No, you have not jumped forward in time two days; it’s still Saturday. But the Nebula Awards will be handed out tonight, so this special edition of Magazine Monday discusses the nominated novellas.
The late, lamented Subterranean Magazine first published Rachel Swirsky’s “Grand Jeté.” The story is about Mara, a 12-year-old child who is dying of cancer, her father, who loves her very much, and the android Mara’s father has built that mimics Mara in every way, right down to her thoughts and feelings. It is an amazing technological accomplishment that Mara’s father sees as a gift to his daughter. Mara, however, sees it as a replacement for her, a confirmation of her fear that she is going to die. The story is about the complex relationships between Mara and her father; the android and Mara; the android and Mara’s father; Mara and her dead mother; and the android and Mara’s mother, whom the android sees as her own mother. After the initial revelation of the android, the tale is mostly one of small occurrences in the daily lives of the three of these characters, and how they adjust to one another. The story is told through such incidents as a trip to the butcher, a Shabbat dinner, watching videos of Mara’s mother’s performances as a prima ballerina. The emotions are raw here, and edged; this story will make your heart hurt. It is beautifully told, and with brutal honesty.
Ken Liu’s “The Regular” is about a serial killer who targets high-end prostitutes. Ruth is a freelance detective who is hired by the mother of one of the killer’s victims. The story is alternatively told from her viewpoint and that of the killer, which allows us to understand the killer’s motive and keeps us one step ahead of Ruth in figuring out how to catch this vicious man. Liu also addresses racial issues, as is characteristic of his work. These issues do not necessarily power the story, but do add flavor and complexity to Ruth’s character. The traditional mystery structure blends well with the futuristic technology that powers the plot for both viewpoint characters. The story was originally published in the anthology Upgraded, edited by Neil Clarke, and republished in the first edition of Forever Magazine.
Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress was published as a stand-alone volume by the small but mighty Tachyon Press. Kress’s story posits the arrival of aliens on Earth who are just as human as we at a basic biological level, despite their larger eyes and a few other differences that are explained as adaptations to their home, which they call World. The aliens bring news that Earth will pass through a cloud of space-borne spores that will kill every human in a mere ten months, and offers both samples of the pathogen and laboratory facilities that offer a breath of hope that a cure can be found before the spores intersect with Earth. The story is told mostly through the eyes of Marianne, a scientist who becomes involved with the aliens, not to find the cure, but to do more basic research into finding those humans that bear genetic markers of a closer relationship to the aliens, whom the aliens consider family. Marianne’s grown children all play roles as well. Kress pays scant attention to the convulsions of a world approaching what may well be its end, and the emotions of her characters are not sufficiently developed. But she plays out the biological issues she has set up with rigor, which is perhaps why her ending is telegraphed well in advance.
Calendrical Regression by Lawrence M. Schoen is another in his series of stories about The Amazing Conroy and his buffalito, Reggie. (A buffalito is a dog-sized creature that looks like a buffalo and eats literally anything and everything; Reggie loves a good bowl of ball bearings with peanut butter, for instance.) Conroy is on vacation, not in some luxurious spot on a beach, but in Omaha, Nebraska, indulging in his former career as a stage hypnotist when he is approached by a woman asking for help with regression hypnosis intended to find out how the Mayans knew that aliens would appear on Earth in 2012, as demonstrated by their calendar. Things get more complicated when a Svenkali appears and attempts to assassinate the woman. After the attempt is foiled, the woman reveals that she is the Uary, the hereditary enemy of the Svenkali for more than five billion years. And the complications continue to pile on, with some weird time travel through hypnosis thrown in for good measure. It’s light fun told in a breezy style, and if it ultimately doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, well, at least you had a good time reading it.
Mary Rickert’s “The Mothers of Voorhisville,” published on Tor.com, is a marvelously weird story about a town full of women who are all seduced by Jeffrey, a stranger to their town, regardless of their age or the state of their marriages. Every one of them becomes pregnant, no matter their age or birth control method. All give birth in unbelievable pain, more, we are led to believe, than that of normal labor, but the labor is short. Every baby has Jeffrey’s blue, blue eyes — and functioning wings. This is the story of the pregnancies, the deliveries, the infancies of the babies, and how the babies ultimately take flight. It’s a very strange and wonderfully imaginative story.
My favorite novella, though, is Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine, another Tachyon publication. It’s inspired by Lovecraft and is firmly set in the Cthulhu Mythos but it isn’t by any means a pastiche; the style is fresh and new, and the story is original despite a few familiar elements. I was taken by Gregory’s exploration of how small groups work, particularly in the context of group psychotherapy. Dr. Jan Sayer has assembled a group of deeply damaged individuals who have survived horrible experiences, many of them with especially depraved serial killers: “If they’d gone through a fraction of the shit that Harrison had,” one group member thinks, “that had to be Very Special Trauma indeed. The traumas of most of the group members have had something to do with monsters that do not seem to be part of our consensual reality. And the monsters haven’t left for good. Gregory works out how the group bonds, from a fairly hostile beginning, ultimately facing one of the monsters directly. It’s written so matter-of-factly that one hardly doubts the sanity of any of these group members despite the outrageous things they say they have experienced, in a shifting first person plural voice that shifts from person to person, but often stays in Harrison’s voice. Harrison, we are told, was at Dunnsmouth ten years ago, and though we are not told what happened there, we are given to believe that it was horrible indeed. (“Dunnsmouth” is a particularly fine touch, combining the names of two places in which Lovecraft set his stories, Dunwich and Innsmouth.) The characters are all fully imagined, and they all have extensive back stories that are dropped into the narrative as needed, without ever bogging down the action. I plan to read more Gregory now, especially Harrison Squared, which came out this past March and deals with Harrison’s earlier adventures.
It’s unusual for an explicitly horror novella to be chosen for the Nebula Award, though several pieces brushing up against horror have won (Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, for instance, and Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog”). But this should be the year, in my estimation, despite the fact that Gregory is facing stiff competition, especially from Swirsky and Liu. We’ll know in a few hours if I’m right, but even if I’m not, I recommend all these novellas for your close reading and enjoyment.
I think you made the right call.
Nancy Kress is more of an “idea writer” than a “character writer” to me.
In other news, I want a buffalito! I think I love Reggie.
Well, I’m 1 for 4 in my calls (I was rooting for The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison for the novel win, though I did like Jeffrey VanderMeer’s Annihilation, which won). Nancy Kress won in this category, which I thought unlikely both because of her recent wins and because I didn’t think this novella was her best work. I got the short story category wrong altogether, though I did like the winner. However! I short of got the novelette winner right, saying that “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” by Alaya Dawn Johnson was one of two stories I was torn between.