Fantastic Three

A trio of local scribes vie for the Oscars of science fiction writing.

By Camille Alexa April 22, 2011 Published in the May 2011 issue of Portland Monthly

Portland sci fi writers tryut5

The perfect Portland sci-fi storm (from left): Mary Robinette Kowal, M. K. Hobson, and Felicity Shoulders

EVERYBODY KNOWS Portland was built on an ancient unicorn burial ground. It’s true: there’s a Facebook page ?and everything. Naturally, being the epicenter of such magical goodness produces an abundance of creative spirit, as evidenced by three writers vying for the “Oscars of science fiction and fantasy,” the Nebula Awards.

At a red-carpet affair complete with evening gowns and tuxedos, trophies (clear Lucite blocks embedded with planetary bodies trapped beneath swirling glitter galaxies) are presented each year for Best Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story. There’s no cash but plenty of cachet. Since the awards’ inception in 1966, some of the biggest names in speculative fiction (a catchall for science fiction, fantasy, and ?related subgenres) have won: Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin. This year, three local first-time nominees—Felicity Shoulders, Mary Robinette Kowal, and M. K. Hobson—have a shot at joining that hallowed list when the awards are handed out May 20 in Washington, D.C.

A Portland native, Shoulders is one of seven authors on the Short Story ballot. Her heartrending “Conditional Love” tells of a doctor navigating a future where genetically engineered children perceived as defective are abandoned, nameless and friendless, on the streets. The doctor’s yearning to save a particularly cherubic John Doe from a grim institutionalized existence drives her beyond the limits of Hippocratic ideals of right and wrong.

It’s hard to reconcile the fierce emotional gut-punch of Shoulders’s story with her ready smile, the braids wrapping her head in an Old World oma style adding to what she calls her “primness aura.” Multitalented, she played oboe with the Portland Youth Philharmonic preparatory orchestra, studied geology and English as an undergrad, and earned an MFA in writing from Forest Grove’s Pacific University. Though her creativity is now channeled almost exclusively into fiction, she doesn’t feel deprived. “I always thought I’d be a writer in the sense that I’d be a paleontologist first, then an oboist and a writer and married to Fox Mulder [of The X-Files—obviously in different eras,” she says. “But I love [writing] more every year.”

Mary Robinette Kowal is one of six contenders this year for Best Novel. Her serene demeanor is reminiscent of period portraits adorning book covers of classics in the literature aisles at Powell’s … if antique garb and setting were traded for jeans, a bike helmet, and a Hollywood District coffeehouse. The Jane Austen Centre Magazine describes her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, as “the novel Jane Austen might have written, had she lived in a world with magic.”

In this genteel homage, Kowal’s aptly named heroine, Jane, struggles with mystery, misery, and marriageability against the historical backdrop, mannerisms, and fashions of the British Regency. Kowal infuses Austen’s Mr. Darcy–Elizabeth Bennet recipe of romantic friction with “glamour,” the refined feminine pursuit of manipulating magic for enhanced elegance. Though the cover wouldn’t look out of place alongside popular editions of Persuasion or Pride & Prejudice, Kowal’s novel isn’t intended as Austen mimicry. With character focus inspired, in part, by her other career—puppeteering in India, New York, Iceland, and Portland’s own Tears of Joy Theatre—Kowal weaves the magic element through her narrative with a light but compelling touch. “I’ve actually gotten letters from readers asking where they can go to learn the fine art of glamour like the young ladies in my book,” she says.

Also nominated for Best Novel is longtime Oregon City resident Mary Hobson’s high-octane adventure-fantasy The Native Star. In this spirited romp through a fancifully reimagined 19th-century America, Emily Edwards—backwater witch of the Sierras and battler of zombie miners, train-size raccoons, and metaphysical mayhem—falls for snooty East Coast warlock Dreadnought Stanton. Like Kowal, Hobson frames history with an off-kilter fantastical element to retell the familiar—in this case inconvenient romance, federal politics, and corporate greed—with an unfamiliar twist, casting everything in a shiny new light.

Lending veracity and lushness to Hobson’s alternative-history landscape is her keen enthusiasm for theatrical production. Originator of the Bustlepunk Manifesto (a loving screed on what she calls “paranormal romantic historical fantasy set in the Victorian era”), Hobson draws upon years of high school dramatics and undergraduate theater classes at the University of Oregon. Her love of costumes, props, and sets transforms her fictional worlds into grand spectacles she calls “high adventure, skullduggery and intrigue … just as likely to occur over a tea-table as on a zeppelin.”

It’s the multifaceted nature of these three women’s creativity that typifies the best of a thriving local speculative fiction community. Although it’s extraordinary for any city to be home to three nominees among thousands of Nebula hopefuls worldwide, it surprises no one deeply familiar with Portland’s writing scene. Local authors have put Portland on the map, repeatedly saturating nominations for coveted regional, national, and global speculative fiction awards like the Hugo, the Endeavour, and the Campbell. Venerated resident Ursula K. Le Guin alone has won an astonishing seven Nebulas, along with countless other top awards and honors. Unicorn burial ground notwithstanding, whatever the conditions are for a perfect writerly storm, Portland has them within reach.

Regardless of who wins, this vibrant trio of Nebula hopefuls continue to reach for the stars. Shoulders never did, at least in real life, marry Fox Mulder, but her short stories consistently appear in speculative fiction’s most respected venues, exploring the “what if?” of any universe she imagines. Kowal’s talents have recently turned to the Stages Repertory Theater in Houston, for which she’s building puppets for an adaptation of award-winning fantasist Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants. And Hobson, a powerfully statuesque sometimes-blonde famous for appearing in handmade bustles and enough rhinestones to populate a nebula of her own, indulges her passion for costumery, both on the page and off, as she anticipates the release of her novel’s sequel, The Hidden Goddess. “Just wait till you see my Nebula Awards dress,” she says, hands flying through the air to sketch ruffles and flounces of absent finery. “It’s fricking awesome.”

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