Who knows what counts as science fiction anymore. If we’re going by the genre’s awards, anyway, what was once the province of space operas and souped-up technology now includes liminal tales that once would have been carefully circumscribed as fantasy, horror, myth, or folk legend. With its ancient societies and earthbound tales, the latest volume collecting stories and poems nominated for the Nebula Awards exemplifies this expansion.

One of the best stories in Nebula Awards Showcase 2012 comes from a local writer, Alice Sheldon, and it is sci-fi pure and simple. Sheldon employed the penname James Tiptrett Jr. and lived and died in McLean, Va.; her story, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill’s Side,” advances beyond her frequent focus on gender to intergalactic exogamy. “…This is a trap. We’ve hit the supernormal stimulus. Man is exogamous—all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger,” explains one engineer at a space station, “…it works fine as long as the stranger is human…Man, it’s deep…some cargo-cult of the soul. We’re built to dream outwards.” The outer-space sexual exchange has destroyed this particular space traveler—“something wrecked about the face, I thought”—and numerous others, for whom contact with aliens has only unmoored them, like teenagers whose first glimpse of some idolized celebrity has hypnotically derailed their lives.

Several stories echo feminist sci-fi from the 1970s and ’80s: Aliette de Bodard’s “The Jaguar House: In Shadow” is part spy thriller, part myth, and concerns the female spies of a future Mexica, a fantasy soaked in the violence and blood of Aztec ritual, catapulted into a world of hyper-advanced technology. And “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window,” by Rachel Swirsky, follows an ancient matriarchal culture, a harsh, violent, lesbian tribal society, not without its beauty, in which a murdered sorceress is repeatedly summoned from the dead and narrates, across millennia, one fantastic phase of history after another. Both stories show influences of the work of Vonda McIntyre and Suzie McKee Charnis some decades ago.

Similar is Adam-Troy Castro’s “Arvies,” about a world in which you’re only considered alive until you’re born. Since birth equals death, the elite choose to remain in the wombs of arvies—mindless slaves who exist solely as living incubators and are destroyed when no longer useful. “It’s sad, of course,” remarks the narrator/apologist for this horrific society, “that…a large percentage of potential Citizens have…an existence where they’re no good to anybody except as spare parts and manual laborers and arvies, but there are peasants in even the most enlightened societies, doing the hard work so the important people don’t have to.” Into this dystopia of biological engineering and luxurious pre-birth paradise is born, by a quirk, a non-neurologically enhanced, normal human girl. Her fate is horrible. Though her every need is met, she is utterly alone. “At age five, she’s moved to a cage consisting of a two-story house…but she does have human contact of a sort: a different arvie almost every day. Now eight, the little girl has long since given up on asking the good ones to stay, because she knows they won’t.” She can’t go out, because there is nowhere to go and no one to see. She is a prisoner in an illusion, the most solitary creature on Earth.