The Nebula Awards 2012: A Look Back And A Look Forward

James (Jim) Patrick Kelly and John Kessel are established science fiction authors and the editors of "The Nebula Awards Showcase 2012" (Pyr, $17.95), highlighting the winning and nominated stories for the most prestigious science fiction and fantasy awards in the English language.

In this edited excerpt from the book's introduction, they discuss the development of fantasy and science fiction, the names the Nebulas missed, and why literary awards can be paralyzing for a writer.

Jim: When you compare the very first Nebula ballot to our 2011 ballot, you see a lot of differences. There was just one woman nominated in any category: Jane Beauclerk, a pseudonym for M. J. Engh. Yikes! Note that the 2011 ballot has more women than men.

And all five winners in 1966 were science fiction stories, as were the vast majority of the nominees. For the record, the winner for best novel was Frank Herbert’s "Dune", the tied winners for novella were “The Saliva Tree” by Brian W. Aldiss and “He Who Shapes” by Roger Zelazny, the novelette category was won by Zelazny’s “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” and the short story award went to Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” In the four plus decades since, we have seen a proliferation of subgenres in our little corner of literature, but clearly we have nominated more fantasy than science fiction this year.

John: I think it’s demonstrable that some of the best work written in the last forty years has been recognized by the Nebulas. And the awards have gone to grizzled old pros and to newcomers, to Ursula Le Guin’s Powers, published in the forty-eighth year of her career, and to Ted Chiang’s “Tower of Babylon,” the first story he ever published. To classics like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Neuromancer, “Aye, and Gomorrah,” “When it Changed,” “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” “Beggars in Spain,” “Bears Discover Fire,” “Fire Watch,” “Behold the Man,” “R&R,” and “Magic for Beginners.”

To names who could not be more famous (Isaac Asimov) and to those who could (Jack Cady). I find it reassuring that the race does not always go to the best-known competitor; that every year there are new names on the final ballot.

Jim: Speaking from personal experience, the impact of a nomination on a new writer can be profound. It’s hard for any writer to know exactly how she is doing, once she starts selling regularly. Income doesn’t necessarily tell the story. Reviews are a crapshoot—are bad reviews worse than no reviews? Readers may or may not check in. And there are no promotions. Nobody gets to be Vice President of Slipstream or Project Manager for Space Opera or Director of the Zombie Division.

Yes, we have to believe in ourselves and know in our hearts that what we have to say is worth saying, but it helps when our colleagues offer some validation. Best-of-the-year editors certainly have this power, but they are individuals whose sensibilities are theirs alone. But when an organization of your colleagues proclaims to the world that you have written an elite story, you have to believe them. I think that helps the next time your curl your fingers over a keyboard.

John: If the impact of a nomination on a young writer can be profound, I can say from similar personal experience that winning a Nebula can be a test of character. When I wrote “Another Orphan,” which won me a Nebula on my first nomination, I paid less attention to marketability, and more to my own obsessive interests than I had for any story I had written up to that point. After I won, I spent a year spinning my wheels trying to figure out what winning meant I should write next. What did people expect to see from me? What was I supposed to write? It took me some time to find myself again after that experience.

Jim: There are many paths to greatness. (Uh-oh, I’m starting to sound like a fortune cookie!) And we would be foolish to say that being nominated for a Nebula or even winning one was the only honor that counted in this or any other year. It is instructive to note that two of the awards given at the Nebula ceremony, the Bradbury and the Norton, are named for great writers who, while celebrated as SFWA Grandmasters, have never made the short list for the award, let alone won.

That’s right: Ray Bradbury and Andre Norton have never appeared on the final ballot. Ever. And in their distinguished company are some of the most talented writers ever to grace our genre. For example: Iain Banks, Elizabeth Bear, Jonathan Carroll, Greg Egan, M. John Harrison, Alexander Jablokov, Jay Lake, Kit Reed, Rudy Rucker, and Sherri Tepper— to name but ten.

What does this tell us? Only that proximity to the stories of any given year distorts our vision. In our opinion, these are some of the very best stories of 2011, but it is up to future generations of readers to decide—fifty or a hundred years from now—which ones speak to the ages.

James Patrick Kelly has written novels, short stories, essays, reviews, poetry, audioplays, theatrical plays and planetarium shows. His short novel "Burn" won the Nebula Award in 2007; he has also won two Hugo Awards. His fiction has been translated into eighteen languages.

John Kessel teaches creative writing and American Literature at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He has been nominated nine times for the Nebula Award and has won twice, for the novelette "Pride and Prometheus" and the novella "Another Orphan," and he has also won the Theodore Sturgeon, Locus, James Tiptree Jr., and Shirley Jackson Awards. Kessel co-edited the anthologies "Feeling Very Strange" and "The Secret History of Science Fiction" with James Patrick Kelly. His collection "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories" was published in 2008.