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A Weekend With the Greatest Talents in Science Fiction: Report on the 2016 Nebula Awards

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

Carlos Hernandez CSE Cooney Alyx Dellamonica and Kelly Robson at the 2016 Nebula Awards banquet-small

Carlos Hernandez, CSE Cooney, Alyx Dellamonica, and Kelly Robson at the 2016 Nebula Awards banquet

I spent last weekend at the 2016 SFWA Nebula Conference in downtown Chicago. The Conference is the big annual gala for the Science Fiction Writers of America, and it culminated in the Nebula Awards ceremony Saturday night. It was a very special weekend for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the nomination for one of our own — C.S.E. Cooney, Black Gate‘s Website Editor emeritus, whose “The Bone Swans of Amandale,” from her breakout collection Bone Swans, was nominated for Best Novella of the year.

I started a new job in downtown Chicago last month, and was able to walk over to the Palmer House hotel after work on Thursday. I met up with Steven Silver, chair of the Conference (and author of the marvelous “The Cremator’s Tale,” published right here at Black Gate), and caught the last half of Mary Robinette Kowal and K. Tempest Bradford’s panel on How to Fail Gracefully, a thoughtful discussion on how to handle online criticism (hint: stay calm, learn to listen dispassionately, and avoid a kneejerk response.)

[Click on any of the images for bigger versions.]

Alyx-Dellamonica-Kate-Elliot-Laure-Anne-Gilman-and-Kameron-Hurley-on-Hiring-an-Assistant-small

Alyx Dellamonica, Kate Elliot, Laura Anne Gilman and Kameron Hurley on Hiring an Assistant

The SFWA Bulletin 208-smallAfter that panel I settled into a couch across from the free book table, looking through the generous bag of books I’d received when I registered (including advance copies of Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Myth, Indra Das’ The Devourers, and On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis). Before long I was joined by BG blogger and fellow Ottawa resident Derek Kunsken, BG author Michael Livingtson (“The Hand That Binds,” “Purging Cocytus”), and editor Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld).

We eventually headed out to dinner, where we were joined by Zeta Moore, one of Black Gate‘s newest bloggers, as well as local author Mike Evans and Eva Lisa Elasigue, author of Fire on All Sides. The restaurant couldn’t fit us all at one table, and I ended up having an intimate dinner with Zeta, Eva, and Mike. Eva entertained us with tales of her adventures in self-publishing and I learned that, like me, Mike had spent more than a few years with Chicago tech start-ups.

We returned to the hotel in time for the Welcome Reception at 8:00 pm. I spent most of the evening chatting with the delightful Tina Jens (another BG blogger — we were everywhere!) I met several of Tina’s students, an energetic bunch of talented young writers from her fantasy writing class at Columbia College, who were volunteering at the conference. We were eventually joined by Lynne M. Thomas, editor of the altogether excellent Uncanny magazine, Nebula nominee Charles Gannon, Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s SF, and Jacob Weisman, the brilliant publisher and editor at Tachyon Publications. When I ran into Rachel Swirsky we picked up our conversation from last year’s Nebulas, right at the point we were interrupted. Eventually, Tina, Jacob, Sheila and I found an empty table and chatted until the reception was long over.

I caught the midnight train back to St. Charles, and used the time to peruse the complimentary copy of The SFWA Bulletin I’d received at registration. I reviewed it in greater detail last week, but I have to mention here how entertaining it was. Editor Neil Clarke tracked down every author nominated for a Nebula Award — every single one — and coaxed some fascinating tidbits out of them, on everything from the origin of their stories, to their favorite responses, possible sequels, and lots more. I don’t know if anything like this has ever been attempted before, but I can’t imagine it’s ever been pulled off with quite so much panache. Kudos to everyone involved in putting this issue together.

An hour with CJ Cherryh at the 2016 Nebula Awards-small

An Hour With CJ Cherryh at the 2016 Nebula Awards

I took the train back into Chicago on Saturday morning, in time to see CJ Cherryh’s 11:00 am solo talk, An Hour With CJ Cherryh – SFWA’s Newest Grand Master. I sat in the front row, next to Nebula nominees Ann Leckie and Lawrence M. Schoen, and listened as Cherryh talked about her childhood ambition to be a writer, discovering science fiction, selling her first novel to Donald Wollheim at DAW Books, and her recent marriage to fellow novelist Jane Fancher. She spoke at some length about the core of optimism in her work, calling it “The attitude behind my writing.”

She spoke for less than 20 minutes before opening up for questions. I recorded the entire thing on my cell phone (including her answers the first few questions), and posted it here.

As much of an honor as it was to meet CJ Cherryh, I was just as interested in meeting Jane Fancher, who was filming her talk from the back of the room. Jane published the GroundTies SF trilogy with Warner Questar in the early 90s, and the Dance of the Rings fantasy trilogy (1995-1999), which I remembered well — they were some of the first review copies we received from DAW when I was editor of SF Site, and they were much cherished in our offices.

Jane Fancher at the 2016 Nebula Awards-small

Jane Fancher at the 2016 Nebula Awards

Ring of Lightning, Book One of Dance of the Rings, by Jane Fancher

Ring of Lightning, Book One of Dance of the Rings, by Jane Fancher

Jane has had a fascinating career as an artist and writer, and she’s currently collaborating with CJ Cherryh on an ambitious new SF series. She also began her career during a time of tumultuous change in the publishing industry — the dawn of the dot.com era — and shared some fascinating war stories.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her as well but, unbeknownst to me, the memory on my cool new iPhone was pretty much maxed out by the lengthy CJ Cherryh video I’d just made. So our first attempt at an interview went something like this.

Jane: Let me tell you fascinating anecdotes about the publishing industry when the Warner Questar imprint collapsed.

John: Yes! Let me just hit the Record button…. and go.

Jane: The GroundTies series was my first series, and it came in when Warner was doing in its science fiction. They were trying to downsize, and they were really trying to get rid of Questar… there were a lot of authors who were stranded. Anybody that came out with a first novel in that last couple of years with Questar had a hard time surviving in the industry. One of the interesting things I found out —

John: [This is great stuff! I’m going to get the first science fiction Pulitzer! But why did the recording counter just reset to zero?]

Jane: [Continues with juicy behind-the-scenes tales of publishing mayhem.]

John: [Wait… don’t tell me I’m not recording this?]

Jane: Now I want to share the true dirty secrets of SF publishing…

John: [No!!!]

We got about ten minutes into the best SF interview ever recorded before I finally figured out that my memory was full. The tantalizing first 1:24 minutes are now up on YouTube. The rest had to wait until after I’d downloaded CJ’s interview and posted it online, and cleared out some memory.

Jane was patient enough to allow me to re-record the interview, and we completed it Saturday. The whole thing will be posted this week. Inform the Pulitzer Committee.

Rose Lemberg Alyx Dellamonica Eileen Gunn and Helene Wecker on Historical Research from the Margins-small

Rose Lemberg, Alyx Dellamonica, Eileen Gunn, and Helene Wecker on Historical Research from the Margins

The panels I attended on Saturday were well worth the time. The first was So You Want an Assistant…, advice on the care and treatment (and getting the most out of) assistants, with Alyx Dellamonica, Kate Elliot, Laura Anne Gilman and Kameron Hurley. There was also a fascinating discussion on writing about people who’ve been largely ignored by history, Historical Research from the Margins, moderated by Michael Livingston and with Ada Palmer, Rose Lemberg, Alyx Dellamonica, Eileen Gunn, and Helene Wecker.

Sheila Williams Stanley Schmidt Joe Haldeman and Alec Nevala-Lee talk about the Legacy of John W Campbell-small

Sheila Williams, Stanley Schmidt, Joe Haldeman, and Alec Nevala-Lee discuss The Legacy of John W Campbell

Fantasy Commentator Spring 2011But my favorite discussion on Friday was The Legacy of John W. Campbell, a lively discussion of Campbell’s enduring impact on the field, with Sheila Williams, Stanley Schmidt, and Joe Haldeman. It was moderated by Alec Nevala-Lee, whose upcoming biography of Campbell sounds like a must-read.

After the panel I stuck around to talk to Alex about my favorite piece of Campbell biography, the last issue of Fantasy Commentator, which reprints 20 years of correspondence between Campbell and his friend, R.D. Swisher, from before his time at Astounding until the mid-1950s, carefully edited and annotated by Sam Moskowitz. I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in American pulp SF. The complete issue, Fantasy Commentator Spring 2011, is available through Lulu for $9.60.

After that was the Mass Autographing session, the one part of the program that’s open to the public. Aside from the Nebula ceremony, this is probably the highlight of the conference. I don’t collect autographs (though I did get Neil Clarke’s autograph on a copy of The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 1, with a special dedication to my wife Alice that helped preserve my marriage), but I did take the opportunity to catch up with numerous folks I haven’t seen in a while, including Lightspeed editor John Joseph Adams, artist Liz Argall, Tobias Buckell, the always delightful Tina Connolly, Eric Flint, fellow Canadian Susan Forest, Betty Hull, Matthew Johnson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Rose Lemberg, Lawrence M. Schoen, and Michael R. Underwood.

There were several folks I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time, including Eileen Gunn, Marko Kloos (who, like us, declined a Hugo nomination last year), John Scalzi, Ken Liu, and Helene Wecker (The Golem and the Jinni).

Runtime S B Divya-smallDuring the autograph session I learned that Mike Evans is a big Cherryh fan; while we watched the seemingly endless line in front of her station, he entertained me and Derek with an extemporaneous verbal review of the Fading Suns novels, and their importance to 70s SF. Three more books I need to read now…. thanks, Mike.

One of the highlights of the autographing session for me was hanging out at John Joseph Adams’ table, and getting introduced to S. B. Divya, whose Tor.com novella Runtime was released on Tuesday. I mentioned that I’d reviewed Emily Foster’s novella The Drowning Eyes, and tried to show her Black Gate on my phone.

“We’re a genre website,” I explained, warming up to my usual intro pitch. “We get about 1.1 million page views every month –”

She waved away my phone. “You don’t need to sell Black Gate to me,” she said. “I’m well aware of it.”

Boy, that’s a welcome change from just a few years ago. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to having authors know what the heck Black Gate is all about, but I doubt I’ll ever take that for granted.

By midnight I was dashing through the streets of Chicago again, headed for the train station, this time in a driving rain. I wasn’t dressed for rain, but my larger concern was the books I’d just bought at the signing. Fortunately, the friendly crew in the hospitality suite came to my rescue with a big plastic bag, and I was able to shield the books from the weather. I wasn’t able to shield myself, however, and by the time I boarded the train for St. Charles, I was thoroughly soaked.

Saturday morning I kept an eye out for CSE (Claire) Cooney, who’d been scheduled to arrive the night before with Carlos Hernandez, and I didn’t have long to wait. I met them both near reception, and it was a real delight to meet Carlos for the first time. I’ve heard so many marvelous things about his first collection, The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, that I expected someone ten feet tall. Instead, I found him to be entirely approachable… warm, funny, and completely charming. I always leave SF conventions with a long list of books to read, but this year Carlos’ collection is right at the top.

Michael R Underwood explains the Moral Responsibility of the Storyteller with Alyssa Wong EJ Fisher CSE Cooney and Helene Wecker-small

Michael R Underwood explains the Moral Responsibility of the Storyteller,
with Alyssa Wong, EJ Fisher, Naomi Kritzer, CSE Cooney, and Helene Wecker

After that was more panels, including The Moral Responsibility of the Storyteller, a terrific back-and-forth discussion of what writers owe to their audience, versus what they owe to themselves (and their subjects). It was moderated by Alyssa Wong, and featured Michael R Underwood, EJ Fisher, Naomi Kritzer, CSE Cooney, and Helene Wecker.

This panel produced perhaps the most entertaining moment of the conference for me. It occurred during the introductions, as each participant gave a dignified summary of their credentials. Claire Cooney passed the microphone to Helene Wecker and twenty seconds later, dropping all pretense of dignity, gave out a delighted squeal as she realized who Helene was. “I love your book!” she said. “I just gave it to my Mom!”

The next panel I attended dove into the nitty-gritty of writing for a living: The Fundamentals of Freelancing. It was a nuts and bolts look at how a writer can supplement her income by taking on for-pay assignments of all kinds, from writing for catalogs to doing translations. It was moderated by Ken Liu and featured Kameron Hurley and Mary Robinette Kowal.

Kameron Hurley Mary Robinette Kowal and Ken Liu on the Fundamentals of Freelancing-small

Kameron Hurley, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Ken Liu on The Fundamentals of Freelancing

After that was the Pre-Nebula Reception, where Mike, Jacob and I hung out in a corner and watched all the famous people go by. I got to introduce Mike to N.K. Jemisin, but the big surprise came when our Thursday dinner companion Eva showed up. I didn’t recognize her until she was standing right next to me, in a beautiful dress and with her long hair completely shorn. She looked stunning, and I’m sure I gaped at her for ten seconds before realizing who she was.

Eva L Elasigue author of Fire on All Sides at the 2016 Nebula Awards Reception-small

Eva L Elasigue, author of Fire on All Sides, at the 2016 Nebula Awards Reception

There were plenty of Cinderella moments, in fact, as writers I’ve known for years showed up beautifully attired. Tina looked composed and confident (as always) in a print gown, Claire turned heads in a beautiful champagne dress, and Carlos looked very distinguished with a vest and hat. My banquet ticket was at the same table as Tina, Carlos and Claire, and I felt distinctly underdressed.

John O'Neill and Eva L Elasigue at the 2016 Nebula Awards Reception-small

John O’Neill and Eva L Elasigue at the 2016 Nebula Awards Reception

I couldn’t have asked for more interesting or charming dinner companions. In addition to Carlos, Claire, and Tina Jens, I was seated with Richard Chwedyk, Joe and Gay Haldeman, Jody Lynn Nye and her husband Bill Fawcett, and Julien Wacquez, editor of the new magazine of French SF, Blind Spot.

CSE Cooney Richard Chwedyk Joe Haldeman and Gay Haldeman at the Nebula Awards banquet-small

CSE Cooney, Richard Chwedyk, Joe Haldeman and Gay Haldeman at the Nebula Awards banquet

It was an altogether splendid dinner. Gay Haldeman mentioned that we had a friend in common, Bill Johnson, the Hugo-winning short story writer I’d worked with at Motorola for years (and whose novella “Mama Told Me Not to Come” I published in Black Gate 4).

The other big surprise during dinner was discovering that Jody Lynn Nye had been the person who assembled the Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide for TSR from Gary Gygax’s chaotic notes, and that her husband Bill was also an ex-TSR employee… and the co-founder of Mayfair Games, publishers of Chill, The Company War (based on C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station), and the worldwide phenomenon The Settlers of Catan. He’s also the co-founder of Games Plus, my favorite game store, home of the bi-annual Games Plus auction. A pretty incredible couple, all around. I got Bill’s business card, and we talked about the possibility of interviewing him for Black Gate.

And then the lights dimmed, the conversation died, and all eyes turned towards the stage for the main event… the presentation of the Nebula Awards.

Henry Lien and the Eunuchs of the Forbidden City perform the brilliant Radio SFWA at the 2016 Nebula Awards-small

Henry Lien and his dancers perform the brilliant ‘Radio SFWA’ at the 2016 Nebula Awards

Binti-smallerThe presentation of the Nebulas has become more elaborate over the years. For one thing, they’re now hosted by a professional toastmaster, this year John Hodgman of The Daily Show, who was hilarious. Hodgman kicked off proceedings by introducing nominee Henry Lien and his dancers, who performed the brilliant pop tune Radio SFWA (listen to it here).

Hodgman kept the proceedings moving, with plenty of genuinely funny asides (“Now it’s time to present the Nebula awards for Best Short Story, Best Novelette, Best Novella, Best Novellita, Best Novelchinno, and Best Novelissmo.”) I’ve already covered the Nebula Award winners here, and I won’t go into that again, but it was a delight and a privilege to be on hand as some of the most prestigious awards in our industry were handed out.

It was also a thrill to share a table with Claire Cooney, who was up for a Nebula Award. She didn’t win (the award went to Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, a Tor.com novella), but Claire handled it all joyfully. Two days later, Carlos posted the following on Facebook:

I am filled with a deep admiration by the way Claire handled herself during the Nebula awards. She honestly, honestly didn’t care about winning nearly as much as wearing an amazing gown and celebrating with friends old and new. She correctly predicted the winner in her category (Binti by the incredible Nnedi Okorafor) and could not have been happier. Her acceptance speech, delivered in the after-ceremony with all the other nominees, was laden with all the gratitude and featured a call for more inclusivity in our genres. What great dignity and joy. What a great way to be in the world.

Claire and Carlos, in fact, were the first couple of the weekend, the pair who best exemplified the spirit of the Nebulas: the sense of fun, inclusivity, and joyous spirit of community. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see Claire give her “Alternate World” acceptance speech. By then I was comfortably chatting with Jacob and Rina Weisman, Tina, Neil Clarke, Locus photographer Arly, and Tina’s students, in the halls of the hotel, where we remained until it was time for me to catch the last train.

Ah well. There’s always next year.

See our coverage of last year’s Nebula Awards here (my report) and here (Derek’s).

3 Comments »

  1. Looking forward to next time the Nebulas are on the east coast. It sounds like a lovely time.

    And now I know why I’ve been seeing a gajillion posts online from people who can’t get that Radio SFWA song out of their heads. Catchy as all get-out.

    We get 1.1 million page views a month now? We’ve grown a bit in the past decade. How many unique visitors a month do we get these days?

    Comment by Sarah Avery - May 23, 2016 1:43 am

  2. Hi Sarah,

    We hit a peak of 119,000 unique visitors/month during the height of the Hugo kerfuffle last year, but we’ve dropped about a third from those lofty heights. Still, traffic continues to grow by leaps and bounds every year… we’re a long way from the 3,000 readers/month we had when we started!

    Comment by John ONeill - May 24, 2016 1:36 pm

  3. Thanks for the rundown. Looks like folks had fun.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - May 24, 2016 10:47 pm


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