Friday, March 28, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind", by Sarah Pinsker

"In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind"
Sarah Pinsker
Strange Horizons: July 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette

Pinsker opens the story with an old man having a stroke and his wife calling an ambulance and waiting by his side. It immediately flashes back to the first day they met back in 1944. We learn that he is an architect and in the Army.  The story flips back and forth between earlier in their life together and aftermath of the present medical emergency. 

What works so well here is that even in such a small number of words, the characters feel lived in and familiar, that we know who these people are. The strength of George's imagination and skill in architecture shines through and feels immediate, except he is also working on some funky stuff with the military. 

"There are some interesting projects. Hypothetical stuff, with the engineers."


"Made up. Like out of the pulps. Barracks for soldiers who are ten feet tall, prisons built into the side of mountains, guard houses underwater. I know it's all ridiculous stuff, kid stuff, but it's fun to imagine. The engineers tell me what is and isn't possible. I draw, and then they take my sketches away or tell me things to change. Mill, I thought my skyscrapers would be the future, but they're showing me all kinds of futures I hardly know how to think about." 

That's all we get, and then Pinsker moves back to the relationship and the stroke George has had and the family's rallying.  That's all we need, and it almost glosses over until late in the story.

But even that is only a side piece to the heart, which is a moving story of a marriage that has lasted more than sixty years and the changes in each partner.  There are reasons for some of those changes, but the core is that these are two good people who have had a good life together.

This is a moving, emotional story.  It is beautiful, and at touches, heartbreaking.  But the heartbreak here is not the raw heartbreak of some of the nominated short stories, but more that of a long life well lived that is very much in its last moments, whether those moments are days or years.  The heartbreak is also in the loss of an ambition and the cause for it.  It hints at some of the American mythology and legends that we don't really believe, though we tell ourselves, "maybe."

Whatever it is, "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind" is a wonderful story.

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