This book highlights winners and runner-ups of the 1996 Nebula Awards. I came across it while perusing used books in the dealer’s room of Norwescon 2016. I missed a lot of first-rate science fiction and fantasy while I was living overseas for thirty-five years from the late 1970s to 2012, so when I have an opportunity, I like to catch up.
I’ve always been a fan of the Nebula Awards volumes ever since I came across them at the Henry Branch of the Seattle Public Library on Capitol Hill. I had just returned from my year at Santa Clara University, the greatest boon of which in my personal life was my discovery that I wanted to be a writer, and I was searching the shelves to feed my new-found hunger for science fiction. What better than collections of the best in the genre as voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America?
Not all the Nebula volumes have been top-quality. Inevitably some years have stronger stories than others. This volume falls somewhere in the middle. There are a few excellent stories, a few other good ones, and one or two that made me wonder why they were included. The book also suffers from a preponderance of redundant non-story content. There are multiple essays on the state of science fiction in 1995 and a long treatise on science fiction films of 1995. All this material is dated and uninteresting, and it would have been much better if the editor had followed the current practice of including all the nominated short stories and novelettes and less opinion pieces.
The only story that I had read previously in this volume was the winning novella, Jack Dann’s alternate history of Leonardo da Vinci called “Da Vinci Rising.” I must have come across it in a different best of the year anthology of bygone days, because I remembered it vividly. It’s a strong, well-told piece of historical fiction with only slight science fiction overtones excerpted from a long novel about Da Vinci called The Memory Cathedral. Otherwise, the best stories in the book, in my estimation, were not award winners but additionally included material. For instance, Dann wisely decided that instead of including an excerpt of Nicola Griffith’s Nebula-winning novel Slow River, he would instead include a complete novella of hers, “Yaguara,” which was a previous finalist for the Nebula. It’s a frightening horror story with strong characterization about the secrets of Mayan ruins hidden deep in a rain forest. The other story that particularly moved me was a finalist in the novelette category, “The Chronology Protection Case” by Paul Levinson. Somehow the author convinces the reader that the universe could turn into a murderer to protect itself from anomalies associated with time travel.
The other winning stories were also fine tales. “A Birthday” by Esther M. Friesner tells of a chilling future punishment for women who have abortions – yet amazingly without taking a pro-life or pro-choice propaganda stand. “Lifeboat on a Burning Sea” by Bruce Holland Rogers posits the creation of a form of artificial intelligence that mirrors its creator.
All in all, this volume has enough worthwhile stories to warrant reading, but the numerous accompanying essays are outdated and can be skipped.