Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SF/F literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the members of an industry trade organization who are the professional peers of the award nominees—the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are seven nominees in the best novel category this year, and Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize, before the winners are announced on May 14. Read the entire series here.
Raising Caine picks up right where Charles E. Gannon’s previous Nebula nominee Trial by Fire left off: after thwarting an invasion of Earth by the alien Arat Kur and the Hkh’Rkh [sic], our hero, Caine Riordan,, is off on a diplomatic mission to cement an alliance with the Slaasriithi. The Consolidated Terran Republic (that’s us) absolutely needs their help, as we are a feeble baby race, almost wholly ignorant of the larger politics of our galactic neighborhood. As Caine observes after a meeting with the Slaasriithi ambassador, “each day ended with more questions and mysteries than it had begun.”
This whole series has been about first contact in one way or another. After Caine was part of a somewhat ticklish alien encounter in Fire with Fire, he has more or less been the literal face of humanity, serving (alongside a few others) as the representative human in contact situations with more than a couple alien races. The universe is a lot larger and more complex than any of us guessed, but paradoxically, by needs, the contact points choke down to individuals. That individual is Caine: polymath, spy, all-around badass.
Caine is invited to visit Slaasriithi space, a trip complicated by two things. First, due to the severe alien nature of their hosts and general hostility of Slaasriiti life-forms, it seems like everything is out to get Caine and friends. This isn’t precisely true, because the Slaasriithi are more of a puzzle: beings evolved along a profoundly different path from humans. Gannon’s attention to detail as he constructs his exosapients is superb, growing organically out of their environment rather than forced down to meet the needs of the plot.
Caine’s other problem is the Ktor, who dog Caine through Slaasriithi space, attempting to upset the alliance between Terra and this other power. Sometimes, they just have to sit back and let one stupid mistake mess up our plans, but they also show a willingness to take a more active, ahem, role. Oh, and also there’s a traitor in Caine’s party. Good times.
Raising Caine is an incredibly active book—not as focused on military spectacle as the last, but certainly full of thrills. Some of the action is of the more cerebral kind, as our protagonists are confronted by the beautiful, terrible, and sometimes lethal variety of the universe and its inhabitants. I’ve been stunned just by the sheer variety of life on our own blue orb. Gannon takes the spectacle of creation a step beyond, to other worlds. Worlds that kind of want to kill us. But in a way that’s really cool to read about.
Why it will win:
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie and Raising Caine have an interesting commonality: both are the third in series that have seen all three books nominated for the Nubula. But there’s a key difference between the two, one that I think gives Raising Caine a leg up: Ancillary Mercy is the culmination of a trilogy, whereas Raising Caine is the third in a series. Yes, in many ways, Gannon drops the reader in the middle of things, not hand-holding too hard with excessive detail about all that has gone on in previous novels. He expects his readers to be smart enough to keep up, dropping just enough backstory that you can fill in the past on your own. It’s an admirable quality in a writer, and one that negates the problem of starting a book hip-deep in a universe a reader may not have encountered before. It’s a strategy that worked for Jack McDevitt’s Seeker, third in a series about space archaeologist Alex Benedict, which won the Nebula in 2006.
Raising Caine is also a whole mess of fun, globes-trotting around a universe that manages to be scientifically accurate while refraining from excessive wonkiness. Those who value meticulous world-building—which I imagine is a non-trivial number of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America—will certainly have their needs met. Caine Riordan is more often than not the smartest guy in the room, but he sure gets the heck beaten out of him anyway, keeping us from resenting him too much. So far, he’s the Guy Most Likely to Enjoy a Beer With of the Nebula protagonists. (Close second: Jorl ben Tral from Barsk.)
Why it won’t win:
Sad to say, I still don’t think the third in a series has much of a chance. I don’t think Raising Caine stands alone quite as well as the aforementioned Alex Benedict novel—it begins at the conclusion of Trial by Fire and leaves off in a setup to the next book, with Caine & Co go headed off to work with the Hkh’Rkh, the other antagonist from the thwarted invasion of Earth. While that ending is more than satisfactory, trying up the loose ends from this (and previous) books, it still feels like a part of a larger narrative. Standalones and first novels do better in Nebula voting, for obvious reasons.
Sometimes a book is just too complex, too seated in its lore, backstory, and character study, to have a broad enough appeal to win. This isn’t a bad thing, ultimately, rewarding readers who have followed Caine ever since he awakened from that unfortunate 13 years cryosleep at the beginning of Fire with Fire, to the invasion of Earth, to his leap off into the next adventure. Contact is not as simple as meeting another race. It is something that occurs over time, as individuals get to know each other—where they are from, and where they are going.