SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. In this week’s column, Skye and Tadiana review several of the current crop of 2019 Nebula nominees in the short story and novelette categories.
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen (2019, free at Nightmare Magazine)
This Nebula Award finalist is precisely what the title promises, as it takes the form of ten excerpts from an annotated bibliography.
I thoroughly enjoyed the form of this story — I would almost describe it as delightful, if it weren’t published in Nightmare Magazine and didn’t centre around cannibalism. From the ten excerpts, you get the gist of two related events in history, and then as they are referenced repeatedly you get the opportunity to pick up new details as well as learn of the fallout of both events. I found the form here to be extremely interesting. I enjoyed how it read like a puzzle where through the text and inference a truly horrifying story emerges. I was left with just enough questions to stay interested, and just enough answers to be satisfied with what I found.
I both read this story online as well as listened to the audio version (available on the same page) and I found that both readings lend their own interesting layers to the piece. Reading the text, I thought it was a deliciously (I will not apologize for my word choice there) dark story.
The audio version, however, brought something surprising for me: humour. “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” doesn’t shy away from saying exactly what it thinks about colonialism and patriarchal society, so I found it added an almost tongue-in-cheek layer to the story that the narrator is a man with a proper-sounding English accent. This choice of reader is such a fun juxtaposition to the topics of the story that I was delighted despite (and because of) the dark themes.
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” does a great deal in a small space. Intergenerational trauma, violent othering, and questions of belonging all make appearances in this dark tale. The form lends itself to re-reading, and as the story unravels it becomes more complex than the premise lets on. I’ll be revisiting this story often. ~Skye Walker
From Victorian outrage to feminist declarations, each of the ten works cited in this brief story sheds new light on the cannibalism by the native women of Ratnabar Island, the resulting massacre of the natives by the horrified British explorers, and the aftermath, where two young Ratnabari girls are taken to England and assimilated into British society … but not quite. Sen has put so much thought into the different “works” cited in this story, the era in which they were “written,” and the diverse viewpoints of their authors. I was particularly taken with the wry title of the seventh work, “The Subaltern Will Speak, If You’ll Shut Up and Listen,” an obvious reference to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s seminal 1985 essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” on colonialism. It’s thought-provoking that the last three works in the list let us hear the voices of three of the descendants of the Ratnabari girls taken to England, and that their points of view are not all alike. The fantasy element in “Ten Excerpts” is of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type, but it’s there, adding an additional layer of metaphor to the story.
In Sen’s interview with Nightmare Magazine, she comments that “ ‘Ten Excerpts’ is a pointed middle finger at how colonialism Others and declares monstrous the very cultures it, itself, is in the process of devouring.” That Sen has done that so effectively, with such a very short, satirical story that subverts the hidebound traditions of literary analysis and MLA bibliographical style, is remarkable. ~Tadiana Jones
“The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim (2019, free at Lightspeed)
Saki Jones is in space, above a colony planet called New Mars, where the ruins of an alien civilization were being researched by the colonists. Her “lifelove” partner M.J. had gone ahead of Saki and their grown son Kenzou to help establish the colony. Saki emerged from stasis when their ship arrived at New Mars to find that M.J. and all of the other colonists are dead, apparently of some alien plague. Saki and her crewmates are driven to find out more about what killed the colonists.
To do that they turn to “archronology,” the study of the past through a type of time record, called the Chronicle. It’s a limited type of time travel, enabling you to visit places in the past to view what happened there at a particular time. But the inherent limits of archronology are significant: wherever a person moves in their view of a particular scene from the past, trails of cloudy white permanently blur the original scene.
Layer upon layer of time, a stratified record of the universe. When you visit the Chronicle, you alter it. Your presence muddles the temporal record as surely as an archaeological dig muddles the dirt at an excavation site.
Caroline M. Yoachim’s “The Archronology of Love,” a Nebula Award nominee in the novelette category, raises questions of perception and biases in conducting scientific research, how love and personal connections can drive our decision-making. Intellectually Saki realizes that she should step aside from entering the Chronicle because of her strong emotional attachment to M.J., but she comes up with multiple reasons for not doing so. This story also explores the difficulty of understanding an alien culture (from both sides). Yoachim envisions the Chronicle in a way that is believable, creating an interesting twist on standard time travel stories. Saki’s character is also well-developed (if not so much the secondary characters), pulling the reader into Saki’s personal pain and professional dilemmas. ~Tadiana Jones
The basic plot of “How the Trick is Done” is straightforward, and disclosed in the first few paragraphs: a Vegas magician dies during his most famous trick, the “Bullet-Catch-Death-Cheat,” in which a real gun is fired by an audience volunteer, the magician dies, and then magically reappears alive, somewhere else in the theater. What the audience doesn’t know is that there is real magic involved in the trick. But it’s not the magician’s own magic; it’s done by his girlfriend Angie, who is a Resurrectionist, able to cheat Death, over and over, bringing the dead magician back to life.
Even though we know the end from the beginning, there’s magic in the details of this Nebula-nominated short story, as we come to understand the characters of the magician and those who surround him. The magician is charismatic, with a thousand-watt smile, but utterly self-absorbed. He’s a user and a taker, careless of the lives and feelings of those around him, including his stage manager Rory and his former assistant Meg, both of whom adore him, and Angie, who wasn’t in love with him, but was still pulled into his alluring orbit.
Looking at Meg, Angie sees herself in the mirror. The Magician pulled a trick on both of them, sleight of hand. They should have been looking one direction, but he’d convinced them to look elsewhere as he vanished their names like a card up his sleeve, tucked them into a cabinet painted with stars so they emerged transformed —a dove, a bouquet of flowers, a Resurrectionist, a ghost.
A.C. Wise has a deft way with words and an understanding of human nature and our weaknesses. [Highlight next section to reveal spoiler] I do question whether the magician’s misdeeds were severe enough to warrant what is essentially murder, but he’s such an awful person that it’s hard to sympathize with him. [End spoiler] “How the Trick is Done” is a bittersweet, insightful tale. ~Tadiana Jones
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas (2019, free at Strange Horizons)
This Nebula Award short story finalist is set in colonial India and concerns a native artisan and the beautiful dolls she makes.
The socio-political landscape of this story is well thought out and, frankly, uncomfortable to consider. But I think discomfort is the point. It takes an unflinching look at the horrors of colonialism and problematizes what it means to do horrible things ‘for the greater good’. In this, “And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” is a strong, succinct, clear narrative.
Where this story didn’t work for me is in its plot. I found that the revenge story was somewhat formulaic. While it was being told in a thoughtful setting, it still felt like a beat-for-beat telling of a basic revenge plot. The predictability took me out of the narrative, and even the stark setting couldn’t pull me back in.
There is a rage to this story that is well warranted and carries through to the inevitable end. I have absolutely no doubt that it will be a stand-out Nebula finalist for other readers. ~Skye Walker
“Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt (2019, free at Clarkesworld Magazine)
As you can tell from my rating, I wasn’t thrilled by this Nebula Award finalist. “Give the Family My Love” is the story of one astronaut’s mission to save Earth from itself, told as a set of voice memos she transmits to her brother back home.
I liked the format and the overall tone of the story. The main character’s stream-of-consciousness narrative and how she speaks to her brother conveys the nature of their relationship well. The form also served to deliver great tension in the first part of the story.
Unfortunately, I felt the initial tension was undermined by the rest of the story. The beginning read to me like a foreboding horror story, but as the tale progressed, the tension of the first transmission never has any real follow-through. As I read on, I was confused about the shift. I started to think the author was performing a bait-and-switch and the payoff would jump out at me when I least expected it, but that was not the case. As the story concluded I was left with the distinct impression that if you cut this story into two — one very short horror story with an ambiguous ending, and one longer story about humanity and hope — you may actually get two clearer narratives.
I also had issue with many of the metaphorical aspects of the story. I found that many of the ways the author conveyed which characters had hope for the future of Earth and which didn’t were heavy-handed or so on-the-nose as to be reductive. Highlight here for a description of one such instance that contains spoilers: The biggest example of this for me is that our main character talks about having had an abortion, which serves as a metaphor for her lack of hope for the future. This is then contrasted with her brother and his wife, who have been trying to have a child and have had several miscarriages — which of course symbolizes their unwavering hope for the future. I found that these contrasting metaphors between the two characters were not only unnecessary, as at this point in the story we already know where each stands on the concept of hope, but also severely reductive about both choosing to have an abortion and how traumatic having a miscarriage (let alone many!) can be. [End spoilers]
This story is very ‘right now’ in the sense that it is talks about environmental disaster, listening to scientists, and having (or not having) hope for the future. However, these themes are muddied by the almost-unrelated opening, as well as some cumbersome metaphors later in the story. “Give the Family My Love” didn’t work for me, and while normally an interesting set of characters can pull me in as a reader, this story’s protagonist didn’t quite make up for its shortcomings. ~ Skye Walker