More Hugo nominees: The Day the World Turned Upside Down

I decided to read this one when a friend wanted to talk about it, without prejudicing me by indicating exactly what bits she wanted to talk about.

(This is probably one of the top five ways to get me to read something. Piquing my curiosity and promising me that we’ll have an interesting discussion about it afterward.)

So I read it. It wasn’t terrible, although the first few paragraphs are really weak and it’s possible I would have tossed it aside without the additional impetus of a friend wanting to talk about it. But once I got to the hook, it sucked me in enough for me to actually finish it without a struggle.

But overall it didn’t work for me, even though I’m partial to stories where weird things happen for no reason. Last year’s Hugo winner, “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere,” was a perfect example. That story made me believe in the impossible through great attention to the concrete sensory details of its strange phenomenon, well-considered parameters for the phenomenon itself, and action strongly driven by people reacting to this new strange thing in their world.

“The Day the World Turned Upside Down” has a premise that is much harder to believe in. As soon as I was introduced to it, I thought, “wait, how would that work, exactly?” and the story never overcomes that initial confusion. Just as a contrast, here’s the opener of each one:

The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago. Everyone on Earth did. Everyone with any sense of lab safety anyway. Never assume any liquid is just water. When you say “I always document my experiments as I go along,” enough water falls to test, but not so much that you have to mop up the lab. Which lie doesn’t matter. The liquid tests as distilled water every time.

That day, the world turned upside down.

We didn’t know why it happened. Some of us wondered whether it was our fault. Whether we had been praying to the wrong gods, or whether we had said the wrong things. But it wasn’t like that—the world simply turned upside down.

Scientists lucky enough to survive the event said that it wasn’t so much that gravity had disappeared, but that it had flipped over, as if our planet had suddenly lost all of its mass and was surrounded by some colossal object. Religious people, unlucky enough to survive the miracle, said that life was give and take, and that God was now, after so many years of giving, finally taking. But there was no colossal object, and being taken by God is a dubious given.

This is actually a pretty good example of what your crit group means when they say “show, don’t tell.” The first example shows, the second example tells. And since our world is a sphere, my first thought is “how exactly does a sphere turn upside down?” and instead of answering that right away, it goes into abstract speculation about gods. The crucial information, that it was “as if our planet had suddenly lost all of its mass and was surrounded by some colossal object” is buried in more random speculation.

Another example, from later on in the story:

She was hanging from the bars, her knuckles white, her legs in the void, and her back turned so I couldn’t see her face. On her arms, two oh-so-bothersome Kroger bags were trying to drag her down.

With extreme care, I raised myself up and opened the upturned window. My heart in my throat, and my hands on the window frame, I leaned out. “Ma’am?”

My voice startled her, but she was afraid to look down, worried that the least little shift in balance might make her lose her grip. “I need help!” she shouted, remarkably calm for her remarkably precarious position.

“What happened?” I yelled.

“It’s Christmas time, all right? I can’t hold on for much longer!”

So, that should be a really tense situation — I think it’s a woman hanging off a piece of playground equipment about to be flung into the void? But somehow it’s got all the wrong details. “On her arms, two oh-so-bothersome Kroger bags were trying to drag her down.” That little “oh-so-bothersome” interjection is really distracting and has completely the wrong tone, almost jokey, while the use of “trying to drag her down” really threw me off — does he mean down or up? And the first time I read it, “It’s Christmas time, all right?” seemed like a completely bizarre non-sequitur, but on a re-read, I think maybe it’s meant to indicate that she’s really invested in these bags for some reason? But if it really is Christmas time, we should have noticed that before now, and if it isn’t, if she’s just lost her mind and started spouting random nonsense, then that should also be clearer.

I also found it annoying that the story kept directing my attention to its metaphors — sheesh, I get it, your world turned upside down when she left you, you’re the fish, whatever. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO KEEP REMINDING US OF THESE THINGS AS THEY ARE SUPER OBVIOUS TO ANYONE WHO HAS EVER BEEN THROUGH FRESHMAN ENGLISH LIT.

Finally, I pretty much hated the viewpoint character, so I was never particularly invested in what happened to him. He comes across as really self-involved and self-pitying, with an ugly streak of sexual jealousy smeared on top. He’s like an insert character for the kind of guys who un-ironically talk about getting “friendzoned” or how they’re such Nice Guys (TM), how could she possibly leave him for that creep?

The only thing that really kept me going was the hope that the extraordinary events of the story would cause him to realize he was a self-involved whiner and grow up a little, but if that happened, I missed it. I think he ends the story with a suicidal gesture, just as self-pitying as he was at the beginning. But it’s hard to tell, because the story goes into abstract rumination mode too often for me to be sure I’ve got the actions of the characters right. Observe:

Back downstairs you were leaning out of the kitchen window, stooped beneath the weight of missed opportunities. You were crying. Below me, on the gangway leading away from you, the ID cards with his picture on them slowly fluttered down. I gazed at you cold-faced. Yes, you needed time for yourself, and yes, I understood you needed to discover who you wanted to be. I understood your desire for a quieter place without promises and confessions. I would even have forgiven you your mistakes. You were my world. But the world had repelled everything. More logic than any human being could comprehend and more human beings than was comprehensibly logical . . . anything but the revolting image of you crying for someone else and the dawning realization that there was no longer any room for me in this reality you had created.

So… what does that look like exactly?

Anyway, this falls into a kind of uncanny valley for me, where it’s not poetic enough for me to accept it purely as metaphor, or well-considered enough for me to really believe in it as spec fic.