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Short Story (Well, Novelette) Review: And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

Amazon com Uncanny Magazine Issue 15 March April 2017 eBook

Spoiler Warning: I try to avoid the worst spoilers, but as one of those weirdos who doesn’t care about spoilers I can easily miss them. Assume there are spoilers!

(Also, this appeared about a week ago on my Patreon page — become a patron and you’ll get to read my posts early, too — and sometimes get a free ebook in the bargain!)

And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (you’ll find it in Uncanny Magazine’s March/April 2017 issue – it’s a public read at this writing) is an alternate worlds yarn. It’s not the standard “let’s see history if X battle were won instead of lost” or “what if dinosaurs evolved human-scale intelligence” alternate world story. It’s still a familiar take, and also a good read.

Standout features: There are some pretty excellent passages pertaining to regrets in life, satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction with your life (yes, yours. I know “universality” is a hotly debated point right now, but regrets are about as universal as you can get I think), as well as love and work-life balance and “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Impressions: As soon as it became apparent this was a multiple versions of one person story (and that is made obvious quickly), I had a moment of fear that it would be in some way a Citadel of Ricks ripoff. My next thought was that an editor for a prozine or semiprozine would almost certainly not buy a story like that. It isn’t at all such a story.

With the ‘coincidence’ of suthor name and character name(s) I wondered briefly how much author self-insert there was and where. And then I forgot to wonder and it didn’t matter at all. I was too busy reading.

The story maintains a blend of serious and light as it progresses to and through the central, darkish, murder mystery (is a murder ever not dark to some degree or another?). The mystery takes on an extra dimension given the premise. How much of our lives are shaped by self-harm, here being the kinds that don’t show in cuts and balding patches and so forth? What would we do or suffer to change our choices and their ramifications? Why do we spend so much time (well, I do, though I’m (no, really, I’m serious) trying to cut down) maundering over what could have been instead of looking to what tomorrow can be? This story makes you look at that perhaps more than is comfortable, as good stories tend to do with the issues they highlight.

There’s also, by the way, an amusingweird aside in which two Sarahs are clearly contemplating making out. Is that masturbation, incest, or a unique, um, phenomenon? You decide.

The writing isn’t strongly descriptive (which I’m fine with, by the way, even though I’m a description guy most of the time) and tends toward a lean narrative – except when we see the feelings of the main Sarah. Then we get soulful and evocative without the reader getting all covered with syrup or angst. Which was nice; as a Gen-Xer I’m steeped in angst from my foundation and a break from that is always welcome.

The action of the story is clear, though the multiple selves in a convention center aspect (one of those selves being the hotel manager was a touch that makes a lot of sense, and its cleverness should be appreciated, by the way) made me go back and reread a couple of paragraphs a couple of times to be sure I was understanding. I didn’t mind it at all. It seemed natural given all the Sarahs. The minor confusion also lent itself well to the mystery part of things, which resolved in a not unexpected way. I really didn’t care (I feel like I’m saying that too much, but here we are) that I had guessed the general shape of the mystery’s resolution. I was still engaged by the particulars of who exactly did what and why.

The wide range of Sarahs didn’t play a whole much with variability in world events as an influence in what might change a person’s life, though that aspect was there to a small degree and was integral to the resolution. It concentrated way more on reactions to events in one’s own life and how a very small change butterfly-effects a person into something radically different given a decade or two to diverge – we see musician Sarahs, and addicts and alcoholics and scientists and humble insurance investigators (our main Sarah), and equestrians and concentrations of similar types that reflect high likelihoods and foundational traits (the gay Sarahs – I wasn’t quite sure if any were straight, but then we don’t see the sexuality of every Sarah, and we mainly know because most have a girlfriend or wife but not present – the crowd is Sarahs only). Others are outliers, like apparently insurance investigator is not a popular career choice among Sarahs, and only a small handful were transgender.

I appreciated the choice to make the setting an isolated island cut off from outside contact by not only its remote nature but also a nasty weather system. This story had enough on its plate without dragging the wider world into things.

I’m happy to have read this story. It gave me a good plateful of food for thought, and those are my favorite kinds of stories in all their multiplicitous glory.

END

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A Year Ago: “It Could Be Anyone”

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A little over a year ago I cooked up this little free short (you can read it here, complete and no download needed) in connection with a creative writing class in the MA program I’m finishing up now.

The protagonist is Ms. Gaither, an eighty-five year old woman, and she came out of more than just the proverbial sugar and spice and whatever we associate with little girls who grow up to become elder women. Wisdom and medication, I suppose?

As a character, she was born from something I have plenty of. Worry. My worry shaped a big chunk of her, and worry is something that, if I’m not careful, can dominate my mood and thoughts and pretty much everything in my life. I’m a bit less consumed by worry than I was a year ago. It’s still there, and some of it is still justified, but I’ve managed to let it become less of a distraction and more of a constructive caution. But I have always worried too much and I probably always will.

She also comes from my love of history — I probably spent an hour looking at vintage soda vending machines in connection with a scene in this story, for example. The first three minutes of it were necessary, the rest was just me having fun.There are a few other things in there.
The science fiction (maybe just science — plenty of debate to find, though I’m not well equipped to judge how seriously it’s taken) notion of alternate timelines, or maybe the science fantasy notion of psychic perception of the future — it’s unclear, deliberately. My mild fear of growing old and feeble (one of my hips is already feeble, how soon will the rest of me follow?), and my greater fear of *not* growing old and feeble because, you know, that damn death thing. Ick.
And the whole premise of the story, as well as Ms. Gaither’s role in it and her role in the lives of the father and daughter she meets, come out of something that comes to me as naturally as breathing: considering risk. It goes hand in hand with being, as my grandmother used to say, a “worry-wart.” When we drive farther than the store down the street part of me considers that we might break down, so I don’t dress to drive to the store, I dress to walk back or change a tire. I’m the one who checks batteries in the smoke detector and worries about the lint buildup in the dryer because fire. I’m first to move something away from a space heater or follow the little ones closely at the beach whether the waves are heavy or not. None of this is to say my wife and older stepson are careless. They’re not. Nor is it to say I never take risks, even foolish ones. I have and I do. I’m just the one who thinks of all of the unlikely things that can go wrong (which brings anxiety) and all of the unlikely things that could go right (which brings longing over stuff that’s probably not happening).

Pretty much every time someone writes, they leave a chunk of their psyche on the page. Sometimes writers who write about awful stuff get accused of believing or wishing they could do the awful stuff on that basis, which is very often wrong.But the writer is in there somewhere. Look for them when you read.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on May 6th. Patrons get to see most posts three days early and new ebooks THIRTY days early. Plus they get a FREE copy even if I’m charging for it elsewhere. They’re also a hell of a big help to my household, a boon to me as a writer and a human being, and wonderful people. So, you know… *nudge*)

Ebook Single: “Only Thirty Cents A Day”: A Tale Of Mystery Cars And Charity

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Get your ebook single of this story at AmazonBarnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Google Play Books, or Smashwords.

Only Thirty Cents A Day is a little story inspired by the heartstring-jerker television ads pleading for help feeding and inoculating poverty-stricken populations in various poverty hotspots around the world. I got to thinking, what would it take for — someone — to consider us in the pretty-darn-well-off-on-average USA in need of similar missionary-style poverty relief efforts? Who would be moved to make such an effort? I spent quite a few idle minutes jotting down notes and then promptly crossing most of them out, until finally the solution hit me.

What’s the solution? It’s all revealed by the end. So of course, being a typical tease of the author, I’m going to show you a preview… of the beginning.

Here’s the first quarter of the story:

Only Thirty Cents A Day

S.A. Barton

     Frederick Bolling pulled his little hybrid car into his reserved parking space and unfolded himself from the driver’s seat. His lower back crackled like cereal when you pour the milk over. He was a tall man, not made for little environmentally friendly cars, and he was older than he had ever thought he’d get when he was an idealistic college student, or even after that, when he served in the Peace Corps. Bringing some of the benefits of the technological first world to folks who had no access to it themselves, and hopefully he hadn’t inflicted too much of the so-called civilized world’s downside on the people he’d tried to help all those decades ago.

     He shook off the moment of nostalgic fugue—they came more often, the farther past seventy he got—and stood, grumbling, then eyes flashing wide as he turned and found himself face to face with an unexpected man. Frederick reflexively took an awkward little hop-step back. The curve of the car’s open door frame dug into his back and he sucked in a deep breath, ready to shout if he had to.

     “That’s a hydrocarbon burner, right?” the unexpected man asked, like you’d ask the time on the street, casual. He held up his hands, palms out: I mean you no harm. His features were odd and Frederick stared. The man’s skin was darker than Frederick’s, sub-Saharan Africa dark, but his eyes were faded blue, almost white, and were partially hidden by strong epicanthic folds.  His nose was bulbous and his ears were distinctly pointed, holding back straight black hair that was so fine it stirred restlessly with the faint breeze that penetrated the enclosed garage from outside. His brow had a heavy ridge, almost a shelf you could set tiny knicknacks on. Something about his posture was odd, too. Something indefinable.

     Frederick blinked, trapped between looking away to avoid being caught staring and too obviously looking away as if the stranger was too strange to look at. It was rude to stare at someone with… whatever genetic abnormality had caused the odd features.

     “I’m sorry,” Frederick said, meaningless politeness-words as he stepped smoothly to the side, face shutting down in the New York brushoff.

     “Your car burns petroleum, sir?” the man asked again, moving just slightly into Frederick’s path. Frederick stopped, wondering if his initial alarm had been the right reaction after all.  The other man was smaller than he was, but much younger. His features made it hard to judge, but he looked like he might be just out of college. He was dressed like an artist or street performer, or maybe a celebrity trying too hard to be outrageous, with a wide-lapel aquamarine shirt and bolo tie under a pinstriped jacket with long tails and matching pinstriped slacks. Even his dark shoes had pinstripes. Some kind of weird activist? The city had them like it had rats and cockroaches, underfoot in the most unexpected places.

     “It’s a hybrid. I’m environmentally conscious. Try the twelfth level, it’s mostly sportscars,” Frederick said, avoiding eye contact, foot sliding to the side to take off on a new vector.

     “How would you like a solar car?” the weirdo asked as Frederick began to walk again.  “No gas to buy. Not even a need to plug it in.”

     “I’m not buying,” Frederick said without turning, walking away toward the elevator, free.

     “I’m not selling,” the voice came from behind him as Frederick boarded the elevator.  “You’ll see.”

     Frederick left work an hour earlier than the bulk of the office, to beat the worst of rush hour traffic. He keyed the door PIN and got into his car, the stranger from the morning forgotten, and tried to start his car.

     His key didn’t fit. It slid off plastic behind the steering wheel, and he looked closer. There was no receptacle there to receive it. Frederick blinked at the featureless plastic. In a life that included a new car every other year, it wasn’t too unusual to forget the quirks of the new car and remember the quirks of a past car instead.

     But the ignition wasn’t placed differently than he remembered.  He even checked the center console next to the automatic shift, remembering an old Saab he had had in college that had started that way. The ignition wasn’t there, either. There simply wasn’t any.

     “How the hell… where’s the ignition?” he said aloud to himself. Had he somehow gotten into the wrong car? The door PIN was only four numbers, maybe by some odd coincidence…

     “Ignition?” the car said, voice soft, echoing him.

     “Um. Yes,” Frederick said. His car definitely did not talk.

     The car hummed to life smoothly, dash lights glowing cool green…

…and that’s the end of the preview. Hope you’ll check out how it ends; the links to find it are right under the picture at the top of this post in case you’ve forgotten.  🙂