Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: The 2019 Nebula Awards

Joe: Upon seeing the list of Nebula Award finalists, our friend Renay announced “Award season BEGINS!!!” and even though nominating for the Hugo Awards have been open for more than a month and award season truly is eternal, I think she’s right.

This is the first major awards ballot to be announced this year, all respect given to the Philip K. Dick and BSFA Awards. As a reader, it begins.

Adri: On seeing this list my immediate thought was "oh wow, I'm glad I don't have to choose between these books." Then, I remembered that I'm going to.have to choose from an overlapping selection pretty soon. It's such an exciting list, made only more exciting by being primed from the other shortlists that have come out so far.

Joe: I’m not familiar with the shorter fiction, but those Novel and Novella ballots are great! What a lineup of novels! Gideon the Ninth and A Song for a New Day are two of my favorite novels of the year. I haven’t read A Memory Called Empire or The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but those are two of the most well regarded and buzzed about books of the year that aren’t called Gideon the Ninth.

To that point, four of the finalists are debut novels. Surprisingly, that’s not unprecedented over the last ten years.

Adri: That’s true, although three of the four writers nominated for debut novels are previous Nebula nominees. Only Arkady Martine is, as far as I can see, totally new to the ballot.

One book we didn't talk about much last time was Gods of Jade and Shadow. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an author I would follow into basically any genre and I really enjoyed this Mayan mythology meets 1920s Mexico coming of age quest story. It’s great to see it getting some attention.

Joe: Gods of Jade and Shadow was excellent. It isn’t at the top of my list, but that’s only because there were so many great novels published that it’s a tough hill to climb. Well deserved for Moreno-Garcia, though. I’ve been delighted by every one of her novels so far.

Speaking of delight: Sarah Pinsker made the ballot for Best Novel! I absolutely adored A Song for a New Day. 

Adri: It’s so great when a personal favourite ends up getting more recognition than you hoped it would. I know in our previous conversation we wondered about A Song for a New Day’s chances, given that Pinsker is a multiple finalist in the shorter fiction categories but the novel itself perhaps hasn’t been as splashy as some of the others on this list. Hopefully this will get it in front of more readers!

Joe: She’s also a two time finalist this year! “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” is a finalist for Best Novelette.

Adri: While most of the ballot is familiar to me, there are some interesting surprises and things that have been off my radar. One of them is the sixth novel finalist, Charles Gannon’s Marque of Caine: fifth book in a series that I admit, I don’t know much about?

Joe: He has a long way to go, but Charles Gannon seems to be occupying the Jack McDevitt slot on the Best Novel ballot. McDevitt, of course, is a twelve time Nebula Award finalist for Best Novel. Charles Gannon is now a four time finalist, having previously been on the ballot in three consecutive years with Fire with Fire, Trial by Fire, and Raising Caine - the first three novels in his Caine Riordan series. I’ve only read the first of those, though I’m considering jumping ahead to Marque of Caine to see how it stands among some of truly the best novels of the year. I liked Fire With Fire fine enough, but it felt slight compared to Ancillary Justice, Hild, The Golem and the Jinni, A Stranger of Olondria, and the other novels on the ballot that year.

Adri: I did have Fire with Fire on my e-reader for a while thanks to the Baen free library, but I seem to have since taken it off without reading it, because it just doesn’t really seem like my thing. It’s interesting in that almost nobody I overlap with talks about these books, but clearly they have a dedicated following among SFWA voters. Maybe I’ll try again, although I suspect unless they turn up on a shortlist I consistently read for (i.e. the Hugos) they are going to keep getting pushed down the list.

Joe: My circles don’t completely overlap with yours, but I don’t see conversation about Gannon’s work either except a general sense that his novels are fairly well regarded, a general sense that is held up by four of his five solo novels making the Nebula ballot. That’s the real point of comparison with Jack McDevitt. McDevitt was a perennial Nebula favorite for almost twenty years.

Adri: I looked this up, and McDevitt was actually eligible this year for the eighth book in the “Alex Benedict” series; he last made the ballot in the same year as Trial By Fire. I know nothing about either series, but part of me wishes that if we were having venerated authors nominated every year in the same series, it could be someone like C.J. Cherryh. Eternal Foreigner, I could get behind.

Joe: I’d love to see a Nebula Longlist where we can see the even just the three or four books that just missed the ballot because here’s where things get interesting for me - I’m surprised that neither The City in the Middle of the Night nor The Light Brigade made the ballot. There’s no telling how, exactly, the Nebulas will translate to the Hugo Awards except that I think we both agree that A Song for a New Day feels more like a Nebula Book than a Hugo Book for whatever that means and whatever that’s worth.

Adri: I agree. Because the Nebulas don’t release voting statistics, they can feel like a closed box in this regard, albeit one that we collectively put our trust in to be delivering a result accurate to the voting base (and, hey, no 20booksto50k shenanigans this year!). Anders, Hurley and also The Future of Another Timeline feel like books that must have been bubbling just under. I wonder, also, about books like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and some of the other literary “crossover” titles we were looking at on the Locus list. Are those also in the hidden longlist, or is that not what SFWA voters were looking at when putting this together?

I didn’t raise it last time, but while I knew it was a long shot, I’m setting up to be consistently disappointed at the lack of Fonda Lee’s Jade War on all of these ballots. There is simply no series doing fantasy worldbuilding better than Lee’s right now, at least that I’m reading. I know sequels are generally at a disadvantage, but Jade City was a Nebula nominee two years ago and I’d like to imagine that it also only just missed out...

Your build-a-ballot prediction in our last conversation does very well against these nominees, delivering two from your first list (predicted two to four), two from the second (predicted one to two) and one from the last; it’s just that it didn’t fully predict the ballot, what with Marque of Caine coming from left field (though as it wasn’t specifically a Nebula prediction, we can argue that you’d have built in the Gannon fanbase if we were being more specific) . If you get to 6/6 for the Hugos, I shall have to send you a transatlantic beer…

Joe: Do I win the beer if it comes from my Build-A-Ballot or do I have to pick them all?

I definitely would have included a “Pick up to one of these” between Marque of Caine and Octavia Gone if we were playing for the Nebulas. History says we can’t rule them out.

I do think you’re setting yourself up for some disappointment with Jade War, which I fully agree was a fantastic book and I can’t recommend Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga highly enough. Both novels are just incredible. I would like to say there will be some hope later in the year with the World Fantasy Awards (which Fonda Lee tied for the win with Victor LaValle’s Changeling in 2018), but they don’t have a consistently strong history of sequels. I’ll be surprised if Jade War gets on the Hugo ballot. Where it should have better luck is after Jade Legacy is published and it is eligible for Best Series. I’ll stump for Green Bone Saga on Best Series. If that’s not what the category is for, I just don’t know.

Adri: We’ve been talking about the novel list so far, but how about some of the other categories? I think the one that most surprised me was novella, with Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water and Catfish Lullaby. I’ve read the former and Vylar Kaftan definitely wrote a fascinating book, though it’s hasn’t hit the top end of my own shortlist. Catfish Lullaby is totally new to me (though hopefully not for long). There’s also a classic-for-the-Nebulas Ted Chiang entry here, which I’ve got to read soon.

Also, compared to the last couple of years, it’s notable that there’s no sequels or projected series starters that I recognise here - unless you count P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015, which is set in the same universe as a previous short work.

Joe: I’ve read a surprising five out of six of the Novella finalists, only missing A.C. Wise’s story. I fully expected to see The Deep and This is How You Lose the Time War on the ballot, but the Nebulas tend to cast a wider net than the (relatively few) stories that are on my radar - probably because, if I have this correct, eligible works can be submitted directly to SFWA members so they have direct access to stories and novels they might otherwise have missed. And they have their recommended reading list. It makes a difference. It’s interesting and exciting that A.C. Wise has two stories on the ballot, her first two Nebula Award nominations. That’s a huge breakout moment for her. I’m not familiar with Wise’s fiction, but I’ve been following her nonfiction writing for a number of years now.

I do recommend reading the Chiang collection. It’s quite good.

This is also the extent of my knowledge for the rest of the Nebula Ballot. I expect to read Catfishing on Catnet this year and I’ve at least heard of Dragon Pearl. I haven’t played any of the games, and we can certainly talk the Bradbury and the weird conflict of comparing full length movies to single episodes of television shows if you’d like.

Adri: I’ve read all but one of the Andre Norton finalists as well, this year. It’s a pretty Middle grade-heavy category with a lot of authors who I am entirely unsurprised to see on the Nebula ballot. Two titles are from the Rick Riordan presents line, which is curated to include diverse books featuring elements of non-European mythologies and cultures, for fans of Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. I’ve read both Dragon Pearl and Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, and was compelled to Twitter-review the latter, which I thought was just wonderful. Likewise, Riverland by Fran Wilde is a delight, and while I didn’t enjoy the Peasprout Chen follow-up as much as I did the first, it’s still a fun book. The audiobook versions also feature songs!

Catfishing on CatNet is perhaps the only strictly YA title on the list, and it’s just as awesome and heartwarming as I hoped for when I heard there was a full-length “Cat Pictures Please” novel in the works. It’s also the title I think has most “crossover” appeal outside its demographic, to the extent where do I wonder how it stacks up with current young adult internet experiences compared to, say, the internet of fifteen years ago. The question about to what extent this reflects the preferences of the target demographic is an ongoing challenge of YA awards where most of the eligible voters are adults, but then again, I’m an adult, so all I can really say is “I love this shortlist” and not worry too much about anybody being down with the kids.

The only book I haven’t read is Cog by Greg van Eekhout, which I now discover has a robot dog on the cover and therefore I might need it immediately.

When it comes to the Bradbury… I still can’t quite deal with the fact that Captain Marvel only came out last year. It feels like it should be at least five years old by now.

Joe: I’m with you there. Captain Marvel was a delight, though, and this is a good reminder that I should watch it again. Higher, Further, Faster.

Adri: I guess I am intrigued that the list includes four TV episodes and only two movies (both Marvel). I’m also delighted that both of the series covered by our reviewers last year had episodes made on, which just confirms that we are a flock of great taste and class. Unfortunately, due to a combination of “No Disney+ in UK” and just being a bit useless with TV, I haven’t seen either of those series yet. I have watched Good Omens but I honestly couldn’t tell you which episode that is that’s been nominated - I liked but didn’t love that series, though I understand the appeal of the Crowley/Aziraphale relationship.

Joe: And that’s this year’s Nebula ballot. Of the stuff that I’ve read and I’m familiar with, this is a killer list. A few surprises, more in the omissions than the inclusions, but it’s also a case of “what do you cut?” because there’s not a good option for a cut. Final thoughts?

Adri: Only that I still don’t feel anywhere near the level of confidence I hoped I’d have for the novelette and short story categories, although I’ve read and enjoyed quite a lot of these: “And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas would have been one of my picks for our recommended reading list if I hadn’t read it after we wrote them, and that and Mimi Mondal’s “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” are definitely my picks from among the stories I’ve read on this ballot.

In many of the other categories, especially novel, I have no idea who I want to win and that’s making me very nervous for Hugo time. I guess it’s a very good problem to have, but wow. This ballot. Ugh.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.