Worlds Beyond Your Ken: A Guide to the Nebula Awards

May 14, 2012 | 3 books mentioned 7 6 min read

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is a curious group, though given that they’re a writers’ guild, curious is par for the course. Gathering together scribblers from two related but nevertheless distinct disciplines under one umbrella seems like a holdover from a less genre-friendly time, when artists like these needed to band together for strength and comfort. After all, when the Edgar Awards come out every year, it’s under the aegis of the Mystery Writers of America; that’s it, just mystery.

covercoverBut the SFWA are a welcoming bunch, nevertheless, handing out their Nebula Award in recent years to everyone from crackerjack dreamweavers like Neil Gaiman (the mainstream dark fantasy American Gods in 2002 and the fey nightmare Coraline in 2003) to once-mainstream writers gone gleefully genre like Michael Chabon (his brilliantly imagined counterfactual-cum-detective novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in 2007). Time will tell if the last decade’s batch of winners will hold up to scrutiny like those in its first decade, when the Nebula was passed out to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, three foundational works in 20th century science fiction.

There are six novels nominated for this year’s Nebula Award, which will be announced May 19th. They cover the future, the present, and the indefinable. They feature shy faeries, magicians who wield bugs like weapons, and a postapocalyptic steampunk traveling circus. What they don’t do much of is splash about in that shallow, mucky pool of vampire/alien/cop/erotica/fallen angel serial potboilers (new variations ever-spinning off as though generated by some genre virus) being snapped up by ever more readers. Only two of the six Nebula nominees are series books, the rest are novel-novels – left to live or die on their own, no cliffhangers to entice you back.

coverFirebird by Jack McDevitt: McDevitt is one of those increasingly rare practitioners of the far-future space opera; unfortunately, Firebird is not exactly an advertisement for the subgenre. The sixth of a series, it’s narrated by Chase Kolpath, dutiful assistant to the series’ star, Jack Benedict, a kind of archaeologist-cum-rare antiquities dealer (an earlier Benedict novel, Seeker, took the Nebula in 2006). Chase and Jack meander their way into a mystery linking a disappeared physicist named Christopher Robin and a series of spaceships that have disappeared. The prose has the monotone feel of a constant hum, only slightly upticking even when Chase and Jack are besieged by a band of malevolent AIs rampaging about like more advanced versions of the human-hating machines in Stephen King’s “Trucks.” Alex’s God-like sagacity turns less Sherlockian as the story bumps on, Chase’s dully Watson-like dependability is slightly tweaked, but the lack of dimensionality to the characters is nearly complete. It’s true that McDevitt ratchets up the cross-dimensional drama once more is discovered about the disappeared ships and stirs some embers of an intriguing debate over the souls of AIs. Sadly, though, he sets aside any attempt to portray a cross-galaxy human society many centuries in the future as truly any different from today’s.

coverThe Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin: Jemisin is a rising talent with a couple of Hugo and Nebula nominations to her credit and a sharp voice — check out her quasi-manifesto: “Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.” Like half of this year’s nominees, her novel is more fantasy than science fiction, but as previously discussed, all are welcome here. The final entry in her “Inheritance Trilogy,” The Kingdom of Gods is set in the same magic-plagued world as the previous two, but with different characters. The narrator Sieh, is a “godling” who still winces at the memory of his long imprisonment by the Arameri, a tyrannical human dynasty (whose Vatican-sized palace is built in a “World Tree” the size of a mountain range) which has lost the power to enslave gods. Sieh’s a bratty and bloody-minded Loki-esque trickster figure who thinks nothing of slaughtering dozens in a fit of pique, but nevertheless steals the hearts of a pair of Arameri royal siblings. Jemisin paces her book fast and knotty (the glossary at back helps), downgrading Sieh to mortal status and setting him adrift in the roiling dramas of this hyperbolic, violent, and power-crazed world. It’s overripe and overplotted, but rich with detail and emotion; she channels the darker fratricidal and genocidal themes of Greek mythology like few other writers can. Jemisin doesn’t make the mistake of ascribing human morality to her godly characters just because they have recognizably human emotions.

coverMechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine: Valentine’s short fictions have been anthologized many times — everywhere from various Year’s Best collections to more themed-works like War and Space — but this is her first novel. The easiest definition of Mechanique’s loosely-threaded story would be “steampunk circus.” No airships and not a pair of goggles to be seen, but still, there’s enough fascination with clanking machinery and low-tech bioware, as well as a fuzzy disinterest in time-period specificity. Call it steampunk-adjacent. The Circus Tresaulti, as described by the young and romantic narrator George, is a fabulist’s dream of patched-together tents and critically wounded performers reborn as pre-digital cyborgs with metallic limbs, surgically attached wings, and lighter-than-air bones (the latter very handy for the aerialists). Their female Ahab is known only as the Boss (whose skill with the performers’ mechanized add-ons seems more than a little Faustian), the circus trundles through a vaguely-described and war-blasted landscape of ruined cities and feral audiences. The whole affair is tied together far too late in the game with a climax that feels too familiar by half. Valentine has imagination, but only to a point. Her characters take too long to come into focus, and her writing just doesn’t have the strength to carry such a lightly-plotted piece to fruition.

coverGod’s War by Kameron Hurley: First-timer Hurley has a sensibility not too far removed from Jemisin’s. Both have a fine feel for action and have no compunctions about burying readers up to their necks in conspiracies and bloody intrigue. Where Jemisin works in a vein of mythological overkill, Hurley has a grittier cyberpunk feel to her writing. Her fascinating God’s War is another far-future story set on a planet far from Earth in terms of light years, but quite neighborly in the similarity of its politics and problems. Two vaguely Muslim nations, Nasheen and Chenjan, have been locked in a grinding war for longer than living memory. The planet is ridden with disease and toxic with religious orthodoxy and terrorism-inspired paranoia. What high technology there exists seems to come entirely from the specific manipulations of the planet’s native bug species. With entire generations of men sacrificed to the front, women comprise nearly all of civilian society. Hurley’s antiheroine, Nyx, is a former Nasheenian bel dame, or court-appointed assassin, who now plies her trade (bringing a bounty’s severed head back to whoever can pay) freelance. When Nyx is hired for a particularly onerous job, she takes on a larger crew, including Rhys, a Chenjan magician who is not particularly good at bug magic but will do for now. Hurley is a gut-punch kind of writer, with harsh characters in a harsh world doing whatever they think is necessary to survive — even if survival frequently seems little better than the alternative.

coverEmbassytown by China Miéville: The newest, frequently baffling novel by the never-rote Miéville is the most welcome entry in this list, most particularly because it is the novel that most truly immerses readers into a world well beyond their ken. On the planet of Arieki, humans live in tenuous coexistence with an alien race known as the Hosts. A delicate balancing act keeps most humans in circumscribed boundaries, the only dialogue capable via human ambassadors who work in pairs. (The Hosts speak via two mouths, resulting in twinned streams of communication, a fascinating concept that Miéville runs wild with.) The book’s narrator is Avice, an Arieki woman who works as an immernaut, piloting the great depths of space between systems. She is wrangled into helping manage the crisis that erupts after a verbal virus begins to spread in the Hosts, leading to the collapse of the planet’s social order and the threat of all-out war. Miéville’s world is an immersive one, with few roadsigns to assist the beleaguered. But the novel’s all-encompassing alien nature is like a lexicographical blanket, enveloping the reader in abstruse, world-changing theories and riddle-wrapped drama. It’s all less dense than it sounds, for all Miéville’s language-mad word wizardry, there’s a thread of story here that makes it as thrilling and readable as any work of science fiction in recent memory.

coverAmong Others by Jo Walton: You could consider Walton more a fan of science fiction than a practitioner of it, but that isn’t to do disservice to her writing, it’s to give credit to the potency and sharpness of her fandom. Among Others is a rainy, moody thing where the story is little more than a whisper. The narrator, Morwenna Phelps, is a Welsh girl (like Walton) who’s sent off to boarding school in England after a mishap with magic cost the life of her sister but just may have saved the world from the evil powers of their witch mother. Now Morwenna walks with a cane and tries not to let her magic show around the posher schoolgirls (her ability to see and speak to fairies might throw them), all the while trying to reconnect with her daffy father and figure out what to do if her mother returns. That’s all background atmosphere, though. Walton’s real story is Morwenna’s love of science fiction. The novel is told in diary form, and nearly every entry includes some finely argued notation on the joys and merits of what she’s reading. Her list is heavy with dark transgressors like Samuel R. Delany and John Brunner, as befitting Walton’s late-1970s setting. There’s a gripping, deeply-learned love here that goes beyond mere fandom, delivering one of the most intelligently impassioned odes to science fiction, and reading in general, ever put to paper. As Morwenna says on entering her father’s study: “I actually relaxed in his presence, because if there are books perhaps it won’t be all that bad.” Anybody who has felt the glow and tug of mind-warping joy that comes with devouring a stack of broken-spined sci-fi paperbacks will know exactly what she means.

is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society. He has written for the Chicago Tribune, Film Journal International, PopMatters, Slant, Publishers Weekly, and Rain Taxi Review of Books, among others. He has written books about Keanu Reeves, presidential elections, and topics in between. Musings can be found at and Eyes Wide Open.