Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are seven nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 19, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.
This is my fourth year #BloggingTheNebulas, and so far I’ve managed to accurately predict who would take home the award once. A .333 average is pretty great for baseball, less great when talking about weather, elections, or literary awards. Consider this my attempt deflect criticism for if my prognosticating goes sideways again this year. Especially because this year, more so than in any of the others, I don’t feel like there is an obvious frontrunner. So let’s wade into it, shall we? I’ll start with the novels I feel are less likely to take home the prize, and work up to my shaky prediction.
(Before I start, let me state unequivocally that my predictions are not to be taken as criticism of these nominees; all of them are excellent books—my reviews will tell you why; I am but trying to climb into the heads of Nebula voters, and besides, the fact that someone has to win means others must lose, right?)
So: both Jade City by Fonda Lee and The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss seem to have have strikes against them, in terms of the kinds of novels that tend to win the award, statistically speaking. Both are first novels (of a sort)—Lee has written young adult novels, of course, but this is her first eligible for the Nebula; Strange Case is Goss’s debut, though she has previously published poetry and short stories. As an industry award, voted on by professional writers, career longevity—with exceptions—tends to count for something.
Another strike is that both are solidly fantasy novels. Jade City the story of a crime family on an island nation a generation past repelling a foreign occupation. Its principles, empowered by the magical jade, are embroiled in conflicts both internecine and international. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter pulls together ancillary and newly-imagined characters from Victorian Gothic fiction—daughters of both Jekyll and Hyde, the female Creature presumed destroyed in Frankenstein, even Holmes and Watson—and weaves a cheeky, metafictional tale of people often disposed of in sentences in Victorian literature: wives and daughters, servants and lovers.
While I can find several examples of early or first science fiction novels taking home the Nebula—Neuromancer, for example, or Ancillary Justice—most straight fantasy winners tend to be by well-established writers (think Naomi Novak or Lois McMaster Bujold). Furthermore, when they do choose fantasy, SFWA voters seem to have a collective preference for contemporary novels set on earth, like Jo Walton’s Among Others, or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Period pieces like The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter are a tough sell; I personally love me some Victoriana, but I recognize this as a niche taste (consider: while the acclaimed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won the Hugo, Susanna Clarke had to be satisfied with a Nebula nomination). National epics cum crime family dramas like Jade City are also not as accessible to voters who prefer science fiction, which I suspect is a non-trivial part of the voting pool.
Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders is, in some ways, a perfect candidate to take home the Nebula. It’s by a very well-established writer whose prose is a joy to read—someone who knows how to construct the crap out of a novel. The book is a saga of a family made up of both con men and magicians, a strange confluence of stagecraft and real magic. It straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy in a way appealing to Nebula voters (see: last year’s genre-blending winner, Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky). Both Spoonbenders and All the Birds in the Sky peer into SFF tropes, clear down to their DNA. But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I think Spoonbenders might be too goofy? Like the Oscar, the Nebula tends to bend toward gravitas over humor. Not that Spoonbenders is lightweight or ill-considered—which I think is an unfortunate association with comic writing—but its tone is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, tending to the laugh-out-loud.
Speaking of All the Birds in the Sky, that book felt like the perfect winner for 2016: shot through with a tremulous hope, even while apocalypse threatened. If the Nebula were awarded solely due to perfect encapsulation of the zeitgeist of the year in question, Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough would dominate the ballot for 2017. A spy novel set in something like the Weimar republic, as the jackboots close in, it is a book about a mirage of a place, and its characters are drenched in the flop sweat of true desperation: how will they get out alive, once the curtain falls? In the real world, last year was marked by escalating violence and an uncertain and destabilizing international milieu; Amberlough is all of this, in addition to being just so stylishly written.
Alas, zeitgeist perfection is not the only consideration. Like Jade City and The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Amberlough is a first novel, and nominally a fantasy—though that status is somewhat tenuous. Amberlough is not a city shot through with magic, but it is an alt-earth of sorts, an alternate history and culture encoded in an imaginary place. If the voting body for the Nebula is something of a coalition government, made up of everything from hard science writers to urban fantasists, I just don’t see Amberlough appealing to a wide enough swath of them.
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty, also seems to have a good shot at winning. Lafferty has a handful of previous novels to her name, and a long history embedded in geekdom—most notably through her podcasts. Last year’s winner, Charlie Jane Anders, had a similar bio of deep industry connections, thanks to her status as a co-founder of io9. Six Wakes is a murder mystery that starts its characters in the worst possible scenario, then continues to put them through the wringer. The clone crew members of a generation ship of sorts wake up in new bodies, their previous incarnations having been brutally murdered, and discover they’ve lost some 25 years of memories from their time maintaining the ship. One of them is demonstrably the murderer, but even the murderer can’t remember why or if s/he did it. Six Wakes is positively Asimovian, opening with dry clone codicils that feel like the three rules of robotics explicated in I, Robot, then diving deep into the complicating humanity that puts any given rule to the test.
I can see this one taking home top honors, but I hesitate a little. The scope is small. It’s ultimately a locked room mystery with only six or seven characters. Yes, it dips back and forth in time as we mine their histories, but isolation and claustrophobia are important aspects of the narrative. The mystery aspects are also forefront, in much the same way Amberlough feels like a spy novel and Jade City reads like a crime family drama. Lafferty’s book is in many ways the most science fictional nominee of the year, which may put it out of the sweet spot—or right into it.
As the final novel in an incredible series, N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is a very strong contender. The Broken Earth trilogy is about a place—a continent called the Stillness—where the apocalypse happens so often, its people have developed a lore to survive the inevitable fifth seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter, apocalypse.) The Fifth Season begins with a rifting so brutal it will overrun the lore; nothing can account for this level of devastation. Through three books, we’ve followed a mother and daughter on their separate journeys through the Stillness. The Stone Sky brings them back together in a finale that stands with the best I’ve ever read.
I would bet money The Stone Sky will pick up the Hugo award this year; the first two novels in the trilogy, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, were nominated for the Nebula, but won the Hugo. I think the Hugo voters (the members of WorldCon 76) will go for the hat-trick—and it will be a truly historic win, considering that’s never happened before. And yet: I can find zero precedent for a trilogy-ender picking up the Nebula, let alone one in a series that has already lost twice. The Seeker, the third in Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series, did win, but I feel like a largely standalone series is different from a trilogy. Tehanu, Ursula K. Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea installment, also picked up a Nebula, and this may be the closest to a precedent there is.
This brings us to Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. Like so many of its fellow honorees, it is a debut, but this isn’t Newitz’s first rodeo—she has a long publication history in non-fiction, and, along with last year’s Nebula winner, Charlie Jane Anders, started the aforementioned geek haven io9.com. If Six Wakes feels Asimovian, then Autonomous feels like early William Gibson. It takes place in a world 20 minutes and 130 years into the future, where the nation-state has been subsumed into something like a corporatocracy. Jack Chen is a pharma-pirate, retro-engineering the life-saving drugs the pharmaceutical companies grudgingly produce. (Lifestyle drugs are way more profitable.) Jack falls into a plot surrounding a productivity drug that turns lethal, the kind of thing treated like an embarrassing whoopsie by the manufacturer because it only kills dozens, and its so much cheaper just to kill everyone who knows about it. Rounding out the cast are people and robots in various states of indenture, even the freest of them beholden to something. Autonomous is a novel of ideas—even its title yields an important theme—that is also action driven and richly realized.
And the winner will be…
I began this essay expecting to call it for Autonomous, hence the order of my consideration, but the time I’ve spent thinking about the nominees this year has changed my mind. Much as I liked it, it’s still a first novel, with the usual problems of a first novel: the pacing is occasionally unsteady, the world feels just a little too structured. This is not the case with The Stone Sky, which is the culmination of a trilogy by an author at the height of her powers. So then: though this year feels especially hard to predict, I think Jemisin will take home the Nebula this year as recognition for a book and a series that richly deserves it. The third time’s the charm.
Who do you think will win the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novel? Place your bets in the comments below.