For some reason I never get around to reading as much short fiction as I'd like. Collections and anthologies are a pain in the backside to review so I tend to go for novels instead. It's a shame given the huge amount of quality short fiction out there. So this week I tried to read as many short stories as I could find time for. I used this year's Nebula awards as a guideline. All of these stories can be read for free online.
Our Lady of the Open Road - Sarah Pinsker
the author's website. It is a near future science fiction story. The main characters are members of one of the few bands still touring. A technology called StageHolo can give you a performance right into your living room. People don't go out to see musicians any more, and bars can get holographic projections of the biggest stars to their stage, putting the smaller bands out of business. For some people, performing live music is more than a profession however. The ageing guitarist Luce refuses to give in to the temptation of recording with StageHolo or just calling it quits. They go on, no matter what.
Pinsker is a musician as well and in part Our Lady of the Open Road is a love letter to the touring way of live. To the crappy van, the even crappier food and the great music. There's probably a bit of commentary on the state of the current music industry in there as well. Another way to look at it is tied to the observation that in this future people prefer to stay at home rather than go out among strangers. This unwillingness to leave the comfort zone is already visible on the Internet. Various communities are designed to surround yourself with the familiar, the people you know, people who like what you like or who believe what you believe. In Pinsker's future this effect seems to have spread to the physical world as well.
I'm not entirely sure why this story won the award. It works well enough in some ways, but in others it feels lacking, even unfinished. It is written in the first person, from the perspective of Luce. This works well for the most part. Luce is feeling her age but clearly loves to be on the road and play. There is an undercurrent of discontent at the state of the world as well and Pinsker lets it come to the surface when she encounters a representative of StageHolo.
That conflict is the part where the story doesn't deliver unfortunately. Luce is never seriously tempted despite the decent arguments (delivered in a slick sales pitch tone) the representative offers. The climax is a bit rushed, and rather unbelievable. There is a kind of weariness about her in those final paragraphs that sharply contrasts with the Luce on stage. It mutes the end of the story where you would expect anger or determination. I'd say it is good but not great.
Damage - David D. Levine
Tor.com. It is once again a first person perspective, this time from the point of view of a space ship. Levine received Nebula and Sturgeon nominations for it. Damage is something of a space opera. Space stations, a war in space, lots of explosions and so forth. It is also a look at an aspect of war many novels, not just science fiction, conveniently overlook: post traumatic stress.
The main character is a space ship cobbled together from the wrecks of two other ships. It is run by a self-aware artificial intelligence programmed to feel extreme love for its pilot. It is also endowed with human emotions such as fear and pain. Having died twice already, the ship is well beyond any other in terms of war experiences. Its engineer doesn't quite know how to handle it.
Levine draws a parallel with Mary Shelly's classic Frankenstein to convey the mental state of mind of the ship. For the most part it is the violent past that haunts the ship though. It struggles with feelings of loyalty to its pilot, and pride at their achievements in the light of the certainty that the fighting is pointless and the outcome inevitable. The ship is an artificial intelligence and with its programmed properties, it does not quite feel human. If you can bridge that gap and see it as a fully formed character Damage can have quite an impact on the reader. I'm not entirely sure everybody will be able to make that leap though.
Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers - Alyssa Wong
their website. Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is definitely a horror story. The main character is a creature (not sure I would call her human) feeding on the depraved thoughts of others. The darker, the more violent, the better. She hungers for them in a way that can never quite be satisfied.
Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is not a story for the faint of heart. The pleasure she derives from taking in these horrible thoughts is stomach-turning at times. Wong uses a first person point of view in the story and keeps her character human by showing us the struggle between her hunger and her desire for company. Her mother - much more experienced in dealing with the hunger and resigned to her loneliness - tries to guide her to an extent, providing another relationship that keeps the character from being perceived as wholly evil.
As a horror story it is very effective. It is not so much a scary kind of horror but more a creepy kind. Creep you out this story will, as almost all characters are creepy in their own way. With one exception perhaps. If this is your kind of horror, you probably can't do much better than Wong. I was quite impressed with this story.
Cat Pictures Please - Naomi Kritzer
their website. The story could be called science fiction, although it is not heavy on science. The most unusual thing about the story is its perspective. It is written in the first person (this perspective seems to be very popular at the moment) from the point of view of a sentient search engine.
Cat Pictures Please revolves around the realization that most stories about artificial intelligence speak of the dangers. Computers turning on their creators. This search engine (Google is implied but not mentioned by name) is aware of this sentiment and has kept its sentience secret. It doesn't want to be evil and after an exhaustive study of human ethical systems it decides to experiment with doing good.
Kritzer is going for a contrast with the readers' preconception of artificial intelligence. It is portrayed as friendly, almost benevolent, and slightly naive. What it shares with many artificial intelligences in science fiction is that it fails to grasp human nature. It's probably the story in this batch that I enjoyed reading most.
Four very different stories from the Nebula ballot. I picked them more or less at random so it's quite interesting that all of them would be first person narratives and only one of them features a fully human main character. It might be a coincidence of course. Maybe I should have a look at the rest too. Next week it is back to a novel though.