Blogging the Nebulas: First Contact and First Conflict in Trial by Fire

triaEditor’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. For the Nebula, that is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year, and our own 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 June 6. View the complete article series here.

The nominee:

Caine Riordan is back in Trial by Fire, the second in Charles E. Gannon’s military-tinged series that takes us from First Contact to the first conflict. Following the events of Fire with FireCaine is given a short breather on backwater planet Bernard’s Star, where he (and we) catch up on what’s been going on: a summit between humanity and the exosapients who we’ve just learned inhabit our galactic neighborhood. The alien Accord is no United Federation of Planets, however, with non-humanoid beings who are decidedly less than unified in their opinion of us Terrans. Caine and his fellow delegates became suspicious that the Convocation is a prelude to war. It turns out they are not wrong when the fleet at Bernard’s Star is attacked and Earth is invaded.

From this brief pause, we are off and running through a massive, galaxy-ranging conflict, seen through the eyes of everyone from diplomats, to local insurgents, to military brass, to the aliens themselves. Trial by Fire has a comfortably retro feel, harkening back to the sprawling political maneuvering and machinations of empire in works like Asimov’s Galactic Empire series, but twisted with the hard science of David Brin.

The invading aliens—a coalition between the more politic Arat Kur and the warlike Hkh’Rkh (gesundheit)—are fully realized creatures, with psychology based on biology and evolutionary legacy in addition to individual experience. Like his code name, Odysseus, Caine is repeatedly thrown into dire situations on his voyage home, but has the cunning and versatility to manage them.

As in Fire with Fire, Gannon backloads some of the most important revelations of the sequel into the final pages, but I will say this: often the goal of science fiction is to hang a mirror to humanity, and the author doesn’t just imagine how we will behave in the future, but how we were in our unrecorded past. This is a headlong, active tumble through formative science fictional playsets, but with a deliberation that makes the myriad players legible to the contemporary reader.

Why it will win:

In an interview with SF Signal, Gannon says his goal for this series was to revive early science fiction tropes that have, “acquired a bad rap in the past two decades because, quite frankly, a lot of folks have confused the tropes with the writing styles that introduced them to us: occasionally clunky Golden Era prose, creaky with the stereotypical expectations of its time.”

Trial by Fire is a lovingly crafted exploration of some of the central narratives of hard science fiction, without the anachronism of the formative texts. When you think about how many past narratives could be solved with the introduction of a cell phone, you can see how changing technology creates new complications and opportunities for writers, and Gannon is definitely building on old ideas in new ways. This is a reinvigorated take on comfortably nostalgic themes, which could play well with the genre stalwarts in the voting pool.

Why it won’t win:

Sequels don’t often win the Nebula (which also lengthens the odds for fellow nominee Ancillary Sword). The few sequels that have won the Nebul, like Speaker for the Deadby Orson Scott Card, and Barrayar,by Lois McMaster Bujold, made huge shifts in their concerns and style over the earlier books, and I don’t see that same transition between Fire With Fire and Trial by Fire. This is not to say that the latter is a retread—it’s not—but it’s just not as dislocating as the story of Ender Wiggin in Ender’s Game compared to the story of Ender Wiggin in Speaker for the Dead. Its nomination credits how deceptively difficult updating hard-set genre tropes can be, but I think the award will go to something less familiar. Sometimes the nomination is the recognition.

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