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REVIEW: 2005 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees

As mentioned previously, I undertook a project to read the short fiction nominees for the 2005 Nebula Award since all of the nominees were available online this year – a fortunate effect of the Internet Age.

Overall, the experience was fun, but I must say I was less than impressed with some of the stories. While most of them were good or better, a few of the stories just simply failed to entertain. Then again, there were a fair number of fantasy stories here and I make no bones about my hit-and-miss track record with fantasy. Ultimately, I just expected more from stories that were nominated for an award.

In a nutshell, here are my impressions of the stories in each category, sorted from most to least enjoyable. Obviously, the winning picks are the tops ones listed in each category.


The Tribes of Bela” by Albert Cowdrey

Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer

Left of the Dial” by Paul Witcover

Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link

Clay’s Pride” by Bud Sparhawk


The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi

Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham

Men are Trouble” by Jim Kelly

The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link

Nirvana High” by Eileen Gunn and Leslie What

Short Stories

Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan

Born-Again” by K.D. Wentworth

I Live With You” by Carol Emshwiller

The End of the World as We Know It” by Dale Bailey

There’s a Hole in the City” by Richard Bowes

Still Life With Boobs” by Anne Harris

My Mother, Dancing” by Nancy Kress

Reviewlettes follow…

“The Tribes of Bela” by Albert E. Cowdrey [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 11/24/05, what follows is what I said then]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF
  • Synopsis: Security Forces Colonel Robert Rogers Kohn arrives at a mining colony on the planet Bela to investigate a series of grisly murders.
  • Review: Outstanding story that’s part murder mystery, part adventure and part survival story. The murder mystery reminded me of Asimov’s Robot mysteries in that the alien world was integral to the mystery. (I like to think that I smartly guessed the identity of the murderer, however in my usual fashion of suspecting everyone whenever a clue was dropped, real or misleading, how could I be wrong?) The adventure parts were as page-turning as the survival parts were grim. All told, this story, reminiscent of The Thing or Alien, was wonderfully told, rich and satisfying. Time to look up Cowdrey’s longer works.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.

“Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 04/21/06]

  • Source: Robert J. Sawyer’s Blog
  • Synopsis: Alexander Lomax is the only private detective on a domed Mars colony where flesh-and-blood humans can attain immortality by transferring their consciousness into an artificial (and enhanced) body. Recent transfer Cassandra Wilkins hires Lomax to find her missing husband, Joshua – also recently transferred – but instead, Lomax finds him murdered.
  • Review: Steeped in noir-ish imagery, “Identity Theft” provides a fast-moving tour through an interesting future Mars where expensive mind transfers are useful in finding the mother lode of valuable fossil deposits out in the Martian desert. Like any hard-boiled detective story, the first person voice is used to trace the steps of Lomax as he smartly gathers clues to first find Joshua, then his murderer. Lomax is a fun character, but the story’s voice lacks the one-two punch of, say, George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran novels. Some moments, in fact – like referring to coffee as “a cup of joe” – seemed unnaturally forced. The murder mystery itself was based on a good premise and the motive was not obvious, but, sadly, the identity of the murderer was all-too-predictable; that’s rare for me. How could Lomax not figure it out sooner? One scene has Lomax watching one character torture another for an inordinately long time – even when all the clues to the murderer’s identity were plain as day and should have caused him to act immediately. This seemed out of character because Lomax is shown to be relatively bright except for when it counted most. These are relatively minor nits, though; this was still a fast-paced and very entertaining story.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.

“Left of the Dial” by Paul Witcover [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 04/20/06]

  • Source: SCI FICTION
  • Synopsis: After the death of his mother, Johnny Weber visits some friends in his old hometown where he must also come to terms with the death of a childhood friend and the circumstances surrounding it.
  • Review: The first half of this story reads like a quiet and uneventful non-genre fiction story. The first-person narrative deals largely with self-introspection and flashbacks to his childhood with close friends Craig, Eric and Lisa. The normal teenage issues of jealousy, uncertainty about the future and social growth come into play. In the second half of the story, things take a Twilight Zone turn when Johnny, whose mistuned radio picks up the suicide music chosen by his long-dead friend, is given a chance to go back in time and change his present – but not before being faced with some repressed secrets revealed in some welcome plot twists. I can’t help but feel that this story was a little too long, even if some necessary details were revealed in the slower first half. Despite that, I was totally immersed in some of later parts in the second half.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.

“Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 04/16/06]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF
  • Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Jeremy and his four friends (Elizabeth, Karl, Amy and Talis) are hooked on a randomly-airing fantasy television show called The Library. Or, are they part of cast of the show?
  • Review: I should re-iterate that I am not a huge fan of fantasy. Even so, this story went to such lengths to blur the line between reality and in-story fiction that I felt lost – or at least detached – from the characters. It starts by saying Jeremy is a character on the show, then goes on to say how he and his friends watch the show. OK, I can handle levels of indirection, but why introduce that aspect at all? The bulk of the story tries to portray Jeremy’s relationship with his friends and his apparently-separating parents (a kleptomaniac writer for a father and a librarian for a mother). This is a sad situation for a young teen, to be sure, but one whose emotional impact is lessened by the nebulousness of what the reality is. Adding to the confusion is the franticly changing, seemingly unrelated – and tedious – details when describing the characters. (Describing the characters and their backgrounds, by the way, makes up about 80% of this story. Plot doesn’t rear its head until the last twenty percent, when Jeremy and his mother travel to Las Vegas in search of the mysterious phone booth and the wedding chapel.) I suppose one could derive parallels between “real life” and the TV show, but the blurring of the two makes that a chore at best. As it was, I had to struggle to find the semi-interesting (non-genre fiction) life story of Jeremy. As I said, I’m not a big fan of fantasy, but it still surprises me that this was nominated for so many awards.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2006 Hugo Award for best novella.

“Clay’s Pride” by Bud Sparhawk [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 04/14/06]

  • Source: Analog
  • Synopsis: While amidst training maneuvers, Commander Simon Clay has an encounter with an unknown artifact (or is it an alien vessel?) that damages his ship and kills some of his crew. After returning to Fleet space, he stands trial for his actions and is prosecuted by the Dzhou colonists who hired him for the training. After the trial, Clay befriends an aloof Fleet Officer, Teri, and becomes the target of kidnappers.
  • Review: Not a bad story, but much of it took me out of the action. The portrayal of Clay tried too hard to make him look like the Requisite Hero. The political maneuvering of the second act was not very interesting. The final act, which exposed a spy, was predictable. The better parts were the encounter with the iceberg-like artifact, the bits of information they learn about the pieces left behind, and the interplay between Clay and Teri.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.

“The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi [2004 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 06/29/05, what follows is what I said then.]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF
  • Synopsis: A group of miners, bio-enhanced to survive harsh environments through the wonders of “weeviltech”, find a biologically unaltered dog, a creature believed to have been extinct for decades.
  • Review: Interesting was the portrait of how humanity has “evolved” with the aid of technology. They eat sand, are impervious to acid and amputate body parts at the drop of the hat. (By morning, the arm or leg grows back.) In effect, mankind has achieved a form of immortality through science. When they find the unaltered dog, a “lesser” life form, they question their own heritage and what it means to be human. Ultimately they decide that the unaltered species of man was far too vulnerable to lead an enjoyable life. Good stuff.
  • Note: Hugo Nomination for Best Novelette 2005.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novelette.

“Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham [2004 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/18/06]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF
  • Synopsis: A father traces a silhouette of his daughter and sends it around to family members but soon learns that there is some sort of supernatural connection between his daughter and the cutout.
  • Review: Interesting premise. The family situation (Ian, the down and out father, recently separated from his wife; troubled daughter Diane) adds a bit of poignancy and drama to the piece and when the father starts receiving disturbing photos from some pervert, the supernatural angle becomes evident. There are some distressing themes touched upon in here which are bound to evoke some emotional response (especially from parents). While they are perhaps formulated to do exactly that, they do add some weight to make a very good story.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novelette.

“Men are Trouble”” by James Patrick Kelly [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 2/04/05, here’s what I said then.]

  • Source: Kelly’s website
  • Synopsis: A hard-boiled missing-person detective story set in a future where alien “devils” have wiped men from the face of Earth yet “seed” the women for the continued survival of the human race.
  • Review: The first half of this story had me a bit confused because no explanation was given as to the motive of the devils. The pace of the story picked up around the middle and I thought the motive of the devils would be tied to Fay Hardaway’s case, but it didn’t turn out that way. (At one point, I suspected the ending of the story would reveal that the men had been turned into the devils, but nope, wrong again.) Much more interesting to me was the back story of the devils and how the humanity (the women) handled it. In the story, there is the older generation of women who remember men and younger women who do not. Women are paired off and seeded by the Devils so that the Human race may continue. The church of Christers are secretly impregnating women themselves in defiance of the Devils. The economy is shot (everything is super-cheap!) and most of the jobs are done by bots supplied by the devils. All of this makes a really interesting backdrop that I wish was highlighted more. But the writing style was perfect for a detective story and the character of Fay was well done – all of which made this an enjoyable story in the end.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Locus Award.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novelette.

“The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link [2004 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/16/06]

  • Source: Small Beer Press
  • Synopsis: Genevieve inherits a magical handbag from her grandmother, Zofia.
  • Review: The story does indeed have a magical quality in the handbag that is home to a race of people from the grandmother Zofia’s old village. Opening the bag a certain way reveals the old village. Opening it a different way reveals an ordinary handbag. Opening it the wrong way reveals a demonic, skinless dog. The author’s conversational style lends itself well to the story, but the inclusion of minute details that are unrelated to main narrative was distracting. Otherwise, this is a good story.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novelette.
  • Note: Winner for the 2005 Hugo Award for best novelette.

“Nirvana High” by Eileen Gunn and Leslie What [2004 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 04/22/06]

  • Source: Gunn’s website
  • Synopsis: Barbara, a “special ed” seer of the future, attends a class of other “speshes” who are given a deadly chemistry quiz by their telepath teacher.
  • Review: Bah! Again, my indifference towards fantasy has limited my enjoyment of this story. Barbara foresees her chemistry teacher’s death (the result of a teleportation accident) but does nothing to sop it since similar attempts in the past have proved futile. This made Barbara immediately unlikable. Things beyond that – her encounter with a letch; her relationship with her classmates and a potential beau; the quiz with dire consequences – were of little interest. The infusion of Kurt Cobain and Nirvanaisms (both students and teachers use the lyric “Entertain us!” as an exclamation) was inexplicable and annoying. Although the bits with Microsoft owning everything was fun, this story left little impression.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novelette.

“Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan [2005 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/17/06]

  • Source: Allen & Unwin
  • Synopsis: A girl undergoes a slow death as a form of capital punishment with her family and tribe in attendance.
  • Review: Wow. This was a beautifully creepy and well-written story. Much like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Frederik Pohl’s “Spending a Day at the Lottery Fair” (reviewed here) this story packs an emotional wallop that centers around death. We don’t know the exact crime, but we can make a guess as we know it involves a wedding, jealousy and an axe. [Shiver.] Great stuff.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best short story.

“Born-Again” by K.D. Wentworth [2005 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/13/06]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF
  • Synopsis: A 15-year-old clone of Jesus causes some unique angst for his teenage sister.
  • Review: A light-hearted story that showcases the unique situations of having a sibling who just happens to be the son of God. Anyone rich enough to afford one can have their own Jesus clone, grown from DNA extracted from the Shroud of Turin. Clone Jesus’ sister, Bailee, is tired of tolerating his repeated failed attempts to mimic “Historical Jesus”; thinks like trying to resurrect dead cats, turn water into wine, etc. Jesus sits in a group therapy session with other Jesus clones as they come to terms with trying to live up to their name. In a dark and sinister ending, a mob of Jesuses aim to perform the resurrection on a person. A very interesting and amusing story, but a bit too gimmicky to call outstanding.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best short story.

“I Live With You” by Carol Emshwiller [2005 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/16/06]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF
  • Synopsis: An unassuming, “invisible” woman moves in with a similar woman and proceeds to manipulate her life.
  • Review: Very good story. The narrating invisible visitor tries to make life better for the woman whose home she has moved into, to the point of getting her a date. All three characters (the narrator, the woman and the man) are personified versions of loneliness, and that makes the story somewhat touching. One aspect of the story that was hard to get over was how the narrator was invisible to the woman in her own home. I know this is a fantasy story, but things like that are what makes it hard for me to enjoy fantasy.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best short story.

“The End of the World as We Know It” by Dale Bailey [2004 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/13/06]

  • Source: Fantasy & SF
  • Synopsis: A man named Wyndham wakes one morning to find he is the last man on Earth.
  • Review: The conversational voice of the storytelling initially made it seem light-hearted, but then the import of the events began seeping in and I thought we were witnessing a nervous breakdown in the character of Wyndham. (Who, I suspect, is named after Day of the Triffids author John Wyndham, the man know for the “cozy catastrophe“.) Unfortunately, the breezy tone continues without much more to offer in the way of depth and actually seems to hold back this otherwise powerful story. Still, there was some powerful imagery in this story that makes it stand out above the norm.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best short story.

“There’s a Hole in the City” by Richard Bowes [2004 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/22/06]

  • Source: SCI FICTION
  • Synopsis: Immediately following the collapse of the World Trade Center, two aging friends, the narrator and Mags, deal with the recent disaster. Mags, a woman of questionable mental stability, begins seeing ghosts from the past emerging from the new hole in the city.
  • Review: The emotional impact of September 11th came flooding back reading this piece as it contained vivid reminders of the aftermath as well as the event itself. To say this story affects one’s mood is an understatement. That said, the fantasy elements of the story – the seeing of ghosts – were touching but ultimately did not offer much in the way of plot.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best short story.

“Still Life with Boobs” by Anne Harris [2005 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 04/21/06]

  • Source: Anne Harris’ Blog
  • Synopsis: A single woman discovers that her breasts have a life of their own, a life that includes partying and meeting up with… parts of other people’s bodies.
  • Review: Built on a weak premise, there was not much where this story could go. Although the pacing was quick and ideas quickly conveyed, I was left with the impression of this being just silly. I would, however, recommend this story as an acid test to anyone who wants to know if they would like chick-lit.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best short story.

“My Mother, Dancing” by Nancy Kress [2004 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 06/14/05, what follows is what I said then.]

  • Source: Asimov’s
  • Synopsis: The story of genderless, posthuman Johnny Appleseeds whose Great Mission is to populate the lifeless worlds of the galaxy. They come to learn that one of their seeding has resulted in life.
  • Review: I must admit that it was really late at night when I read this and I was very tired. Maybe that’s why I felt like I was dragging myself to finish it. I couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on for a while and when I did, it was not the revelation I was hoping for. The use of the genderless pronoun “hirs” got quickly annoying to me for some reason. Overall this was disappointing because I like really enjoyed other work by this author.
  • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best short story.
About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

10 Comments on REVIEW: 2005 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees

  1. I liked Still Life with Boobs (probably a 3-star for me) and didn’t personally regard it as ‘chick-lit’ exactly – until I went and read the definition on Wikipedia where I realized it is exactly that.

    I liked the interesting aspects it brings up. Forgive me John, but the breasts meeting other disembodied parts is a side-issue (titillating though it may be.) The main part of the story is about the woman realizing she has neutered herself by letting people walk all over her and by giving up her personal dreams for others. Losing her breasts is a metaphor for losing herself.

    Your synopsis implies you didn’t see this – and I admit I first thought the breasts were going to turn out to be aliens or something wierd like that, but honestly the piece is simpler than that. It most decidedly isn’t silly.

  2. I’m sure many people don’t/won’t think it was silly – as its nomination proves. However – metaphor considered – I still do.

    Also: heh heh…you said “titillating”. 😀

  3. John —

    Thanks for the thoughtful reviews. I wish more award voters put as much thought and effort into the nominations.

    I’m glad to see how much you liked the Cowdrey and Bacigalupi, though I admit I’m baffled that you (or anyone) could dislike “Magic for Beginners.”

    As for “Nirvana High”–I’m in complete agreement with you there. I really despised that story. I don’t think it has anything to do with an aversion to fantasy–that story’s got other problems. And those damn Nirvanaisms seemed inexplicable and annoying to me too. And I was a huge Nirvana fan, so you’d think that would make me partial toward it.

  4. What makes Magic for Beginners fantasy? It was sci-fi to me – a boy who ends up talking to TV characters? That’s right out of Outer Limits or the Twilight Zone. The TV show seems like fantasy (as well as a fever dream) but the rest I’m not so sure about. I didn’t care of the story either, I’m afraid. I fear I missed something.

  5. There are boobs in SciFi? Where do I sign up?

    Did you have to modify the filter to let these posts in?

  6. I recently read “the people of sand and slag” and “men are trouble” in “the years best science fiction 22nd annual cellecetion” I haven’t read many anthologies or even much short form fiction but “the years best…” really is some of the best Sci-Fi I have read in a long while.

    I think I bought it on recommendation from this site so thanks for the heads up.

  7. Carol Emshwiller // April 26, 2006 at 12:36 pm //

    Hey, I LIVE WITH YOU isn’t supposed to have any fantasy in it. After all, the woman has a job and is out all day, then gets new front door locks, and then bedroom door locks. I was hoping my character could hide out in the attic or skulk around in a rather large house and no fantasy about it. I …also…don’t care for fantasy and when I have it I try to keep it down. But I didn’t want any fantasy in this story.

  8. Thanks for the clarification! I guess I was having a hard time imagining a world where someone living alone wouldn’t recognize someone else moving in. At any rate, thanks for the story! I enjoyed it very much. 🙂

  9. Carol – I liked the story, and I agree the story doesn’t have fantasy in it and honestly, it doesn’t have any science fiction in it either. But this begs the question – why did it get printed in ‘Fantasy & Science Fiction’ magazine and why is it nominated for 2 major SF/F awards?

  10. From SciFiWire, Carol Emshwiller talks about her win.

    Multiple award-winning SF/fantasy author Carol Emshwiller, whose “I Live With You” won this year’s Nebula Award for best short story, told SCI FI Wire that the story is a fantasy about an invisible woman who hides out in another woman’s house. “She picks that woman to follow home, because she’s the same size and seems a little like herself,” Emshwiller said in an interview. “But she gets bored with her and starts trying to change her life.”

    I guess it is fantasy after all???

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