IGNYTE Shorts: A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse

In the near future, technology to extract memories from human tissue has enabled the entertainment industry to digitally recreate recently departed actors. Isolated in his Malibu home, a young Native American actor/model Dez Hunter is deep in mourning after the sudden death of his equally photogenic girlfriend Cherie. Lost in grief, he has taken to finding tiny scraps of her presence (hair etc) and using that to extract fragmented engrams of her memory.

“WE WERE GONNA BE STARS. That’s what you got to understand. Big fucking stars. Like Jack and Rose or Mr. and Mrs. Carter, like our faces on every screen, dominating every media feed. Everyone already loved us, wanted to be us, wanted to fuck us. And people like that, people like us? Young, rich, famous? We don’t just get sick and die. They’ve got med docs and implants and LongLife™ tech that keeps people alive for 150 years now if you can afford it, and we could afford it. So how could they let her die? How could I lose my perfect girl? How could they do that to me?

A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse, The Mythic Dream (p. 67). Gallery / Saga Press. Kindle Edition.

But what is the border between grief and obsession, between true love and indulgent vanity? The question comes in the form of Carol Elder, the head of the media company that (apparently) wants Dez to stop grieving and to get back to work.

‘“You signed contracts, Mr. Hunter. People paid you a lot of money to be in their digitals, and, well, you can’t just not fulfill your obligations.” “Bereavement,” I mutter. “Can’t you tell them I’m taking time off for bereavement?” “Yeah, I wish we could do that for you. I really do. But this is millions of dollars. The other actors, it wouldn’t be fair to them.” She leans in. I can see a hint of a tattoo on her shoulder where the blouse gapes at her neck. “And your community back home. Aren’t they counting on you? Expecting you to represent them to the world?” I wave that away. I don’t think much about home anymore. “There’s talk of replacing you,” she says. I look up, annoyed. “With who?” “The guy from Sixteen Tipis. You know the one.” She gestures towards her short blond hair. I know what she means. He’s got the wind-machine hair. “That guy ain’t even Native. He’s Persian.”

A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse, The Mythic Dream (p. 67). Gallery / Saga Press. Kindle Edition.

As an incentive, Elders offers Dez something remarkable: the media company’s copy of Cherie’s engrams — an opportunity for Dez to recreate Cherie digitally. Dez though has other ideas…

The story is a Black-Mirroresque horror story into a near future where fame and celebrity is exploitable post-death. The consequences of attempting to ressurect the dead (even or especially out of love) follow a familiar arc and act as a stern warning of the need to both grieve and move on. If the story feels both modern and familiar, the name of the anthology is a clue. The Mythic Dream anthology is a collection of contemporary retellings of myths and folktales. In this story Roanhorse chose to adapt the Tewa story “Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden” [A version here https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/Deer_Hunter_And_White_Corn_Maiden-Tewa.html ].

I wasn’t familiar with the original and only read it after reading this retelling. It is certainly an impressive retelling, capturing the relevant elements and cautionary tale aspect but with a futuristic setting. It also works as a story in its own right, except perhaps the very end which is a more overt call-back to the original. I was impressed with how the characterisation of Dez balances empathy for his grief with that more judgemental aspect of his own flaws that comes both with the hubris-horror trope and the folktale be-careful-what-you-wish-for aspect.

Left ambiguous is the role of Carol Elder and her motivations. Her offer of Cherie’s engrams feels like a kind of Faustian bargain and I’m not sure whether the story is implying that she knows what Dez will do with them (and hence she is actively setting him on a destructive path) or just doesn’t care or hasn’t properly considered the danger. I don’t think that ambiguity is a flaw in the story but rather adds to the more sinister/supernatural aspect of it. In the version of the original story I read [linked to above] there is an intervention by a being from the spirit world but that being steps in only once the couple have transgressed customs around death. Carol Elder, in contrast, is a visitor from the world of corporate media and commercial exploitation and enables Dez to attempt to break the walls of death.

I think this is the strongest story I’ve read by Rebecca Roanhorse and I’ve enjoyed several things she has written. There is genuine empathy for the main character and there is a clever layering of near-future society over a classic horror story vibe over a classic folktale. I suspect that if the story may have missed out on more award nominations because anthologies get a bit overlooked.

5 thoughts on “IGNYTE Shorts: A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse

    1. I’m listening to it on audio book currently and so far have only listened to this one and the JY Yang Bridge of Crows story…and that is really good as well.

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  1. So many short fictions get overlooked by being in anthologies and the anthologies costing money. There’s so much free short SF/F nowadays and people are so skint.

    OTOH, since 2017, I’ve been in favor of adding a Best Anthology Hugo even though we have too many categories already.

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