‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley was originally published on the author’s website.
The third story on the BSFA Award shortlist and the third story to be part of an existing universe of the author’s invention. The trend towards trilogies and series has been much remarked on with genre novels but is short fiction going the same way? Or do stories that take place in a wider continuity have an advantage in terms of profile when it comes to nominations time. Okay, my sample size isn’t massive but it still seems worth remarking on. This time round, I’ve actually read some of Hurley’s related fiction set on the planet of Nasheen. As I mentioned in my editorial for the last Vector, God’s War wasn’t eligible for the BSFA Award (although it received a few nominations) because it was only published in the US. No such restriction applies to short fiction.
Starting your story in media res, entirely in dialogue, is a pretty aggressive way of setting out your stall, particularly when the third sentence is: “And what the fuck does she want?” This isn’t a surprise if you’ve read God’s War since it is a pretty aggressive book. But ‘Afterbirth’ turns out to be a story of two halves of which the more aggressive is the lesser. This half acts as a framing device and is an interview between Bakira so Dasheem, a farmer turned astronomer turned farmer again, and an anonymous councillor. As is so often the case, the frame is rather forced and in this instance it is made more so by the fact it is solely dialogue. The personality of neither woman comes across and they are reduced to perfunctory jousting; the councillor is simply implacably hostile, Bakira is given to speechifying:
You say Nasheen is ruled by God and Queen, but it is not. It is ruled by rich, blind, First Family women like you who wish to divide and conquer us. I see what you made us, and I reject it. We are not just the bloody afterbirth, the mess you leave behind as you claw your way to prominence. We are human beings, as good as you.
The other story, Bakira’s story, is another matter. It foregrounds birth, family and work – all things central to life but depressingly alien to much SF – whilst simultaneously showing these things willingly (if grudgingly) subordinated to state: “Because it was not until that night that she realized what she was. What all of them were. They were merely bodies. Weapons of war.” The problem is that this half of the story is very short to cover the whole of Bakira’s life and left to stand on its own it is a slight work.
One of Bakira’s daughters is Nyx, the main protagonist of God’s War, which makes it a prequel of sorts but, more than that, it functions almost as a prologue. To someone who has read that novel it is a highly satisfying expansion of various strands, particularly the interstellar context, but I can’t see how it would work for someone who hadn’t read God’s War. Returning to the question I asked at the beginning, does it work as a story in its own right or is it merely a sampler of Hurley’s settings and concerns?