Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The nebular hypothesis

with 29 comments

The envelope for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette

A few weeks ago, I had just boarded my flight to Disney World and was about to switch off my phone when I saw that I had received a new email, the body of which read in its entirety: “We were wondering if you would be willing to present the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in Chicago.” That was literally all it said, and it isn’t out of any false modesty when I say that I wondered at first if it might have been a mistake. My apprehensions only grew when I quickly sent back a reply before the airplane took off, but received no acknowledgment or confirmation until I showed up at the conference on Thursday. (In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried: as the date of an event like this approaches, everyone involved in planning it is unbelievably busy.) Upon my arrival, I found that they were serious, which is how I ended up listening nervously from the wings of the stage as John Hodgman introduced me to the audience on Saturday night. I managed to read off the nominees without, I hope, mispronouncing their names, and I opened the envelope to reveal that the award had gone to Sarah Pinsker—whom I’d met for the first time earlier that week—for her excellent story “Our Lady of the Open Road.” After all my anticipation, it went by in a flash, to the point where I didn’t even register until now that I had the chance to briefly hold the Nebula Award itself, of which I can only remember that it is, indeed, very heavy.

It was a wonderful ceremony, and I’m only slightly kidding when I state that my presence was a big part of the evening’s success, not because of who I was or what I did, but because of why I was there. I only joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in March, but the fact that I’m a recent member explains why they reached out to me: they were making a deliberate attempt to bring new faces into the ceremony, and I certainly qualified on that front. It was a small gesture, but also a revealing one. The fact that all of the major awards that evening went to women—including Naomi Novik, who was seated at my table with her husband Charles, who played a surprisingly pivotal role in my entry into science fiction over a decade ago—is notable as well. Whether consciously or otherwise, in the aftermath of a rough period for the Hugos, the Nebulas have positioned themselves as an alternative expression of the values that speculative fiction represents. The picture it paints is more encouraging, and also more accurate, at least if the authors, editors, and fans I met over the weekend were any indication. It was a diverse, vibrant group, and I kept coming back to the same realization, which I tried to bring up at one of the panels I attended. Encouraging diversity of all kinds, in fiction as in so much else, is a matter of enlightened self-interest: it’s what allows the genre as a whole to grow and develop. It elevates everyone’s game.

Sarah Pinsker and Alec Nevala-Lee

And this also applies to the ideas that we explore. At a panel I moderated on the legacy of John W. Campbell, Stanley Schmidt, who edited Analog for longer than even Campbell himself, raised an issue that seems worth repeating: there’s a place in science fiction for both extrapolation and innovation, and the outer fringes are a legitimate part of the genre. We were discussing this in the context of Campbell’s interest in such oddball subjects as psychic powers, dowsing, antigravity devices, and the Hieronymus Machine, but I think there’s an even larger point to be made. Campbell was unusually receptive to the unknown and the unorthodox, but only when directed along strictly limited lines: there were huge regions of the possible that he had no interest in featuring in the pages of Astounding. Real innovation can only take place when a multiplicity of perspectives is represented, which necessarily requires a healthy range of markets and forms of distribution, along with writers of diverse backgrounds. Campbell’s vision of science fiction, even at its weirdest, was ultimately built around an assumption that all problems could be approached as subsets of engineering. This is an attitude that has had a tangible impact on real societal debates—as in, for instance, the attractive idea that climate change can be addressed through purely technological means, as if the social and political factors involved were too complicated to confront.

This is an incomplete way of viewing the world, and it emerges in part from the influence of Campbellian science fiction, as much as I love many of the stories that it produced. And the more of it I read, the more convinced I become that the genre’s greatest strength isn’t in anticipating technological advances, but in serving as a laboratory for social thought experiments: extrapolating trends or tendencies that already exist, sometimes to the point of absurdity, in order to force us to think more clearly about the reality in which we live. The only way to do this effectively is to multiply the voices that can make themselves heard, and to value authors who can approach the enduring themes of science fiction in ways that never would have occurred to Campbell or his writers. And small things can make a big difference. My biggest revelation of the weekend came from Joe Haldeman, who revealed that he had submitted the first part of The Forever War shortly before Campbell died, and that a four-page rejection letter, never mailed, was posthumously found in the editor’s files. A short time later, Campbell’s successor, Ben Bova, accepted the story, which made Haldeman famous. If he had begun writing a few years earlier, or if Campbell had lived a little longer, the entire arc of his career would have been different. It reminded me that so much of what shapes us is out of our control: I’ve felt this in my own life, and the history of science fiction is filled with similar stories that have gone untold. Every last gesture counts, and even a nebula can evolve into something more.

29 Responses

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  1. Great post
    Check this out


    May 17, 2016 at 2:31 am

  2. This is fascinating! I know that sci-fi has inspired many real world technological developments, but it didn’t occur to me that it might also be one of the reasons that we might also be prone to devaluing or ignoring the low-tech / social solutions to real world problems…


    May 17, 2016 at 8:14 am

  3. Great post i wish i were you right now.We can talk om parpiypaul@twitter


    May 17, 2016 at 8:21 am

  4. Yes, this was interesting! Love the point of view.

    Stuart M. Perkins

    May 17, 2016 at 8:21 am

  5. For years I was unsure if sf was inventing the real world or if the real world was creating the framework in which we develop ideas, I say we as I dabble with writing, I suspect in reality it’s both and it’s only the few great thinkers who can take that imaginitive step, interesting read thank you


    May 17, 2016 at 8:38 am

  6. I discovered Campbell’s Astounding at the age of 12 back in 1938 and devoured every issue for a good part of the life of Astounding. Although there was, no doubt, a solid respect for sound engineering and valid theoretical physics and cosmology in the story material, what made the stories I read fascinating was the sociological twist in their implications. Heinlein and Asimov and Van Vogt and Kuttner and many others explored the consequences of technology’s effects on character as well as civilization in general in many amusing and odd ways and widened the horizons barely touched by the previous primary outlooks of Verne and Wells although Wells’ efforts still stand up to the abrasion of time by their quality even though the suppositions of many tales have become fantasy through modern discoveries. Campbell’s companion magazine Unknown which indulged in outright fantasy nevertheless maintained a reasonable literary quality in exploring myth and superstition with not much engineering involved. Heinlein’s “Magic Incorporated” made a decent attempt to give fantasy a corporate structure. Back in those early days science fiction was something of a despised mystery to conventional writers and general literature but I remember well when in the US Air Force when Japan was hit with the first atomic bomb I was the only one in the area that fully comprehended what had happened due to the many Astounding articles by Willy Ley and stories such as that by Cleve Cartmill who had incorporated his concept of the atomic bomb before it was exploded in an Astounding story so well that the FBI investigated him on security grounds.


    May 17, 2016 at 9:03 am

  7. In the name of the lord are holly farther we need to use this to discover and learn. People in today’s world use the internet way to much. Sometimes in life its best to just fall asleep and listen to noises of the world.


    May 17, 2016 at 10:38 am



    May 17, 2016 at 11:39 am

  9. congrats to you! indeed, they were lucky to have you!


    May 17, 2016 at 12:27 pm

  10. No kidding, congrats to you for such a cool experience :)


    May 17, 2016 at 2:00 pm

  11. The Human Condition – we are because we can create, we create so we can improve, we improve because we aim for something better. We are human because we can dream and build – but there is no value in the building, if there is no social construct.
    Discourse creates and shapes perception – may they forever be as wide as any universal thought!
    Nice post, well postulated.


    May 17, 2016 at 7:40 pm

  12. One of the more important qualities of Campbell’s SF is the fundamental concept of hard and soft SF. The underlying formats of more or less standard fiction is a formula of struggle between the main character or characters to overcome a peculiarly theological quality of what is termed “good” and “evil”. Soft science fiction merely fills in the blanks of the formula with scientific props so that the story has more to do with a formulaic structure than a real confrontation of mind with real intellectual problems. Star Wars and a good deal of Star Trek were and are just the structure of old fairy tales chrome plated with a touch of current or presumed future technology. Even in Campbell’s world, the Gray Lensman sagas were not hard science fiction but rather galactic westerns. Heinlein, in stories like “He Built a Crooked House”, “By His Bootstraps”, “Goldfish Bowl”, “Methuselah’s Children”, “Stranger in a Strange Land”, Asimov in his robot stories and in “Nightfall”, Hal Clement in “Mission of Gravity”, Henry Kuttner in “The Twonky¤ and “Mimsy Were The Borogoves”, Harry Bates’ “Farewell to the Master”, all these and many more went well beyond the simple structure of the standard literary plot to stretch the mind into the inherent astonishing mysteries of confronting the principles of the universe itself and this was the huge delight in real science fiction.


    May 17, 2016 at 11:19 pm

  13. That’s a cool experience! And I truly believe in what you say. Sci-Fi gives us many inspiration


    May 18, 2016 at 2:05 am

  14. “Encouraging diversity of all kinds, in fiction as in so much else, is a matter of enlightened self-interest: it’s what allows the genre as a whole to grow and develop. It elevates everyone’s game.”

    Yes, oh my goodness, yes.


    May 18, 2016 at 2:29 am

  15. This sounds absolutely wonderful: “Real innovation can only take place when a multiplicity of perspectives is represented, which necessarily requires a healthy range of markets and forms of distribution, along with writers of diverse backgrounds.” It’s so important to allow all creativity to emerge and be seen so that we see the possibilities that are life!
    Thank you for your post!

    Spirit and World

    May 18, 2016 at 7:03 am

  16. Congrats all around – including being freshly pressed? Yes to the diversity – like everyone else is jumping up and down to say. I remember reading Nalo Hopkinson for the first time and just loving it!! Not because – yes diversity – but yes, because it had a different feel to it. Same genre, slightly different perspective, and I just loved it. I’m just always so thankful there are so many people out there so different from me. I think those of us who encourage diversity it things we are interested in do it for selfish reasons. ;)


    May 18, 2016 at 7:25 am

  17. 😄😄😄


    May 18, 2016 at 12:37 pm

  18. jsjsj


    May 18, 2016 at 12:37 pm

  19. Great Read!


    May 18, 2016 at 6:27 pm

  20. This is interesting! Great post! 😀


    May 19, 2016 at 12:20 am

  21. Wow…..I love this post…..wish I was u


    May 19, 2016 at 12:40 pm

  22. perspective is what i ‘ll say


    May 21, 2016 at 7:22 am

  23. for the love of reading check out
    and i am sure you will not like it but love it .


    May 21, 2016 at 7:22 am

  24. first read out check out


    May 21, 2016 at 7:22 am

  25. great post..i like reading ur blog

    Biro Jasa Perijinan

    May 22, 2016 at 7:52 pm

  26. Thanks, nice post.


    May 23, 2016 at 11:54 am

  27. nice post bro

  28. This is interesting.. Good Post

    UAE Visa Information Center

    May 24, 2016 at 5:40 am

  29. @jiisand: Apologies for the belated response—I’ve been behind in my correspondence! But I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your comments, and I hope you’ll stick around this blog: I think your perspective is a valuable one, and I’m looking forward to hearing from you again.


    June 7, 2016 at 3:42 pm

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