WWAC concludes its look at the finalists for the 2021 Hugo Award for Best Novelette with reviews of “Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker and “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard.
This story takes place following the death of Denny, a hoarder:
In his last years, Marco’s older brother Denny had become one of those people whose possessions swallowed them entirely. The kind they made documentaries about, the kind people staged interventions for, the kind people made excuses not to visit, and who stopped going out, and who were spoken of in sighs and silences.
So many possessions were amassed by Denny that it takes two people – Denny’s brother Marco and Marco’s friend Stella – to even start the job of clearing out his old house. As the two set to work, Stella exhibits a personal quirk of hers: a tendency to tell outright lies simply because they make better conversation than the truth. When Marco asks how her life has shaped up since the last time they met, she replies with a made-up job, a made-up marital status and even a made-up son.
While inspecting Denny’s old television set Stella makes up another lie, asking Marco if he remembers a non-existent television series called The Uncle Bob Show. To her surprise, Marco replies that he does indeed recall seeing the show as a child and being afraid of its creepy host. In turn, Stella finds herself dredging up vague memories of Uncle Bob, and between them the pair remember that the deceased Denny appeared on the show as a child. This sets Stella on a quest to find the truth about the TV series that she believed she had made up – and find out where Denny fitted into the story.
“Two Truths and a Lie” has distinct similarities to the creepypasta genre of online ghost stories – namely, those that involve cursed episodes of television series, haunted video games and other twisted versions of familiar pop-cultural artefacts (“Candle Cove”, a well-known creepypasta about a children’s show that may never have existed, is one that springs to mind). While creepypasta did not invent this motif – consider the cursed horror film in Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images from 1989 – the theme came into its own with the iPhone era. In this day and age, a television series with no Wikipedia page and no “whatever happened to…?” articles really is an uncanny phenomenon.
Sarah Pinsker’s story is more sophisticated than a typical creepypasta, of course. To start with, it has an appealingly quirky protagonist in Stella, who is defined by a bizarre commitment to her lying game:
It was a dumb game, really. She didn’t even remember when she’d started playing it. College, maybe. The first chance she’d had to reinvent herself, so why not do it wholesale? The rules were simple: Never lie about something anyone could verify independently; never lose track of the lies; keep them consistent and believable. That was why in college she’d claimed she’d made the varsity volleyball team in high school, but injured her knee so spectacularly in practice she’d never been able to play any sport again, and she’d once flashed an AP physics class, and she’d auditioned for the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament but been cut when she accidentally said “fuck” to Alex Trebek. Then she just had to live up to her reputation as someone who’d lived so much by eighteen that she could coast on her former cool.
The Uncle Bob Show is similarly well developed: had it actually existed, it would most certainly have obtained a cult following. Outwardly resembling a conventional children’s show like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it has an eerie undercurrent that steadily builds pace:
Marco pressed play again. The girl took the train from Denny and smiled. In the foreground, Uncle Bob started telling a story. Stella had forgotten the storytelling, too. That was the whole show: children doing their thing, and Uncle Bob telling completely unrelated stories. He paid little attention to the kids, though they sometimes stopped playing to listen to him.
The story was weird. Something about a boy buried alive in a hillside—“planted,” in his words—who took over the entire hillside, like a weed, and spread for miles around.
Stella shook her head. “That’s fucked up. If I had a kid I wouldn’t let them watch this. Nightmare city.”
Unnerving aspects of the show include not only the host’s morbid choice of stories but also his detached mannerisms, his strange habit of switching from third-person to first-person while narrating, and finally the prescient aspect of his tales: they tend to predict fates of children who appeared on The Uncle Bob Show.
Once again “Two Truths and a Lie” shows its thematic ties to creepypasta, as many of those online stories about cursed cartoons are rooted in the disturbing effect that so much children’s media can have on its audience. This is something that Pinsker captures with conviction, the macabre aspects of Uncle Bob’s series prompting the characters to discuss such topics as the ole of horror in fairy tales.
The story is constructed with care, the author knowing exactly when to whip out a primary-coloured plastic toolkit for another turn of the screw. Stella resorts to visiting a local TV archive in hopes of finding old Uncle Bob episodes, and the deceased Denny – who, for much of the story’s middle, appears to have been pushed from the narrative by the enigmatic Bob – makes a return towards the end, his legacy tied up with that of the bizarre television host.
“Two Truths and a Lie” amounts to an effective one-two punch. Stella’s compulsive habit of lying dictates the shape of the narrative and provides the story with its formalistic tricks, but it is the composite figure of Denny and Uncle Bob that provides most of the emotional weight. There is a grim poignancy in Pinsker’s portrayal of a man’s death leaving only heaps of largely useless objects, and memories inexorably entwined with pop-culture ephemera.
The city of Starhollow is populated by humans and fallen angels, the latte running the risk of having their bones stolen to produce a drug prized in Starhollow’s underground. Sam de Viera, a witch sympathetic to the plight of the Fallen, is abducted by a drug lord named Arvedai and shown the corpses of several fallen angels. But Avedai – a Fallen himself – denies that they are his handiwork, and asks Sam to find out exactly who is committing these murders.
Sam agrees to investigate, but by forming this uneasy alliance between herself and Avedai, she damages her friendship with a Fallen named Calariel. She learns that Cal and Avedai both fell in the same rebellion – “one of the bloodiest in Heaven” – and must face the possibility that her friend Cal was not an innocent led astray, but the instigator of the bloodshed.
“The Inaccessibility of Heaven” uses a central concept that will be familiar to anyone who has read urban fantasy, given that it has turned up regularly since the pioneering works of Nancy A. Collins and Tanya Huff. This concept is a blurring between the crime and fantasy genres, so that the criminal underworld is conflated with a rather more literal sort of underworld. Aliette de Bodard’s take on urban fantasy offers nothing particularly original, although the story is somewhat unusual (if hardly unique) in its theologically provocative choice of fallen angels as the fantasy creature best suited to urbanisation, with Lucifer himself serving as one of Sam’s informants.
Not that religion has a particularly large part to play in the story’s worldbuilding. The Lord’s Prayer turns up alongside salt and silver as part of a supernatural defence toolkit, but on the whole de Bodard offers a broadly secular vision of angels and devils, protagonist Sam even swearing by “the Light” rather than by God (“Oh, for the Light’s sake”). “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” depicts a world in which supernatural creatures of legend are taken as objective reality (Herne the Hunter and Prester John even have streets named after them) but the religious implications of this are kept vague.
The story’s soft-focus theology leads to it portraying heaven and damnation in an abstracted manner. Heaven is defined primarily as a state of soaring above the squalor below: a dying Fallen laments his fate (“Never to see the Light again, never to fly over the streets of the City—every night staring at the sky and remembering the breath of the wind over your wings”) and speaks of a heaven with “streets so wide…ten…cars…could pass…side by side…Fountains…and everywhere the…breath of…water…” A fall from grace, meanwhile, amounts to a loss of the social privilege necessary for such a position, with the Fallen ending up in a run-down shelter:
I dealt with Fallen daily—but at the shelter they were young, and still filled with that boyish charm, not suave or malevolent, but simply bewildered by what had happened to them. Without consciously passing judgment on them, I’d assumed that they had not known what they were doing—that somewhere, somehow, they could be redeemed—that they were worth nursing through their vomit-stained drinking binges, through their assault attempts and the insults they hurled at me—that I wasn’t trying to save the unredeemable.
“The Inaccessibility of Heaven” strives to remain in the middle of the road between fantasy and reality: its magic is tethered to the mundane, and its mundane is never too far from the fanciful. Rather like a Batman comic, the novelette borrows the aesthetics of crime fiction but articulates themes of guilt and redemption in broadly symbolic terms.
The story turns out to be an engaging one. All of the reliable beats are there: a murder mystery to be solved; an investigator whose allies are not always trustworthy; sudden bouts of the macabre (“I saw strips of bloody flesh, hanging on snow-white bones; scattered pieces of organs I didn’t want to dwell on”) and a fragmented relationship between two friends at the core. All of this reaches a climax that pushes fantasy to the fore, throwing another mythical being in alongside the fallen angels in the classic urban fantasy trick of turning a whodunit into a whatisit.
The presence of “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” on the Hugo ballot raises questions about exactly what a genre award is for. If the award’s goal is to celebrate groundbreaking work that will be looked back upon as touchstones by later generations, then this novelette is not particularly worthy. If, on the other hand, the purpose of the award is to represent the most rock-solid and shinily-polished examples of the genre, then “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” is a fine specimen of contemporary urban fantasy.
Join us for the next post in the series as we begin covering the finalists for Best Novella…