Yet More Awards

Farah Mendlesohn thinks there’s something missing from the nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, specifically the science fiction, and has some suggestions for filling the gap.

While this is a nice idea, I can’t help thinking the Nebulas are now pretty much a waste of space, and that the only viable solution is to take off and nuke the site from orbit. Here’s the full preliminary ballot. I just want to pull out the nominees for Best Novel:

Ragamuffin, by Tobias Buckell (Tor, Jun07)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, May07)
Species Imperative #3: Regeneration, by Julie E. Czerneda (full PDF on Private Edition) (DAW, May06)
Vellum: The Book of All Hours, by Hal Duncan (Del Rey, Apr06 (Macmillan hardcover Nov05 (UK)))
The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman (Ace, Aug07)
The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson (Warner Books, Feb07)
Mainspring, by Jay Lake (Tor, Jun07)
Odyssey, by Jack McDevitt (full PDF on Private Edition) (Ace, Nov06)
The Outback Stars, by Sandra McDonald (Tor, May07)
Strange Robby, by Selina Rosen (full PDF and hardcopy offer on Private Edition) (Meisha Merlin Publishing Jul06)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic Press, Jul07)
Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer (Analog, Feb07 (serialized in Oct06 through Jan/Feb07 issues; Tor book, Apr07))
Blindsight, by Peter Watts (free Creative Commons versions) (Tor, Oct06)

These are, apparently, the novels that professional science fiction and fantasy writers think are the best examples of their craft from the most recent Nebula nomination period. You will see there are a couple of problems with this idea. First is the presence of the names “Jack McDevitt” and “Robert J Sawyer”. Second is the fact that about 40% of the nominees were published in 2006, and one was first published in 2005.

The BSFA doesn’t do a preliminary ballot for its awards, but just as a contrast, here are the nominations received so far for the BSFA Award for Best Novel, which is of course primarily nominated for by fans.

Alice in Sunderland – Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape)
Bad Monkeys – Matt Ruff (Bloomsbury)
Black Man – Richard Morgan (Gollancz)
Bone Song – John Meaney (Gollancz)
Brasyl – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
Glasshouse – Charles Stross (Orbit)
Harm – Brian Aldiss (Duckworth)
Helix – Eric Brown (Solaris)
Ink – Hal Duncan (Macmillan)
Season of the Witch – Natasha Mostert (Bantam)
Selling Out – Justina Robson (Gollancz)
Sixty Days and Counting – Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins)
Sound Mind – Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)
Spook Country – William Gibson (Viking)
Stealing Light – Gary Gibson (Tor)
The Atrocity Archive – Charles Stross (Orbit – collected in The Atrocity Archives)
The Blood Knight – Greg Keyes (Tor)
The Dreaming Void – Peter F Hamilton (Tor)
The Execution Channel – Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
The H-Bomb Girl – Stephen Baxter (Faber)
The Prefect – Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate)
Tourniquet: Tales from the Renegade City – Kim Lakin-Smith (Immanion Press)

Now, this is not a list without its own omissions (in my opinion) and oddities (I thought the long-ago magazine publication of The Atrocity Archives would make it ineligible, but apparently not). However, the large majority of these books were eligible for this year’s Nebula Award. Is there anyone out there who wants to argue that, of the two, the Nebula list is a better snapshot of contemporary science fiction? Hell, does anyone want to argue that it includes better books?

This is, of course, not to mention the many excellent novels that were published in the US only this year, and were therefore not eligible for the BSFA Awards. Books by Jo Walton, Susan Palwick, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Robert Charles Wilson, Charles Stross, and Karl Schroeder, for instance. Heck, any of the books on the PKD shortlist wouldn’t have been out of place. Of course, some of them will still be eligible next year, thanks to the Nebula’s rolling eligibility rules. But you do start to wonder what the point of having an award nominated for by professionals is.

In better Nebula news, Abigail Nussbaum points out that Ted Chiang’s nominated story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, is already up on the F&SF website. Go forth and read.

32 thoughts on “Yet More Awards

  1. JK Rowling? You have to wonder what they were thinking.

    As for the Chiang… all he’s done is rewrite Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare as science fiction. It’s not his best by a long way.

  2. Ian: that’s more than a little unfair to Chiang. Both of them took the setting and some characteristics (like the nested stories-within-stories) from a bunch of source material, most obviously the Thousand and One Nights, but what they’ve done in that setting is radically different.

  3. Irrespective of the nominated novels’ merit, it hardly seems fair to criticize the ballot for containing books published in 2006. There are arguments for and against the Nebula’s eligibility period being set a year back from the year in which the award is handed out, but that the resulting list represents that policy is hardly a failing.

  4. McDevitt’s an interesting case.

    If you look at his Wikipedia page you’ll see that he’s received a few mentions from other awards but he’s systematically in there when it comes to the Nebulas. This is his fifth consecutive year being nominated and he won it last year. Hmmm.

    It is also interesting that when you look back across the history of the Nebula, there was a time in the 1980’s when the Nebula systematically picked future classics and books that you’d associate as big in those given years. So the policy CAN work… it’s just that, at the moment, it’s throwing up some very strange results.

  5. I’ll do a bit of arguing for the Nebula list by pointing out that Jack McDevitt and Robert J Sawyer are interesting/enjoyable reads, in my opinion, unlike the works of Mr. William Gibson. What, it is unfair that I should inject my opinion into this? How else can you explain your excoriation of those two authors? There is nothing wrong with their works except your low opinions of them.

    Secondly the why should the Nebula be a snapshot of the best in the past year? Why is that bad? Personally if I were designing an award to find the best books rather than those things that are popular right out of the gate I would do something like the Nebulas and have a nomination period rather than the equally arbitrary lumping of all the books of one year together. Lastly I find it interesting to see the differences and similarities between what fans like and what professionals like. Though if I had to read one list or the other I think I’d pick the Nebula list in this case.

  6. Jonathan: McDevitt’s not uniformly mediocre in the way that, eg, Sawyer is; but he’s not working at the level that many of the authors Niall cites are. What’d be interesting is to see from the list of winners, is whether the fall from grace that you identify coincides with the introduction of any new policy about how nominations get made or whatever.

  7. You should hardly refer to the members of SFWA voting on the Nebulas as “they” because it’s a very small percentage of actual members who are voting. The problem with the Nebulas, at this point, and the reason for the nominations being somewhat anemic, is that a large percentage of SFWA members simply pay their dues but do not vote. This allows for all of the problems you’ve described in this post. A weak, inactive/affectless voting population also allowed for corruption and/or problematics in recent U.S. elections as well. I don’t think the rolling eligibility itself is a problem, as in the past, when the Nebulas were in their prime and doing well, rolling eligibility was in state then too. It’s the non-participation of much of the membership which is the problem. One thing I’d consider doing, if I were one of SFWA’s leaders, would be to instate some form of compulsory recommending and voting rules in order to maintain membership.

    The other problem is that there are supposedly Nebula juries that can also *add* books and stories etc to the list, but rarely actually do, for whatever reason. Maybe you could get the president of SFWA to do a Q&A with you over here and make him answer some of these questions?

  8. I never seem to read the books that wind up on these lists; my taste seems to run to things that are generally much stranger and less mainstream. However, I have read Sawyer’s Rollback. If Rollback is typical of the books on the list (I rather think it isn’t, if I’m reading you folks correctly), it confirms that I am correct in not generally reading the kinds of books that get nominated for Nebulas. I found it lazily written, a moral cheat on the human relationship questions, and concluded that it did not follow through on a promising set-up of potential human immortality (much less the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe but physically out of reach unless re-created on our own world).

    I’ve read the Rowling, too; who hasn’t? It was satisfactory and great fun, but not Nebula-worthy.

    There are others on that list that I own and intend to read, especially including Buckell, Chabon, Duncan and Lake. I hope that finding them in company with Sawyer, though, isn’t an indication of quality.

  9. The bad news is that Rollback, though it is indeed lazy and unoriginal and flatly written (I thought it a bit better than dull, though) is probably Sawyer’s BEST novel in years — truly awful stuff by him keeps turning up on award ballots and sometimes winning.

    I’ve discussed Nebula ballots for years, and I’m certainly on record as hating the rolling eligibility rule, and despairing about the tiny portion of the electorate (I am not eligible to nominate for the Nebulas myself, I note) that nominates for the award. And I think they ballots have been depressingly weak for several years — a damned shame, as they once were very good.

    That said, while the Novel Longlist this year isn’t perfect, and has some weird choices, it’s not horrible, and you can construct an awfully good shortlist with it: what if Buckell, Chabon, and Watts all make it? (With perhaps Duncan and Lake to round it out — I haven’t yet read Mainspring or Vellum, but they’ve both got very good reviews.) That wouldn’t be too bad, eh?

    While on balance the BSFA list is better, it does have some oddities. (Selling Out? Really? A cruel person would be tempted to call that an appropriate title. (To be fair, I haven’t read it — but that’s mainly because I thought Keeping it Real ordinary at best. If Selling Out is much better, I apologize.))

  10. There are others who know the history better than I, but I’m pretty sure that rolling eligibility for the Nebulas first went into effect in 1992; that is, works published in 1991 were the first ones that didn’t have to receive their ten recommendations by the end of 1991.

  11. Good post. The Nebulas have been a lost cause for years. “Inbred” is the word.


  12. Now I’m being lazy and a not reading all the bylaws and rules so this might be totally off-key.

    It seems that the rules are a bit lax especially that a book is eligable a full year after publication. Maybe this reflects the reading speed of the jury members?

    An alternative method, I guess, would be that all the SWFA members vote and the highest nominated 10 or 15 are read and made into a shortlist? It seems that this system is unbalanced.

    It’s definitely not a popularist list.

  13. Lots to reply to!

    Abigail: my problem is that the Nebula eligibility period (a) is not transparent enough to make it clear what achievement is being recognised — calendar years may be arbitrary, but at least you know where you stand; but (b) is just transparent enough that what hasn’t been recognised is really noticeable. Having average books from 2006 on the list makes the omission of really good books from 2007 more noticeable.

    Mishalak: first, I agree with the subsequent commentators who’ve argued that there are objective — or as objective as any measures of writing quality can be — things wrong with Sawyer’s novels. I think there’s plenty wrong with them that isn’t just my opinion. And second, to the extent that awards are useful at all, one of the big reasons they’re useful, for me, is as some kind of consensus marker of quality in a given period. An award says, “this is a good book compared to the others that were eligible” The problem with the Nebula eligibility, as I said to Abigail, isn’t that it doesn’t use a calendar year, but that what it does use is muddled and non-intuitive enough to make it unclear what winning a Nebula actually means. That devalues the award.

    Chris: I’m sure it’s a very small percentage of BSFA members nominating, as well; nonetheless, these are awards that come with the stamp of approval of their respective organisations. It’s wrong to assume that a Nebula-winning book has the approval of any individual SFWA member, but the fact that Nebulas are awarded by working sf and fantasy writers is what gives them their reputation. The large majority of people who see “Nebula winner” aren’t going to have read this thread with its caveats, or any thread like it, after all.

    Terry, Rich: yes, the best list out of the nominees would include five of Chabon, Watts, Buckell, Lake, Duncan, and Hopkinson, to my mind. But I don’t think that would be a great list; it would just be an ok one. (Though it would be really interesting to see whether SFWA members went for Chabon or Watts.) And as I said, the BSFA list certainly has its own limitations — you could get a pretty bad shortlist from those nominees, in principle.

  14. Rich: In case you’re not aware, the BSFA Awards work by asking members to nominate works. The five in each category that receive the most nominations then go on to the final shortlist, on which the membership (and that of the Eastercon) vote. The list of nominations is simply that – a list of all works that anyone has felt moved to nominate. Hence it only takes one person to think that a book is good enough for it to appear. And whilst the general critical reaction to the Quantum Gravity series has been lukewarm at best, there are some people who think it’s wonderful (I know, I live with one).

  15. Graham : I really enjoyed your December Locus column by the way… great work. I didn’t mean to imply that McDevitt was a particularly terrible author, I’ve never read any of his work. I have read some Sawyer though and thought it was okay at the time.

    My observation was that he hasn’t really been noticed much by any other awards BUT he’s been on the Nebula best novel shortlist for 7 of the past 10 years. To me that’s slightly odd. Especially as he’s not a writer with that big a profile.

    I just think it adds to the impression that whatever it is that the Nebula “tracks”, it isn’t best novels anymore. Is it a popularity contest with people selecting “writer’s writers”? are some writers better at gaming the system and getting themselves on the shortlist than others? It is certainly producing results that are “odd” and this suggests a look at the selection process is necessary.

  16. I can’t remember when the SFWA started letting authors put off consideration of their books for one, two, even three years, but it was certainly happening in the 80s. I decided then that the award was simply corrupt, and stopped paying attention to it. I could not honestly name a single Nebula winner from the last 10 or even 20 years. I really don’t care if you can construct an interesting shortlist out of that longlist, that really isn’t the point. Even if you end up with a good shortlist the award itself is valueless because it is based on a system that is so corrupt it cannot possibly be termed an honour in any light.

  17. The problem with the Nebulas is that of the eligible voters only a small number take part, who all know each other. McDevitt makes it to the shortlist year in year out because his buddies vote for him. That has been the norm for decades now, so should not come as a great surprise anymore.

    The problem with the Hugos is slightly different: smallish voter pools of geriatric voters whose taste has not changed since the early eighties, if not the late fifties, which is why most of the award winners are middle of the road snorefests.

  18. Certainly agreed, Niall, but despite that it doesn’t change the problem. More interesting to me, as a writer and member of SFWA, is to ask what potential solutions to inactive members may be. To berate the award for its deficiencies is one thing, and it is surely deficient, but to leave it as that seems pointless too. It’s not a caveat on my part, it’s an explanation, and not one that the general public should be served up in any case. But that all seems like an “of course” sort of thing, doesn’t it? What seems to need addressing are things the members will have to recognize need fixing. I suppose if there’s enough outcry, eventually the collective consciousness of the group may come to something like that.

  19. Except that when it comes to awards systems people tend to get incredibly defensive. I remember from when I commented on the Hugos a while back that I got picked up by people who seem to spend their time googling for Hugo discussion in order to trot out the same tired arguments (“no… no… the Hugos ARE democratic, because anyone can shell out the ridiculous amount of money required to be a worldcon member”, whi9ch is a bit like saying that multinational corporations are publically accountable on the grounds that anyone can buy a share and vote at AGMs).

    Which is to say that if the SFWA are happy with McDevitt schmoozing his way onto another short list then there’s not much that non-members can do to change their minds.

  20. Reputation is inertial. Once upon a time ‘Nebula winner’ was a blurb worth your attention: Dune (won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, 1965), The Einstein Intersection (won 1967), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Ringworld (1970). An award’s good name can go a long way on such a storming start. A long way, but not perpetual motion. When I was a teenager, ‘Nebula Winner’ in the cover was a good reason to buy the book. The rot for me set it with Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978), which I bought knowing nothing else about it except that the Pan paperback had ‘Winner of the Nebula Award!’ splashed across the cover, and which disappointed me muchly, even to the extent of innoculating me against the urge to buy a book simply because it has ‘Neblua Winner’ on the cover. Nobody wins in that situation.

    Otherwise what people are saying on this thread seems unarguable, viz. that to set last year’s winner (McDevitt’s Seeker) and the year before’s (Joe Haldeman, Camoflage) against Dune, The Einstein Intersection, The Left Hand of Darkness et al., is to demonstrate beyond debate that this award is not what it used to be.

  21. Quite frankly, on the list of things the SFWA ought to be ashamed of continuing to tolerate, the increasing irrelevance of the Nebulas is pretty far down.

  22. As the person who a few days ago removed from Wikipedia the statement that the Nebula Awards have been “criticised for ‘logrolling’ “, I will remark that I did so not because the statement was in any way inaccurate or unverifiable but because it appeared only in the article on the Hugo Awards.

    The internal politics of SFWA, and a set of rules that make it easier for a work to be shortlisted two or three years after publication than after one (assuming that the nomination survives – or indeed even benefits from – the internal politics) certainly don’t improve either the quality or the relevance of the Nebulas – but in the end, that’s a problem for SFWA, and probably not SFWA’s worst problem at that.

  23. I meant to add: there’s an easy way for the SFWA to reflate the Nebula’s reputation. Just make sure that it is won by the year’s best novel. That’s all. Which method is used to select the winner is an irrelevance to the vast majory of sf readers, provided that method picks the right title. As to how one knows which book is the year’s very best: that’s the trick, obviously. But a start would be: put personal concerns aside, read widely, consult the (extensive) discussion on the subject on the internet, and make a considered, disinterested judgment. Nobody deserves a prize because they’re a friend, or because they’re a really nice guy/gal, or because they’ve been doing good work in the field for ages and it’s about time they got some recognition, or because they write the kind of sf that chimes with your own theories on the genre, or because they didn’t get a prize for T-minus-a-twelvemonth despite deserving it, or even because they’ve written a good book. A prize should be awarded only to the best book in the award’s category. Pardon me for stating the obvious.

    Is the Nebula did that for a few years, then people would start respecting it again.

  24. I think SF may be running out of juice.

    There are different possible causes of this: exhaustion of the interesting being to do, changes in culture and science itself (“where’s my rocket car”, end of the Cold War, etc. etc.

    When this is brought up, remaining fish in the drying pond (identified fans or wannabe writers) reply that scientific advances and technical advances proceed. But that is a poor argument when the point is examination of art quality, of art possibilities, and of popular tastes.

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