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 #7: Ambient Morgue Music by Richard Howard

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jan 30, 2010 in Reviews

Published by: Weird Tales, Fall 2009

The Story:

In this story, a music reviewer named Ed receives mysteriously wonderful lo-fi music by CD every month, entitled Ambient Morgue Music, which is accompanied by a photograph of a dead body and a handful of dirt. After weeks of searching, he’s finally able to track down the artist, who as it turns out, lives just up the road near Phoenix Park. But things start getting weird for Ed when he realizes that he’s never been to this park, Dublin’s largest, even though it’s so close by. Come to think of it, nobody he knows has ever talked about going to the park. Ed puts these qualms aside to investigate so he can find the source of the fantastic tracks he’d been listening to.

Ed arrives at the park, disturbed to see a colossal monument that he’d never noticed before. He’s met by Dessy, a normal-looking guy who takes him into primitive village that is anything but. When Ed gets closer, he notices that although they live in tin shanties and roast deer on a spit, the locals appear to fit squarely into the mid twenty-first century with their clothing and tech gadgets. It’s here that Ed meets Sean, the true composer of the songs Ed has enjoyed.

The Craft:
SPOILERS

Ambient Morgue Music is one of the stranger concepts that I’ve come across in a while. The story turns the purpose of the Olympics on its head — the event that’s supposed to bring people across the world together is tearing families and communities apart. Those displaced from their homes during the construction of the stadium and parking garages have made a new home of Phoenix Park, but apparently the influx of tech devices during the Dublin Olympics caused “some kind of gravity field” that left all but three of their people permanently trapped there for the past twenty years. Yes, there’s a little hand-wavium going on here, but I liked the concept and the characters, so I bit.

Sean shows Ed where he makes his music (the reptile cages at the deserted Dublin Zoo), and more importantly, how he makes his music: by taping the sounds of gas expelled from dead bodies and mixing them into grooving tunes on his computer. Ed is too dumbfounded to have a reaction, but he snags a new demo CD of some experimental dead giraffe beats, so who is he to question anyway? Ed goes home, listens to the music, and writes a piece (this story) about his adventure.

The voice is solid and smooth throughout, definitely an easy read. And I love the idea that there could be a whole-nother city within a city that no one notices. Only thing is, I don’t understand why Ed was able to leave if there was the gravity field. For me, the fact that this key logic bit wasn’t fully addressed kept me from feeling completely satisfied with the story. It could have added a little tension to the latter half of the story, but overall it was enjoyable, gross, and fun.

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