The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year and I’ve now reviewed each of them in turn, figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Now it’s time to make my final predictions. This is Blogging the Nebulas 2020.
The Nebula for Best Novel is my favorite award in genre fiction. Sure, everyone loves to kvetch about the Hugos, but there’s too much drama there, especially lately, and until recently at least, the winners rarely reflected my own personal taste. The Philip K. Dick Award, which goes to a paperback original, tends to skew weird, which is always interesting, but rarely am I intimately familiar with the entire shortlist, which makes things a bit less fun. The Locus Award shortlist is always fantastic, but that’s… a lot of nominees.
No, the Nebulas are my jam: five or six books (okay, sometimes seven), chosen by pro SFF writers who are members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, they tend to lean more literary than the populism of the Hugos, celebrating books that either do something wholly different or do something familiar in a new way. Moreover, the Nebula ballot tends to be where interesting debut authors have a real shot at gaining name recognition (I love that Kameron Hurley’s deeply weird first book, God’s War, earned a nod eight years before Hugo voters would finally take notice of her—in the novel category, anyway—for The Light Brigade).
Yes, I love the Nebulas. That’s why I started the Blogging the Nebulas project way back in 2013, the first year I read and reviewed all the nominees. In subsequent years—after I’d gotten a full-time job running the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog (RIP)—I was too busy to read and review a half-dozen books over the course of a few months, so I handed stewardship of the series over to one of my writers, Ceridwen Christensen, who managed it with aplomb for five years. But I always followed along, and I always made my own predictions for who would win. Sometimes, we got it right. Other times, well…
That’s my very long way of saying that my investment in predicting this year’s Best Novel winner goes well beyond just reading and reviewing the six nominees. I’ve got a tradition to uphold, and a streak of correct predictions to maintain. So let’s get down to it. By process of elimination, here’s my own personal prediction for the book that will take home the little lucite galaxy at this year’s Nebulas, to be held virtually on Saturday, May 30th.
First out is Marque of Cain by Charles E. Gannon. As I said in my review, this is the fifth novel in the Caine Riordan series, and though three of the prior novels were also Nebula-nominated, none won. I don’t think this one is going to buck the trend. For one thing, the barrier to entry is simply higher when voters are being asked to evaluate a late-breaking entry in a serialized series. For another, the novel is definitely the closest thing to an old-school throwback among the nominees; if I had to guess, I’d wager Charles E. Gannon is standing in for a host of authors who write quote-unquote traditional military sci-fi and space opera who feel they have been left behind by a new generation of writers (and Nebula voters). This… is what it is; I would be hard-pressed to tell this crowd they are wrong, and different sorts of books are being championed by the award in recent years. Cynical and reactionary arguments could be made to suggest there is some sort of P.C. cabal at work, but I think it’s more indicative of changing trends, generational shifts, and a widening genre readership. However you want to slice it, though, I feel safe saying this will be another nice-to-be-nominated year for Charles E. Gannon (who, don’t forget, can now claim to have written one of the most Nebula-nominated series in history).
As moved as I was by its much-needed vision of hope in a dark time for humanity, I also don’t think Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day is going to come out on top. It’s certainly captured the zeitgeist—if a bit tragically—with its story of a world changed and made much smaller by a global pandemic that forced people to live indoors, and in their own heads, and on the internet, and pushed the desire for communal artistic expression—in this case, live music performances—underground. Reading this novel in March 2020 was an uncanny and unsettling experience, and while the author’s powers of prediction proved to be unimpeachable—seriously, how did she manage to get so much of what we’re now living through so right?—and her optimism that we can weather this as a civilization is a true balm, I wonder whether a lot of voters might’ve felt less than enthused about reading it before casting their ballots. Odd as it may seem to say, I think Sarah Pinsker had a much better chance of winning the award on the day she was nominated (February 20, 2020) than she did by the time voting closed.
Next, it gives me no great pleasure to predict that Hugo-winner Alix E. Harrow will have to wait for another year for her Best Novel Nebula. While The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a highly accomplished debut and has won over scores of readers (it did pretty well in the Goodreads Choice Awards’ fantasy category last year—where it got my vote, incidentally— finishing just outside the top 10), this year’s ballot is astonishingly strong, and of the four debuts on the list, this is the one that felt to me most like a debut. That is to say, it shows grand potential, but also room for improvement. The novel is rich in character and atmosphere and the prose is laden with poetic imagery, but the plot moves in fits and starts and—especially toward the end—seems to speed to a climax when letting us slow down to luxuriate in the world a little more might’ve been warranted. I’m eager to see what the author can do when she isn’t racing to get her first book down on paper and out into the world.
And now, things are starting to get tougher and my support for my predictions, shakier. I feel pretty safe in saying that I don’t think Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow will take home top honors, but my reasoning why has less to do with the book itself —which is the author’s best, and a total delight—than with a combination of past precedent (this sort of fantasy novel has traditionally not fared well with Nebula voters…or at least, not once they’ve already nominated them) and unusually strong competition in the form of two other books I’ll be discussing in a moment. It’s certainly true that recent winning fantasy novels have been authored by writers with prior Nebula nods to their names (Bujold, Walton, Le Guin, Novik); there isn’t much precedent over the past few decades for a first-time Nebula nominee taking home the top prize for a fantasy novel—first-timer sci-fi writers tend to fare much better in this regard—with one notable exception, and his name is Neil Gaiman.
Which leaves us with two contenders, both debuts that belie their authors’ so-called inexperience (because goddam, they’re great). In as many ways as they are alike (they share a publishing house, an ostensible genre, a casual foregrounding of queer protagonists, a complexity of plot, elements of murder mystery, and a truly remarkable roster of SFnal character names), they are vastly different (one is shaped out of an existing subgenre—the sci-fi political thriller—with diamond-cut precision; the other is completely bonkers). I could see either one of them taking home the Nebula. And I am 100 percent sure one of them will—but which one?
Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth are unquestionably my two favorite genre novels of 2019, and two of the best-written, most warmly received, and—critically—strongest selling SF debuts (Nebula winners aren’t always bestsellers, but more eyes on your book never hurts) in more years than I’ve been #BloggingTheNebulas.
The former has a lot going for it—not for nothing did Amazon name it last year’s best SFF novel published between January and June. As I said in my review, it’s close to a perfect book: Imaginatively plotted, flawlessly paced, populated with deeply memorable characters inhabiting a world that is intricately built and plausibly fantastical. God, did I love reading it. I can’t wait for the sequel, which is due out next spring, even though it stands alone quite wonderfully (which is my favorite quality in a book that is part of a series).
But Arkady Martine’s book has one black mark against it, and that is that it is not Gideon the Ninth, the book that is going to win the Nebula (you heard it here, folks). I’ve known this thing had the race all sewn up since I first read it way back in October 2018, a full year before it was released (perks of the former job); my recent reread only reaffirmed my thinking. This is the kind of book that comes along rarely. It has all the qualities of A Memory Called Empire, but where that book is all about careful geometry and exquisite control, this one is about going for broke. Tamsyn Muir writes like genre rules don’t exist because—spoiler alert!—they actually don’t: There’s no reason a writer can’t blend tropes from sci-fi and fantasy and horror and mystery and fanfiction; there’s no reason a book set in another universe can’t be packed with nostalgic references to forgotten internet memes and unpopular Simpsons characters.
Well, maybe there is a reason, because not many writers could manage the chaos half as well as Tamsyn Muir, who has written an impossible book and managed to turn it into an awards shoo-in. She already very nearly won the aforementioned Goodreads Choice Award, picking up more votes by an order of magnitude than any other book on the Nebula ballot. She’s going to do the same among SFWA voters, too. I can feel it in my bones.
What book do you think will win this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel? Make your final prediction in the comments.
Joel Cunningham was the founding editor of the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog (RIP), where he explored the galaxy for 5 years, picking up a Hugo Award (well, tangentially) along the way. He’s now managing editor of Lifehacker, which means he’s managing at least one thing nowadays. He lives in an apartment in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and hopes to go outside again someday. He tweets @joelevard.