First cab off the rank for the Nebula finalist short stories is “Interview for the End of the World”. The story is a spin off from Bruno’s “Titan’s Children” book series and acts as a kind of origin/backstory to the setting of those stories, describing events that led to establishment of a human colony on Titan.
The first person narrator, Director Darian Trass, is a brilliant billionaire inventor who hasn’t met a problem he couldn’t solve, including the end of the world. A huge asteroid is heading towards Earth and Trass has built a spaceship to get a select three thousand survivors off Earth to establish a colony on Titan. Having built the ship, he is left with two other problems, picking the candidates to put aboard the ship and how to cope with the rejected candidates and other desperate people surrounding his desert compound.
The story starts with Trass interviewing a potential candidate about 5 days before the asteroid is due to impact:
“…Frank Drayton. Twenty-seven years old and already a world-renowned horticulturalist. Not the most exciting job, but a necessary addition for a colony on a hostile world. He was marked for possible acceptance, but nobody got a spot in the Titan Project without me looking them in the eyes first.”Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”
The surname is significant to readers of Bruno’s book series. Drayton explains he has no family connections and that he thinks he would be useful to the project.
The story then skips 120 hours later, with less than a day to go before the asteroid hits. Drayton has been caught trying to smuggle somebody into the compound. It turns out that Drayton had hidden the fact that he had a young duaghter. The crowd outside the compound are aware of this and are angry because they feel cheated. As matters escalate, Trass nobly decides to not board the ship and gives his place up for Drayton’s daughter. He stays behind to help launch the ship and then runs from the angry mob who have broken into the compound once Trass’s soldiers had boarded the ship. He drinks a last glass of whisky and raises a glass to the departing ship.
This is not a particularly good story in any sense. It has a plot and it has some clear stakes but aside from that it is hard to pick out much positive to say about it. The central character is presented as heroic but comes across as an arsehole — maybe that was the intent, in which case that’s an interesting aspect of the story but I don’t think it is intentional.
The actual prose is clunky and full of pointless explanation. It’s a struggle to wade through the words.
“My office door creaked open. Sgt. Hale, my head of security, ushered in the Titan Project’s next candidate. I quickly downed the remnants of a glass of lukewarm whiskey in my liver-spotted hand to calm my mind, then placed it down behind my computer screen. Sgt. Hale and I exchanged a nod before he exited, leaving myself and the candidate alone.”Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”
It reads like a how-to-write example, as in rather than say that Trass is old mention his liver spotted hands! Except in a first person narrative and surrounded by a whole bunch of other scene setting aspects. Not every story written like a description of what you might see on a TV screen is bad but it is hard to write well this way. Visual media allow you to take in lots of small details quickly but also skip over what you don’t focus on. An episode of a TV show where this story was the plot may well show where Trass places his whisky glass or that Sgt Hale exchanges a nod but fill a short story with these quasi stage directions and you end up with a lot of verbiage.
In an intentionally slow scene like the initial interview, the effect isn’t too terrible. With action scenes, it’s even worse. For example, at the end of the story Trass has helped launch the ship and has distracted the invading mob who are now chasing him instead of besieging the ship.
“I wasn’t far enough ahead of the mob to take the elevator, so I entered the emergency stairwell. My legs felt like jelly by the time I reached the hallway six stories up. My office glowed at the other end of it like a beacon. Apparently, I’d left my lights on. The rest of the floor was dark.Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”
I sprinted toward my office, locking the door as soon as I made it inside. A few seconds later, the mob pounded on it. I wasn’t worried. The door was installed by the company that I’d started from nothing, and our products always worked. It would hold long enough.”
“our products always worked” in this case the creaking door from the first paragraph was also, what? A mob proof office door? It’s not just that the additional details, instead of adding colour or depth to the story just hinder the prose, they also make very little sense. The author wants Trass to have time to have a last drink of whisky and also wants him chased by a mob, so his office door needs to be strong enough to stop somebody kicking it down and so that needs explaining etc.
Or take this section from the first part of the story which tries to pack in as much backstory as possible:
“I grabbed a half-empty bottle of whiskey from under my desk and refilled the glass sitting by my keyboard. It was the only thing that quieted the voices bouncing around in my head of everyone I already had or was planning to reject. I was inches away from a much-needed sip when my door swung open.Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”
Kara, my assistant, froze in the entrance. Her expression soured when she noticed the glass I held. She’d been with me since her parents died in a car accident, leaving her an orphan at only ten years old. My company was working on implementing the automated vehicle network at the time, so I legally adopted her. At first, it was admittedly a publicity stunt, and then I fell in love with her. I always found myself shocked upon realizing what a beautiful, intelligent young woman she’d grown into. She had the brains to take over Trass Industries from me one day… if not for the end of the known world.”
So what do we have? The best thing about the story is the plot and that’s thin. I’ve read worse prose but this is not in any sense great writing. Maybe fans of the books which the story connects with may enjoy the insights and backstory provided but as a stand-alone story this is very weak. I struggle to see why amid many other stories somebody would pick this one out as particularly notable. The title is good? I’m at a loss to find any feature here that amounts to more than ‘not terrible’ and can’t help but notice multiple features that need substantial work.