The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Genre, Part 2

In this post, we’ll look at how genre impacts the Nebula Award for Best Novel from the start of that award (1966) up to the present day (2014). Let’s jump right into the data:

Table 1: Percentage of Science Fiction and Fantasy Nominees for the Nebula Award for Best Novel by Decade
Nebula Nominee % 2.0Nebula Nominee % Graph 2.0

The streams have crossed! Lame Ghostbusters joke aside, there’s a lot of information to sort through here. Obviously, that cross in the 2010s is going to jump out the most, but let’s make some other observations:

1. The Nebula embraced fantasy nominees fairly early in its history, starting primarily in 1981. This was a surprise to me; I thought the change would have come later. The Nebula has been awarded for almost 50 years, and it’s only for the first 15 years that this was exclusively a SF award.
2. The Nebula was fairly consistent through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, nominating around 25%-30% fantasy novels for that 30 year period, or roughly 2 fantasy novels per year.
3. The Nebula has changed drastically in the last 5 years. While the 2010s aren’t over, we’re more than halfway through, and already more fantasy novels have been nominated this decade than in the 2000s. Even if you believe the numbers are a little skewed, a retreat back to that 30% number is statistically unlikely.

Decade-by-Decade Analysis:

1960s: A straightforward SF decade. The Nebula was still finding its way, and we have a very erratic # of nominees per year: 1966 saw 12 nominees, with 1967 only 3. The only “Other” book in this decade was James Blish’s Black Easter, an outstanding horror-themed book about demonic summoning. This is best read with its companion volume The Day After Judgment, usually collected together as Devil’s Day. Blish, of course, was already well-known for the SF audience, and this pattern—genre-borderline books getting nominated if they’re by well-known authors—will continue for the next several decades.

1970s: Plenty of “Other” books form this decade. In 1976, the Nebula nominated an overwhelming 18 novels for the award (check out the sfadb for the full list). With that massive list, some unusual choices creep in: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Throw in 1974’s nomination for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and we have our first inklings of the Nebula’s sympathy for literary fiction. I don’t know if you could classify any of those novels as science fiction or fantasy, although I’ll listen if anyone wants to try.

There are some other hard-to-classify novels from the 1970s. I never know what to do with R.A. Lafferty, and he received a 1972 nomination for The Devil is Dead. Along this horror angle, Robert Silverberg grabbed a 1973 nomination for The Book of Skulls. I know people wouldn’t blink an eye if I classed this at SF, but it, at least in my opinion, is basically a realistic novel with a few horror elements. As a pure aside, this is part of Silverberg’s great “death” trilogy alongside Dying Inside and “Born with the Dead.” In my opinion, these three texts are Silverberg’s greatest achievement as an author, and if you can handle the gloom factor, they’re excellent reading.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle were nominated for Inferno in 1977, a variation on Dante’s Inferno. You can see that in the 1970s, the best way to get a Nebula if you aren’t writing SF is to write something horror themed, particularly if it has “devil” or “death” in the title.

Lastly, we see our first fantasy books pop up in this decade. Poul Anderson received a 1976 nomination for A Midsummer Tempest, a Shakespeare-themed magic-infused alternative-history book. Anderson, though, was already a SF star, and he was one of that strange 18 nominee year. Richard Lupoff’s 1978 nomination for Sword of the Demon was a Japanese themed fantasy about demon-killing, and it fits the pattern of needing a horror theme in the title to make it into the Nebulas.

So, all told, the 1970s show a definite loosening of genre-boundaries in the Nebula, although this seems to be more inflected in the direction of horror or literary fiction than fantasy.

1980s: This is where things get interesting. Beginning 1981, fantasy arrives in a major way: Robert Stallman’s The Orphan, and, more significantly, Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer.

Wolfe’s four volume The Book of the New Sun is the critical series for this decade. Each volume received a nomination, with the second volume (Claw of the Conciliator) winning the Nebula. New Sun is a difficult and hard to classify series. Drawing on elements of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, it hovers on the line between fantasy and science fiction, a fact that I think helped it get nominated. Taking place in the far future, it initially seems to be pure fantasy, only to have some technological elements revealed in the later volumes. The Locus Magazine reviewers were equally confused: volumes 1-3 were voted as fantasy, and volume 4 made it as science fiction. In the 2012 Locus Century poll, it makes the list of both “20th Century Science Fiction Novel” and “20th Century Fantasy Novel.” Maximum confusion for everyone! I ultimately classified the four volumes just as the Locus voters saw them: #1-#3 as fantasy, #4 as science fiction. Make of that what you will.

Wolfe was a driving wedge, though, and after 1981 more and more clearly fantasy books get nominated: Jon Crowley’s Little, Big, Jack Vance’s Lyonesse, Orson Scott Card’s Red Prophet, as well as Wolfe’s own Soldier of the Mist. By the time the decade is over, 14 fantasy novels have been nominated, and Pat Murphy wins again in 1989 for her Mayan-influenced Falling Woman.

By this time, the Nebula has loosened it’s genre-policing. While some of these fantasy nominees were already well known for their SF (Wolfe, Vance, Card), others were not, and we see fantasy novels by lesser known authors pop up on the list. We aren’t seeing, though, fantasy novels by writers like Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Daniel Eddings, Mercedes Lackey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, etc. (i.e. the books that are bestsellers). No nomination for Mists of Avalon might be the most surprising.

1990s: The 1990s are filled with fantasy nominations. To mention some of the bigger ones: Elizabeth Scarborough’s Healer’s War, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Tehanu, Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. There are also a number of nominations by lesser known authors, showing a real openness in the Nebula to different types of fantasy literature. Notice there aren’t a lot of nominations for what we might think of as traditional “epic” fantasy: secondary world, part of a multi-volume series, etc. I’ll be taking a closer look at that in a few posts.

2000s: Two more nominations for George R.R. Martin, as well as multiple nominations for Nalo Hopkinson and Lois McMaster Bujold. Even someone like Terry Pratchett is able to get into the mix, scoring a 2006 nomination for Going Postal. We have plenty of lesser known authors grab nominations. For instance, China Mieville is nominated for Perdido Street Station. While it’s hard to remember, Mieville was unknown at the time: to grab a Nebula for a fantasy debut marks a major change.

We also have a broad range of fantasy novels nominated this decade, from more contemporary fantasy like American Gods to 19th century fantasy like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to secondary world books like the Bujold, Martin, or Pratchett.

It’ll be a few more years, though, until fantasy takes over the Nebulas. Fantasy is still stuck around the 30% mark . . .

2010s: And that 30% jumps to 60% for this decade. We’ve seen an explosion of fantasy nominations in the last five years: 2010 had 4 fantasy nominations and only 2 SF nominations, 2012 was the same, and 2013 saw one lone SF novel face off against 5 fantasy contenders. Why the rapid acceleration? I, quite frankly, have no idea. The fantasy novels being nominated now come from all versions of fantasy: contemporary (Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Walton’s Among Others), historical (Griffith’s Hild and Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey), experimental (VanderMeer’s Finch), literary (Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni), and secondary world (the multiple nominations for Jemisin, Ahmed’s The Throne of the Crescent Moon).

So, to sum up: we saw a slow start for fantasy from 1960-1970s, with horror-themed books breaking the genre divide. Beginning 1981, fantasy leapt into the Nebulas, occupying around 25%-30% of the award. That held steady until 2010, when fantasy leapt into the lead. All genres of fantasy now seem welcome in the Nebulas, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens going forward.

If you want to look at the Excel sheet with the genre classifications, here it is: Nebula Genre Study.

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