The Nebula Awards 33 is the stories that won the Nebula awards given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1997 with introductions by Connie Willis. Since the book is an anthology, I have given a brief outline of each of the stories and my opinions on them.

“Sister Emily’s Lightship” (Jane Yolen). Emily Dickensen is offered a ride by aliens on one of her night walks, sees the world in such a different perspective that it enables her brilliant poetry. I really did not care for this story much because I really could not like the main character. Emily was too submissive to her illness, got too weak from it too quickly, and and always retreated to poetry. I also didn’t feel that the story held much mystery or surprises; the setting was the 19th century everyone imagines, so no surprises there, no need to create a new world and since I suspected Emily would be abducted by aliens (although it was actually voluntary) there was nothing new there, either. The alien abduction is not something that resonates with me at all.

“Itsy Bitsy Spider” (James Patrick Kelly). A woman visits her divorced father whom she hates after her mother dies. She discovers that her father is being taken care of by a bot who is herself as a child. The bot, while taking good care of the father, is a stand-in for herself, and the daughter begins to admit that her father loves her. This was a well-written story, slowly revealing the world, the meaning of the world, and the emotional changes in the main character, Jen.

“The Flowers of Aulit Prison” (Nancy Kress). A young woman who murdered her sister for being too pretty does penance by being an informer in the prison for people condemned to never return to shared reality when they die. She is to figure out what one of the Terrans in the prison knows. He is a doctor, but before she gets little out of him except a name before he dies unexpectedly. She is denied returning to shared reality, flees, and visits that person he mentioned. Here she discovers that she is a victim of a mind experiment by her people, and that her government is working against their people. She flees and works in the mines. Also well-written. The world is well developed, consistent, yet the meaning of it is constantly changing. Character development is good, although the story ends on a rather depressing note.

“Crab Lice” (Gregory Feeley). This was a Nebula finalist, not an award winner. Aristophanes (a famous Greek playwright) receives a visit from Dionysos and learns that there is a playwright who changes the world, but it happens in a distant time when the gods are irrelevant. The story ends with Vaclav Havel considering the possibility of a play. This was ok. Character development was weak, more of an idea story. The idea was well done, but with no empathy with the characters, it is less memorable.

“The Bookshop” (Nelson Bond). A writer has difficulty finishing his great novel and decides to visit a small bookshop in New York. It turns out to contain the finished works of authors’ unfinished stories. He tries to avoid the inevitable death (great works are only perfect in the afterlife), runs out with the copy of his finished work, is hit by a bus, and returns, dead. Good character development. Nice idea, a little predictable. The final paragraphs which indicate that he died, that the bookshop is not visible, and that the book is found to contain only three chapters outside of the bookstore is a well-done touch.

“Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream” (James Alan Gardner). Galileo’s microscope discovers no snakes in peoples blood, unlike the (somewhat altered from actual contents) Bible claims. Darwin suggests to the Queen that the Catholic Faithful have snakes in their blood because of natural selection. Senator McCarthy wants to wipe out snakes in the bloodstream, possibly by eliminating half the world. Well written, with good dialog and an interesting idea. Since the context changes rapidly, no character is memorable and thus the story isn’t, but well written nonetheless.

“The Dead” (Michael Swanwick). A woman friend of the protagonist introduces him to the CEO of a company making zombies, which will be the perfect low-cost slaves and an excellent way for society society to put the poor and unhealthy to good use. The protagonist realizes that it will, indeed, be so, and realizes that the world will be worse for it, the more so after his woman friend prefers the sexual services of the zombie to himself. Scary idea, even with it being unlikely. The story sends a strong message about low-cost uniformity, in a similar fashion to Huxley’s message against banal happiness. The quality of writing is better than Huxley’s, but the message was apparently more important than the quality of story: dialog is only ok, little character development, the mystery of what the company does is revealed much too add much to the story, so it is limited to background.

“Elizabeth Complex” (Karen Joy Fowler). A story about the life of Elizabeth. I was so confused by this story that I couldn’t follow what it was about.

“Abandon in Place” (Jerry Oltion). Saturn V rocket ghosts begin appearing, launching, and going to the moon (complete with telemetry transmissions), disappearing right when the astronaut in charge of landing needs to switch to manual descent. Ghosts are often seeking fulfillment of something; these ghosts turn out to be ghosts caused by astronaut Rick Spencer’s deep regret that NASA no longer does any exploring, limiting itself to near earth orbit with the space station. He and several other crew members disobey NASA’s orders and take one of the ghosts to the moon and back (where it disappears right before splashdown). This is an excellent story! The theme resonates with anyone interested in space. The transition from mystery to action to wonder is well-done. Good character development, dialog and writing. This story makes you keep on reading with amazement and wonder at what is happening.

“The Martyr” (Poul Anderson). A crack team of men capture some Cibarrans and subject them to experiments about their psionic abilities because the (human) Imperium has realized that while the Cibarrans are more than happy to share information on physics and other sciences, they always deftly change the subject when asked about psionics, as if they are hiding something. The experiments progress and an important secret is discovered. Knowing that the secret is out, one of the prisoners apparently sacrifices himself to bring a message to the Cibarrans, who come to rescue them. In the mean time, one of the researches theorizes an explanation for how the message was sent. A heated discussion ensues with the researcher accusing the Cibarrans of covering up a secret that is what all men wish for; the story ends by the Cibarrans revealing that they cover it up because it is unobtainable to humans. Also a superb story! The character development is not in the characters’ character, but in their understanding. Good plot flow: mysteries are progressively revealed, leaving new ones. The characters’ world, while not deeply fleshed out, is deep enough. The ending is classic short-story, and ends with a punch far greater than most, perhaps because the revelation does not appear until the last (short) sentence. Definitely a masterful story.
Review: n/a

Character Notes

Emily Dickenson
Young woman in 19th century America who is of weak constitution. She wants to be social but is quickly drained because of her health. Retreats to poetry. Poetry is much improved by seeing the world from the different vantage point of space.
Jen Fancy
Daughter of successful and wealthy woman and successful and famous Peter Fancy. Recently divorced, mother recently died. Hates father for abandoning mother, but eventually begins to admit that her father loves her.
Bot who takes care of Jen Fancy’s father. Bot is intelligent like an adult, but acts just as the young Jen Fancy acted for her father. Identifies herself as Peter Fancy’s daughter but also realizes that she is a bot and will “live” longer than Peter Fancy.
Uli Pek Bengarin
Young woman (early twenties) who murdered her pretty sister out of jealousy. Feels very guilty about her deed and regrets that her sister had to die. Works as an informer for the government (and is good at it) as penance. She is offered the hope of fully rejoining shared reality if she works hard, but it turns out to be illusory. Loves her sister so much that she returns her to shared reality (i.e. lets her body decompose) despite the fact that it will make her an outlaw and deny her a return to shared reality after she dies. Cannot fully accept that she probably did not kill her sister.
Pek Brifjis
Terran doctor. Explains to Pek Bengarin that she was a victim of experiments by her own people, who used Terran knowledge for evil ends (although the Terrans merely did non-invasive experiments).
Rick Spencer
Astronaut who wants to explore space and feels that NASA is wasting its time. His desire causes the Saturn V ghosts to appear, and his lack of desire causes them to disappear (problematic if he is in one of the capsules).
Tessa McClain
Adventurous astronaut. Created a plan for taking the capsule to the moon before Rick thought of it; recruited a helper while in the shuttle that was going to dock with the capsule.
Japanese scientist. Conservative, doesn’t want to rock the boat, but wants to be helpful. She exists to be the third person in the lunar mission, and the one who has to stay in orbit. Can be sneaky: subtely leaves Rick’s last waking thought on the return voyage a thought of burning up in the atmosphere so that the ship won’t dissolve if he has good dreams.
Commander of the group to extract information about psionic from the Cibarrans. Dedicated to getting the information, at whatever cost, including possibly the lifetime seclusion of the team (so that the Cibarrans would not find out and rescue them before they got what they needed). Rough, leadership, type.
Chief scientist. A little uneasy at having to inflict pain on the Cibarrans (not that they object to it much) but learning about psionics is most important. Is upset at the Cibarrans for their witholding of information about psionics.


  • Aliens (or maybe gods) provide the impetus for great work.
  • A race might actually have a shared reality, in which case denying shared reality (which would be like silent treatment for us) would be the worst punishment.
  • What one race or culture is interested in (e.g. how does shared reality work biologically) might be of no value to another culture. In “The Flowers of Aulit Prison”, Terrans trade bicycles and other produced trinket sort of things for information that is obvious to the natives. Neither side gives up anything of value, but receives something of value. (But, the Terrans quest for knowledge has a darker side when the natives take the Terrans’ knowledge and use it to create experiences that never happened.)
  • Ghosts could be physical items instead of people; this works if the item can somehow have desires and be personified (the Saturn V rockets in some sense “want” to return to the moon, even though they are merely physical in the story)
  • What happens to a race if it’s greatest desire is denied it (the world doesn’t always make us the way we want it to)? How should another race that has this thing/ability/property deal with races who don’t? Should they conceal the knowledge? Reveal it?

Literary Notes

  • The stories that had the best character development were also the stories that I liked the most and remembered the most.
  • The stories with “mysteries” (things I didn’t yet understand but wanted to find out about) were the ones that I read most eagerly. In the case of “Abandon in Place” the mystery was more about what was going to happen next, because I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen.