Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nebula Awards

The nebular hypothesis

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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.

Nebulas and other news

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The Nebula Awards

I’ll be spending most of today and tomorrow at the Nebula Conference here in Chicago, which I’m delighted to be attending for the first time. After postponing it for years for no particular reason, I recently became a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and I’m looking forward to taking a more active role in the community, starting right now. In particular, I’m moderating a discussion this afternoon on the legacy of John W. Campbell with a fantastic slate of panelists: Stanley Schmidt of Analog, Sheila Williams of Asimov’s, and Joe Haldeman, the legendary author of The Forever War. I’m also participating in a panel tomorrow titled “Western Narratives,” along with Jennifer Cross, Mikki Kendall, and Michi Trota. And I couldn’t be more excited to attend the Nebula Banquet and Award Ceremony—hosted by toastmaster John Hodgman—later that night. I hope to see a few readers of this blog there, and I’ll be posting about my experiences at the conference on Monday.

This also seems like a good time to round up a few other brief announcements and news items, since the next few months are going to be especially eventful. My short story “Ernesto” is being reprinted in an upcoming issue of Lightspeed Magazine, and I’ve just received the excellent news that my climate change novella “The Proving Ground,” the first story I’ve ever attempted at that length, has been picked up by Analog. I’ve also written a radio play for an episode of the new science fiction podcast The Outer Reach, which will debut this summer as part of the Howl podcasting network, and I hope to have more information about this soon. Best of all, I’ll be attending MidAmeriCon II this August in Kansas City, where I’m scheduled to deliver a presentation on John W. Campbell and his work during World War II in the academic track at the Campbell Conference. It’s going to be quite a year, and we aren’t even halfway done with it yet—so please stay tuned for more.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

Oscar heaven, Oscar hell

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Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your least favorite Best Picture winner?”

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about awards. The other day, the nominees for the Nebulas were announced, and although my name wasn’t among them, I wasn’t particularly surprised: I only published one story last year, “The Whale God,” and although Analog has the highest circulation of any surviving science fiction magazine, it tends to be overlooked when awards season rolls around—unless I missed it, it didn’t have any nominations at all this year. Still, I always look forward to the Nebulas and the Hugos with more than usual interest, since these are the only awards in existence in which I have anything like a shot at scoring a nod. In theory, there’s nothing keeping me from getting nominated one of these days: I’ve been very lucky when it comes to publication and placement, and these stories are reaching all the right eyeballs. The only obstacle, which is a considerable one, is writing an excellent story that a lot of people think is worth honoring. At this point, I’ve done well enough as a short story writer that the only thing standing in my way is me, and although I won’t claim that I’m thinking about a story’s awards potential when I write it up and send it off, I’d be lying if I said it had never crossed my mind.

There’s a category of Hollywood players that probably feels much the same way about the Academy Awards. Once you’ve reached a certain level of success in a field that is recognized by the Oscars, whether it’s acting or screenwriting or sound effects editing, you presumably start to think, well, why not me? The difference, of course, is that there are so many other intangibles. For the big ticket awards, you’ve got massive advertising campaigns and more subtle kinds of pressure operating on behalf of the different contenders, and even in the technical categories, excellent work has a way of being overlooked when it isn’t attached to a box office hit or a Best Picture juggernaut, which is really just a convenient way of sifting through the vast universe of potential candidates. Hovering somewhere above all this is the Academy’s indefinable sense of what makes for a worthy nominee: there’s no real point in complaining that the Oscars have no correlation with the best movies of any given year, since we’re dealing with a hive mind that has evolved its own set of preferences over time. (You could even make a good case that the last time the Best Picture winner conceded with the consensus choice for the year’s true best movie was with Casablanca in 1942.)

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash

When it comes to making a list of undeserving Best Picture winners, then, we’re really talking about three different things. There are the winners that were simply bad films in their own right, although there are fewer of these than you might expect. I thought Crash, for instance, which tends to be the first movie anyone brings up in this context, was perfectly fine—although it labored under the delusion that it was about race when it was really about class—and we all know that I like Titanic one hell of a lot. Titanic, it happens, is a classic example of the second category, which covers movies that beat out more worthy contenders. Of course, this happens every time, so I’m not going to complain that James Cameron triumphed over L.A. Confidential, even if it’s my favorite American movie of the last twenty years, or that The King’s Speech won over Inception. Last, and perhaps most subtly, are otherwise decent movies that led nowhere. Even a mediocre winner has the benefit of handing a blank check to the director and the other principals for at least one passion project, so it’s always a little sad to see that opportunity go to waste. Shakespeare in Love is a nice enough movie, but it’s hard not to see it now as something of a dead end for everyone involved, except perhaps for the marketing prowess of the Weinsteins.

So if I had to pick my least favorite Best Picture winner, I’d have to go with something like The Deer Hunter. It isn’t an easy or obvious choice, because it’s a movie of undeniable technical merits, and there are some extraordinary moments. Yet it’s also a hysterical, sentimental, and borderline racist work that turns Vietnam into what William Goldman aptly calls a comic book movie, with Christopher Walken somehow surviving months of professional Russian roulette only to die in De Niro’s arms. In theory, it was honored over many other deserving movies, although it’s hard to imagine many of my own favorite films from that year—Gates of Heaven, Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween—scoring a nomination, which they didn’t. Most of all, it directly led to the greatest debacle in Hollywood history, Heaven’s Gate, a movie that never would have been made if Michael Cimino hadn’t won the Oscar, and which resulted in the fall of one great studio, United Artists, and the end of the auteur system of the seventies. Looking back at what I’ve just written, I can’t help see some significance in how many times I’ve typed the word “heaven,” and in fact one of the four nominees that The Deer Hunter beat out that year was Heaven Can Wait. Winning an Oscar might seem heavenly, but occasionally, it turns out to be hell.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2014 at 9:36 am

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