Monday, March 16, 2009

Nebula Award Nominee: "Mars: A Traveler's Guide"

Mars: A Traveler’s Guide
Ruth Nestvold
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Short Story

“Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” is told entirely from the perspective of a voice-prompted computer program for a traveler’s guide intended for visitors to Mars. The story is told entirely through the entries of the travel guide and NOT from the perspective of a sentient computer program. Just wanted to clarify that bit of detail.

What I appreciate most is probably what marks me as at least somewhat immature. The reader never gets a chance to see directly what the user of the travel guide is saying, and the story jumps from topic to topic – often mid entry. But…what I appreciate is when the user gets frustrated with the travel guide. We can tell from the entries and from the response of the travel guide to what was said off the page.

Tours with Red Planet Adventures have been optimized for safety-
I’m sorry, did you say ‘vacuum’?
I’m sorry, I don’t understand the phrase, “no eye said fock cue.”
Would you like to select a new topic?

Oh, just delightful. And accurate. Users of such a guide probably would curse at the guide and the computer wouldn’t recognize the words (or, if well designed – would recognize and give snappy comebacks, but that’s another story).

At first “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” appears to be a simple examination of certain aspects of travel that the savvy traveler would wish to be aware of. Safety and the like. Dust storms, fuel cells, pressurized rovers, safety considerations, bases.

Then realization dawns. Oh. This is about something else entirely and what was only slightly interesting at the start takes on a whole new level of meaning and readers might be interested in going back and reading those first pages to catch what’s going on. There is a reason for those particular topics and there is a progression of topics that tells a story beyond being a travel guide.

By the end I realized just how awesome and well constructed “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” really was. I want to say more about it, but I don’t want to give away the goodness.

Well done, Ms Nestvold. You didn’t have me at hello, but you grabbed me by the end and made me reevaluate the entire story before realization dawned.

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