2018 Nebula Nominees: Best Novel

The 2018 Nebula nominees were announced on Thursday, and for once I have actually read all of the Best Novel nominees before the announcement. (Not the case for the short fiction; I’m hoping to track all of it down before Hugo nominations close, but we’ll see.) Accordingly, some quick thoughts. Big spoilers are encoded via ROT13, although I’ve left some vague points about endings in the clear so if you want to read these books blind, stop reading now.

First of all, this list definitely skews more fantasy than science fiction, and series fiction is still big:

  • The Calculating Stars is alternate history, about an accelerated space program developed after a meteorite wipes out much of the Eastern Seaboard and sets in motion some unpleasant climate effects. I called it “SF-adjacent alternate history” on Twitter; the genre has always had a soft spot for anything related to the space program even if going to the moon is more science fact than science fiction. First in a series (at least from a novel perspective), although it stands alone fine.
  • The Poppy War is secondary-world fantasy inspired by China. More specifically, the second part is specifically inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War, but with more gods. First in a planned trilogy; the main plot is resolved but the consequences of such are mostly left to the sequel.
  • Blackfish City is the only novel on the list that I’d really describe as science fiction.  It’s dystopian SF, set post-climate catastrophe, set in a floating city where the breaks are beginning to show. Actually stand-alone!
  • Spinning Silver is Russian fairy-tale inspired fantasy. The other stand-alone; the cover art invites comparison to Uprooted, but they’re only connected insofar as they’re both fantasies based on Eastern European fairy tales.
  • Witchmark is secondary-world fantasy in a Western setting reminiscent of Edwardian Britain. It’s also a (m/m) romance. First in a series, and I’m not sure that it stands alone particularly well given gjb snpgvbaf ba gur oevax bs tbvat gb jne jvgu rnpu bgure as you turn the final page.
  • Trail of Lightning is post-apocalyptic urban fantasy set in the Navajo Nation. It’s the first in a planned four-book series, and stands alone reasonably well plotwise (although it also ends with gur znva punenpgref abg fcrnxvat gb rnpu bgure, so yeah).

Climate change is also one of the obvious themes running through this list; it’s directly featured in both Blackfish City and Trail of Lightning, and there’s an alternate version in The Calculating Stars. Given that it’s probably the biggest crisis we as a civilization face, this seems only appropriate.

Half of these are first novels, and Blackfish City is a second novel. There’s a lot of exciting new talent in speculative fiction and this list does a good job of highlighting that.

Is this particularly similar to my Hugo nominating ballot? Not really. There’s a little overlap, but while I enjoyed most of these enough to want to read the sequels when they come out my socks generally stayed on. I’m not sure there’s much of a takeaway here other than “SFWA’s tastes are broadly different than mine”, but unfortunately “I liked this but didn’t super love it” is a zone that I find particularly difficult to write about. I will try to have a better post on the Hugo finalists once that is timely.

I don’t want to dig too deep into issues of representation as I suspect I am not the best person to talk about them, but we did have some notable Jewish representation in two of the novels listed. First the one I liked: the protagonist of The Calculating Stars is a Jewish woman from South Carolina. Her Jewishness is a core part of who she is, but at the same time doesn’t feel overwhelming in a way that might feel stereotypical. And I expect for many readers the existence of a large Southern Jewish community might come as a surprise. (If that’s you: read a history book.)

That brings us to Spinning Silver. The Russian Jews in this novel might be closer to my actual ancestors, but unfortunately, while their portrayal is positive (and a lot of people liked it! YMMV), this ended up really detracting from the book for me. First off, one of the main characters (and our first narrator) is a Jewish moneylender; this is historically accurate for, well, the reasons stated in the book, but “Jews are good with money” is so tired of a stereotype at this point that it’s really hard for me to get excited about reading something where a main character is, in fact, a Jew who is good with money (and centrally so), even if no disrespect is intended and it’s not presented as a universal truth.

Second, Spinning Silver is set in a secondary-world Russia with all the names changed a bit, except Jewish people are still the House of Israel and use real Jewish prayers. So does the Land of Israel exist in this setting? Does Egypt? Did the Jewish population actually come over from a portal that got opened up on our Earth early in the Diaspora? (I’d read that.) The typography doesn’t help either, with the prominent descender on the capital “J” making every incidence of the word “Jew” seem like a shout in my head.

Finally, the ending specifically involves na npghny Wrjvfu oyrffvat orvat hfrq sbe zntvpny rssrpg, at which point I pretty much had to put the book down to “yikes”. There is no implication anywhere earlier in the book that Wrjf ner zntvp va guvf frggvat, and sadly jr ner abg zntvp va erny yvsr either. I’d probably be a bit annoyed at gur qrhf rk znpuvan anyway but I was extremely put off by the way it was invoked. While I can see why people liked Spinning Silver (and I really liked Uprooted, for that matter), I found the above just too annoying to ignore.