The Informed Voter Project, Part the Second: The Nebula Award Novelette Finalists

I’ll tell you this much: the hardest part about this is not getting the reading done. It’s actually getting the post written. I think I am discovering that I’m not a born blogger, and my time is running out. I’m really going to have to start moving faster on this project. But to put you out of your misery, since I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for the verdict after week two of the IVP: the Identity Thesis lives! Here are the finalists for the Nebula Award for best Novelette.

Actually, hang on. What, you may be asking, is a novelette? That’s a good question. According to Wikipedia, “the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula awards for science fiction define the novelette as having a word count of between 7500 and 17499, inclusive.” So that’s pretty simple. But for anyone who can’t immediately convert word count to a solid understanding of actual page length, I offer this alternative definition: these are works long enough to take me a subway trip from Bay Ridge to SoHo (on the local) and back to read, but short enough that Nathan doesn’t scowl at me too much when I print them out. Does that help?

“The Gambler,” Paolo Bacigalupi

Ong is a Laotian refugee to the US, a man whose father once tried to speak out against injustice and oppression by casting words into the world and gambling on the slim chance that they could do some good. Ong is a gambler of a similar stripe, although instead of posting physical calls to action on lampposts, he posts as part of a media conglomerate. Revenue is calculated in clicks and the measurable attention of the world’s readers, visualized as blossoming color on a map of the world. The imagery here reminded me of the board of the Game of Risk—the “journalists” of these conglomerates are like generals, engaged in a constant battle for territory. A successful post is like the opening sally of a battle: it must be followed up with supplemental content to hold what it has won. For Ong, the challenge is that, in this world, the popular content and successful stories are (not surprisingly) things like celebrity gossip and scandal. Ong, who wants to write about, for example, the imminent extinction of a butterfly, is in danger of getting fired; his content doesn’t generate enough clicks or subscribers. If he loses his job, he loses his visa. A colleague riding a particularly high-profile story calls in a favor for Ong, an exclusive with a beautiful Laotian singer.

Now, I’m new to the world of caring whether or not my name or my content makes any kind of impact on the world stage (and, obviously: no, silly), but this story just seemed way not at all like speculative or science fiction. It seemed way too current. Way too accurate. A man eager to bring meaningful news of meaningful events to the attention of the world could lose his job and his citizenship because the work he turns out doesn’t generate enough hits in the media maelstrom. And the only story that might generate the readership he needs requires him to trade his identity and his ability to try to impact social change in the world for fifteen minutes in the tabloids. In the world of “The Gambler,” you are what you create, and if what you create doesn’t generate notice, you are nothing.

“Vinegar Peace, or the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage,” Michael Bishop

Mrs. K— is forcibly removed to Vinegar Peace when Elise, her last surviving child, is killed in the War against Worldwide Wickedness. There she discovers a sequence of rooms that, according to the Orphanage’s orientation video, will enhance her stay: a Cold Room in which she discovers effigies of her dead family, carved from ice, that she is made to watch melt. The Arboretum, where comfort creeps through the trees toward her in the form of figures clad in de-saturated colors, one of which Mrs. K is to choose for her spiritual guide. There is the salon, where bereaved Orphans in fancy clothes mix cocktails and meditate on how well one is treated when one loses a child. There is the room in which she and a guest view Elise’s body, laid in state. There is the room in which she reads Elise’s last letter to her and learns that her daughter’s quest for approval from her mother included the possibility of dying a casualty of war like her brother before her. There is the chapel, where Mrs. K’s spiritual guide, Father G—-, administers a sacrament offering vinegar peace: a stale rice cake and a shot of vinegar from a syringe.

So, full disclosure: I have dogs, not children. I have not yet experienced that shift where suddenly, as an adult, you are defined by your existence as a parent. I can’t quite imagine it; I am still too selfish. But certainly, that’s what happens. My cousin has two kids, and although she has always been a fascinating, artistic woman, once she started having kids, they became What We Talk About with Mary. I assume this is what will happen when I have kids; they’ll be What People Talk About with Kate. Because that’s what happens when you become a parent. You’re defined by your kids and what they do. Unless you outlive them, as Mrs. K. does, at which point, you are suddenly defined by their absence. For most “wrong-way, used-adult orphans” of the real world, this would be an exceedingly personal shift—a change in their own perceptions of themselves and their place in their extended families. In this story, however, that identity shift is extrapolated outward to imply that, by outliving their children, these orphans have in lost or outlived their relevance to their country and society. Having attempted to propagate the species (or at least, to provide more raw material for the Worldwide War on Wickedness), they have no further use and can be shunted off to Vinegar Peace.

“I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” Richard Bowes

The fictional Richard Bowes, while in the hospital for a near-fatal intestinal illness, finds himself being recruited by one of the entities that oversee the boundary between the living and the dead. Bowes was identified as a youth as having an uneasy relationship with life and death, making him uniquely qualified to join the ranks of the transitional spirits. In the process, the spirits rewrite—or threaten to rewrite—the narrator’s past, even as Bowes takes his time in the hospital to revisit it.

This was a story infused by memory, both real and false. It presents a tremendously surreal take on having your life flash before your eyes: the fictionalized Bowes sees it as a mental internet search taking place in one corner of his mind, all the time, and he’s pretty sure it isn’t all accurate. This fear is confirmed when the policeman of the title threatens outright to change Bowes’ past, or at least his memory of his past, if Bowes does not agree to become an angel of passage: to change who he was in order to force him to change his mind about who he will become. The story also makes concrete certain basic, very common fears. The hospital is a place of transition—the policeman tells Bowes, for instance, that the light dying souls walk toward at the moment of death is the combined light of spectral hospital monitors. A more beautifully troubling example (to me, anyway) is the simple, terrifying possibility that people who undergo anesthesia might come back in some way different than they went under. There’s a lot to muse on in this story, and a lot of thematic elements to be digested and discussed, but I’m going to stop there so I don’t go on too long.

“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” Eugie Foster

A guild of artisan maskmakers crafts identities for the constituency of the ravishing Queen by building masks inlaid with oversouls. The crafted faces guide the citizens in what to do, and what to feel. Each citizen changes his or her identity by changing masks each morning and evening. If one murders the person who wears the mask of his/her spouse, at the end of the day the mask is the only casualty. If one is flayed while wearing the mask of a man doomed to die by flaying, he/she will wake up the next day and choose the next day’s mask. One may wish he/she had chosen a different face for the day, but he/she will do what that face must. Yesterday’s murderer is today’s devoted spouse, and tomorrow’s degenerate shopkeeper. There are no consequences beyond the destruction of the day’s mask and little, if any, personality beyond what is endowed by the oversoul of each crafted face…until the narrator discovers a secret organization bent on destroying the Queen’s society.

Ten or eleven years ago I wrote my honors thesis on language in early modern English drama. While you’re chuckling at the nerdiness of that, let me add that a whole section of it was on the idea of language as costume—both something to dress up and something to conceal or change identity. Language, as much as the clothes the players wore, signified who they were to the audience. These are the masks of Foster’s tale: they give structure to the society—a very specific structure created to maintain a near chaos of endless permutations of murder and sex—while both giving and removing answerability, identity, and anonymity to the citizens. Stellar ending, by the way. I’m pretty good at predicting what’s going to happen when I’m reading, but this one caught me totally unawares.

“Divining Light,” Ted Kosmatka

The story starts with a gun, a bottle, a rocky, wave-tossed beach, and a man who is past being able to tell the two potential ends he holds, one in each hand, apart. He is a troubled researcher in quantum physics who, following a breakdown, takes a last-chance job and decides to reconstruct Richard Feynman’s famous experiment demonstrating the dual nature of light: it behaves like a wave until it is observed, at which point it behaves like a particle. When the researcher decides to investigate what species are capable of collapsing the probability waves into a single reality through their observation, he sparks a devastating debate on the nature of what it means to be human, and what–or who–can and cannot affect reality.

This was the first of the novelettes that I read. Now, don’t ask me to explain the math, but I love reading about physics. I know about this experiment, and I caught myself the day I read this story lecturing—lecturing, really, and poorly—one of my coworkers on the subject, trying to explain the awful reality rift the narrator discovers. The logical progression from the narrator’s experiment to the practical use seemed inevitable. It was horrifying. And then came the second discovery, the second rift. Bam. Even worse. I’d have had a bottle in my hand for sure, if I’d been this guy. But stories like this are why I love reading about physics. There are strange concepts, strange realities, that seem to need only the slightest twist and extrapolation to push them into the realm of the fantastic. And even then…if the math is sound…are we really so sure it’s fantasy? (Don’t panic. There’s no math included. I mean, panic—but not about having to do math.)

“A Memory of Wind,” Rachel Swirsky

The moment her father, Agamemnon, promises to sacrifice her to Artemis in exchange for wind enough to sail the Greeks to Troy, Iphigenia begins to lose pieces of herself and her recollection. The story is written as a missive to her father, a condemnation as well as a plea for understanding, a litany of her last memories as she is carried to Aulis under the pretense of being married to the hero Achilles so that she can be murdered in the name of wind and war.

Oh, it’s beautiful, this one. It’s heartbreaking. Even as Iphigenia’s memories fall apart, they are restructured into clearer versions of themselves; even as she accuses her father of keeping her from ever being allowed to experience womanhood, she begins, for the first time, to see things as an adult, even if the only great understanding this brings her is that the adults around her are just as helpless and unsure as the children they (at best) fail to protect (or, at worst, sacrifice outright). Her recollection is fragmentary, and it slips further and further to pieces as the story progresses, giving it the quality of a dream: specifically, the way the memory of a dream has of falling apart even as the dreamer tries to relate its events. There is also the troubling helplessness of a sleeper, dreaming: the pervasive sense that nothing she does will alter the outcome. There are troubling meditations on what it means to be brave, to be a girl, to be powerful—and what being beautiful does and does not excuse. And, of course, what it means to be the wind. “Learn to be your own wind,” she begs her silent little brother, Orestes. “Will you? Will you, please?”

So yes, the thesis lives on. But in any great story, there are plenty of themes to extract. Today, my observation collapses this multitude into one. And because this post is already very, very long, that is where we shall leave it for now.

Next up: the Nebula finalists in the novella category:

  • The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean Press, Jun09)
  • “Arkfall,” Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sep09)
  • “Act One,” Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Mar09)
  • Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon, Feb09)
  • “Sublimation Angels,” Jason Sanford (Interzone, Oct09)
  • The God Engines, John Scalzi ( Subterranean Press, Dec09)

5 Comments

  1. Rachel and Ted, thank you so much for stopping by to read! I loved both of your stories. Congratulations!

    Kate, turnabout’s fair play. You’ve put PLENTY on my to-read list in the past year!

  2. Thanks for posting your impressions and thoughts of this year’s Nebula nominees and for your kind words about “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest.” I look forward to reading your write-ups on the other categories.

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