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 #6: Spar by Kij Johnson

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jan 19, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: www.kijjohnson.com
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine, October 2009

The Story:

Despite the sexually explicit nature of this story, it is more a chronicle of the mind and madness of a woman forced to share a cramped, dank lifeboat with a non-humanoid alien. After an unlikely mid-space collision tears apart her ship and kills her lover Gary, she finds herself in a lifeboat ill-equipped for humans. The ship consists of a tube for feeding and another for refuse, beyond which is only the alien — something like a pungent jello-mold with cilia. The only diversion from their unending days adrift is the act of constantly raping each other.

The Craft:
SPOILERS

Written in a series of twenty compact scenes, some as short as a single sentence, this story quickly immerses the reader in the awfulness of being trapped in a bad situation from which there is no escape. Nothing changes. There is only anger and resentment and vengeful sex with an alien she’s not even sure is sentient or some sort of alien houseplant. It doesn’t attempt to communicate with her, only forces its Outs into her Ins while she does the same to it. And sadly, this sparring is preferable to trying to remember the pleasures that life used to hold.

Structurally, the sentences are short and choppy for the most part, and the tone of the story comes off as mechanical and repetitive, and sort of leaves you feeling seasick, but in a good way. It encompass what life must be like for the character. Her situation degrades, though her mind keeps going back to Gary, shedding a light on the humanity she finds is quickly vanishing. By the time the ship arrives at its destination, she is so lost, not even knowing what she is anymore, and all because of a random and infinitely improbable collision in space.

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Review #2: The Grandmother-Granddaughter Conspiracy by Marissa Lingen

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jan 7, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: http://www.marissalingen.com
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine, December 2009

The Story:

The Grandmother-Granddaughter Conspiracy is a sweet story about Dr. Hannah Vang, a marine xenobiologist on a mission to prove advanced intelligence in a native species of cephalopod on a sparsely settled human colony. The moral stakes are high, since if she fails, the local government will take a portion of the cephalopods’ habitat to cultivate edible aquiculture.

Hannah has problems brewing at home as well. Her mother Dee is suffering from injury-related memory loss which could be easily treated on more populous colonies, but with the limited resources of their home planet, Dee must use an often-faulty memory augmenter that has already fractured their family and is a heavy burden on both Hannah and her daughter Lily.

The Craft:
SPOILERS

I’m a sucker for all things tentacle, so I got pulled into the story pretty quickly. The Grandmother-Granddaughter Conspiracy opens with a slight buildup for Hannah, then immediate disappointment as her squid-like alien experiment fails to remember the solution to a puzzle. The story raises an interesting question of what constitutes higher intelligence, as the squid frequently use tools to get what they want, however, they don’t appear to communicate or have any sort of long-term memory.

The story then segues nicely into Hannah’s personal life, where her own mother’s memory loss has caused Hannah’s husband to move to the other side of town after several frustrating incidents with the authorities, since every time Dee’s memory augmenter pops out, she thinks he’s an intruder. Fortunately, Hannah’s daughter Lily seems to pick up the slack, working closely with her grandmother, building the bond that leads them into their well-meaning conspiracy against Hannah.

The story itself is straightforward, nothing fancy done with the plot or the characters, but its strength lies in the philosophical questions it poses, which are fun to muse about. I enjoyed that Hannah’s mother and daughter got together to help solve the problem, though their solution did seem to come a little out of left field. I would have liked to have seen more buildup to their solution and more mystery as to where they were running off to behind Hannah’s back.

In the end, we’re left wondering not only if Hannah will be able to save the squids’ habitat, but also the true extent of the squids’ intelligence, leaving the reader with endless possibilities to ponder.

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