in this novella? Its really bland, nothing of intrests ever happens. There are only minor fantasy elements in this story, while interesting, really only provide a frame for a really bland nothing novella. Honestly, please someone who disagrees with me, email me and explain to me why I'm wrong, I have no idea how this novella could even be considered for an award:

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