2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

YES, I finished reading all the short fiction nominees in time!

More so than the other Nebula short fiction categories, there’s a common theme shared by many of the stories of connecting (or failing to connect) with other humans on an internal, mental level. Three of these stories are from the perspective of artificial intelligence bonding to, caring for, and/or looking after humans’ welfare. Two of these stories take place heavily inside the protagonist’s mind as the result of taking certain drugs.

I’m curious as to the reason behind the selection for this section of the ballot, and a small part of me wonders to what extent the seeming growing interest, or possibly rise, in fiction featuring A.I. protagonists and the boundaries between them and humanity is the result of the popular and critical acclaim of Ann Leckie’s books, The Imperial Radch trilogy. (David D. Levine’s in particular seems to be playing in a similar sandbox.) Regardless, I very much enjoyed reading almost all the stories on the ballot, and even the ones I wasn’t 100% a fan of were still very good.

  • Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed 6/15)
    A short, bittersweet story about loss, mourning the past, and finding a new future, in which a young woman named Madeleine is experiencing strange, incredibly detailed episodes in which she relives her childhood memories of her mother before she died of Alzheimer’s, only she keeps seeing the same unknown figure appearing in her memories. The visual rendering of the memories is evocative and poetic (as per usual with Amal El-Mohtar’s writing), and the description and metaphors surrounding death and grief were equally eloquent.
  • Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
    The Internet just wants to help you. After all, it already knows everything about you, and it has the power to improve your life and make you happier. Isn’t the Internet causing harm through its own inaction by letting humans suffer? So you should really take notice of and click on those ads that keep showing up on your screen about new houses, new jobs, affordable therapists in your area. Listen to the Internet, and all your problems will be fixed. All it wants in return are cat pictures.

    It’s more a conceit than a fully-fledged story, but it’s a really fun conceit. And I loved the Internet’s voice: eager to help, smug at knowing exactly what all humans should be doing, and huffy that humans are incapable of taking it’s help when everything could be perfect if they just did what it says.

  • Damage” by David D. Levine (Tor.com 1/21/15)
    The story I referenced in the Intro, “Damage” is a story told by a fighter vessel nicknamed “Scraps” who’s made up of parts of two different vessels and whose memories of their violent deaths it still has, causing it to grapple with it’s ability to feel emotions and programmed love for its captain withs its programming to carry out inexcusable actions in war. The experience of reading this story is what I imagine it would feel like to be the Vipers that the pilots flew in BSG. It’s an action-packed, emotional story about a ship reconciling who it used to be and who it was programmed to be with who it is.
  • When Your Child Strays From God” by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld 7/15)
    A trippy, horrifying journey into the mind of a middle-aged evangelical Christian wife and mother who takes psychotropic drugs that connect her via “webbing” to the minds of other people on the same drug dose in order to search for her missing son (in more ways than one). It’s an uncomfortable story to read, but that aspect ends up becoming a sign of how well it works as the reader explores the layers of truth and untruth and hidden or suppressed knowledge and feelings of the housewife and mother. There’s an incredibly astute paragraph at the story’s climax about the double-edged nature of empathy as experienced through spiderwebbing that I want to print out and tape to my wall. On the downside, the progression of the story is somewhat convoluted, and it’s also a bit message-y at the end.
  • Today I Am Paul” by Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld 8/15)
    The second Nebula short story nominee to take on the subject of memory and grief, this time prior to actual death. “Paul” is a medical android programmed to build modules of various figures in order to emulate whichever family member or associate the elderly, Alzheimer-afflicted Mildred believes is currently there with her. The more the android emulates these various peoples, the more a nascent identity of the android’s own emerges as he balances fulfilling it’s hospice-care programming and maintaining the psychology of the emanations interacting with Mildred.

    It’s an intriguing piece regarding identity-formation through emotions and relationships, the idea of needing to be a certain kind of person, or a certain person when the other person is in pain. Similar to the A.I. in “Cat Pictures, Please,” the android observes and learns and stores away information regarding human behavior and strives to please certain humans—the meaningful difference is that this android reacts to Mildred’s moods and flickering memory rather than trying to steer her. It’s interesting actually that this android is the only A.I. in all these stories that fulfills its protocols and doesn’t do anything outside its boundaries, yet also has its own internal story arc about identity of how—or who—to be the person, or android, someone needs in times of trouble.

  • Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong (Nightmare 10/15)
    Mmmm, what a succulent story. And now having wrote that sentence I am officially afraid of myself. Written for the “Queers Destroy Horror” edition of the online magazine Nightmare, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” (which is a fantastic title, and everyone should say it out loud at least once) tells the story of a young woman named Jenny who is a monster—she feeds on the harmful, violent, and evil thoughts (obtained through dates on Tindr) in order to survive, but also in order to keep herself from eating the woman she loves. After eating the thoughts of a murderer, she’s famished, unable to find any thoughts as deliciously filling as his until she meets a woman—another monster—who promises her the most potent, pleasurable meals she’s ever tasted.

    This is the first of Alyssa Wong’s stories I’ve read after seeing her work praised to the skies all last year, and dear god if this story is anything to go by, her writing deserves so much praise. Chilling, compelling, so good at the visual manifestations of all these fat, glistening, creepy-crawly thoughts, and causing my heart to break with emotions for Jenny and Aiko.

My vote: This one is so hard, and I’d honestly be thrilled if any were to win (with the possible exception of “When Your Child Strays from God.”) From a writing perspective, all of them are exceedingly good. So going off of pure enjoyment, I’d go with either “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” or “Damage,” with “Cat Pictures Please,” following just behind.

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