ICYMI: From the Attic VI: The 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel

As previously noted, we will be republishing noted critic and reviewer Kev McVeigh’s ‘From the Attic’ columns over the coming weeks, to give new readers the opportunity to encounter his sage observations on some very important and all-too-often overlooked authors. This post looked forward to the 2014 Nebula Awards, whcih have obviously now been presented; in the interests of maintaining Kev’s original points, we’ve left the text as written  . . .


The Nebula Awards are presented annually by the SF Writers of America in four categories, Novel, Novella, Novellette and Short Story. This year’s awards will be announced on the weekend of 16-17th May. I know some people place more value on such awards than others, but I certainly find the shortlists for the major SF awards (Nebula, Hugo, BSFA, Tiptree & Clarke) often point out works I’ve missed or lead to interesting discussions of trends in SFF.

This year’s Best Novel category is particularly interesting, not just on its own but in context of recent years. There are eight nominees for novels published in 2013, and six are by women. That isn’t the whole story though. Looking back over the past five years we see that of the 32 novels shortlisted a remarkable 65% (21 books) were written by women. Eighteen different women compared to nine men were recognised in this period. Across the four categories 71 of 128 nominees were by women in that 5 year span. Pretty impressive huh? There are also a very significant number of non-white or queer (or both) authors on those lists, but that’s for another day.

So who is up for this year’s award?

The two men on the list are Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane and Charles E Gannon’s Fire With Fire, neither of which I’ve read. You know what you’re getting with Gaiman of course, and he is the one off this list who you will find prominently displayed in your local Waterstones. Gannon isn’t published in the UK but I believe his book to be his 21st century take on 80s Military SF meets First Contact.

For me the rest of the list is much more interesting, with several entries I had already read or planned to read before the list was announced. It’s an intriguing selection, quite varied in style, sub-genre and subject matter, but one that shows off several aspects of contemporary genre fiction at its very best. I’ll look at them in alphabetical order before I tell you my favourite and my predicted winner.

Karen Joy Fowler recently won the PEN/Faulkner Award for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The engagingly comic narration of this novel belies a dark, bitter heart of lost innocence, social dysphoria and family manipulation. Rose, the narrator, once had a sister, Fern, who vanished when both were 5 years old and is never discussed in the family. Later her brother also disappears, but reappears on the run from the FBI after a series of animal rights actions. Rose meanwhile bonds with wild child Harlow and deals with a creepily paranoid landlord and missing luggage. Revelations of psychological experiments by their parents, and Fern’s true identity are dripped into the story, but it is Rose’s voice that makes it all work. She repeatedly tells us, only slightly indirectly, that she is an unreliable narrator to the extent that we doubt the reliability of her unreliability. A neat psychological trick that exemplifies a psychological novel about psychological trickery which is typical of Fowler’s best work. As with her equally brilliant debut Sarah Canary I wonder how much we would consider this novel SF without awareness of the author’s history of excellent genre short fiction, but it doesn’t really matter. Fowler straddles the artificial divide between SF and Literary Fiction and is one of my favourite writers in each.

Nicola Griffith won a Nebula for her excellent SF novel Slow River back in 1996, and is now nominated for Hild. The eponymous Hild is a young girl growing up in that curious period of 7th century England where tribal allegiances rose and fell, Christianity and pre-Christian beliefs clashed and melded. Through her family Hild becomes an integral if minor part of the King’s court but gradually her abilities as a seer, related to her attunement to nature and what might now be called mindfulness, gain her influence and importance. Seemingly supernatural abilities are dangerous, causing suspicion, and if she gets things wrong making her vulnerable to the King’s wrath. This independent Hild is very different to Fowler’s Rose, but Griffith’s rich, vivid historical novel with a hint of fantasy also stands strongly on the wit and humanity of her lead.

If Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice wins the Nebula she will be well on the way to a remarkable and probably unmatched achievement. After tying for the BSFA Award and being Honour Listed for the Tiptree, Leckie has just added the Arthur C Clarke Award to her collection. She’s also up for the Hugo Award to be presented at this year’s Worldcon in London in August. It is in at least one aspect the most radical work on this list.

Breq is an ancillary, a post-human soldier created from the bodies of the conquered. She has been betrayed and is seeking to escape her hostile environment to gain revenge. So far a clever enough take on contemporary Space Opera, and certainly Leckie’s well wrought prose and deft juxtapositions of the two strands, present and past, make it a worthy and enjoyable SF novel on the most superficial levels. It has an AI spaceship and a viewpoint character in multiple bodies, it has great humour and dramatic tension. It has much more than that though, hence its acclaim, because it attempts (with, to be honest, mixed results) to depict a non-gendered society and how members of that society deal with encountering a binary-gendered society. The multiple viewpoints of the first person narrator Breq are provocative and challenge the reader but also took me deeper into the world than many writers manage. Ancillary Justice is a layered novel, one that manages to be fun, gripping, surprising and very thoughtful and thought-provoking at once.

Linda Nagata‘s The Red: First Light is only available in e-book through the writers cooperative Book View Cafe. I don’t know why this situation arose, but I do know that Nagata’s book does not deserve obscurity. It begins as straight-ish near future MilSF from the cynical, jaded viewpoint of Shelley, the leader of a Linked Combat Squad fighting in the Sahel. Without clumsy infodumping, and whilst maintaining a dramatic, action-packed pace, Nagata sets up a war where troops are linked to AIs and each other, with their brains and bodies monitored and enhanced. But Shelley starts to get mysterious warnings leading him away from trouble, until… well spoilers. That’s part one, and from there things get seriously interesting. Nagata’s view of global military economies is not your typical MilSF view, but she maintains a great action story at the same time as developing a post-cyberpunk paranoia that infuses the latter part of the novel. Shelley and his friends, at least one of whom I suspect not to be a friend, theorise about the titular Red which they believe is manipulating Shelley and the war(s) for its own mysterious purpose. Hopefully, the sequel due this year will tell me more.

An aside leading to the next book. I bought Fowler and Griffith’s books because I’ve loved their work for years, Leckie because so many people praised it online, Nagata because of her nomination here, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger In Olondria because, well, partly because we had a really good conversation on Twitter one day about jazz and a new biography of Charlie Parker. Some things Samatar has said seemed interesting, so I checked out her novel. I love how that happens sometimes.

A Stranger In Olondria is the narrative of Jevick, a merchant’s son who has heard stories of the land of Olondria and now travels there. His encounters with a new society, new lands, people, culture, geography and languages are depicted in a rich, giddy poetry that first lifts the novel above the mock travel book it might seem and then as Jevick’s life changes dramatically, abruptly dumps us into a new demotic code. Samatar’s focus on the shaping of our lives by language, and conversely, how our environment shapes language perhaps, leads us meandering through Olondria. At times we are “delirious” as she describes the effect of the spices on the merchants who sell them, other times we laugh with the bubbling flow of words inside us. Jevick becomes haunted, and we are too, caught in a war between languages that are aesthetic and functional. Jevick ultimately wanders a hinterland, stranger in Olondria, stranger at home. For me when I put down this novel I was, for a moment, estranged too from my home.

I noted earlier that some of these books are not (yet) available in the UK. Nagata, as noted is only in ebook format, Gannon and Samatar are still US only I believe, and Griffith and Fowler are due here shortly. My local shops have Gaiman on a display, Leckie on the SF shelves, and the final book on this list, Helene Wecker’s The Golem & The Jinni on the General Fiction shelves. (that store has done the same in recent years with Theodora Goss, Kelly Link and G. Willow Wilson, so the message is clear, look beyond the obvious.)

The Golem & The Jinni is another novel that clearly, and delightfully, resonates with its sense of place. This time the setting is New York at the end of the 19th century. Wecker seems to have done her research in terms of creating an atmospheric immigrant experience which is the core of her novel. Laid over this are elements from Jewish and Arabic traditions, as the title suggests, and how they come together. If Wecker is making a political point about the two cultures here it isn’t explicit but her adaptation of the traditionally male golem as a female figure does raise interesting questions. Created by a man for his purposes, she achieves independence but is at first naïve and reliant on others. Her development as a character and as a woman is intriguingly done. Meanwhile, Wecker’s Jinni is not the three wishes genie we are accustomed too, but part of a complex desert ecosystem of spirits in a way I haven’t seen before.

A shortlist of 8 novels, two by men but six by women. Four established, four debuts. And yet the real divide is partly between the classic MilSF mode, however subverted or given a skew glance, of Gannon, Leckie & Nagata and the more or less mimetic approach of Griffith, Fowler, Wecker and to a degree Gaiman. Each of those four novels also offers a skew glance but at a form of literary fiction using fantastic elements of varying subtlety. And then there is Samatar who seems to me to be casting her skewed glance thoughtfully and penetratingly at a whole swathe of contemporary fantasy. In an interview on Strange Horizons last year she said something about how epic fantasy is a genre of contact. Each of the books on this list deals in a form of first contact, with the Red, the future, adulthood, other cultures but A Stranger In Olondria is more fully aware of this, and seeks to engage and analyse it in greater depth. It invokes cognitive estrangement and deconstructs it.

I think you’ll have gathered that my favourite of these is A Stranger In Olondria, and I do think it deserves to win and be as widely read as possible. As I was reading I thought that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in particular pushed it close, but the lingering after effects of Sofia Samatar’s prose decide it. That said, I wouldn’t be shocked or even too disappointed if Ann Leckie continued her marvellous run with another prize for Ancillary Justice. Most importantly, with such a powerful shortlist of incredible ideas and writing I think we can safely say that as readers of SFF in 2014 we all win.

First published on the SF Gateway blog 15th May 2014.