Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nebula Award Nominee: "Non-Zero Probabilities"

Non-Zero Probabilities
N. K. Jemisin
Clarkesworld: September 2009
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Short Story

So Adele sets out, swinging her arms, enjoying the day if it's sunny, wrestling with her shitty umbrella if it's rainy. (She no longer opens the umbrella indoors.) Keeping a careful eye out for those who may not be as well-protected. It takes two to tango, but only one to seriously fuck up some shit, as they say in her 'hood. And lo and behold, just three blocks into her trip there is a horrible crash and the ground shakes and car alarms go off and there are screams and people start running. Smoke billows, full of acrid ozone and a taste like dirty blood.


They should have known better. The probability of a train derailment was infinitesimal. That meant it was only a matter of time.

This is a story with luck writ large. Adele lives in a New York City where the improbable occurs with greater frequency than it should. Luck runs both to good (too many lottery winners and the Mets winning the World Series) and the bad (the train), but “Adele girds herself for the trip to work as a warrior for battle”, because leaving the house is a crapshoot. Depending on the point of view, the city’s going to hell.

Jemisin’s story is a delightful tale of the vagaries of luck and whether increased occurrences of the improbably are truly that remarkable. The story’s perspective is told through Adele, a woman who seems somewhat neurotic off all the risk involved in leaving her house, but readers buy into the possibility that all the unlikely things are happening with a notable frequency.
It's just that this is the way the world works now, and everybody gets that. If crossed fingers can temporarily alter a dice throw, then why not something bigger? There's nothing inherently special about crossed fingers. It's only a "lucky" gesture because people believe in it. Get them to believe in something else, and that should work too.

There is no explanation for how New York changed, or why, just an acceptance that it did. “Non-Zero Probabilities” is wonderfully told.

I’d like to see more like this. Not necessarily with this particular theme, just quietly good like this.

I also wonder if this just isn’t a metaphor for New York. “There are eight million stories in The Naked City…”, the saying goes. The city that never sleeps. The city so nice they named it twice. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Is New York City not the city where anything is possible? Perhaps the giant swings of luck are just something that happens in a city like New York, even if the outside media notices and thinks it is out of the ordinary and the state had to shut down its lottery for too many winners. Strangely, this doesn’t seem implausible in New York.

And hey, if the Mets can win the World Series again, how bad can things really be?


Rachel Swirsky said...

I liked the story, too.

"I also wonder if this just isn’t a metaphor for New York."

I read it as a metaphor for 9/11, I think.

Joe said...

I could see that.

It reads well either way, I think, and also without metaphor.