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:
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


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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1 Comment

Nicky Drayden
May 10, 2010 at 9:17 am

The book is awesome, by the way. A great read!



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