The Informed Voter Project, Part the First: The Nebula Award Short Story Finalists

Oh, this project is shaping up to be a lot of fun.

Here’s my bit of full disclosure: my Twitter posts did not accurately reflect the order or days on which I read these stories. I read them all last week. I read them on the subway on the way to and from work. I read them on my lunch breaks. I read them walking home from picking up a bottle of wine one night, tilting dogeared and pencil-marked pages in whichever way picked up enough light to read by, walking slowly under streetlamps and faster in between. I read each one twice. And then I realized I’d gotten so carried away with my reading that I’d forgotten to tweet about them all. But in the process, I remembered how much I love short stories.

There’s something so elegant about the form; a good short story has the elegance of a well-constructed mathematical equation or proof. This is why I’m not good at them, and why I hope someday I can learn to write them: they are great storytelling, distilled. What takes me three hundred pages, these writers do in ten. What makes this even more impressive to me is this: these are fantasy and science fiction tales. There’s worldbuilding to be done, and there’s no time or space for pages of exposition and description.

So without further ado, let me tell you about the worlds I visited last week.

“Non-Zero Probabilities” by N.K. Jemisin

New York City, fraught with Signs. Adele has learned that, in order to pass with relative safety through the city, she must leave nothing to chance, must court good luck by every means at her disposal, must shield herself with as many personal talismans as she can layer on. In the Brooklyn through which Adele walks, the fact of the all-but-nonexistent chance of a train derailment only means it was bound to happen sooner or later–and when it does, even as she runs to help, Adele’s immediate response is a touch of contempt for the carelessness of the riders. While hundreds of thousands are planning a huge group prayer for the soul of the city, Adele’s neighbor, the person who first helped her identify the shift in the city’s fortune, simply shrugs. “A little more shit, a little less shit…still shit, right?”

What I loved about this story is that it felt so plausible. It just seemed to validate certain pervasive almost-beliefs I kind of don’t want to admit to having. On certain days, I absolutely know that whatever can go wrong is systematically going wrong, as if the universe was somehow out to get me. I’m not the only one, right? We cross our fingers. We pray. We fiddle with lucky necklaces, or rabbits’ feet, or lift our feet as we drive past graveyards. Some of us do these things and forget. Some of us do them and believe. The question is, how far to adapt? Where to draw the line? When has the effort of surviving stopped us from living?

“Spar” by Kij Johnson

A too-small life vessel, adrift and alone. Following a statistically impossible mid-space collision between a human ship and an alien craft, the sole survivors, a woman and a non-humanoid alien, are trapped in this tiny lifeboat. Its interior is just barely big enough for the two of them to fit, and they are perpetually, intimately intertwined. The woman’s world has been reduced to Ins and Outs: her body, the alien’s body, the tube that feeds her, attempts to communicate and attempts to read communication in the alien’s actions as the life vessel, the spar the survivors cling to in the vast ocean of space, drifts and drifts.

This story kind of frightened me. It raises the kind of questions I hope I never have to think about seriously. When there is nothing left to identify you as human, when neither you nor the thing that occupies the space with you can tell what you are, do you cease being human? If your attempts to communicate seem to come up empty, do you stop trying? If recollection of human life lost is pain, do you stop remembering and surrender to simple, primordial stimulus-and-response existence, even if it provides an only slightly lesser kind of agony? And can humanity lost be regained?

“Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh

A human-sized drawer in a dating center. Mira wakes more than sixty years after a fatal accident to discover that, since her health insurance covered storage but not revival, her only chance for another shot at life is a series of blind dates with suitors hoping to find their perfect mate–whatever that means–among the dead. If things go well, a suitor can be convinced to pay the costs of revival. If they don’t, the last thing Mira sees is a hand reaching for something over her head, a switch or a plug that returns her to non-existence until the next potential “date” shows up–which might be years or decades later.

This is a scary story too, in a different way. If we’re honest with ourselves, aren’t we all, on some level, afraid of the ramifications of not meeting someone else’s expectations? Aren’t we all, in some way, afraid of being left alone? Isn’t there always that part of us that feels that somehow our happiness is too dependent on what someone else thinks? Another bit of full disclosure: I am terrified of what other people think. All the time. On the other hand, I know if I don’t make someone happy, they can’t relegate me to cold storage in a drawer for sixty years. I know that the only person putting pressure on me to meet someone else’s expectations is…well…me. Still, only subtle differences separate Mira’s reality from my self-imposed perceptions–and, I suspect, the self-imposed perceptions of a lot of people.

“Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela” by Saladin Ahmed

The village of Beit Zujaaj, a withered and gray outpost in the middle of nowhere.  A brilliant young physicker from the Caliph of Baghdad’s court has been temporarily exiled here for protesting the betrothal of the woman he loves to a half-dead but very rich noble. The physician passes his days dreaming of the city and love he has been forcibly separated from until he is summoned to the aid of the wife of Abdel Jameela, the hermit in the hills who no one in the village will claim kinship with. He’s able to ignore the whispered rumors about Abdel Jameela’s wife until he gets his first glimpse of her cloven foot. Then things get really strange.

When I spoke earlier of the elegant efficiency necessary to build a world in a short tale, I was thinking of this story. The conventions of politeness and piety, clung to like talismans, that form the structure of a society. Evocations of scent, color, and sound: the local Shaykh has a voice like a snuffed candle. The physician’s lost beloved smells of ambergris and sweat. And each time the wife of the ancient, sour-smelling Abdel Jameela speaks, her voice conjures a different music, a different perfume. And the cure the physician is asked to undertake for the hermit’s wife is something straight out of Umberto Eco, or Jorge Luis Borges, both horrifying and miraculous at the same time.

“I Remember the Future” by Michael A. Burstein

An apartment in Queens. Abraham Beard recalls a lifetime of writing glimpses of the gleaming, space-age future he once dreamed of, while the future his daughter and grandchildren inhabit moves onward and away, increasingly frustrated with dreamers like Beard who persist in living in the past. Acting as mileposts are snippets from Beard’s work, from the 1950’s to the present: moments Beard slips into even as he tries unsuccessfully to relate to his daughter before she and her family move to California.

In the first of Abraham Beard’s stories, the one that opens “I Remember the Future,” two explorers of New Earth find a piece of paper (“That dead wood stuff you told me about? Made from trees?”).  It’s at once every writer’s nightmare and dream–everything you’ve done, lost in some forgotten library, that’s the scary part. But the idea that someone, centuries from now, will find it and deem it worthy of rescue, identify it as the voice of a lost civilization…well, that’s the dream. For Beard, the years that were supposed to be bringing him closer to the future he’d envisioned have only showed him how wrong were his predictions, how misguided his hopes. Beard’s own daughter, who once dreamed of walking on Jupiter, remembers a childhood of closed doors and a father who only wanted to talk to her about his stories. And then comes Abraham Beard’s last day on Earth.

“Going Deep” by James Patrick Kelly

The Moon. Mariska is thirteen, on the cusp of adulthood,  and has been raised her whole life, in the care of a registered father, to be a spacer (she is the clone of Natalya Volochkova, her spacer mother, who she has never met but who has finally returned to Mariska’s world). She has been paired with an appropriately compatible spacer boy, she has been physically and mentally prepared by specialized schooling since she was small, and her bedroom monitors her vital signs in case her body “goes deep” into hibernation before the right time. And she’s just a little bit bitter, as adult life looms, that everything seems so preordained. So Mariska does what any self-respecting teen, spacer or otherwise, would do. She decides to shake things up.

I think a lot of people who don’t read science fiction think it’s all about the technology and gizmos and aliens. What I love about sci fi (well, one of the things I love about it, anyway) is how beautifully it can demonstrate the idea that, no matter what advances we make, no matter how our ways of life change, certain things are going to stay exactly the same. Teens are going to feel trapped, are going to feel like they have no choices, are going to feel like the adults around them somehow failed to notice that it’s time to treat them like grown-ups. Things will change, but nothing really changes. Some things are part of being human–even if you’re a clone on the Moon.

These are stories about identity. They’re about what it means to be the man or woman who you think you are, or who you want to be: a writer, a futurist, a physician, a good Muslim, a father or a mother, a husband or a wife, your own person, a legacy, a love, a family. Free to choose. Alive, or just surviving. Human, or not. They’re about what it means to belong, or not.  They’re about how you maintain yourself, the person you believe you are, the way you want yourself to be–how you do that when the world you inhabit, whether it’s a city or a tiny life raft or a space exploration program, seems bent on turning you into something else. It’s about the things you do, from simple decisions made to extraordinary actions taken, to stay true to the person you know yourself–or want yourself–to be.

For each of the characters in each of these tales, from the nameless woman clinging to an alien as her memories become meaningless to Mariska, the teenage spacer clone struggling against the programming of her genetic code and the certainty of the future she didn’t choose, to Mira, who must convince someone that she is what he needs her to be in order to keep from dying again and again and again, to Abraham Beard, the man who spent his life dreaming the future into existence and whose future reveals itself to be everything he feared and nothing of what he dreamed. No sleek rockets, no colonies built on faraway moons by adventuresome men and women carving out a new world–just ones and zeroes, blogs and Power Point…and paper and ink forgotten and left to decay in the forgotten libraries of Old Earth. From Adele, whose existence is shaped by the changing fortunes of her city (at least along as she allows it to be), to the young physicker of Saladin Ahmed’s tale, for whom all things come down to belonging and being the man he is expected to be. Money, family, adherence to law and custom–without these, he is no one. Even Abdul Jameela, the hermit in the hills, must prove that he can change in order to truly win his wife. Love isn’t enough. Not on its own.

So I’m developing this “it’s all about identity” thesis, and we’ll see how long it stays relevant. Next up: the Nebula finalists in the novella and novelette categories! Here’s what we have to look forward to:

The Novelettes:

  • “The Gambler,” Paolo Bacigalupi
  • “Vinegar Peace, or the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage,” Michael Bishop
  • “I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said,” Richard Bowes
  • “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” Eugie Foster
  • “Divining Light,” Ted Kosmatka
  • “A Memory of Wind,” Rachel Swirsky

The Novellas:

  • The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker
  • “Arkfall,” Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • “Act One,” Nancy Kress
  • Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow
  • “Sublimation Angels,” Jason Sanford
  • The God Engines, John Scalzi

It’s entirely possible this may turn into two posts, ’cause as I look at those lists, that’s a lot of stuff to write about in one. We shall see. More to come!

8 Comments

  1. Hey, thanks for the great review. Lift your feet as you drive past graveyards? I’ve never heard of that one. Do you know what culture or history it derives from? (I collect this stuff; I think it’s fascinating.)

  2. I’m inspired. I’m a fan of the short story and its power but feel completely inadequate to hone one into shape. I loved your reviews – works of brilliance in themselves. Will look forward to more!

  3. Thank you Kate!

    What ~I~ like about your reviews is that you appreciate what is interesting about these stories rather than complaining about their flaws or bemoaning the taste of SFWA members for leaving this masterpiece or that gem off the ballot. None of us wrote these stories to get a Nebula nomination; we wrote them because they posed a challenge that we thought we could meet.

    Yes, they might have been better, and of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the best stories of the year. Rather these are stories that a bunch of other writers liked enough to nominate.

    So your approach is welcome. There are plenty of other bloggers who criticize, and all too many for whom snark is the default. But discourse about the genre would be more civil if there were just a few more critics who considered what writers were trying to do as thoughtfully as you have.

  4. I second pretty much everything Jim said.

    And I’m intrigued by your thesis that these are stories about identity. That never occurred to me when I was reading my fellow nominees.

  5. Thanks so much for the lovely, attentive reading. And ditto to everything Jim said! Look forward to reading your other reviews…

  6. Thanks for all your replies, everyone!Pippa and Leah, thank you so much especially!

    Nora, I am trying to think and I actually have no idea where that came from. I think where I heard it was from somebody on my middle-school softball team on the way to a game. You lifted your feet and touched the ceiling while you passed and until you passed a white house (I think the ball players did something like that in that movie A League of Their Own, too).

    Jim and Saladin, thanks for the kind words, but even if I had any snark in me I’d lack the self-confidence to post it publicly until after several glasses of something made with something strong. And I know better than to hit “publish” while intoxicated, especially since the only thing I rant about at that point is how much I look down on vodka drinkers, so…

    But seriously, there’s plenty that’s interesting in these stories to discuss. And Michael, it’s funny, I’m halfway through the novellas now, and I’m still seeing the identity thing everywhere. Admittedly, it’s a very broad theme, though, and maybe that’s why I’m reading it into everything…

    🙂

    Kate

  7. That’s a cool notion, that these are all about identity. I look forward to seeing how your thoughts evolve when you start discussing the longer stories.

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