Content warning: brief mention of sexual assault
These two stories both won the Hugo and Nebula Awards presented in 1989 for work published in 1988. For completeness, the Hugo for Best Novel went to Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh, and the Nebula to Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold; the Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick and the Nebula to “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge” by James Morrow; and the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The second paragraph of the third section of “Schrödinger’s Kitten”, which won both Best Novelette awards, is:
Leaning against a grimy wall, Jehan heard the chanted cries of the muezzins, but she paid them no mind. She stared at the dead body at her feet, the body of a boy a few years older than she, someone she had seen about the Budayeen but whom she did not know by name. She still held the bloody knife that had killed him.
Before I get into the story, I’m going to talk about the art that illustrated it. The opening page has this gorgeous painting of a woman wearing a flowing red dress, seen from above, credited to Charles Pfahl.
I have checked with Pfahl’s widow, his third wife Sharon van Ivan, and she informs me that this is “Patterns I”, part of a set of three paintings for which his second wife Charlotte Pfahl (nee Charlotte Weltys) was the model. Here is “Patterns II”, from a 2017 auction card:
In the third painting, “Spectrum”, shown in Joe Singer’s 1977 book, Charles Pfahl: Artist at Work, the model is definitely Charlotte again, wearing what appears to be the same dress but this time back to front – note the very high neckline, and the two blue buttons which are visible on her back in the first picture.The setting is their apartment on 45th Street in New York.
Sharon van Ivan informs me that all three paintings would have been done between 1973 and 1975, long before Omni published one of them in 1988. Charles died in 2013, aged 67; Sharon maintains his legacy website, and Charlotte is still practicing law.
The story was accompanied also by two unrelated humorous cartoons, neither of which is really very funny.
Anyway. “Schrödinger’s Kitten” is about a young Arab woman, Jehan Fatima Ashûfi, living in the 1930s, who is conscious of numerous diverging realities a la Everett’s “many worlds” hypothesis. Maybe she is raped by a neighbour and disowned by her family; maybe she kills her future rapist and is sentenced to death; maybe she is rescued from the scaffold by a passing German physicist, becomes a lab assistant to Heisenberg and Schrödinger and single-handedly stops the Nazis developing nuclear weapons.
The story’s heart is in the right place – woman of colour defeats fascism! – but I don’t think it really works for today. The Arab world is depicted as barbarous and uncivilised, compared to the sophisticated German scientists; but which of them was planning to exterminate their Jews at the time? Indeed, which country makes a rape victim who killed her attacker pay his family $150,000 in compensation? Much less important, Jehan prevents the Nazi bomb by sending boring scientific papers to the political leadership to make them lose interest; if only life was that easy! The layering of narratives is intricately done, I’ll give it that.
Also on both ballots were “Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?” by Howard Waldrop, “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett, Jr, and “Peaches for Mad Molly” by Steven Gould. The fifth Hugo finalist was “The Function of Dream Sleep” by Harlan Ellison; the other three Nebula finalists were “The Hob” by Judith Moffett, “Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh” by Ian McDonald and the Hugo Short Story winner “Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick, which is the only one I can remember having read.
The second paragraph of the third section of “The Last of the Winnebagos”, which won both Best Novella awards, is:
Toward the end, it wouldn’t even let my grandmother near it, but she refused to have it put to sleep and was unfailingly kind to it, even though I never saw any indication that the dog felt anything but unrelieved spite toward her. If the newparvo hadn’t come along, it probably would still have been around making her life miserable.
The art is of cute women, one old and one young, and cute dogs, by Laura Lakey, who is best known for her collaborations with her husband John Lakey illustrating role-playing-games, especially D&D.
Unlike the illustrations in Omni, it’s clear that these were commissioned by Asimov’s for the story. I wondered if Laura Lakey herself was the model for the younger woman; according to her website, she and her husband “often used themselves as characters in stories they illustrated”. But I checked with her and she says it is someone else, and also incidentally she still has the original art in case anyone is interested in buying it.
There’s also a wee rocket, uncredited, at the end of the story.
I am sorry that I am posting whiny reviews today of two stories that many other people love. But “The Last of the Winnebagos” sucks. The single biggest negative is that the protagonist is still mourning the death, years ago, of his dog, whose name was Aberfan.
What possessed Connie Willis to use this name? And what possessed Gardner Dozois to let her? Would anyone find it acceptable to call a pet, even a fictional one, “Sandy Hook“? Or “Chernobyl“? Or do dead Welsh children just not count? Actually, maybe don’t answer that last question.
This is a consistent problem with Willis’ writing (see also: “Fire Watch“, Blackout here and here, All Clear). She is so relentless about maintaining a single emotional tone of loss and mourning that she does not care enough about the significance or accuracy of the details. Seemingly, neither did Hugo or Nebula voters in those years.
Having been thrown out of the narrative, I began to question other parts of it. The unseen villain of the story is a sinister quasi-government force called the Humane Society, which has massive powers of intervention to protect animals, in the aftermath of a plague that killed all dogs. There are very valid questions to be asked about the use of coercive force by the American state, but this premise a) trivialises that issue and b) panders to lazy libertarianism. If only the problem were simply that the state was protecting animals, rather than the entrenched power structures of capitalism and patriarchy.
The core emotional dynamic of the story is that the elderly couple who are driving the eponymous vehicle, the last of the Winnebagos, are concerned that they may lose the right to drive it because they have accidentally killed a wild animal. We are also told that they are in their late eighties. Sorry, people in their late eighties should not be driving, full stop.
The protagonist’s own deep regret is that he has no photographs of his dog, Aberfan. A professional photographer, who never took a single photograph of his best friend? I mean, I remember that in the Before Times, when we did not have cameras on our cellphones (indeed, we did not have cellphones), we didn’t habitually take quite as many photos of friends and family and household as we do now. But none at all?
I was uneasy about a couple of other aspects as well – the protagonist’s unrealistic relationship with his (woman) boss, his nonchalant ease of access to other people’s private data – but never mind. The characterisation and descriptions are fine, but once you have been thrown out of the narrative by the above rather major reservations, the tragic tone of the story starts to seem manipulative rather than convincing.
All four of the other Hugo finalists in this category were also on the Nebula ballot, an unusual degree of overlap. They were “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians” by Bradley Denton; “Journals of the Plague Years” by Norman Spinrad; The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter by Lucius Shepard; and “Surfacing” by Walter Jon Williams. The Nebula ballot also included The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I think I’d have voted for Lucius Shepard myself, though I say that because it’s the only other one I remember having read.
Next up in this sequence is a real favourite of mine, “The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold; I hope that it will turn out to have stood the test of time a bit better than these two.