The Gremlin’s Library: “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne

I am notoriously bad at keeping up with New Things. I have a bit of a wandering magpie’s approach to fiction; I get to things when I get to them, pick up what interests me at random, and am otherwise incredibly unpredictable. That said, this year, I’ve made an actual effort to keep up with the Nebulas, and so – here at the final hour – I’m reading up on some of the finalists in the short story category.

‘The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” is an incredibly vicious, angry story, and I love it. That doesn’t quite encapsulate it. Much in the same way that An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon takes the very Straight White Cis Dude-Plagued sci-fi subgenre of generation ships and turns into a scathing examination of modern-day slavery and a “new Antebellum”, this story takes aim at specifically the idea of cultural memory. The main character and first-person narrator is a sin-eater; the person on the ship tasked with carrying the sins and cruel memories of the captain, so that the captain can lead the ship without guilt or doubt. The bad memories go to the sin-eater, the good ones to the captain; the sin-eater has to wrestle with the nightmares, the captain is free to lead.

If this sounds familiar for some reason, that’s because this is a similar system to The Giver by Lois Lowry. The idea of one person having to carry the memories of another isn’t new. However, what really intrigues me here is how it ties into the idea of ancestral guilt. I compared this story to An Unkindness of Ghosts, but while there are elements of first-class vs. second-class vs. steerage, the primary focus here is on what it means to be responsible for the terrors enacted by your predecessors, not how to cope with terrors that they suffered. As a mixed-race person, I deal with this question a lot – some of my ancestry is Black, and some of it is White, and my family tree is the product of rape and colonialism. Dealing with ancestral trauma for me is only half of the story; the other half is reckoning with the harm done. Many – most, honestly – White people lean heavily into denial, and this story feels very much like it’s calling that out. White people give our (their?) sins to others to cope with, and clean the horrors out of history.

Of course, the story doesn’t “have” to be about race. It never really goes into race, and ancestral guilt isn’t limited to race; but it’s one that’s on my mind and the filter I ended up reading the story through. Even without thinking of it in those terms, the rewriting of history and memory in the service of propaganda and false peace is a particularly relevant theme right now. (“We have never been at war with Eurasia”, anybody?)

“The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne was a finalist for the Nebula Short Story Award 2020, published by Uncanny Magazine, and can be read here:

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