The Short Story Club is my effort to shine a little light on the short story. It’s always surprised me a little that, with today’s dwindling attention span, short stories have not made a comeback. I find most people, especially my students, are increasingly apathetic towards the short story. In fact, two friends of mine, perhaps the most voracious readers I know, are downright antagonistic when it comes to short fiction. And one is a writer! Perhaps it’s because the nature of the short story is, I think, opposite that of the novel in that it is made to question – to investigate. Where novels open doors and then close them before leaving, short stories pry them open and leave them that way. There are no big answers or revelations. No wrapping things up in nice little bows. Nothing is handed to the reader that says, “Here! This is all you need to know!” Short stories make the reader work for understanding. And the good ones… the really good ones… will keep us working for a long, long time.
After a 12 year mission exploring “Dessica,” a celestial body they hoped would be able to support life, Gregor, Jody, Gwen, Dave, and the rest of the agnostic crew have returned home to find… “an empty Earth.” According to the four year old newspapers, Jesus appeared in the Tetons, initiated The Rapture, and that was that… every human on Earth and the three thousand Lunar colonists are gone. “Judgement Passed” is a story about how the last eight people on Earth, all scientists chosen by NASA at least in part because of their agnosticism, deal with being left behind by God.
In short, this is a deep, fabulous exploration on the nature of faith, particularly blind faith, regardless of the direction that faith leads. Like all the astronauts, Jody is agnostic. The difference is, she’s agnostic to the core. Rather than accept the evidence – the complete absence of humanity – that there is a God, she clings to her belief that it is impossible to know what really happened:
“And so God missed us. That’s my point. If He were omniscient He would have known we were there…Maybe aliens came and took us all for slaves. Maybe we were a lab experiment and they got all the data they needed. Maybe we taste like chicken. There are plenty of more believable explanations than God.”
She has a certain faith in her agnosticism that sets her in direct confrontation with those who have taken the absence of humanity to mean there is, indeed, a God, and all this time they were wrong. Dave, in particular, latches on to the concept of religion. He is, in many ways, panic-stricken at the thought that he was wrong about it all along. The impact of his “realization” leaves him clinging to the other end of the religious spectrum:
“We found Dave outside on the deck overlooking the Snake River, a shotgun in his hand and a mess of bird feathers and blood smeared across the snow. I could see bird seed among the feathers… “It’s an experiment,” Dave said… “according to Jesus, not even a sparrow can fall without God noticing. I figured that was pretty easy to test.”
Jody had come up beside me and was examining the bird. “It would be if you’d managed to shoot a sparrow,” she said. “This is a chickadee.”
Dave blushed when we all laughed, but he said, “It’s not the species; it’s the concept.”
The evolution of these conflicting beliefs is something that has haunted mankind for thousands of years. God, Zeus, Allah, Ishvara, Elohim, Adi Purush, Vishnu, Wakan Tanka (suddenly I am thinking of “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Sir Arthur C. Clark, another wonderful short story), it doesn’t matter what religion and what god (or God, if you prefer) is in place… the non-believers were/are always at odds, often violently, with the believers. The high points of “Judgement Passed” lie not in the fairly obvious belief system of the author, but rather in the conflict and subsequent resolution of the characters.
“Judgment Passed” is a wonderful example of the power of the short story. It rigorously questions those ideals which we hold so dear and forces the reader to turn the examination inward. “What is it I believe? What would I do?” This is the kind of examination, and resulting self-examination, that makes short fiction such an important part of literature and, I think, life. It may not give the reader any answers, but it certainly provides questions worthy of exploration.