Magazine Monday: 2013 Nebula Award Nominations for Best Short Stories

nebula photoHelena Bell’s “Robot” is one of three nominated stories that originally appeared in Clarkesworld. It is a bitter story of a woman abandoned to the ministrations of a robot when she becomes ill. It is told in the second person as a list of commands and instructions by the woman to the robot. As much as the robot seems to be a blessing to this woman, she speaks to it as if she hates and resents it, even as she is forced to rely upon it as her disease — and the robot — eat her alive. (The robot removes diseased flesh from her body by eating it.) The worst of it, though, is that the robot seems to change to resemble her as it grows to know her. Is the robot intended to replace her? This story is more about tone and emotion than it is about plot, and Bell certainly captures and makes us understand the anger of the woman in her story. While I can appreciate the skill with which this story was written, I disliked its astringent tone, which doesn’t seem justified by the circumstances in which the narrator finds herself.

Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” by Maria Dahvana Headley originally appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, one of two nominated stories from that periodical. It is a love story about two people who meet at a wedding and fall madly in love at first sight. Their love, though unexpected and so speedily consummated as to seem anything but lust, is as real as can be, regardless of consequences. And there are definitely consequences. The lovers already have spouses: she is married to a magician, and he to a witch. The spouses meet up to plot their revenge, and their toast to “forever” has consequences for all four people. Headley writes beautifully, able to explain the inexplicable: “They touch fingertips in the dark. Her fingerprints to his. Ridge against furrow. They fit together as though they are two parts of the same tree. He moves his hand from hers, and touches her breastbone. Her heart beats against his fingers.” The language is what makes this story my pick for the winner in this Nebula category.

Every time I reread Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion,” though, I start thinking it’s more of a tie. “Immersion” was first published in Clarkesworld. It is about avatars, a bit of alien technology that allows one to project an appearance that is at odds with one’s normal appearance — thinner, lighter-skinned, whatever one desires. The problem is that wearing an avatar for too long has substantial side effects, and one of the characters in the story is experiencing the worst of them. The story has a more complex plot than the other nominated stories; in addition, it has two viewpoint characters, and two different voices (second person and third person, each involving the perspective of a different character). It’s a tricky piece of writing that works exceptionally well, with an ending that feels entirely right.

“Everyone makes books,” Ken Liu tells us in the opening of “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” the second nominated story to have originally appeared in Lightspeed Magazine. He goes on to explore what books are and how they work in different alien species, from the Allatians, who write in a way not too dissimilar to the way humans do, to the Caru’ee, who are so infinitesimal — about the size of a period — that they use the books of other civilizations to construct their own homes, offices and public buildings. The story reminds me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in that it is written in a series of vignettes that explains what books mean to each species. There is no plot, but the overarching idea that every species has a means of writing books is bound to be appealing to many readers.

Only one of the nominated stories comes from a traditional periodical: Leah Cypess’s “Nanny’s Day” was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. This story is also the most traditional in structure, with a straightforward plot and no experimentation with prose style. That doesn’t make it boring; quite the contrary. The inventiveness of this story comes entirely from the idea, which is that, in a future not too far down the road, a nanny can sue for custody of her charge if she believes that the mother isn’t a sufficient guardian for the child. A standard clause in the contractor between a nanny and a parent has been adopted, by which the nanny explicitly acknowledges that she may not sue for custody. But contracts are often made to be broken. The narrator is a divorced attorney who often returns home only in time to give her three-year-old son a goodnight kiss. She has left her son in the care of his current nanny for seven months, even though the traditional length of employment for a nanny is only three months to avoid an undue attachment; she’s just been too busy to find a new nanny. The inevitable happens and the nanny sues the narrator for custody of the boy, primarily, it seems, to test that clause. It’s a sharp story with a nice, legalistic, but nonetheless emotional ending.

Cat Rambo’s story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain” comes from her story collection, Near + Far. It posits a planet in which the dominant intelligent species is silica-based; that is, the inhabitants are essentially china dolls. The protagonist is Tikka, who has a government job writing copy to promote the planet to tourists; her specialty is writing lists of fives (the five signs of spring in her city, the five best tourist attractions). Tikka is from the lower caste of her society, not the best china, and she has achieved her position through scholarship. But she is dedicated to her work, and especially dedicated to avoiding love at all costs. There’s a story behind that latter resolution, and Rambo tells it, delicately but explicitly, and the reader can feel her heart breaking for this poor bit of porcelain. It’s a remarkable feat of imagination.

The story that has haunted me the most of the seven nominated tales is Tom Crosshill’s “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes.” The first-person narrator, Rico, and his wife work to create virtual realities that allow one to survive death, or into which the living can enter and have experiences that are better than the real thing. Rico has some hesitations about the work the two of them are doing, and wonders whether the afterlife he has created for others, especially including his father, really does them a favor. His concerns are magnified by his mother’s frailty; at 100 years old, she could die any time, and Rico isn’t certain that he should create a habitat for her to reside in after her physical death. It’s not that long ago that I read a scientist’s statement that we won’t be uploading ourselves to computers any time soon, because the human brain is just too complex, and this story reminded me of that; will we settle for a lesser complexity just to go on? It’s a thought-provoking story, originally published in Clarkesworld.

So: seven stories, as different from one another as tales can be, and not just in their content. Style, voice, form: these stories vary dramatically. I’ve linked the story titles to online sources, so that you can read them before the Nebulas are awarded to the winners on May 19. Which one gets your vote?


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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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