For the last couple months, I’ve had the enjoyable task of reading my way through the seven nominees for the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel, which will be handed out this weekend at 2016 SFWA Nebula Conference in Chicago.
Regardless of which one takes home the prize, all seven are worthy contenders, spanning a variety of genres; there is something here for everyone. That’s what I love so much about literary awards, despite the occasional grousing: they introduce me to writers and ideas I never would have otherwise considered. As someone who occasionally gets penned in by my own preferences (something I think happens to many readers), reading through the nominees expands my horizons. Which is the avowed mission of science fiction, when you get right down to it. Ain’t that just the coolest thing?
So, to the predictions. I’m going to run this elimination style, ticking my way through what I think won’t win to get to what I think will. I’m going to discount first the two novels that are the third in their respective series: Raising Caine by Charles E. Gannon and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Leckie’s novel is the (just beautiful) culmination of a trilogy—the first of which, Ancillary Justice, did win the Nebula—but I don’t see much precedent for a threequel picking up the award. (We’ve witnessed a couple of two-fers—a novel and its sequel both taking the award, like Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead—but no final novels in a trilogy.)
Gannon’s Raising Caine is more third-in-a-series than last-in-a-trilogy, and there’s a winning precedent there in Jack McDevitt’s 2006 win for Seeker, the third in the Alex Benedict series. Yet Seeker feels more self-contained than Raising Caine, which will have a tougher time winning over voters who may not have read the earlier books, though if you like thoughtful first contact fiction, the Caine Riordan series is for you, seriously.
Next I would eliminate Fran Wilde’s Updraft, for two reasons: it’s a first novel, and it’s also nominated for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (think of it as the Nebula equivalent for YA). First novels can certainly win—Ancillary Justice again—but it’s just not as likely. SFWA is a professional organization, and one’s established relationships with other writers does factor. There has never been another novel nominated for both the Nebula and the Andre Norton (despite Ursula K. Le Guin’s YA novel, Powers, picking up Best Novel in 2009), so it’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out—maybe look to see Updraft pick up the Andre Norton instead of the Nebula. Wilde’s book fairly soars; it’s a wildly inventive world that is worth visiting for yourself.
I fairly adored Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which is her first novel to strike out from her successful Temeraire series. It’s a twisty fairy tale with a strangely modern sensibility. I’m struggling how to put this without sounding like a jerk, but I think Uprooted is just too weird to pick up a Nebula. I know, I know: Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, which won last year, was weird as all get out. And I may very well be eating crow, like I did last year when I discounted that book for its weirdness.
That brings us to Ken Liu’s dynastic fantasy The Grace of Kings. Liu has made a name for himself for his short fiction, picking up just a bevy of awards over the years. He translated Cixin Liu’s Nebula-nominated The Three-Body Problem from the Chinese. Basically, he’s crushing it. The Grace of Kings is his first novel, but he’s no unknown. I may be a bit gun-shy after I predicted the fantasy novel The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison would win the Nebula last year (it totally didn’t), but I do think it’s generally true that your last name has to be Bujold or Le Guin to pick up a Nebula for high fantasy. Otherwise, I think The Grace of Kings is freaking awesome, and Liu deserves a ton of hugs and puppies.
Onward to Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard. Schoen is another well-established writer: he’s written scads of short fiction, edited collections, and garnered a fair number of award nominations over the years.
But, and I hate to say this, I think he’s going to be this year’s Susan Lucci: another well-nominated, well-liked writer who just keeps getting passed over. Barsk starts really slow, a purposeful meandering through the lives of elephant creatures living on the titular planet, and then ramps up furiously in the end, dropping all manner of deeply cool science fictional concepts. Nefshons alone, man.
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I’m left with N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, my pick to take home the Nebula this year. Jemisin absolutely shreds the tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction in a novel that straddles the line between fantasy and sci-fi. I’ve been following her writing for a while, and I’ve dug what I’ve read heretofore, but The Fifth Season jumps into another realm completely.
Honestly, it is such a pleasure to see a novelist hone her craft like this. This book is meticulously structured, with a premise that will blow your socks off, perfectly executed by a writer that has been around the block a couple times. I think this is the golden ticket.
All in all, it’s been a very good year.
What’s your pick to win it all?