Welcome to the third and final instalment of a review series covering the finalists for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Before we go on, now would be a good time to look back at what has already been covered…
The category has two fantasy stories in Siobhan Carroll’s “For He Can Creep” and Sarah Gailey’s “Away with the Wolves”. Although both deal with anthropomorphised animals, the two stories are very different: Carroll’s piece expands upon a work of eighteenth-century fantasy while Gailey’s story fits into the contemporary OwnVoices movement, its themes drawing directly upon the author’s experience with chronic pain.
Moving on to the science fiction stories, we can again see that different authors have taken distinct paths. Sarah Pinsker’s “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” is a play on the mystery genre that deploys its science fiction concept almost as a punchline, while Caroline M. Yoachim’s “The Archronology of Love” uses its alien world ultimately to probe the emotional state of its main character.
That leaves just two more stories in the category. Both are science fiction, and both imagine new societies as a means of encouraging us to ponder our own world. But the results are once again quite different to one another…
“Omphalos” by Ted Chiang
The universe was created by God around nine thousand years ago. The scientific community has found the evidence to back up this hypothesis: mummies of people without navels; wood without rings; animal bones and shells without signs of growth — all dating back to a primordial era when all life on Earth was not born or grown, but created fully-formed.
Dorothea Morrell is one of the researchers involved with the study of these artefacts. Along the way, she comes to suspect that certain primordial discoveries have been stolen – and the trail of evidence leads Dorothea to another scientific discovery, one dealing not with the Earth but the heavens.
“Omphalos” takes its title from Philip Gosse’s 1857 book Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. Gosse, an opponent of his contemporary Darwin, attempted to reconcile the Biblical creation narrative with the fossil record by arguing that God may have created the world complete with fossils, just as Adam and Eve may have been created with navels. Ted Chiang’s fictional scenario responds to this hypothesis neither by countering nor accepting it, but by rendering it irrelevant: “Omphalos” depicts an alternate universe where geology and archaeology reinforce rather than contradict the idea of an Earth and humanity created by divine will thousands of years ago.’
This is a provocative concept, one that the story is able to explore from multiple angles. Most obviously, the reader is invited to contrast the world of “Omphalos” with our own, and view with irony to the assumptions of the story’s scientists:
I asked them to imagine being confronted with proof of a past extending so far back that the numbers lost all meaning: a hundred thousand years, a million years, ten million years. Then I asked wouldn’t they feel lost, like a castaway adrift on an ocean of time? The only sane response would be despair.
It would have been all too easy for the story to become smug and condescending, an excuse to skewersome easy religious targets. But instead, “Omphalos” turns out to be filled with warmth: Chiang’s treatment of faith is as respectful as it is wry.
The story puts a novel twist on the old conflict between science and faith. In the world of “Omphalos”, it is taken for granted that a scientist will have faith in God – after all, they have seen God’s creation up close. Yet, science is still not entirely on the same page as organised religion. We see a hint of this when the story’s version of young-Earth creationism departs from Christian orthodoxy: here, God created many primordial humans, which obviously counters the Adam and Eve narrative.
Much of the character conflict arises from dispute as to whether the church or the scientific establishment is doing the best job of honouring God. Would creation be better celebrated by a new cathedral, or by well-funded museums? Should artefacts be kept secreted away and viewed only by church-approved scientists, or put on display for the public to learn from? Despite her firm belief in God, Dorothea is comparatively secular in her outlook, showing scepticism towards the church and its ordained branch of archaeology. She is also dismissive of the notion that the primordial artefacts are relics with miraculous powers, instead holding to “the secular consensus that there has been exactly one verified miracle—the creation of the universe”.
Chiang manages to build an engaging plot out of museum donations and research papers, eventually reaching a twist that moves the central topic from archaeology to astronomy. The story depicts the latter as being a neglected science: after all, each and every one of the universe’s 5,872 stars were catalogued in 1745. But Dorothea ends up learning of a discovery regarding Earth’s celestial neighbours – one that drastically shakes her view of creation, and with it, the scientific establishment of her peers.
“Omphalos” shows us a distorted reflection of our world, not so that we can point and laugh, but so we can contemplate the contrast. Like much of the best science fiction, the story raises more questions than it answers yet remains wholly satisfying.
“Emergency Skin” by N. K. Jemisin
The main character in “Emergency Skin” is the product of an elitist society, the ancestors of which fled an environmentally-unstable Earth and settled on another world. There, they attempted to preserve and progress humanity through technology and eugenics, while leaving the majority of the race to its fate back on Earth. The protagonist has been chosen by this regime to visit whatever remains of Earth and recovera tissue sample for scientific research. But upon arrival, it turns out that the planet is not the flooded, ruined wasteland that he was assured it would be: as it happens, the remainder of humanity – disparaged by the spaceborne deserters as feeble-bodied, weak-willed and simple-minded – has actually done a very good job of taking care of things.
“Emergency Skin” is outwardly simple but deceptively sophisticated. Externally, the story is a variation on the old but much-loved joke (seen everywhere from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the picture books of Tony Ross) in which a vicious alien invasion turns out to be comically harmless once it arrives on Earth. N. K. Jemisin’s spin on this gag involves contrasting dystopia and utopia. We are led to expect a post-apocalyptic desolation, only to be taken on a trip through a warm and loving society; in the process, we get to see the carpet being figuratively pulled from beneath the self-identified ubermenschen.
But as straightforward as the premise may be, the story’s execution is slyly inventive. We are not given the main character’s dialogue or thoughts directly; instead, the story takes the form of a continuous feed from a “dynamic-matrix consensus intelligence” based on the minds of the elite’s founders. This provides a running second-person commentary to the protagonist, whose speech and actions can be inferred from the narrator’s responses.
Through the narrative voice we see first-hand the elite’s disdain for those it considers deserving of being subdued (women, the working classes) or purged outright (the elderly, the disabled, the overweight). Like a sitcom bigot, this character is repugnant but comically toothless. It can do no more than rant and fume when confronted with successful examples of all that it opposes: a borderless world with an ecologically-stable infrastructure and a compassionate policing system.
As well as class, gender and bodily ability, the story explores the theme of race. The main character, a literally faceless drone, initially has no skin – merely some sort of high-tech suit. The elite colony views skin as a privilege that must be earned, and values specifically white skin, with the intelligence accompanying the traveller aghast at the diversity evident on Earth (“Every skin shade from melanistic to albino? They seem to pay no attention whatsoever to basic eugenics principles”). To fit in, the protagonist adopts the emergency skin of the story’s title, and takes on the appearance of a black person. The intelligence treats this as a necessary indignity, but the rebellious drone comes to embrace their new identity.
Meanwhile, the tissue that the colony desires from Earth turns out to a sample of HeLa cells. Although the story never discusses the real-world history of this plot element, the HeLa cell line was taken from – and named after – an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks, whose surviving relatives were not given financial compensation for the cells’ usage in scientific research. Given that the story’s colonists require HeLa cells to continue regenerating their own (white) skin, the symbolism here is palpable.
In recent times, we have seen debates over whether hopepunk – light-hearted, optimistic science fiction with a rosy view of the future – is capable of tackling the harder issues of today. With this story, N. K. Jemisin succeeds in putting the punk into hopepunk: “Emergency Skin” views social ills with the good cheer of schoolchildren who have just dumped a bucket of water over a bully’s head.
And so, with N. K. Jemisin’s broad parody of eugenics and Ted Chiang’s thoughtful response to young-Earth creationism, the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novelette category is wrapped up. Join us next time for a look at the Best Novella category…