What’s The Opposite Of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes?
As you will have noticed from my short story projects I tend to find genre short stories frustrating. For this reason I subscribe to none of the magazines and rarely read any of the freely available material on the internet. The exception is at awards time. This is, after all, part of the point of awards: to filter a huge field and identify the best of the best. By reading only shortlisted works I should avoid all frustration and experience only excellent literature.
Ho, ho, ho.
Not only does awards season mean I read short fiction, it also means I get an opportunity to talk about it. This year Karen Burnham has been running a short story club at Locus Online. It is a welcome development, although it is a shame to see no other contributors to Locus taking part. The club covers all the short stories and novelettes that received two our more award nominations this year.
One of these stories is ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ by Eric James Stone, which was shortlisted for both the Hugo and the Nebula. It subsequently won the Nebula. This means, theoretically, that the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America – professional writers all – thought that this was the best short story published in science fiction and fantasy in 2010. That is quite an accolade. Theoretically.
Before going on to try and puzzle out what has gone catestrophically wrong with the Nebulas, I suppose I better mention the story itself. My first encounter with the story was when Nick Mamatas refered to it as the “Mormon space whale rape story”. Then I read Abigail Nussbaum’s scathing review as part of her overview of the Hugo novelette shortlist. (Nussbaum has also written about the Hugo short story and novella categories. Poor sod.) As such, although my expectations for the short story club had already been lowered by ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard and ‘Ponies’ by Kij Johnson, I was confident that ‘Leviathan’ would be much worse. And it was.
I tweeted the story as I read it at #whalerape (
now lost to the ether) and I’ve left several comments on the Locus post so I’m not going to rehearse why the story is so bad (it is also worth reading the David Moles post linked there). If you think the story has any merit at all, feel free to try and convince me in the comments. Instead, my interest now is in how it won the Nebula. The voting system might well play a part. As Sam Montgomery-Blinn pointed out, unlike the Hugos:
the final vote is a winner take all, unranked vote: pick one of these 5-6 stories. This is precisely the voting system you would expect to produce a mediocre winner with strong hot/cold reactions, while 3 or 4 more potentially outstanding stories split the remaining votes.
But that would still mean a chunk of people had to actively vote for ‘Leviathan’. How many members of the SFWA vote for the Nebulas and how many of them voted for this story? I’ve no idea because this information isn’t published. The Hugos are very good about publishing their nomination and voting statistics and I can see no good reason why the Nebulas shouldn’t do the same. I emailed the SFWA to ask for the statistics but I’ve had no response. Because of this fundamental lack of transparency around the award, I am reliant on anecedotal evidence. For example, Rick Bowes gave a partial answer but I’m not sure what his source is:
it appears that fewer than 20% of the membership recommend on the preliminary ballot or vote on the final ballot. It’s possible for a very small number (even single digets) of recs to put a work on the final ballot.
The combination of First Past The Post and low voter turnout is exactly the sort of situation where you would expect logrolling to succeed. And, chances are, that is exactly what has happened here. Mamatas has since mentioned that Stone is a member of the Codex writers group. He is not the only one. Here is the shortlist for the Nebula novelette category:
- ‘Map of Seventeen’ by Christopher Barzak
- ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard (Codex)
- ‘The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara’ by Christopher Kastensmidt (Codex)
- ‘Plus or Minus’ by James Patrick Kelly
- ‘Pishaach’ by Shweta Narayan
- ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ by Eric James Stone (Codex)
- ‘Stone Wall Truth’ by Caroline M. Yoachim (Codex)
It is the same old story, you vote for your mates, regardless of how good their work is. Of course, the Nebulas have always had this reputation but even so you would hope people who voted for this story would have the good grace to be embarrassed. ‘Leviathan’ is not the best story of 2011, it is not even a good story; in fact, it can probbaly be counted amongst the worst stories published in 2011. Couldn’t the Codex writers group just have bought Stone a cake? That way I wouldn’t have been tricked into thinking his story was worth reading, that the Nebulas retained an vestige of value and that the SFWA was an organisation interested in literature.