And so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Last month the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America gave a Nebula award to a piece that contained no science worth speaking of. There was very little fiction in it either, if fiction is the narrative of imagination; whatever images might have been in its author’s mind, what made it onto the page was determinedly unimaginative, and less narrated than vaguely gestured at. It put forward no fantasy, unless the fantasy that the world is an uncomplicated place populated chiefly by straw men and contrived examples is a fantasy. What writing was in it was mostly bad.

I suppose that as much as there was any of anywhere in it, there was some America. Maybe that’s something.

Let me make a point up front because if I let it go till later someone is bound to get confused. Yes, I am a Californian who deeply resents Temple Square’s interference in the affairs of my native state. Yes, I am a postmodern materialist who hasn’t been to church in twenty years, could probably count the number of times he has been on his fingers, has never believed in salvation through Christ Jesus except for a period of about twelve hours once back when the Berlin wall was still standing.

But I read Gene Wolfe, and find The Urth of the New Sun deeply moving. I read Connie Willis and rejoice with her characters at the hope of eternity offered in Passage and the hope of a compassionate divine plan offered in To Say Nothing of the Dog, even though in the bright light of day neither is a hope I share. I am in the middle of revising a novel in which an aquatic hive mind and a million-year-old alien warship are willing converts to Islam. Agnostic though I may be, I have no stones to throw here. I would welcome a thoughtful and inventive and well-crafted story of a devout Mormon standing up for his faith and in solidarity with his alien fellow believers against ancient and perhaps implacable powers far from home.

But this is not that story.

I actually find myself hoping that the reason “Leviathan” won the Nebula is that there is a constituency out there of Mormon writer-readers who are desperate for any science fiction that speaks to their experience, even when it has nothing to say beyond validating that their experience exists. That would give me some hope in turn that we might eventually see a good Mormon science fiction, a science fiction worthy of the Mormons I’ve known, who whatever our political and religious differences have been, most of them anyway, good-hearted, level-headed people whose unassuming natures often concealed a wry humor and a wealth of well-observed stories. The young men and not a few young women who carry the Mormon faith out into the world, learn difficult languages, go nearly alone into often-hostile places and make connections with people about as unlike the people they grew up with as it is possible to be — or who just go to small hostile Midwestern towns where the Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Catholics and Presbyterians can all agree to have a monthly prayer breakfast open to “any Christian denomination,” so long as that definition doesn’t include Mormons, where they happily do yard work for little old ladies about as likely to convert as the Pope — are brave souls doing what they think is right, and my hat is off to them. They deserve a science fiction that reflects the complexity of their lives and the world they’ve seen, and I hope some day they get it.

But this is not that science fiction.

And I don’t think the desire for that science fiction is enough to explain it.

Here is an interesting fact about the Nebula awards: contra what you might find implied on Wikipedia, and regardless of what you might read on the SFWA web site about the history of the award, there is nothing in the Nebula rules that says or even implies that any Nebula award is for the “best” anything. Unlike the Hugo award categories, which are established in section 3.3 of the constitution of the World Science Fiction Society as Best Novel, Best Short Story, and so on, the Nebula categories are merely Novel. Novella. Novelette. Short Story. The nominees in each category are only the otherwise eligible works that receive the most nominations from the membership, the winners the works that receive the most votes. No guidance is given to the members on what to nominate or vote for, or why.

I would like to say this explains a lot. That it explains how a story with no characters, no setting, no invention, no real speculation, very little plot and a bare sliver of theme — a story that nonetheless managed to drag itself out over 8000 words — was given one of the top awards in the field.

But I can’t. This is not the first very bad story to win a major science fiction award* in recent years (though it is, perhaps thanks to recent procedural changes, the worst to win the Nebula for novelette in many a year). It is not even a new type of bad story. It is representative of a type of story that seems to be gaining in popularity as the traditional science fiction community ages at something like a year per year.   Setting barely sketched-in, parasitic on reader memories of better-written worlds. Characters that are really just placeholders, the few who speak either author mouthpieces or caricatures of implausible opposing positions, all of them lacking substance, interiority, consistency, basic humanity.  Gestures toward “daring” that are no more than comfortable recapitulations of contrarian reader prejudices. ‘Ideas’ that were old and tired when John W. Campbell was young. Stories stripped of any complexity that would make them interesting or worthwhile, tables tilted always in the author’s favor.

If this is what we want, then we deserve every drop of the contempt we imagine the world beyond science fiction holds for us. If this is what we want, then there is something wrong with science fiction, as a community. I don’t know just what it is, if there’s more to it than fear of the future and fear of the unknown and fear of old age and fear of death; I don’t know what to do about it, or even if anything should be done about it.

I only know that if this is what science fiction is, then I won’t mourn when it passes.


* I am reminded that “Article of Faith” did not in fact win the Hugo for which it was nominated. On the other hand, “Travels With My Cats” did win in 2005. Though as depressingly derivative, inward-looking and cloyingly sentimental as “Cats” is, it is at least better-written than “Leviathan.”

17 thoughts on “And so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

  1. I think we are talking about two different whys – I think you’ve expressed why you think it’s a terrible story.

    That it explains how a story with no characters, no setting, no invention, no real speculation, very little plot and a bare sliver of theme — a story that nonetheless managed to drag itself out over 8000 words — was given one of the top awards in the field.

    is pretty darn comprehensive in stating why a story sucks. What I was asking for was the “why do you think this about this story?” because as a person who hasn’t read the story, there’s nothing here that convinces me what you are saying is true. (I assume it is since there has been so much complaining about it on the internet, but I was hoping for you to show your work a bit more.)

    As for reading it myself, unfortunately I cannot have that pleasure as I have given up reading fiction by men for a year. Otherwise, I’d be all over this terrible story.

  2. That the story is terrible is a matter of record! It is not my job to convince you that the story is terrible! (Possibly it is Martin‘s job?)

    But if you would like a more high-content review from someone who’s read the story so you don’t have to, I suggest Abigail.

  3. Chance — the story lost me the moment the sexy lady scientist in a tight jumpsuit appeared and started saying things, since it was immediately clear that she will learn a leson that science does’t have all the answers (not a claim science actually makes, but pretty much a required strawman in those kinds of stories.)

  4. David: Couldn’t agree more. But on the whole sending-missionaries-out-to-convert people…No respect should be extended to that act. Doesn’t matter what religion it’s coming from. JeffV

  5. the reverse could be interesting: how do humans react when aliens show up and begin trying to convert us?

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  8. It is not my job to convince you

    Never said it was – that’s why my initial comment said “I wish” – it was something I’d hoped for, not something I felt was my due.

  9. “I am in the middle of revising a novel in which an aquatic hive mind and a million-year-old alien warship are willing converts to Islam”

    Now that’s something I’d like to read. Doesn’t sound boring at all.

    -W

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