Seven short stories from six sources have been nominated for the Nebula Award. Six of them are available for free online, so by following the links in this article, you’ll be able to find them and pick the one to which you’d give the prize.
The only exception to the “available online” category is Harlan Ellison‘s story, “How Interesting: A Tiny Man,” which was pulled from the internet when the Nebula voting period ended, and which is therefore available only in the February 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy. In my opinion, you’re not missing the winner if you can’t track this one down. It’s a well-written story, as one would expect from Ellison, about a man (the narrator) who creates a five inch tall man whom he teaches to speak, refuses to name, and dresses in tiny suits. All is going well until the creator and the man appear on a Sunday morning news show, and some religious nuts go – well, nuts. A woman with a talk show pronounces the tiny man a “monstrosity,” among other descriptors, concluding that “This thing would make Jesus himself vomit!” It sounds very familiar to those who pay any attention to the ongoing political battles over abortion and stem cell research in this country, and the next step is predictable: after a passel of commentators condemns the existence of the tiny man and his creator, and threats start to be a way of life, authority figures tell the creator that the tiny man “had to go.” The creator tries to protect his creation, moving from place to place, but there is no hiding; ultimately, the Feds corner them. From that point, Ellison offers two alternative endings, both equally valid, both horrors.
Ellison’s piece strikes me as too much of a polemic to work as a story. One can write a story that is polemical, but a polemic is not automatically a story. Here, the politics overshadows the story, rather than forming part of it, or developing out of it. This is all argument and no fantasy or science fiction. Perhaps one should properly call it a fable, right down to the moral.
“Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro is also polemical, but Castro is more successful than Ellison in building a story to convey his theme. He takes as his starting point the angry charge hurled by liberals at conservatives that they only care about a human being before it’s born, and abandon it once birth occurs. Thus, in this story, a person is considered legally “alive” only while in utero, and legal “death” occurs at birth. That is why only females without special potential are born, upon which time their bodies are trained to within an inch of tolerance – and often beyond, if healing is possible – while their minds are so drugged that they never develop any sort of personality. Those same drugs are very humane, keeping these beings content. Their wombs are altered to be plush, wired, safe and sound for their eventual passengers. And they love their passengers. They are recreational vehicles, “Arvies,” for the fetuses that purchase them and direct how they are to be used.
“Arvies” focuses on one fetus who is “entirely typical” in her range of activities and accomplishments, from success in the arts to ruthlessness in business. Jennifer Axioma-Singh has been a fetus for 70 years now, having a wonderful time, using up and discarding a whole raft of Arvies. She purchases a new one, Molly June, for the sole purpose of giving birth – experiencing what it is to actually, physically expel a baby from a human body. It’s a cause celebre when she announces this, because birth is “messy and unpleasant and distasteful.” But there’s no law against it, and Jennifer is allowed her desire, regardless of what it does to Molly June, not to mention the fetus in the twin womb installed in Molly June. No, of course Jennifer didn’t intend to herself give birth or be born; why would she? Through the technology of the day, she can experience everything from her bird’s eye seat inside Molly June.
This is a powerful story about the disposability of human beings and the treatment of women as mere vehicles for fetuses. As an “if this goes on” story, it’s on a par with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
“Ghosts of New York” by Jennifer Pelland, originally published in the original anthology Dark Faith, is about the aftermath of 9/11, but uniquely. Pelland imagines that everyone who jumped from the Twin Towers that fateful day in 2001 relives the jump over and over and over again, existing as a ghost with no other apparent purpose. The jump is never less frightening, never less painful, but “fresh and raw each and every time.” It’s hard to imagine a worse afterlife. Between falls, one nameless woman wonders if she’s in hell. She can remember nothing but the moments immediately before she jumped, not what she might have done in life to have deserved this punishment, not why she was in the Towers, not even what she looked like. Even as rebuilding proceeds, she continues to fall, and fall, and fall again.
But she makes some discoveries as time passes. For one thing, even though the living can’t see her and the other ghosts, they unconsciously feel them, and will alter their path to avoid contact. For another, her fate appears to apply to all those who jumped from buildings, all over the city, and they can talk to one another. She learns that her falling will continue as long as people remember 9/11, which means that her torture will continue virtually forever. An eternity of pain lies behind her. How would you react to learning such a hard truth?
“I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” by Vylar Kaftan is a love story about the time dilation effect of traveling close to the speed of light. Yes, that sounds odd, but imagine: the man you love leaves on a spaceship flying close to the speed of light. By the time he returns from his voyage, you’ve lived a lifetime: married, had children, grown older, aging to your fifties, while he is still “a hot young thirty-something.” Would you react as this heroine did, taking off to see the stars because you had to see what he did? For you it’s a vacation, a short time away. Now add cryogenesis to the mix, and what have you got? Star-crossed lovers, for a certainty. The tone of the entire piece is elegiac, anger damped down by time, almost poetry. Kaftan chose to write in the second person, but the tone is not accusatory, precisely; more the way I imagine one would speak to a lost love years after his death. It is a profoundly sad story.
“Conditional Love” by Felicity Shoulders is stylistically a more traditional story than many of those nominated this year, which tend to play with voice (the Kaftan story) and structure (the Castro story). It straightforwardly tells the story of Grace, a doctor who cares for gene-engineered children who are abandoned by their parents when things go wrong. Minerva is one of the patients; she was born without limbs, and the hospital is persuading her body to grow arms and hands, to “fix” her. Minerva is a fascinating character, a child who knows her own mind (she wants to stop medical treatments after she has her arms and hands, but the hospital appears set to work on her body to grow legs, too, regardless of the wishes of the patient, not to mention the pain, the setbacks, more pain, surgeries, pain and pain).
But the patient Grace focuses on in this story is Daniel, a boy who remembers nothing from one minute to the next. He imprints on every adult he sees, just like a duckling, and forgets them the moment they leave his sight. Grace shudders at the implications for abuse inherit in such a child, one who trusts and loves anew everyone he sees. When it becomes clear that there is no way to help this child, and that he will be essentially warehoused in a perm-ward for the rest of his life, Grace takes action. That action means that Grace must abandon Minerva, and will not be able to help her in her battle to stop the treatments and get on with her life, a decision that sat so poorly with me that I became irrationally angry with the fictional Grace. Her other major decision, about how to settle things for Daniel so that she remains his only focus, makes good sense, and it’s hard to fault her for that one. But the real story here, the one that hurts, is Minerva’s.
“Ponies” by Kij Johnson is a fantasy about growing up. Every girl has a pony, with wings and a unicorn horn and a voice, and there is a special bond between them. But a time comes when every girl and her pony must go to a cutting-out party, and the pony must lose two of her special gifts. No one questions this; no one seems to think it’s cruel to the ponies; and even the ponies accept it. Each girl must perform the surgery on her own pony. It’s like performing surgery on a doll, and it doesn’t seem to cause physical pain, but it’s no less ugly for all of that. The moral: growing up means becoming cruel or being ostracized: your choice. And if you won’t become cruel yourself, those around you will ensure that cruelty nonetheless haunts you. This story is a short, sharp tale that will leave you feeling slightly ill.
“The Green Book” by Amal El-Mohtar starts with the description of a book as if to list it for a bibliography or a catalog, but quickly segues to a letter written by Dominic, a student and apprentice to Leuwin, a scholar, about the book. The letter carefully copies out the content of the book, and it quickly becomes clear that the book is more than it appears on its face. Someone – Cynthia, for we learn her name – has been imprisoned within its pages, and can only communicate through words welling to the surface of the page. Leuwin appears to have figured out how the book works, and through “conversation” – writing back and forth on the blank pages of the book – Leuwin falls in love with Cynthia, and she with him. But Cynthia insists that she is dead, that the book is her only body. More, she insists that he loves only the book, ink on a page, not a real woman. Her refusal of him moves him to seek out a way to save her, to remove her from the book to a human existence. And Dominic fears for him, and writes of his fear to his correspondent. As he does, more writing appears in the book, this addressed directly to him. If the hairs on the back of your neck don’t rise at that point in the story, you’re not paying close enough attention.
These are all powerful stories, all worth reading and cherishing. I do not envy the judges. Upon first reading, I thought that “Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro was most deserving of top honors. It is a beautifully written yet harsh story told through well-chosen language in a manner that challenges traditional narrative forms without losing the ease of reading inherent in those forms. It has an essential truth to it that shines clear and strong. I will not be at all surprised if this is the story that is awarded the Nebula.
And yet – in the days since I first read these stories, I have found that it is “The Green Book” by Amal El-Mohtar that stays with me. I find my mind drifting to the notion of a woman imprisoned in a book, a living death that allows her to fall in love but never to be kissed. And I keep trying to figure out what that last bit of writing means, why Cynthia pities Dominic, who the Sisters are –it’s a story that continues to challenge the reader long after it has been read. I do not think it likely that this story will be awarded the prize; it’s a little too strange, a bit too different, not a story one would describe as “powerful,” but, rather, as “haunting.” Nebulas go to powerful stories, not haunting ones.
Read them all, and tell me what you think. Which is going to win, the Castro or the El-Mohtar? Or do you think it will be one of the others? One thing is certain: the genre we love is very healthy indeed to have produced seven such stories in the course of a single year.