Posted by Michael A. Burstein on Feb 27, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror, Women of Horror | 0 comments
I suppose I should have titled this blog post something like “Why I Love the Works of Jennifer Pelland,” because otherwise people might think I’m talking about the person and not the writer and her works. Or perhaps I should have gone the other way and called this blog post “NominateMachine and ‘Sacrifice’ for the Hugo,” because by the time you’re done reading it, I hope you’ll feel that way. But maybe that would have been too on the nose. I should disclose from the beginning that Jen and I are friends. We became friends years ago when I mistook her for Vonda McIntyre online (no, really; Jen had taken over a SFWA email address for Vonda) and a few months later Jen made a point of introducing herself to me in person at the Arisia science fiction convention. I was on a panel, and she was in the audience, and I was very glad that she made a point of saying hello, because I probably would have been too shy to approach her.
Because she’s a damn good writer.
When I first started recommending the short stories of Jennifer Pelland, some of my friends were confused. Although no one would call me quiet or reserved, I tend to be somewhat, well, conventional. Vanilla, even. And Jen’s stories, some of which can be found in her collectionUnwelcome Bodies, are anything but. Jen’s stories are not the sort of thing you would present to your stereotypical maiden aunt (although I suspect that my late aunt would have appreciated Jen’s work). And many of my friends felt that her work was the complete antithesis of anything I would recommend.
One reviewer praised her book of stories but noted that it was dark, saying something like “I’m not sure I want to live in her world.” Well, of course not. But none of us wants to live in George Orwell’s 1984 either, or Margaret Atwood’s world of The Handmaid’s Tale. What we want to do is visit the world so we can be warned about it and be reminded to take the steps in our own world to keep those worlds from coming true. And I happen to love the cautionary tale. I’ve written some myself, such as “Kaddish for the Last Survivor” and “Broken Symmetry.” But sometimes I shy away from where a story wants to take me.
Jen is brave. She is able to hold up a dark mirror to the world, one that is too dark for me to hold up personally.
I’ll also note something else from the perspective of a writer. Sometimes we are taken with envy or jealousy, because another writer has written an incredible story, and we wish we could have written it ourselves. Often this is is because we knew we could have written it had we put our mind to it.
Well, in the case of Jen’s work, my mind is at ease. There is absolutely no fracking way I could ever have written the stories she envisions. Even when she explores the very themes I’m known for.
For example, people know that I’m into the history of New York City and that I want to do my part to help the world remember the victims of tragedies. A few years back, I hijacked my wife’s obsession with the 1904 General Slocum disaster to write the novella “Time Ablaze,” about the people who died in that horrible fire. A few years later, Jen decided to tackle the tragedy of 9/11, and she wondered what it would be like to be remembered mostly for the circumstances of one’s death. Jen’s Nebula-nominated story “Ghosts of New York” is a one-hundred-and-eighty degree reversal of how I myself would treat the material. It is a perverted, inverted perspective on my obsession of how the future will remember us (noted with great obviousness by the title of my first collection with Apex, I Remember the Future). But because there is no way I could or would ever have tackled the material from Jen’s perspective, I could read the story and appreciate it even more.
Right now, Jen has two works that were published last year that have earned quite a lot of praise. Truth to tell, I was surprised not to see either of them appear on the Nebula shortlist.
The first is her novel Machine, which came out in January 2012. It’s the story of a woman with a fatal disease, who has her consciousness downloaded into an artificial body so she can continue to live her life while her meat body is kept in stasis until a cure can be found. Now, other writers have tackled this theme before, countless times; for example, Robert J. Sawyer explored the implications of downloading consciousness into an artificial body in his excellent novel Mindscan. But Jen Pelland has a way of showing a reader the incredible alienation that someone might feel, both within and without, from having undergone such a transfer. What Jen’s main character Celia goes through is both horrifying and attractive. Above all, however, it is painfully real. One comes away from the novel with the distinct impression that when the human race one day achieves the ability to download our minds into artificial bodies, Celia’s experiences will be close to the norm.
Jen’s other work that came out last year was her short story “Sacrifice,” which appeared in Dark Faith: Invocations and Apex Magazine and can be read at this link. I hesitate to describe the story, as it really ought to be experienced without preface. But I can say this: many of us would give our lives to save the life of a loved one. But we don’t always think of the implications, and if we do, we tend to shy away from them. Jen is brave enough to take those raw emotions of loss to their logical conclusion. She has crafted a story that will haunt you for a long time.
Whether or not you’ll be filling out a Hugo ballot in a few weeks, I encourage you to read both of these works. And then seek out her other stories and see how else she can illuminate the world for you.
Just don’t do it right before bedtime.
Michael A. Burstein won the 1997 Campbell Award. His short fiction, mostly in Analog, has been nominated for ten Hugos and four Nebulas. He and wife Nomi live in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he is a Library Trustee and Town Meeting Member. He has two physics degrees, and attended Clarion. His first collection (I Remember the Future: The Award-Nominated Stories of Michael A. Burstein) was released in late 2008 by Apex Publications. For more information about the author visit www.mabfan.com.