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The many faces of loss: This year’s Nebula Awards Short Story Nominees

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) have announced the nominee list for the annual Nebula Awards, and, as usual, it’s got some strong points of interest.

There’s an unresolved question in SFF fandom, of which I am but a tangential part, around which is more prestigious / better / more dynamic / more predictive of quality, a Nebula Award or a Hugo Award. The Hugos, unlike the Nebulas, are voted on by anyone who is a member of that year’s WorldCon – World Science Fiction Convention. The Nebulas are strictly a professional affair, with only members of SFWA allowed to vote (and only published authors can be members of SFWA).

As you’d expect, there is often a substantial overlap between the two awards, but it’s far from a complete mirror. I enjoy every year spending some quality time analysing the overlaps and the omissions across the two lists (aka slightly geeky contemplating of my navel), and I have come to the conclusion that the variances are, on the whole, random. You could make the argument – and people have – that the Nebulas slant towards more earth-based, problem-based stories, while the Hugos celebrate the grand space operas. You could assert, and people do, that the Nebulas are more hard-sci-fi centric, while the Hugos are more inclusive of fantasy and genre-benders.

All possibly sustainable if you squint, but really, I think both awards reflect the moment and mood in the community that votes for them, and little else. If there is a difference, it’s between the state of the zeitgeist among creators and consumers of a particular kind of creative content (and that, in itself, could make for a very interesting PhD for someone one day).

This year’s Nebula nominees are a fine bunch of works, across several categories as usual, with some well-known names and some up-and-comers. One category that I found particularly intriguing this year, however, was the short story category. There are five nominees:

“The Sounds of Old Earth,’’ Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,’’ Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,’’ Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,’’ Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,’’ Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)

What interested me, other than the fact that these are almost all new names to me (I have read a little by Kenneth Schneyer, and liked it) was the theme that I thought I could pick up running through all but one of the titles. Of course, titles don’t tell you everything, especially with short stories, but I felt a sense of ominousness, of doom, emanating from the ways these stories were named.

For once, as it happened, my spidey senses were in perfect working order, because if there is a common thread linking these five very different stories, it is that of loss. How loss is defined and represented varies enormously from story to story, as you would expect, but the thin wail of bereavement carries through each of these stories and makes reading all five in a row a harrowing, if intriguing, experience.

The stories are quite genre distinct types, with one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment. Kressel’s tale is a fairly classic “loss of the Earth” story, with an unexceptional twist that isn’t really a twist. Samatar’s juicy, pungent story about lost mothers and foreshadowed loss is a teen-angst story in the finest tradition, drawn into the fantasy church with the lightest and deftest of references. Wrigley’s aching, hurting story is a ‘strange worlds, dangerous worlds’ lament. Swirsky’s first-person epistle draws on fantasy revenge plotting as well as the not inconsiderable vein of human-alien bonding literature that exists in speculative fiction. All four of these are good stories; I’d even class Samatar’s, Wrigley’s and Swirsky’s as very good (Kressel’s, I do feel, is let down by its predictable ending). In a different field on a different day, any of these could have been a winner. However, that is in a list without the Schneyer story.

The one of these kids who’s not like the others is Schneyer’s extraordinary “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer”. Now, I read a lot of short stories, across many genres, and I can honestly say this is one of the most original and compelling stories I have ever read. My only reservation really is that of a purist – I’m not completely persuaded that it is science fiction, or fantasy. It certainly has strong elements of magic realism, and indeed the paranormal, but does that in itself qualify it for a place on a science fiction award list? I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is this: it is an incredible, powerful story, and will probably win the Nebula this year (or at least it should).

“Selected Program Notes” can be read as a sideways movement on the epistolary tradition, in that it uses notes on the works of a fictional artist (Theresa Rosenberg Latimer) to unfold a curious and multi-faceted story of a life, or in fact several lives. The program notes are pitch-perfect in their tone – I have read actual artistic program notes that sound eerily similar, with that mixture of didacticism and assumption, theory and description, the fervent attempt to link the life to the work. The really fascinating thing, though, is that by ‘hearing’ them in the sequence Schneyer carefully chooses to present them, they become almost like a letter to the reader – a letter not by Theresa Latimer, but about her, told by a critic who is also an intimate, a confessor and a judge.

There are disturbing themes in this story, and tremendously sad ones – loss sits heavily across many of the descriptions, although here it is mediated with transformation (and even transfiguration, but I won’t say more on this or else it’ll plot-spoil). The great achievement, though, is in all the things it manages to suggest through mere description of an imagined painting. (Is description ever “mere”?) In dryly narrating the detail of Latimer’s brush strokes, Schneyer peels back her inner turmoils, her fears, her soul. That’s no mean feat to accomplish with such particularised material. In fact, the only quibble I really have is the opposite of a criticism – the immersive experience of this story made me want to Google and gaze at the (non-existent) paintings I had just read about. No higher praise is available, really.

All in all, I don’t recommend gulping these five down in one sitting as I did – it will leave you very flat! – but if you like good short fiction, definitely give at least the Samatar, the Wrigley and the wonderful Scheyer a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.