As in previous years (see the entries for 2006 and 2007), I ventured forth and read the short fiction finalists for the 2007 Nebula Awards. I find this to be a fun yearly project, though for some reason it seemed like it took longer to complete this year; probably due to personal time constraints more than anything. All but two of the stories (the novelettes “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche” by Delia Sherman and “The Children’s Crusade” by Robin Wayne Bailey) were available online this year. If I come across those stories, I’ll update this post.
The short fiction entries this year fared better overall than in previous years. The only two stories I could have done without were both fantasies, keeping in line with my hit-or-miss track record for fantasy. When the stories worked, they worked in a big way. While the profitability of short fiction may be debatable, there’s no denying the quality and creativity of which the format is capable.
In a nutshell, then, here are my impressions of the stories in each category, sorted from most to least enjoyable. My winning picks are the tops ones listed in each category. Story titles link to online versions, where available.
“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang
“Safeguard” by Nancy Kress
“The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” by Kij Johnson
“Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” by Geoff Ryman
“Child, Maiden, Mother, Crone” by Terry Bramlett
[Not read] “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche” by Delia Sherman
[Not read] “The Children’s Crusade”
“Titanium Mike Saves the Day” by David D. Levine
“Captive Girl” by Jennifer Pelland
“Pride” by Mary Turzillo
“Always” by Karen Joy Fowler
“Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse” by Andy Duncan
“The Story of Love” by Vera Nazarian
Reviewlettes of the stories follow…
A fine example of how science fiction can be Literary can be found in “Stars Seen Through Stone“ by Lucius Shepard, though you wouldn’t know this was anything other than mainstream fiction until halfway through the story, and even then in a downplayed manner. Seen through the eyes of its narrator, Vernon, comes a story of how a small Pennsylvania town named Black William experienced an artificial culmination of creativity and genius. Vernon is a small-time record producer who, for his part in the rapture, finds renewed love with his ex-wife Andrea. His latest project is a surprising new musical talent: a twentysomething named Joe Stanky whose predilection for sexual perversion needs to be kept in check lest it foul up the music career that Vernon is trying to launch for him. It eventually becomes evident that something is amiss with the townsfolk as people experience bursts of one emotion or other; an occurrence that coincides with the appearance of strange stars that appear out of nowhere only to disappear once again. This is an oddity which dates back in the town’s history to the days of its nogoodnick founder. As interesting as this alien harvest was, Shepard chooses to focus on the people and it works. Through detailed characterizations we see a range of human relationships and feelings that are no less captivating than the science fiction that loiters in the background. Like in his story “The Arcevoalo“, Shepard makes lyrical prose look easy: conveying multitudes of depth and insight with few words; creating a quiet story with serious implications; and writing a fascinating story without the easy trappings of science fiction. Well done.
The setting of “Fountain of Age“ reminded me at times of another Nancy Kress story I read recently: “Inertia”, published in John Joseph Adams’s Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse anthology. Both stories are set in a near-future world plagued by social unrest and environmental issues, with people huddled under domes. And both stories offer a rich backdrop to tell a story. Here we meet elderly protagonist, Max Feder, a resident in an assisted living facility – but don’t expect a story involving some lovable old codger; Max is a shameless crook. He made his fortune from insider information and shady dealings. He’s even been in jail and is consistently hounded by the feds. The thrust of the story is Max’s desire to once again see Daria, the woman he met during the war and with whom he fell in love. The story jumps to different points in Max’s life until we get the whole picture: his strained relationship with his wife and son; his dangerous business relationship with Stevan, a shady gypsy who will one day get a visit from Max looking for secret passage to the rejuvenation satellite where Daria lives; and how Max unexpectedly found Daria after so many years apart. The one thing that kept me from enjoying this story to its fullest was Max’s negative reactions when meting Daria after longing after her for so many years. I would have expected him to be overjoyed. Even so, there is plenty of richness in the setting and plot to maintain a hugely enjoyable reading experience.
Gene Wolfe’s “Memorare“ is an incredibly textured and involved story. March Wildspring is making a documentary about the asteroid memorials littering space and which pay tribute to those who died there. Some sects believe that the souls of visitors who die on these memorials are sent to serve those who are to be remembered – so some of these memorials are often loaded with fatal traps to further that goal. (This has the same Big Dumb Object coolness factor of “Diamond Dogs” by Alastair Reynolds, and the opening scene of “Memorare” is correspondingly filled with Indiana Jones-like adventure. I would have loved to see more of that element.) March’s ultimate goal is to document the biggest memorial of all, which he dubs Number Nineteen. He would love for his sometime flame, Kit Carleson, to narrate and, fortunately, he meets Kit near the memorials of Jupiter. But Kit has someone in tow – a woman from March’s past named Robin. Furthermore, Robin is being pursued by her violent husband, Jim, who hopes to win back Robin’s affections. As you can guess, there is plenty of human drama playing out alongside the memorial documentary thread. The early parts of the story expertly balanced the two storylines, each one engrossing enough to temporarily forget the other. The resulting narrative – though somewhat unnatural in the dialogue department with some questions seemingly left hanging – was simply excellent. Yet when the four central characters finally arrive on Number Nineteen, the story seems to lose some of its steam. Instead of some real dangers, there’s a “what is reality?” vibe that permeates and interrupts the flow, taking away from the overall impact of the rich setting. The story is still very good overall, though, an impression that is solidified by some realistic characterizations and portrayals of love and uncertainty.
[I read “The Helper and His Hero“ as part of Matt Hughes’s fixup novel The Commons. What follows is what I said then and, as such, reads better in the context of that review.]
In the final episode (spread over two chapters just like it was published across two episodes of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine), Bandar strives to better understand the noösphere. He meets up with two mysterious strangers who are obviously (too obviously) more than they seem; one in particular exhibits unprecedented abilities. This is the longest episode of all and is also the most ambitious, but there is a cost. The story tries to layer in too many elements at once – murder mystery, debilitating disease, shady faith healer, noösphere prodigy, alien world-building – and therefore takes some time to get off the ground. On the plus side, Hughes does manage to successfully juggle all of them most of the time, with the ending offering nice closure to the story arc of the noösphere’s self-awareness. It also shows us Bandar’s ultimate fate. (Note: Regarding alien world-building, Hughes mentions the substance known as “black brillion”, which is the title of one of his books set in this universe.)
Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk“ is one of those stories that looks at technology and its effects on society. Set in a worldwide economic slump, the story initially focuses on Borsilav, a simple street merchant who captures a renewed wave of recycled consumerism by selling fabricated merchandise from a small, one-person kiosk. The poor-man who makes something of himself is a gratifying storyline, and it’s interesting to see how Borislav envisions and shapes the economic future. But as soon as Borislav offers the kiosk to the politician, the story loses its heart. It changes from personal story to political tool and not even the planned rebellion can restore its former glory.
Judith Berman’s “Awakening“ is a fantasy story in a medieval setting about a highborn woman named Aleya who awakens amongst a pile of rotting corpses. It takes some time – a lot of time – for the thrust to story to kick in, but she eventually realizes that she is dead and on the run from her old lord. Magic is prevalent here, not only from the lord but (surprisingly to Aleya) from the commoners as well. A barbarian awakens Aleya in the hopes of making her find a magical artifact. As you can tell, this is steeped in fantasy, which is unfortunate for me because this type of fantasy is simply not my cup of tea. While it was interesting to see elements of zombies peek through the magical curtains and the contrast between Aleya’s narcissism and her dead flesh, I simply couldn’t get into this one.
Ted Chiang is often regarded as an excellent short story writer and with his wonderful story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the story of a Baghdad merchant who learns of the existence of an amazing artifact: a gate that acts as a wormhole allowing time travel across the space of 20 years. Chiang, using a “stories within stories” approach, has the Alchemist who owns the gate teaching the merchant about the rules of time travel – all while being firmly planted in Arab culture and mores. The author also treats the theme of time travel head-on by using cool time convolutions that are integral to the story. Meticulously tight plotting, excellent storytelling and great uses of time travel mark this story as a winner.
Nancy Kress takes us to a near-future, post-war Amercia in “Safeguard,” where a geneticist named Taney is caring for four inexperienced children in a government biodome. The children are obviously being studied, and it is quickly learned that they are in fact genetically engineered weapons that have been bred by terrorists in the war against America. Although the danger is expressed early on, the nature of that danger is not revealed until near the end, a wise decision that creates this incredible undercurrent of suspense throughout the story. Layered on top of that are astute characterizations which show Taney’s compassion and wisdom and the innocence of children. Smartly plotted and gripping. Well done.
“The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs Of North Park After the Change“ by Kij Johnson is an interesting story that shows the plight of dogs after a seemingly beneficial Change that has granted them the power of speech. They thus move away from becoming our “slaves” and more towards our equals, which does not sit well with their current owners whose complacency is replaced by uneasiness and fear. The main focus is on the girl Linna who sympathizes with the dogs who are being forced to rely more and more on survival instincts as mankind is moved to action. This is an affecting story, somewhat reminiscent of Clifford Simak’s fixup novel City, particularly when the dogs share their history through stories.
[I originally read “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter“ by Geoff Ryman as part of a 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.]
In this story, the daughter of the infamous Cambodian leader of the Khmer Rouge (the man behind the “Killing Fields“) falls in love with a young cell phone salesman and is haunted by the ghosts of her father’s past. This is really a story about redemption. Sith, a shallow rich girl who always had everything done for her, falls for Dara and hides from him her true identity. She has little memory of her father and refuses to learn about his past actions. But she is forced to face that past when the ghosts of those murdered in the Killing Fields begin contacting her. This is done through copy machines that print their faces even when they are unplugged, or through cell phones and iPods. Eventually, she must come to terms with the atrocities of the past and finally attempts to atone for the sins of her father. Ryman’s haunting story is powerful for its fact-based background alone, although the repeated reminders that the story is entirely fictional took away from its immersive quality. The prose is clean and to the point. However, Sith’s transition from spoiled brat to redeemer probably took longer than was needed. To Ryman’s credit, he managed to get this fantasy-indifferent reader totally bought in to the idea of ghosts.
[“Child, Maiden, Mother, Crone“ by Terry Bramlett was originally reviewed in Jim Baen’s Universe #7]
Terry Bramlett’s serene fantasy story, “Child, Maiden, Woman, Crone”, is about a Navajo farmer and musician named Johnny Nobles. As a musician, Johnny is a one-hit-wonder who has since retreated to his corn crops. Early one year, Johnny meets a young girl who inspires him to write a beautiful piece of music. Throughout the year, the maiden named Natalie Whiteshell returns, aging much faster than humanly possible, and Johnny forms a relationship with her. Bramlett’s clear, capable writing conveys the points of the story quickly. The only glaring detriment is how Johnny inexplicably delays questioning his true love about her obvious age progression. It doesn’t kill the story, but it does hold it back.
David D. Levine’s “Titanium Mike Saves the Day“ is an affecting story of the history of man’s ascension into space, told in reverse chronological order through various vignettes. Each one uses the rousing power of a mythical figure (Titanium Mike) to overcome some obstacle. Levine’s writing is breezy and fable-like (as it should be for this story) and his attention to story construction and detail (like the girl’s bubblegum-colored space suit) and are top notch. Well done.
Jennifer Pelland’s “Captive Girl“ is a creepy, bizarre and ultimately wonderful story. The main character, 19 year-old Alice, is perpetually masked and strapped in a Christopher Pike-like wheelchair, intentionally rendered deaf, blind and mute so that she can watch the skies for the possible return of the unidentified black spaceships that caused massive destruction to her planetary colony a decade ago. Marika, Alice’s caretaker, calls Alice her “captive girl” and they are lovers of a sort, though it hinges on Marika being either a control freak or a fetishist. The relationship therefore goes south when the project to watch the skies is closed down and Alice has a chance to be “normal” again. The setting, which is imaginative (alien attacks, watchers, and children enlisted to be the space colony’s lookout make this story interesting by itself) soon gives way to the bizarre situation of the Alice/Marika relationship, exploring themes of love and sacrifice in what feels like a David Cronenberg film. Great fun, in an off-putting sort of way.
In “Pride“ by Mary Turzillo, a man rescues a baby sabertooth from a cloning facility and raises it like a pet. Initially unassuming, this story builds up the tension as the cub grows larger and more fearsome. I’m not entirely sure how Kevin attempts to get his life back on track by stealing a lab experiment, but when his ex-girlfriend has a change of heart, he is lulled even further into denial of the dangers that are sure to explode. [Originally reviewed in Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders.]
In Andy Duncan’s “Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse“, a priest named Father Leggett follows a cryptic phone message to meet a five year-old girl named Mary who has taught a “frizzled” chicken to walk in reverse. Because of the chicken’s special behavior (never pecks back at the other chickens, looks into the sky as if praying, “cures” Mary’s stomachache) she thinks it’s Jesus Christ. This ultimately consumes father Leggett’s thoughts, affecting him more than the girl – all the better, it seems, to serve his calling. Duncan’s engaging writing makes this a fun story.
The promise of eternal life is examined in Karen Joy Fowler’s “Always“. The teenage narrator and her boyfriend join a commune called Always where the leader, Brother Porter, promises them all immortality if they follow his rules; like abstinence for all except himself and whomever he chooses to bed. The obvious explanation – that this is a cult – is never challenged by the narrative though some of the characters do. If this has to be classified as genre fiction (which to me, it isn’t) then it would have to be nebulously labeled as Slipstream, which (I think) refers to “mainstreamy” genre fiction. Classification aside, Fowler nicely creates detailed pictures with swift-moving prose and has whipped up a good story.
“The Story of Love“ by Vera Nazarian Crea is told through the eyes of Crea, the daughter of a desert city merchant who physically abuses her. Crea’s only escape is to find a husband who will take her away. Eventually, Crea’s father exchanges his daughter’s hand in marriage, yet even free from her father Crea still can’t seem to find love with her new husband. There is ultimately a message of forgiveness, but for the life of me (being the grudge-carrying person I am, I guess) I couldn’t see any reason to do so. Nor could I see why this story was so difficult for me to read. The fantasy content wasn’t stoking my fire, sure, but something in the prose made it a bit difficult to trudge through. Oh well.