Blogging the Nebulas: Calculating the Odds

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

This is my fifth year #BloggingTheNebulas. For two years running, I’ve managed to predict the winner correctly. The two years before that, not so much. I would say that gives me even odds of getting it right this time around, but that’s not really how award predictions work. I can point at current trends or past preferences among the Nebula voters, but untimely what is being judged are the merits of a work of art. A book’s impact on any given reader is personal, and the personal defies statistics.

The Nebula nominees for Best Novel are generally excellent: a half-dozen or so sifted out of the hundreds published every year by other pro writers who know craft when they see it. Though I try not to let my own tastes influence my predictions—I am not a Nebula voter—I’d like to note just how much I personally enjoyed every single nominee this year. My shaky prediction of which one might win should not be taken as a criticism of those that might not. For me, reading (or rereading) all six nominees has been its own reward.

With that, I’ll begin with the books I think are less likely to take home the Nebula. It is here I will slot in our three debut novels: Witchmark, by C.L. Polk; The Poppy Warby R.F. Kuang; and Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse. There is recent precedent for a first novel winning the Nebula—Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice in 2014; Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl in 2009—but writers tend to only get better with each book. (I’m putting an asterisk next to Charlie Jane Anders’ win for All the Birds in the Sky in 2017; while it was a first genre novel, it wasn’t her first novel, and that year was strange in other ways—five of the six nominees were debuts of one kind or another, and the sixth was a sequel.) Generally, I think later books in an author’s career have a leg up.

C.L. Polk’s Witchmark is set at the end of a Great War, in a world recalling but not exactly own early 20th century England—this one has been influenced by a magical system that has been twisted for political ends. The main character is a physician who was once a subjugated member of one his country’s ruling magical families; in order to escape being used as a sort of human battery for his sister’s magic, Miles Singer joined the military and escaped to the front lines. (That war seemed preferable to chaining his life to his sister’s power tells you something important about the privileged life he rejected.) Witchmark addresses the very personal effects of empire building: our physician’s patients are all soldiers suffering from the psychological traumas of war, and he himself has not gone unscathed by both his upbringing and his time as a soldier. I really enjoyed the bike-punk Edwardian aesthetic, and the way the novel manages to illustrate the grand machinations of empire through the personal perspective of one person. But it is still a first novel, displaying (minor) issues with pacing and the overall plotting. The sequel, Stormsong, arrives early next year, and it will be a treat to return to that world, and likely a stronger book, befitting the maturing talents of the author.

R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is such an ambitious novel, I almost can’t believe it’s a debut. The plot follows a war orphan  named Rin from her humble beginnings in a backwater province to a position of national import. When she aces the national test for admittance into Nikan’s most prestigious military academy, Sinegard, she is relieved to escape her small, mean life. However, Sinegard proves to be no escape: her fellow students are mostly the privileged children of wealth, not dark-skinned orphans, and many of her teachers consider her an upstart and a usurper. The novel’s first half is something like a boarding school fantasy, though with none of the coziness that description implies. At the midway point, everything changes: Nikan restarts hostilities with the neighboring Federation, and Rin and her fellow students are thrust out of the schoolroom and onto the battlefield. The Poppy War is a brutal national epic with a protagonist who is as terrifying as she is tenacious. Though it is a truly prodigious work, there just isn’t much precedent for large-scale epic fantasies picking up the prize, especially when they are first novels. Consider: of the books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, only A Clash of Kings was Nebula nominated, and that was 20 years ago (it lost to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents). N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, which won best novel last year, is a fantasy novel of incredible scope, but it was the culmination of an acclaimed trilogy, and most definitely not a debut.

First novels can take risks you don’t necessarily see in later ones; there’s just something about experiencing all that raw potential and talent struggling free. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is a revelatory debut, a post-apocalyptic tale set in what was once a Navajo reservation, before the drowning of the world. The opening finds Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter of the Dine, in a self-imposed exile. She’s drawn out to find a missing child, and what she uncovers during her mission sends her back out into the world. For a person with a magical talent for killing, this isn’t necessarily a good thing—for the world or for Maggie. It is an active, inventive novel, and Maggie’s voice is just aces—urban fantasy can sometimes feel a little sleepy, but Trail of Lightning shocks the genre to life. Though debut novels, not to mention urban fantasy novels, rarely take home the prize (and there isn’t an example of a winner that’s both), Trail of Lightning is so much fun, and so daring, I’ll peg it as a dark horse contender.

Next up is Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller. Like All the Birds in the Sky, Blackfish City isn’t really a first novel, but it’s the author’s first novel eligible for a Nebula. Also calling it a debut doesn’t quite do justice to the author’s prior career—this is the fourth time Miller has been up for a Nebula award, following several short story nods, and in 2018 he took home the Andre Norton Award for The Art of Starving. Blackfish City is probably the most metal of all of this year’s contenders (though Trail of Lightning is a close second): it opens with an orcamancer riding a skiff with a polar bear in chains at her side, and just gets cooler from there. The book takes place in the floating city of Qaanaaq, located in swollen, post-climate change Arctic waters. The city is owned by shadowy figures but run by an impersonal AI. The arrival of the orcamancer—and what she represents—upsets the delicate equilibrium of the city. This one is another strong contender. The cli-fi setting is timely, and more importantly, the novel skirts the line between scifi and fantasy in a way that a number of recent winners have: the orcamancer and the strange wasting disease afflicting the city seem almost magical, even while the trappings of the world are cyberpunk. Blackfish City would fit right in with previous winners like The Stone Sky, which blends straight up magic with smart geological science, and All the Bird in the Sky, which very deliberately invokes both science fictional and magical tropes.

Still, I think even Sam J. Miller’s marvelous book will come in behind one of our final two: Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik, and The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Both Kowal and Novik are well established writers with dozens of nominations and a whole raft of awards between them. (As an odd aside: they both got their starts writing alt-Regency fantasy.) The first two of Kowal’s Glamourist History series were both nominated for the Nebula, and the novelette prequel to The Calculating Stars, “The Lady Astronuat of Mars,” was awarded the Hugo for best novelette. Novik’s previous novel, Uprooted, took home the Nebula in 2016. Both writers have a firm command of language and a polished prose style, and both know how to construct a novel. Either could take home the Nebula and I wouldn’t bat an eye.

Spinning Silver isn’t a sequel to Uprooted, but it offers a similar fairy tale sensibility, drawn from Eastern European history and legend. The novel primarily follows three young women: Miryem, the daughter of a moneylender; Irina, the daughter of a boyar with aspirations; and Wanda, the daughter of a serf. In the first third, both Miryem and Irina are married to powerful men: a fairy king (here called the Staryk) and the Tsar himself, respectively. In a fairy tale, their royal marriages would serve as happy endings. Here, they are just the start of a larger story. Fairy tales often follow a trajectory from humble beginnings to royalty—lucky Hans leaves home, and by then end, rules the country. But Spinning Silver never loses its focus on the day to day, the personal, and the complex web of friendship, family, and country that binds a life. Uprooted was a tough act to follow, but Spinning Silver is, if anything, more enthralling than its predecessor. But two things make me hesitate to declare it the likely winner. While it is precisely the kind of high fantasy novel that Nebula voters go for (its predecessor’s win three years ago proves that), past voters have shown an (admittedly dwindling) preference for science fiction over fantasy. Moreover, Novik took home an award for best novel just three years ago, and I think the voters will lean toward someone who hasn’t been so recently fêted.

Which brings me to The Calculating Stars. The novel details an alt-history Space Race through the eyes of one woman, Elma York. In 1952, a meteor strikes the planet outside of Washington DC and, as a consequence, most of the Easter seaboard is destroyed. Because of the greenhouse effect caused by the resulting steam in the atmosphere, the Earth will be inhabitable within a few short centuries. The Space Race that follows is thus one against time, and not the Soviets. Elma, who is trained as both a human calculator and a pilot, is determined to be one of the first people go toMars. Though the barriers to her becoming an astronaut are changed in this alternate timeline—if we are going to colonize other planets, women must be included—they are not inconsequential. But The Calculating Stars isn’t just about Elma’s professional goals: her struggles with anxiety offer a personal counterpoint to the institutional hurdles she faces, and are a direct result of both her education and the cataclysm of the recent past. Elma is an incredibly competent, accomplished person who is nonetheless occasionally overwhelmed by self doubt.

In addition to being just an excellent novel, The Calculating Stars is also meticulously researched and (though this is harder to quantify) really, really cool. Many of us start reading science fiction in part because of that sense of discovery and wonder: what’s out there, just a little farther into the black? Even though I was born after Neil Armstrong took his famous first steps on the moon, The Calculating Stars captured for me the air of a whole generation of people yearning for the sky, and for what is beyond the sky, in a visceral way. For that reason, more than any other, I think it will be named the winner of the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Whether I’m right or wrong, I wish all the nominees the best of luck. It was an honor to read such a fine group of novels.

Who do you think will win the Nebula this year? Find full reviews of this year’s nominees here. Previous years’ Blogging the Nebulas entries are here.

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Blogging the Nebulas: Blackfish City Carries the Zeitgeist on the Back of a Whale

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

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 six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

As the title suggests, Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City is as much about a place as it is about any given character. Its chapters cycle through four point-of-view characters: a messenger, a civil servant, a fighter, and a scion of great wealth. The perspective of the fifth character, the city of Qaanaaq, is told in chapters taken from “City Without a Map,” a mysteriously-sourced chronicle of a built city floating on open arctic water somewhere east of Greenland, north of Iceland.

As the book opens, we’re somewhere midway through a climactic apocalypse. Every nation you can think of has fallen (often several times), or changed irrevocably, or disappeared beneath the waves. Qaanaaq—a municipality run by artificial intelligence and owned by anonymous founders—gathers up the flotsam and jetsam of a drowning world.

While reading the first couple chapters, I did something I don’t usually do: I sketched a map of the floating city. It’s an eight-armed starfish of a place, and each numbered spoke has its own particular flavor: the wealthy enclaves of one and two; the slums of seven and eight; the docked ships off of five, where gangsters hold court. Each character pins themselves to the place—or places—they are from, or are going, or where they want to go. Qaanaaq is as callous and as kindly as any city, beholden to the tides of wealth and influence, but still carved out with shifting cultures that owe nothing to the systems of governance.

Qaanaaq’s fragile equilibrium is upset by the arrival of a woman on skiff. Alongside her vessel swims an orca; on the prow sits a polar bear in chains. She’s rumored to be many things, a figure of gossip and myth. Though everyone seems to have heard tell of the orcamancer, her exact location is hard to triangulate, her origins are mysterious, and her motives are opaque. Meanwhile, the city moves to its own rhythms: a young man learns he has a fatal, mentally withering disease; a zipline messenger makes a play for a different life; a brain-damaged fighter upsets his place in the criminal hierarchy; a woman tries to free her mother from a prison in everything but name.

Blackfish City is a peripatetic novel, ranging over the city of Qaanaaq—into its past, into the pasts of its characters, into the larger world and its complicated, strangling history. Its name is a palindrome, and we read it backward and forward in time.

Why it will win:

This may be an odd argument to make, but hear me out: I think Blackfish City is the novel that best encapsulates the zeitgeist of 2018.

It’s a cli-fi novel that isn’t preachy or (necessarily) a bummer, equally hard science-y and character driven. Though a lot of the overt action and submerged backstory is bleak, there’s a tremulous sense of optimism wending its way through the story. The fact of Qaanaaq—this impossible metal starfish clinging to place in the bitter north—makes it an object of wonder. So too is the orcamancer, though the repercussions of that wonder are harsh, if not fatal. Qaanaaq is a patchwork place, both made up of the histories of other places and the trauma of their fall. Like the novel that took home the Nebula in 2016, Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, Sam J. Miller’s first novel for adults has an indefinable quality: it is a story that best encapsulated the weird right-now.

Moreover, the Nebula is an industry award, and Miller has the requisite chops—often a factor in who wins. Last year he picked up the Andre Norton Award for The Art of Starving. (Not too be too reductive, but the Andre Norton is akin to a Nebula for young adult science fiction and fantasy.)

Why it won’t win:

Per usual, I can take the reasons why I think this novel will win and read them backward as I argue why it might not. The novel I thought was the best finger on the pulse of 2017, Amberlough, didn’t take home the Nebula; the award went instead to N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, the absolutely devastating conclusion of a juggernaut of a trilogy. Though Miller does have a well respected YA novel under his belt, Blackfish City is still only his second novel, and his first for adults. And though this may be a little outside the purview of this series, neither did Blackfish City pick up a Hugo nomination. While there is imperfect overlap between the Hugo and Nebula winners, the winners do tend to be taken from the pool of novels nominated for both.

Arguments aside, I fairly loved Blackfish City. Its themes and concerns are right smack in my wheelhouse. Any novel that starts me scribbling notes on a self-drawn map is one that has hit me hard. Reading through the nominees every year introduces me to books I would have otherwise missed. Even though this is a somewhat dippy thing to say, the nomination ends up being its own reward, for me anyway.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

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