This is the first review of the short stories nominated for the 2017 Nebula Awards. The full list of nominees is here.
There’s nothing terribly original about the premise or plot of “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse, but do not mistake this observation for an unfriendly critique. Sometimes a tried and true narrative is just the vehicle (or maybe it’s the interface) that you need to tell a good story.
Jesse, the protagonist, works for a business offering “authentic” virtual experiences for paying customers who want to try out “Indian” life. Jesse is an Indian, but not a marketable one. The act he puts on for the customers doesn’t reflect the banality of his actual life. Surviving this irony is so soul-crushing that he immediately gravitates to the first offer of friendship in the unfriendly real world. Not realizing how vulnerable he has made himself, Jesse ends up losing his place in the real world and the virtual one after the false friend turns the reality tables on him.
The plot here is pretty darn linear, but the actual story is much more complex. It demands the reader to contemplate what is real and what is false. This is a theme unrolls alongside a review of our protagonist’s bad trades, made unconsciously or accidentally in order to find balance in this true-false world. Big issues to tackle in a short story, but Roanhorse does an admirable job. The familiarity of the narrative seems logical and necessary–giving the reader a path to cling to as reality for Jesse blurs. Not only is this a cautionary tale about virtual realities, it calls up all the deceptions native people have endured as a result of our clashing cultures’ battle for dominancy.
Two more things: first, this story does second person point of view (POV) really well. It makes the protagonist feel very close and sympathetic, but Roanhorse doesn’t let Jesse’s voice become whiney. For another really good example of second person POV, see my review of a Samantha Murray story here.
Second, sorrow. Stories like this one, hard edged with sorrow, really get to me. Roanhorse’s world doesn’t dwell on nature or the physical world, in fact they’re hardly mentioned, but when Jesse arrives on a high plain in the virtual world, there’s a whiff of poignancy from him that feel like trail markers to real “authenticity”. His coffee pot, his sagging ranch style home, and the bar where he hangs out with his new friend, strike me this way, too. I wanted to tell this character he was better off with the true sorrow that marked the things he loved, than being fooled by the happiness that the false friend offered. This tale is going to stick with me for a while.
Thumbs up, and 4.7 stars out of 5.