short story nominees part 1

“Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein (Analog January/February 2005)

Burstein gets two nominations this year, including this lightweight entry that I think must be tangentially related to Analog’s anniversary, since it appears in the 75th anniversary issue and has the word “seventy-five” in the title. Schmidt’s editorial in the same issue refers briefly to the span of time and how he just made it into the editor’s office before the 50th anniversary back in 1980. The story also uses as its premise the passage of time, in the sense of how it’s not what it used to be. I assume this is a real law Burstein references that allows census records of specific individuals to be made public after 72 years, the law being so old that the assumption was the person would almost assuredly be dead by then. The story details a conversation between a Massachusetts senator 100 years in the future and his ex-wife. The senator wants to extend this time limit to 75 years, and his ex has figured out why. If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound very exciting, well it’s not, but the point being made has more to do with the mutability of ethics laws and how they can have far-reaching consequences beyond the initial controversy that may surround them (for one, the Massachusetts angle is played upon for the gay marriage thing in the story). The prose is a bit clunky, heavily reliant on dialog that sounds a bit forced at times, not on the Locus list, not an award-winner, but a decent idea imaginatively executed.

“Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan (Black Juice, Allen & Unwin; Eos)

Lanagan came out of left field (or more precisely, Australia) two years ago and created a huge buzz with a book of short stories that I don’t think had been published previously. As I understand it, they mostly deal with aboriginal or African settings (I would’ve thought she was black herself, but she isn’t), and this story, the first in the book, was thought by many to be the best. Spectacularly well-told, the story details the emotions of a family whose grown daughter is being put to death by standing in a tar pit until it swallows her up. The other members of her family are required to sit around her on mats and talk to her as she slowly sinks into the tar. Her crime, killing her new husband with an axe, is only mentioned obliquely, his family is there too, watching with many others from outside of the pit. Told from the perspective of the younger brother, Lanagan strikes an authentic note with the dialog and general patois and rhythm of the prose that makes it so convincingly “aboriginal”. Technically this isn’t really sf, while there’s no direct reference to an established culture that practices this method of justice, it could really happen, I would think, it’s a more plausible society than Jackson’s “The Lottery”, which could be considered a direct antecedent. This story puts forth a unique idea in a unique way and stays with you, all the hallmarks of a story worthy of an award, I think it’s the one to beat.

“Down Memory Lane” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s April/May 2005)

Also not a Locus nominee, this story spends most of its 8 pages as a conventional tale of an elderly couple coming to grip with the wife’s onset of Alzheimers, the meetings with doctors, the gradual deterioration of her memory. Told from the point of view of the husband, it does a credible job of conveying the bond between the couple even as her illness takes hold, and how despondent he is over his inability to do anything about it. The challenge comes in the last quarter of the story, when he takes matters into his own hands by seeking out a clinic in Central America that is apparently soliciting subjects to test a potential cure for dementia by first giving them something that causes the same effects as the real thing. Why exactly they do it this way instead of using real sufferers of the disease is not explained, and because the story is told in first person, it necessarily veers into “Flowers for Algernon” territory as the narrator gradually loses his cognitive ability. You could say it has a happy ending, but since it’s not the copout of a miraculous cure, it can only be the opposite. This was a decent story from the perennial nominee, I’m not sure if the choice of first person ultimately works, maybe the doctor’s POV would’ve made more sense, but I’m sure Resnick tells it this way for a reason, in a way putting you into the head of someone who has made the choice to temporarily lose his memory, and by the end is blissfully unaware of that choice or that his memory isn’t coming back.

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