April 30, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Totaled"

(Note: this is the newest in a series of posts wherein I review as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can, and explain why I will or will not vote for them.)

Hot damn. I finally stumbled upon a decent story.

Actually, this story is pretty good, even if its premise is downright terrifying.

The personal total wasn’t a new concept. It started back in the Teens when the Treaders put their first candidate in office. Healthcare costs were insane. Insurance was almost impossible to get. The Treaders said taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for medical care someone else couldn’t afford, so they instituted a review board for totals.

The uneducated, the elderly, the poor—they could be totaled at less than a year’s wages. My doctorate put my total at lifetime earnings plus a multiplier for patents. My policy was supposed to be enough to cover anything. I thought I was safe.

The research rider came with an annuity. I did it for the boys. I had a good salary, but things were still tight after the divorce. If I died or got totaled, the rider said ANA could have any tissues they wanted, and the annuity would go to Dale and Zachary.

Tissues, of course, meant brains.

This bit of backstory establishes "Totaled" as an alternate history, since due to the impact of the Affordable Care Act, this scenario simply could not take place. The "Treaders" are obviously those who fly the "Don't Tread on Me" flag, and there are not enough of them to vote such a vile idea into law. I think--I would hope--that the American people would not stand for such a thing in any case, as this would be the real "death panel," (and smacking of National Socialism, to say the least) as opposed to the nonexistent one some people bandy about.

But that's not the point of the story; no matter how clumsy and contrived the concept, this story is about the human cost thereof. This is the story of Margaret Hauri, and her temporary afterlife as a disembodied brain (shades of the old horror movie "Donovan's Brain," although Maggie doesn't turn psychotic) used for research. Maggie is still aware and conscious in her tank, and works out a method of communication with her lab partner, Randy Moreno, which involves lighting up different areas of the brain to answer "yes" or "no" questions. In the limited time Maggie has left before her brain's irreversible decay, she and Randy try to finish her research, the development of a working molecular bionet.

They succeed. The tension in this short story is notable, as is Maggie's voice--dedicated to her work, a loving mother to her boys. Towards the end of the story, as her brain begins to fail, the author does a marvelous job of conveying this via the repeated use of the communicative phrases she employs to light up different areas of her brain, coming faster and closer together, disrupting the linear narrative. Randy asks if she wants to end it, and upon receiving her affirmative answer, he turns off her support. The last scene is a three-sentence flashback to the beginning of the story, with the setting of Maggie cooking waffles for her boys, frozen in time.

Holy crap. This story had a weight, resonance, and emotional impact all the others lacked. (It also wasn't stupid, boring and senseless, which helped.) I must admit here that my standard for this year's Hugo nominations is a story the Vapid Canines rejected--Rachel Swirsky's "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love." I loved that story, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. It was a wonderful piece of prose, tightly constructed, leading to a one-two gut punch that lingers in my mind to this day. When I started reading this year's nominated stories, I made up my mind that unless a nominee produced an experience reminiscent of "Dinosaur," I wouldn't consider it for the rocket.

"Totaled" is the only story to have done so.

Now, I will freely admit that I haven't yet read "A Single Samurai," by Steven Diamond. This story isn't available online, and since the collection it came from doesn't strike me as being something I would really like, I'm not going to buy it. I'll check and see if the library has it. In the meantime, this is my ranking and placement of this year's Hugo short story nominations, with the caveat that I may change it when the voting packet comes out (assuming "Samurai" is included) and if "Samurai" knocks my socks off.

1. "Totaled," by Kary English
2. No Award (since none of the other nominees, in my estimation, are Hugo-worthy)

Next, I think I shall move on to Best Novelette, as all those seem to be available online.

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