2011 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award Finalists

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2011 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award Finalists for Best Short Fiction of the Year

This year’s Sturgeon finalists were posted Thursday, June 9, 2011. The eleven finalists are listed below in alphabetical order by author.

“Mammoths of the Great Plains” by Eleanor Arnason (Mammoths of the Great Plains)
“Under the Moons of Venus” by Damien Broderick (Subterranean, Spring 2010)
“The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s “ by Elizabeth Hand (Stories)
“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov’s, 9/10)
“Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” by Yoon Ha Lee (Lightspeed, 9/10)
“Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” by Paul Park (F&SF, 1-2/10)
“Dead Man’s Run” by Robert Reed (F&SF, 11-12/10)
“Troika” by Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines)
“A Letter from the Emperor” by Steve Rasnic Tem (Asimov’s, 1/10)
“The Night Train” by Lavie Tidhar, (Strange Horizons, 6/14/10)
“The Things” by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld, 1/10)

Special Feature:

On Steve Rasnic Tem’s “A Letter from the Emperor”

Dave Truesdale

As a matter of long-standing routine, Tangent Online receives advance pdf copies of issues of several magazines. When I got around to the January 2010 issue of Asimov’s and read Steve Rasnic Tem’s “A Letter from the Emperor” I was stunned. What a marvelous story, I thought. The technical aspects/construction, the prose, and the story itself; all were blended perfectly. It was a powerful story, the kind each of us comes across (all too rarely) from time to time, but when we do we find it well worth the wait.

I expressed my enthusiasm for the story in one of the Asimov’s forums. As well, I had a few questions about the story I was hoping someone could answer. Why had Anders Nils committed suicide? Had his desperate act anything to do with the fact that he might have been gay and had been continually rejected by the only other on-ship traveler (a male) on their journey between the stars, to the point where he could no longer bear his lonely existence? Or was it something else? Clues and hints were there, but where exactly did they point? And then there was the matter of the beautifully crafted eponymous “Letter from the Emperor.” How much was pure fiction and how much straight fact? Either way, it was such a touching, revealing letter as to make the entire story worthwhile for its sake alone.

The author was kind enough to reply to my queries in the Asimov’s forum on May 14, 2010. Used with permission, here is what Steve Rasnic Tem had to say about “A Letter from the Emperor”:

“I almost never offer interpretations of my stories, and I’m not going to say much here, except that I’m a relatively optimistic fellow, and I expect issues of gay acceptance (and the acceptance of most other varieties of sexual attraction and gender identification) will be pretty well worked out not too many centuries into our future. But to my mind it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, simply speaking from the heart is difficult, and impossible for some of us. Loneliness, and shyness, are significant hurdles. Even among those of us who specialize in communications. Even when we think we’re being direct, from the outside it may appear that we’re making people jump through hoops in order to understand us. And I really don’t expect that particular sort of behavior to change much over the next millenium or so.

While I was writing ‘A Letter from the Emperor’ I was thinking about that, and the sometimes convoluted friendships I see between men. Complexities arose, as they often will, and which I welcome.

Thanks very much for taking the story seriously.

Steve Tem”

While enlightening to a certain degree, and politely measured, and while appreciative of Steve’s response, my questions remained unanswered. I sought help elsewhere. I sent the aforementioned advance pdf of the story to the Tangent Online review staff for their thoughts on the story. I effused about it, asked them to consider the questions I had about it, and to send a response/interpretation if they so chose. I did not tell them about the author’s remarks in the Asimov’s forum. I had no idea of what to expect from the staff. Some, I feared, may not even like the story at all. I received about ten responses, however, all quite positive about the story in general. The speculations as to whether Anders Nils might have been gay, his reasons for suicide, and the nature of the Letter itself, ranged all over the map. It was a fascinating exercise in and of itself.

Below are a few of the responses to the questions posed concerning Steve Rasnic Tem’s “A Letter from the Emperor.” Respondents are male and female, straight and gay, from the US–West Coast (California), the Midwest (Kansas), and the Southeast Coast (Florida)–and from Canada, China, and Australia.

From Steve Fahnestalk (Vancouver, BC):

“Wow, great story, Dave. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

My take on the story–Jacob is one of those people he talks about, who can not ask for help–indeed, he’d probably have rebuffed any help he was offered. He’s elderly (his hands shake), and has been on this voyage for nine years; yet he’s empathetic towards the Colonel’s need to have a letter from his Emperor to validate not only his service, but his life. (And to give him validation from his daughter, who’s also an officer.)

And he mentions that Anders had approached him more than once, offering friendship (and maybe more, who knows?) and had been rebuffed; all that may have contributed to the burden of loneliness, which may have also been partly sexual. (We can’t make assumptions, but hints are given.)

So although Jacob doesn’t need or want company, generally, he is ready to understand and accept that others do. He just doesn’t know or understand the actual mental strain of loneliness because he’s so self-contained.

The actual letter from the Emperor is beautifully composed, and I hope it did the job it was composed for.”

From Carla Billinghurst (Australia):

“Fairly quick notes for you:

First reading I thought for a while that maybe Anders was the Emperor and he just couldn’t face the knowledge of his crumbling empire any longer. And/or couldn’t face meeting his old comrade, but left behind the letter. Then I decided it was a straightforward story about loneliness and companionship and Anders killed himself because there was no one left who really listened to him and nobody cared. He and Jacob are work mates but there are no other people for them to relate to and Jacob has refused to “become entangled.” When his fictional life stopped comforting him, Anders gave up.

Then I thought about it overnight and decided it’s an allegory of a person — the only knowledge each individual has of the world comes through five external senses and their internal perceptual filters (the ship’s Comm in this case) and we have all these inner sub-personalities with wants and needs (Anya, the Colonel, Anders…). That made more sense of the Strangers as well — the fear of intimacy leaving the psyche isolated and alone.

Then I decided it was actually about Story — the way we all use story to justify behaviour, and the way we use story to make life more palatable. What the two men did every day was something so extremely dull that, for Anders, fantasy was the only way to cope. So maybe that’s why we all write and read fantasy — it keeps us coping whether we have ended up living in downtown Baghdad or an English mansion. Whatever our successes or failures, Story can keep us feeling attached, included, important, as though we might be someone one day.”

From Nathan Goldman (Merriam, Kansas):

“Anders Nils committed suicide because he had lost all sense of self. The way Jacob describes the made-up diary entries, as a prosthetic for memory of actual experience, is apt: Anders’ sole waking purpose was to listen for and record bits of random, clinical, maybe incomprehensible information without any meaningful context; since he and Jacob didn’t have a relationship, Anders’ sole human contact was basically gibberish, and his only activity was to sort the gibberish. Humans are utterly social creatures. Without stimulation we cease to develop, not only intellectually but emotionally and physically. Anders may have heard a lot of noise, but none of it had meaning, none was directed at him, and he never got to respond. His only actual exchanges (assuming his role mirrors Jacob’s) would have been with the ship command, which isn’t even human in any significant sense. So, he kept himself alive by making up stories as placeholders for actual experience. And he must have run out of material, or realized the unthinkable truth that he would never have an actual relationship — something clicked and the “prosthetic” was no longer worth sticking around for.”

From Carl Slaughter (China):

“This is a tough one.

I’m sure all the clues are there and I’m sure it will all make sense once I recognize all the clues.  I have a few theories, but I can’t say I’ve cracked it.  One of the two was the Emperor.  Probably Anders Nils because the other aboard the ship got the third degree after the suicide.  If Anders had been a pinhead, the other pinhead wouldn’t have received the third degree.  The Emperor arranged for the two of them to have a prolonged isolation duty so he could spend a lot of time with his lifelong friend.  When he discovered Joy was the next planet on the ship’s journey, he realized the colonel would be on Joy.  Why did Anders commit suicide?  This is where the memory wipe becomes a factor.  One or both of his friends, one on the planet and one on the ship, had their memory wiped.  Anders couldn’t bear to meet his friend on the planet because the colonel would or wouldn’t recognize him.  If the colonel recognized him, his cover might be blown.  

If the colonel didn’t recognize him, it would be like the death of a friend.  So he wiped the memory of his friend on the ship and committed suicide.  Why did he wipe the memory of his friend on the ship?  Probably to spare his friend any agony.  Or both of the friends had their memories wiped long ago and he just couldn’t bear another encounter with a “dead” friend.  The key to identifying the correct theory is the diary. Probably the friend on the ship had his memory wiped long ago.  This is why someone intervened when he was caught reading the diary and why he was asked what he believed about the diary entries.

It’s a well-crafted story and a real thinker.”

From Nader Elhefnawy (Miami Beach, Florida):

“I read over the story twice.

It seems to offer a simple answer to the question you asked: assuming Nils committed suicide, it was out of loneliness (which is very easy to imagine given the isolation), catalyzed by the collapse of his coping mechanisms–this whole imaginary life he wrote about.

Rather, the uncertainty seems to surround whether it happened–less than even odds, according to ship command, and further confused by the mention of the “Strangers.”

Additionally, there’s a strong sense of dissociation, partly because of the uncertainty about whether this character we never got to see died, partly the diary entries about things that (almost certainly) never happened, and reinforced by the feeling of being on the fringes of a creaking, crumbling empire–so far away from the center of things that one isn’t even sure if there is an emperor anymore. (The execution of this was, in fact, one of the story’s strengths.)”

From Bob Blough (Oxnard, California):

“I read the story twice and I feel it is a powerful short story.  Very touching, all about listening to the things that are not important due to the ruts created by the familiar (“my duty is listening to the communications from far off places”) and missing the chances for communication and listening with those around us.  It is a story about the healing property of stories.  How we need them in order to survive– but in the end our personal story needs more than just fiction, we need others.  I think Anders’ suicide is due to loneliness (as is stated in the story)–the failure of imagination (his fiction) to sustain his life any more.  He fixated on the only person who could be his friend, or confidant, or perhaps lover in some sense and created a much needed history with this friend.  The deeply sad thing is that Jacob is so unfeeling and insensitive that he cannot respond to the other while Anders is so unable to communicate (he couldn’t even let Jacob know that he was depressed) that he would rather end his life than ask for help.

The wonder of the story is how “story” serves to heal an old man’s needs by the fictive letter Jacob writes while at the same time opens Jacob to his humanity.

This is a wonderful story on the power of story but also the deep need for connection beyond story. Excellent work, I think.”

There you have it. An intriguing array of reaction and interpretation to one of 2010’s best (in my opinion) short stories, and now a finalist for this year’s Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. If you would like to read this excellent story there are any number of Best Of annual collections appearing about now, and I’m sure “A Letter from the Emperor” will be included.

On reflection, and following a quick search of the four major Best SF (or Best SF & Fantasy) collections for this year, I see only Rich Horton’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011 includes the story. The Year’s Best SF 16, edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer does not. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Five, edited by Jonathan Strahan does not. And The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Eighth Annual Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois does not, which is surprising since Dozois’ tastes most nearly match my own every year, and his collection is the largest and could most readily have afforded the space for such a relatively short story. But so it goes. Readers and reviewers are always carping about something, aren’t we?

Though there are quite a few superior stories on this year’s Sturgeon finalist list (I also particularly liked Paul Park’s “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” from F&SF, among several others), and I congratulate all of the finalists and wish them luck, I unabashedly favor Steve Rasnic Tem’s powerful little gem, “A Letter from the Emperor.”

The Sturgeon Awards banquet will be held the weekend of July 7-10 at the University of Kansas-Lawrence, Kansas. For information concerning the Campbell/Sturgeon banquet and this year’s Special Guests (of which there are many) see the website.