2014 Nebula Prediction: Final Analysis

So, now that Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has emerged as our pick, how did we get here?

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice: 25.8% chance of winning the 2014 Nebula

What It Is: A sprawling space-opera novel about a sentient spaceship confronting past intergalactic wrongs. With flourishes of Ian M. Banks’ Culture series and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, Leckie’s first novel introduced us to a complex future, including a provocative take on gender, and heralded the arrival of a promising new author.

Why She’ll Win: Leckie did poorly in the first part of the prediction model, which is based on an author’s previous awards history. She did well on the second part, which charts critical and reader response. Leckie, in particular, was a critical darling. Lastly, Leckie absolutely dominated the third part of the formula, which measures this season’s award performance. Leckie racked up five major SFF award nominations (Hugo, Clarke, Dick, Tiptree, BSFA), and won the Clarke and the BSFA. No one else in this year’s Nebula pool came close. It is this awards season dominance that boosted her past Gaiman, whose well-liked Ocean has received little awards chatter. Leckie is also the most viable SF novel of this year’s nominees, and the Nebula still slants in the SF direction.

Why She Might Not Win: Will Nebula voters reward a first novel? Did Leckie only begin to pick up steam this awards season after the Nebula votes were due? Will voters retreat to the safer, more well-known Gaiman? It wouldn’t be a surprise if Leckie lost—the Nebula does not usually reward first novels, although it has done so recently with Bacigalupi. While Ancillary Justice is ambitious, it is also clearly a first novel: Leckie is working out her writing style, and there are portions that are less clear/engaging than they could have been.

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the of the Lane: 20.7% chance

What It Is: A brief fantasy/horror novel about a child encountering an extra-dimensional evil.

Why It Might Win: Gaiman was leading the prediction model until the very end, and very well might have stayed ahead of Leckie if he had received a Hugo nomination. Gaiman has the best awards history of this bunch, with plenty of Nebula and Hugo wins. Ocean was well received by critics and readers alike, winning things such as the Goodreads vote. Tons of people read Ocean, which means tons of potential voters. Gaiman fell apart, though, in the last third of the model, failing to attract much awards attention this season. Part of that is that fantasy nominations come out later, but the crushing blow was Gaiman’s lack of a Hugo nomination. This indicates a substantial weakness of voter feeling for his book, and sprang Leckie to the top. However, if Nebula readers are looking for a safe pick, this is it, and is probably the “I’m voting quickly and haven’t read all these novels” vote of choice. You can never count out a multiple Nebula winner.

Why It Won’t Win: Gaiman’s novel is popular, accessible, interesting, and well-written. It’s also brief (under 200 pages) and it doesn’t represent Gaiman’s best work. In fact, Gaiman has already mined this territory (child confronting evil) in the better-liked Coraline. Nebula voters might feel that Gaiman doesn’t deserve yet another award for his “smallest” novel. They may choose to reward Leckie’s ambitious risks over Gaiman’s safe choices. A lot of this circles back to the lack of a Hugo nomination: if Ocean were considered worthy of an award, why didn’t it get nominated there? Ocean may be fading from the popular imagination even as Ancillary Justice is rising.

Nicola Griffith’s Hild: 11.2%, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni: 10.6%, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: 9.8%

What They Are: A historical novel about St. Hilda of Whitby, a historical magic realist novel about a Golem and Djinni immigrating to America, and a realistic novel about a family adopting a chimp.

Why They’ll Win: It’s easy to cluster these books together because they are all literary fiction novels that dip their toes into the waters of SFF fantasy. All are complex, beautifully written, and moving books. In fact, if you’re looking solely at the “quality” of the book, as disconnected from whether or not the book is actually SFF, these would be strong contenders. Fowler even won the PEN/Faulkner award. If voters are tired of traditional Science Fiction and Fantasy, these are their options—books that expand our sense of genre by challenging the very concept of what a SFF book can be. Furthermore, Fowler and Griffith boast a strong profile in the field, and could easily receive a “life-time achievement” vote.

Why They Won’t Win: Because they aren’t SFF novels. While genre-policing is a rather fruitless endeavor, some voters are doubtless going to find these books too far outside the traditions of SFF to merit a vote. Even more problematic, though, is that since these three novels are somewhat similar in profile, they’ll split votes between them. If Fowler’s novel was the only borderline SFF novel in the pool, it might stand a strong chance of winning, but I believe voters looking for experimental fiction will split their votes between Fowler, Griffith, and Wecker, leaving none of these three with much chance to win.

Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light: 8.2%, Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria: 7.7%, and Charles Gannon’s Fire with Fire: 6.0%

Why They’ll Win: They won’t. These are our “happy to be nominated” group, although we should keep in mind that once during the past 15 years (when Asaro’s The Quantum Rose won), we’ve had a total Nebula surprise. Maybe it’ll be this year?

Why They Won’t Win: These novels aren’t well known, didn’t attract wide-spread critical and reader acclaim, and didn’t perform well this awards season. There is nothing in the current profile of these author’s to indicate that their novels are “big” enough to win the award.

I personally see this as a two-horse race between Leckie and Gaiman. If convention rules, Gaiman wins. If voters want to award the next big thing, Leckie wins. The results are going to tell us something about the current make-up of the Nebula voters, and what exactly they’re looking for in the field of SFF fantasy.

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