‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2016’ Will Make Your Toes Curl

Experienced sci-fi readers have seen enough hentai to know where Nebula Awards Showcase 2016 is going.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2016
Mercedes Lackey, ed.

If there’s anything interesting to be said about the Nebula Awards Showcase 2016, it’s that it features a diverse cast of identities. The conspicuous inclusivity of women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks might put off otherwise typical readers of sci-fi. In fact, in the introduction to the collection, editor Mercedes Lackey offers a fair warning to readers that the volume “probably won’t be what the ‘average reader’ would like.”

Lackey doesn’t provide a specific picture of her definition of “average reader”, but I imagine a stereotypical comic book-loving, straight white male nerd as depicted in a poorly written sitcom. The target audience of the recipients of this year’s awards is the underdog sci-fi lover, for better or worse.

By this year, I mean 2014, because of time dilation or something. To be clear, according to the cover, the anthology contains “the year’s best science fiction and fantasy” as it was “selected by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America” so the fact that the Nebula Awards Showcase 2016 is actually showcasing the 2014 winners is a little confusing for anyone trying to figure out who won awards in 2015 or 2016. (Yes, the awards are given every year — the back of the text contains a list of every winner by year going all the way back to the Nebula Awards’ inception in 1965.) This means that the anthology is not the current “year’s best”, but actually the best from two years ago.

This took me a while to figure out because there isn’t a note about this anywhere in the introduction or forward. I had to use Google. My confusion was compounded by the December 2015 publication date of last year’s Nebula Awards Showcase 2015. This 2016 edition came out a few days ago in May of 2016: What is the publication timeline here? Perhaps I’m just picking nits, but this temporal gap really bugged me, and I usually like time travel stories. I guess I’ll have to wait until 2017 to find out who won the 2015 awards.

But perhaps our intrepid stereotype, comic book guy, won’t be bothered by the awards’ dates. Will he be annoyed by the conspicuous inclusivity? Who’s to say? Not that the inclusivity is a bad thing: sci-fi has always been a safe haven for diverse identities to imagine alternative pasts and futures. For this reader at least, the diversity is refreshing, even in its conspicuousness.

Unfortunately, this year’s stories also seem conspicuously overpopulated by beasts with two backs, if you know what I mean. Perhaps all the sex is meant to reel that ‘average’ reader back in. I use that fishing metaphor intentionally — Alyssa Wong’s story “The Fisher Queen” was about catching mermaids and having sex with them. To be blunt, the best sci-fi and fantasy this year is heavy on fantasy.

The anthology contains a higher than an average number of sex scenes, which verge on erotica in some stories, making readers question the predilections of the selection committee. That’s not to say the collection is overly titillating. In fact, some of the winners are no better than a ‘meh’ on a scale of one to Bo Derek. The real concern for this reader is that some stories are so lacking in the typical markers of sci-fi that they read like over-sensationalized ’50s-era pulp novels.

In “The Husband Stich” for example, the central character — the poodle skirt-wearing, sock hop attending, stay-at-home housewife — has a secret that’s far more interesting when readers don’t know what it is. The big reveal (in the last paragraph) is disappointing to the point of being a “trick” ending and was the only element of the story that was remotely speculative, in the sci-fi sense. Not that the story was bad, but the definition of ‘science fiction and fantasy’ was pushed to its limit here and elsewhere.

At least in my opinion. Obviously, the selection committee liked these stories, possibly because of all the blow jobs. I’m not kidding. I lost count of all the instances of oral sex throughout the collection.

That’s not to say that the stories aren’t entertaining. There are a few spaceships mixed in among the lascivious humanoids, maybe even a bionic body part or two. Readers will get a lot of content in the volume, which logs in at a hefty 400 pages and includes 20 unique pieces of fiction by 20 different authors, 14 of which are unabridged. Some readers will find that the short stories and novellas are better than the novel excerpts. Others may like the “teaser” element of the excepted content. I, personally, don’t enjoy reading novel excerpts; I like to literally get the full story.

Readers will not find more well-known names of previous winners like Terry Pratchett, Samuel R. Delany, or Neil Gaiman, but they will get a nice serving of contemporary sci-fi authors such as Alaya Dawn Johnson, Usman T. Malik, Eugie Foster, and previous Nebula Award winners like Nancy Kress and Ken Liu. I think Pratchett may get a posthumous Solstice Award in the future. Joanna Russ received that award for 2014 (she passed away in 2011). Despite my nitpicky criticisms, the anthology definitely showcases some talented authors and fascinating tales.

Anyone who remembers the very ’80s pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves movie Johnny Mnemonic may find the world created in Sam J. Miller’s story “We Are the Cloud” vaguely familiar. I was thinking it would work as a film as I was reading it if it was remade by Gus Van Sant and starred a teenage Forest Whitaker as the cyber-kid turned gay porn star turned anarchist. I’d actually like to see that movie.

Another enjoyable entry was Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives”, which told a cautionary tale about trying to marry outside your species. It also suggests you should finish what you start. I’m trying not to spoil the ending but suffice to say, it features a jackalope or two, those mythical horned rabbits whose taxidermied remains you’ve seen in gift shops across the southwest.

If I were to sum up the collection in two words, I might go with “xenomorphic coitus”. I guess the cover art of a naked woman should have been more of a clue. In an early draft of this document, I misspelled ‘gratuitous’ and autocorrect changed it to ‘octopus’. To be honest, I almost left it: “octopus sex” isn’t that far off-topic. I miss the sci-fi anthologies with spaceships on their covers. Not that I’m a prude, but I usually prefer more science in my fiction. That said, there’s some really good stuff in this volume for readers who aren’t squeamish about gratuitous sex.

RATING 7 / 10