2012 Reading Challenge, book 6: Dead Men Don’t Cry
I first heard about Nancy Fulda’s work through Escape Pod‘s recording of her short story “Movement.” It was a haunting, sad piece with such an expressive reading that I was awestruck. It appears that others agree since the story was recently nominated for a Nebula award.
Dead Men Don’t Cry is an anthology of her short stories. Instead of following the “like/dislike” format of earlier book reviews, I’ll discuss each story individually and then provide an overview.
Pastry Run: I’m a sucker for funny stories, so this was a pleasant opener to the collection. Space travel is normally treated with such solemnity in science fiction that it’s nice to see Fulda popping the balloon and showing us the more mundane possibilities it offers. Like, say, a daily run delivering fresh pastries to the moon. The space travel technology described is fairly standard, but the absurdity of it all is polished to a high sheen when you add elements like traffic jams and impatient old French ladies.
Dead Men Don’t Cry: Political intrigue abounds between extra-terrestrial colonies and Earth, now an aggressive home world. An assassination attempt has been made on an ambassador from Earth on the eve of a controversial peace treaty. However, the would-be assassin’s protege, a high-ranking bureaucrat, believes in his now-dead mentor’s innocence and has been tasked with uncovering the truth. It’s not a bad story, but I felt like I was being introduced to too many characters and too much information too quickly.
Blue Ink: Jason is a 6-year-old boy nervous about being cloned. Is the procedure painful? Will people forget about him in the cloning chamber? Most importantly, will his clone be happy doing all of the menial tasks that he won’t have to do himself? All Jason wants is to meet his clone and talk to him. But when Jason wakes up from the cloning procedure, things aren’t quite as he expected… This is a good short story with a realistic-sounding main character, interesting technology, and more than a smidgen of class commentary.
Backlash: Is changing the events of the past ever justified? In this story, the main character is (unsuccessfully) hijacked by his older self from 40 years in the future to prevent a terrorist attack and the eventual collapse of the United States. This story was the weakest of the collection – it contained too much technobabble about the technology that would make this type of time travel possible and too much action for me to feel fully immersed in it. It might have worked better if it had been given room to breathe in novella form.
Monument: A very short but evocative piece about how the human race destroyed its first – and so far only – chance of contact with an alien species. This story displays a great depth of emotion despite its length.
Tammi’s Garden: Tamela is a young girl in a lush garden. Tammi is a young girl in a warren of subterranean caverns. Tamela lives in an intellectual world without deprivation or emotion. Tammi lives in a world where the walls are crumbling and poisonous gas is leaking in, but at least she has her mother’s love. Tammi/Tamela has to choose which world she ultimately wants to live in. An interesting story, but I’m still not quite sure whether the memories Tammi/Tamela experiences are of other worlds, the future vs the past, alternate timelines, or wishes from the subconscious, which I think was Fulda’s intent.
All Praise to the Dreamer: Earth has been invaded by the Zollners, a sentient species with the ability to detect psychic echoes and a painful aversion to the psychic residue caused by death. They offer stability and security in exchange for the souls of children destined for greatness – such children are taken from their families and given to the Dreamer so that the Dreamer may shape the future. Sharon is one of the people who first acquiesced to the Zollners upon their arrival, but now that they have come for her child, she finds she must make the ultimate sacrifice to protect him. This story is short and sharp, with an ending that makes sense in context, but is shocking nonetheless.
The Breath of Heaven: The Three Laws of Robotics are turned on their head in this story of a group of robots that kill a human settlement not because of flaws in their programming, but flaws in the directives which they’ve been given – flaws which now manifest in their quest for an ideal human operator. The protagonist robot, Sacia, now has to reconcile her newfound sense of awareness and self-preservation with her search for an ideal operator. Think of HAL 9000, but with an appreciation of beauty, movement, and the subtleties of reincarnation. This is one of, if not the, strongest stories in the collection, and presages Fulda’s growing skill – reading this story, it is not surprising to see the connections between its strong and elegant prose style and that of “Movement.”
Ghost Chimes: In Alicia’s world, death is not an impediment towards getting involved in the affairs of others – especially if they are those of your orphaned but now adult daughter. Alicia’s mother, a devout Catholic, gave up her chance on the Afterlife by undergoing a neural procedure that would allow her to remain on this earthly plane after she died. When she was 10, Alicia needed her mother’s care, but now that she’s all grown up, she resents her mother’s constant intrusions, and has to figure out how to gain her independence. This story has an interesting concept, but it rang hollow to me – I lost my own dad when I was young, and I’d leap even now, as an adult, at the chance to see and talk to him. This story mines a very strange vein of humour that I felt was at odds with the character’s circumstances.
The Man Who Murdered Himself: This story examines the central element of “Blue Ink” – human replication – but inverts one of the circumstances of the first story. In “Blue Ink,” clones were imperfect replicas of a perfectly normal person. But here, the person being replicated is already imperfect – a man with a painful infliction who is hoping to use cutting-edge technology to reform his misshapen body. Based on the title, though, I’m sure you can guess the ending. This one is just as sad as “Blue Ink,” but for entirely different reasons.
A New Kind of Sunrise: Fulda takes us to a planet with dramatically lengthened day and night cycles – it rotates so slowly that the land bakes to a crisp in the sun, and is deathly cold at nighttime. The only habitable portion of the planet is the thin band of clouds that rotates across it as twilight approaches, bringing rainfall and rejuvenation.
Mikaena is a nomad travelling with her tribe underneath the planet’s rotating band of cloud cover when she finds a young man near death on her tribe’s caravan route. He claims to be from the northern polar region of the planet, where a great Brotherhood protects the ancient scientific secrets of its original colonizers. However, this Brotherhood has forsaken its duty of helping all of the planet’s inhabitants, and it is the young man’s goal to make a new settlement – to Colonize the Day – and spread the Brotherhood’s knowledge far and wide. Mikaena finds herself drawn to the young man and his new ideas, but accepting them means moving beyond the practices of her tribe and facing her father’s disapproval.
This is the longest story in the collection, and one that is ripe for a full-length novel treatment. The characters themselves are a tad too familiar – the young man who disrupts the status quo, the young woman torn between love and tradition, the stern and unaccepting father, the wise healer woman – but the physical characteristics of the world itself are so fascinating that I want to hear more.
Overview: Now that I think about it, one of the themes that plays throughout the stories – most evident in “All Praise to the Dreamer” but also visible in almost every other story – is the conflict between freedom and security.
Throughout, these stories ask us what price we’re willing to pay for our safety. That alien ship may be full of unknown biological threats, but is it really worth it to destroy our only chance of interacting with another form of sentient life? What risks do we entertain when we try to change the events of the past? Should we sacrifice the souls of a small number of our children to ensure the stability of the future? Is it worth it to live in a world of intellectual pursuit when you can’t feel love or fear?
This is a great story collection full of clear yet thoughtful prose. The stories within range from humorous to poignant to macabre, with side stops to analytical and hopeful in between. While this collection rarely reaches the heights of emotion offered by “Movement,” these stories bring up a host of meaningful questions and ideas.
Next up: Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson