Nebula Awards Showcase 2016 edited by Mercedes Lackey (book review).

April 5, 2021 | By | Reply More

I’m currently catching up on some books that have been on my ‘To Be Read’ pile for far too long. Top of that pile was the ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2016’. This is the seventeenth anthology of Nebula Awards nominees and winners, containing stories originally published in 2014, with the awards being given out at a ceremony in June 2015. The editor of this volume is American fantasy novelist Mercedes Lackey.

The book features a beautifully ethereal cover image by the illustrator Reiko Murakami, showing a woman kneeling on the sea floor. The artist’s website indicates that this is a personal work, part of a series of twelve paintings with the overall title of ‘Resonance’, each responding to an event that happened in the artist’s life in a particular month. This one is called ‘February’ and it provides an intriguing welcome to the book, almost as if the subject of the painting is inviting you to step inside.

The anthology has a slightly different format from previous years. It includes complete versions of the winning and all the nominated pieces in the short story and novelette categories. The winning novella is also included in full, accompanied by short excerpts of each of the nominees in that category. The novel category, last but not least, is represented by a seventeen page except from the beginning of the winning entry. The book puts them in that order, starting with the short stories and ending with the novel excerpt. That works well as a reading order but, for the purposes of this review, I’m going to cover them in reverse order, starting with the longest types of works first.

The Nebula-winning novel in 2014 was Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Annihilation’, the first volume in his ‘Southern Reach Trilogy’, which was turned into a critically acclaimed movie by Alex Garland in 2018. The excerpt included here is long enough to give you a good idea of the weirdness that is at the heart of the novel, so it does its job admirably. If you enjoy books that explore the inexplicable and haven’t already read ‘Annihilation’, this will probably persuade you to put it on your reading list.

The novella which won the Nebula was Nancy Kress’s SF tale ‘Yesterday’s Kin’, first published by Tachyon Press. This is a first contact story narrated mostly from the perspective of Dr. Nancy Jenner, an evolutionary biologist whose most recent paper, published in the prestigious journal ‘Nature’, turns out to be of great interest to the humanoid aliens that arrived in orbit around Earth four months earlier. When she meets the aliens, they explain not just why her research into the evolutionary family tree of humanity is relevant to them but also what their true reason for travelling to Earth is. Can Nancy help the aliens to fulfil their mission and, through doing so, gain for the rest of the world the rewards they have promised? This is a fascinating, multi-faceted story. On the one hand, it’s about family relationships and about how easy it is to think badly of others and how much effort is needed to build the trust that can overcome such feelings. On the other, it’s about the value of the scientific method and of diligent hard work in moving beyond our fears and reaching some kind of objective truth. A very worthy Nebula winner to my mind and I’m really pleased that it was printed in full in this anthology.

The excerpts from the five novellas that were nominated but didn’t win the award are each only five or six pages long, so can set the scene and introduce the main characters but that’s about it. All five introductions are sufficiently intriguing that I’d be happy to read any of the pieces in full.

The winning novelette was ‘A Guide To The Fruits Of Hawai’i’ by Alaya Dawn Johnson. This story was first published in the July 2014 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’, which by coincidence is where I first read it, as it’s the first issue of the magazine that I reviewed for SFCrowsnest. Re-reading it six years later, I enjoyed this dystopian story about vampires and their human servants rather more than I did first time round. The world-building is excellent and Johnson’s portrayal of her vampires is more nuanced than we have generally become accustomed to in the era of ‘Twilight’ and the like.

Turning to the five other novelettes that were nominated, there were two I enjoyed a great deal. Tom Crosshill’s ‘The Magician And Laplace’s Demon’ is an SF story set in 2063 which pits a highly advanced but deterministic Artificial Intelligence against a group of ‘magicians’ who are able to make use of the probabilistic nature of the quantum universe. The story has some interesting observations to make about the nature of freedom in a digital world where almost everything we do is observed, generally by computers. ‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado is a romantic fantasy about a woman, the man she chooses and the limited extent to which even those in the closest of relationships will ever really know and understand each other. The ending of the story is surreal but fits well with the rest of this literary outing, originally printed in the magazine ‘Granta’.

The winning short story was Ursula Vernon’s fantasy ‘Jackalope Wives’. This is a cautionary tale about a young man who lets his hormones run away with him when he sees a beautiful female jackalope, a magical creature that looks like a jackrabbit with the horns of an antelope, dancing in the moonlight one evening. Bewitched, he tries to catch her, ends up injuring her badly and is forced to seek the help of his wise grandmother, who has seen it all before. This is a near perfect story woven from the folklore of North America, which manages to fit a lot of detail into its thirteen pages.

Amongst the six other short stories that were nominated for the Nebula, my favourites were Matthew Kressel’s ‘The Meeker And The All-Seeing Eye’, a piece which initially appears to be humorous SF but rapidly turns into something much darker and Eugie Foster’s final work, ‘When It Ends, He Catches Her’, a zombie love story which becomes unbelievably poignant when you find out that Foster died of cancer just one day after it was published.

It has taken me far too long to get round to reading the ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2016’ but I’m glad I finally did. The format that editor Mercedes Lackey chose for the 2016 volume, printing all of the nominated short stories and novelettes in full, alongside the whole of the winning novella and excerpts of the other pieces, works extremely well. The anthology provides the reader with a substantial number of complete stories to read, alongside a cross-section of shorter extracts. Together, they give a comprehensive picture of the genre’s award-winning stories back in 2014.

Patrick Mahon

March 2021

(pub: Pyr/Prometheus Books, 2016. 411 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US), $19.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-138-9)

check out website: www.mercedeslackey.com and www.reikomurakami.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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