Unpacking the Best Novel Nebulas

Now that we have the nominations for this year’s Nebula Nominations for Best Novel, what are we to make of them?

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Tor)
Trial by Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (Tor)
Coming Home, Jack McDevitt (Ace)
Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals)

Let’s do what Chaos Horizon does, and look at some stats. What were the most predictive elements for the 2015 Best Novel Nebula?

  • 83.3% of the nominees were science fiction.
  • 66.7% of the nominated authors had previously been nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel.
  • 33.3% of the nominated authors had previously won a Nebula for Best Novel.
  • 50.0% of the nominees were either stand-alone novels or the first novel in a series.
  • 66.7% of the nominees placed in the top part of my collated SFF Critics Meta-List.
  • 16.7% of the nominees were Jack McDevitt.

What wasn’t predictive this year: Goodreads numbers, Amazon or Goodreads rankings, the Mainstream Meta-List.

Overall, the Nebulas Best Novel nominees were very traditional in 2015. After several years of being friendlier to fantasy, the Nebula snapped back to SF: we had 5 SF books and only one fantasy novel, although you may want to count Annihilation as cross-genre (weird/SF?). The Nebula had been creeping up to a 50/50 mix of fantasy and science fiction. This year, we saw none of that trend: three of the books (Leckie, Gannon, McDevitt) are far-future SF novels complete with spaceships and all the SF trimmings. The Cixin Liu, despite being a translation of a Chinese novel, may be the most traditional SF novel of the lot: an alien invasion novel along the lines of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Liu even does away with more modern characterization, instead using the old 1950s technique of “characters as cameras” to drive us through the plot and the science.

The Nebulas went with 4 writers that had previously been nominated for the Best Novel Nebula (VanderMeer, McDevitt, Leckie, Gannon) and only 2 newcomers. 2 of our 6 nominees already have won the Nebula Best Novel award, with Leckie winning in 2014 and McDevitt back in 2007. The Nebula Best Novel category tends to draw heavily from past nominees and winners, and 2015 was no different. Since the SFWA voting membership doesn’t change much year-to-year, this means support from one year tends to carry over into the next year.

Case in point: Jack McDevitt, who now has have 12 (!) Best Novel Nebula nominations. The constant McDevitt nominations are the strangest thing that is currently happening in the Nebulas. That’s not a knock against McDevitt. I’ve read two of McDevitt’s book, The Engines of God and the Nebula winning Seeker. They were both solid space exploration novels: fast-paced, appealing characterization, and professionally done. They didn’t stand out to me, but there’s never anything wrong with writing books people want to read. Still, I’m not sure why McDevitt deserves 12 nominations while similar authors such as Peter F. Hamilton, Alistair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, etc., are largely ignored by the SFWA voters. To put this in context: McDevitt has more Nebula Best Novel nominations than Neal Stephenson (1), William Gibson (4), and Philip K. Dick (5) combined.

Since 2004, when the era of McDevitt domination truly began, 73 different books have received Nebula nominations. 9 of those have been McDevitt novels. So, over the last 11 years, McDevitt alone constituted 12% of the total Nebula Best Novel field. I’m going to have to create a “McDevitt anomaly” to start accounting for the Nebula slates. Will Gannon fall into similar territory? There seems to be a block of SFWA voters who like a very specific kind of SF novel. This testifies to the inertia of the Nebula award; once they start voting in one direction, they continue to do so. The McDevitt nominations are useful because it reminds us how eccentric the Nebula can be: if you’re trusting the SFWA to come up with an unbiased list of the best 6 SFF novels of the year, you’re out of luck. The Nebula gives us the 6 SFF novels that the SFWA voters voted for: no more, no less.

I was pleased with how predictive my SFF Critics list was. Ancillary Sword and Annihilation placed 1-2 on that list and grabbed noms. The Goblin Emperor and The Three-Body Problem tied for third (along with 5 other novels, many of which didn’t stand a Nebula chance because of being last in a series, not being SFF-y enough, or not being published in the US). City of Stairs was a place behind those two, so that list at least predicted The Goblin Emperor over the Bennett. Neither Gannon nor McDevitt made the SFF Critics list. I’ll have to trust this list more in the future.

The demographics of the Best Novel award were also interesting, if predictable. 67% men / 33 % women is a little more male-slanted than normal, although the granularity of having only 6 nominations makes that easy to throw off. Along race/ethnic lines, you’re looking at 83% white / 17% Asian; I believe Cixin Liu is the first Asian author nominated for the Best Novel Nebula. Recent trends have been a little higher than that, depending on how you want to categorize race and ethnicity. Nationality of 83% American / 17% Chinese / 0% British is definitely a little unusual; this award has been friendlier to British authors in recent years. I’ll admit that I thought at least one British author would sneak in.

Any other statistical trends stand out to you?

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  1. 2014 Nebula Awards – the reactions | Far Beyond Reality - February 25, 2015

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