Bewildering Stories

Egad! How Did That Ever Win the Nebula?

Alkaline Spudwort

The Nebula Awards have been an annual tradition since 1965 and have been considered extremely prestigious, since they are awarded by the writers, specifically the members of the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which was formerly called the Science Fiction Writers of America but changed its name due to the influx of fantasy into the genre, which hasn't necessarily produced better writing. I have heard many complaints about the Nebulas attacking the so-called overwhelming quantity of fantasy stories nominated and winning the award. I am not sure where the basis of these attacks lie, for looking at this year's final ballot, I find only three out of eight novel nominees to be fantasy, including one that was declared ineligible about a month after the final ballot's release because a limited small-press edition of it was first published in 2000, and only works from 2001 may be added by the jury to the top five nominees in each category from the preliminary ballot, as voted upon by SFWA members. Yes, it's quite bewildering, and that may be the reason why the Nebulas have lost credibility over the years. Looking at the other categories, I find one out of five novellas (although it may also be considered science fiction), two out of six novelettes, two out of five short stories, and three out of four scripts to be fantasy. But the script category is a relatively new addition, and perhaps should not be regarded beside the traditional four literary categories. Only a moderate amount of fantasy, I find; I don't think it dominates the ballot. I see a similar proportion in this year's Hugo ballot, actually.

Also attacked is the Nebulas' rolling ballot eligibility that apparently only bewilders and makes it more difficult to make sense of the whole mess. I tend to disagree, since I find the preliminary ballot an intriguing concept, although I would preferably go with eight recommendations rather than the current ten required to place a work on the preliminary ballot.

Nevertheless, the Nebulas have produced five winners this year, although they are actually the 2001 Nebula winners, a dating convention I don't quite see the sense of, since the nominees of the 2001 winners, awarded in 2002, were originally published in 2000 and 2001. Another tradition, perhaps.

For the first time, I have actually read or viewed all of the winners before they won. Alas, I have not yet read the script of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I have seen the movie, and I doubt that many of the SFWA members voting for it actually read the script. So, without wasting further time with this nonsensical introduction, allow me to present my reviews of this year's Nebula Award winners...

The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro

Asaro's novel The Quantum Rose wins this year's Nebula for Best Novel. An early version of the first half was originally serialized in Analog, which I have not read, so I cannot compare the magazine version and the book version.

I read the book version, published by Tor, and I find it very worthy of the award indeed. I have only read a few other nominees in the novel category, so I cannot say if another work is more worthy, but the only one that I have read that comes close is Connie Willis's Passage, which, though I found intriguing and enjoyable and worthy of recognition (it won this year's Locus Award), was just too long. It certainly could have been condensed to about two-thirds or less of its almost 600-page length. Same goes for George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, which was even longer, and treads across well-worn literary roads of high fantasy, paved by J.R.R. Tolkien and enduring through the years with more and more clichéd multi-volume novel series that would strike Frodo Baggins unconscious with just one glimpse. A Storm of Swords, although its writing is elegant and its characters well-crafted and its plot convincing and well-structured, still falls into the clichéd medievalist epic made popular by Tolkien.

But the book I am supposed to be reviewing is The Quantum Rose. Forgive me for digressing, something that happens too often it seems.

The novel, part of Asaro's Skolian Empire universe, begins on an alien planet inhabited by humans transported there a long time in the past by aliens. The humans live an agrarian lifestyle and have lost much of the knowledge they had possessed in the past. The book opens by introducing the main character, Kamoj Quanta Argali, the governor of Argali province. A new visitor has appeared named Havyrl Lionstar, presumably the governor of an adjacent province, setting in action a series of events that leaves everything, and Kamoj especially, changed forever. Jax Ironbridge, the governor of Ironbridge province, is set to be married to Kamoj, but Havyrl's arrival and gift to Argali province consisting of lots of wealth, is perceived by the people to be a wedding offer that cannot be resisted. Kamoj unwillingly leaves with Havyrl, also called Vyrl, to the Lionstar palace, which is full of strange devices that seem like magic but is really technology. Vyrl's people are actually humans from another planet.

But just when things are beginning to settle, Jax arrives and abducts Kamoj in a haze of fire and destruction. Jax is not a pleased individual and obviously means to take control of Kamoj by force. Slavery still exists on the planet but Vyrl's people, who wish to admit the planet, the name of which starts with a B but which I've forgotten and can't use here since I have returned the copy of The Quantum Rose I read to the library, to their league of nations, the specifics of which I also can't remember, having read this novel several months ago. As it happens, Vyrl's people schedule a negotiation during which Jax is to return Kamoj. Jax unwittingly gives away the fact that Kamoj is "owned." Vyrl's people are shocked. Jax starts to attack Kamoj but is tranquilized.

After that, Kamoj leaves the planet with Vyrl's people and goes to Vyrl's home, which is being threatened by a military group, the details of which I don't seem to recall. They march to defend the planet from the group, and the mass peaceful protest, which the protesters enjoy listlessly, a contrast to the seriousness of the situation, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book, in my opinion. The military group gives in, and Kamoj and Vyrl go back to the planet that starts with a B, only to confront Jax again, but this time, something happens that I don't seem to recall. It seems I don't remember too much about this excellent novel, but I have to make do, since I don't have The Quantum Rose with me right now. Frankly, I don't remember how the book ends, but I'm sure it was a good ending.

The only complaint I have about The Quantum Rose is that the first half and the second half seem too detached. The first takes place on planet B-something, and the second half takes place on Vyrl's home planet. Since the first half was originally serialized in Analog, and the second half is really a sequel to the first half, it makes sense that the two parts are a bit detached. In fact, I think the two parts would work perfectly well separately, if it weren't for the inclusion of Jax at the end, the only thing that connects the second part to the first part's plotline. However, I don't think such a thing could happen since two 200-page novels wouldn't sell, would they? Alas, today's publishing bureaucracy...

Asaro's writing is remarkable. The humor that continues throughout the book is engaging, especially the parts where the technologically-backward Kamoj first becomes familiar with the technology of Vyrl's people. The characters, though not too detailed, are certainly identifiable and definitely human. The whole book, according to the author's note, is an allegory to quantum scattering theory, with Kamoj, Vyrl, and Jax representing three particles. Though I'm not too familiar with quantum mechanics, I found the character's names, symbolic of their representative particles, amusing. The allegory doesn't seem to hurt the novel at all and only adds to its wonder. Five and a half tentacles up for this one.

"The Ultimate Earth" by Jack Williamson

This year, the Nebula winner in the novella category is "The Ultimate Earth," which seems to have won for the same reason it did the Hugo last year. I have reviewed it in the Jaugustuly 2002 issue of this webzine, and my impression was the same. I read it for the third time after it made the final ballot, only to find myself unrewarded for spending the time to read such a mediocre piece.

For further details, please refer to my review of "The Ultimate Earth" in the aforementioned issue. I don't feel like spending the time to rereview it, even though I read it three times.

"Louise's Ghost" by Kelly Link

For those of you who complained about the overwhelming presence of fantasy in the Nebula ballots, here's our first fantasy Nebula winner this year. Only two of the five winners are fantasy, and one of them is a script.

Link's novelette takes us to a very strange alternate version of our world in which there are ghosts. Seems like a well-trodden topic in fantasy, but Link makes it bewildering nevertheless. To tell the truth, I expect to read such things in Bewildering Stories, not to see them win the Nebula, but if that's what most of the SFWA members think is the best novelette of the year, well, let them think so. My opinion differs.

"Louise's Ghost" starts with a meeting between two friends named Louise. One of them has a daughter (I think; that detail might be wrong) named Anna who is obsessed with the color green. The three of them eat at a restaurant, and Anna orders all sorts of green food, including nongreen mashed potatoes with a few drops of green food coloring added. Previously, Anna pretended to be a dog. Very strange characters we see here. Excellent characterization, but awfully bewildering, indeed, if I may say so myself.

Ah, but now comes the supernatural part of the tale. For, you see, Louise (don't ask me to explain which one; just go with it) lives in a house haunted by a ghost. And not just any ordinary ghost, a naked, furry ghost. As if this isn't bewildering enough, the ghost seems to be frightened of Louise (not sure if I remember correctly).

To make matters even more complicated, Louise (again, don't ask which one) is having a series of affairs with cellists. Awfully peculiar, as I have said before. The other Louise has affairs with them as well and an affair with someone else, who happens to be married. Well, if that isn't peculiar, we are invited to a performance of all of the cellists at the haunted house. And what do we find but the ghost? It appears and infests one of the cellos, whose owner reacts with surprise and bewilderment, though in a positive way. I, on the other hand, reacted with surprise and bewilderment in a negative way.

After that, it seems Louise accidentally steps backward off a stage and dies. Well. Louise's ghost comes back, of course, though by this time the story had bewildered me to the point where I couldn't figure out what was happening. Let us say there was an ending, though I won't comment on it.

Link seems to handle the odd literary device of naming the two main characters the same and referring to them the same way well. I had little trouble telling the two Louises apart, though the other parts of the story just blew me off my feet. A little bit too weird, this one.

"The Cure for Everything" by Severna Park

Oh, my. Seems I've read these stories too long ago to remember any of them. What's even worse is that this one's available online at SCI FICTION, which means I can easily access it and look up details.

But... oh, darn it. I don't even remember the protagonist's name, for crying out loud! Oh, I would go back to the story and skim over it, but I can't do that right now.

Anyway, here's the situation: There's a tribe in South America that has kept its existence a secret for centuries. Its people has managed to survive to this date without any foreign genetic influence, while managing not to inbreed by keeping very detailed oral family histories. The protagonist manages somehow to become acquainted with them, and with one of its members, a young person called "the cure for everything," who is immune to...everything. The protagonist, being a black albino, has some personal motive in trying to find out more about the tribe and its cures. But the tribe doesn't want to be removed from their homes and researched like lab animals. That's where the conflict lies, and I don't remember how it's resolved, which makes for quite a lousy review.

When I read it, this story was great. I can see how the Nebula voters went for this, but the premise is just too improbable. Other than that, the plot and characters, as far I can recall, were pretty good, and the concept was well-handled. Definitely recommended.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won the Hugo last year for Best Dramatic Presentation as well as this year's Nebula for Best Script. As I've said before, I can't comment on the script, since I haven't read it, but I can share my opinions on the final product, the finished film. I've already reviewed it when I did last year's Hugo winners, so you can find my review there. I'm not going to rereview it.

Overall, this year's Nebula winners were mediocre, with some being excellent and others being not so excellent. It seems the once prestigious Nebulas have been slipping in quality lately. Apparently, the Hugos, even though voted for by fans, who presumably have no idea what they're voting for, are now better than the Nebulas, which are voted for by writers, who presumably know what's good and what's bad. Awfully ironic, indeed, that such a thing is happening. With the exception of last year's atrocious Hugo mix, the Hugos certainly are getting better, though I didn't find any of this year's Hugo-nominated short stories worth any kind of prize. The novelettes, on the other hand, are fantastic, since 2001 was a year with many excellent novelettes published, too many for all of them to make it on the Hugo ballot. But to get back to the Nebulas, surely there's still hope. Are writers giving up on awarding meritorious fiction? The preliminary ballots have gotten shorter and shorter over the past few years, though hopefully that's just temporary...

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Copyright 2002 by Alkaline Spudwort and Bewildering Stories.