Nebula Shorts: Karen Osborne – The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power

Ritual cannibalism crops up twice in the Nebula short story nominees but in the first example it is the consumption of nano-bot filled blood that passes on memories from one generation to next. Karen Osborne’s story combines two perennial tropes: the tradition of a sin-eater who by eating a ritual meal takes on the sins of the recently dead and that of a generation ship whose population have developed their own ship-based culture.

“My destiny was always this: to drink the sin-cup and to hold the sins of the captains in my body where they cannot harm our people on their journey to Paradise. I can stand in the cathedral under the wheeling stars until my feet give out, or pray until my throat shreds with the effort, but truth is truth. The captains must be sinless. They must lead our generation ship with confidence, with a mind tuned to moral truth. Our new captain, Bethen, is responsible for the hundred thousand lives that breathe inside the hull and all the lives that will come after. Someone else must take her family’s sins upon herself, lest the dead walk and breach our hurtling world to black vacuum. Someone else must rock themselves to sleep, white-knuckled, licking spittle from their lips, so Bethen can lead.
That someone is me.”

The spaceship called the Feenix is ruled by a hereditary chain of captains. Each captain retains many of the memories of their predecessor but not all of them. Those memories that they would rather forget (the failures, the ugly compromises and the brutal acts they ordered) are passed onto a hereditary chain of sin-eaters who live among the lower classes of the ship. This is whole process is dressed up within the rituals of religion, as is their very journey to a world they call Paradise, as if the living inhabitants are themselves the souls of the dead.

The story operates on multiple levels. It works very neatly as a classic generation-ship story, with the people trapped inside a spaceship having to face uncomfortable revelations about their journey. Along side the literal use of memory to aid command, there is a broader metaphor with how different social groups remember history. As a new captain says late in the story:

‘“My sin-eater,” she says. “You see a massacre. I see a victory, a necessary one. Yet, I—” She falters. “I only know that it was a victory. I feel happy about it. I feel… the rush of power he felt, the certainty that it had to be done. Not what was done. It makes me sick to not know, to only suspect—”’

Massacres and deaths and failures of government are remembered differently. Official history skips over details and terrible acts are recast as victories or erased completely, while the folk history or the traditional history (particularly that of indigenous people in the wake of colonisation) remembers the trauma of the events that have been hidden.

Surprisingly, this is a far more positive and optimistic story than the setting or events suggest. Confronting the truth leads forward and the story has a strong sense of hope to it. The generation-ship setting gives the story an older feel that gives it a sense of SF-stories from older decades while retaining a modern sensibility.

I was impressed by the craft and the plot of the story that neatly balances the familiar and the unfamiliar.


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