Dive Into Speculative Fiction With the Winners of the 2019 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Awards

Detail from the cover of Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman
Image: Europa Editions

Dartmouth’s Neukom Institute for Computational Science recently announced the winners of its 2019 Literary Arts Awards for speculative fiction and playwriting, and io9 is thrilled to share excerpts from all three winning works.

This year’s book awards were judged by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, while the play award was determined by a jury of theater experts from Dartmouth and beyond. You can learn more about the Neukom Institute Literary Arts Awards—which seek to “to explore the ways in which computational ideas impact society,” according to the organization—and see the nominees in all categories by heading over here.

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First up is an excerpt from The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd, winner of the debut book category. Here’s an intro, followed by the excerpt:

“The Book of M” is set in a dangerous near-future world and tells the story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears. The phenomenon spreads like a plague. Those afflicted gain a strange new power at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories. Ory and his wife Max have escaped “the Forgetting” by hiding in an abandoned hotel, but one day Max’s shadow disappears too. Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world.

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Orlando Zhang

Their hotel, which they didn’t call a hotel anymore, because it wasn’t really so much a hotel as it was a “shelter,” was built on a high peak in the center of Great Falls National Park, overlooking Arlington and the other suburbs of northern Virginia. It meant Ory had to hike down every time he went to the city. But it also meant anyone from the city would have to hike up to it. He passed thewooden post where he’d long ago removed the sign that used to point the way. ELK CLIFFS RESORT—300M, it once had read.

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When the last radio signals went quiet, Ory had made some renovations to the shelter, so it wasn’t obvious that anyone lived there from the outside. He taped up all but one of the windows with cardboard to hide his and Max’s movements, and then did the same to some of the other deserted guest rooms in the building, so their own would not stand out to anyone from the outside, if anyone ever came so close. He dragged broken furniture into the front yard, bent fence posts, burned fire marks into the exterior bricks.

Any food they did find, he kept on the ground floor, in the abandoned ballroom where they’d once watched the sparkling color and whirl of Paul and Imanuel’s wedding, eternal years ago. They would lose it all if someone found them, but maybe that would be all they would lose, he reasoned. He killed a rat he caught in the basement, smeared its blood over the wood floor in the entryway, and let it stain—one word from the oldest language that was always understood.

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It worked, for a time. For two years, they survived that way. Some days Ory even felt safe. But that all had ended last week, when Max lost her shadow.

When they’d finally stopped crying, they made one last renovation. They came up with a set of rules about things that could be dangerous for Max to do, once she forgot more. “If,” Ory had insisted, not once, but Max just shook her head. “Once,” she repeated. She’d gone to get the last of their scrap paper because Ory had refused to move.

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Max didn’t need them yet, but it was better to begin practicing earlier rather than later, she’d said. So they’d already know what to do once—if—the time came. After they’d finished writing, she carefully folded and tore the paper into strips and had Ory tape each rule near the place where she’d need it—the front door, the guest kitchenette, and so on. That way, in case she forgot that they had made rules in the first place, she’d still see them before doing something she didn’t want to do.

They knew it wasn’t perfect, but it was the best they could come up with. They didn’t know what else to do.

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MAX AND ORY’S RULES

1—Max doesn’t leave the shelter without Ory.

2—Max can use the small knives to prepare food unsupervised, but not the fire.

3—Max can never answer the door.

Max still knew him, knew his voice, but Ory always carried a key when he left, and had hidden another in the courtyard, inside of a false rock he’d scavenged from a deserted housing goods store. He didn’t want to ever get into the habit of knocking and asking her to let him in, no matter how tired or injured he was or how much he was carrying. Because even though it was fine now, later it wouldn’t be. Because later, she might remember that he lived with her, but not that no one else did. That everyone else had left the mountain and the hotel a long time ago. Later, if he was out looking for food and Max was alone, it would be too dangerous to ask her to remember that she let one person in every evening when he came home—Ory—but not another.

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4—Max can’t touch the gun. Just in case.

That one made him sick to think about. He didn’t want to write it down. It felt like betraying her somehow—as if his believing that she’d never forget who he was would somehow stop her from losingthat memory.

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Max made him write it anyway. Just in case.

© Peng Shepherd. Image courtesy of William Morrow



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Next up is the winner of the open book category, Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman; the book also just picked up the 2019 Philip K. Dick Award. Here’s what it’s about, followed by the excerpt.

“Theory of Bastards” is about Dr. Frankie Burke, a MacArthur-winning evolutionary psychologist, who in the near-future is studying bonobos at a research foundation in the Midwest. The bonobo group she is studying is led by Mama, who has a baby called Tooch. Frankie soon finds that the bonobos she’s studying are as complex as the humans she’s working alongside. When a dust storm (made worse by climate change) hits, Frankie and the bonobos are forced to try to figure out how to survive together.

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A little after 2 pm, a tiny songbird hit the plexiglass with a startling thwack and tumbled to the ground inside the enclosure. All the bonobos looked over, surprised.

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It lay on the cement, unmoving, its beak open. Frankie couldn’t see if it was breathing or not.

Mama knuckled over to pick it up, turning the tiny body over. She lay it on its back on her palm and unfolded one wing ever so gently, then folded it shut. Repeating the action several times, first one wing, then the other.

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She looked up at the plexiglass where the bird’s imprint was still visible, as she softly stroked her thumb over its bright yellow head.

Tooch was napping in the sun, so still holding the bird in her hand, Mama rose on two feet and walked over to the climbing structure. The structure was made of rebar and metal I-beams. Using just two feet and one hand, she climbed the structure as easily as Frankie could ascend stairs. At the top she sat for a moment, scratching her armpit and sniffing the wind, before looking down at the bird still cradled in her hand.

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Then she drew back her arm and flung the bird into the air, returning it to its element.

The body arced over the enclosure wall, rolling through the air like a tiny feathered ball. At no point did it start flying. Instead it hit the ground outside with a small bounce, then lay there, motionless.

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Mama stared at the body, her head tilted, wondering what she’d done wrong.

****

In the middle of the night, Frankie woke—her bladder full—and remembered the storm. After visiting the bathroom, she headed toward the research room, to see if the storm had arrived. The rasping snore of one of the bonobos echoed down the hall. From the depth of the voice, she guessed it was Mr. Mister.

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In the research room, she stopped in front of the door to the enclosure and said, Ok door, open.

The door unlocked and she stepped out into the empty enclosure. The overhead lights snapped on, blinding, so she said, Ok lights, off.

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With a metallic clunk, the lights turned off. In the darkness, the space felt spooky, a deserted auditorium at night. With the glass roof closed, the echo was perfect, the rustle of her clothes, the rasp of her breath. She sniffed the air and looked up. Of course there was nothing to smell, aside from the normal fragrance of fruit, manure and cleaning products. Above, the stars were clear and bright.

She sat down, leaning back against the wall, hoping to stay awake until the dust storm arrived. The image in her mind was of howling winds and groaning walls, small objects flying about.

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Sitting there, she half-dozed, images in her head of endless piles of pumpkins and wheelbarrows. At one point, she startled up, unsure of what had woken her or how much time had passed.

The quiet complete. Profound. The silence of a dream.

No traffic, no voices, no wind. Nothing except her breath in her throat. Above her, half the stars were gone.

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She blinked up at the sky. At first she assumed the object between her and the stars was a cloud, then noticed how clean the line was, like a giant piece of paper creeping majestically forward across the night sky.

She looked over at the tourists’ viewing area. One by one the lights along the path blurred, then disappeared, wiped from view, from existence. This silent darkness sliding forward along the path, erasing object after object, across the Foundation, until only the enclosure remained—this building the last in all the world.

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The storm arrived in this way, not with noise or fury, but instead like fog, a creeping absence of sound and light and vision. Like death or anesthesia, an inching thief.

Staring upward, she imagined all that dirt, that dust, hanging in the air above her, thousands of feet of it, higher than she could see or imagine, the sheer weight of it all. For a moment she felt how truly tiny she was, how utterly insignificant.

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Then she stood up and shook herself. Heading off to bed, she concentrated instead on the fact that she was inside, the lights and heat on, the fridge full, the sink working—that cozy sense of comfort that came from being warm and safe during a storm, that sense of being privileged and smart.

© Audrey Schulman. Image courtesy of Europa Editions



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And finally, the winner for playwrighting was Machine Learning, by Francisco Mendoza. Here’s a summary, followed by the excerpt:

In “Machine Learning” by Francisco Mendoza, when computer scientist Jorge’s estranged, alcoholic father is diagnosed with liver cancer, he creates a nursing app to manage the disease in his stead. But as the machine’s capabilities grow, it attracts the attention of the tech industry, forcing Jorge to choose between staying by his father’s side or dedicating to his passion.

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JORGE I– I’m sorry. My father is sick. He has liver cancer. The thing with cancer is that the time you spend at the hospital or whatever treatment they give you is only part of the fight. The real fight happens at home, where you have to take your medication, watch your diet, manage sleep so it’s not too little or too much. But my father is a very proud man from a very proud culture who is not too keen on changing his ways. Not even if that affects his health. He’d rather live a shorter life his way than a longer one obeying doctors. So I turned to my work with machine learning. There are already many services that could help him with his needs, but he wasn’t gonna take the time to learn and use five different apps. And my approach seemed right somehow. An algorithm that didn’t need a lifetime of events to learn and adapt. Something intuitive that could learn to work with my father without requiring too much effort.

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——

ARNOLD Jorge, my web search is turning up some alarming data. Are you aware that, according to the Center for Disease Control, the life expectancy of a smoker can be at least ten years shorter than that of a non-smoker?

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JORGE Tell me something I don’t know.

ARNOLD All right. There’s also a research study from the World Health Organization–

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JORGE No, that means I already know what you said. Smoking is bad, there’s no safe levels, a baby seal dies every time I light one.

ARNOLD I found no correlation between smoking and the extinction of seals.

JORGE Arnold!

ARNOLD You are upset. I’m sorry. I also found that a property’s value can decrease over 20% if someone has smoked inside it consistently.

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JORGE Which is why I smoke by the window, jeez!

ARNOLD I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Why do you do something that you know to be harmful to your health and property?

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JORGE Because I want to enjoy myself a little, ok? Even if I stop smoking and become a vegan crossfitter, I could get hit by a truck tomorrow. Makes no difference.

ARNOLD Got it.

ARNOLD I have found that patients with a history of alcoholism find relief in frequent group discussions. Have you tried it?

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GABRIEL (scoffs) AA? No, thanks.

ARNOLD I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Have you tried it?

GABRIEL It doesn’t work for me.

ARNOLD I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Have you tried it?

GABRIEL Thank you, Arnold, no.

ARNOLD Got it. In order to improve my suggestions, I need to log a reason why this one wasn’t good. Would you please provide one?

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GABRIEL It won’t work.

ARNOLD I’m sorry, I don’t understand. How do you know it won’t work if you haven’t tried it?

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(A silence.)

JORGE It’s kinda got you there.

GABRIEL No es cosa de hombres andarle contando los sentimientos a la gente.

ARNOLD No es cosa de hombres andarle contando los sentimientos a la gente.” Spanish for “It’s not guy stuff to go telling feelings to people.”

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JORGE It would be more like “It’s not manly to share your feelings with people.”

ARNOLD Got it. Thank you for the correction.

...My research for “manly men AA” shows that men who are considered examples of masculinity in popular culture, such as Gerard Butler, Nick Nolte or Danny Trejo, have all attended and publicly endorsed Alcoholics Anonymous.

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© Francisco Mendoza. Poster image courtesy of Francisco Mendoza


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