CCLaP Fridays: Nebula Awards Showcase 2014, edited by Kij Johnson

nebula2014Nebula Awards Showcase 2014
Edited by Kij Johnson
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

Once again I have the opportunity to review a volume of Nebula Award-winning authors and runners-up. Nebula Awards Showcase 2014, edited by Kij Johnson offers a variety of material to peruse and enjoy. Besides the winners and runners-up, there is an essay by Neil Gaiman on how to read the fiction of Gene Wolfe, this year’s winner of Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master award. Johnson selects the Wolfe story, “Christmas Inn,” a short story that reads like a Christmas holiday tale about family and togetherness. It also reads like a story about aliens, or cosmic horror, or humanity versus Nature. Which one is it? One of them, all of them? As Gaiman says, “(1) Trust the text implicitly. The answers are in there. (2) Do not trust the text farther than you can throw it, if that far. […] (4) There are wolves in there, prowling behind the words.” In addition, critic Michael Dirda likens Gene Wolfe’s literary merit to Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. Previous Grandmasters include Anne McCaffrey, Poul Anderson, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Robert Silverberg.

Kij Johnson edits this year’s anthology. Johnson has a multifaceted career. She writes fantasy, worked as managing editor for Tor Books and TSR, is the creative director for AD&D settings Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, and teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas “where she is associate director for the Study of Science Fiction.” Like other awards, this year’s winners left me largely unsatisfied. But I did find the runners-up entertaining.

The Nebula Award winner for Best Novelette, “Close Encounters,” took an old premise, in this case humans encountering aliens and filtered it through the mind of an old farmer. Unfortunately, it comes across like William Faulkner-does-sci fi. The Noble Hillbilly patois distracts from the story. Writing dialect phonetically is a daring gambit.
Kim Stanley Robinson won the Nebula Award for Best Novel for 2312. This I did like, but I’m biased, since I’ve read his novels Antarctica and The Years of Rice and Salt. Robinson’s novel is a Solar System-based, near-future, hard science “progressive” quasi-Utopian space opera. (I’m using the word progressive, because many of Robinson’s critiques and ideals fall roughly into that niche of political leftism.) Robinson combines a crackerjack plot involving a suspicious death with stylistic experimentalism and fascinating digressions. In “Extracts (1)” he describes how to terraform an asteroid and populate it with animal and human life. The novel’s experimental bravado, narrative drive, and just plain fun reminded me of Iain Banks’s Culture novels.

The standout runner-up for Best Short Story was Cat Rambo’s “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain.” Rambo’s short story melded elements from steampunk, automatons, the Multiverse, and erotica into a precise little package. The story follows the misadventures of Tikka, Minor Propagandist for the planet Porcelain’s Bureau of Tourism. She falls in love with a human tourist and complications ensue. What is so wonderful is that Rambo makes the lives and culture of planet Porcelain plausible.

Imagine a world populated with Chinese porcelain figures. Life may look pretty on the surface, but Porcelain is a tyranny and the Bureau of Tourism a shark tank full of ambitious civil servants. On top of all that, these humanoid porcelain figures have to take care of themselves or else they’ll crack and fissure. If that happens, they are about as useful as the low-class clays that also live on the planet. With the success of Guardians of the Galaxy and its exemplary CGI work, I’d love to see “Planet Porcelain” made into a feature film, or at least a short.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2014 has a lot to offer. With such variety, you will like certain stories but not others. But that’s no different from Oscar winners and losers.

Out of 10/9.0; and higher for science fiction and fantasy fans.

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