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Short Fiction Friday: The 2013 Nebula Nominated Short Stories

(Cover image for Nebula Awards Showcase 2013 by Julie Dillon)

REVIEW SUMMARY:  The seven stories short-listed for this year’s Nebula Award for Short Story demonstrate that the medium remains a strong and effective method of telling good stories.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS:  Aging, death, child care, cultural identity, the importance of books, the price of true love and other pertinent life issues are examined against the backdrop of science fictional and fantasy settings in these seven short stories.

PROS: Each nominated story possesses its own strengths; wide variety of style and subject matter; emphasis on the human condition.
CONS: Readers who primarily enjoy fantasy may be disappointed to find that six of the seven stories have a science fictional bent; the judges did not make their task easy when narrowing it down to these seven entries.
BOTTOM LINE:  Take advantage of the fact that these stories are all available free online.  SFF readers exhibit a range of tastes and there is arguably something for most readers to enjoy from this solid group of nominees.

Last week the nominations were announced for this year’s Nebula Awards.  The Forty-Eighth Nebula Awards Weekend will be held May 16-19th, 2013.  Details concerning the awards weekend can be found here.  I have been hosting Short Fiction Friday for a month now, featuring a different current issue of a short fiction magazine each week.  With the announcement of these nominations I thought it would be fun to read the Short Story nominees and offer up a brief description of each one.  I was initially hesitant to provide a rating for these stories because each is a strong contender.   Here as always I made an effort to rate the stories according to a combination of my own personal experience in reading them as well as stepping back to make a more general view of how I accessed each story’s effectiveness judged solely against itself.   With this year’s nominees I firmly believe you could get seven different people in a room and each one could passionately argue for a different story to be crowned the winner.  I do not envy the judges their task.


Robot ~Helena Bell

Bell’s story is constructed as a conversation in which the reader sees only one side, that of an older woman as she instructs the alien robot purchased to process the diseased flesh of her feet and legs.  Or perhaps it is not a “conversation” at all but instead a running commentary that may be occurring aloud or simply within the mind of the protagonist.  The story is brilliantly conceived and executed in that it conveys a sense of the passage of time, reveals much about the protagonist’s past and present, paints a picture for the reader of what the world looks like in the future that Helena Bell has created and offers layers of meaning all while maintaining this deceptively simple structure.  The horrifying nature of the procedure this woman is undergoing is ever present while her litany of instructions as to how this being must act shows a wide range of emotions that she is undergoing, the stages of grief on display as well as evidence of the first signs of dementia.  The one-sided structure of the story lends an air of suspicion that makes the reader question what is real and what is imagination with Bell leaving bread crumbs to lead one down either path.

Immersion ~Aliette de Bodard

This is the story of the intersection of the lives of two women on a space station named Longevity.  In the far distant future the dominant culture is Galactic, represented as the more ‘civilized’ world-view.  Longevity is an independent station of Asian influence that acts as a tourist spot throughout the Galaxy.  Quy is a young Asian woman who is called in on her day off to return to the family restaurant to help her uncle negotiate a business deal with an important Galactic visitor.  Agnes is the wife of this businessman and it is apparent from the very beginning of her story that something is desperately wrong.  In Bodard’s future people make use of an Immerser, a piece of Galactic tech with various intensity settings that allows the user to overlay an Avatar while also instructing the user how to act and react while feeding the brain cultural signifiers.  Quy and her sister are not fond of the immerser and the way in which it homogenizes interactions and reduces culture to something simplistic for tourists to navigate.  Anges appears to have become increasingly dependent on her immerser for her day-to-day existence and she is only dimly aware that something is being lost, perhaps irreparably.  As “Immersion” unfolds the reader is presented with a very intimate story that carries within it a larger context of cultural identity and an examination of the effects of colonization.  If you will pardon the pun, Aliette de Bodard’s story immerses the reader into a fully-realized world that seems both exotic and familiar.  Without resorting to judgment “Immersion” makes a case for embracing and maintaining cultural identity in the face of ever-growing globalization.

Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes ~Tom Crosshill  

What if every time we say ‘goodbye’ we are truly parting from one another, never to return as the same person who bid farewell? What if we could choose to never say ‘goodbye’, to never let a loved one go if we were not ready to do so?  Themes of love and death and the changing definition of “humanity” in the face of advanced technology are explored through the interactions of three characters: Rico, his wife Lisa, and Rico’s mother Alina, whose every ‘goodbye’ is said as if it were her last.  Rico’s mother has lived for a century and despite a life of excellent health and artistic creativity, Rico can sense that her life is winding down.  The inevitability of her journey’s end  ratchets up the pressure on Rico as he must decide when to broach the subject with his mother of moving her to a habitat–a virtual creation where she can be uploaded so that her life need not end.   We see Alina as an aging artist working on a secret project, rarely parting from her sketch pad.  In contrast we see Lisa, a driven tech-savvy women embracing the latest biotech innovations which take her ever farther from the original definition of “human”.  Rico exists in a fluid place, moving back and forth across the spectrum between these two women, unsure of his footing and afraid to commit to a course of action.  In Rico the reader experiences a vignette of a possible future with the age-old questions of what it means to live and what it means to die every bit as pertinent as they are in our present time.

Nanny’s Day ~Leah Cypess

With the escapist aspect of science fiction and fantasy it can be easy to fantasize about an ever-increasing utopian future in which scientific and technological advancements will lessen the struggles of our day-to-day existence.  Stories like this offering by Leah Cypess demonstrate that, where humanity is concerned, the more things change the more they stay the same.  In “Nanny’s Day” that concern is one that is very non-fictional in nature: the difficulty inherent in balancing parenting and career obligations.  The story centers around a single-mother whose career as an attorney necessitates the use of a full-time nanny to care for her four-year-old son.  Conventional wisdom dictates that a person change nannies at least every three months, something Margaret has not done with any degree of consistency.  She will soon learn why this is the preferred practice when she begins to suspect that her current nanny may be making plans to attempt to gain custody of the young boy.  Cypess draws in the reader by crafting a plot that any parent can identify with and will react to: the desire to protect and provide for one’s children.  The science fictional elements are present, though minimal, in a story accessible to those within and outside of the genre community.

Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream ~Maria Dahvana Headley

When a couple fated to meet and fall in love finally come together, the result of their union not only affects them but the partners that each are currently married to.  Headley tells a story that alternates between a beautifully worded exploration of intoxicating love and a visually fantastic description of magic and witchcraft.  Although the couple in love are quite relatable to the reader, their soon-to-be-jilted spouses are an altogether different matter. One is a practitioner of real magic and the other is a witch, and these two are not willing to quietly sit by and let love take its course, fated or not.  Headley uses familiar fairy tale props in a creative fashion to tell a story that conjures up many an imaginative vision.  Reading it you cannot help but think about what it would look like produced in another medium, like television or film.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species ~Ken Liu

The central conceit of Ken Liu’s encylopedic look at various alien races is that “everyone makes books”.  As proof of that assertion we are given a series of vignettes, brief glimpses into the lives and culture of  a handful of alien species, each of which has its own unique manner of recording and passing on the accumulated wisdom of its people.   There is a story-within-a-story aspect to Liu’s tale that makes effective use of the short story structure, allowing the reader several unique opportunities to spark the imagination and to contemplate the importance of books.  Ken Liu’s story satisfies while leaving the reader wondering what other interesting alien cultures might await description.

Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain ~Cat Rambo

One of the many things that online interaction has given us is the awareness of our widespread fondness for list-making.  Author Cat Rambo seizes upon that phenomenon, creatively acknowledging it throughout this fragile tale of love among the porcelain figurines that inhabit this world.  Our narrator, Tikka, works as a Minor Propagandist for the planet Porcelain’s Bureau of Tourism.  Her role includes the making of ‘lists of five’ which appear in brochures and advertisements as enticements for tourists and the revenue they bring.  As Tikka goes about her work she recalls the one time she fell in love and the price exacted as payment; it is an experience that she considers too costly to repeat.  There is a risk with this story that its emotional impact could be undercut by the absurdity of the idea and it is a credit to the author that she never comes near to crossing that line.  It is an imaginative tale that shows that even the most alien of creations can speak clearly to us about the good and the bad sides of human nature.


Awards season brings with it the annual controversies regarding the manner in which stories are nominated and ultimately awarded honors as well as the arguments pro or against the need for these awards in the first place.  I personally opt for laying aside the controversy to enjoy what the award season offers: exposure to stories that I may not have otherwise discovered.  This is certainly the case with this year’s short story nominees.  In my current role of reviewing a handful of the available short story publications each month here at SF Signal, I expect that come this time next year I will have read at least some of the stories that end up short-listed for awards.  In the case of this year’s Nebula nominees I had only read the Ken Liu story and the only other author I had previously read was Cat Rambo.  Because of these nominations I have been exposed to five new-to-me authors, all of whom have demonstrated the  need to seek out more of their work.  If all that the various SFF awards are successful at doing is exposing readers to authors/works they might not have otherwise discovered then I proclaim: mission accomplished!  Whether or not they accomplish more than that (and I posit that they do) is a subject for another post, and possibly a different spokesperson.

In closing regarding this year’s Short Story nominees, I do hope that readers will sample these works and offer their opinions.  I have no doubt that opinions will differ greatly.  As I step away from the pulpit I will offer my prediction that the vote will result in a tie between “Robot” and “Immersion”.  I’ve read each story twice now and I have yet to decide which of those two stories resonate with me more.  Congratulations to all seven nominees.  I believe each story has earned a spot in the running and look forward to seeing how the judges make the tough call.

16 Comments on Short Fiction Friday: The 2013 Nebula Nominated Short Stories

  1. Bob Blough // March 1, 2013 at 2:04 pm //

    Great review. I’ve read all but one of these stories and I would say that my top two are “Immersion” and “Five Ways to Fall in Love on the Planet Porcelain”. I do wish others of my favorites had been here but Carl is right – it is a very good choice of stories . Not a poor one in the bunch.

    • I just noticed that Aliette de Bodard has a new story in this month’s issue of Clarkesworld. Looking forward to reading that.

    • I thought it was really clever how Cat Rambo used the “five” theme in Porcelain and also think it says something about the quality of the story that the reader can just step right into it and go with it. These people made of porcelain don’t seem far-fetched at all because the story works so well.

  2. For once, I read all the stories on one of these shortlists. I have no idea how I’d pick between Aliette de Bodard’s, Ken Liu’s, and Cat Rambo’s stories.

    • I’m not sure where to even look, but boy would I be curious once all the voting is done to see just how close a race this was between the eventual winner and the others. This is such a strong field, in my opinion. And although a print form of some kind will come out (the Nebula Awards Showcase) with some of these stories in them, I wish that a volume including each of the short fiction selections would come out. I’d love to have a bound copy with all of these in it.

  3. Can we hope to see a review of the novelette’s in the near future as well. Their close to short fiction, right?

  4. A fine overview of the nominated group, plus your usual insightful analysis of each story with strengths and weaknesses. Your Friday review of short fiction has added a lot to SF Signal, I hope you’re here to stay.

    I too would love to see the novelette nominees reviewed here, even if it has to be just a couple of them at a time.

    • Thanks Richard, I hope they keep me! Haven’t heard anyone sharpening knives or smelled tar being put on to boil, but you never know.

      I’m definitely going to try to work on the other two short fiction categories and am hoping the current works that are not up free online will become available soon now that they’ve been nominated. I did order Aliette de Bodard’s limited edition “On a Red Station, Drifting” which is nominated in the novella category and received it in the mail yesterday so that marks one that doesn’t appear to be available anywhere online.

  5. Oh my, I just read Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain. It’s quite a captivating story and I certainly did not see that end coming! Plus it’s thought provoking in many ways. The fact that the tourist comes along and takes something from Tikka. She was so naive and vulnerable – given one of the lists she wrote about humans perhaps she should have shown more caution. It’s only a short story but it makes you think.
    I will go and read some of the others – this one appealed to me I think because of the ‘lists’.
    Lynn 😀

    • I have to say that the behavior of the tourist was one that first shocked me because it was so unexpected and then as I thought about it more made perfect sense because isn’t that so much like what the average tourist in another place is like? You should read “Immersion” if you have time, I think that is the one I will be announcing tomorrow as the short story we will discuss on Sunday March 9th at my place.

      • I’ll read Immersion before then and join in the discussion.
        Yes, this does seem to be tourist behaviour in a lot of respects (okay maybe a little bit more harsh than a typical holiday romance and then run but even so).
        Lynn 😀

        • Oh yes, definitely more harsh but in the sense of the story it is the kind of behavior that makes for an impact. And I don’t think that is the only, or even the main, thing that part of the story is meant to represent. The thing he took from her is in many ways a representation of what was taken from her emotionally with a relationship where, at least from her point of view, there was more of a commitment and romance than there actually was in reality. I don’t know about you but even though she was porcelain, or maybe especially because she was porcelain, I had such a visceral reaction to all of the references to cracks and missing parts and especially to what then happened to her.

  6. Valentina Cardinalli // July 29, 2013 at 9:21 pm //

    I wonder if any of these could be performed radio play/audio book style? I listen to the New Yorker fiction podcast all the time but they never have sci fi (which is my absolute favorite!) …

    It’s just nice to dream whilst I do mundane things (washing dishes, making dinner, short breaks between demands of young children etc.) but I hate reading from a screen and I need my hands are all sudsy so audio versions are totally awesome!

    Also, I’d love to submit some of my meger attempts at sci fi scribbling next year. Do you have to be well known/published? What is the criteria? Should I submit now for next year?

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