With the Nebula Awards ceremony just a few weeks away, the Fiction Unbound editors have been reading as many of the nominated stories as we can. This week, out thoughts on a selection of the nominees in the Short Story and Novelette categories. Check back next week for our roundup of the Novellas category.
Amanda Baldeneaux: “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahl
Utopia in Wahl’s vision of the future is “Choose Your Own Adventure” (or non-adventure, if being a floor tile is more your thing), thanks to the magic of technology. Technology has gone a touch too far, though, eliminating true human interaction and spirit in favor of artificial simulations. Charlie, a cryogenically frozen human, wakes up in this distant future to meet his tour guide, Kit (or #Kit/dinaround, her handle for non-verbal communication—say it out loud). Kidding around is exactly what Kit does, putting Charlie a little more at ease as she explains the lay of the utopian land. Basically, the “land” is non-existent save for a sliver of floating earth that remains as a nature preserve (with no elephants). Utopia has gone digital. Charlie tries out a few different “universes” (programs), including one suggested by Kit (Bird Universe being her favorite, aside from Floor Tile Universe). The “Friendly AI,” Allocator, oversees the universes and humanity, ushering the species towards its evolution and future. Allocator knows a few things humanity doesn’t, though: life in a giant Matryoshka brain is not the meaningful life humanity though it was, but Allocator’s programming prohibits it from doing anything to impose its will on humanity, like redirecting our trajectory back toward a physical existence. Major design flaw. More problematic is humanity’s keenness to willfully forget that the whole digitized existence isn’t real. As Kit explains:
Kit calls these people “Hardcore role players,” and suddenly Wahl has the reader wondering if that’s all we are, role players in a simulated universe who’ve requested a memory wipe to prevent us from fully investing in this simulated reality. Wahl navigates big questions about reality, finding the meaning of existence, and the role of memory, all through Kit’s chirpy voice and dismissive observations: “Like, they do that whole ‘birth’ thing and then they wrinkle and die, unless they’re Beautiful And Mysterypoo Immortans or whatev.” Good luck going to sleep and not wondering if you’re the hardcore role player just waiting to wrinkle and die. Excuse me, Allocator? I’d like to be a Mysterypoo Immortan; awaiting upload now.
Both these short stories, both nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo, dive headlong into one of the most fraught human questions of our new online world: what, if anything, does authentic belonging mean anymore?
It’s a fraught question for the sci-fi/fantasy fandom, too, caused by the shifting status of what’s loosely termed geek culture. It used to be, so the story goes, comics, robots, anime, dungeons and dragons “belonged” to a plucky band of social misfits. Now, mainstream acceptance—the widespread popularity of Game of Thrones or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, say—threatens to flood the authentic fandom with a bunch of wannabe, fake-geek Johnny-come-latelies. So that story goes, anyway. Some versions even paint this displacement as a kind of oppression.
“Fandom for Robots” and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” are very different stories, with different outlooks, but they both circle around this question of authentic belonging. In “Fandom,” the robot Computron, a boxy clunker straight out of Amazing Stories, despite his lack of emotional circuits falls hard for the anime serial HyperWarp and joins its online fandom. Prasad gives us a warm, hopeful look at fan culture at its best, where a lonely misfit can find connection. Online, “authenticity” requires only that same obsessive attention to character design, episode recall, and fanfic—oh, the fanfic!—that unites the community. It’s a rebuke to exclusionary talk, an affirmation of how pop culture can draw disparate experiences into community.
In “Indian Experience,” enthusiasm and attention to detail are what the tourist and “pretendian” White Wolf brings to Sedona Sweats, a virtual reality playland specializing in vision quests and other Native exotica. The results are not so hopeful. Like Get Out, Roanhorse’s story traces how liberal multiculturalism, whether well meaning or not, slips so easily into commodification: in the name of cultural appreciation, marginalized communities are reduced to a set of signifiers, which can then be parceled and remixed at will. “Indian Experience” gives us a stark look at that Hollywood Indian-ness and how it demeans Sedona Sweats’ actual Indian employees. White Wolf’s arc reminds us that inclusive visions of community don’t track on to historically oppressed peoples, and shouldn’t.
At the same time, that concept—the “real” Indian—is part of another painful dynamic for Native American tribes, which, to qualify for federal protection, have to strictly define tribal membership, labeling some “true” Indians and others, not Indian enough, in many cases through the fraught (and way Goth-sounding) blood quantum. There’s no easy answer: our narrator is trapped in a humiliating ambiguity, and has to wonder what being a real Indian even means anymore. And this, Roanhorse suggests, is one of the most authentic Indian experiences there is today.
It’s not hard to see the SF/F fandom reflected in these stories: science fiction and fantasy are guilty of wrongful exclusion and cultural appropriation, too, and it’s important that young authors and readers are calling out the fandom for it. But it’s thrilling to read and celebrate stories like these, that skillfully draw readers into that experience—the fury and hurt of the marginalized, and the sheer joy of a fandom that gets it right.
This story, published in Uncanny Magazine, is probably narrated by a denizen of a carny sideshow who is likely partially a sea creature. Slyly and venomously, your tour guide leads you, the reader (the narrative is in the second-person), through chambers of increasing horrors. Beware, she likes your hands, she wants to X-ray your soul and maybe keep it, as her own was presumably stolen before. Pins, rusty and misused medical tools, examination tables and specimen cases line the tight rooms you crouch through, becoming more confused as you go. What has happened to you? Suddenly you can’t walk, and you’re being pushed around by someone you came to ogle, someone you presumed was less intelligent, less fit, less deserving of freedom than you. This world-shattering confusion is what happens to you when the odd or different people of our world resist being dissected and studied by doctors and scientists, when they revolt against stares and derogatory comments. This is what happens when the downtrodden and misunderstood demand their rights and take charge of their (small) worlds. This is how they pay back same-looking, superior-feeling people like you who pay their dime to gawk and snicker. The tables are turned, the mirrors and lights are focused on you, instead. You leave changed in body and soul.
This story begs to be read and re-read, both to grasp the obscured situation you are inhabiting, its deep anger, and its beautiful prose.
The story was also nominated for a Hugo Award. Turns out the furious resentment in this story emanates from Ms. Wilde’s own medical history and nightmares. You can read more about her thoughts on our treatment of the disabled and about being studied by the medical community as if under a microscope in her post.
Theses two stories, though they couldn’t be more different in terms of setting, both feature reflections on the end of a life. Two sets of characters question what is worth doing with the tiny bit of time we have.
In “The Last Novelist,” Reuth Bryan Diaso, author of fourteen novels and eighty-seven short stories, is dying. He has decided to hole up on an idyllic planetary paradise to write one final novel and then expire. Rueth is sad that no one in the universe pays attention to authors anymore—it’s all “sense-folk” sharing their mundane experiences directly to their multitudes of followers via neural uplinks.
At times the setting and setup are cringe-inducing. Rueth’s an old ex-pat, living in a house on a beach, shaded by palm trees, surrounded by fields of sugarcane, where the occasional hip-swishing native women speak pidgin. “Alle-roit,” says one, swishing off. “You kayn know ’less you ask.”
After settling in, Rueth encounters a precocious child, native to this paradise world, who calls herself Fish. She is fascinated by this odd “writing” activity that Rueth does, and she insists that he teach her everything he knows. Fish’s precocious curiosity and enthusiasm inspire Rueth. She has a gift for drawing, and before long she is illustrating Rueth’s novel and learning how to typeset.
Kressel writes that his story is about practicing one’s art for art’s sake, continuing to write even when there is no audience, and when other worries, like mortality, vie for the artist’s attention. In the action of the story Rueth finds meaning and validation in passing his knowledge, and his unfinished manuscript, on to Fish.
In “Carnival Nine,” author Yoachim creates a clockwork world where the invisible maker gives each character a mainspring at birth and then turns it every night while they sleep. We follow the life of Zee, from childhood to death. Zee is lucky; she has a good mainspring that can hold up to fifty-two turns. Others are less fortunate. Zee’s father has only enough turns to care for his aging parents, without enough left over to take Zee to the clockwork zoo on the far side of the closet.
Each character makes heart-wrenching choices in deciding how to use the painfully finite energy they’ve been given. As an allegorical tale, it’s another poignant illustration of Christine Miserandino’s spoon theory. In 2003, Miserandino used spoons as a visual aid to explain what it was like living with Lupus, each spoon representing a bit of energy that she must portion out strategically if she is to make it to the end of the day.
In “Carnival Nine,” the energetic Zee visits one of the carnival trains that travel on tracks throughout the house-world. She falls in love with a carnie on the Carnival Nine train, and relishes their adventurous life together. They make a child, but something is wrong with the mainspring he is given. It can only hold four turns. The decisions Zee and her spouse make in how to spend their precious turns, and care for, or neglect, their son drive the rest of the story. In the end Zee reflects on her life, trying to decide if she lived it well.
The claustrophobic feeling of the finite is present and pressing in both of these stories. Both examine the end of a life, looking back on choices and losses. The number of choices each character has left dwindle hour by hour, each decision carrying more weight. Mortality’s absolute limit rings through every sentence. Yet each protagonist takes comfort in the child to whom they have given their time and their talent. These two tales serve a main course of melancholy, but, in the end, the children that carry on into the future leave the reader with a small sip of hope.
Mark Springer: “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker
Imagine that you are part of the first interstellar mission in human history, aboard a spaceship larger than a city, on a voyage spanning many light-years and many, many generations. You have left behind the Earth, the rest of humankind, and all that you have known there, forever. As you sail into the void, your only connection to the past is a digital library, a collection of databases containing everything you wanted to bring with you but couldn’t—the history, art, and culture that gives meaning to the identity you forged in your lifetime on Earth, the things you want to share with the generations that will come after you.
Now imagine losing that library. Imagine the databases purged, their backups destroyed and unrecoverable. All that remains is the memory of what you’ve lost. What would you do? How would you restore the foundations of your culture, your identity?
These questions are more than hypothetical to the Journeyers in Sarah Pinsker’s Nebula-nominated novelette, “Wind Will Rove,” published in Asimov’s Science Fiction and also a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards. A decade into their long voyage to a new solar system, the Journeyers find themselves cut off from their past by a malicious act of sabotage, called the Blackout. Their answer to the Blackout is to recreate the content of their ruined databases from memory, as best they can. The results are imperfect, but better than nothing. In music, as in other performative arts, the pieces of cherished history are also preserved in living memory through practice and weekly performances, a further hedge against another Blackout.
For Rosie Clay, a history teacher, the salvaged stories of Earth’s past is still worthy of study, even if they are based more on memory than on fact. Her tenth-grade students, now generations removed from both the Earth and the Blackout, disagree. One student in particular, a boy named Nelson, pushes back with a variation on the classic “why do we have to learn stuff we’ll never use in real life?” refrain:
Rosie has faced this kind of skepticism in every class she has taught, so she has a ready reply:
It’s a nice sentiment, and a pragmatic defense of the value of history as a subject of study, but it doesn’t convince Nelson and his classmates, who understand their situation as a “middle-years” generation too well to be so easily placated. If Rosie is to make history relevant to them, she will have to find a different way.
Rosie is also a fiddler in the ship’s contingent of folk musicians, as her Grandma Windy was before her. The group gathers weekly on to play a seven-hour music marathon called “the OldTime.” At first these performances seem to embody the spirit of historical preservation and appreciation that Rosie is trying to instill in her students. But as Nelson continues to challenge her in class, Rosie begins to have a different experience of the music she is playing at the OldTime.
All of this is interwoven with stories from Rosie’s family history, including an apocryphal legend in which her Grandma Windy takes a fiddle on a spacewalk to serenade the void with an old folk tune. As Pinsker deftly plays the threads off one another, a new perspective emerges, like a hidden melody taking shape from the counterpoint of contrasting melodic lines in a Bach fugue, and Rosie’s relationship to the past—and to the music that has been passed down to her—is forever changed. Inspired by her new perspective, Rosie changes tactics with her students, foregoing intellectual arguments for a more personal appeal. In the end, she lets her fiddle and her music tell a story about the past, present, and future that she can’t convey any other way. And fittingly, it is the fiddle and the music that get the last word.
The novelette form was once described to me as “too long to be a short story, not long enough to be a novella.” Here, it feels just right. I appreciate Pinsker’s willingness to let Rosie’s tale venture beyond the confines of a short-story word count. Like a pop tune polished and perfected for radio play or casual playlist streaming, even the punchiest short stories can leave you with the feeling that they ended too soon. Not so with “Wind Will Rove.” The longer form allows Pinsker to expand the story and and develop it into something richer and more nuanced than it might have been at half the length, just as longer compositions give musicians the freedom to push boundaries and ride the spiral of creativity wherever it takes them. Here’s hoping the Nebula and Hugo judges appreciate the journey as much as I did.