Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Paul McAuley's "Bruce Springsteen"


I used to nominate a lot of stuff for the Nebula, before they changed the rules.  If I admired a story and thought it worth being on the ballot, I nominated it.  Then, at the end of the year, I used that informal list to help me decide what to vote for.  Nowadays, you get only so many nominations (five, I think) per category, and you have only a few months out of the year in which to make them.  Which is to say, you have to keep track of what you read through the year and then, when it's over, go through your notes to determine what you think are the five best works per category before you nominate any.

Alas, I'm just not that organized.  So the nominating process has to go on without me.  However, I do like recommending good stories.  So I thought I might occasionally review one here.

Let's hope the following off-the-cuff review is the first of many.

"Bruce Springsteen" by Paul McAuley
Asimov's Science Fiction, January 2012

"Bruce Springsteen" pretends to be set on another planet but is actually an exploration of the myth of the American West.  The West of the high desert, I mean, not that of cowboys and gunfights and genocide.  The roads out there are empty and go on forever.  You turn the nose of your car into the Great Lonely and pray to an untenanted sky to dissolve your self and make you into something you are not.  I was on Route 50 in Nevada, "the loneliest road in America," recently and I can testify to the pull of that myth.  You want to just go down that road forever.

But there's a dark side to the myth.

The nameless protagonist of this story is a working stiff in a dead-end job at the edge of town who may or may not be aware that he's reached the end of his rope, when a woman crosses his destiny.  "Rachel was definitely my type," he says.  "Older than me by five or ten years, easy with what she was.  Someone who'd lived a little and taken some hard knocks, who knew how to look after herself.  Someone, I thought, who was passing through.  A change from the waitresses and kitchen staff."

The fated pair go the Stardust Hotel and fuck.  Then they hit the road, intending to pull an easy and bloodless heist that will be the key to some vast and unspecified alien treasure.  Two dead guards later, they're in a car and on the run, carrying an ancient soul stone back to the tomb from which it was stolen.  They talk.  They steal another car and accidentally kill another person.  Along the way, McAuley rather cunningly conflates Bruce Springsteen's work (particularly his Nebraska album) with Samuel Beckett's.  One of the two is betrayed.  The other is gunned down by the police.  The survivor winds up in jail and speaks the epitaph for them both:  I thought we'd have a bunch of adventures until the law caught up with us.  I thought we'd be together right until the end . . ."

There is a kind of coda at the end of the story which, with the help of a useful alien, makes it clear that the story is about the uncanny power of stories to ride us and make us do their bidding.  And here I have to hesitate because I'm not entirely sure the story has earned its own ending.

But I'm also not entirely sure that it hasn't.  This is one of those stories you have to think about for a long time.  Someday, years from now, most likely, I'll come to a conclusion and turn thumbs up or thumbs down.  Either I'll conclude that "Bruce Springsteen" managed to not say but imply something deep . . .  or I'll decide that it was a noble attempt.

Good story, either way.

Back when I was in college, I was riding in a pickup truck driven by a young woman who, I realized abruptly after the truck nearly went off the road, was a lot drunker than I had realized.  So drunk that, she being who she was, I knew there was no chance of talking her into slowing down or stopping.  So, realizing there was a good chance I was going to die, I leaned as far out the window as I could and laughed.

This is a story that happens every day in America.  In Zen Buddhism, it's called the koan of the strawberry.

Above:  According to its YouTube caption, this is the only film footage in existence of Mark Twain.  I didn't have anything appropriate to the review, so I threw it in.



GordonVG said...


Are you sure about those SFWA nominating rules? The nominations board has just been revamped and relaunched. If you log in to it (it's here: ), you'll see that it says that members in good standing may nominate throughout the year.

---Gordon V.G.

Michael Swanwick said...

Okay, I just checked. Nominations run from November 15 through February 15. What you're looking at is the RECOMMENDATIONS list, which was created to counter criticism that the new rules negated the useful function of recommending good stories to the general membership. None of those stories count as nominations.

There are problems with this list. So far this year there have been 13 recommendations for Novel, 4 for Novella, 9 for Novelette, and a whopping 19 in short story -- most of which received only 1 recommendation. The short story category, in fact, averaged 1 recommendation apiece because one story got 2 recommendations and one got 0. (I have no explanation for that last.)

I doubt many people are reading that list.

Also, since the nominations are anonymous, if I contributed to it, the result would be my opinions dominating the thing without any indication that that was what was happening. I wouldn't be comfortable with that.

So I hereby resolve to be uncharacteristically organized, and to (if I can) keep detailed records on all 2012 publications so that a year from now I can nominate for the Nebula.

I make no guarantees. (I'm working on two novels.) But I'll try.

And, in the meantime, I'll see if I can review a few of the stories I particularly like. I don't guarantee that either. But I'll try.

Ken Houghton said...

"You make sure my/Preety baby's/Sitting right here/On my lap."

Michael Capobianco said...

Michael, there are so few recommendations because the form just went live a few weeks ago. The membership hasn't even been notified about it yet.

You can identify yourself as the person who made a recommendation by checking a box. It's optional, but you can do it. The names of the recommenders appears if you click on a work's title.

You're correct that this is a list of recommendations, not nominations. Nominations can be made starting November 15.

GordonVG said...

Sorry if I confused matters. I pointed out the recommendations list, Michael, because it can serve the exact function you describe and let you recommend works throughout the year.

I doubt you'll be the only person making recommendations under your own name and I hope you'll use the list.