Six short stories which together were entertaining and some of which were exceptional. ‘Exceptional’ though, is the more relevant word for an award. A story can have many positive qualities, entertaining, engaging, readable but if it isn’t in some way exceptional why single that story out for special recognition from all the other stories that are entertaining, engaging, and readable.
There really isn’t a way past this point. There are some excellent arguments against exceptionality as a quality of works but those arguments all point to rejecting the idea of literary awards. There are excellent arguments against literary awards and the recent emotional pain generated around the Nebulas can’t be ignored when considering if awards do more harm than good. However, EVERY literary award by necessity divides works into two camps: a huge camp of works that don’t get recognised and a proportionally tiny camp of works that do. Rationally, every award nomination and finalist is making a claim of some degree of exceptionality about the nominated work. So every award finalist raises a question ‘why this one and not that one?’ There are many legitimate answers to that question but the validity of the answer depends on the nature of the award.
I’d contend that there are three clearly exceptional short stories in the Nebula short story finalists. There is a fourth I can see an argument for, there is another that I don’t get but others clearly did and there’s a sixth which, while having many positive qualities, probably shouldn’t be a finalist.
The top three, I think are clear (in order I reviewed them):
- “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18) [my review]
- “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18) [my review]
- “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18) [my review]
Of those three I enjoyed the first one the most but if I had to rank them we’d be getting much deeper into how I felt at the time or about personal quirks (e.g. I love structural play in prose but its not everybody’s cup of tea).
Looking at the others:
This didn’t really work for me but I can see how others found it notable. It has an interesting premise and the use of contrasting genre conventions is clever.
Then we have:
Technically a movie trailer is a short film but it would have to be a particularly special trailer to win a generic short film award. Going Dark is essentially a taster for Fox’s novel series. That’s a more than legitimate and reasonable reason to write an enjoyable story and it’s also a reason why a story may have fans. It’s hard to see how this story stands out on its own though. Having said that, the story was picked out for the notable Baen anthology The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF, Volume 5. So within that space, it did stand out from the crowd for some people. I’m not seeing it though, and it didn’t strike me as being as good as some of the other stories in the anthology it was published in. I’m not infallible, I miss stuff.
- “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars) (EPUB / MOBI/ PDF) [my review]
I know the standard advice would be for authors not to comment on reviews (e.g. see ‘Going Dark’ comments…) but Rhett Bruno gave me some useful insights into his story that I had missed or misunderstood. In the end though, this story just doesn’t work in isolation. I get why fans of Bruno’s other books would enjoy a glimpse into the back story of a longer narrative but for an award a story needs to be able to stand in isolation. Again, I don’t see how this story is particularly notable or exceptional.