Thoughts on the 2018 Nebula Awards Evening

Published on 2018-05-20

I wasn't there -- I watched the livestream. But I'm teeming with feelings this weekend and wanted to share some of them with you. 

Around this time last year, I was at the Nebulas. I wrote nothing about them that I can handily refer to, because I was going from the Nebulas in Pittsburgh to Wiscon in Madison via a sleeper train to Chicago and a bus the following day. The relevant events:

- I was detained at the airport in Toronto for the first time, nearly missing the flight to Pittsburgh

- I got food poisoning the day before the Nebula awards and spent almost all of Friday in bed

- I saw an astronaut give an amazing talk that awed me and grossed me out in almost equal measure (even the grossness was kind of awe-inspiring) before making me cry with words about how science fiction inspired HIM to want to be an astronaut

- "Seasons of Glass and Iron" won a Nebula

I'd tried to write a speech. I took my journal up to the podium with me but my hands were shaking too much to open it and I was weak and wrung out from not having eaten in 36 hours and my eyes were blurry with tears and I ended up speaking off the cuff about how much it meant to me, or trying to. 

I say these things now partly because the Nebula Award Weekend was held in the same place this year, and watching the livestream brought so much of it back, and I found myself remembering the tense thrumming no-place where my brain was until the announcement, and wanting to celebrate and commiserate in the same breath. 

So, this year, then. 

The thing I find myself wanting to talk about isn't who won or didn't, because the ballot was so gorgeously strong that in every category I felt multiple works were equally deserving and felt genuinely happy for every winner. 

I want to talk about death, and memory. 

My thoughts have been a mash, lately. I read Nicole Kornher-Stace's forthcoming LATCHKEY, where ghosts draw strength from memory. There was a death in my extended family. And then here was this Nebula Awards Ceremony that felt so thick with memory and remembrance and ritual that I don't know if I can untangle it, but here's an attempt. 

Sam J. Miller, whose book THE ART OF STARVING won the Andre Norton award, spoke of his father, and how from his hospital bed his father said that all he wanted was to live long enough to see Sam sell a novel. They received word that THE ART OF STARVING had sold, and his father died 24 hours later.

N. K. Jemisin, whose book THE STONE SKY won Best Novel, said that she was writing it -- this book capping a trilogy of mothers and daughters, children and parents -- while her mother was dying. Nora wasn't present; Sam read her speech, book-ending the award portion of the evening with speeches touching on deep, intimate loss.

And preceding these, earlier in the evening -- all the members of the community we lost, their faces broadcast in memoriam, Ursula K. Le Guin among them. And then, Peter S. Beagle spoke. 

Peter S. Beagle. Peter S. Beagle being presented with his Grand Master award for lifetime achievement, 79, having sold his first novel at 19. I kept looking at him through the screen and feeling as if those sixty years unspooled behind him like a road, his every small smile a gesture towards its enormity. Peter S. Beagle, whose work has touched millions of people, saying he didn't want to bore us with his memories. Peter S. Beagle, who I didn't know was a musician, saying he wanted to sing a small song in remembrance of Edward Eager's ill-fated musicals. Peter S. Beagle, saying this might be the last time he sings in public, choking up halfway through, recovering -- with that twinkling smile -- saying "this is just what happens when you get old." 

Peter S. Beagle, remembering a roommate from decades ago, who woke him up with the sound of his crying, and said, when Peter asked him what was wrong, "it's all right Peter. It's just one of those things that comes in the night." 

It's just one of those things that comes in the night.

I can't get those words out of my head. This man whom Peter S. Beagle remembers. Those words he spoke. 

Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer behind Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street, animated a puppet who spoke of how a puppet had a soul in two halves: one half is provided by the puppeteer, but the other half is provided by the audience. 

I gasped, hearing that. Wisdom from puppets always makes me gasp, I'm finding, as I'm privileged to spend more time with Mary Robinette Kowal and her own puppets. I started thinking of how this is also true of books, how much this is a part of the novel I'm working on, this blending of writer and reader, puppeteer and audience, and how the work between them can be more than either of them. 

But I think, now, the rest of the night behind me, of how much broader that metaphor can reach. How we are made of memory, but also of remembrance. How we are our experiences, but also the impressions we leave on others, however smudged or imperfect. How Sam and Nora's parents are in those books, travelling outward like ripples in water, vibrations in thread. How Peter Beagle's friend is in my heart, now, forever. How death may come like a thief in the night, one of those things, but how grace may wake the morning after. 

I want to go back to the beginning of this post and change it, start with the deeper parts. But that would mean cutting out the parts that are my memories of last year, that helped me start these difficult thoughts on a difficult day, the friction that helped light a spark. So I'll leave them -- thinking of the moments Martin P. Robinson spent getting a puppet on his hand, and the moments he spent taking it off, and how necessary those moments were to an awareness of the magic that happened between them.

That magic, too -- this grief, this love, this wonder -- is one of the things that came in the night.