I’ll use this story as an example of the dilemma any prospective writer who aspires to a reputation among the Noble People will encounter. You can write a good story, one that will stand on its own merits, capable of being read by people from all around the world, but at the cost of (probably) being ignored, or you can add a layer of fashionable dogma that will impoverish your story, restrict its appeal, and reduce its longevity, but with the possible reward of social approval or a nomination.
When I first read it, I liked this short story. For once, it’s not bland like most Hugo finalists; there’s actually a tension buildup, and things are at stake. It also seems to be a proper science fiction story (involving Virtual Reality) although it can also be interpreted as a surrealist, dream-like experience. Now, its genre verges perhaps too much towards Misery & Gloom since fate seems to hate the protagonist with a passion, but I’d say it’s well done and, as I said, it manages to create tension and a certain sense of anguish. But then I began to think about the story and realized what it really is about, and disappointment set in. Why undermine a good story for some cheap political soapboxing that may be incomprehensible or not fashionable in a few years? Well, since it has been nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula awards and it’s the Apex Magazine Reader’s Choice Winner, I think the answer is obvious.
The story is written in second-person narrator (that makes two Hugo short story finalists this year that have used this device,) although the “you” is not really “you” but is a real character with name, background, and personality, so I can’t think of any reason to use this odd narrative style except the extended but, I’m quite sure, false belief that it drags the reader into the story or makes it more “personal,” to empathize perhaps with the plight of the protagonist.
In any event, the story follows Jesse Turnblatt, a native American who works for a VR company that gives tourists a “Real Life Indian Experience” which in most cases is just a bunch of clichés and nonsense about animal spirits and Vision Quests. He, like other “pod workers,” takes a role inside the VR, mostly as a dashing native warrior who guides tourists. In real life, he is a middle-aged, pot-bellied man, terrified of losing his job and his wife (obviously, he’ll lose both.)
During one of the VR sessions, he meets a lanky, white dude (with a Cherokee great-grandmother) who doesn’t seem to want the usual Indian Experience but only wants to talk, to make a friend. Later, he even managed to find Turnblatt in meatspace and they become good friends, earning the moniker “White Wolf.”
Turnblatt falls sick (a common cold I believe) and he can’t go to work, but what worries him the most is that he will disappoint his new friend (they meet up every two days after work to talk and drink some beers,) so he sends his wife. The wife returns at ungodly hours and oddly happy but Turnblatt doesn’t seem to realize the implications (protip: she played hide the peace pipe with him;) she tells him “A nice man. Real nice. You didn’t tell me he was Cherokee.”
When Turnblatt goes back to work a few days later, he discovers he has been replaced by a new VR pod worker all people love, and he is also a True Cherokee, exactly what the tourist really want! For maximum dramatic, cliché effect, his boss calls security to kick him out as any proper Getting Fired in America Experience™ should be. Despaired, he does the usual thing one does when these things happen: go to the bar and get drunk. There he discovers, to his horror, that the new worker is the White Wolf itself, who has managed to use the arcane power his 1/64 Cherokee blood gives him to mentally snare the other coworkers, who now love the White Wolf and seem to fail to recognize Turnblatt. Turnblatt then is beaten like a vulgar drunkard and thrown into the ditch, from where he awakens much later.
Once back at his home, he finds his wife has left, but the White Wolf is there, sexy as always with his fake Native-American aura. The story ends with the White Wolf telling him
“Did you ever think,” he says, his voice thoughtful, his head tilted to study you like a strange foreign body, “that maybe this is my experience, and you’re the tourist here?”
Then Turnblatt experiences the same dizzying feeling he gets when he gets out of a VR Session.
Now, these are the bare facts, and when I read this story I actually like it quite a lot since it has that Philip. K. Dick sense of unreality, with a proper story, a twist, and some sort of a villain (or asshole, at least.) I liked the premise, that of a guest in a VR who manages, somehow, to trap the (to use the RPG terminology) Game Master into a nightmarish illusion thanks to the information he got from him IRL. But then I went back to the top of the story and read the quotation there, and some of the gnawing issues I had with the story finally clicked and came together:
In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.
—Sherman Alexie, How to Write the Great American Indian Novel
“Oh,” I said, “so this is what it is about?” It’s… disappointing. Yeah, White Wolf is the White Man (1/64 Cherokee!) who steals the place of the real Indian (who had always been a good boy and just wanted to assimilate — he is even a Catholic!) his job, and even his wife, and he becomes a ghost, disappearing at the end of the story. The Native Indians are nothing more than slaves or props in the White Men’s VR amusement park that is “The Native American Experience,” and, to make the insult worse, they finally take the place of the real native Americans.
Eh… I can’t but feel that this has made the story poorer, its audience narrower, its shelf life much shorter, its background setting more contingent, and its range of possible interpretations and lessons reduced to just a few or just one, one hard to understand or care for anyone outside contemporary USA (like me.) It may have helped it being nominated for the Hugos, but this has been at the cost of making the story smaller and a cliché. In other words, worse.