May 3rd, 2015

The Hugo Ballot Continued: Short Stories

The next story up is "Totaled," by Kary English.  English is the only woman to make it onto the ballot in the writing categories (short story, novelette, novella, novel) from the Sad Puppies' slate, although another woman, Annie Bellet, made the ballot but withdrew her story from contention.  Elsewhere the Puppies tout the diversity of their nominees, but their record in this slate is pretty terrible, at least concerning women who write.

Maggie, a neurologist, is killed in a car accident and her brain is "totaled," meaning that it can be re-used by the Allied Neuro Associates.  She discovers that she can still hear and think, and that, ironically, she has ended up in her own lab.  By lighting up various parts of her brain she is able to communicate with her former lab partner.  Then the lab partner discovers her brain has started to die.

The idea of brains continuing to function after the body is gone isn't inherently a bad one, though it's obviously been done and overdone before, many times.  But what's weird is what English leaves out.  Maggie seems to be a single mother and her two sons survive the car crash, but she barely thinks of them, not even to wonder who's taking care of them or how they're dealing with her death.  They show up finally about three quarters into the story, but since we haven't met them yet and know nothing at all about them, the scene rings hollow.  Also, she knows from her work that preserved brains last only about six months, yet she doesn't seem to worry about what will happen at the end of that time, or, if she somehow manages to survive, what it would be like to spend the rest of her life disembodied.

Fiction, as writing teachers always tell you, is about conflict, everything from Faulkner's "The human heart in conflict with itself" to "Help -- the dragon's getting closer!"  (I've been known to like stories without conflict if they offer something else worthwhile, but I know I'm in the minority.)  There's no conflict here, though, no action taken by the protagonist to save herself, nothing but a woman watching herself die.  That could be affecting, of course, but I'm sorry to say the story just didn't do it for me.  I liked "Totaled" better than "Turncoat" but, like that story, it doesn't stand out in any way.