Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
Which, as it happens, is exactly what The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award is trying to do too: raise readers’ awareness of a form of fiction that’s obscenely easy to overlook. That said, this a prize with a particularly high profile. Each year, the winner of the world’s richest and most rewarding award for a single short story takes home £30,000—a princely pot that has given short fiction valuable visibility since the Sunday Times first presented the prize in 2010.
This year, the winner of the award was Adam Johnson, who you might know as the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Orwellian North Korea novel The Orphan Master’s Son. ‘Nirvana’ occurs closer to home: in near-future North America; Palo Alto to be precise. The President is dead—assassinated three months before the story starts—but our unnamed narrator still speaks with him.
He’s not the only one, either. Across the country—even beyond its borders—people are using the President projection the protagonist of ‘Nirvana’ put together, ostensibly to talk to about subjects such as the meaning of life and the inevitability of death:
“You weren’t born,” I tell him. “I wrote an algorithm, based on the Linux operating kernel. You’re an open-source search engine married to a dialog bot and a video compiler. The program scrubs the Web and archives a person’s images and videos and data—everything you say, you’ve said before.”
For the first time, the President falls silent.
I ask, “Do you know that you’re… that you’ve died?”
The President doesn’t hesitate.
“The end of life is another kind of freedom,” he says.
Assuredly, it would be for Charlotte, our programmer’s partner. She’s paralysed from the neck down because of “Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which her immune system attacks the insulation around her nerves, so that when the brain sends signals to the body, the electrical impulses ground out before they can be received.”
Her only real respite in the nine months she’s spent bedbound—nine months that have taken her to “the edge of the medical literature” concerned with her condition—have been albums by Nirvana. In a sense she is comforted by Kurt Cobain’s agonising articulation of the pain she can no longer feel. However, his influence has led to thoughts of suicide too—and not just thoughts. Charlotte has exacted a promise from her husband, a promise he hates himself for making, to help her end it all if and when she reaches the end of her tether.
The way which Johnson ties together the two tales threaded through ‘Nirvana’—Charlotte’s unceasing suffering and the viral spread of the dead President—is simply terrific: touchingly, they become one before all is said and done, in an emotionally potent moment at the very end of this satisfying short story.
It’s a bleak piece, clearly—influenced, I gather, by the author’s own partner’s battle with cancer—but know that ‘Nirvana’ also has its heartening aspects. There are periods of real relief—of warmth, wonderfully—when, for example, our programmer captures and hacks a drone which has been hovering around his house. He gives smartglasses to Charlotte and proceeds to set her free, albeit briefly:
A grand smile crosses her face as she puts it through its paces—hovering, rotating, swivelling the camera’s servos. And then the drone is off. I watch it cross the lawn, veer around the compost piles, and then head for the community garden. […] “My roses,” she says. “They’re still there. Someone’s been taking care of them.”
She has the drone inspect every bud and bloom. Carefully, she manoeuvres it through the bright petals, brushing against the blossoms, then shuttles it home again. Suddenly it is hovering before us. Charlotte leans slightly forward and sniffs the drone deeply. “I never thought I’d smell my roses again,” she says, her face flush with hope and amazement, and suddenly the tears are streaming.
It’s the incorporation of moments like this that make ‘Nirvana’ a worthy winner. Without them, it would be desperately depressing, yes, but also unbalanced—cold and one-note as opposed to temperate and expressive. By allowing a little light in, Johnson gives us a more dynamic understanding of the characters at the heart of his narrative.
Is this the best short story of the year? I wouldn’t say so, no—these themes and ideas have been explored before, most memorably, to my mind, in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror—but it’s certainly a contender, combining sensitive storytelling and canny characterisation with well-developed speculative elements.
And there’s another reason to rejoice: a science fiction short just won one of the world’s most prestigious prizes, people! Unless I’m very much mistaken, we’ve been waiting for this day for decades—yet it’s hardly made the headlines, has it?
I can’t help but wonder why that is. Is the short fiction form really so insignificant?
A debate for another day, I dare say. Meantime, I’d recommend you read ‘Nirvana’ for free here, or grab it in an affordable digital edition—search for 6 Shorts 2014—alongside the other five works of fiction nominated for this year’s Sunday Times Short Story Award.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.