Nebula Award


The Saturn Game: The slippery slope of fantasy role-playing

The Saturn Game by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson’s The Saturn Game, published in 1981, is a pre-Internet era exploration of role-playing games and their effect on the human psyche, which won the 1981 Nebula and the 1982 Hugo awards for best novella.

On an eight-year long voyage to Saturn, one of the more popular ways for the crew and colonists to pass time is becoming involved in psychodramas, a verbal-type role-playing game. But when a team of four people from the spaceship lands their smaller craft on Saturn’s moon Iapetus to explore the terrain, the terrain reminds three of them so strongly of the Tolkien-esque fantasy that they have spent countless hours creating and imagining that it begins to affect their judgment and discernment. Bad decisions start to cascade as fantasy impinges on their exploratory mis... Read More

The Quantum Rose: A Nebula? Really?

The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro

I have really really tried to give Catherine Asaro’s SKOLIAN EMPIRE series a fair chance. As I keep saying in my reviews, this should have been just my thing — space opera written by a female physicist. I should be loving this! Instead, to get straight to the point, so far these books have been mostly insipid insta-love romances with some quantum theory thrown in. As a woman who enjoys hard science fiction, and especially quantum theory, I was disappointed to find that these books do not appeal to me. It’s hard to imagine that they appeal much to romance readers, either, because the romances are so dull. A couple of the books (those featuring Kelric) might better be labeled erotica rather than romance.

The Quantum Rose is the sixth SKOLIAN EMPIRE book (going in publication order), but it can definitely stand alone. This one takes ... Read More

The Einstein Intersection: New Wave SF with style but story lacks discipline

The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

It doesn't get any more New Wave SF than this very slim 1968 Nebula-winning novel (157 pages), and it's hard to imagine anything like this being written today. The Einstein Intersection is a mythical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in a far-future Earth populated by the mutated remnants of humanity. Being a Samuel R. Delany book, the writing is disjointed, jazzy, lyrical, playful, and tantalizing. The surface events are fairly obscure, but it's clear that the real narrative is buried beneath, and in case you didn't catch on, every chapter has several obscure (and fairly pretentious) quotes from intellectuals, not least of all the author himself, who inserts between chapters snippets of his journals from his artistic travels in the Mediterranean while writing this book, in classic meta-fiction style. Even in a longer book I’d view this literary ... Read More

The Queen of Air and Darkness and Other Stories: Well-written but overstuffed

The Queen of Air and Darkness and Other Stories by Poul Anderson

Short story anthologies tend to be difficult to review, mostly because it’s hard to come up with a cohesive theme to discuss when the stories can be so diverse in quality and in tone. Fortunately for me, Poul Anderson seems to have gone out of his way in this little collection to ensure that any reviewer had no such problems here. The stories are actually remarkably similar in setting, tone, and theme. They also share much the same flaws. So while I will deal with the stories individually, I can also discuss them in general.

Each story in the collection is planetary romance of some description. Anderson apparently doesn’t buy into warp drives or wormholes, so voyages across the stars are always slow and expensive. In each story, humans establish colonies on some ... Read More

Magazine Monday: Nebula-Nominated Short Stories, 2014

Here are the short stories nominated for a 2014 Nebula Award:

In “The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard, the main character, Rechan, is pregnant. She must find her breath-sibling before she gives birth, or the baby will be stillborn. That, and the fact that they are carved by adolescent women from a special stone called lamsinh, are all we know about breath-siblings at first. Most women have their breath-siblings with them once they are created, but Rechan’s has remained in the mountains from which it was carved during a time of war on her planet. “The Breath of War” is a very alien story, setting up a world and a biology that are so different from ours that the wonder of the story comes from discovering the natu... Read More

The Dispossessed: A master work which stands the test of time

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The late 1960’s and early ‘70s was a magnificently productive time in Ursula LeGuin’s career.  Though she continued writing award-winning, successful novels, nothing matches the quality and quantity of her output in this time. The first three novels in the EARTHSEA CYCLE, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, and The Lathe of Heaven were all written then, each winning one if not more awards and flying off shop shelves. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, published in the middle of this stretch, rounds out the triumphant group and is considered by some her greatest achievement.

The Dispossessed is at heart the tale of Shevek and his struggle to acquire and d... Read More

Rendezvous with Rama: Leaves the reader humbled

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Extension of scale is an advantage science fiction has over other forms of literature, and it’s an idea Clarke puts to best use in Rendezvous with Rama. Rather than in a three dimensional sense wherein space extends infinitely, he instead uses scale to show how humanity and its accomplishments take on new meaning when viewed from the perspective of the cosmic unknown.

Bearing strong resemblance to the writings of Stanislaw Lem, Rendezvous with Rama tells the story of earth’s brief encounter with an enormous object/spacecraft that one day in a not-so-distant future suddenly appears traversing our solar system. Obviously the work of an intelligent species, the object nonetheless appears lifeless. And when explored by a team of scientists and astronauts, more questions than answers seem to arise as Clarke’s simple yet effective prose p... Read More

Falling Free: An early stand-alone VORKOSIGAN book

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free is an early stand-alone story in Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA. It takes place before the events we read about in the other books and tells the story of the Quaddies, those genetically engineered “mutants” who have four arms and no legs and who, therefore, make good workers for zero-gravity situations. They were created in secret by a corporation who is using them as free labor.

The story starts when Leo Graf, an engineer, is hired to train students on a distant planet. Leo doesn’t know, and isn’t told, that his new students are Quaddies, so he’s quite surprised and repulsed when he first meets them. Despite their strange anatomy, though, the Quaddies are just as smart as other humans and their four arms makes them better at some mechanical tasks. Soon it becomes apparent that the Quaddies are really just children and ... Read More

He Who Shapes: A short rich read from one of the strongest voices in SF

He Who Shapes by Roger Zelazny

In the mid to late ‘60s, the sci-fi world was Roger Zelazny’s oyster. Possessing an abundance of fresh ideas delivered with a deft hand, the author took the genre by storm — This Immortal, Lord of Light, and Creatures of Light and Darkness gained notable attention and won awards. Published amidst these unique novels was, however, a book of an entirely different range and frequency. More personal and cerebral than mythic or heroic, The Dream Master (1966) instead features Zelazny’s interests in the psyche, subconscious, and to a small degree, spiritualism. The novel is based on the novella He Who Shapes, which Zelazny would later state is his preferred version and is the subject of this review.

He Who Shapes is the story of Dr. Charles Rend... Read More

Darwin’s Radio: Cool idea that doesn’t connect

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear follows several characters — a molecular biologist, an archaeologist, and a public policy maker — through a cataclysmic pandemic sweeping through the human race. This disease is an HERV, a human endogenous retrovirus, which is a piece of dormant genetic code that, when activated, only affects sexually-active women. It causes them to get pregnant with a horribly-mutated fetus that self-aborts, only to follow up with another pregnancy of a new species of human, homo novus.

I found Bear's description of homo novus a fascinating suggestion of ways in which our species might evolve. He envisions humans evolving new physical structures. These structures —glands, concentrations of photo-sensitive skin cells, etc. —create new ways of communicating and relating between members of the species. This description was so much more interesting than your stereotypi... Read More

Magic for Beginners: Impressive and strange

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Kelly Link's short story collection, Magic for Beginners, is a great piece of work. In a bit of a departure from her earlier collection Stranger Things Happen, the stories in it don't follow normative narrative structures; they draw from sources as various as fairy tales, kitchen sink realism, heist stories, TV fandom, and Link's own surrealist vision.  These nine stories don't share overt connections, but they do provide a window into modern American life, complete with bland marriages, mortgages, and random zombie sightings. I listened to Random House Audio's version of this book which is almost 11 hours long and is read by various actors such as Cassandra Campbell, Lorna Raver, Marc Bramhall, and others.

The first story, "The Faery Handbag," was my favorite. It was the most straightforward, which probably indicates that I'm a lazy reader and ... Read More

The Left Hand of Darkness: An important thought experiment

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Given science fiction’s near infinite palette of available colors, it was bound to happen one day. Thankfully, Ursula Le Guin was the one. The idea: androgynous humans. Winner of several awards, the social significance of science fiction has never had a stronger proponent than The Left Hand of Darkness, the meaning of gender never so relevant to mankind.

Genly Ai is an envoy sent to the planet Gethen to convince the nation of Karrhide to join Earth’s Ekumen (a politically neutral organization supporting the dissemination of knowledge, culture, and commerce). What he encounters are the native Gethens, an androgynous people who go into kemmer once a month, physically adapting to the features of any mate they encounter during that time. Mixed up in the local politics is Estraven, a Gethen Genly meets as part of his inter-planetary task, and the two sub... Read More

Babel-17: It’s all that, and a bag of marbles

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 won the 1966 Nebula award for best novel, tying with Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon. Samuel Delany’s space opera novel is dated in many ways, but still holds up.

In the future, humans have colonized many star systems. Currently, the Alliance is engaged in a war with the Invaders, who, despite the name, are also human. The Alliance has intercepted many dispatches in a code they can’t break. They’ve labeled it Babel-17. Desperate, they turn to the inter-galactically renowned poet Rydra Wong to help them decipher it.

Wong is in her late twenties, a linguistic, semantic and telepathic genius, a starship captain, and so compelling that the general who meets with her falls in love with her almost instantly. There is more than a bit of fantasy wish-fulfillment in this character. (Don’t believe me? Say this out loud: “... Read More

Sailing to Byzantium: Move it to the top of your to-read stack

Sailing to Byzantium by Robert Silverberg

I just finished listening to the audio version of Sailing to Byzantium. It was read convincingly by Tom Parker, who transported me in time along with Charles, the lead character. Charles is from New York City, and he is a twentieth-century man, a curiosity in the world of the story. His 1984 is long gone, yet he doesn't quite understand how he's been transported in time to the 50th century. The people of this time, the "citizens," will tell him very little actually. They consider Charles to be a "visitor." Charles doesn't know how long his visit will be though. He is confused and tries to go with the flow, but keeps finding it hard to do so in this very odd future world.

In the 50th century ("of what," he wonders at one point), there are very few citizens. There is a small world population compared to 1984 (and especially compared to our time). All the citizens look almost identical — ... Read More

Beggars in Spain: Liked the ideas, didn’t love the characterizations

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress won a Nebula and a Hugo in 1991 for her novella “Beggars in Spain,” about genetically altered humans who don’t need to sleep. In 1993 she expanded the novella into a novel and ultimately into a series.

The first quarter of Beggars in Spain is basically the original novella, in which the reader meets Leisha Camden, the genetically altered child of multi-billionaire Roger Camden. Lithe, golden-haired, blue-eyed and beautiful, Leisha is also extraordinarily intelligent and sleepless. How do people feel about Leisha and the others like her, dubbed The Sleepless? The question is more pointed in Leisha’s case — and more personal — because she has a fraternal twin, Alice, who is a Sleeper.

This book is an “idea” book, less about the character and more about how humans, on the individual level, in the aggregate and in the political aggregate, react to cha... Read More

The Secret Sharer and Other Stories: Silverberg achieves greatness

The Secret Sharer and Other Stories by Robert Silverberg

The Secret Sharer and Other Stories by Robert Silverberg is available on Audible and offers a top-notch performance by Robertson Dean. The title is a little misleading, I think. There are only three selections included, and only one is a short story. The other two seem to be novellas. However, based on the way Silverberg’s works have been repackaged and republished over the years, even those distinctions are difficult to make: For example, We Are for the Dark is included in both his collected short stories volume seven, We Are for the Dark: 1987-1990, and in the collection Sailing to Byzantium: Six Novellas. In listening to all three selections, I noticed that The Secret Sharer and We Are for the Dark are both much longer than "Good News from the Vatican." The short story is a good one, but I absolutely loved the two... Read More

A Time of Changes: A beautifully written book

A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

After four years of successive losses, sci-fi great Robert Silverberg finally picked up his first Nebula Award in 1972. His 1967 novel Thorns had lost to Samuel R. Delany's The Einstein Intersection, his brilliant 1968 novel The Masks of Time had been bested by Alexei Panshin's equally brilliant Rite of Passage, 1969's time travel tale Up the Line had succumbed to Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, while 1970's unforgettable Tower of Glass had been beaten by Larry Niven's Ringworld.

But in 1972, Silverberg finally copped the top prize given out by the Science Fic... Read More

Red Mars: Sets the bar for Mars colonization novels

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Mars has been a subject of science fiction since its earliest days: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Philip K. Dick’s The Martian Time-slip, Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Princess of Mars series, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, C.S. Lewis’s SPACEtrilogy, Ben Bova's Mars, and many others have in one way or another imagined what life might be like on our neighboring globe. Representing ... Read More

Ancillary Justice: This Nebula nominee is a book of big ideas in a bang-up adventure

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Wow! What a read! Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie grabbed my attention from the first paragraphs, when Breq, a humanoid who was once a soldier, finds an unconscious body in the snow.
There was something itchingly familiar about that outthrown arm, the line from shoulder down to hip. But it was hardly possible I knew this person. I didn’t know anyone here. This was the icy back end of a cold and isolated planet, as far from Radchaai ideas of civilization as it was possible to be.
Breq appears to be a soldier and so does the figure in the snow, Seivarden. Seivarden is a drug addict coming off a high, and will only slow Breq down, but she helps Seivarden anyway.

These two characters have more in common than either of them first realize. Each is a lost soul. Seivarden was in a state of suspension for a thousand years, after the loss of a starship in a battle. Breq was Justice... Read More

The Gods Themselves: Asimov’s favorite of his SF novels

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

“Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”

Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves earned the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. About 15 years ago it was put on the Locus list of All Time Best Science Fiction Novels.

If you’re anything like me, that’s enough to put The Gods Themselves on your To Be Read List and, indeed, it has been on mine for years because I aim to read all those award winners sometime before I die. What moved The Gods Themselves to the top of the list was that Random House Audio recently produced it in audio format and it’s read by one of my favorite classic SF readers, Scott Brick. (I love Scott Brick!)

The Gods Themselves has a strange structure. The story is told non-line... Read More

Startide Rising: Sentient dolphins

Startide Rising by David Brin

I had never read a David Brin book before reading Startide Rising. Hearing his background was in math, physics, astronomy, etc., I went about buying one of his books with trepidation. Isaac Asimov, Vernor Vinge, Alastair Reynolds, and other popular science fiction authors may be good scientists, but they lack the touch and feel of an inborn writer and the style of their novels suffers. Though it’s prose is not glorious, Startide Rising was nevertheless a pleasant surprise.

A fun mix of hard SF and space opera, Startide Rising is a unique story that sets itself apart from derivative SF for its premise. A dolphin and human... Read More

Born With the Dead: Three shorter pieces from one of science fiction’s best

Born With the Dead: Three Novellas About the Spirit of Man by Robert Silverberg

Born With the Dead gathers together three of Robert Silverberg's mid-career science fiction novellas into one remarkably fine collection. With a length greater than a short story or novelette but shorter than a full-length novel, these three tales clock in at around 55 to 70 pages each, and all display the intelligence, word craft and abundance of detail common to all of Silverberg's work in the late '60s to mid-'70s. Although subtitled "Three Novellas About the Spirit of Man" on its original 1974 release, the collection features a trio of tales that, strive as I might, I cannot find a common denominator among. Two of the stories concern how mankind deals with the subject of death, while the third has man's relation to religion and God as its central theme. OK, I HAVE thought of some commonalities among all three: They are all wonderful exemplars of modern-day sci... Read More

Ancillary Justice: Long live hype

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Hype is an untrustworthy thing, which has led me astray before. It either ratchets my hopes so high that they’re bound to be disappointed (see: A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE) or it leaves me snarking condescendingly about popular opinion and the “masses” and how no one really understands empire (see: The Hunger Games). But sometimes, hype operates like giant flashing arrows pointing me towards a book that I never would have otherwise discovered, and my entire faith in popular opinion and my fellow genre-readers is restored. That was my experience with Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s 2013 debut novel. From the back-cover blurb, I would never have bought it: On a rem... Read More

Forever Peace: About empathy and understanding

Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

Despite the similarities in name, Joe Haldeman’s 1997 Forever Peace shares nothing in common with his huge success, The Forever War, save the military science fiction motif. Winning its own accolades (the Nebula, Hugo, and John W. Campbell Awards), Forever Peace is a novel less focused on the portent of war and more on the idea of universal understanding. Not without its share of action, however, readers will find Haldeman back in The Forever War form, the novel containing both depth and entertainment.

Forever Peaceis the story of Julian Class, both scientist and operator of a mechanized robot called a “soldierboy” for the US military. By jacking in to a device that collectively links operators... Read More

Coraline: A dark and creepy fairytale

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Like many, I watched the brilliant stop-motion filmic adaptation of Coraline before reading Neil Gaiman's original story, and as such, it was interesting to see the deviations between the book and film. Much like Stardust, another Gaiman book that was given the big-screen treatment, Coraline is a truly wonderful example of a story of such imaginative potency that any filmic adaptation only enhances and enriches it.

Gaiman is consistently good at two things: drawing upon ancient folklore in which to shape his tales, and remembering what it was like to be a child. So many of his books (most recently The Ocean at the End of the Lane) have taken the structure and elements of fairytales and filtered them through a child protagonist's point of view, resulting in stories that tap into o... Read More