Book Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2008 edited by Ben Bova

Having recently read the Nebula Awards volume for 2011, upon opening this volume I was immediately struck by the differences between the two.  The 2011 book is full of stories.  It has all the short story and novelette award nominees, and the winning novella.  This volume, on the other hand, has the winning short story, novelette, and novella, and one of the short story nominees, and the rest of the volume, almost half, is full of other material.  It’s interesting material:  articles on the state of the field of science fiction, a decades-old story by that year’s grand master, an excerpt from the winning novel, and so on, but these and similar items can be found elsewhere.  I buy a Nebula Awards volume so I can read the award-winning and award-nominated stories.  I’m very thankful that the series changed publishers, and that the new publishers have a policy of including as many stories as possible.

The first story presented here is the winning short story, “Echo” by Elizabeth Hand.  It’s about a woman alone with her dog on an island off the east coast of the United States.  I found it pretty, poetic, but undistinguished.  It was a fine read, but lone survivor stories have been done many times before and I wasn’t sure why this one stood out as the best story of the year.

Next, the winning novella, “Burn” by James Patrick Kelly, is presented.  Kelly prefaces the story with some disparaging remarks about Henry David Thoreau, and then proceeds to use quotes from Thoreau’s writings at the beginning of each chapter.  The story is based on Thoreau’s book “Walden”, and Thoreau’s attempt to live simply in the woods for a certain period of time.  Kelly exaggerates this situation, as is common in science fiction, and posits a planet on which the settlers have retreated from advanced technology and chosen to live simple lives as farmers.  They have reforested a good part of the world, and earlier settlers who refused to leave when the world was bought and resettled have become terrorists, setting fires to burn portions of the new forest.  The story is told from the viewpoint of a firefighter, and there are other complications and intricacies.  It’s a fine story, well told as far as it goes, and if Kelly hadn’t made the remarks he did at the beginning none of it would have bothered me.  But it seems to me that he didn’t understand what Thoreau was trying to do when he lived by the shore of Walden Pond.  It was an experiment.  He lived there for roughly two years.  He built his own cabin, grew some of his own food, and spent much of his time in isolation, writing and meditating and walking in the woods.  Both before and afterwards he lived in the company of other people and was even involved in some of the cutting-edge political movements of the times, such as the emancipation of slaves.  His time at Walden Pond was a short period cut out of his life deliberately, to see what might come of it.  I liken it to the time I took off on the road and ended up hitchhiking a good part of the way around the world.  When I was in the midst of it, it seemed like it would last forever.  It had to be like that, for the veracity of the experience.  But it was never really the plan.  It was something I did to cut to the basics, to get to the essentials, to shear away the voices of others in my head that I might find my own as a writer.  And I feel that that is what Thoreau was trying to accomplish as well.  It was not, as Kelly implies, a rebellion against technology per se, though he abandoned the trappings of civilization for a time.  It was rather an undressing process, a stripping of extraneous opinions and habits and customs to get to the core of who he was as a unique person, a unique writer.  And succeed he did, at least in my opinion.  Some of the writing in “Walden” is transcendent in its greatness, honest and forthright and true, something that can only be achieved when a writer is stripped bare before the cosmos and has no more defenses or pretences.  I continue to read sections of “Walden” from time to time when I need some strong, bracing, fearless prose to stimulate and inspire me.

The winning novelette, “Two Hearts” by Peter Beagle, is a classic fantasy tale, well told.  When I attended the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in Seattle in 1973, Peter Beagle was one of the guest instructors.  Each instructor, during the week he taught, had a scheduled reading and lecture open to students and public.  During his reading Peter Beagle read from his now-classic novel “The Last Unicorn”.  As he explains in the introduction to the story here, for decades readers wrote and asked for a sequel, and “Two Hearts” is the result.

The only nominated non-winner presented in the volume is a short story called “The Woman in Schrodinger’s Wave Equations”.  It’s a well-told story; in fact, I liked it better than the story that won the award, but it’s not science fiction.  It’s a character study of a man studying physics and of his girlfriends.

As for the rest of the book’s content, I will not comment on the essays other than to say that they were interesting but the space should have been filled with stories instead.  The excerpt from the winning novel, “Seeker”, was a waste of space too; this is where a short essay could have served a useful purpose, if the author could have briefly written about how he came to write the novel.  When I read the grand master’s story, “The Listeners” by James Gunn, I recalled it fondly from reading it years before.  It is available in plenty of anthologies and didn’t need to be reprinted here.

The Nebula Awards volumes should be for new nominated stories and a minimum of other essays and filler.  As I already mentioned, I am very thankful that the new publishers have gone back to concentrating on the nominated fiction.

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