Nebula Shorts: Rhett C. Bruno – “Interview for the End of the World”

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.
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.”

Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”

“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.
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.”

Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the 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.

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58 thoughts on “Nebula Shorts: Rhett C. Bruno – “Interview for the End of the World”

    • Cam: You wrote: The title is good? But beter than “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” or “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” I thought that were the best titles.
      If it helps other storys are better.

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      • I mean, it just raises endless questions, like:

        1) Why were the interviews to be in the escape ship not being done in private/secret? Why not have the launch in someplace more inaccessible to mobs like an island or underground bunker?

        2) Were the soldiers part of the 3,000 people or extra? If they are extra and adjusted for, then adjusting for one little girl does not require the billionaire to stay behind to take her.

        3) Even if the soldiers are part of the 3,000 people, space trips require numerous redundancies and back-ups to have a hope of succeeding, including extra food in case food supplies go bad and extra supplies if things are damaged. And they have to plan for contingencies like a woman getting pregnant on the trip and delivering a baby on ship. So again, to take the little girl, all you need to do is ditch some of the extra food or supplies if there is a weight/space issue — which there shouldn’t be if they’ve been smart in planning. There’s nothing magical about the number 3,000 as opposed to 3,001, so again, no reason that the billionaire needs to stay behind. There’s no way his giant ship is that fragile. Or are they supposed to be in pods or something? In which case, again, you have back-up pods, so stick the little kid in one and you don’t even have to ration the food.

        4) What about the ground crew? They don’t get to go, right? So if the billionaire stays behind to die, why doesn’t the billionaire have a drink with them before they all die, having nobly sacrificed themselves so humanity might live, safe in the presumably fortified control room? Why does he leave the control room to try to get to his office?

        5) If he decided to stay behind and die, why then run from the mob trying to kill him? Especially when he already felt guilty about leaving them to die. If he doesn’t want to die from being beat up by the mob, why not take a gun and shoot himself, again in the control room, with his whiskey? Why is the door to his office really strong but the main doors to the compound aren’t?

        6) Why would a desperate mob who believes they need to overrun the ship or die (though how they think they can then launch the ship if they kill the crew is anybody’s guess,) wait days to invade the compound just because there were some soldiers with guns?

        7) Why would this expedition wait until the last possible minute/day to launch? That’s really unsafe and again, very poor planning.

        Of course plotting in a short story can be tough — not much room for detail and science fiction often doesn’t do very practical science or sociology. So it is presumably the philosophical issues of the interview process — who gets to live — that the nomination voters thought would be of interest. But likely to make for a lot of arguing this year.

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      • @Kat:
        It sort of makes you wonder if someone saw all the arguing over The Cold Equations a few years back and decided to write a story that ‘did it right’, but had taken the wrong lesson from the whole mess to start with.

        Liked by 1 person

      • 4) He’s a birilliant billionaire. He can’t be expected to drink with the ground crew. Though he does appear to drink with his assistant, whom he loves but was perfectly willing to leave behind anyway.

        6) There is inevitably an angry mob in those stories and because it’s an angry mob, they cannot be expected to behave rationally. Or maybe the escape ship was only finished at the very last minute.

        There is another story along those lines from the 1950s or early 1960s, where the Earth is also doomed due to some kind of collision, and only a few people can escape. The protagonist is one of the soldiers tasked with guarding the escape ship from the angry mob (TM). The title is “one in X Thousand”, but I remember neither the author nor the value of X, so I can’t find it now. I remember the cover, an Ed Emshwiller cover, but since he painted hundreds, that’s also no help in tracking it down either. At any rate, I read that story years ago and wrote one of my own from the POV of a member of the angry mob.

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    • From your description, it reminds me of an abridged version of “When Worlds Collide”, a movie from 1951, which is based on a novel from 1933. Not that it isn’t possible to do something new with a well-worn plot, but it doesn’t sound like that happened here.

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      • It may be McIntosh’s One in Three Hundred. Except in it the protagonist was the guy charged with selection the one in three hundred who would be lucky enough to try to make it to Mars (two in three of whom would die on the way: they settled for a crappy but cheap ship to maximize the number of people who got to go in the hope the program would be tolerated by those who were doomed.). And the cover art was not as specified.

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  1. “4) He’s a brilliant billionaire. He can’t be expected to drink with the ground crew. Though he does appear to drink with his assistant, whom he loves but was perfectly willing to leave behind anyway.”

    Great Scott, did he leave the assistant he loves like a daughter behind? Who was going to assist him at the new colony? It sounds like the ending was the problem and it might have been a neater ending if the assistant who is left behind shoots the billionaire because he left her to die and then chose a stranger’s kid over her to sacrifice for — because she didn’t answer the interview questions right, maybe. Give it a bit of noir. 🙂

    What it reminded me of was the movie Deep Impact, but of course that’s not the first SF story of someone giving up their spot in whatever sort of ark or bunker is trying to save humanity. I have a lot of problems with “The Cold Equations” as do several SF writers because it’s not how space trips would be planned. You have to have contingencies and redundancies, including extra fuel, and there’s always some sort of metal or equipment that could be stripped and jettisoned to balance the weight of an unexpected body. It’s really just a story of corporate greed and violence, a sociological SF story, not one about science. And that’s a working problem for this story as well on the other end of it with unnecessary sacrifice being the story goal, even though the situation should logically not have occurred.

    So the meat of the story sounds like it’s the interview process about who should be allowed to be saved and what those decisions cost — and the guy tricking the billionaire. But when you have an impractical narrator who can’t figure out how to save himself and the kid, much less his beloved assistant, that might not have worked out so well.

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  2. This part
    “…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. ”
    makes me mad at the main character. A high-quality horticulturalist will find his work very exciting – and in a colony on a hostile world, the job of horticulturalist will be very exciting indeed.

    P.S. Many of the problems with “Cold Equations” come from the fact that the author wanted the story to end with the girl beign saved, and the editor didn’t.

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    • Ah, that explains a lot — Campbell and his autocracy over accuracy. But he had a point — by having the girl be murdered, it did make that story stand out. It’s the sheer viciousness of that story that turned it into a classic, though not one that people particularly love, for the most part.

      Which is why having the billionaire leave the assistant behind, give up his seat for the child and then have her kill him instead of forgiving him because he sacrificed himself for a child would have made this story a bit unusual. But that’s just the editor in me noodling. If the interview part of the story was compelling, then that may have made the ones who nominated it feel it was a contender. The author may, as Camestros speculated, have been trying to do too much in the story to be a prequel for his novel series.

      Stories we find flawed can still be compelling to us, short stories can be built on something very slight and familiar, but people do want to feel struck by something in the story. So this is maybe not the strong entry in the category.

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      • Campbell was half-right – he turned the story from yet another McGyveresque competence fantasy into an examination of the universe not owing you a living. The half-wrong was the failure to stick the setup. Clarke’s Breaking Strain doesn’t beat you over the head with the indifference of the universe, but I don’t recall the setup being flawed in the same way as in The Cold Equations.

        A couple of thoughts have been dislodged from my mind.
        1) How much responsibility does Campbell hold for the prevalence of human exceptionalism in SF?
        2) How much does the fondness in certain quarters for stories of Hard Men Making Hard Decisions originate in The Cold Equations? And how much of the hate for The Cold Equations is a projection of a revulsion of subsequent stories gleefully invoking lifeboat ethics?

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      • “The Cold Equations” is not a story about the indifference of the “universe” to humans. It’s about weak, greedy humans who run a corporation doing things badly and being willing to murder people because they find human lives disposable over their own pennies. Which then adds a layer of irony to the story, since they are making a profit off of supposedly saving human lives. Their business plan is that human lives are a priority, but their actual business practice — towards both their employees like the delivery pilot and other humans — is that human lives are worthless. They also don’t care if the trip is really successful to save their customers’ lives, since they have not properly prepared the ship with the logical redundancies and fail-safes to ensure that and for which they were being paid. It’s a critique of scavenger capitalism and its incompetence. The girl has to die because the executives are skimming off their own corporation rather than effectively doing the job.

        If the ending was that the employee finds a way to save the girl — thus correcting his bosses’ incompetence and graft in not properly outfitting the ship to maximize success to line their own pockets — that’s less memorable than the ending in which the girl dies due to the executives’ corruption and personal greed. So Campbell was perhaps right in suggesting that a story critiquing incompetent, scavenger capitalism should fully show its ridiculousness and horror. But what would have made it even better, really, is the delivery ship then crashing anyway, because you’ve got to expect a lot of them did due to the lack of back-up fuel. But that would have detracted from the murder and the first irony maybe.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t understand how they kept the compound secure until the liftoff.

    On the one hand, every time the Nebraska Cornhuskers win a national championship a mob of people show up at Memorial Stadium, break down the doors, and then tear down and carry off the goalposts. (No, I cannot explain this.) And this is just a crowd of happy drunk people with whatever tools they managed to pick up in the walk from the bar to the stadium. That mob outside of the compound should have made it inside in about a day, because there’s nothing to stop them from grabbing every large truck and every piece of construction equipment in the area and forcing their way in.

    On the other hand, that compound should have been awash in every Special Forces unit on the planet, fighting for control of it. You don’t need to be a billionaire (or a genius horticulturalist) if you are the leader of a country with its own military–and those soldiers would be highly motivated to be able to get themselves and their families off the earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My main problem (by the synopsis that is) is: Why was only one ship built? Also: have they no idea about security? BUILD THAT WALL! If you are a billionaire and can build a space ship, you can also build a 20 foot concrete wall. Also, as paranoid as billionaires go nowadays, I’m quite sure they would have an escape room ready.

    As for there being a mob: Absolutely. But that mob would have been created years before, because this kind of projects with so many people can’t be kept secret. You would have to need to use airlift to get food and other supplies, unless you have your own farmland for all these 3000 people.

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  5. I can imagine an ageing billionaire’s ego overriding his intellect, but he shouldn’t have been on the list in the first place. However brilliant he is (or should that be was) the must be someone nearly as brilliant who will be able to contribute for much longer. (Not to mention that becoming a billionaire is as much luck as brilliance.)

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  6. Apparently it wasn’t the end of the world.

    “After three decades working for Pervenio Corp, chasing wanted offworlders and extinguishing riots throughout the solar system, Malcolm Graves has seen it all. If the credits are there, he’s the man for the job. But his latest assignment doesn’t afford him that luxury.

    A high-profile bombing on Earth has the men who sign Malcolm’s paychecks clamoring for answers. They force him to team up with a strange, cyber-augmented partner who’s more interested in statistics than instinct, and ship them both off to Titan. Their assignment: Hunt down a suspected group of Titanborn extremists who will go to any length to free their home from the tyranny of Earth’s corporations. ”

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rhett-C.-Bruno/e/B008X8ND1O

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  7. Thank you for the review here. I know not every story is for everyone! In the end, I wanted to tell the story about a pretentious man making a crazy decision. Which is why he’s so late with everything. It’s mentioned there are space stations, bunkers and all sorts of other more public projects that hang on to Earth, but he thinks he can create a new world. A lot of authors and readers have really loved it. I’m not an overly confident writer so who knows why. But there are many subtle ways that it connects to my book series where they were all wrong and the world doesn’t end, and even undermines characters there who have rewritten this historical moment to make Trass a legendary hero, which I really enjoyed writing. Questions of morality, etc. he’s about as good a man as Tony Stark was before… well…. superhero hah. Anyway, I look forward to meeting everyone to SFWA, and good luck to the other nominees!

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      • Oh, weird. I didn’t realize this worked and posted. I’ve never done comment boards before. Honestly, this is the little story that could for me. A more straightforward, character-focused story, like a mini novel. I’m more of a novelist. But the anthology it was in reached a ton of readers. More than I could’ve imagined. It was a major work of love to help put it together, with semi-pro level advances for every author out of pocket, and names like Will McIntosh, Maya Bohnhoff and Kevin Anderson involved. I know there is a controversy going around, and I don’t believe it was the reason this was nominated. I’m a hybrid author, from a series with Random House, to working exclusively with Audible Studios right now. I believe I earned this on my merit as an author and a visible, active member of the Sci-Fi author community, as any nominee does, and I’m always open to a critique! To me, a lot of what made this story special for me to write is beneath the surface, in the flaws of Trass and his way-too-big idea, to how it casts doubt on so many future characters in the series this is based in, mainly over if blood relation is more valuable than adoption. (It’s not! but groups in the future of the series don’t see it that way).

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    • Rhett Bruno: I wanted to tell the story about a pretentious man making a crazy decision. Which is why he’s so late with everything.

      The problem is that such information in other stories retcons this one. As a standalone, this story portrays him as brilliant and a hero. And this story is what was nominated, so that’s how it gets judged, not as part of a larger context. If this story was intended to portray the guy as anything other than a brilliant genius and a hero, then it didn’t succeed at that.

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      • For me, brilliant and heroic often go hand-in-hand in making crazy, out of this world decisions. Then, in the end, doing what’s right. That’s merely what had me excited about writing this story to connect to another series, is what I meant. But, it’s short science fiction! Everyone takes different things from stories. I get good and bad reviews all the time. I just don’t really like discussing my own work publicly. The anxiety gets me. But I’m glad I was able to have a civil discussion in here. Sci-fi is all about discussion, for me at least. Putting ourselves in insane situations! I look forward to seeing what wins in every category and celebrating them. And I’ll be honored to share a page with whoever they are… or, I guess with myself if somehow it’s me. :P. And please, everyone keep reading all of the stories/novels nominated. The biggest crime would be none of them getting read.

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      • Rhett C Bruno: I just don’t really like discussing my own work publicly… But I’m glad I was able to have a civil discussion in here.

        To me, the problem is that you had any discussion here. I get that you don’t like the idea that people might not say positive things about your work, but I think it’s incredibly unprofessional for authors to hunt down reviews of their work and jump in on the discussions. Reviews (at least the real ones, not the marketing hype kind) are written for the benefit of readers, not for the benefit of authors. If you want to respond on things which are said in reviews in your own social spaces, that’s fine. But writers should not respond directly on reviews. It’s intimidating to reviewers and readers, and makes them feel like they’re being watched and that they’re not able to speak what they genuinely think.

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      • You’re right, and I apologize. I never have before. All this stuff going on has been crazy and come out of nowhere for me after a big high, so it felt right while I wasn’t thinking clearly. But I one hundred percent agree. The mod is free to remove my comments if that’s better? I greatly appreciate critics, always have.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. An egotistical man making poor choices — that does make an interesting aspect to it and does explain many of the plot questions I raised. Looks like I have more reading to do.

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    • I’m sure we’ve all dealt with someone like that :P. Honestly… most of my work winds up centering on a flawed decision-maker like that. Maybe it’s something in my subconscious…

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      • Mr Bruno, thanks for beeing so civil here. I have read your story and finished it.
        Not to wild about it, sorry but at last it was entertaining and I didn’t hate it.
        I think that works perhaps better for everyone who knows your series, but have fun at the meeting.

        Liked by 1 person

      • As already mentioned the common wisdom is that authors should not engage with critics, but it’s understandable that you might have wanted to respond after Jonathan Brazee (unintentionally) dropped you in it – he’s since pulled you out. However, unlike some of your fellow nominees, you responded in a non-confrontational manner, and avoided digging deeper, and emerged with honor.

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  9. Pingback: Some Reactions to the 2018 Nebula Award Finalists | Cora Buhlert

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  11. Pingback: Nebula Shorts: Summing Up | Camestros Felapton

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