Nebula Winners Twelve is a collection of science fiction writings that won or were finalists for Nebula Awards for 1976. It includes the winner in the novella category, the winner and a runner-up in the novelette category, and the winner and two runners-up in the short story category, as well as two essays.
The first selection is the short story A Crowd of Shadows.
The story depicts a futuristic world in which androids are commonplace. They are used mostly as workers and assigned whatever drudgery people don’t want to bother with themselves, but occasionally they are used for more human roles, like fitting into a family, perhaps replacing a member who has died, or providing a child for a couple unable to have children of their own.
The narrator remarks how androids have never been given the rights of other minority groups, and are routinely the victims of discrimination that would never any longer be accepted if directed against any other group.
I have trouble finding that particularly lamentable. I had to look it up to make sure I was clear on exactly what an android is, but I did and it’s simply not the kind of thing there is any reason to treat like a human being from a minority group that needs protection from discrimination.
Basically an android is a robot, but specifically one that has been constructed to look at least something like a human being from the outside—it has a humanlike face, maybe fake skin covering its body, two arms and two legs, etc. The mechanical characters at Disney World’s “Hall of Presidents,” for instance, are androids. (By contrast, a cyborg is a person, specifically a person who has some artificial part or parts to restore or enhance functioning. To a very slight degree, a person who wears contact lenses or uses a hearing aid is a cyborg. To a greater degree the “Six Million Dollar Man” from the Lee Majors TV show was a cyborg.)
So androids are in certain respects made to resemble people, but they certainly aren’t people, or any kind of being with moral standing. There are no more grounds for androids having rights than mannequins or Vegas Vic (the giant neon cowboy outside the Pioneer Club in Las Vegas).
The second selection is the short story Breath’s a Ware That Will Not Keep, which is set in a future version of Chicago.
This is a creepy one. Society has changed to where reproduction is no longer trusted to civilians coupling in the normal way. So there’s little or no sex as we know it, but instead a sort of high tech mutual masturbation where people lie next to each other hooked up to machines that give them orgasms.
The function of reproduction is now handled centrally by the government. Over many generations of selective breeding, certain “women” have been gradually altered to be most suitable for giving birth and completely nonfunctional for anything else. They are monstrously huge, fat blobs, with no mobility, and no eyes and ears. They are basically brains atop giant bodies that are only in the loosest sense still human. Their brains are hooked up to computers, and they can communicate to some extent with the technicians who monitor them. They are artificially inseminated and carry dozens of embryos at a time, each one meticulously genetically designed to end up a certain kind of citizen. Pretty much all babies are now birthed by these monsters.
In the story, something goes wrong with one of these breeders’ brood where they can no longer be guaranteed to come out as designed, and the decision is made to abort them all and start over. The “mother” disagrees with that decision, and things get ugly.
Next up is the final short story in Nebula Winners Twelve: Tricentennial. The story is set mostly in 2075 and 2076 at a time when there is a permanent human space station on the moon, a tiny companion star has been discovered orbiting the sun, and some people are eager to communicate with or even explore in person a planet in a nearby solar system that has evidence of intelligent life.
Tricentennial is not a story that stood out to me as unusually good, but it struck me as a competent, fairly well-done science fiction tale. It has some interesting things to say about the political context in which the story takes place. The United States has become closer to a direct democracy, deciding most matters, including budgeting questions, by plebiscite, which predictably means such decisions are based on emotion, lack of relevant knowledge, short-sightedness, and mob sentiment.
I liked the novelette In the Bowl slightly more. Set on Venus at a time well after Venus and Mars have been colonized, it’s the story of a man using his vacation time to prospect for a bizarre kind of exploding gem in the Venusian desert, accompanied by a young, cocky girl who attaches herself to him as a sort of guide. The plot is somewhat interesting, but the descriptions of the context are at least as good, including the physical environment of Venus, the physical changes in humans (who have gone quite far in a cyborg direction), and the social/political/cultural reality these folks inhabit.
Near the halfway point of the book are the two essays about science fiction back-to-back: Science Fiction in the Marketplace and The Academic Viewpoint.
Neither one was of any great interest to me, but they seem fine for those who want to read about science fiction, as opposed to reading science fiction. Science Fiction in the Marketplace talks about the versions of science fiction that have been dominant during different historical periods, and makes the point that there tends to be a negative correlation between how literary or artsy a science fiction piece is and how willing people are to buy and read it. The Academic Viewpoint takes the position that analyzing science fiction (or poetry, literature in general, etc.) in a rigorous, academic way doesn’t have to mean robbing it of its beauty and magic, and suggests ten categories of analysis (e.g., Consistency of Story, Credibility of the Characters) that can foster greater understanding and appreciation of a work of science fiction.
Next up is the Isaac Asimov novelette The Bicentennial Man. The story opens with the “Three Laws of Robotics” with which all robots are programmed (which did not start with this story, but were present—with sometimes slightly different wording—in earlier Asimov fiction):
- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
My immediate reaction reading these “laws” is how ambiguous they are, especially for a machine. I mean, think of a computer, and how instructing it requires using only terms with precise meanings.
I suppose the idea here is that we’re talking about a much more sophisticated artificial intelligence—something more humanlike—that will have some ability to handle the nuances and ambiguities of non-concrete, non-simple language.
But OK, assume an intelligence fully as capable as the human brain. Humans would never be able to agree on a clear meaning for these laws and what they require, especially in terms of what constitutes “harm.”
Not that I’m somehow the first person to note the ambiguity problem here. In fact, it’s a common theme in Asimov’s writings that include the Three Laws of Robotics, and also is explored in works by other authors where the intelligent machines have similar programming, the most memorable that I’ve read being the short story (which I believe was later expanded into a novel) With Folded Hands by Jack Williamson, a dystopia for libertarians where robots construct the most extreme “nanny state,” with people totally controlled from cradle to grave and kept from ever taking any risks.
Yeah, I think you have to be real careful with that prohibition on allowing “a human being to come to harm,” among other ambiguities. Granted, with people but not machines there’s the added factor of insincerity when they interpret ambiguity, but even without that I wouldn’t be at all comfortable with highly powerful machines with artificial intelligence making decisions. I don’t think these Three Laws of Robotics would block all, or even most, of the paths to disaster.
As far as the story itself, The Bicentennial Man is a good, thought-provoking read. The protagonist is an intelligent robot named Andrew, who starts off as kind of a butler/personal servant for a family. He is one of the first robots of his kind, with a lot of design “unknowns.” It turns out that because of this he has an unanticipated capacity for creativity and artistry, and for some degree of independent thought. The family is very happy about this, and they come to treat him more and more like just another person, though the manufacturer is less than thrilled and makes sure that all its future robots will be more meticulously programmed to do all and only what they’re ordered to do.
Over time, Andrew comes to resemble a human being more and more, largely intentionally as he works on himself, and it becomes important to him that the law recognize him as equal to a human being. (I’m still dubious about that, but I suppose it’s at least a closer call as a robot gets closer and closer to human.) Ultimately he decides, like Pinocchio, that he doesn’t want to just be like a human being, but to be a human being, and he’s willing to use whatever means are necessary to achieve that.
Nebula Winners Twelve closes with the longest selection, the novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
Three astronauts are on a mission that takes them around the sun. On the way back they cannot raise Earth by radio, but they receive mysterious messages from some unknown source. The messages are in English, and they seem to be from human beings, or at least someone or something mimicking human beings. Most or all of the voices sound female.
The people messaging them seem just as puzzled as to who the astronauts are. Eventually it is inferred—unless this is something they are being tricked into believing—that they went through some sort of time warp when they went around the sun, and have traveled far into the future.
How is Earth different from when they left? What caused the changes? Why is there now apparently a preponderance of females? Will they get to see this new world for themselves? Will they want to?
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? is a conventional science fiction tale, and a solid one. There is some interesting speculation about how a society might be different if it were all-female, or run by females, and how men would respond when confronted with such a world, as well as how people would handle being thrust far into the future to a time when everyone they knew is long dead. Information is dribbled out gradually to help solve the mysteries, though there’s always the caveat that you don’t know what is accurate information and what might be part of some ruse.
It also contains passages that are a little raunchier than I expected to read in a science fiction anthology.
All-in-all, I enjoyed Nebula Winners Twelve. I liked some selections more than others, but none are duds or incomprehensible. On the other hand, none would rank up with the best science fiction I’ve read, but still I’d say its high points are higher than its low points are low.