Something I found interesting about the Nebula winners this time is that neither story would win any awards for their daring style. On the other hand they both take familiar themes and tell their stories very well.
"R & R"
by Lucius Shepard
1986 Nebula Winner for Best Novella
A near future war in the jungles of Central America has turned into a quagmire. Three soldiers in this desperate situation are given a week of R & R. They hold to a belief that if they keep repeating the same behaviors from the first R & R they took that they will survive to see the next one. This time things feel more desperate: one soldier wants to desert, another is unusually restless, and the third is told by a woman with psychic abilities that she has foreseen his death. The madness of war spins around them in a week that changes everything for them.
So it's another story about the horrors of war and how screwed up the soldiers are. This time I found it to be effective mainly due to how well Shepard drew his characters. So when a very ugly secret about one of them is discovered, for example, I react with confusion like the protagonist.
Instead of being shallow stereotypes the characters are conflicted in every regard. Shepard plays with that tension between fleeing and staying, cowardice in ambiguous combat and bravery for friends, superstition and reason. Even one of the ugly events that are used to demonstrate the horrors of war gets a justification that leaves things more muddied.
Perhaps that's part of why "R & R" works so well: it's not judgmental. Instead of spending his time preaching at the reader it's a story about people who are living in the situation. The terrible situation is presented as a matter-of-fact rather than as a grotesquery for the reader.
"R&R" is a common story but exceptionally told. It's well worth checking out.
"The Girl Who Fell Into the Sky"
by Kate Wilhelm
1986 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette
A lawyer who is estranged from his wife is sent to the back ways of rural Kansas to pick up a player piano for his father. The player piano was the property of his father's friend who has passed away and the owner's relatives will soon show up to inventory the remote farm where he lived. The lawyer is supposed to make an offer on the piano before they have a chance to remove the possessions.
When the lawyer arrives he finds an attractive woman already at the farm examining the ruins of a commune that is hidden on the property. At night they hear the piano playing on its own despite not being functional in years.
So it's another ghost story with a haunted farm in the middle of the prairie. And just like the previous story Wilhelm makes this stand out by drawing some interesting characters. She also takes the story itself to a few different places than one might expect. The relationship between the main characters does not develop along the usual lines.
The history of the farm itself plays on the contradiction in expectations. Wilhelm's set up prepares the genre savvy reader for something big but she keeps bringing in the focus. By the end there are a few minor supernatural elements that persist but the story was a mundane one.
That's "mundane" as in lacking in fantasy, not that the story itself isn't terrific. I found it to be evocative and intriguing and I appreciated that Wilhelm could subvert my expectations so smoothly. I definitely recommend reading this one.