Here are the novelettes nominated for a 2014 Nebula Award:
“We Are the Cloud” by Sam J. Miller is narrated by Angel Quinones, nicknamed Sauro because he likes dinosaurs — though the other kids in his twelfth group home believe it’s because he’s as big as a dinosaur. Sauro is just about to age out of the system, and that’s even worse than the horror of being in the system. Sauro meets Case when one of the other boys is beating him up outside Sauro’s door. Sauro immediately desires Case, even though desire is dangerous, and he avoids it whenever he can; but this time, he knows he can’t. And Case, the only white boy Sauro has ever seen in a group home, desires Sauro right back. Both boys have cloud ports in their heads, which means that their brains serve as part of a huge data processing grid. Case has a plan for the two of them, earning money through pornography; Sauro’s a natural, he thinks. Sauro is so in love that he goes along for the ride, but he has his own plan, and it involves clouddiving. Only damaged people can dive; it’s got something to do with how the brain processes speech, and Sauro has a hard time putting things into words, but when he dives, it’s like the whole world opens before him. It’s a sad, hard story about power — who has it, who uses it, who figures out how to wield it, who is bereft of it — that had me completely immersed in its world every time I read it.
I wasn’t as taken with “Sleep Walking Now and Then” by Richard Bowes, though I did appreciate its picture of an alternate form of drama —interactive theater, in which the audience forms part of the production. This isn’t entirely an imagined phenomenon — indeed, the story was inspired by a Broadway show called “Sleep No More” that Bowes attended with his editor, Ellen Datlow. The story is set about half a century from now, after climate change has had its way with the world. We’re long past cellphones in this story; instead, everyone has an implant in his or her palm that serves all the same functions, and then some. With technology like this, a play set in the 1890s in the first act, and the 1960s in the second act, is a glimpse into ancient history. Best of all, it’s a play full of murder and ghosts, and it’s pretty clear from the outset that the former is somehow going to intrude into real life. But the descriptions of the drama and the history both bog the story down, and there’s not a character here worth caring about. The excellent discussions of the art of set decoration are not sufficiently compelling to make this story work for me.
“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado fails to convince the reader to willingly suspend disbelief. That’s not because the story is weird, absurd, metafictional; all three of those things normally excite me in a story. Here, though, the narrator never gives required information to the person who needs it to keep her alive, which is such a fundamental flaw — and so contrary to the campfire spooky story on which it is based — that it ruined the story for me. I appreciate the skill with which Machado wove together urban legends into a story of one woman’s courtship, marriage and motherhood, and the writing itself is lovely. But anyone who was a Girl Scout knows how this tale is going to end as soon as we learn that the narrator has a ribbon around her neck which must never be untied. It’s certainly understandable that this would be a matter of fascination to the woman’s husband and child, so why does the narrator refuse to tell them what that ribbon means? I found it frustrating that a story that strives to say something about a woman’s powerlessness winds up being about her own failure to grasp the power available to her, for no apparent reason.
“The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson is an outstanding tale of an African-American family dealing with a legacy of supernatural power that followed their ancestors from Africa, through years of slavery, through the Civil War, and into the following years. The viewpoint character is the twelve-year-old Easter, a girl who talks to entities she refers to as “angels,” believing them to be good spirits consistent with her Christianity and not at all in opposition to her mother’s warnings. But one day in her father’s tobacco field, Easter makes a bargain that she doesn’t understand, and from that bargain springs tragedy that echoes through the century to come. It’s a good story, though it occasionally lacks clarity.
“The Magician and Laplace’s Demon” by Tom Crosshill starts with an echo of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “Across the void of space the last magician fled before me.” It sets up a great many expectations, most of which Crosshill meets in this hard science fiction tale about magic (as contradictory as that may sound). The first-person narrator, an artificial intelligence, the only one of its kind in the universe, believes it has the drop on the magician, that she’s safely drugged and incapacitated before it, and will reveal all the secrets of how she is manipulating a governing body in a way that it can’t detect. But all is not as it seems, on either side. Unfortunately, the combination of magic and quantum physics isn’t entirely coherent, and it is easy to lose one’s way in this story without a graduate degree in mathematics. Still, I enjoyed it as far as I could follow it, and I look forward to more of this writer’s work.
“A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” by Alaya Dawn Johnson is about a world in which vampires have won an out-and-out war with humans. They keep the most beautiful humans alive in concentration camps, with shunts in their arms so that they are kept alive but can be drunk from at the vampires’ will, as if they were faucets. (Other humans are not so lucky; they are kept as breeding stock.) And some humans, including Key, the viewpoint character, are what can only be termed collaborators: they keep order in the camps, in return for favors, including the possibility that they will be converted into vampires themselves someday. Tetsuo once kept Key as a — well, “pet” is the best word she can come up with. He has now requested her transfer from a lower-grade resort on the big island of Hawai’i to the top-flight resort in Oahu where he presides, and has promised her the ultimate reward if she is successful in preventing the beautiful prey from committing suicide. The story relates Key’s interactions with her new charges; the back story tells of the war between vampires and humans, and Key’s part in it. It is a solid, multi-layered story with excellent characterization and terrific writing.
I’m torn between “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” and “We Are the Cloud,” and would have a difficult time choosing between them were I a Nebula voter. All of these stories are well worth your time and attention, and all are available for free reading at the links provided. Let us know which one you choose in the comments, and next weekend we’ll see which of us best predicted how the SFWA will vote.
I had the same reaction to “Sleep Walking Now and Then” that you did and I also thought I saw where the plot was going early on, and I was right.
“The Husband Stitch” does sound frustrating!