Past or Present: A Look at the Nebula Stories

A post I published a while ago about the use of present tense versus past in short fiction continues to attract readers.  I guess this shouldn’t surprise me because the use of the “non-traditional” present tense seems to elicit strong opinions from…well…just about everyone in the writing business: editors, agents, and writers.  Newer (younger?) writers seem more likely to embrace it while the “old guard” seems to dislike it (and some seem to absolutely despise it).

Having recently finished reading the stories in the short story and novelette categories for the Nebula Award, I thought I would briefly revisit the topic by examining the tense and point of view used in each nominated story to see if there is any pattern.  These fourteen stories were selected by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) as the “best” speculative fiction in 2011.  The SFWA is composed of over 3,000 speculative fiction writers who have meet minimum requirements in terms of professional rate sales, so they represent the “professional” authors working in the field.  That said, here’s what I found:

Fields of Gold (Rachel Swirsky)—3rd Person, Past
“Ray of Light  (Brad R. Torgersen)—1st Person, Past
Sauerkraut Station (Ferrett Steinmetz)—3rd Person, Past
Six Months, Three Days (Charlie Jane Anders)—3rd Person, Present
The Migratory Pattern of Dancers (Katherine Sparrow)—3rd Person, Present
The Old Equations,” Jake Kerr (Lightspeed Magazine)—1st Person, Present
What We Found (Geoff Ryman)—3rd Person, Present
Her Husband’s Hands (Adam-Troy Castro)—3rd Person, Past
Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son, (Tom Crosshill)—1st Person, Present
Movement (Nancy Fulda)—1st Person, Present
Shipbirth (Aliette de Bodard)—3rd Person, Past
The Axiom of Choice (David W. Goldman)—2nd Person, Present
The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees (E. Lily Yu)—3rd Person, Past
The Paper Menagerie (Ken Liu)—1st Person, Past

Half of the Nebula-nominated short fiction was written in present tense.  That seems to reinforce that present tense fiction is alive and well and (apparently) respected, at least among the speculative fiction community.  Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the writers to correlate the tense used with things like th average age, but that would be an interesting analysis.  I also don’t know if this proportion of stories using present tense is higher this year than last or the what the trend looks like over the past decade or more. Maybe I’ll look at that sometime. 

One final observation on these stories.  I’ve only seen a few stories written in the 2nd person point of view; they’ve all been by aspiring writers, and I can’t recall any of them being any good.  “The Axiom of Choice” is written in 2nd person.  It’s an interesting story and well done story—a take on the old choose-your-own-adventure stories.  I recommend you check it out if you want to see a successful 2nd person story.

About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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