The nebular hypothesis
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.
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.