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The Nebulation: Short Stories

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

When I became eligible to become a member of SFWA last year I thought about it long and hard and finally decided to join. I forget why, now. The experience hasn’t exactly been a bad one–it’s been oddly non-experiential, as a matter of fact. For instance, you may have noticed that the final ballot for this year’s Nebulas was recently announced, here… and here (and elsewhere). The information content is not identical on these apparently official pages, and they don’t seem to be aware of each other’s existence. There is no link to an actual ballot where one might actually vote (here or apparently in the members-only section of the site), or any information on the deadline for voting. I queried for info at the “query for info” email address; I was told that I’d be told when the final ballots were mailed. Old school mail: carried by weary snails and weighed down with stamps and stuff.

I am a traditionalist, and all that. But maybe not all that. The thing is, I like the snails pretty well, but they don’t seem to be able to find my house reliably. Email is faster, more reliable, cheaper, more check-backable. Why not use it? Are we not Living in the Future? Also, doesn’t SFWA know now when the votes are due? Why can’t they tell us? Why not have, say, one page with all the relevant info or links between all relevant pages? Where shall wisdom be found? Where is the place of understanding?

You practically can’t be an SFWA member unless you’re kvetching about something, so there’s my kvetch of the day.

But to celebrate my first and possibly last Nebula vote, I thought I’d read as much of the nominated work as I can and inflict it on share it with you readers of the Blog Gate. This week: short stories.

Ruth Nestvold, “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide”

A story almost entirely implied through a series of infodumps: very ingenious. Still, it was pretty easy to see where the story was going from the start, and there were vanishingly scant details to personalize the predicament of the unnamed person in the story. Also, this is only part of a plot: a problem, without any narration of how that problem was confronted (or even by whom). I know there are some people (James Wood is their idol) who think plot is a trivial element in a story, and I know that they are wrong.

James Patrick Kelly, “Don’t Stop”

Thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop. It’ll soon be here. Lather, rinse, repeat. The 90s will never be over. You will never escape. Never. Someone named Bush or Clinton will always be president. That election you remember? A dream. You will wake up and find Willary George Walkbert Clush V has been acclaimed President-for-Life. Wake up. Wake up!

Thank God that has nothing to do with the story at hand, but I was kind of worried it did, especially when they story starts with the viewpoint character seeing dead people through, oh, I don’t know, a sort of sixth sense. Indeed, there’s not a lot of novelty, here: none of the fantastic content in the story would have been especially fresh after Theodore Sturgeon wrote “Shottle Bop,” but Kelly managed to make it matter (for the main character and for me, too, I guess).

Gwyneth Jones, “The Tomb Wife”

The Lar’sz’… Please don’t look at me like that; I hate extraneous apostrophes as much as the next reader, assuming the next reader has a serious hate on for them. Anyway–it says here, the Lar’sz’ are an ancient, almost extinct people who had an interesting custom: occasionally a widow would move into the tomb of her beloved dead and live out the rest of her life (and sometimes afterlife) there. One of those tombs is being transported to a museum exhibit on another world. Eldritch consequences ensue, naturally.

I thought this story took a bit too long to make its point, but it did end up having one. I didn’t think the alien names in the story were well-coined. (Apart from the extruding apostrophes, the principal alien is named Sigurt; I kept waiting to see if his sweetheart Brynhilt would show up.) But some of the background stuff, not strictly necessary for the story, was kind of interesting: this universe might be worth another visit.

The burial customs reminded me a little of the Greco-Roman practice of leaving gifts of food at tombs, and the story of the Tomb Wife herself seems to echo the ancient Milesian tale of the Widow of Ephesus. (No, I am never off the clock on that classics gig.)

Kij Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss”

Life is absurd, and involves monkeys, or so this story persuasively argues. I liked it.

Jeffrey Ford, “The Dreaming Wind”

Every fall, the Dreaming Wind comes and changes things around town–usually the changes last just for a while; sometimes they’re permanent. It’s a nuisance. Then it stops. That’s worse. An inventive story with some nice writing (“The grass never remained green, the sky never blue but became other colors and sometimes different consistencies like water, or jam or once, a golden gas that coalesced our exhalations into the spectral forms of dead relatives who danced the Combarue in the town square” etc)… and some rather awkward pedantic writing (“What is a dream, but a state founded enough upon the every day to be believable to the sleeping mind and yet also a place wherein anything at all might and often does happen” etc).

Mike Allen, “The Button Bin”

It’s narrated in the present tense, which struck me as a little affected. The viewpoint character in this story has two related problems, and confronts them: there is motion in this story, and that appealed to me; things happen. I hated the viewpoint character so much by the story’s end that I thought of it as a happy ending. There is a good monster in this story, a very good monster.

None of these stories struck me as the best thing I’d ever read and there was an aspiring sameness about them; they all feel sort of workshopped, if you know what I mean. But they all have their merits. If I had to vote today (and for all I know I should) I’d probably punch the old chad for Johnson’s “26 Monkeys.” Then deliver it to the SFWA Mansion by carrier pigeon because we scientifictioneers are very up-to-date in our methods.

[“Trophy Wives” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film because there was no e-version available to SFWA members. Is it fair to exclude a story from consideration on this basis? On balance, I think so. If I manage to lay hands on a copy of the story before the voting deadline (whenever that may be) I’ll let you know what I think. Because I can tell you’re waiting for that with bated breath. (Bated breath always sounds like snoring, or so I am willing to believe.)]


  1. I was surprised to read “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” in F&SF, and even more surprised to see it on the ballot. While I found it clever and amusing, I thought it was too long for the joke since it was obvious where it was going.

    I googled “The Tomb Wife” to find my response. “I wouldn’t have missed out on anything by not reading this story.”

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - March 4, 2009 10:36 am

  2. I should add that I thought “The Tomb Wife” issue of F&SF was a good one, with that being the only story I didn’t think worth reading.

    I’m not surprised the story made the ballot, though. For many I discussed it with, it was their favorite story in the issue.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - March 4, 2009 12:43 pm

  3. How do you pronounce an apostrophe at the end of a word?

    Is it just like a forced silence, or something?

    Comment by braak - March 4, 2009 1:48 pm

  4. Hey Jeff–My reaction may be colored by my perception of submerged classical content. That initiates a reflexive enthusiasm on my part (whether the perception is valid or not). I did think the bit about evolution being a form of fundamentalism in the future was sort of funny. (Not that I’m anti-Darwin, or anything. But today’s fundamentalism is usually yesterday’s cutting edge innovation.)

    Hey braak: The only sense I can make of an apostrophe used as a letter would be as a glottal stop, which practically has to precede or follow a vowel. I can’t really can’t understand what one is doing at word’s end or between consonants. I suspect they got tossed in there for a little visual excitement and no one is really supposed to understand how they’re pronounced. Which is why they bug me: uncontrolled apostrophication is one of the seven warning signs of amateurish writing.

    Comment by James Enge - March 4, 2009 3:44 pm

  5. Well, in the middle I can hear it has a kind of a hitch in the word, like a short silence between two sounds. But this would be, obviously, imperceptible at the end of a word.

    Comment by braak - March 4, 2009 4:47 pm

  6. On second thought Lar’sz’ reads like the sort of thing Iucounu says under the influence of the evil Achenarian space crab in Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld.

    “What is your preference: ‘sz-mzsm’ or ‘szk-zsm’? […] all must now transpire in the ‘mnz’ pattern…”

    Except that’s supposed to be funny, and I’m pretty sure we’re supposed the take the Lar’sz’ seriously.

    I think from now on I’m going to pronounce any inexplicable apostrophe as “VOOM-bah!” That’ll make the stories more fun to read aloud, anyway.

    Comment by James Enge - March 5, 2009 1:41 am

  7. It’s Old High Vulcan and doesn’t translate well into English. However, I’m told that native speakers of Classical Gibberish have no problem mastering the proper inflection.

    Comment by brb - March 5, 2009 6:49 pm

  8. “It’s Old High Vulcan and doesn’t translate well into English”

    Ah–maybe the apostrophes stand for ear-twitches then.

    Comment by James Enge - March 5, 2009 7:09 pm

  9. When in doubt, I just ask myself, “How would Victor Borge have read this?”

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - March 5, 2009 8:45 pm

  10. Ok, I have to stand up for apostrophes. I mean, they have a legitimate orthographic use, and I am speaking here of real languages, not of fiction, where they might be less justified. Many of the languages of the north Pacific coast, for example, have one or more series of glottalized consonants and use apostrophe. This is distinct from glottal stop. We have glottalization in English but it is not phonemic (i.e., perceived as a meaningful sound unit)–for instance many people glottalize /m/ at the beginnnings of words, but it doesn’t affect the meaning (e.g., as in moon).

    Kwak’wala has a glottalized version of most every voiceless stop and affricate and some sonorants. It can also have syllabified nasals or laterals (i.e. syllables with no phonemic vowels), so you could have words with only (orthographically) consonants and apostrophes. Alas, I didn’t bring any reference materials with me to the UAE and my brain is blank at the moment. OK, here’s one: ‘nmsg_m, “one bulky object” (underline=uvular g).

    Geekery over.

    Comment by Judith Berman - March 5, 2009 11:56 pm

  11. Some Polynesian languages use apostrophes to encode sounds, too; I’d never say they don’t exist, and I suppose I should have taken syllabic consonants into account. But I don’t see any of the phonological environments you’re talking about in Lar’sz’.

    Maybe I’m being unreasonable about this. But it looks to me like the apostrophes were slapped into the word without that much thought just to distort its too-close resemblance to Lazarus.

    Comment by James Enge - March 6, 2009 1:40 am

  12. @Judith: Oh, well, yeah. That obviously. Phonematized glottalization, duh–who doesn’t know about that stuff?

    Hm. I just wrote a short story with an excessive use of apostrophes, to stand in for sounds that I know I can make, but that I don’t know how to spell. How do you signify the sound that you do when you put the back of your tongue against your uvulua, and then sort of drop it down, like you’re making the “glug” sound when you poor water out of a pitcher–but voicelessly?

    Comment by braak - March 6, 2009 2:06 pm

  13. You could invent a consonant cluster to represent the sound (e.g. “dd” for voiced “th” in Welsh, which makes a lot more sense than English orthography). Heinlein did this for Martian in Double Star, I think. Of course, you’d have to explain them if you want people to hear it the way you do (but I think you’d have to do that anyway). So it becomes an exposition problem: is this important or interesting enough to infodump or not?

    “gjg” might work for your “glug” sound, for instance. Or you could try diacritical marks, e.g. “ǧ” or “ĝ”. But I’d be wary of apostrophes; rightly or wrongly, they raise a red flag for lots of readers (not just me).

    Comment by James Enge - March 6, 2009 2:30 pm

  14. Oooh, the diacritical marks, that’s a good idea.

    Comment by braak - March 6, 2009 2:40 pm

  15. […] Enge on the Nebula short fiction nominees: short stories, novelettes and […]

    Pingback by Link Across The Sky « Torque Control - March 23, 2009 10:04 am

  16. […] (which began forty two billion subjective years ago with a look at the Nebula nominees for short stories, continuing with the novelettes and the novellas). But I should be able to post on the rest of them […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Nebunovels I (The Nebulation Begins to End) - March 26, 2009 3:03 am

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