I regret to inform you, dear reader, that after reading the first Short Story nominee for this year’s Hugo Awards, I have come to the conclusion that Carnival Nine, for that is its name, is Not Awful. That may seem an uninformative score, but… not really, at least for me, as it is quite significant since what I usually expect is Awful.
Is it good, however? Well, it is beyond good and bad, or maybe it hit the middle point with such atomic precision that I have become the literary critic equivalent of Buridan’s Ass. It is a… harmless story, and I feel unable to say anything bad about it, for there isn’t anything uniquely bad and it would almost be in bad taste to criticize it. It is bland, although it may bring forth a tear or two if you are in the appropriate state of mind, you happen to identify with what happens there, or it’s the first time you read a story like this.
Nominally, this is a fantasy short story (it has been nominated for the Hugos, so there has to be some scififafi somewhere,) but if you read it, I’d warn you against reading it like that because if you try to make sense of the fantastical setting, the whole thing may break down. Besides, the fantasy elements are just a façade; there isn’t a single element in the story that is inherently fantastical and they all have an immediate, evident, real-life counterpart. And to prove that, I won’t mention a single one of these elements in this review/analysis, but you’ll be able to understand it perfectly nonetheless.
To sum up: the story is about Zee, a young girl who finds love during a visit to Carnival Nine (there are many carnivals there.) In the course of the story, she will reunite (briefly) with her uncaring mother, marry, have a children with a strong (mostly physical) disability, break off with her husband (and later reunite with him,) overwork herself, go back to live his old father and grieve over his death, worry about his son and her own motherly guilt, and, finally, when it is asumed that both mother and son are near the end of their lives (it’s when the story ends) find some maner of closure or purpose. The story ends with this paragraph (I have modified a few expressions to hide the pseudo-fantastical elements):
I think back on my eighty years, on what I’ve done with my life. The way Papa had taken such good care of me, and how in the end I’d chosen to follow his path, and done my best for Mattan. My life has been different from the adventures I imagined as a child, but I made the most with what I was given, and that’s all any of us can do.
And that’s pretty much it. Sure, technically this story happens in a wondrous, impossible setting, but really, that’s quite irrelevant. I can’t really say anything bad or even good about it, although I can point out the oddity of seeing a Hugo story where the protagonist is a heterosexual woman, with a good relationship with her father, and who finds purpose in being a mother (and a married one.) I think I remember a mention of someone having two fathers? But really, this must be one of the least Hugo stories Hugo has ever nominated these last years. Of course, the kid happens to be disabled because, obviously, it has to happen: this a Hugo story and there has to be some tear-jerking, but… that’s it.
It’s hard to claim that this story has a plot, or even a proper setting. You can see a mile away how this will end (i.e. they get old,) and when the kid was born disabled, yeah, I knew that something sad was going to happen; and the same with the death of the protagonist’s father, it had to happen at that moment because it was the best one for optimal dramatic, nose-blowing potential. But it’s hard to describe these things as a plot in the traditional sense; it’s just someone’s life, and everybody just seems to follow a predestined path, somewhat passively and lacking in energy in spite of their apparent struggling. For a moment I thought the mother would shake her fist at “God”, perhaps trying some blasphemous way to heal her kid, and naturally ending in tragedy, but… no, she just goes on with her normal life and, in the end, takes out her (now adult) son to see the acrobats because the first (and only) time he had seen them had been the best moment of his life (and as you can imagine, he hasn’t had many.)
And that’s it. A constant, low-throbbing sadness and inevitability permeates the whole story, but in spite of its apparently uplifting final message, I believe the whole effect can be quite draining to most people except that demographic who seems to get a sort of teary joy from reading/watching these sort of “beautiful misery” stories (I believe there’s a whole genre of movies about single mothers with a disabled kid.) Your mileage, of course, will vary.
I give this story a 5/10 + decimal 5 repeating ad infinitum.
You can read this story at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.