This time around all three of the stories awarded the Nebula had something distinctive about them that made them all interesting to read.
"Abandon in Place"
by Jerry Oltion
1997 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novella
NASA is being haunted by the ghost of the dead space program. Ghostly Saturn V rockets are appearing at abandoned launch pads and firing themselves to the moon where they vanish. To end this public embarrassment NASA has an astronaut commandeer the rocket before it launches so that it can be disabled in orbit. Once there the astronaut changes his mind and decides to fly it to the moon.
Oltion has made a "scientific ghost story" for lack of a better term. A lot of this story's emphasis is on the technical challenges of flying an Apollo era craft. Along with that is a lot of explanation on the nature of ghosts. This ghost in particular provides a unique challenge to the travelers on board. It gives the story a strange tension that helps elevate it above its common roots. The ghost's nature (which is a plot point from about half way through so I can't go into too many details) also shifts focus from the mission to the characters.
The hook of the space program's ghost plays very well nearly fifteen years after the story was written. We're still dealing with the same problems and there's no change in sight. "Abandon in Place" is a pretty good story as it stands but that resonence helps make it even more interesting.
"The Flowers of Aulit Prison"
by Nancy Kress
1997 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novelette
In an alien culture where belonging to society is the most important thing to them they punish people by declairing them "dead" and ignoring them. They don't let the most violent offenders wander the streets; they stick them in Aulit Prison and let them rot. A woman who murdered her sister in a fit of jealousy has been given a rare chance at recovering her life by acting as a spy and informant for the government. She is sent into the prison to convince a human locked away to tell her about who from her people were assisting the human with experiments on children's brains.
What made this story particularly effective is how well Kress uses an alien culture. Rather than bogging the reader down with explanations about the culture she mentions things in passing and implies details. Kress doesn't drop in a lot of made up words where English would work fine. The way that the culture is used is not alien they just different.
I wasn't really impressed with the plot twist in the middle of the story. It seemed unnecessary to me and added themes that were not as well developed as the punishment and redemption one. It's not that Kress does a bad job with that new direction; it's that it feels like there's a disjointed break in the story when it shifts.
Still that's the worst thing I can say about "The Flowers of Aulit Prison". The protagonist's journey in search of redemption in a society that thinks of her as dead is terrific. It's well worth your effort to seek out this story.
"Sister Emily's Lightship"
by Jane Yolen
1997 Nebula Award Winner for Best Short Story
Emily Dickenson was having a quiet life as a recluise and poet when she starts spotting a strange light in the sky after midnight. She watches for that light and eventually meets a visitor who has been using it.
This story is a wonderful example of how to use a historical setting well. There are no infodumps where Dickenson explains details of her life to people who should already know them. Yolen smoothly integrates her into the story as a character.
The biggest problem with this story is nothing really happens. Dickenson avoids company, feels unwell, and sees the light but there isn't really much of a dramatic arc. If you changed the title to "Emily Dickenson Sees a Spaceship" you could sum up the story right there. I liked how well Yolen presented Dickenson as a character but at the same time wished that she had found something more interesting for Dickenson to do. In the end the story is a bit of fun fluff for those who like Dickenson and anyone else is going to have the story just bounce off of them.