The slate of nominees for the Nebula for Best Novel is a wildly varied group this year; in a way, a buffet of the SFF world in general. There is an internationally best-selling writer nominated, and two debut novelists. In one case, a global publisher has arrayed its entire marketing apparatus in support of the book. In another, the book is self-published, hyped on the writer’s website, at Amazon and by word of mouth/ social media. In addition to newer writers, there are some who have been publishing novels since the 1990s. It’s a wild bunch, and even though the winner is probably a foregone conclusion, this batch of eight cries out for speculation.
I’ve read five of the eight; I’m reading a sixth and have the other two on order. You’ll be able to tell instantly which ones I have not read. I will post an update when I’ve finished them all.
Here they are:
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. With The Jane Austen Book Club, Fowler made the leap from SFF to literary, and this book was reviewed as literary. It works well as a mainstream novel, but in one sense this is pure science fiction, as it studies the results of a scientific experiment on the family who were its subjects. No one disputes that Fowler is an excellent writer, but she misses the mark for a great many people. I think this is because her endings are often uncomfortable. With this book, I thought she asked the reader to make a huge leap of faith between the first two-thirds of the book and the last third. I was willing to make that leap, but it certainly jarred me out of the book for a nanosecond or two. Beside Ourselves asks hard questions, provides fascinating characters, and is well-written, but Fowler’s pretty far from genre these days, and the book is probably too quiet to be a winner.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s highly anticipated story about the nature of childhood, heroism and memory is winning plenty of awards. I liked this book a lot. I appreciated the voice; a man in his late forties looking back on a time in his early childhood. It’s brilliant but not perfect; for example, because of his POV character, Gaiman has to veer away from what could be the second-most dramatic scene in the book, and have it recounted to the main character later. Still, the only way it won’t win is if the voters suddenly all decide to go contrarian. I will be happy if it wins, but I won’t be heartbroken if it doesn’t. And, frankly, neither will Neil Gaiman.
Fire With Fire by Charles Gannon. This traditional military SF story has an interesting premise and some good action sequences. The “first contact” element is well handled. Characters are a bit flat, and the hero is a “Gary Stu”—a teeth-achingly perfect individual, never wrong, adored by women, adulated by men, admired by diplomats and chosen – or “Chosen”—by extraterrestrials because even they can see his greatness. The writing is good. At over 600 pages, this book is a bit too long for its story, especially since nothing is resolved at the end since this is the start of a series. This could win if the voters decide they want to return to the spaceship-and-raygun days of the 1960s.
Hild, by Nicola Griffith. Griffith’s historical novel about St. Hilda of Whitby has been well-received by literary reviewers, and gobbled up with delight by readers. I have not read it (it is next on the TBR stack). Griffith immerses the reader in seventh-century Britain and the life of this woman. There might be a question about whether it’s fantasy, which would hurt its chances.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. A debut novel, this is space opera that explores, deeply, the nature of consciousness and awareness – particularly, distributed consciousness. Along the way, it meditates on the uses of spirituality and the nature of empire. If Ocean doesn’t win, I would love to see Ancillary Justice pick up the award, because it uses a conventional science fiction framework to create something original and thought-provoking.
The Red; First Light by Linda Nagata. I have to order this one, too, and I will have to order it from Amazon, since it is self-published and not available to my two favorite independent bookstores. It is well-reviewed, also “space opera” or, more accurately, military SF.
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. I’m reading this right now. Here’s what I can say; prose that shines like honey with sunlight streaming through it. There is an interesting story as our main character, Jevick, learns the secrets of the culture of Olondria. It could all fall apart at the end, but I’m betting it doesn’t. It’s beautiful, and it would win.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. The other book I wish would win. Yes, I know I shouldn’t wish for two books to win, but I do. Wecker’s debut novel is historical fantasy, a magical immigrant tale that follows a golem and a jinni in early 20th century New York City. The golem incarnates duty, while the jinni, a fire spirit, is all about desire, impulse and freedom. How these two interact is a beautiful tale written in exquisite language, introducing a cast of fascinating characters who share their own immigrant stories. The book, like Hild and Beside Ourselves, pinged literary radar screens and often got labeled “literary” rather than “fantasy”. I don’t know if that helps or hurts the book’s chances. Nebula voters may decide that they are going to have other chances in the future to award a Nebula to Wecker.
My prediction: Of course, I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane will win. It’s Gaiman. It’s cool. It’s another book that crossed genre lines and was well-received for the most part in the mainstream world, while hewing closely to its magical, fantastical roots. That may make it more attractive than the books that are shelved consistently in Fiction (Beside Ourselves, The Golen and the Jinni, Hild.) Beside Ourselves and Hild were published and marketed as literary novels. I don’t know what SFWA thinks about that. Wecker’s book had a more tentative identity, kind of a like a low-calorie snack; “It’s fantasy, but it’s literary! You don’t have to be embarrassed to be caught reading it!”
Of the old-fashioned space books, it’s hard to have an opinion without having read The Red; First Light, but I think the question is whether the story is well-realized enough and original enough to transcend a military SF genre.
The beauty of a buffet is that you can try little bits of new things and not be stuck with only one order. Except, how do you judge a buffet? The Nebula Weekend should be interesting this year.