RFdc Short Story Club: “Judgment Passed”

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Short Story Club

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. 

Story: “Judgment Passed”
Author: Jerry Oltion
From: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Editor: John Joseph Adams

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.

Short Story Club – “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Short Story Club

Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Originally Published in the Doubleday anthology New Dimensions #3 (1973) and in Le Guin’s collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975)
Errata: Winner of the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Short Story

This will only touch on one small aspect of the short story (because I don’t want to write an essay on it, but rather start a discussion).

Perhaps what I like most about short stories is that there is a certain amount of freedom with standard storytelling conventions that aren’t typically found in longer works. In this piece, Le Guin exercises that freedom by presenting, among other things, a situation as opposed to a more formal plot. The plot is there, to be sure, but what happens, the events that unfold, are of secondary importance to the circumstances which propel them and, in the end, remain incomplete as the situation overwhelms them.

When asked what the story is about, most often the responses revolve around the suffering child locked away in the basement. But that is all description and backstory. The description of the child and its impact/influence on Omelas is what consumes the action of the story, and eventually the plot, the action, is lost without being able to play itself out.

The action I am referring to is, of course, the beginning of the “Festival of Summer” and the events that lead up to the horse race, and is introduced in the very first paragraph:

“All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mudstained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race.”

The narrator follows the horses all the way to the starting line, describing the town and the people along the way. Slowly this description begins to take precedence as the narrator struggles to make the reader understand the utopian society of Omelas: “Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?” The narrator goes so far as to say that there is little difference between the people of Omelas and “us”:

“…I repeat these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us…How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?…They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe them better. I wish I could convince you.”

This shift ushers in a new tact in which the narrator begins to make suppositions of things that “should” or “could” be the case with the population. We move from the plot and what is known to what the narrator thinks about specific aspects of Omelian society:

“Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids…how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters…I think that people from up and down the coast have been coming in to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams…But what else should there be?…I think there out to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city?”

This new tact the narrator takes runs the risk of casting doubt on the previous descriptions of the city and its people. The concrete facts of the previous description and backstory are replaced by an almost anthropological evaluation of society with reasoning behind each component that is thorough and logical. The narrator covers the “big issues” that society faces even today – technology, drugs, sex, and government. Through it all, the plot, the story of the Festival of Summer and the horse race, are forgotten, only to be ushered back to the forefront with the most abrupt shift in the piece. It’s as if the narrator realizes that focus has been lost, and hurries to catch up to the action not only by shifting back to the plot, but by shifting from past tense to present tense:

“Most of the procession have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of cooking goes forth…The faces of small children are amiably sticky…a child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.”

This shift in tense brings a sense of immediacy with it. This is happening now. The child is playing the flute. People are smiling. The horses rear on the starting line. The narrator brings us to that pivotal moment, the starting of the race that begins the Festival of Summer. But then the narrator rips it all away without ever starting the race:

“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

The final third of the story is all description. The festival is never mentioned again. The plot is lost in the situation. This loss is important, however, as it mirrors the questions that Le Guin is posing within the descriptions, the primary question being: Is the suffering, or loss, of one child acceptable to preserve the Omelian way of life? It’s one of those biggies that dates all the way back to Corinthians: “If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts share its suffering. If one part is praised, all the others share in its happiness.” Is this the case? Or is there a “greater good” that must be considered? Are there truly “acceptable losses”? This becomes an especially pressing question when you take into account when it was written (~1973) and what was going on in our own society.

More questions to consider/discuss. Some I have an idea about, some I still puzzle over:

  1. Le Guin hints that the horses (and other animals) have developed an advanced intelligence: “…they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own.” Why?
  2. Who is the narrator? Not from Omelas, as he refers to the people as “they” and lumps himself/herself in with the reader through the use of “us.” How does the narrator know all this, and, considering the supposition and guesswork, why doesn’t the narrator know more?
  3. What is the connection between the child playing the flute and the child locked away in the basement?
  4. How long has this been going on? How does the Omelian society “choose” the child that will suffer? What does this kind of extended thinking imply about the people of Omelas?
  5. What is gained by those who choose to leave Omelas? What effect does it have, if any, on the situation within the city?

Recommended works by Le Guin:

The Earthsea series (beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea)
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Dispossesed
The Word for World is Forest

There are others (specifically Lavinia and The Lathe of Heaven) which I have yet to read but are multiple award winners that have been on my “To Read” list for years now.

Next up on the rfdc Short Story Club:

July 18: “The Nonesuch” by Brian Lumley

The rfdc Short Story Club

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Short Story Club

I’ve always been a big fan of the short story, and it surprises me that, in this age of short attention spans, instant gratification and electronic media, that it hasn’t become a more popular form. Well, I’m going to do my part to rectify that.

I stumbled across an old post over at io9 in which they tried to form a “Weekend Short Story Club.” It doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere, as I can’t find any sort of discussion on the 4 scheduled stories, but I think it’s a great idea. So much, in fact, that I’m going to steal it, with a few modifications, and see if I can spur some discussion on various short stories.

Beginning this Sunday (27 June) when I’ll post a reading lineup/schedule, every other Sunday I’ll begin a “discussion” on the scheduled story. I already have a few stories in mind, but I need to make sure they are accessible on-line. If you have a favorite story you want to discuss, feel free to link to it below, and I’ll add it to the list. I make no promises about sticking to a particular genre, as my reading habits are varied and many of my favorite stories fall outside my preferred genres for recreational reading.

Hopefully some of you lurkers out there will de-cloak yourselves and talk about reading and writing with me!

 

Edit 11/05/2011:
So this lasted less than a month. My own fault, I know. But here, some 17 months later, I am resurrecting it in a slightly different format. I’ll just read short stories (since I do that all the time anyway) and then comment on them. No schedule, no real “club,” and no real idea about which one is next in line. Feel free to throw me a suggestion. I love the format, and will read damn near anything.