A First of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alissa Wong is another finalist for the 2017 Hugo Awards Best Short Story category.
If the previous story, The City Born Great, was puzzling in an amusing way, this one is puzzling in an infuriating way. The story, not that there is much of it, continually sabotages itself and undermines its own point by its constant attempts at being sophisticated and oniric literature. What could have worked as a short story in a more literary genre, becomes insufferable once “fantasy” elements are added into the mix.
The story is a first-person retelling of Hannah’s anguish and anger at her sister’s death, who happens to be a transsexual. The sci-fi or fantasy elements that justify the Hugo nomination are their godlike superpowers.
Apparently, they can alter timelines (even destroy them? It’s not explained correctly,) and do all sort of nifty tricks, like causing a deluge and all sort of sparkly and energy-manipulation abilities. Naturally, this epic-level of power may make you ask yourself how did her sister manage to die in the first place. Well, it is a mystery.
At the beginning of the story, Melanie (or Mel,) Hannah’s sister, dies in a fiery conflagration. Self-inflicted? Who knows. In another parallel universe, she succumbs to her parents’ cis-gendered norms and dies at the hands of college jocks:
“None of them [other timelines] would end with you burning to death at the edge of our property, beaten senseless in the wash behind the house by drunken college boys, slowly cut to pieces at home by parents who wanted you only in one shape, the one crafted in their image.”
In fact, this may actually be the same timeline… or not? Are these really timelines, parallel universes or… what? Is this like time travel, where you go to another universe and you find a duplicate of yourself? Again, it is a mystery. Still, it seems odd that someone who can destroy universes, go back in time (at least a few days,) and cast down divine retribution should die at the hands of normal humans. Someone could argue that a short story where a transsexual is doomed to die in all possible universes even if they have god-like levels of power is not precisely a very progressive thing to write, but hey, what do I know. I guess the message is that cis-gendered heteronormativity is so powerful that even transsexual gods die by the System’s oppressive multiversal hands? Who knows, it is a mystery.
As with the previous Hugo-nominated short story, the plot improves if you assume the characters are brain damaged, retarded, or autistic, something quite apparent in the oblivious behavior of the protagonists’ parents:
“Besides, they [our parents] had always been exceptionally blind to matters regarding Melanie. They didn’t even notice when the two of us would take to the sky together, Melanie blowing currents back and forth beneath our bodies, weaving thermals like daisy chains. We used to make sparks dance at the table, and our mom never said a word about it, except that it was rude to do things that other people couldn’t in front of them, and also that we needed to learn to talk to people other than each other.”
Still, it could be argued that this short story is an example of abstract introspective oniric psychological symbolism, a genre I just made up but which explains the convoluted plot quite well nonetheless. What that means is that the story merely represents in a fantastic and dream-like landscape the inner anguish of a sister over her sister’s suicide, and that Mel’s superpowers are just a metaphor for his unique gender identity, and that the whole universe-jumping and Hannah’s superpowers thing is nothing more than the fantastic version of her inner “what ifs” and her impotent anger at realizing there is no going back, respectively. If that’s the case, then this brings me back to what I first said at the beginning of my analysis, this would have worked better as a literary piece with no superpower elements since those undermine the point of the story.
In any event, poor Hannah, doomed to travel between universes to try to save her jinxed sister, has a moment of clarity when talking with the (ghost? How does that even work?) of her sister:
“You can’t change this, Hannah,” my sister’s ghost said as I tore the sky apart, shredding the fabric of air, of cloud, of matter and possibility. The lightning danced for me now, bent and buckled for me the way it had only done for Melanie before.
I will, I will. I will fix this.
“You can’t,” my sister said. “It’ll end the same way. Differently, but the same.”
“Why?” I screamed.
“Why” is the word that kept popping up in my head while reading this piece. Why does Melanie keep dying for retarded reasons or at the hands of imbeciles and puny humans? Why does Hannah seem so incompetent? Why should I care about any of these weird people who may be hallucinating for all I know? Why is there no real plot or coherent pacing? Why are these god-like protagonist behaving like idiotic middle-class urbanites instead of enslaving humanity and sacrificing their moronic parents to Azathoth? Why should I care about someone’s gender identity when that person can destroy whole universes? Why are the protagonists’ parents so stupid (I know, I know, they are Christians and therefore dumb lol –very progressive and ingenious creative criticism there)? Why does nobody realize these two humans are epic-level wizards? Why did someone write this in the first place? Why am I reading it? And, finally, why is this a Hugo finalist?
Once again, it is a mystery.
You can read this short story at Tor.com