The Golden Age of Science Fiction: “Can These Bones Lie?” by Ted Reynolds
The Analog Award was launched in 1979 for works published in the magazine in the preceding year. The Short Story category was one of the original categories and has been given every year the award has been in existence. It was won the first year by Orson Scott Card for his story “Lifeloop.” In 1980, it was won by Ted Reynolds for his story “Can These Bones Live?” Reynolds was nominated again the following year in the same category for the story “Meeting of Minds.”
Reynolds opens “Can These Bones Live?” with a cliché. His main character awakens and doesn’t know where she is, having to explore the world anew and figure out what is going on. One of her earliest memories is that she has actually died, so she would seem to be in some sort of afterlife. Unfortunately, Reynolds spends too much time working this cliché as his never named viewpoint character continues to move through her uninhabited world, searching for other people, food, or any recognizable landmark. Her sole indication that she is still somewhere on Earth is her ability to recognize the Moon.
Eventually, Reynolds does take his story in a different, and unique direction, although it happens at a leisurely rate and he doesn’t really give the reader a reason to care about his protagonist. Eventually, she falls asleep and begins to commune with the Roanei, an alien race that informs her that humanity has gone extinct and she is the last human. If she requests it, the Roanei can bring humans back from extinction, but if they decide not to, the human race will remain dead.
Over the following months, Reynolds’s protagonist considers whether it is worth bringing humanity back, occasionally formulating questions for them right before falling asleep and receiving answers in her dreams, which reveal the existence of other races which have had these offers made to them and have fallen short in their reasons for wanting their races to be brought back from extinction. It is a strange exercise and the downside of asking the question is never really related, just that she’ll only have one chance and should make the most of it, although she could always choose not to ask for the salvation of the human race.
Considering and rejecting various aspects of human existence as her reason for wanting to have the race brought back to life, she realizes that the Roanei don’t’ care about species artistic or cultural achievement. In the process of forming her dream questions, she learns, not only about the races that the Roanei have made their offer to, but also about the Toomeer, a race which preceded the Roanei and mentored them. When she finally decides to ask the Roanei to bring a race back from extinction, she applies altruism and asks them to bring back the Toomeer, rather than humans.
The ending of the story is a little too pat as the Roanei consider her request and compare it to the sorts of requests they have received in the past. It also isn’t necessarily a decision that flows from Reynolds’s protagonist, who, while not a sociopath or a psychopath, also doesn’t have any particular love for the human race or desire to see its existence extended. Her ultimate request seems more a solution to a puzzle than something she necessarily wants.
“Can These Bones Live?” doesn’t feel particularly innovative, nor is the writing of a particularly high caliber, which makes its selection as the best short story in Analog a bit of a puzzle, as well as its appearance on the Hugo ballot, although if the Analog fans got behind it (as indicated by its position in the Analog poll), it would explain how it could have gotten enough nominating ballots to appear on the ballot, but not enough votes to win.
In 1980, Reynolds’s story beat out Orson Scott Card’s “Breaking the Game,” Jayge Carr’s “In Adam’s Fall,” Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.’s “Old Friends,” and Ian Stewart’s “…And Master of One” to win the second Analog Readers Poll for Short Story.
“Can These Bones Live?” was also nominated for the Hugo Award, losing to George R.R. Martin’s “The Way of Cross and Dragon.” The story finished in 18th place in the Locus Poll, which Martin also won.
Steven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.