Nebula final ballot: Goodreads / LibraryThing stats

Quick post after running three of the Nebula final ballot categories through Goodreads and Librarything.

Best NovelGoodreadsLibraryThing
Witch King, Martha Wells 146513.728883.78
Translation State, Ann Leckie 83604.134444.20
The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz 46643.393893.43
The Water Outlaws, S.L. Huang18273.841983.91
The Saint of Bright Doors, Vajra Chandrasekera13463.721603.48
Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, Wole Talabi4543.74663.56
Oddly enough the only one of these that I have read so far is the last, which is also up for the BSFA.

Best NovellaGoodreadsLibraryThing
Thornhedge, T. Kingfisher200784.055434.14
Untethered Sky, Fonda Lee73103.902423.95
The Mimicking of Known Successes, Malka Older48333.662793.84
The Crane Husband, Kelly Barnhill 57923.892234.08
Mammoths at the Gates, Nghi Vo 37044.271484.36
Linghun, Ai Jiang 13014.04494.40
The only one of these I own is the last, which I picked up at the Lovecraft bookshop in Providence.
Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult FictionGoodreadsLibraryThing
To Shape a Dragon’s Breath, Moniquill Blackgoose 48664.192514.15
Liberty’s Daughter, Naomi Kritzer 1984.12414.11
The Ghost Job, Greg Van Eekhout 573.8484.00
The Inn at the Amethyst Lantern, J. Dianne Dotson174.591
I’m a bit baffled by this – usually if a book scores low on Librarything users, I begin to suspect that the author may not exist, but in fact I had a very pleasant meal with J. Dianne Dotson in Los Angeles last month, so am well aware that she is perfectly real! Her Goodreads fans are enthusiastic.

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang

Second paragraph of third chapter:

`Because the journey happens in stages,’ Professor Lovell explained when Robin gave up. ‘Horses don’t want to run all the way from London to Oxford, and usually neither do we. But I detest travellers’ inns, so we’re doing the single-day run; it’s about ten hours with no stops, so use that toilet before we go.’

This won the Locus and Nebula Awards for Best Novel last year, but infamously not the Hugo. It’s an alternative history story where Britannia rules the waves (and much of the land) through the magical use of linguistics and etymology, which has been developed in depth at an institute known as Babel in Oxford University. Our protagonist, Robin Swift, adopted from the streets of Canton (now Guangzhou) by the unpleasant Professor Lovell, is educated to become one of the instruments of British domination, alongside three close friends, a chap from India and two young women from England and Haiti.

After lengthy academic reflections on the nature of language, illuminated by footnotes (not endnotes, thank heavens, and mostly brief and succinct), it becomes apparent to Robin that violent resistance against the British Empire is the only available course of action. (This isn’t really a spoiler as it’s pretty clearly signalled in the novel’s subtitle.) His group of friends fractures and there is a grand tragic apocalyptic climax.

A couple of friends of mine told me (separately) that they really didn’t like the book. They found it too info-dumpy and thought the magical parts were ripped off from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I respectfully disagree. I’ve been fascinated by linguistics since before I was a teenager, and loved the info-dump bits. I’m a Cambridge graduate, so I really don’t mind Oxford being represented as the centre of all that is evil in the world. I found the dynamics between the protagonist, his friends and the rest of society fully convincing. And the idea that words carry power goes a lot further back than Susanna Clarke; only a month ago I was in Prague, where the legend of the Golem lurks around many of the corners. I really enjoyed it, and you can get it here.

Although there are several strong women characters, including two of the protagonist’s three close friends, I had to hunt a bit for a Bechdel pass because the story is largely told from Robin’s point of view. But I found one at least, in Chapter Six, where Letty (Robin’s fellow student from England) tries to discuss the situation of women at Babel with Professor Craft, and Professor Craft tries to deflect her.

As luck would have it, I finished reading Babel on the morning of 20 January, the day that the Chengdu Worldcon Hugo nominations statistics were released and it became clear that it had been disqualified in the Best Novel category. Despite my previous and subsequent involvement with Hugo Award administration, I have no more information than is in the public domain about why this happened. I think it’s a shame. Babel is selling very well in China (translated by Chen Yang). I would have voted for it if it had been on the Hugo ballot, and I suspect that I am not alone.

This was my top unread book by a writer of colour, my top unread book by a woman, and my top unread sf book. Next on all three piles is Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.

“Georgia on my Mind”, by Charles Sheffield

Second paragraph of third section:

It didn’t work out that way. For one thing, I overslept and felt terrible when I got up. I had forgotten what a long, sleepless journey can do to your system. For the past five years I had done less and less traveling, and I was getting soft. For another thing, the rain had changed to sleet during the night and was driving down in freezing gusts. The wind was blowing briskly from the east, in off the sea. Bill and I sat at the battered wooden table in the farm kitchen, while Mrs. Trevelyan pushed bacon, eggs, homemade sausage, bread and hot sweet tea into me until I showed signs of life. She was a spry, red-cheeked lady in her middle sixties, and if she was surprised that Bill had finally brought someone else with him to explore Little House, she hid it well.

When I was doing my first run through stories that won both the Hugo and Nebula in 2004, I wrote:

Back in the summer of 1991 I was finishing up my M Phil in Cambridge, and dropped in one day on my supervisor, who at the time was the curator of the history of science museum. He welcomed me into his office, shuffled through some papers with strange cylindrical diagrams on them, and flourished them at me: “These,” he said, “are Charles Babbage’s original blueprints for the Difference Engine.” He had a tendency to do that. I remember one seminar on Newton where he brought in an authentic 17th-century widget, “just like Newton would have had”, and showed the original owner’s notes of how it had been used, almost casually indicating at the end that the original owner in this case had in fact been Isaac Newton. We would occasionally see the current Lucasian Professor, a post previously held by Babbage and Newton, trundling through the cobbled streets in his battery-driven wheelchair.

Babbage was all the rage in those days, it being the bicentenary of his birth, and with no less than three sf novels published the previous year in which Babbage’s difference engine was actually built (Michael Flynn’s In the Country of the Blind, S.M. Stirling’s The Stone Dogs, and William Gibson & Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine), and thus the computer was brought into being a century and a half before Bill Gates. Apart from those three novels and Sheffield’s novelette, which is dated as having been finished on December 31, 1991, there aren’t many stories with that theme, though steampunk as a genre keeps on going. In all three of those novels, the difference engine is at least partly responsible for revolutionising society.

Sheffield, however, takes it in a different direction: what if it were simply built in 1850 as a project of an eccentric couple in the farther flung reaches of the British Empire, and then forgotten? His unnamed narrator and his old New Zealander friend Bill Rigley team up to find out the truth behind the manuscripts located on a farm at the back end of nowhere. In fact, the largest surviving fragment of Babbage’s analytical engine was indeed discovered, along with various papers now in the Wanganui Museum, on a farm in New Zealand in the late 1970s by Garry Tee, to whom “Georgia On My Mind” is dedicated and who “is no more Bill Rigley than I [Charles Sheffield] am the narrator of this story.” However, in our timeline the Babbage material reached New Zealand via Australia in the hands of Babbage’s son and grandson when they emigrated, rather than being constructed from scratch.

Tee made his real-life discovery about the time that Charles Sheffield’s first wife died, in 1977, and the narrator of “Georgia on My Mind” has had a similar recent loss. The theme of nostalgia and loss runs strongly and powerfully through the story, permeating the excitement of the two friends as they look through the papers of Luke and Louisa Derwent from over a century before. Anyone who has ever been bereaved will sympathise with the narrator’s sharp intake of breath as a picture of Louisa reminds him of his dead wife. The setting of New Zealand is also richly portrayed, in the days before Peter Jackson made it as iconic as it now has become. And so we are not really prepared for what happens next.

It seems that the Derwents – a married couple, exiled from England because they were also, scandalously, half-brother and half-sister – had made contact with aliens – or at least intelligent non-humans – on Macquarie Island. One last letter written in 1855 reveals that Luke and the dying Louisa set off to the permanent base of the “heteromorphs”; there is just about enough information in the manuscripts to enable the identification of the site of that permanent base as being South Georgia, in the Atlantic Ocean. (The story’s title has nothing to do with the U.S. state of Georgia, let alone the former Soviet Republic of the same name, where I will be this time next week as I write these words.)

And so, just as the Derwents’ story finishes with preparation for a long and dangerous journey, “Georgia On My Mind” ends with our narrator and Bill Rigley preparing to follow the Derwents to South Georgia. But they will not be alone; word has leaked out, and a host of people from MIT, Livermore and the hard science fiction community are rumoured to also be converging on the island. For some readers, this somewhat recursive twist at the end spoils the story. Not for me. I read it as a tribute, 14 years on, to the support Sheffield drew from his professional and literary colleagues at the time of his bereavement, and a good end to a story whose plot was never intended to be fully resolved.

I should say that Garry Tee of the University of Auckland, on whom the character of Bill Rigley is based, found this review soon after I had posted it and we maintained a friendly correspondence until he retired in 2018. If he is still around, he will turn 91 next month, so I do not feel offended that I have not heard from him in a while.

Coming back to it two decades later, I still loved this story for bringing me back to my history of science days, the most intellectually interesting work I have ever done in my life. I wondered also if E.J. Swift was slightly inspired by it for The Coral Bones. And I think we can all do with a hidden history occasionally.

Bechdel fail, I’m afraid; the two women characters are Mrs Trevelyan and Louisa Derwent, who live more than a century apart.

The story has not been reprinted in English since 1998, in The New Hugo Winners, Volume IV where I first encountered it. You can also get it in:

“Georgia on my Mind” won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette presented in 1994 for work published in 1993. “The Franchise” by John Kessel was also on both final ballots. The Nebula ballot also included two other Hugo winners due to varying year / word count qualifications.

The other Hugos in the written categories went to Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Novel), “Down in the Bottomlands” by Harry Turtledove (Novella) and “Death on the Nile” by Connie Willis (Short Story). The Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo went to Jurassic Park. The other Nebula winners were Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Novel), “The Night We Buried Road Dog” by Jack Cady (Novella) and “Graves” by Joe Haldeman (Short Story).

Next up in this sequence: “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” by Mike Resnick.

“Even the Queen” and Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Next in my sequence of joint Hugo and Nebula winners, this short story and novel by the same writer both won both awards made in 1993 for work in 1992, so the 1993 Hugo but 1992 Nebula in each case. I wrote them both up twenty years ago (Doomsday Book and Even the Queen), and was generally positive about both.

The second paragraph of the third section of “Even the Queen’ is:


For the first time in this sequence of posts, I have revised my views sharply downwards. I actually considered skipping my usual post of my previous opinion and just writing afresh. But I think I ought to be honestly in dialogue with my former self. So here goes. In 2002, I wrote the following (dead links trimmed):

As has not been unknown on other occasions, the voters got it right. “Even the Queen” is a real jewel of a story, combining humour with a glimpse of a future made possible by an advance in technology. In this case, the outrageous technological advance is that menstruation has become an optional extra. The narrator is a woman judge; her mother a doctor; and her mother-in-law a very senior international diplomat. The father of the narrator’s two daughters is not mentioned, and nor is the father of her granddaughter. The only man in the story is the narrator’s clerk. The general sense is that in this very-near-future world, women are free both to pursue careers and to raise children.

And yet this is no feminist utopia. Indeed, the butt of much of the humour is feminism, or rather its loopier extremes:

In the first fine flush of freedom after the Liberation, I had entertained hopes that it would change everything – that it would somehow do away with inequality and matriarchal dominance and those humorless women determined to eliminate the word “manhole” and third-person singular pronouns from the language.

Of course it didn’t. Men still make more money, “herstory” is still a blight on the semantic landscape, and my mother can still say, “Oh, Traci!” in a tone that reduces me to pre-adolescence.

The main joke of the story is that the “Cyclists” of the future – inspired by “a mix of pre-Liberation radical feminism and the environmental primitivism of the eighties” – reject the technological advance offered by the abolition of periods, in the name of “freedom from artificiality, freedom from body-controlling drugs and hormones, freedom from the male patriarchy that attempts to impose them on us” (basically much the same rhetoric used in our world by the more evangelical advocates of natural childbirth). Perdita, the narrator’s younger daughter, is thinking of joining the Cyclists; the narrator herself uncomfortably defends her decision in the name of Personal Sovereignty, “the inherent right of citizens in a free society to make complete jackasses of themselves”.

This should make the alert reader realise that actually the abolition of menstruation is not the only advance that society has made. There are repeated references to the entranchment of the principle of “Personal Sovereignty” and to the “days of dark oppression” which came before. It sounds as if the “Liberation” may have included a libertarian component at least as important as the biological advance at the heart of the story. [Here I think I completely missed the point.]

(Inspired by a post to humanities.philosophy.objectivism, I tried to find political science or literary roots for the phrases “Personal Sovereignty” and “days of dark oppression”. For “Personal Sovereignty” I drew a total blank; though some commentators invoke the concept in discussions of Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, etc, the original writers themselves don’t appear to have used the phrase, though it does crop up fairly consistently in recent libertarian discourse. Wordsworth, writing romantically of the French revolution in his “Descriptive Sketches“, and Wilde, writing ninety years later in similar vein of the Risorgimento in “Ravenna“, both use the phrase “dark oppression” to describe what had gone before, and it also appears in one of the more lurid passages of Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam“, but I am inclined to feel this is coincidence and that I have been Taking It Too Seriously.)

The alert reader will also realise that while the joke of the story is on the Cyclists, the humour of the story depends on the family interactions between the four generations – the narrator, her mother, her mother-in-law, her elder daughter and her granddaughter – who gather at a restaurant in an attempt to brow-beat the recalcitrant Perdita. Anyone who has – or fears they have – relatives like that will appreciate the way Willis characterises them. The story ends with two minor surprises, that the narrator’s clerk gets off with her elder daughter, and her younger daughter gives up being a Cyclist when she discovers that menstruation hurts. [Here I mistook a silly narrative trick for genius.]

Not everyone sees the point of “Even the Queen”. They are supported in their error [sic] by Willis’ own tongue-in-cheek comment that “I was just a tad vexed at radical feminists who were always after me to write a story about women’s issues. So I did.” I know there are many people out there who simply don’t get or don’t like the story; for me personally, considering all six short stories to have won both Hugo and Nebula, it’s a close run between “Even the Queen” and Simak’s Grotto of the Dancing Deer as to which is my favourite (the others being Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” and “Jeffty is Five”, Bisson’s Bears Discover Fire and Bear’s “Tangents”). [There have been several better ones since.]

Right. Re-reading the story twenty years later and twenty years older, it is a mean-spirited skit on feminism. In the world of the story, the abolition of menstruation has immediately resulted in the emancipation of women everywhere (except that “men still make more money”). Considering how embedded the patriarchy is in real life, this is a deeply dishonest and disempowering message. Considering also how technology does or doesn’t spread between and across cultures, it’s a thought experiment that assumes that everyone is a white American, or behaves like them. (The jokes about peace processes and conflict resolution are in particularly poor taste.)

There could be a great story to be written about how improvements in women’s healthcare could be rolled out globally, yet fought by conservative politicians at home and abroad; except that it’s actually happening in real life, in Texas and Alabama, never mind other cultures; it is journalism rather than sf. The story misses the point of what is really going on so badly that it’s offensive. If I had had my eyes open in 2002, I could have seen it even then. I’m dropping it to the bottom of my list of Hugo and Nebula winners in this category, along with “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”.

Other short stories on both final ballots that year: “The Arbitrary Placement of Walls”, by Martha Soukup, and “The Mountain to Mohammed”, by Nancy Kress. Also on the Hugo ballot: “The Lotus and the Spear”, by Mike Resnick, and “The Winterberry”, by Nicholas A. DiChario. Also on the Nebula ballot: “Lennon Spex”, by Paul Di Filippo; “Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats”, by Michael Bishop; “Vinland the Dream”, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

The Hugo for Best Novelette went to “The Nutcracker Coup”, by Janet Kagan, and the Nebula in that category to “Danny Goes to Mars”, by Pamela Sargent. The Hugo for Best Novella went to “Barnacle Bill the Spacer”, by Lucius Shepard, and the Nebula to City of Truth, by James Morrow.

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, won both Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Dr. Ahrens had come in first, and then Mr. Dunworthy, and both times Kivrin had been convinced they were there to tell her she wasn’t going after all. Dr. Ahrens had nearly cancelled the drop in hospital, when Kivrin’s antiviral inoculation had swelled up into a giant red welt on the underside of her arm. “You’re not going anywhere until the swelling goes down,” Dr. Ahrens had said, and refused to discharge her from hospital. Kivrin’s arm still itched, but she wasn’t about to tell Dr. Ahrens that because she might tell Mr. Dunworthy, who had been acting horrified ever since he found out she was going.

Back in 2001, I wrote:

Doomsday Book is a story of time travel, in the same series as “Fire Watch” which also won both awards and To Say Nothing of the Dog which won the Hugo. Reading it soon after The Dispossessed, I was struck by a couple of (presumably unintentional) similarities: the narrative structure, of alternating chapters set at different time periods; the fact that in both novels a key plot element is the petty squabbling among academics researching the nature of Time. However Kivrin, who is sent from a near-future Oxford to the fourteenth century as a university project despite the warnings of Dunworthy, the story’s other main character, is not a revolutionary like Shevek, but a historian, doing research on what the fourteenth century was actually like.

Thomas M. Disch, in his incisive but sympathetic survey The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, comments on the propensity of sf writers to try their hand at historical novels, and vice versa. “The reason for the crossover phenomenon lies in the similarity of the task: to create a densely imagined world, with social protocols and physical environments radically unfamiliar to most readers. That skill, learned in one genre, can be readily transferred to the other.” And if there’s one point where Doomsday Book is outstanding, it’s the portrayal of the fourteenth century as an alien environment – smells, bells, and a chill December wind – and the shock and dislocation experienced by the historian who travels there. (Of course her shock and dislocation are enhanced by illness.)

On the other hand, some readers complain that the future Oxford of Doomsday Book is quite improbable. It does indeed feel more like a future projection of the pre-Thatcher Oxbridge whose remnants were still just visible in my time at Clare College in the late 1980s, dominated by a hierarchical male establishment, obsessed with petty rivalries to the extent of overriding sensible safety precautions in order to prove a point, with no telephones anywhere when you really need them. (I once read the biography of an early 20th century Cambridge physiologist who carried out weird blood transfusion and oxygen deprivation experiments on himself and his students, and as a result died of a heart attack one day trying to catch a bus on Silver Street Bridge. I hate to think of what happened to his students.)

Of course any sensible forecast of what Oxford will look like in the middle of this century, with or without the Pandemic, must look very different from the Oxford of Doomsday Book (apart that is from the irritations of dealing with American tourists). There will be more women in senior positions; safety regulations will be stringently applied, and senior academics will be as much subject to them as anyone; time machines, when available, will be on a university-wide basis rather than attached to the individual colleges; and everyone, and I mean everyone, will have a mobile phone. [Two lost reviews] remark that bells ring out a message of redemption in both time periods of the novel, but the real future Oxford will resound to a medley of electronic trills in the quads.

But guess what? It doesn’t matter. The Oxford of Doomsday Book is no more an attempt at predicting the future than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is an attempt to consider the implications of life on a flat planet. [A lost review] picks it up as a point of contrast with the medieval period; the 21st century can fight disease with technology, but the 14th has to find the spiritual resources to accept its own limitations. Anne points out that there is a strong sense of the spiritual in both parts of the story: religious services are prominent events, and both Kivrin and Dunworthy are confused with divine beings at different stages. Willis uses the two settings of the book as a stage for a wrenching story of love, death and loss, with a hint of redemption at the end.

The key relationships are quasi-parental – [A lost review] notes the way Kivrin takes on parental responsibilities for the children of the household where she ends up, and in the future, Dunworthy’s lover, Mary Ahrens, is caring for her great-nephew Colin, who by the end of the book has himself become attached to Dunworthy as a surrogate son. The parental relationship between Dunworthy and Kivrin, of course, is at the heart of it. These contrast with more destructive relationships: the undergraduate William Gaddson and his mother, in 21st century Oxford; Lady Imeyne and her son’s household in the medieval period. And there is illicit love: Lady Eliwys and her steward; William Gaddson and his many girlfriends; and Dunworthy and Mary Ahrens, this last so understated that one could be forgiven for missing it. As [a lost review] points out, where Albert Camus used a sparse narrative technique to emphasise existential distance, Willis is capable of using the same technique to develop our empathy with the characters (even more true of Le Guin in The Dispossessed).

A couple of technical points on time travel enable the plot: in Willis’ universe, the space-time continuum itself has a built-in inertia that prevents the occurrence of paradoxes. This is much more important in the later To Say Nothing of the Dog, but it’s an imaginative leap by the author which means that many of sf’s hoary clichés of time travel can be sidestepped. At the same time, the extra precise measurements necessary to ensure the time traveller’s safe return are fundamental to the plot. It hangs together a lot more convincingly than, say, Doctor Who. [Fight! Fight! between my 2001 self and my 2023 self.]

Two things have happened since 2001 which have caused me to revise my opinion of Doomsday Book downwards – though not as sharply downwards as with “Even the Queen”.

The first is that Willis’ awful Blackout / All Clear two-part novel won the Hugo and Nebula eighteen years after Doomsday Book, and I realised that her poor research and clichéd portrayal of Oxford academia can’t be excused with ignorance, but is part of the goal of her writing, reconstructing a romantic nostalgic vision of England as seen by dewy eyed Americans. The second is that we have now actually lived through a global pandemic, and Willis’s portrayal of what it might look like is so far out of whack that it hurts.

Two essays written by Gillian Polack and Lydia Laurenson in June 2020, as we began to get to grips with the pandemic, are more sympathetic than me. Even so, Gillian Polack spots the trick Willis is pulling on the reader:

Willis presents an emotional relationship with the past, and convinces readers that this emotional relationship is a true depiction of history. That’s very clever writing and very powerful.

(But not actually true to history.) Laurenson looks more at the religious aspects of the book, and I’m glad that it resonated with her. Both pieces are still worth reading, three years on, for perhaps a more balanced view than mine.

Anyway. Next up in this sequence is “Georgia on my Mind”, by Charles Sheffield.

“Beggars in Spain”, by Nancy Kress

The second paragraph of the third section of “Beggars in Spain” is:

She had studied the theory of cold fusion at school, and her global studies teacher had traced the changes in the world resulting from Yagai’s patented, low-cost applications of what had, until him, been unworkable theory: the rising prosperity of the Third World; the death throes of the old communistic systems; the decline of the oil states; the renewed economic power of the United States. Her study group had written a news script, filmed with the school’s professional-quality equipment, about how a 1985 American family lived with expensive energy costs and a belief in tax-supported help, while a 2019 family lived with cheap energy and a belief in the contract as the basis of civilization. Parts of her own research puzzled Leisha.

Back when I was first attempting to work through the joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, more than twenty years ago, I had the silly idea of doing them in alphabetical order by title, which meant that this was the second I got to after “Bears Discover Fire” (at that point, American Gods, Among Others, Ancillary Justice and All Systems Red all lay in the future). In 2001 I wrote the following (links have been updated):

I think this was the first work by Kress that I ever read, just around the time that my own daughter was born in 1997. The story begins with the planned conception of a genetically modified child, Leisha Camden, and her “normal” twin sister, Alice, and follows them until their early twenties, so as a new father myself I was gripped from the start. All parents know that their child is the most marvellous creature in the world, of course, and part of the monstrosity of Roger Camden is that he barely acknowledges the existence of the ordinary Alice and concentrates his affection on the augmented Leisha. The dysfunctional family of Camden, his wife who gradually disintegrates, the geneticist who Camden subsequently marries, and the girls themselves, is all too credible and painfully (if sparsely) portrayed; likewise Leisha’s discovery of a new community with the other children born with the same modification that she has. However it is not the main point of the story.

Leisha has been genetically modified so that she does not need to sleep. Along with this most obvious change come other benefits: the Sleepless (for she is among the first of many such children) are more intelligent, more capable, and more content than the Sleepers (as we normal humans become known). As the Sleepless progress to maturity they have to deal with the prejudices that many display against them. The story of prejudice against children who are not just different but who are feared to be superior is an old SF trope, going back at least to 1911 and J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder. Kress’ triumph here is that she displays a certain compassion for both the ordinary humans who are terrified by the emergence of the Sleepless, and indeed for the isolationists among the Sleepless who want to build a new society for themselves, leaving cut off the rest of humanity. Howwever we are in no doubt that her sympathies lie with those including Leisha Camden who want to maintain a single human society including both Sleepers and Sleepless.

Dealing with prejudice is a hall-mark of Kress’ best work; it is the main theme of her Nebula-winning “Out of All Them Bright Stars” and prominent also in her other Nebula-winning novella, “The Flowers of Aulit Prison”. Her understanding is that many, perhaps even most, will be prejudiced against those who seem insufficiently “human”, but those of us who do not feel that way must stand up and be counted against such bigotry, even if it seems that the odds are stacked against us. It’s a powerful and profound argument. But that too is not the main point of this particular story.

The main theme of the story concerns the responsibilities of those who have favourable positions in society towards those who are less fortunate. The intellectual underpinning of the argument here is a fictional philosopher/scientist called Kenzo Yagai, who has not only invented cheap energy but propounds a moral code based on these principles: “That spiritual dignity comes from supporting one’s life through one’s own efforts, and from trading the results of those efforts in mutual cooperation throughout the society. That the symbol of this is the contract. And that we need each other for the fullest, most beneficial trade.” In a crucial passage where Leisha debates this issue with Tony, an embittered fellow Sleepless, later martyred, he introduces the metaphor of the story’s title:

“What if you walk down a street in Spain and a hundred beggars each want a dollar and you say no and they have nothing to trade you but they’re so rotten with anger about what you have that they knock you down and grab it and then beat you out of sheer envy and despair?”
Leisha didn’t answer.
“Are you going to say that’s not a human scenario, Leisha? That it never happens?”
“It happens,” Leisha said evenly. “But not all that often.”
“Bullshit. Read more history. Read more newspapers. But the point is: what do you owe the beggars then? What does a good Yagaiist who believes in mutually beneficial contracts do with people who have nothing to trade and can only take?”
“You’re not–“
What, Leisha? In the most objective terms you can manage, what do we owe the grasping and nonproductive needy?”
“What I said originally. Kindness. Compassion.”
“Even if they don’t trade it back? Why?”
“Because…” She stopped.
“Why? Why do law-abiding and productive human beings owe anything to those who neither produce very much nor abide by just laws? What philosophical or economic or spiritual justification is there for owing them anything? Be as honest as I know you are.”
Leisha put her head between her knees. The question gaped beneath her, but she didn’t try to evade it. “I don’t know. I just know we do.”

Kress’ source for Yagaiism is quite explicitly the philosophy of Ayn Rand, as expressed in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged (famously mocked as Telemachus Sneezed by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in the Illuminatus! trilogy). In one interview, Kress says of Rand: “although there’s something very appealing about her emphasis on individual responsibility, that you should not evade reality, you should not evade responsibility, you should not assume that it’s up to the next person to provide you with your life, with what it is that you need, whether that’s emotional, or physical… [it] lacks all compassion, and even more fundamental, it lacks recognition of the fact that we are a social species and that our society does not exist of a group of people only striving for their own ends, which is what she shows, but groups of people co-operating for mutual ends, and this means that you don’t always get what you want and your work does not always benefit you directly.”

She goes on to draw another contrast in the other direction, between the society she depicts in her own fiction and the society of Anarres in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but I guess this must have more relevance to the expanded, novel version of Beggars in Spain which I have not read. There is an interesting discussion of both Rand and Kress on the discussion site. [And it’s still there, almost a quarter of a century later!] The central message of “Beggars in Spain” is that our humanity as individuals is bound up in our obligations to the rest of humanity, and if we forget that, we become less human.

It would be easy to write a didactic and boring story about how we all ought to be nice to each other, even including the two subsidiary themes identified above. “Beggars in Spain” is not that story. We have vivid characterisations of Leisha and her sister Alice, their stepmother the geneticist, and several of the other Sleepless (perhaps the father is a little too monstrous here). Also Kress has a very strong sense of place, with the Camdens’ mansion by Lake Michigan, Leisha’s student environment in Harvard, and the middle America through which she and Alice eventually flee having rescued a Sleepless child from abuse, all depicted convincingly. And there are a couple of beautiful vignettes; a scene where Leisha confronts a pregnant Alice, slightly (deliberately?) reminiscent of the end of Lolita; an earlier scene where the Sleepless kids try a drug that will make them sleep for the first time, with their sense of anticipation – and then disappointment when they all wake up hung over – wickedly portrayed. This story is strongly recommended.

I stand by pretty much all of that from 22 years ago. Two new points jumped out at me. First, the Sleepless kids’ communication, presented as a deeply clever and privileged way of staying in touch across computer networks, is basically a WhatsApp group or a private Telegram channel; the fact that everyone would have access to that sort of networked communication in the future was unthinkable in 2001.

Second, the scene with Alice barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen in the Appalachians resonates backward with Lolita, but also forward with Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead (review coming soon). Having said that, I do wonder how the daughter of a Chicago millionaire managed to get into a (not very) romantic relationship with an older man from the sticks?

Anyway, I’m glad to say that it has retained its power, a classic case of sf being not just “What if…?” but “My God! What if…?” You can get it here as a standalone novella.

That year Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold won the Hugo for Best Novel, and Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick won the Nebula. For Novelette, the Hugo went to “Gold” by Isaac Asimov, who had just died, and the Nebula to “Guide Dog” by Mike Conner; and for Short Story, the Hugo went to “A Walk in the Sun” by Geoffrey Landis, and the Nebula to “Ma Qui” by Alan Brennert. I remember reading the two shorter Hugo winners but not the Nebula winners. The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Ray Bradbury Award both went to Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Next up in this sequence is a Connie Willis double: the short story “Even the Queen” and the novel Doomsday Book.

“Bears Discover Fire”, by Terry Bisson; “The Hemingway Hoax”, by Joe Haldeman

Next in my sequence of joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, these two shorter pieces were published in 1990 and awarded in 1991. They also mark the beginning and end of my previous project of writing up the joint winners of both awards; back in the early 2000s, I decided to go through them in alphabetical order of title, and although since then American Gods, Among Others, Ancillary Justice and All Systems Red have picked up both awards, back in 2001 that was not yet the case and “Bears Discover Fire” was the first in line. And when I ran out of steam with that project a few years later, I had started but nowhere near finished a write-up of “The Hemingway Hoax”.

The second paragraph of the third section of “Bears Discover Fire” s:

The school bus let Wallace Jr. off at my house on Wednesday, the day they left. The boy doesn’t have to pack much of a bag when he stays with me. He has his own room here. As the eldest of our family, I hung onto the old home place near Smiths Grove. It’s getting run down, but Wallace Jr. and I don’t mind. He has his own room in Bowling Green, too, but since Wallace and Elizabeth move to a different house every year (part of the Plan), he keeps his .22 and his comics, the stuff that’s important to a boy his age, in his room here at the home place. It’s the room his dad and I used to share.

First time around, I was not super enthusiastic about the story, but I was enthusiastic enough about the project to give it a long write-up:

“Bears Discover Fire” is described by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as a story that “elegizes the land, the loss of the dream of America; it is also very funny”. I appreciated the story but didn’t see the joke at all. Obviously others enjoyed it more: apart from the Hugo and Nebula, “Bears Discover Fire” won four other awards and was nominated for another two, probably a record. (Having said that, the competition from other short stories in 1990-91 was not very strong. [I don’t think that was really fair of me.])

Terry Bisson writes very American science fiction, rooted in a strong sense of place (Owensboro, Kentucky) and time (the present day, or something very like it); his best-known books include Talking Man and Fire on the Mountain, set in an alternate history where the US Civil War had a quite different course. His website gives a good feel for the man. I really dislike his story “macs”, even though I completely agree with the political point of the story. Perhaps a non-American inevitably has difficulty in accessing Bisson’s work. I notice that I am not alone here [dead link to Asimov’s readers forum]. It took me a couple of rereadings of “Bears Discover Fire” to realise that the “torches” held by the bears at the end of the first section were not battery operated, and this despite the whacking great clue in the story’s title.

Bisson has described “Bears Discover Fire” as being about exactly what the title says. This is not true. The narrator, his brother and his nephew suffer a flat tyre one night; their flashlight goes out, and the narrator changes the tyre in “a flood of dim orange flickery light… coming from two bears at the edge of the woods, holding torches.” It seems that the bears have given up hibernating and are instead settling in the wooded medians (what I would call the central reservations) of the interstate highways, surviving on a newly evolved fruit called a “newberry”. The narrator’s elderly mother disappears from her nursing home, and he and his nephew find her sitting around a fire with a silent group of bears. They fall asleep together, and wake in the morning to find that the bears have gone and she has died in the night.

The most sensitive element (in what is anyway quite a sensitive story) is the portrayal of the narrator’s relationships with his mother and his nephew. The nephew, Wallace Jr, is “old enough to want to help and not old enough (yet) to think he knows it all. If I’d married and had kids, he’s the kind I’d have wanted.” Wallace Jr stands up for his uncle against his father; his uncle responds by correcting his grammar, not wanting him to end up talking like “what Mother used to call ‘a helock from the gorges of the mountains.'” It’s beautifully portrayed. The mother, on the other hand, is long prepared for her own death, and the narrator is gradually coming to terms with it. Bisson (introducing the story in Nebula Awards 26) comments that the story was his own way of coming to grips with the deaths of his mother and a favourite uncle.

The tone is elegiac throughout. The narrator’s brother chides him for wasting time on fixing old tyres rather than using the new radials. The brother himself is introduced to us as a preacher, but it turns out he makes two-thirds of his living in real estate. The bears seem to be gaining something that we humans have lost, the art of enjoying company by a warm fire in the woods perhaps. “It looked like only a few of the bears knew how to use fire, and were carrying the others along. But isn’t that how it is with everything?” The scientists who try to explain the bears’ new behaviour are at a total loss; it’s a phenomenon which is only really understood by the narrator’s mother. “It would be rude to whisper around these creatures that don’t possess the power of speech, she let me know without speaking.”

The bears are individuals: “Though they were gathered together, their spirits still seemed solitary, as if each bear was sitting alone in front of its own fire.” That “gathered together” is very Biblical, particularly reminiscent of Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Even the narrator is astonished to find the new natural paradise that is in the median, “all tangled with brush and vines under the maples, oaks and sycamores. Even though we were only a hundred yards from the house, I had never been there, and neither had anyone else that I knew of. It was like a created country.” The bears are truly in Eden.

Meanwhile the average human is just insensitive. The nursing home tell the narrator that he will have to keep paying for his mother’s care for another two days even though she has disappeared. The state troopers who arrive in the morning after the bears have gone “scattered the bears’ fire ashes and flung their firewood away into the bushes. It seemed a petty thing to do.” Hunters in Virginia (not Kentucky, I notice!) complain that the bears have burnt down their house. The narrator clearly feels that if the bears did it, they had a right to do so: “The state hunting commissioner came on and said the possession of a hunting license didn’t prohibit (enjoin, I think, was the word he used) the hunted from striking back… I’m not a hunter myself.”

John Kessel notes [dead link] in particular an exchange between the narrator and his nephew where the nephew wants to shoot one of the bears (for me, the horror I feel at the idea of a twelve-year-old running around with a rifle illustrates yet another cultural difference with America). “I explained why that would be wrong. ‘Besides,’ I said, “a .22 wouldn’t do much more to a bear than make it mad.'” New paragraph. “‘Besides,’ I added, “it’s illegal to hunt in the medians.'” Kessel says that “This combination of the legal, the practical and the moral sums up something about the voice of Terry Bisson.” I think Kessel has it right, but in the wrong order: it’s significant that the moral reasoning, God’s law, is mentioned first; then the practical, Nature’s law; and the legal issues, Man’s law, are an afterthought.

John Kessel [kindly] sent me an email in response to this paragraph: “I think you have it exactly right, and I was trying to say exactly that – that for Bisson, the issues are moral, practical and legal, in descending order of importance. This reflects a rather Emersonian and typically American faith in the idea of a “natural” virtue that only coincidentally has any connection with the law, and is often in opposition to law.”

One of the roles of speculative fiction is to make us look again at our world and re-evaluate what we are doing to it. “Bears Discover Fire” has been described by Robert Sawyer and Bob Sabella [dead link] as a “tall-tale”. I think it’s actually a fable, in the Aesopian sense of a moral story featuring animals which behave as humans. But whereas we were meant to look at Aesop’s animals and laugh at their failings while realising that we share them, Bisson’s bears are in fact on a spiritual plane which may or may not be higher than ours, but is certainly better.

Michael Swanwick has [also kindly] sent an reaction by email: “I was dumbfounded that you couldn’t see the humor in ‘Bears Discover Fire,’ particularly since the opening is structured as a shaggy-dog joke. Every time I reread it, that last line, ‘”Looks like bears have discovered fire,” he said,’ makes me laugh out loud. And those triads of explanations the narrator offers, always ending with the anteclimactic: ‘Besides, it’s illegal to hunt in the medians.’ Or: ‘Also, old people tend to exaggerate.’ (You were spot-on about the hierachy of values, incidentally; one of the things I love about this story is how many virtues Bisson layered atop each other.) I think it’s a profoundly funny story, one whose humor lies in its wisdom and vice versa.

“Oh, and did you notice that the last line of the story is implicitly the last statement of one of his triads with the prior two omitted? Terry’s a sly guy.”

I must say that on rereading it more than twenty years later, I still don’t see it as very funny. I guess that this is an American thing.

You can get the story in the collection of the same name here.

“Bears Discover Fire” was the only story to be on both Hugo and Nebula ballots in the Short Story category that year. The other Hugo finalists were “Cibola”, by Connie Willis; “Godspeed”, by Charles Sheffield; “The Utility Man”, by Robert Reed; and “VRM-547”, W. R. Thompson. I don’t think I have read any of these – “Cibola” has not been republished in any of the Connie Willis collections. W[illiam] R[och] Thompson was born in 1955 and has published precisely one story since 1996.

The other Nebula finalists were “Before I Wake”, by Kim Stanley Robinson; “Lieserl”, by Karen Joy Fowler; “Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates”, by Pat Murphy; “The Power and the Passion”, by Pat Cadigan; and “Story Child”, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I think I have read “Lieserl”; I note that four of the five losing stories were by women.

There was more overlap in the Best Novelette category that year. The Hugo was won by “The Manamouki”, by Mike Resnick, and the Nebula by “Tower of Babylon”, by Ted Chiang. Both were on both shortlists, as were “Over the Long Haul”, by Martha Soukup, and “The Coon Rolled Down and Ruptured His Larinks, A Squeezed Novel by Mr. Skunk”, by Dafydd ab Hugh.

The Hugo and Nebula for Best Novella were jointly won by “The Hemingway Hoax”, by Joe Haldeman. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

John left the place soon, walking slowly through the afternoon heat. He was glad he hadn’t brought the bicycle; it was pleasant to walk in the shade of the big aromatic trees, a slight breeze on his face from the Gulf side.

As mentioned above, I hit a permanent block when trying to write about this story fifteen years ago, which I think was much more because of family and work circumstances at the time than due to any difficulty with the story itself. It’s complex, but not overly so; an English literature professor and Vietnam veteran, in a marriage that is less happy than he realises, gets inveigled by his wife and a conman into forging the papers lost by Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, on a train leaving Paris in 1922. (The Hemingways were members of the same library as my grandmother.) This scheme attracts the attention of time-travelling entities, one of whome keeps reappearing in the form of Hemingway, for whom it is crucially important that Hemingway’s early writing history remains unchanged and unchallenged, because of his importance to the development of civilisation. Sex, violence and time paradoxes ensue, as the Hemingway entity kills the protagonist only to find him resurrected in a slightly different universe. I enjoyed it without being entirely clear what had happened at the end.

The one element that really has dated is the notion of Hemingway’s exceptionalism.

“the accelerating revival of interest in Hemingway from the seventies through the nineties is vitally important. In the Soviet Union as well as the United States. For some reason, I can feel your pastiche interfering with it.”

When I first read The Hemingway Hoax I had not read any of Hemingway’s books; in the interim, I have in fact read several, and I’ll agree that they are great literature, but really not as earth-shattering as all that. I think we’re meant to take seriously the notion that Hemingway’s writing is central to the present and future of Western civilisation; and I can’t.

On the plus side, the story is clearly also Haldeman working out his own feelings about Vietnam and literature, and both of those are deep wells to draw from. The women characters (wife and lover) wobble on the edge of stereotype but don’t quite fall over. I felt that while it has dated, it’s still very good. You can get a standalone version, slightly expanded from the original publication, here.

Two other novellas were on both Hugo and Nebula ballots that year; “Bones”, by Pat Murphy, and “Fool to Believe”, by Pat Cadigan. The others on the Hugo ballot were Bully!, by Mike Resnick, and A Short, Sharp Shock, by Kim Stanley Robinson; and the others on the Nebula ballot were “Mr. Boy”, by James Patrick Kelly, and “Weatherman”, by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is the only one of these that I am sure I have read (see next para).

The only novel on both Hugo and Nebula final ballots was The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, which I liked when I first read it but didn’t like so much on rereading, though it won the BSFA Award. The Hugo for Best Novel was won by Bujold’s The Vor Game, which incorporates “Weatherman”, and the Nebula by Le Guin’s Tehanu.

The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Edward Scissorhands.

Next in this sequence is “Beggars in Spain”, by Nancy Kress.

“The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold

Second paragraph of third section:

The interior of the pavilion was shady and cool after the glare outside. It was furnished with comfortable old chairs and tables, one of which bore the remains of a noble breakfast—Miles mentally marked two lonely-looking oil cakes on a crumb-scattered tray as his own. Miles’s mother, lingering over her cup, smiled across the table at him.

Next in my sequence of joint Hugo and Nebula winners, this is an old favourite of mine. If you don’t know Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, I urge you to give it a try. Most of the stories are about Miles, a nobleman from a conservative planetary empire which is only just re-engaging with the rest of the galaxy and with modernisation, who suffers from restricted growth and brittle bones in a society where disability is abhorred.

In “The Mountains of Mourning”, one of the earlier stories in the sequence, Miles investigates and judges a case of infanticide in the impoverished back-country of his ancestral fiefdom. It’s about change to an ancient way of living, and poisonous family dynamics, and about disability in society. Every character is credibly, in some cases agonisingly, drawn. I think I first read it when I was getting to grips with my own family’s situation, and it has a special place in my heart for that reason. I think also it would be a very good place to start your journey into the Vorkosigan saga. You can get it here and here as a standalone, and here as part of a larger collection.

I’d also note that apart from the “truth drug” which Miles and his henchmen use to discover the identity of the murderer, the story could be perfectly well set in other times and places, with no sfnal elements at all.

It is interesting that the cover by Alan Gutierrez for the original publication in the May 1989 Analog, and for the later Arc Manor publication (artist not known to me), both concentrate on Miles as the focal point; whereas Ron Miller’s cover for Bujold’s own version concentrates on the empty cradle.

Also on both Hugo and Nebula ballots for Best Novella were “Tiny Tango”, by Judith Moffett, and “A Touch of Lavender”, by Megan Lindholm. The other Hugo finalists were The Father of Stones, by Lucius Shepard, and “Time-Out”, by Connie Willis. The other Nebula finalists were A Dozen Tough Jobs, by Howard Waldrop; “Great Work of Time”, by John Crowley; and “Marîd Changes His Mind”, by George Alec Effinger. I can’t recall having read any of them.

The Hugo for Best Novel that year went to Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, and the Nebula to The Healer’s War, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. The Hugo for Best Novelette went to “Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another”, by Robert Silverberg, and the Nebula to “At the Rialto”, by Connie Willis. The Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Boobs”, by the late Suzy McKee Charnas, and the Nebula to “Ripples in the Dirac Sea”, by Geoffrey A. Landis. And the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The following year there were two joint winners of both Hugo and Nebula, “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson and “The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman, so I’ll get to them next.

“Schrödinger’s Kitten”, by George Alec Effinger; “The Last of the Winnebagos”, by Connie Willis; and the art by Charles Pfahl and Laura Lakey illustrating both stories

Content warning: brief mention of sexual assault

These two stories both won the Hugo and Nebula Awards presented in 1989 for work published in 1988. For completeness, the Hugo for Best Novel went to Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh, and the Nebula to Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold; the Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick and the Nebula to “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge” by James Morrow; and the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

The second paragraph of the third section of “Schrödinger’s Kitten”, which won both Best Novelette awards, is:

Leaning against a grimy wall, Jehan heard the chanted cries of the muezzins, but she paid them no mind. She stared at the dead body at her feet, the body of a boy a few years older than she, someone she had seen about the Budayeen but whom she did not know by name. She still held the bloody knife that had killed him.

Before I get into the story, I’m going to talk about the art that illustrated it. The opening page has this gorgeous painting of a woman wearing a flowing red dress, seen from above, credited to Charles Pfahl.

I have checked with Pfahl’s widow, his third wife Sharon van Ivan, and she informs me that this is “Patterns I”, part of a set of three paintings for which his second wife Charlotte Pfahl (nee Charlotte Weltys) was the model. Here is “Patterns II”, from a 2017 auction card:

In the third painting, “Spectrum”, shown in Joe Singer’s 1977 book, Charles Pfahl: Artist at Work, the model is definitely Charlotte again, wearing what appears to be the same dress but this time back to front – note the very high neckline, and the two blue buttons which are visible on her back in the first picture.The setting is their apartment on 45th Street in New York.

Sharon van Ivan informs me that all three paintings would have been done between 1973 and 1975, long before Omni published one of them in 1988. Charles died in 2013, aged 67; Sharon maintains his legacy website, and Charlotte is still practicing law.

The story was accompanied also by two unrelated humorous cartoons, neither of which is really very funny.

Anyway. “Schrödinger’s Kitten” is about a young Arab woman, Jehan Fatima Ashûfi, living in the 1930s, who is conscious of numerous diverging realities a la Everett’s “many worlds” hypothesis. Maybe she is raped by a neighbour and disowned by her family; maybe she kills her future rapist and is sentenced to death; maybe she is rescued from the scaffold by a passing German physicist, becomes a lab assistant to Heisenberg and Schrödinger and single-handedly stops the Nazis developing nuclear weapons.

The story’s heart is in the right place – woman of colour defeats fascism! – but I don’t think it really works for today. The Arab world is depicted as barbarous and uncivilised, compared to the sophisticated German scientists; but which of them was planning to exterminate their Jews at the time? Indeed, which country makes a rape victim who killed her attacker pay his family $150,000 in compensation? Much less important, Jehan prevents the Nazi bomb by sending boring scientific papers to the political leadership to make them lose interest; if only life was that easy! The layering of narratives is intricately done, I’ll give it that.

The whole original printing of the story in Omni has been scanned and uploaded here, but I also have it in Donald A. Wollheim Presents the 1989 Annual World’s Best SF, which you can get here.

Also on both ballots were “Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?” by Howard Waldrop, “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett, Jr, and “Peaches for Mad Molly” by Steven Gould. The fifth Hugo finalist was “The Function of Dream Sleep” by Harlan Ellison; the other three Nebula finalists were “The Hob” by Judith Moffett, “Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh” by Ian McDonald and the Hugo Short Story winner “Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick, which is the only one I can remember having read.

The second paragraph of the third section of “The Last of the Winnebagos”, which won both Best Novella awards, is:

Toward the end, it wouldn’t even let my grandmother near it, but she refused to have it put to sleep and was unfailingly kind to it, even though I never saw any indication that the dog felt anything but unrelieved spite toward her. If the newparvo hadn’t come along, it probably would still have been around making her life miserable.

The art is of cute women, one old and one young, and cute dogs, by Laura Lakey, who is best known for her collaborations with her husband John Lakey illustrating role-playing-games, especially D&D.

Unlike the illustrations in Omni, it’s clear that these were commissioned by Asimov’s for the story. I wondered if Laura Lakey herself was the model for the younger woman; according to her website, she and her husband “often used themselves as characters in stories they illustrated”. But I checked with her and she says it is someone else, and also incidentally she still has the original art in case anyone is interested in buying it.

There’s also a wee rocket, uncredited, at the end of the story.

I am sorry that I am posting whiny reviews today of two stories that many other people love. But “The Last of the Winnebagos” sucks. The single biggest negative is that the protagonist is still mourning the death, years ago, of his dog, whose name was Aberfan.


What possessed Connie Willis to use this name? And what possessed Gardner Dozois to let her? Would anyone find it acceptable to call a pet, even a fictional one, “Sandy Hook“? Or “Chernobyl“? Or do dead Welsh children just not count? Actually, maybe don’t answer that last question.

This is a consistent problem with Willis’ writing (see also: “Fire Watch“, Blackout here and here, All Clear). She is so relentless about maintaining a single emotional tone of loss and mourning that she does not care enough about the significance or accuracy of the details. Seemingly, neither did Hugo or Nebula voters in those years.

Having been thrown out of the narrative, I began to question other parts of it. The unseen villain of the story is a sinister quasi-government force called the Humane Society, which has massive powers of intervention to protect animals, in the aftermath of a plague that killed all dogs. There are very valid questions to be asked about the use of coercive force by the American state, but this premise a) trivialises that issue and b) panders to lazy libertarianism. If only the problem were simply that the state was protecting animals, rather than the entrenched power structures of capitalism and patriarchy.

The core emotional dynamic of the story is that the elderly couple who are driving the eponymous vehicle, the last of the Winnebagos, are concerned that they may lose the right to drive it because they have accidentally killed a wild animal. We are also told that they are in their late eighties. Sorry, people in their late eighties should not be driving, full stop.

The protagonist’s own deep regret is that he has no photographs of his dog, Aberfan. A professional photographer, who never took a single photograph of his best friend? I mean, I remember that in the Before Times, when we did not have cameras on our cellphones (indeed, we did not have cellphones), we didn’t habitually take quite as many photos of friends and family and household as we do now. But none at all?

I was uneasy about a couple of other aspects as well – the protagonist’s unrealistic relationship with his (woman) boss, his nonchalant ease of access to other people’s private data – but never mind. The characterisation and descriptions are fine, but once you have been thrown out of the narrative by the above rather major reservations, the tragic tone of the story starts to seem manipulative rather than convincing.

You can read the whole of that issue of Asimov’s here, but I also have the story in the collection Impossible Things which you can get here.

All four of the other Hugo finalists in this category were also on the Nebula ballot, an unusual degree of overlap. They were “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians” by Bradley Denton; “Journals of the Plague Years” by Norman Spinrad; The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter by Lucius Shepard; and “Surfacing” by Walter Jon Williams. The Nebula ballot also included The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I think I’d have voted for Lucius Shepard myself, though I say that because it’s the only other one I remember having read.

Next up in this sequence is a real favourite of mine, “The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold; I hope that it will turn out to have stood the test of time a bit better than these two.

“Tangents”, by Greg Bear and Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card

So, on to the joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards presented in 1987 for works of 1986. This time there are two, a short story and a novel.

“Tangents” by Greg Bear, the short story in question, was originally published in Omni. I found scans of the original publication and thought I should share these two cartoons that were originally published alongside it. Unfortunately I can’t read the credits on the scan of page 12 which would have identified the artist, nor can I identify the signature on the first (the second is unsigned).

A conference hall full of people, with a sign reading "National Holography Association"; a man discovers that one of the audience is really a hologram.
Three men looking at two blackboards. Two of them are standing in front of a blackboard with a very complex equation written on it. One of them is sayiong to the other, "Cotsworth here claims to have found a simpler version." He pointing to the third man, who is looking at another blackboard which has the simple inscription "1 + 1 = 2".

This piece by Michel Henricot which illustrated the story itself.

A metallic, mouthless male figure from the chest up.

Second paragraph of third section of “Tangents”:

“None of my muscles move that way,” Lauren said. “You’re sure you can’t make him … happy, stop all this trouble?”

When I first read it in 2000, I briefly commented:

A story of the fourth (and higher) dimensions which is good fun but didn’t quite work for me.

I stand by that judgement twenty years on. The story is about the Platonic friendship between an adult gay man and a young boy, and about how we in three-dimensional space might perceive four-dimensional beings, and there is music in there as well, but it just doesn’t hang together for me. You can get it in the collection of stories by Bear with the same name.

Three other stories were on both the Hugo and Nebula final ballots for Best Short Story: “The Boy Who Plaited Manes”, by Nancy Springer; “Rat”, by James Patrick Kelly; and “Robot Dreams”, by Isaac Asimov. The Hugo ballot also included “Still Life”, by David S. Garnett, and the Nebula ballot also included “The Lions Are Asleep This Night”, by Howard Waldrop, and “Pretty Boy Crossover”, by Pat Cadigan. I’m sure I’ve read the Asimov but can’t remember which one it is, and I don’t think I have read the others.

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, the sequel to Ender’s Game which had won both awards the previous year. A few weeks ago in the middle of the night I came across a fanzine article from 1987 drawing attention to Card’s own role in the Nebula process, but I failed to note it down and now can’t find it again. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

We’ve never seen them eat anything else. Novinha analyzed all three foods – macios, capim blades, and merclona leaves – and the results were surprising. Either the peclueninos don’t need many different proteins, or they’re hungry all the time. Their diet is seriously lacking in many trace elements. And calcium intake is so low, we wonder whether their bones use calcium the same way ours do.

Again, I first read it in 2000 and noted then,

Speaker for the Dead is a better book than Ender’s Game; a grown-up Ender, many centuries on thanks to time dilation, comes to solve the problems of the interaction between humans and the alien Piggies on the latter’s home world, and incidentally resolve several issues of the human society there as well. Tackles family life for adults as the previous book tackled children.

As with Ender’s Game, this time around the things that annoyed me about the book annoyed me more. There are two central tragedies in the narrative: Ender’s own hidden past as a perpetrator of genocide, and the unintentional homicide of the indigenous aliens, and also the well-intentioned destruction inflicted by the aliens on their human friends. But the real story here is about colonialism and colonisation, and there’s not much interrogation of that at all; and the fact that the aliens are given an insulting nickname throughout is frankly disgusting. But you can get it here.

There was one other novel on both Hugo and Nebula ballots, Count Zero by William Gibson, which like every other Gibson novel I have read I cannot remember anything about. The Hugo ballot also included The Ragged Astronauts, by Bob Shaw, which won the BSFA Award that year, and Black Genesis by L. Ron Hubbard and Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge neither of which I have read.

The Nebula ballot also included The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, winner of the Clarke Award and a retrospective Tiptree Award and surely the most important sf novel of the year in retrospect, and Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe, The Journal of Nicholas the American by Leigh Kennedy and This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow, none of which I have read. The Handmaid’s Tale is a far better book than Speaker for the Dead, and it’s not to the credit of Hugo or Nebula voters that they chose the latter.

In the other categories, the Hugo for Best Novelette went to “Permafrost” by Roger Zelazny, one of the many by him that I rather like, and the Nebula to “The Girl Who Fell into the Sky”, by Kate Wilhelm. “Permafrost” was on both ballots, as were “Hatrack River” by Orson Scott Card and “The Winter Market” by William Gibson.

The Hugo for Best Novella went to “Gilgamesh in the Outback” by Robert Silverberg, and the Nebula to “R&R” by Lucius Shepard. Both were on both ballots, as was “Escape from Kathmandu” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

That was also the year that the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Aliens, which is better than anything else I have mentioned in this post, apart from The Handmaid’s Tale.

The following year, unusually, there were no joint winners. The Hugo written categories were won by The Uplift War by David Brin, “Eye for Eye” by Orson Scott Card, “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans; and the Nebulas were won by The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy, “The Blind Geometer” by Kim Stanley Robinson, “Rachel in Love” again by Pat Murphy and “Forever Yours, Anna” by Kate Wilhelm.

So the next post in this sequence will cover two shorter pieces from 1988 that won in 1989: “Schrödinger’s Kitten” by George Alec Effinger and “The Last of the Winnebagos” by Connie Willis.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘I know. She can undo it all, from the start. He won’t want to leave her.’

When I first read this in December 2001, I wrote:

Ender’s Game is a vivid and disturbing book. The most vivid part is its portrayal of the casual violence of childhood and the isolation of the gifted child. Much great sf literature appeals to readers who themselves were (or indeed are) gifted children, whose experience of childhood friendship was limited and whose attempts to strike out physically were often unsuccessful and almost always duly punished. (Card himself, in a lengthy introduction to the second, 1991 edition of the novel, spends more time on this topic than on any other.) The twist in Ender’s story is, first, that when he attacks other children physically, he is more or less rewarded rather than punished by the military elite who control his life; but second, it really doesn’t make him feel any better. Most child-genius-turned superhero stories at least let their hero feel good about what they have done at some point; Ender is denied even that luxury.

The most disturbing part is the military’s manipulation of Ender. On one level, given the universal perception that humanity is under threat of utter destruction, the use of Ender’s genius for winning battles, for, er, winning battles would have been portrayed as right and necessary by a lesser author. However, it becomes apparent that the manipulation of Ender began before his birth, and continues right up to the last chapter of the book. He has been genetically engineered to hold a middle point between the violence and manipulation of his brother and the empathy and compassion of his loving sister. (A weak area of the book is the rather extreme characterisation of the siblings, combined with the fact that their parents appear to be rather dull and yet produced not one but three genius offspring.) As a six-year-old Ender is taken to an asteroid along with other precocious children, in order to be taught how to fight and kill. In a series of war-games (described in somewhat excessive detail) of ever-increasing sophistication, where the odds have been stacked ever more against him, he finally passes what he thinks is the final exam – only to discover that (as the astute reader will have already suspected) in fact the last few battles have not been simulations, and he has utterly destroyed the alien threat.

Ender’s response to this revelation lifts the book beyond a well-told war story (à la Starship Troopers or The Forever War) and into a novel of redemption. He repents his genocide of an entire alien species, brought about essentially by a mistake in communications, and, in a hastily told last chapter which actually covers years of narrative time, resolves to atone for his crime on behalf of all humanity by telling the story of the aliens. Michael R. Collings has reflected on the parallels between Ender and Jesus Christ, and while he is wrong on some of the details he is clearly right on the big picture. (Unlike, I would add, the reviewer who became obsessed with the parallels between Ender Wiggin and Adolf Hitler – shades of Dave Barry’s suggestion that Moby Dick actually represents the Republic of Ireland – all the more so since I actually once read a Lit Crit paper attempting to prove the latter.)

One has to suspend one’s disbelief slightly to believe that not only Ender but his entire crew of prepubescent commanders are sophisticated enough to win a war. I don’t know what the statistics are correlating the brilliance of military commanders with their age, but I would be surprised if there is any real reason to think that children could be super-competent in this field. Similarly, the ease with which Peter and Valentine, Ender’s siblings, capture the political high ground through their skillful debating techniques, is simply not credible even within the parameters of the book. I look back on stuff I wrote when I am half my present age – I am now 34 – and cringe with embarrassment. (One such item, about Turkish opening strategy in the game of Diplomacy, is much more widespread than it deserves to be on the Web.) The gift of political argument matures slowly. My other big problem with the book is the portentous, mythic tone of the narrative, but there’s not much Card can do about that; it’s his natural voice, I think, and suits books like the Alvin Maker series perfectly, but sometimes irritated me here.

There are some great bits in Ender’s Game: the “fantasy game” which turns out to be a link with the alien minds, the difficulty of fighting in free fall, the character of Mazer Rackham, the delicate political situation of Earth, the way in which Peter and Valentine rapidly become experts simply through writing about stuff on bulletin boards under pseudonyms. The best single moment for me is when Ender is set up with his team of squadron leaders in the penultimate chapter, and discovers that they are all his friends from the earlier chapters of the book. There is a sense that all the collective suffering was worth something. I can understand why Card returned to that setting for the most recent of the sequels.

I still agree with most of that, but this time around, the things I didn’t like about the book annoyed me much more. Watching adults fighting desperately in Ukraine, as we have ben since February, it seems really tasteless to suggest that children might somehow do the job better. At the same time, watching how online political discussion has worked out in practice, the notion that people with good ideas and deep philosophical insights might consequently emerge as powerful political figures seems hilariously naïve. It’s also notable that almost all (though not quite all) of Ender’s classmates are white boys – this for a force that is supposed to represent the whole of humanity. It’s a quick read at least. You can get it here.

Ender’s Game won both the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel presented in 1986 for works of 1985. The novel version of Blood Music, by Greg Bear, and The Postman, by David Brin, were on both ballots. Also on the Hugo ballot were Cuckoo’s Egg, by C. J. Cherryh and Footfall, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle; I have read the latter but would not vote for it. Also on the Nebula ballot were Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, by Tim Powers, and Helliconia Winter, by Brian Aldiss, both of which I have read; and The Remaking of Sigmund Freud, by Barry N. Malzberg, and Schismatrix, by Bruce Sterling, which I haven’t. I think I’d have voted for Blood Music.

The other three fiction awards were split. The Hugo for Best Novella went to “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai”, by Roger Zelazny, and the Nebula to “Sailing to Byzantium”, by Robert Silverberg. Each was on both ballots, as were “Green Mars”, by Kim Stanley Robinson, and “The Only Neat Thing to Do”, by James Tiptree, Jr.

The Hugo for Best Novelette went to “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, by Harlan Ellison, and the Nebula to “Portraits of His Children”, by George R. R. Martin. Again, both were on both ballots, as were “Dogfight”, by Michael Swanwick & William Gibson; “The Fringe”, by Orson Scott Card; and “A Gift from the GrayLanders”, by Michael Bishop.

The Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Fermi and Frost”, by Frederik Pohl, and the Nebula to “Out of All Them Bright Stars”, by Nancy Kress. This time neither story was on the other ballot, but three stories were on both: “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll”, by Howard Waldrop, “Hong’s Bluff”, by William F. Wu, and “Snow”, by John Crowley.

There was no dramatic Nebula that year, but the Hugo went to Back to the Future.

Onwards to the following year’s joint winners, Greg Bear’s “Tangents” and Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game.

Nebula ballot, Goodreads / LibraryThing stats

The Nebula Awards final ballot is out, so here are the ratings of the nominated books on Goodreads and LibraryThing. The top number in each column is in bold.

Best Novel

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine128214.384894.18
A Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark89994.154473.96
The Unbroken, C.L. Clark40333.882083.64
Machinehood, S.B. Divya14473.691113.83
Plague Birds, Jason Sanford803.8144.38

One of these is not like the others.

Best Novella

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers203474.295404.25
Fireheart Tiger, Aliette de Bodard31353.511783.84
Flowers for the Sea, Zin E. Rocklyn7043.57473.79
Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, Aimee Ogden3913.47343.85
And What Can We Offer You Tonight, Premee Mohamed1243.93144.17
The Necessity of Stars, E. Catherine Tobler793.91123.83
“The Giants of the Violet Sea”, Eugenia Triantafyllou

The last of these was not published as a standalone and so is not comparable. (Martha Wells declined nomination for Fugitive Telemetry.)

Andre Norton Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao238914.264134.23
Redemptor, Jordan Ifueko49824.321163.95
Victories Greater Than Death, Charlie Jane Anders19213.552013.63
Root Magic, Eden Royce16714.24764.38
A Snake Falls to Earth, Darcie Little Badger12144.14863.42
Thornwood, Leah Cypess2103.82212.5

Again, a bit of variation here.