Nebula Awards Showcase 2012, edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel (book review).

‘The Nebula Awards Showcase 2012’ is the thirteenth anthology in a row dedicated to getting the winning stories from the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Annual Awards out to a wider audience. This volume covers stories published during 2010, for which the awards were given out in May 2011. The co-editors of the book are writers and anthologists James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, both of whom have won Nebula Awards in the past.

I noted in my review of last year’s Nebula anthology that the book had changed publisher to TOR and with it, the approach to what was included. This has happened again this year. The new publishers are Pyr and they have chosen to include several of the shortlisted short stories, novelettes and novellas alongside the winning entries. There are also extracts from the winning novels, something that TOR did not include last year. Unchanged from last year is the decision not to include any non-fiction articles on the state of the genre.

I must admit that I used to enjoy the non-fiction material in previous volumes and I regret its removal. Still, space is always limited and this way they can include more stories. So what does this selection tell us about the health of Science Fiction in the second decade of the twenty first century?

There are several great stories in this anthology. I’ll highlight five of them, along with the two pieces that I didn’t warm to.

For me, the best story in the book was ‘Ponies’ by Kij Johnson, which was the joint winner of the Nebula Award For Best Short Story, alongside Harlan Ellison’s whimsical ‘How Interesting: A Tiny Man’. Johnson has form, having won the same award last year with her story ‘Spar’. ‘Ponies’ is only fifteen hundred words long and is nominally a fairy story about some little girls and their magical ponies. However, it is a near perfect portrayal of the horrors to which many children are willing to subject themselves and others in order to be part of the in-crowd and packs a huge emotional punch.

Rachel Swirsky won the Nebula Award For Best Novella with ‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath The Queen’s Window’. I loved the way that the main character Naeva, a powerful witch in a matriarchal society, adapts to her own betrayal and death remarkably well as she is resurrected into new bodies many times over the succeeding aeons. The major changes in society that take place across the centuries are convincingly shown, as is Naeva’s horrified response when men are allowed to share power with the women. This is a dramatic and thought-provoking fantasy.

The other novella included in this anthology is ‘The Sultan Of The Clouds’ by Geoff Landis, one of the five runners-up to Swirsky’s tale. This is a convincing and exciting Science Fiction story set in cloud cities floating in the atmosphere of Venus at such a height as to make them habitable. The story of Leah and David’s visit to see Carlos, the teenage ruler of this domain, gives us intrigue, science, sex, betrayal, terrorism and the politics of dynastic power. I hugely enjoyed this slice of hard SF.

Adam Troy-Castro’s ‘Arvies’ was one of five runners-up in the short story category. I loved this thought experiment about a future society rigidly divided by the act of physical birth into a privileged elite, who remain unborn and live their lives vicariously through others, and the rest of the world, the arvies of the title, who are brainwashed from the moment of birth so that by the time they reach adulthood, they are suitably passive passengers into which the minds of the elite can be channelled as and when they wish. This story is brutal, surprising, heart-breaking and constantly engaging.

The other piece I really enjoyed was the extract from ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’, Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ novel which won the Andre Norton Award For Young Adult Fiction. The relatively short excerpt was still long enough to demonstrate that Pratchett has lost none of his wit, brilliance or common humanity.

There were two pieces in this anthology that I did not warm to. The first was the 1972 short story ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ by James Tiptree Jr. This story was included because Alice Sheldon, who used Tiptree as her pen name, was joint winner of the SFWA’s Solstice Award for impact on the field. I have read and enjoyed other stories by Sheldon/Tiptree but I’m afraid this story, about the danger of getting infatuated with aliens, felt rather dated and left me unmoved. The second piece I didn’t get was ‘In the Astronaut Asylum’ by Kendall Evans and Samantha Henderson, which won the Rhysling Award for The Best Long Poem of 2010. On the whole I like reading poetry, including SF poetry. However, I have read this piece several times and still can’t find its rhythm or work out what it’s about. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

In conclusion, ‘The Nebula Awards Showcase 2012’ provides diverse examples of some of the best Science Fiction and fantasy being written today. On this evidence, the genre is very much alive and well. If you want to get a feel for the current state of the art, this anthology is a great place to start.

Patrick Mahon

(pub: Pyr/Prometheus Books. 332 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $17.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-619-1)
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