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Is a Squidless Nebula a Nebula at All? (The Nebulation continues)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

More snarking and snarling at the expense of the stories nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards, this time directed at those in the “novelette” category.

One point, which may not be terribly original but seems worth making anyway: the stories tend to look backward. The best one on the list is a pastiche of two 19th C. novels. The worst one is at least talking about a social change that seems to be underway in the western world (but has nothing to say about said change but “Aauugh!”). Another is a historical fantasy and the other two are retakes of ideas that have been done before. Where’s the future? Where are the stars? Where’s the talking squid in outer space?

I think we need the talking squid in space.

Anyway: onward and backward.

K.D. Wentworth, “Kaleidoscope”

This one, which might have been titled, “We Are All Schrödinger’s Cat”, deals with multiple worlds. The riffling between event-sets is a little baffling at times. I suppose that’s part of the point but it makes it hard for any plotline to assume real importance. I’m not sure this story breaks ground beyond Niven’s classic (and more efficiently told) “All the Myriad Ways”, but it does end on a more hopeful note. (Practically everything does.)

Johanna Sinisalo (David Hackston trans.), “Baby Doll”

This story, translated from the Finnish, is nominated from its appearance in The SFWA European Hall of Fame (edited by James and Kathryn Morrow). It has one rather dull and obvious point which it stabs at the reader repeatedly amid the trembling and twitching of its two dimensional characters.

James Alan Gardner, “The Ray Gun”

This starts out in what I found an unpleasantly arch, postmodern vein (“This is a story about a ray-gun. The ray-gun will not be explained except to say, ‘It shoots rays.’ “) but becomes a fairly interesting story with a nice plot-twist at the end: what the hero (?) thought was happening was not, in fact, what was happening. I’d like the story better without the opening and closing lines.

Richard Bowes, “If Angels Fight”

A bulky and too-leisurely story. The fantastic content is slow to appear, but it is there: a person whose ego can transfer from one person to another. This story is full of details that are void of emotional impact. (Are we supposed to care that the sister of the colorless narrator’s childhood friend “has kept her hair chestnut but allowed herself fine gray wings”? I didn’t.) Bowes seemed to be saying, or trying to say, something about families and personal identity and politics, but I don’t think I got anything out of it.

Lisa Goldstein, “Dark Rooms”

An intriguing historical fantasy set in the early years of cinema. The nightmare (or is it?) sequence near the end is particularly effective. Goldstein works the shadowy territory between realism and fantasy, but her work is saved from the interstitial (not a praise-word in my lexicon) by her dedication to the imaginative, to the fantastic. I have to confess I didn’t find this story an unalloyed pleasure, though, mostly because of the viewpoint character, Stevens. He’s a duller, shallower personality than the magician Méliès. Maybe that’s inevitable, but it seems to me that the wonderworker and the witness both need to have some depth to make a story like this really work. Very nice use of period detail, though–the mingling of magic and movies.

John Kessel, “Pride and Prometheus”

Victor Frankenstein intrudes into the family circle of the Bennets from Pride and Prejudice. No, I am not kidding, and neither is Kessel: this is not a gag like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which made me laugh the first time I heard of it and bored me the second). Kessel’s story (written in pitch-perfect English that slides easily from the Austenian to the Shelleyesque) is serious, steady, moving. Like Frankenstein’s monster, who makes a couple of memorable appearances, it is stitched together from several bodies and reanimated by some strange magic or science. Unlike him, it’s beautiful.


  1. I had access to three of the nominees. One I skipped after reading the first page or two (thanks to a helpful intro by GVG, I quickly determined I wasn’t interested). One I don’t remember and is boxed up. “Pride and Prometheus,” on the other hand, is quite memorable. I’m not an anything-and-manners kind of guy, but I wouldn’t be ashamed to vote for it.

    one rather dull and obvious point which it stabs at the reader repeatedly amid the trembling and twitching

    See? If you look at anything in just the right light, it can become adventure fiction (or splatterpunk, depending on the missing details).

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - March 11, 2009 8:34 pm

  2. Lack of space squids etc. because Nebula awards are now mostly fantasy, and have been for a while.

    Comment by bluetyson - March 12, 2009 2:08 am

  3. Really oddly, I was inspired to recently re-read Frankenstein because I had recently re-read Pride and Prejudice—all without awareness of “Pride and Prometheus.” Austen and Shelley must have a spiritual connection. The Frankenstein Blog has it’s own post on this story. (In general, this is a fantastic blog.)

    I am looking forward to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; believe me, you’ll see the review right here on this very blog.

    Thanks for the photo of Gezora from Space Amoeba!

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - March 12, 2009 2:36 am

  4. I have no desire to live in a world devoid of talking outer space squids.

    Comment by braak - March 13, 2009 12:04 pm

  5. Hey Jeff–

    “See? If you look at anything in just the right light, it can become adventure fiction (or splatterpunk, depending on the missing details).”

    This is exactly how I get through an average day.

    Hey bluetyson: I’m not so sure. Half of these stories are straight sf, and Kessel’s story is sort of nostalgia sf–it’s based on Frankenstein, which was sf when it was written. I think that can be grandfathered in. So there’s one story here which is explicitly fantasy and one which is fantasy by default, as there’s no attempt to give a rationale for the fantastic content. That still tilts toward sf (as do the novel awards in the past ten years or so). But my complaint is, I guess, not so much that fantasy predominates over sf but that genre-lite predominates over deep genre. The sf is near-future, more often than not; the fantasy overlaps with consensus reality a lot (e.g. “American Gods”).

    Hey Ryan: Well, P&P&Z might be great–it just seems a little too high concept for a sustained series of jokes. But it all depends on execution, so I’m willing to be persuaded.

    Hey braak: The talking outer space squids are out there! In fact, one just got in here, so I’ll be brief. If


    Comment by James Enge - March 13, 2009 3:05 pm

  6. Right, well Frankenstein pastiche-lite is a bit of a tossup, but I meant overall – it could be 60% maybe, tha tis just a ballpark look.

    I was meaning as a whole, not just your novelette picks here. I have read pretty much all of them for some years, except the odd one here or there.

    As you say though, a lot of genre-lite in the Nebulas, too.

    Comment by bluetyson - March 15, 2009 6:26 am

  7. […] Enge on the Nebula short fiction nominees: short stories, novelettes and […]

    Pingback by Link Across The Sky « Torque Control - March 23, 2009 10:41 am

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