2015 Nebula Prediction, Version 3.0

Another 15th of the month, another chance to update my Nebula Award for Best Novel prediction. The Nebula Award nominating process has already begun, and runs from November 15th until February 15th. SFWA members are already busy voting and plotting!

There are a couple of changes since last month’s Prediction. As more “Best of 2014” lists are published, we’re getting a better and better idea of what both the Mainstream and SFF Critics think are the major works of the year. While neither of these lists will be perfectly correlated to the eventual Nebula slate, both provide essential information that can help us make good predictions, particularly for books in similar categories. For instance, in the “somewhat unusual fantasy novel” category, we have three main contenders: City of Stairs, The Goblin Emperor, and The Mirror Empire. Robert Jackson Bennett and Katherine Addison have done very well on the SFF Critics list so far, while Kameron Hurley hasn’t. Ergo, I should rank Bennett and Addison higher than Hurley.

My prediction also factors in things like Reviews, Popularity and past Nebula patterns regarding Repeat Nominees, sequels, genre, etc. As we get closer to the Nebula slate, we can hope the prediction gets more accurate, but a lot can still change between now and February.

So what’s changed in my list?

City of Stairs creeps up to #3, and it’s getting pretty close to being a “sure thing” for this Nebula season. A stand-alone fantasy book taking place in a mysterious city filled with dead gods, it’s both accessible and literary, and unusual enough to stand out in a crowded field.

I added a dreaded “?” in Slot #5. This reflects the reality of the Nebulas: over the past decade, there have been some very unusual Nebula choices, books that were off the radar and wound up in the slate. Something like this is likely to happen again, and I don’t want to pretend we can predict the slate with 100% accuracy. Hell, I’ll be happy if I get 4 out of 6 right.

Next, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is something of this year’s Nebula wild-card. This has been roaring over in the Mainstream world, but I don’t yet have a clear sense of how SFF fans and writers have been receiving it. I’ll be doing a Review Round-Up soon, and I’ll be interested to see what the broad range of SFF blogs and readers are thinking about this book. It doesn’t take broad support to make the Nebula slate; instead, it takes a small group of passionate fans. Station Eleven is likely to attract that necessary group, even if it is a little more problematic for the broader SFF community. I have her at a shaky #6.

Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Henry August debuts at #11. I initially discounted this book because it sounded too much like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but North has placed well on year-end lists. Apparently, audiences aren’t tired of the “Groundhog’s day” style-novel, and North certainly provides something different than the rest of the main contenders.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird has done extremely well on the Mainstream List, and Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club has also gotten some good online chatter. Both are re-told fairy tales without obvious speculative elements. There is some debate as to whether this sub-genre should be considered SFF, but I think positive reception has boosted either (or both) of their Nebula chances. They debut in one category together at #12.

You can’t move books up without moving some books, and I’ve moved down some of the authors that haven’t been showing up on “Best of 2014” lists: Jo Walton, Jack McDevitt, Kameron Hurley. For whatever reason, these books aren’t getting the same kind of year-end reception as the other books, and this definitely hurts their Nebula chances.

Remember, the Nebulas are much harder to predict than the Hugos. The Nebulas involve a smaller group of voters (SFWA members, many of whom don’t seem to vote), publish less data (it keeps the vote totals secret), and tends to nominate obscure books (Nagata and Gannon last year, for instance). The Nebula is also a more “writerly” award; some of the popular authors in the Hugo—Scalzi or Stross—have never done well in the Nebulas. It’s harder to predict what writers are going to like than fans, given that fans tend be more vocal about their likes and dislikes.

Disclaimer: As always, Chaos Horizon predicts what is likely to happen in the Nebula awards, not what “should” happen. By data-mining past awards, I try to discover patterns to base my predictions on. This is an imperfect science—the past is not a 100% predictor of the future, otherwise we’d know everything that would happen—so take the list as no more than a rough guide.

Annihilation Ancillary Sword City of Stairs
The Bone Clocks Question Mark Station Eleven

Tier I: Likely to be Nominated
The leading candidates, based on critical reception and past Nebula performance.

1. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer: Nothing has happened this past month to disrupt VanderMeer’s frontrunner status: good placement on the Mainstream list (#2) and SFF Critics list (#3), good sales, great critical reviews, and strong across-the-board support. I do worry how the Nebulas will handle whether or not Annihilation or all of Area X get nominated. I think VanderMeer has a better shot if only Annihilation makes it, as far more people started this trilogy than finished it.
2. Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie: I never thought Leckie would win this year, as back-to-back Nebulas are a huge statement, and #2 in a trilogy always drags a little. Still, a nomination should be a safe-bet, and I’d expect the conclusion of this trilogy, Ancillary Mercy, to be a major contender when it comes out.

Tier II: A Strong Chance
I told you the Nebula is hard to predict. Beyond Leckie and VanderMeer, I’m not sure anyone is “likely” to make the final slate, but a wide range of authors have good chances. Remember, the Nebula has been roughly 50% repeat nominees, 50% newcomers; if this year follows that trend, that would be good for Bennett and Addison.

3. City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett: Bennett has so many strong things going for him: a current #1 position on the SFF Critics list, the stand-alone status of his novel, its “edgy” take on what fantasy can be, that it almost seems like a sure-thing. My one hesitation is sales, as this hasn’t really broken out in the way you’d expect. Still, the Nebula is given by SFWA writers, not the general public, and I think this book has enough support to be at last 75% of a sure-thing.
4. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell: Until Mandel starting stealing his thunder, Mitchell was alone at the top of the 2014 Literary SFF heap. He won the Mainstream list convincingly, and sales for this book have been outstanding. I think Mitchell is also going to benefit from some “we should have given the Nebula to Cloud Atlas” sentiment. Think back to 2005, when Bujold won for Paladin of Souls. Which book has held up better? In a weird way, The Bone Clocks benefits from its massive length: if you read all 650+ pages of it, you wind up invested, whether or not it really seems like a “fantasy” novel.
5. The Martian, Andy Weir: This was the biggest debut SF novel of 2014, although eligibility issues—the book was originally self-published in 2012—are likely to prevent a nomination. It is also less “writerly”—and more action driven—than what the Nebula tends to nominate.
5. ?: The Nebula is voted on by a small group, and towards the bottom of the ballot it gets very unpredictable. Who would have picked Fire on Fire or The Red: First Light last year, or Tina Connoly’s Ironskin in 2013? While I’m not sure we’ll have a Nebula surprise this year, it’s a definite possibility.
6. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel: This is a little too high for me for Mandel, but I can’t think of a better option in this slot. The Nebula is often around a 50/50 split fantasy and science fiction, and the list is too light on SF. While Annihilation might “technically” be science fiction, it has a more horror feel, and Station Eleven is a clear post-apocalyptic novel. Maybe Nebula voters will feel guilty about not nominating The Road or Never Let Me Go?
7. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison: Well received fantasy novel, offering an alternative to the dominant “grimdark” model currently so popular. Pen-name of Sarah Monette. After Bennett, the most buzzed about possible “newcomer” to the Nebula slate.

Tier III: In the Mix
8. The Peripheral, William Gibson: Gibson hasn’t been in the Nebula mix for more than a twenty years, but this is a return to more traditional SF. The top part of this prediction is too light on SF for the Nebula, so Gibson might get a SF “boost” into the slate.
9. Coming Home, Jack McDevitt: McDevitt has 11 prior Nebula noms for best novel (!), but this book didn’t grab much buzz. Still, those McDevitt fans are out there, and the top of the slate is light on SF.
10. My Real Children, Jo Walton: 2012 Nebula winner, 2012 Hugo winner, less SFF than her other works, although the Nebulas cares less about that than the Hugos.
11. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North: This has sold well and has gotten good buzz from both the Mainstream and SFF world.
12. A Re-Told Fairy Tale: Take your pick between Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (less likely) or Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (more likely). Both are historical novels that use fairy tale underpinnings to tell new stories. Valentine is better known to the Nebula audience (she was nominated for Best Novel in 2012), but Oyeyemi’s book is loved by the mainstream and is probably the most serious look at race in this year’s Nebula crop.
13. The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley: Had great buzz back in August, but hasn’t managed to make the year-end lists.
14. Echopraxia, Peter Watts: Watts doesn’t have much past success in the Nebulas (no nominations ever), but this was one of the more highly anticipated SF books of 2014.
15. Valour and Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal: 2011 Nebula nom, 2013 Nebula nom for prior books in this series.
16. Yesterday’s Kin, Nancy Kress: 5 prior Nebula wins, including 2013 Nebula novella; 2 prior Nebula best novel noms. Depending on how the Nebula rules, this might show up in the Novella category.
17. The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne: High concept debut novel, good buzz.
18. Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes: Beukes has almost scored Hugo noms in the past, but she hasn’t done as well in the Nebulas. High quality speculative/detective hybrid.
19. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu: My favorite science fiction novel of the year, and while Liu has picked up some good reviews, this hasn’t gotten the attention you might expect for China’s most popular SF author. Foreign language books are a hard sell to the SFWA.
20. Literary Fiction interlopers: A large number of books from the literary world have used speculative elements this year, and the Nebula has, in the past, been somewhat receptive. This long list includes Strange Bodies by Marcel Thereoux, J by Harold Jacobson (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, and The Bees by Laline Paull. If one of these books gets nominated, it would be similar to The Golem and the Jinni’s nomination from 2014.
21. The Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor: 2011 Nebula nom, but this novel only came out in UK so it seems ineligible for the nebula.
22. Mainstream SFF writers: A lot of the biggest-sellers of SFF are missing from the above list: Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, Robin Hobb, James S.A. Corey, John Scalzi, Mira Grant, Charles Stross, Joe Abercrombie, Lev Grossman, Deborah Harkness, Diana Gabaldon, I could go on and on. These kind of massively popular books have never done very well at the Nebula awards, particularly if they are part of a series. I don’t expect that to be different this year, but you never know.

For more info about the evolution and logic behind the list, check out the earlier version.

That’s quite a list—a pretty busy year in science fiction and fantasy. Who’s on your list for the 2015 Nebulas? Who deserves to be here that’s not?

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