Review #13: Non-Zero Probabilities by N. K. Jemisin

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Feb 28, 2010 in Reviews

Red GatePhoto by Chi King Creative Commons

Author Website: nkjemisin.com
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine, Sept 2009

The Story:

Every morning, Adele prepares herself for battle. She prays to the gods of her ancestors, bathes in fragrant herbs, then piles on her armor — trinkets such as the Saint Christopher medal her mother gave her, a hair clasp that doubles as a badge of courage, and a lucky pair of worn panties she’s particularly fond of. As Adele walks to work, she keeps an eye out for others who might not have taken care to protect themselves as dutifully as she does.

Her mistrust of public transportation is justified yet again when an elevated train jumps its track just a few blocks away. A tragedy, yes. A freak occurrence, yes. But accidents happen all the time, right? In New York City, these freak occurrences are piling up. The Lottery went bankrupt from too many winners. The Knicks made it all the way to the Finals and the Mets clenched the Series. People with cancer and AIDS are being spontaneously cured. It’s no wonder why tourists are flocking here for a taste of luck.

Too bad nobody told them they’ve got an equal chance of being brained by an improperly installed window A/C unit or roasted inside an exploding tour bus. In this time of certain uncertainty, people cling onto faith and superstition and whatever else will get them through the day. A fitting story for my thirteenth review…

The Craft: Beginnings

SPOILERS

The first paragraph opens with Adele preparing for battle with an odd mash of rituals. She prays to the Christian god and to those of her African ancestors. She bathes in a mix of herbs that leave her smelling like coffee and pumpkin pie. Then she adorns herself in personal trinkets that give her the protection and courage to face her day. The reader in quickly sucked into the story by these rich, odd, tantalizing details and by the undercurrent of humor. The parentheticals set a light tone, and the reader is left wondering what dangers Adele expects to encounter.

That danger immediately presents itself in the following few paragraphs when an elevated train jumps the track and crashes a few blocks away. The scene is compact, but full of details that touch the senses and give the reader a good feel for space in this urban setting. Adele battles her emotions as she goes to help, but can’t help feeling like the crash victims brought this on themselves. The last line of the scene sums it up brilliantly:

“They should have known better. The probability of a train derailment was infinitesimal. That meant it was only a matter of time.”

Obviously things are going wonky in this world, and if this scene doesn’t hook you in, I don’t know what will.

The next scene continues with more tasty details and humor, but we also get a sense of what’s really going on in her world, as her neighbor across the hall demonstrates, throwing snake eyes after snake eyes with a pair of dice. Crossing his fingers has some effect, though it doesn’t totally ward off the weird that is ravaging New York City. Adele takes the cue and succumbs to superstitions, careful to avoid breaking mirrors and opening her umbrella indoors. She also spends hours looking for four-leaf clovers, real ones, and not the knock-offs they sell in Chinatown.

The plot gets going soon after, centering around “A PRAYER FOR THE SOUL OF THE CITY”, a massive gathering of half a million people meeting at Yankee Stadium to pray the city back into shape. The event is on August 8th, considered a lucky day by the Chinese. But Adele soon realizes that while some people are intent on restoring order, others are embracing the chaos of their new world and adapting. After all, since she’s been walking to work, she’s lost ten pounds and has gotten to know her neighbors for the first time. She embraces the change instead of fearing it — a nice parallel to the times of uncertainty we’re living in today.

Not to sound like an obvious fan girl, but “Non-Zero Probabilities” is one of those stories that makes me glad that this mode of storytelling exists. I enjoyed every bit of it, and it’s no wonder its a Nebula finalist. Also, N. K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms just hit the shelves last week, and you can bet I’ll be seeking out a copy.

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Review #12: The Economy of a Vacuum by Sarah Thomas

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Feb 22, 2010 in Reviews

Moon Through MistPhoto by Ctd 2005 Creative Commons

Published by: Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 2009

The Story:

Virginia has trained hard to be the moon’s first long-term resident. She’s prepared for the vast moments of loneliness punctuated by stardom during her weekly transmissions home to Earth. Not that she’s ever felt particularly tied to one city over another, but she’s American through and through. She even entertains the Vice President who hitched a ride on a supply ship, though his visit is cut short when he receives news that the situation with some foreign country is quickly deteriorating.

Then the supply ship stops coming. It’d been blown up, and there’s no money to replace it. Through a static-filled connection, Virginia reassures the Deputy Director that she’ll be fine. The moonbase is supposed to be self-sufficient after all, and she’s better equipped to be alone up there than any astronaut outside of Russia. The Deputy Director doesn’t have the heart to tell Virginia that there’s no longer a Russia. A few weeks later, Virginia can’t get a connection to the Deputy Director at all.

The Craft: Beginnings

SPOILERS

The story opens up with a clever line about how everyone had wrongly predicted that people would quickly get bored of hearing about the mission. This line really hooked me because of the truth underneath it. Space is pretty boring. It’s forgettable, beyond thirty-second news blips. But as it turns out, people are interested in the human face — Virginia prancing around for the cameras, making the moonbase her own with posters and mementos from home. She’d been allowed to bring everything she wanted, thanks to the efficiency of the Valero thermocakes.

As the next few scenes continue, we discover that Virginia’s mission is more of a giant product placement ad than anything, with Harper-Doubleday donating a shelf of books and Benjamin Moore donating buckets of paint for which Virginia has to come up with creative uses. This scenario, as funny as it reads, strikes a chord with me. For a project like this to be economically feasible, you can bet there’d be corporations ready to drop big bucks on this mission. Why be the official sponsor of a sports stadium when you could have your name plastered across an entire moonbase?

Despite the minor inconveniences that distract Virginia from her work, things are going pretty well. The hydroponic garden is blooming, her experiments are producing results, and she’s had no detrimental health effects due to space exposure. Here we get some good grounding details and build up some setting right before all hell breaks loose. In the span of a few sentences, we go from Virginia having the time of her life to a world war. Virginia soon finds herself cut off from Earth. The reader gets a sneak peak into what’s going on through the Deputy Director’s eyes. We know despite his calmness as he speaks to Virginia that his world is about to end. This POV shift was a little awkward for me, but I enjoyed the insight that it brought, and I savored having a bit of knowledge that Virginia didn’t.

This story is high in concept and setting. From the very beginning, the character comes off as secondary, and we get to see why in the second part of this story. Virginia goes mad and her sense of self becomes entangled in the moonbase itself as she paints every surface until she has a fractal of chessboards, her mind too fluid to play just one game at a time. And just when it seems she’s got no mind left to lose, she gets some visitors, one of whom will prove that she does.

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Review #11: The City of Unrequited Dreams by Claude Lalumière

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Feb 21, 2010 in Reviews

Venera at nightPhoto by Ray Tibbitts

Author Website: http://lostmyths.net/
Published by: Chizine, 2010

The Story

It’s been four years since anyone’s heard from Vittorio, when his gift of fine Veneran chocolates shows up for our narrator’s seventeenth birthday. The box’s contents are quick to ignite unrealized passions and awaken old memories of a kiss shared between the two before Vittorio and his family disappeared without even saying goodbye. Not much is known about the mysterious European city-state of Venera, but our narrator takes it upon himself to find out as much as he can. When he finds a clue — a picture of Vittorio in the coffee table book 1001 Days and Nights in Venera by Petra Maxim — nothing will stop him from reaching this surreal land of decadence and beauty.

The Craft: Beginnings

SPOILERS

This story opens with our nameless narrator receiving a box of fine chocolates from his best friend Vittorio, of whom no one’s heard a word from in the four years since he moved away. A photo accompanies the gift, a picture of Vittorio on a colorful rooftop with the Mediterranean in the background, identified as the fabled island state of Venera. The only note wishes our narrator Happy Birthday, and nothing else. There’s a subtle desperation in the narrator’s voice, without being angsty, which hooks me in quickly. Four years and the only thing your best friend has to say is Happy Birthday? Ouch. I’m also intrigued by this fabled island state of Venera.

The rest of the first scene reveals more about our narrator, and how broken he was by Vittorio’s sudden disappearance. The taste of vermilion in the gifted delicacies is enough to plunge the narrator into a sensual, tactile fantasy — dreams of the could-have-beens if their friendship hadn’t been cut short, leaving only questions and bittersweet memories. It’s hard not to be pulled into this story with the raw emotions and vulnerability of the narrator sharing such an intimate moment.

In the next two scenes, his obsession overruns his life, to the point he gives up thoughts of attending college and his parents threaten to kick him out of the house. Still, his focus stays on finding Vittorio and discovering more about this mysterious Venera. He finally comes across a picture of Vittorio in a coffee table book, and with that clue, he empties his father’s bank accounts and books the first flight to Europe. The stage is set now, a heavily character-oriented piece with a solid motivation.

This story is a bit of a tease, lots of questions and no answers. We never get to experience Venera through the narrator’s eyes, and never find out Vittorio’s fate. Venera pushes him away no matter which way he approaches the city. But the fun of it is watching him squirm, seeing the lengths he’ll go through to find Vittorio, and the long shot plans he implements only for a small chance of reaching the mysterious city. The beginning of this story hooked me into the narrator’s plight effectively, and I was more than willing to go on this meandering journey with him.

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