Monday, February 25, 2019

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: 2018 Nebula Award Finalists

Joe: The finalists for the Nebula Award have been announced and you’re on holiday in Costa Rica.

Adri: Yes! I’ve been spending the last two weeks floating around taking full advantage of my waterproof ereader - but I've surfaced for long enough to take a look at the Nebula finalists. And what a list it is...

Joe: Okay, so, when we last talked about the Locus Recommended list, we attempted to do some forecasting for the Nebula and Hugo Awards. In a very nice turn of events, five of the novels we thought were strong possibilities or near locks for the Nebula ended up as finalists. People should *clearly* follow us for our prognostication.

Adri: Indeed - finger on the pulse of genre and all that. I can't say there's anything that made the novel or Norton lists that I'm particularly surprised about: even though we didn't see Witchmark coming, it's had the sort of buzz around it that made me go “oh, of course” when it arrived on here. Also, the thing I always like about the Nebulas is that the long list always encompasses a couple of books that I want to see recognised but worry don't have the backing, as you mentioned for The Poppy War in our last chat.

Joe: I completely agree about Witchmark. Should have seen that coming as a possibility, but I also forgot that it was novel length and was otherwise expecting to see it in novella.

My big surprise in Novel, though, is Space Opera. Or, rather, the lack of Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera on the ballot. It was one of the most talked about novels of the year in a number of different spaces. Of course, what do you kick off? That’s a stacked novel ballot.

Adri: That's true. It's a shame we never get longlists for the Nebulas as it would be fun to see what's bubbling under: Space Opera is an obvious gap for sure, and I'm also surprised nothing like Circe made the cut.

What's interesting to see here - which I think was true for last year's ballot as well - is how many of the novel nominees are debut or near debut authors. Trail of Lightning, Witchmark and The Poppy War are all first novels for their writers, and I believe Blackfish City is Sam J. Miller's first adult novel (though he previously took home the Norton for the The Art of Starving). Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword and Children of Blood and Bone are first novels too. To me that suggests that voters are seeking to read and celebrate new voices and that gives me a lot of hope for the future in general. On the other hand, some of my favourite 2018 novels including Revenant Gun and Before Mars (both incidentally on the BSFA ballot which was also recently released) are third books, which by definition are not debuts, and therefore not here.

Also, seeing this list all together has made me realize just how much alt-history and almost-Earth historical fantasy we saw in 2018. It's got to be the best represented genre here. I'm not even going to speculate on why alternate pasts might be on people's minds right now…

Joe: I don’t know that I want to do the research, but I’m curious about the history of debut novels and the Nebulas (and the Hugos for that matter). I dig the idea of voters looking to celebrate new voices, but I wonder if there is something to the idea that the nebulous “we” love to celebrate debut novels at the expense of second, third, and fourth novels. That doesn’t completely hold up when we look at any given awards list (The Calculating Stars is Kowal’s seventh novel, for example), but I think it does when we consider how we talk about the genre as a whole.

If we’re going by the debuts you mentioned here, we’re absolutely not wrong to celebrate these new voices. We’ve ranked them among our favorites and the best novels of the year, but besides that sublime reading experience they offer raw promise for the future.

One of my favorite aspects of the Hugo Awards (besides getting to lose one in person and then getting to go to a party with dancing robots) is after the awards are given the voting and nominating statistics are released and you can see how close the next one up. I am absolutely with you in wishing the Nebulas did the same thing, and I wonder if we’d see Space Opera just missing the ballot by a couple of votes.

Adri: The Norton list is, of course, also bringing me a lot of joy. Last year there were somehow only four nominees so it's great to see a full house again, and having adopted it as my one true title of 2018, seeing Tess of the Road there is glorious! It's also nice to see Peasprout Chen, and I know the Adeyemi and Ireland are both great too.

I'm sad to say that despite the amount of buzz it's generating, I haven't yet picked up any of the Rick Riordan presents line, represented here by Roshani Chokshi's novel, Aru Shah and the End of Time. The imprint features a range of middle grade novels from diverse writers whose books might not otherwise reach the kind of kids who are devouring Riordan's own wildly popular novels (e.g. the Percy Jackson series). I love that this line exists - even if it's not technically in the UK yet - and that it seems to be bringing middle grade a bit more into the SFF adult mainstream. I'm not a massive YA/MG reader but there's lots in those broad categories that I do enjoy, and I'm planning to make time for some of this line later in the year.

Joe: I’ll admit to only having read Children of Blood and Bone from the Norton, but it’s a list mostly full of stuff I’ve at least heard of and plan to read in that mythical “someday”. It’s interesting that you mention the Roshani Chokshi and the Rick Riordan line. I haven’t thought a lot about the line, but Riordan just published Yoon Ha Lee’s first YA novel in January and will publish Rebecca Roanhorse later this year. Those are two books that will help raise the profile of the line within “traditional” genre conversations. Of course, Riordan’s name itself is huge on its own.

Aru Shah and the End of Time is the first novel published by Rick Riordan Presents last year. Getting on the Norton ballot the first time out is a big deal and a way to make a huge statement about what sort of quality we can expect from the line.

Adri: This is the first year of the new game writing category, and it's… interesting. I have to admit, while I try to avoid getting frustrated about what other people find award-worthy, the presence of Bandersnatch is giving me a strong case of the Opinions. I admit I'm not a Black Mirror enthusiast at the best of times, but I thought the “game mechanics” and resulting ethical questions of Bandersnatch were particularly crude and cynical. The most obvious comparison to me is to Undertale, a minimally-resourced indie game which also encompasses the choice to “reset” and explore new paths into the story itself, but which delivers a far more nuanced take even when it's subverting the concept of choice, rather than the “choose whether or not to pursue the one satisfying but horrible ending, oops now you're complicit in all the bad stuff” nonsense that Bandersnatch peddles. And, most obviously, Undertale includes a meaningful choice to be kind, whereas Black Mirror almost never allows kindness or altruism into its plots, and tends to punish characters if they do display anything other than opportunistic self-preservation. That's fine in moderation, but as an exploration of meaningful choice (even if that exploration ends up being a subversion) it makes things so much more limited from the outset. Games can be so much more and this feels like a missed opportunity.

Now I've got that out of my system, clearly I need to check out God of War once my very long run with Pillars of Eternity II (a game that could belong here!) comes to an end.

Joe: I’ve had a running conversation with a friend of mine who is a relatively new father (he has a one year old daughter) about what has changed after having kids. My video gaming has completely tanked while his remains unchanged. Of course, I still read more than 100 books each year and he has only read one book each of the last two years. Priorities.

The point of that is that I look at the game writing category and think “I’ve heard of God of War, didn’t realize Bandersnatch was actually a *game* and have no idea what the three Choice of Games finalists are”. It turns out they are fully text based, 150,000+ word interactive adventures that can be played on browser or your phone. I’ll probably pick up one of them and see how I like it (likely the Kate Heartfied, because her Nebula finalist novella Alice Payne Arrives is bloody fantastic.)

I was surprised to see Bandersnatch a finalist for “game writing”, though. I don’t want to get sued, but I’ve thought of it more akin to the Choose Your Own Adventure books many of us grew up on. Despite the branching path narrative, those were books. Not games. Now, part of why I think of Bandersnatch just as a movie is the medium in which it is presented. Streaming on Netflix equals television or movie in my brain. Branching narrative paths doesn’t change that for me. I haven’t watched Bandersnatch, so I’m staying very high level with what I’m willing to read about it, but I know Abigail Nussbaum has compared Bandersnatch more to a game than a movie and obviously she’s not alone in that opinion if it’s up for the Game Writing Nebula. But much like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, you’re watching the movie and then occasionally making choices. You’re not “playing” the game.

Of course, I’ve played Heavy Rain on the Playstation 3 (back before I had kids) and even granting the fact that I can move my character and sometimes need to make quick time button presses, I’m willing to accept the counter argument that Heavy Rain was more of a movie that sometimes let me use my controller than an actual game.

Adri: it's an interesting grey area: there's lots of stuff in that “visual novel” space where actual "gameplay" is limited (and often leads down a single path) but just interactive enough to count as gaming to me. But Bandersnatch isn't what I'd have wanted representing that even without the “is it a game” angle.

Would you make any changes to Hugo predictions given what's here? I would strongly back Novik and Kowal for the double nomination now, and if I'm really sticking my neck out, I reckon those two are going to end up splitting the mantlepiece decorations between them…

Joe: No? Witchmark is the only real surprise on the Nebula ballot and I’m not sure it makes a move for the Hugos. I’m with you on Spinning Silver and The Calculating Stars being near locks for the double, Trail of Lightning seems likely, and I think the Nebula nod might be a boost for The Poppy War if enough of the SFWA members who nominated it are also nominating for the Hugos. Plus, there is still some time before Hugo nominations close, which suggests that making the Nebula ballot could move the needle some more. Mostly, I just really want The Poppy War to be a finalist for the Hugo.

I’m halfway through Blackfish City and I still think it feels like a Nebula novel (and hey, it’s on the ballot so we must be on to something) and I just wonder if it went wide enough to make the ballot.

Despite the lack of Nebula recognition, I still think Space Opera is likely to take one of the at large spots on the Hugo ballot. Mass popularity, science fiction in the vein on Douglas Adams (never a finalist for a major award, interestingly enough), and a well known and regarded author.

What’s your thought?

Adri: I'm inclined to agree: I think the The Poppy War and Trail of Lightning, in particular, have an even better chance of showing up on the Hugo ballot now. And I don't think the lack of Nebula position will harm the chances of other Hugo perennials like John Scalzi, who i still fully expect to see nominated for one of his 2018 novels (selfishly, I'm hoping it's The Consuming Fire because I feel like I have enough Scalzi on the go and don't want to catch up with the Lock In universe. But perhaps Head On is stronger.)

Joe: There are a few surprises, at least to me, in the short fiction categories. The first, and most important, is the glaring lack of Sarah Gailey’s “STET” in Short Story. It’s experimental in its formatting and searing in pain, power, and grief. I still fully expect to see it on the Hugo ballot, but I kind of expected to see it nominated for all of the things.

I haven’t followed the short fiction scene nearly as closely as I have in the past, so the other surprises are all of a kind. There are a number of self published / independently published stories on the final ballot. Jonathan Brazee was a finalist last year for novelette, so perhaps it isn’t a huge surprise to see Fire Ant on the ballot in novella this year, but I am very much not aware of the other three finalists (“Messenger”, “Going Dark”, “Interview for the End of the World”).

They appear to be part of a group named 20booksto50k that must have a number of fairly active members in SFWA (A Light in the Dark on the Norton is also from that group’s recommendation longlist).

Adri: Yes, the short fiction categories confused me, but I remember hearing about 20booksto50k around the Dragon Awards. It's interesting that they've found some success here, though I suspect the very economically focused nature of the group and the existence of a “reading list” might raise some hackles for those who have been present for certain recent genre events. I intend to check some of these out and I'll reserve my judgement until then.

I agree that I expected to see "STET" here, although P. Djeli Clark's short is another great sounding Fireside story I've really been meaning to check out. I'm also sorry to see that none of FIYAH's 2018 material made it onto the list in novelette or short story - I only read half their output last year, but it's such a good publication and I'd have hoped they'd have a better chance of Nebula success, as the Hugos seem to be skewing increasingly (and understandably) towards free-to-read short fiction venues.

Joe: I’m not sure this counts as true prognostication, but I’d just like to compare the Nebula finalists to our Hugo Awards Longlist recommendations and see how we shake out.

We were 4 out of 6 for Novel, missing Blackfish City and Witchmark. Given that our Hugo Longlist was built out of novels the flock has collectively read and could honestly make personal recommendations for, I think we did really well.

Novella we recommended 3 out of the 6 finalists, this time missing Fire Ant (not a huge surprise), The Tea Master and the Detective, and Alice Payne Arrives. Kate Heartfield’s novella was absolutely delightful and I highly recommend it even though it was left off our Longlist.

Adri: The Tea Master and the Detective was wonderful too, though slightly overshadowed for me by In the Vanishers’ Palace (which we did include, though it's competing in the much tougher novel category)...

Joe: We didn’t do nearly as well with novelette, nailing only the closest thing to a lock possibly on the entire ballot: The Only Harmless Great Thing. We did much better with Short Story, picking half of the finalists (we missed the Bruno, Fox, and Greenblatt stories). Our YA selections put in strong shape for the Norton, having recommended 4 out of the 6 finalists (missing the Choksi and the DuBoff).

With our Dramatic Presentation recommendations, we ran the tables of the Bradbury Award. We recommended a different episode of The Good Place, but I say it still counts. Also, I tend to not put a lot of thought into the Nebula / Bradbury for Dramatic Presentation, but I’m somewhat surprised not to see Annihilation on the list of finalists given that the novel *did* win Best Novel in 2014 and I thought the movie was fairly well received amongst genre and publishing folk.

Adri: I still haven't watched Annihilation! But the presence of The Good Place, Black Panther, Dirty Computer, and The Official Best Spider-Man Ever (not to mention Sorry to Bother You, an objectively very accomplished movie even if I sort of hated watching it) means this is another category where I'm not sure what I could bear to drop for something else. I've only just started getting into watching more TV and film after a couple of years of nearly nothing, so in general I'm just happy to recognise and love some of the stuff included...

Joe: Any final thoughts?

Adri: As I mentioned before, my top books of 2018 have ended up being more eclectic than usual. It's therefore a testament to how much good stuff is being written that while I'm not nominating any of the best novels, I'm happy to see each and every one of them as an award finalist and I don't envy those who have to pick a winner.

Speaking of which, I guess I now have some last minute reading to do before ballot deadline day… and still some great surroundings to do it in. Pura Vida, chic@s!

Joe: If I’m being so bold to put myself over, I’ll note that four of finalists for Best Novel were on my Best of the Year list and were all ranked my Top Five (with my fourth spot going to Seanan McGuire’s excellent Beneath the Sugar Sky, a novella I would have absolutely loved to have seen on the Nebula ballot).

I’ll close on this: Janelle Monae is nominated for a Nebula / Bradbury Award and it’s pretty awesome that as much as so many of us love her music and her aesthetic that she is being formally recognized in our spaces. Maybe a Hugo will be next?

Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Joe Sherry is a co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.