On May 14, 2023, Cheryl served as Toastmaster for the 58th Annual Nebula Awards. Her work included a 15-minute monologue she wrote herself, along with a series of scripted interludes in partnership with her husband David Foubert as the Computer Voice. She was honored to work with the writing team of Tilly and Susan Bridges for edits on her monologue and as the head writers of the show. As the show went up after the Writers Guild strike began, we had to initiate script lock early.
Watch the full ceremony, including Cheryl’s opening monologue, at the video below. (Please note that due to technical difficulties, the live video was interrupted during the opening monologue, so this video is the best way to see Cheryl’s work.)
The Complete 58th Annual Nebula Awards Ceremony
Transcript of Cheryl’s opening monologue
(Headers are provided for ease of scanning and were not included in the speech.)
“Good evening, passengers of the Airship Nebula, and welcome to the 58th annual Nebula Awards! I’ll be your Mission Commander today here on Friend Planet, as we celebrate The Nebula Awards, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association! And we’ve got a big evening in store.
I trust you’ve all reviewed your pre-briefing materials regarding the native sentient species, the Catterflies.
Please keep the following three safety rules in mind while exploring:
- One: Far too many travelers have mistaken a poisonous life form for a delicious hors d’oeuvre! Therefore, please do not lick nature.
- Two: Don’t pick up mysterious jewels or artifacts, and please do not lean too close to any singing plants. We’re happy to 3D print replicas of your favorite Friend Planet observations for a small fee in the airship gift shop.
- Three: Do not follow any suspiciously attractive humanoids. You cannot be certain your potential hot dish is not a rogue hologram, fae royalty, or even three Catterflies in a tuxedo.
I enjoy my command because I get to draw from my strengths and unique skills in a number of fields: I am a designer, author, director, streamer, improvisor, actress, speaker, gamer, game developer, disabled woman with bendy collagen, Pokemon trainer – as my fellow nerds like to say, I’m a twenty-sided woman. And despite my many other achievements over the decades, my mother loves to point out that I was, in fact, also emcee of my 6th grade talent show. This wide variety of skills is evidently just what we’ll need for a successful planetary excursion.
Since I don’t get to do planetary excursions very often, I spend most of my time as Director of User Experience for the Player Platform at Riot Games, home of League of Legends, VALORANT, and Arcane. User experience designers look out for the ways human behavior and digital experiences will collide. Good preparation in case our ship’s computer encounters unexpected operational parameters today. Computer, what’s our status?
COMPUTER VOICE: Everything is currently nominal. 73% chance of successful plan execution without deviation.
Never tell me the odds!
Baby Book Nerd
While I may be here in a professional capacity, please allow me a moment to express my excitement about being in a room of fellow authors. While my first book came out in 2020, it was not the fiction book I’d envisioned writing in my youth. I describe “Design Beyond Devices: Creating Multimodal, Cross-Device Experiences” as a manual for folks who want to design the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. My work has always been influenced by the power of science fiction and fantasy writing.
Reading was always critical to me. In my early years, I read everything: kids’ books, my dad’s entire store of PC Magazines, VCR manuals, our actual tax forms. I was the human embodiment of Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. NEED MORE INPUT.
Because I was reading so much, we couldn’t keep up with kids’ fiction, and my reading expanded into Stephen King and Michael Crichton just as much as it did RL Stein, Christopher Pike, and many other classics and fantasy selections. Jurassic Park stood out to me with pre-teen girl Lex and her comfort with computer systems (I know Unix!).
Yes, the optics of a third grader reading The Stand are… questionable at best. But it was these stories that opened my mind to the deep complexities of the world around me. Actions had consequences. Technology could harm… and save. But of course, my geekery didn’t stop at reading.
Oh, no. I’d been deeply encouraged by my third grade teacher Mrs. Tickel to nurture my writing talents.
My little group of nerdy students at Edgewood Elementary got together and channeled these skills into a semi-permanent recess waiver so we could stay inside developing scripts based on our favorite books to perform as skits. We called ourselves the Edgewood Entertainers. This effort culminated in 5th grade when we wrote a entire spec episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and taped it, complete with a replicator gag that included an overturned box with a slot cut into it, a student hidden in that box, and a cream pie. II can’t believe no one optioned that script. But in all seriousness, that technology gripped our young minds so much that it drove us to imagine a better world.
A world with more cream pie.
Sending some stardust to our late friend Bobby, who left us too soon.
Where No Man Has Gone Before
I didn’t anticipate how important a role Star Trek would play in my adulthood, however. In 2011 I joined the founding cast of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” an improvised parody of the original series of Star Trek. During our 9-year mission, I played a variety of roles depending on our season – our version of Nurse Chapel, an original helmswoman, and countless Female Planetary Leaders Who Caught The Eye Of Captain Kirk.
At first, it was difficult for me to process honoring the original series as someone who’d grown up on TNG. During rehearsals, we had an exploratory improv game called “three line misogyny”, where 2 players tried to encapsulate a misogynistic interaction in 3 lines or less. It was less about what we WANTED to do onstage and more about exploring what had been in the show and how we could poke fun at it within the genre.
During the process, I picked up the book series “These Are the Voyages”, which provide incredible detail about the “why” and “how” of each original season episode. Suddenly, the context unfolded before me and episodes which seemed to have aged poorly looked much more logical as edgy artistic expressions in the moment they were produced.
Now I have a much deeper appreciation for the tension between the timeless message of a work, and that which is a product of its time. Original Series did important work, but it could not cure all of society in 79 episodes. It shone light on a better future, but connected it to the context of a problematic present.
With this additional perspective, we as improv performers could look for ways to contrast the culture on our version of the ship with alien cultures to show the tension between the ’60s and today, free of the censors of the past. But I’ll admit – it’s easier to *backseat* pilot a starship.
Speaking of eras, it’s an exciting era for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association as you’ve recently welcomed game writers into the fold. I’m so thrilled for my peers in the game industry who are onboard the Airship Nebula with us right now – interactive narrative is an exciting and challenging contrast to traditional prose.
Where novels, novellas and novelettes often create a well-defined character that we depict in the mind’s eye, game writing often involves creating space for the player to project themselves directly into the story, changing the narrative in some way with their actions.
The delicate balancing act of creating freedom while maintaining creative integrity strong enough to move us and compel us to keep playing is truly worth celebrating.
I myself started my professional writing career as a video game producer and writer: I got my start as an intern on the Sims Makin’ Magic when I was invited to write object text.
Did I put a subtle-and-legally-distinct Homestar Runner reference into a trash compactor? Yes, yes I did. That’s what happens when you give an intern the keys to the car.
But I also caught enough of the Sims tone in my writing that I was invited to hop over to the Sims 2 team and help them on object and career writing. Perhaps my greatest work was the description of a small children’s chair, shaped like a bear. Allow me to grace you with a poetry reading:
- In Happy Land there is a chair
- That loves to hug a derriere
- Mr Bearlybutts is your friend
- Sit on him with your rear end!
Yes, friends, the Mr Bearlybutts chair did, in fact, ship with the game. They were simpler times.
In later projects, my writing work involved adapting film shooting scripts into narrative arcs and interactive content for licensed film games, and lore for original games.
That took plenty of consideration: what parts of this journey lend themselves best to action? To sneaking? To narration or conversation with other characters? How do we want the player to feel when they make choices?
Game writing is not just about story, but about weaving game mechanics and player needs seamlessly into the world.
But what about when the story jumps into the real world? Fans of science fiction can easily list many technologies that seem ripped from the pages of their favorite books – in many cases because they are.
As a young computer nerd watching Star Trek, I never could have imagined that my path would lead me to be seen as one of many pioneers in natural language and multimodal interfaces, working on experiences like Cortana and Alexa.
All those years spent watching Kirk and Picard and Spock interacting with their ship’s computer, and I became one of the folks designing the systems that would respond (and making sure they could very rarely be talked into destroying themselves).
Now, the work you do is more often than not at the forefront of technologists’ minds. (It’s not a coincidence that “Computer” is one of the few wake words the Echo devices recognize.) When I first joined the Cortana team, a colleague gifted me a copy of Feed by M.T. Anderson, and recommended I read it so we could discuss the implications of the world depicted. Contrary to popular belief, most of us don’t want to create a dystopia.
Most of us. But the fact that some of us still do mean that your work is more important than ever. Reading about the worst consequences of progress helps us see past our own enthusiasm for the unchecked application of technologies.
The number of times I’ve quoted Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park is beyond measure: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they never stopped to consider whether they should.”
When I designed the core notification system for Amazon’s Alexa, I was initially pretty clear she should only interrupt with content you asked for, and in very specific ways. But now that I’m long gone, she’s off interrupting me about new authors I should follow – my work run amok and used against me, but at least it’s promoting your book sales?
In my book Design Beyond Devices, I talk about the importance of “catastrophic imagination” – something that’s come naturally to this community. We can’t predict all possible futures, but it is important to think about the worst consequences of success, and the best ways to react to failure. I call this opti-pessimism.
The metaphor I use to teach opti-pessimism is about as far from Star Trek as it gets: dung. I was on a hike when our guides kept pointing out signs of large animals passing through very recently: dry dung, trampled brush, mother and child tracks – and then a huge pile of fresh dung.
I should have considered the worst consequences of success on that hike. What if we got closer to our target wildlife than we bargained for? And what was our plan if the worst came to pass? I understand you’ve just eaten, so let’s leave the dung where it belongs. Suffice to say, that famous Captain Kirk barrel roll may have saved my life.
Improvised planetary journeys, talking computers, opti-pessimism – all of this brings me back to that questing to the final frontier. From working on the first touchscreen gaming devices on a Nintendo DS launch title to teaching Cortana and Alexa new capabilities, all while exploring humanity’s promise onstage, I learned how to weave these many parts into the future starship bridge I’d read about and watched so many times. Fiction is becoming real.
Science fiction and fantasy have not only inspired me to become a better, more inclusive version of myself, but also to build tools alongside other talented individuals that will get us to the final frontier.
And it’s not just about science fiction, much as I’ve talked about starships. Sir Terry Pratchett’s work has shone a light into my very soul, lifting me up in my darkest moments.
After all, as a wise old man once told a young adventurer in a dark, pixelated cave – it’s dangerous to go alone.
The stories you write help us see beyond the borders of our own consciousness and redefine what it means to open our minds and hearts to each other.
On today’s away mission, we will explore how our shipmates have cast light on the vast expanse of galactic experience.
Opti-pessimistically, we hope to befriend the Catterflies. But we are prepared to cope if things take an unexpected turn.
COMPUTER VOICE: Excuse me, Commander Platz. The advance research from the science team on the planet’s Catterflies is complete. I’m sending it to your data pad now.
What convenient timing! Let me take a quick look… according to this, if a Catterfly lands on your head, the best thing to do is to quietly sit still until it leaves.
You may offer it treats to coax it down, but avoid scritches without a clear line of sight on hand placement. We have not yet determined whether the rumors of fire claws are true.
Please identify a safety buddy and ensure all cellular communications devices are silenced to avoid irreparably disrupting planetary relations.
Also, please note that the nearest exit may be behind you or in a parallel dimension.
Let’s get started on tonight’s grand adventure.
Please join me in welcoming SFWA president and RITA Award winning author, Jeffe Kennedy!”