2014 Nebula Nominees, Short Fiction
The members of the Science Fiction Writers of America are voting this month on the winners of the Nebulas for the best writing in a variety of categories. Even for those who aren’t part of the SFWA, these are awards to watch to find some of the best writers in the genre today.
In recent years, some of the genre’s major awards have attracted extra, political-based attention. The Nebulas have been less affected by this trend, but even the winners here and the conversations around these stories will likely affect the discussions around the nominees for other awards. These nominees for short fiction form an especially strong slate this year. In alphabetical order by last name, they are:
“The Breath of War,” Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/6/14)
In adolescence, children of this planet must carve a stone-person to be their companion, and when they are ready to have children, only their stone companions can breathe life into the babies. But what happens when someone has left her stone companion behind in a war-torn region of the mountains? As Rechan’s due date nears, she undertakes the dangerous journey so her child might live.
This is an ambitious and beautiful story. The world-building is strong, and the characters well developed. It has a fantasy feel in many ways, with the magic of the stone people and the journey into the heights, but it is a science fiction tale as well, as the war is fought between flyers, and the journey is by air-car. This combination could topple a lesser story, but here the parts balance well. The ceremony that creates the stone people is given just enough of a sheen of science, and the mystery of what exactly she hopes to find in the mountains is played along at just the right pace.
In last year’s Nebulas, de Bodard deservedly won the short fiction category with a story that was also nominated for a Hugo. It would be no surprise if she wins again.
“When It Ends, He Catches Her,” Eugie Foster (Daily Science Fiction 9/26/14)
(A/N: Full disclosure – Eugie Foster gave me my first short story-reviewing gig…and my second as well, when she left one site to found another and most of us reviewers went with her. So while I can’t say I knew her well, I did know her for many years.)
This is a very short story, and one that derives much of its considerable power from a final revelation that I don’t wish to spoil. What I can say is that it involves a dancer in the aftermath of some sort of zombie apocalypse. Aisa comes, as she often does, to this one forgotten stage to dance like she used to. As she dances, she remembers the crowds and the one partner she had who, as the title suggests, always caught her. There’s nostalgia and a sense of continuing on, even after everything has fallen apart. I have to admit that I’m usually leery of zombies in fiction, but there is nothing tired or cliched in how Foster uses them in this story.
This story will always be a struggle for those who knew Eugie, as it was published the day before she died after a public treatment for cancer. That adds to the poignancy of the story, but I have no qualms saying that it well deserves to be on this list regardless. If it loses, it will likely be because the voters preferred something longer. If it wins, it will be because of its lyricism and sharp, painful beauty.
“The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye,” Matthew Kressel (Clarkesworld 5/14)
As this story opens, it feels much more playful than most of the stories on this list. A naive space pilot, The Meeker, flies about the universe with its ship, the All-Seeing Eye, gathering up whatever residue remains so the Eye can incorporate the matter into itself and learn everything it can. They might take millenia to travel from one place to another, but time has little meaning to them and the nearly empty universe they inhabit. So they spend the time talking, telling stories.
As the story develops, this initial impression is gradually subverted. They find an object in space encoded with the data for a human, one of many long-lost species. They bring the human, Beth, to life, but after a short time she dies. There is a mystery in the coding, one that even the increasingly cruel Eye can’t penetrate. Kressel pulls readers back and back to reveal more of what has happened and what it means.
The subversion is well executed, and there’s a literate, now-we-fight-back feel to this that will certainly appeal to some voters.
“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family,” Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)
From that far-future, dizzying view, we come crashing to a very real, very contemporary Earth. The story is structured around scientific descriptions of the states of matter, tying them with the history of the family of the title. Early in the story, there are only glints of the speculative underpinnings here. Sohail leaves after his fiance was killed in a bombing. His sister Tara, who is our viewpoint, was widowed before the story began, because of a suicide bomber.
So the story focuses on Tara as she leaves her hometown and enrolls in the university. Floods and terror attacks follow until she is forced to face the truth of her family’s own legacy.
It would be easy to turn such a story into melodrama, whether tragic or of love conquering all, but Malik expertly keeps the story from resolving into anything so simple. The confrontation that takes place is many things but not melodramatic. The scientific definitions may not add enough science to the story for some voters, but they do add a poetry-like structure to the narrative, allowing the events to wrap around and entwine in the definitions in a powerful way so that the story seems both personal and universal.
“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” Sarah Pinsker (F&SF 3-4/14)
Whereas the other real-world stories on this list share something mythic, this story delights in the surreal. In Saskatchewan, young farmer Andy has lost his arm to a combine accident. By the time he wakes up in the hospital, his parents have arranged to have it replaced by a prosthetic, a smart prosthetic with the latest in brain interface and computer technology.
Something odd in the arm’s chip, though, makes the arm feel like it’s actually a stretch of highway in Colorado.
The straight-faced absurdity of having an arm that’s also a road somewhere he’s never been is where this story shines. He knows the road’s conditions, feels the trucks driving down his arm, if only for those two miles. While there’s a definite science-fictional rational around it all, the voters’ take on the story will depend entirely on how they feel about that absurdity, which perhaps places it more as weird fiction than traditional SF. I found it delightful.
“Jackalope Wives,” Ursula Vernon (Apex 1/7/14)
And here we come back to the mythic, perhaps more than in any of the other stories. “Jackalope Wives” is a sort of Old West twist on the image of selkies. In it, female rabbits are known to remove their furs on certain nights and dance through the desert, looking human. They are skittish and rarely caught…but not never. When Grandma Harken’s grandson catches one and botches the attempt to hide her fur from her, she must seek out the animals of the desert to rescue both him and the rabbit.
This is a story to tell around a campfire, a story to sit down and hear read to you. And Vernon is a storyteller to listen to. If the voters choose this, it will be because of this magic of storytelling and the sense of a mythic story you’ve heard before but never quite this way.
“The Fisher Queen,” Alyssa Wong (F&SF 5/14)
“My mother was a fish. That’s why I can swim so well, according to my father, who is a plain fisherman with a fisherman’s plain logic, but uncanny flair for the dramatic.” So begins this story, which like the last seems at first just a step to the side from being a selkie story. The primary step away from our world here is the presence of mermaids—not as intelligent creatures, but simple fish that happen to resemble human women. Everyone agrees that they’re stupid and largely useless, except that in the deeper waters there are mermaids that fetch a good price in the markets, where they’re sold as meat.
The narrator, rather than follow the expected route for women of her city, decides to join her father and their crew on one of those deep-sea voyages, which sets up the events of the story. It’s a fierce and powerful story, one that addresses gender roles and the treatment of women in its society, as well as one culture’s place in relation to others’, weaving it all into the just-slightly-off-kilter feel of their search for schools of mermaids to fill their nets.
Any one of these stories could win and wouldn’t feel out of place. I have my favorites, of course, but each has its own strengths. None of them are terribly long, though, so why don’t you give them a read as well, and share below which ones you think especially deserve to win.