Nebula Awards Showcase 2013
Edited by Catherine Asaro
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Genetically modified men biking and dancing like birds. Temporal autism. Bridge-building. Anarchist bees. Bathypunk. These are the various jumping off points for the Nebula Awards Showcase 2013: The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Catherine Asaro, who teaches physics at the University of Maryland and is an amateur dancer. This anthology brings together winners and nominees of the Nebula Awards, a prestigious award for writing in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. The anthology includes novel excerpts, novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words), novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words), short stories, and poetry (long and short form). Like any literary award, it has had its share of controversies and the rabid support of a passionate fandom. Every piece in here in extremely well-written and grabs you with the first sentence. Even with stories where the premise felt shoddy, they still possessed a relatable human element, something especially important when dealing with cerebral concepts and scientific abstractions.
By and large, the winning stories came from the usual sources: Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Tor.com, etc. The breakout piece in this anthology is a heart-rending story with the funny title, “Sauerkraut Station,” by Ferrett Steinmetz. It is the story, technically a novelette, of Lizzie and her mother who operate the eponymous Sauerkraut Station. The station is situated between two antagonistic interplanetary empires and becomes embroiled with political intrigue and the collateral damage of war. Steinmetz creates believable characters and paints a sprawling, life-like space opera canvas. It is wonderful to see a short, self-contained narrative done with an almost effortless execution. In addition to being an exemplary story, it was discovered in an unlikely source: the online science fiction website GigaNotoSaurus.
Other stories include the fable-like short story, “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” by E. Lily Yu. (This might be of interest to fans of Chris Ware’s benighted bee Branford.) “The Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu is a short story about love, loss, and origami. In only a few pages, Liu weaves together a story about Asian-American assimilation, mail order brides, and magical origami animals. It manages to tug at the heartstrings without coming across as emotionally manipulative. Katherine Sparrow’s “The Migratory Pattern of Dancers” is about genetically modified men who re-enact the dances of birds in an ecologically devastated and economically exploitative dystopia. While I didn’t really believe the premise, the interrelationships between the veteran and rookie dancers did seem realistic. Despite their genetic modifications, the humanity shone through in an otherwise bleak setting. Finally, the novelette “Ray of Light” by Brad R. Torgersen was a standout in the rare subgenre of bathypunk. It’s a story about teen rebellion set at the sea floor. After enduring a cold Minnesota winter, snowy Spring, and overcast May, I could really identify with the innate human desire to see the sun again.
While this is a worthy anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories, each enjoyable in its own way, it is apparent what vulnerabilities these genres have. The stories may have dealt with cutting edge topics, but there was no real envelope-pushing genre work involved. Granted, the Nebulas have a built-in audience within the fan community. But how good are literary awards, especially for specific literary genres, if the form isn’t pushed and challenged? Since the Nebulas, like the Hugos, are prestigious awards commanding attention and respect within the fan community, shouldn’t we demand more? If nothing else, at least to prevent the genres of science fiction and fantasy from becoming trapped in amber. The ongoing debate/flame war involving the false dichotomy of “science fiction vs. literary fiction” doesn’t help things. The term “literary,” all bookstore marketing gimmicks aside, just means it is written well. Asaro’s delving into GigaNotoSaurus is a good start. Perhaps future editors will dig into the vast indie lit scene, the bizarro subgenre, and other outliers beyond the otherwise cautious and dependable standbys. In the end, what we have here is an anthology of mainstream science fiction and fantasy.
The anthology also has a helpful list of all the winners and nominees for 2012. It also includes a list of winners in major categories from its inception in 1965 to the present.
Out of 10/9.1