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Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 edited by Kevin J. Anderson

1/10/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 in the USA - or Buy Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 412 page enlarged paperback. Price: $17.99 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2842-7.

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‘The Nebula Awards Showcase 2011’ is the twelfth in a series of anthologies dedicated to showcasing the honours awarded annually by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America to Science Fiction stories at various lengths from short story to novel. The editor of this year’s edition, which covers the set of Nebulas awarded in May 2010, is the well-known SF author, Kevin J. Anderson.

It is worth noting that the anthology has changed publisher this year. It has previously been published by ROC, but this one comes from TOR instead. The change of publisher has led to a different approach to the contents, too. Previous years’ editions included a selection of the shortlisted stories, extracts from the award winners in the longer categories such as best novel and a number of non-fiction articles on a theme picked by that year’s editor. This year, TOR has decided to focus on printing all the shortlisted short stories and novelettes, the winning novella and a couple of other short pieces. In order to keep the book to a reasonable length, they have got rid of the extracts from the longer works and all of the non-fiction articles. This is quite a substantial change to the make-up of the anthology. Does it work?

The highlight of the anthology for me is Kage Baker’s ‘The Women Of Nell Gwynne’s’, which won the Nebula Award for Best Novella. This is a wonderfully written steampunk adventure based around the exploits of a group of high class prostitutes who do their work on behalf of the British Government, gathering intelligence from their rich and influential clients. The story is full of dry humour, is written in a brilliant pastiche of nineteenth century style and moves effortlessly from an exciting start to a flawless finish. The only sad note comes from the afterword following the story, which informs those readers not already aware of it that Kage Baker sadly died of cancer in January 2010 and so did not live to receive this award in person.

The winner in the Best Novelette category was ‘Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast’ by Eugie Foster. I had read this when it was originally published in ‘Interzone’ in February 2009, so it was interesting to come back to it again at a distance of two and a half years. The story is set in a fantasy world where individual personality has been sacrificed to a stylised existence pursued through masks. Each morning, every citizen chooses a mask from their own collection and puts it on. The mask imprints a personality on the wearer and that personality is acted out until sundown, when the mask is removed. However, when the narrator is approached by someone who seems happy to breach the etiquette surrounding this daily routine, he soon finds out about the dark secrets that underlie his supposedly civilised society and has to decide whose side he’s on. This is a very well written story and I can fully understand why it won the Nebula. I must admit, though, that it left me just as unmoved this time round as when I originally read it. My main problem with the story is that the society of the masked is an utterly vacuous one, reminiscent of the very worst of Regency England, as portrayed with such cutting wit by Jane Austen. There’s a lot more sex and violence than Austen would be comfortable with, but nobody in this society of landed gentry ever does anything useful, such as a job. I found it hard, because of this, to really care what happened to any of them.

My favourite of the other stories shortlisted in the novelette category was Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The Gambler’. This is the tale of a young immigrant from Laos, working as a journalist in a near-future America. The story mercilessly lampoons the global media’s obsession with ratings and their consequential focus on lowest common denominator stories about the sex lives of celebrities, at the expense of important public interest stories that apparently make people feel depressed. What I loved about this was that the protagonist, Ong, is a thoughtful, quiet and serious geek whose traditional Asian upbringing makes it almost impossible for him to accommodate himself to The American Way. Even so, Bacigalupi avoids the easy temptation to paint all those who get in Ong’s way as one-dimensional morons. This is a story filled with fully-rounded characters dealing with life as best they can. I loved every minute of it.

Kij Johnson’s ‘Spar’ was the winner in the Best Short Story category. This is a seriously strange story about a woman entwined and endlessly copulating with a formless alien in the alien’s emergency lifeboat after their two spaceships collided. As Johnson says in the introduction, ‘When I wrote “Spar”, I was trying to see how close to the edge I could bear to get, as both reader and writer.’ I can testify that she has got pretty close. Yet there’s something about the story that I found strangely mesmerising. It is one of the joys of genre fiction that it can step outside of the everyday in a million different ways. ‘Spar’ is a great example of that freedom.

One other story I enjoyed very much was ‘A !Tangled Web’ by Joe Haldeman. This was included because Haldeman won the SFWA’s Damon Knight Grand Master Award. It’s a very funny story, originally published in ‘Analog’ magazine in 1981, about two salesmen who have been sent to an alien planet to buy up some of the land near the ocean for a planned beachfront development. They are in direct competition with each other and watching them try to outsmart the other is a delight. What makes this story exceptional, though, is how Haldeman portrays the !tang, the aliens they’re trying to deal with. The way the !tang apologise profusely for the most innocent of mistakes, hoping that ‘my hair falls out and my flesh rots and my bones are cracked by the hungry ta!a’an. O the embarrassment’, for example, is a joy to read.

This is a great anthology. The stories are strong and the changes that TOR has made to the format are, on balance, good. When I reviewed last year’s anthology, I criticised the inclusion of extracts from novels, as I felt they were never long enough to give the reader a proper impression of the whole story. I’m therefore fully supportive of the decision to take such extracts out of the anthology this year. On the other hand, I did enjoy the non-fiction articles in previous year’s editions, which I felt added a certain uniqueness to the anthology. Nonetheless, on balance, the inclusion of all the shortlisted titles in the short story and novelette categories is a significant benefit to the new format, allowing readers to compare for themselves the winning story in both categories with all the shortlisted works. When that point is added to the very high level of the stories collected within, I judge the 2011 anthology a real success.

Patrick Mahon

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