Magazine Monday: Nebula-Nominated Short Stories, 2014

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Here are the short stories nominated for a 2014 Nebula Award:

NebulaIn “The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard, the main character, Rechan, is pregnant. She must find her breath-sibling before she gives birth, or the baby will be stillborn. That, and the fact that they are carved by adolescent women from a special stone called lamsinh, are all we know about breath-siblings at first. Most women have their breath-siblings with them once they are created, but Rechan’s has remained in the mountains from which it was carved during a time of war on her planet. “The Breath of War” is a very alien story, setting up a world and a biology that are so different from ours that the wonder of the story comes from discovering the nature of both, rather than from the plot itself — though they are beautifully interwoven. As I noted when I first reviewed this story, de Bodard’s writing reminds me of C.J. Cherryh’s early work in that it is so fully imagined that it feels almost like one is reading a translation describing a lost culture. The story rewards both close attention and rereading.

“Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon is a lovely tale about a race of shapeshifters and their interaction with humans. Grandma Harken says that they are the daughters of the rain, and that driving them off would bring on a drought. Others say they don’t believe it, but living in a desert, they aren’t willing to take any chances, and so the jackalope wives are let alone. The only problem is that they dance at night to wild music in their very beautiful human forms. Most folks know to keep their sons occupied when the jackalope wives are dancing, but Grandma Harken’s grandson is determined to get himself one of these wives. He knows enough to throw her rabbit skin on the fire, but she cries so that he grabs it back out again. What happens to the poor creature who now has only half of her identity left to her? Grandma Harken undertakes to solve the problem. “Jackalope Wives” has the taste of an oft-told folktale, and I enjoyed it.

“The Fisher Queen” is Alyssa Wong’s first published story, but it shows no signs of being novice work. It is told in the first person by Lily, a teenage girl who plans to fish the deep sea, just as her father does; it doesn’t sound like there are many other options for her. She’s been told all her life that her mother was a fish, and that’s why she can swim so well. As a mermaid is a type of gourmet fish in her world, there’s almost a biological basis for this tale, but she knows that’s all it is: something her father made up to try to cover for the fact that her mother abandoned her and her two sisters. Still, on one fishing trip, the crew of which she is a part captures a mermaid that is very different from the usual, with an oddly human face. When Lily approaches the mermaid to rope its arms to its torso to better preserve the meat, it speaks to her, calling her “Lˉukˉsˉaw” – “daughter.” Lily investigates, and learns a lot more about mermaids than she ever imagined. It’s a chilling story, excellently told.

Andy has just lost his right arm up to and including the shoulder in a farming accident when “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” by Sarah Pinsker begins. When he comes to after the accident, his mother informs him that he’s been fitted with a brain-computer interface. It’s a prototype that required implanting a chip in the motor cortex of his brain. It doesn’t look much like an arm, but more like “their big irrigation rig, all spines and ridges and hoses,” and it ends in a pincer. Andy learns how to use it pretty quickly, despite pain like he’s never felt pain before. But the odd thing is that Andy starts to dream his arm is a highway — a very specific stretch of highway at that: 97 kilometers of asphalt in eastern Colorado with cattle guards on either side. Andy has never seen this road, has never even been out of Saskatchewan. So where does this vision come from? It’s a strange little story that poses a lot of questions about how our brains work, and even about how machines work, and most certainly about how the two work together. I enjoyed the quirkiness, and liked the character of Andy a great deal.

“The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” by Matthew Kressel is the only one of the Nebula-nominated stories set in the far future and in space. The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye are entities that roam the galaxy harvesting dead stars, telling tales to each other. One “day” the Meeker sees an unknown, and the Eye demands that the unknown be harvested. It is an object from the Long Gone, that is, from a time before the All-Seeing Eye essentially consumed the galaxy. After much experimentation and cogitation, the Eye manages to recreate a creature that is coded into the object, which turns out to be a human female named Beth. And when that one fails to live long, the Eye creates another. And another. And another. And billions more, enough to be able to figure out what information it has. The Eye has no emotions that can be moved by Beth’s plight, as she dies ugly death after ugly death, learns over and over again that her wife is dead for millennia, and comes to understand that the Eye has destroyed all life in the galaxy. The story poses questions that always fascinate when one considers the notion of the Singularity: will an artificial life form have any notion of morality? And if not, what does biological life do about it? It is a tale told on a huge scale, and even though I have enormous trouble with the trite notion that the human race will be instrumental in saving numberless species throughout the galaxy, I nonetheless found the story entertaining.

“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” by Usman Tanveer Malik is set in Pakistan in the near future. In short order, Tara loses everything that has attached her to her rural home and her traditional ways, from her chador to her obedience to the precept that she be uneducated. She moves to the city, refuses a new husband, and insists on returning to school. This all seems a reasonable response to grief and loneliness, but we come to learn that there is something unusual about Tara. The depth of her difference becomes apparent when terrorists attack the city, bringing horrible death and destruction to everything around her. Tara knows the source of the terror, and has the means to deal with it. A science fiction tale on its surface, in its heart it is a morality tale that challenges the code of honor by which Tara’s family lives — and dies.

As good as all of these stories are, the tale to which I would award to Nebula is Eugie Foster’s “When It Ends, He Catches Her.” Aisa is a ballerina who dances in a broken-down theater after the world as she has known it has come to an end. She only imagines that her partner, Balege, is dancing Snowbird’s Lament with her, for he is not there. It is only when she is dancing that her world is bearable, only then that “The dreary, horrible daytime with its humiliations and ceaseless hunger became the dream.” She imagines the ovation, the curtains, and more — the final leap that would take her off the stage and into the pit were it not for Balege being there to catch her. Her solo can have no such leap, but this time there is applause; a single pair of hands, which, she discovers, belong to Balege. And so they dance. It is impossible to read this story as anything other than a metaphor for Foster’s final days, for we lost her last year to cancer; the story was published the day before she died. My admiration for this story is not because I know this background, however; it is because the story is gentle and sweet even as it tells a tale of horror.

Still, the decision is not an easy one. These stories are all excellent, and I recommend them all.


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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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One comment

  1. You anticipated my question, which was which winner would you pick. I agree that “When it Ends, He Catches Her” is sweet and lovely.

    You liked “The Fisher Queen” more than I did but I enjoyed the new-to-me setting and her beautiful descriptions.

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