I received this book--a collection of last year's Nebula Award winners in short form and many nominees--on the same weekend as this year's Nebula Awards were announced. It looks to me very much as though the Nebulas were a different slate last year, with none or only one of the fiction awards given on what looked to me like a "lifetime achievement" basis.
Unfortunately, what the winners in fiction had in common was something I brought up as problematic when I read Paolo Bacigalupi's winner in the Best Novel category: sexual violence. I wish I could say I was surprised that this was the common thread among award-winners in our field, but I'm not. It has gotten--as I said in the entry linked above--wearing and wearying to me.
I was trying to form hypotheses about why we would have so many sexually violent stories in the field lately. Hypothesis A was that it is a very emotional topic for a lot of people and thus makes for powerful stories. Kij Johnson's "Spar" in the Nebula Awards Showcase is pretty strong evidence against Hypothesis A, however, as I found it to be one of the weakest short stories I've read in years. (I expect this not to bother Kij a bit if she comes upon this entry--Nebula Awards make awfully good consolation against lone readers finding a story not to their taste.) Hypothesis B, that this is all a coincidence, is rather hard to cling to in the face of such consistent evidence. Hypothesis C, that readers or at least awards voters feel that stories with this element are daring and new, would be rather a slur upon the readers' intelligence at this point; Hypothesis D, that readers find them titillating, is even worse. I'm at a loss. What's going on here? Why so much rape, assault, and generally problematic consent now in particular?
And as I said in September: it's not that no story with sexual violence can be good or powerful. It's just that I am so very tired of them, and also that sexual violence does not make a story good and powerful. There were good things to be said of the stories that bothered me in this way. Kage Baker's "The Women of Nell Gwynne's," for example, has Baker's usual engaging voice. Unfortunately, this voice was used to tell a Happy Hooker story: we are assured more than once that while some people would be bothered by prostitution, Our Heroines are cheerful and fulfilled and not the least bit affected by it--nor are they apparently bothered by the fact that they are the fairly ignorant tools of a group of powerful men who direct the use of their skills to the said powerful men's ends, bribing the women in fairly explicit infantile fashion with shiny steampunk baubles. No, really. No, really. There was a scene where one of the grateful whores called her technological benefactor Father Christmas in a flirty way. That is how explicitly infantilized these women were. The plot was about a short story's worth. I was greatly disappointed. The story notes--by someone close to Kage, since she died before the collection was compiled--talked about how a bordello is a classic place to mock people in power, but the mockery was fairly confined to, "Hey, some rich people are decadent and/or pathetic!" and did not examine the power dynamics in the interesting relationships in the story in the slightest.
I felt that Eugie Foster's "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" had the most engaging use of its premise, of all the winners, and the least problematic use. I got a little caught up in the logistics of mask use, but the story made me think in more than one direction, none of which were "aaaaaagh make it stop," and was much more in line with what I want of a story marked as interesting/honored.
As for the other nominees and honored stories, I'm sad to say that the ones I liked best were the ones I'd read before. I'm glad Tor put this volume out and glad that they sent me a copy--it's extremely useful to have this kind of snapshot of the field and the awards selections within it. But it also reinforced my sense that my taste and the taste of the SFWA membership at large is not very congruent.