The fortunes of the science-fiction genre wax and wane. Some years
the selections in the bricks and mortars have been downright puny;
at other times (and I'm thinking of those other times when every
little snotnose, it seemed, had a lightsaber and the name
"Chewbacca" wasn't considered a politically incorrect statement)
the "sci-fi" section took up a whole wall. We seem to be in one of
the "wane" periods right now for a lot of different reasons. What
is interesting is that the genre continues to pull in new readers
with good, solid novels and stories year after year. That is why
the NEBULA AWARDS series is so indispensable, even if you have at
most a passing interest in the genre.
The Nebula Awards are annually bestowed by the Science Fiction and
Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA); the annual showcase volume it
publishes is edited each year by a different author of some note.
This year's editor, Robert Silverberg, has been active since about
the time that I was learning to hold a pencil properly (think:
Sputnik). The overriding characteristic of everything is quality;
his turn as editor, with his fine introduction, is no exception.
Silverberg's introduction presents yet another piece of the
historical underpinnings of the SFWA, their membership and voting
procedures, and is by itself great fun. Then we get into the
The current SHOWCASE follows the format of its predecessors,
reprinting the year's (1999) best novella, novelette, and short
story, a couple of runner-up stories, an essay about the year in
science fiction and fantasy, and should an Author Emeritus or
Grandmaster Award be issued, an essay from the Honoree(s). I'm
going to blather on about one story and one essay, to the exclusion
of the others.
The winner of the 1999 Nebula for Best Novella is "Story of Your
Life" by Ted Chiang. Chiang is hardly prolific. This is his fourth
story in 10 years. What is noteworthy is that he has won awards for
three of them. "Story of Your Life" is at it's very bare bones a
First Contact story, with physics and linguistics forming the
underpinnings. The aliens --- Chiang never comes right out and says
it, but they sound like spiders to me --- don't come with
translators on their belts. How to communicate? Chiang
painstakingly builds a step-by-step account as to how this is done.
Now, some of this is rough sledding --- but Chiang does an
excellent job of explaining really difficult concepts so
that even middle-aged men who still read comic books can kind of
get a grasp as to what is going on, and as to those elements that
are just too intellectually far out...well, the thing to do is just
hang on, because it's worth it. What happens here is that as the
Earthers learn how to communicate with the aliens they begin
thinking like them, which leads to a change in their perception of
reality, and they gradually start seeing the past, present, and
future as one continuum. Chiang raises all sorts of questions with
that --- what would you do if you could foresee the future, but it
wasn't the future? Why do we perceive time as we do? --- and they
are questions that will stay with you long after you read this
story. There is grist in here for a 400 page novel; Chiang does it
all quite nicely in less than 50 pages and politely walks away,
leaving you sleepless and wondering. "Story of Your Life" is worth
the price of the volume alone.
The other major contribution here is an essay by Daniel Keyes, who
was given the Author Emeritus 2000 Award. Keyes has not exactly
been prolific in the fiction arena, but he hasn't needed to be. His
novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, a classic from the minute that ink was
laid to paper, is in a class all by itself. Keyes, in SHOWCASE
2001, describes the conception, gestation, and birth of this
wonderful novel. All of those processes were long, if not painful;
but if you think you have a book inside you somewhere, you
absolutely must read "Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey."
It is, with King's ON WRITING, absolutely indispensable.
There is more, much more to NEBULA AWARDS SHOWCASE 2001. Whether
you are a hard-core fan of the science ficiton/fantasy genre, have
fallen away, or are at some point in between, this volume belongs
on your bookshelf.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011