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Mar 11

Reviewing The Nebulas: The Short Stories

Although I’m not a member of SFWA(1), I thought I’d review a couple of the award categories starting with short fiction.

Also, because I’m shit at story summaries, I’m going to be relying on online sources – mostly Lois Tilton.

Behind the cut, it’s on with the reviews.

Robot by Helena Bell

The narrator issues instructions to her new alien robot, whose primary function seems to be eating the diseased flesh of her failing body and who may or may not be preparing to take her place, as the narrator seems to believe.

This story tastes a bit like Kij Johnson’s Spar just with less swearing and inter-species fucking. Like Spar it’s short and has a caustic, direct tone, which I liked. But as a story about old age paranoia and fear it didn’t feel like it was saying anything new. Still, it’s well written and short and to the point. Which is never a bad thing.

Immersion by Aliette de Bodard.

A story about cultural imperialism, a subjugation that a society imposes on itself out of a sense of inferiority. Longevity Station fought for political independence from the Galactics and achieved it, but its people still feel insecure in comparison to Galactic culture. Thus the use of immersers, which not only project an avatar that meets Galactic norms of attractiveness, but prompt/impose dominant norms of behavior and speech.

Nine months later and I still remember this story. It’s partly because of the world building and the gorgeous writing – I could taste that broth – but mostly because it’s a piece about cultural imperialism and assimilation (the true effect of the immerser technology).

It’s too easy for Science and Fiction and Fantasy to play lip service to cultural diversity by scratching the serial numbers off a favourite non Western Culture. What de Bodard does so well, and what most genre writers shy away from either because they’re not capable or simply don’t understand the tensions at play, is examine the fine line between integration and assimilation. You might put the immerser on thinking that you’ll still be true to your own culture, even if your avatar looks like everyone else. But after awhile the native part of you gets lost by the dominant voice in your head, the voice that tells you to conform, to eat and speak and look the same as everyone else.

And while this an important story, de Bodard’s never preaches or shoves her message down your throat. In fact, she makes sure that the characters feel real, and that the poignancy and tragedy is genuine.

Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes by Tom Crosshill.

Rico realizes that he’s losing his wife, as she becomes someone different, someone less human, with every augmentation. He also fears that he will soon lose his totally unaugmented centenarian mother, and he’s concerned for her failing mind – as he sees it.

Unlike Immersion I’d completely forgotten this story. I know I’d read it but couldn’t for the life of me recall what it was about. Not a good sign. Still the story isn’t rubbish, the writing is solid, it’s just I didn’t care about the main character or the issues he faces with his grandmother and his wife.

Nanny’s Day by Leah Cypess

Parenting wars. It seems that the courts have decided custody of children should go to the party the child is most attached to, regardless of biological ties [“bioist” is now a pejorative.] Sometimes, this is the child’s nanny, and some nannies have sued for custody.

‘Bioist privilege’ – I love that. This story is basically an extended thought experiment. And like extended thought experiments it could easily have felt hollow and contrived. (2) But the strong character work not only propels the narrative but also makes the story feel real. As a parent, I can easily imagine a society where the law puts the emotional and mental health of the child above that over who the biological parents might be. More then just social services getting involved because a child has been physically abused.

The resolution of the story feels a little bit too neat (very King Solomon), but overall I enjoyed Nanny’s Day.

Give Her Honey When You Feel Her Scream by Maria Dahvana Headley

two people, each married to others, fall in love, want to be together forever. Their spouses, both adepts in magic, resent this desertion and plot revenge.

The story is very playful, imaginative and beautifully written with some lovely imagery. But as a piece about true love, it left me cold.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species by Ken Liu.

A linked compendium of several kinds of imaginary beings that employ different methods of achieving this goal.

I love Ken Liu, but he wrote far better stories in 2012 (Mono No Aware anyone?). It’s cute but slight.

Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain by Cat Rambo

I don’t have Lois to help me here – so crap summary follows:

The multi-verse is full of all sorts of weird shit, including a Universe where the indigenous race is made of porcelain. In this story one of the locals of the porcelain Universe has a short love affair with a human.

Lovely story that’s ruined by a nasty, left field ending. I fell in love with this piece when Rambo describes the chocolate universe being far more popular than its porcelain cousin. But I fell out of love when the female main character (the porcelain native) is violated post orgasm by her human lover. It’s not that I’m squeamish, it’s that tonally it didn’t fit with the bitter-sweet slightly comical tone of the rest of the story.

Of all the stories, this is the one that disappoints me the most.

What Story Should Win?

Immersion, most definitely. Streets ahead of the rest of the stories on the ballot and one of the best stories of the year.

(1) I tried to get Big Finish recognised as a paying publisher at one point. But the online form wasn’t working – which I only found out after I’d filled it in – and I couldn’t be bothered after that.

(2) Which happens to be Tilton’s problem with the piece.

2 comments

  1. prezzey

    FYI it’s Ken Liu, not Ken Lui. Agree about Immersion :]

    1. Mondyboy

      Thank you for pointing that out. Given how much I love his work, I should be doing better than misspelling Ken’s name.

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