The best thing about collections like the Nebula Awards Showcase is that they serve as an annual reminder that science fiction and fantasy aren’t fading in imagination or quality, even with the publishing side of the genre in turmoil. With magazines big and small going on hiatus or closing with alarming regularity, it’s hard to stay on top of a genre that’s spread out so far across print and the web. Add to that all of the books and stories that no one in mainstream fiction wants to admit are fantasy or science fiction, and it’s easy for good stuff to pass you by.
Established in 1966 and voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), the Nebulas are one of speculative fiction’s highest honors. Not as wide-ranging as the equally prestigious Hugo Awards, the Nebulas limit themselves to five basic categories: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Short Story, and Best Script. The bulk of the Nebula Awards Showcase is given over to recognizing the nominees and winners of these categories.
It’s fair to say that there’s a little something for everyone. At the top of this reader’s list is Kij Johnson’s short story “Ponies”, which takes a dark look at the path young girls must navigate to fit in or be popular. In Johnson’s tale, every girl has what’s called a pony (in this world, more more of a talking, winged unicorn) that plays a vital role in birthday parties that double as bloody rituals. Barbara’s pony, Sunny, has been pretty much her only friend in life, so she’s thrilled to receive a party invitation. Even in the early stages of the story, you can feel the tension between being true to yourself and selling a little bit of yourself for acceptance. To us outside readers, the whole party sounds like a horrible idea from the get-go, but Johnson still manages a gut-punch ending. Having a young daughter myself, maybe I’m square in the cross-hairs for a story like this, but I found “Ponies” to be devastating and unforgettable.
On the audacious ideas front, Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”, chronicles a Mormon leader living inside the sun with giant creatures called Soletaceans. This experience leads him to a moral and religious crisis that causes him to venture into space in search of a fabled, supposedly immortal being called Leviathan. Adam Troy-Castro’s “Arvies” envisions a future where humanity lives in human slaves/hosts called Arvies, thus exploiting a loophole against death by never being born. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Jaguar House in Shadow” constructs an alternate reality culture war between the Aztecs and the modern world.
The book also features excerpts of novels from Connie Willis (Blackout/All Clear) and winner of The Andre Norton Award for Children’s and Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy, Terry Pratchett’s (I Shall Wear Midnight. The excerpts can be more frustrating than anything. Willis and Pratchett are top-tier writers. If you’ve read any of Willis’s time-travel books or Pratchett’s Discworld series, you really don’t need an excerpt to get excited about something new from them. If you do read an excerpt, you probably just get frustrated because now your appetite is whetted without the benefit of having the book in your possession. It seems like an awkward attempt to shoehorn longer works into the collection in the interests of being all-inclusive.
Beyond the Nebula nominees, the collection also includes a breakdown of other awards and honors. The Solstice Award, a sort of lifetime achievement in the field, goes to James Tiptree, Jr., is represented here by 1972’s “And I Awake and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side”. Howard Hendrix’s poem “Bumbershoot” takes the honor of the Dwarf Star Award. The book also contains the Rhysling Award for Short Poetry (Ann K. Schneider’s “To Theia”) and Long Poetry (Kendell Evans and Samantha Henderson’s “In the Astronaut Asylum”).
As opposed to past volumes, this year’s Nebula Awards Showcase comes across more like a sampler than a comprehensive spotlight on the Nebula Awards. The inclusion of those other awards means less space for a Nebula short story or novelette. Still, as a high-level overview of science fiction and fantasy at the moment, this anthology shows that both genres are vibrant and healthy, and still full of wonder.