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A collaborative blog by Locus editors, contributors, and other invited guests. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine or Locus Online.

(Earlier posts end here in April 2010)




Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


Alan Beatts
Terry Bisson
Marie Brennan
Karen Burnham
Siobhan Carroll
John Clute
F. Brett Cox
Ellen Datlow
Paul Di Filippo
Michael Dirda
Gardner Dozois
Andy Duncan
Stefan Dziemianowicz
Brian Evenson
Jeffrey Ford
Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Theodora Goss
Elizabeth Hand
Cecelia Holland
Rich Horton
Guy Gavriel Kay
James Patrick Kelly
Mark R. Kelly
Ellen Klages
Russell Letson
Karen Lord
Brit Mandelo
Adrienne Martini
Tim Pratt
Cat Rambo
Paul Graham Raven
Graham Sleight
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Peter Straub
Rachel Swirsky
Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Short Story Club: “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly

For our final entry in the shorter (short story and novelette) category, this week we have “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly. He has published other stories with the same characters, including “Tourists” in Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse 4. Here are some earlier comments on the story:

Lois Tilton, Locus Online

A sequel. Mariska’s mother had her cloned to fulfill her own ambitions to work in interstellar space, so Mariska escapes by signing on as crew of an insystem asteroid bucket.

But the crew’s boss bears an old grudge against her mother and takes it out on Mariska. Then his error loses the ice from which the ship’s lifesupport is electrolyzed, leaving them with insufficient reserves of oxygen to make it back to base.

This typical space-problem story is actually an antidote to the typical romance-of-spaceflight scenario as Mariska scrubs mold and the rest of the crew escapes boredom in drugs and sexual fantasies. The episode works well on its own and has the right hard-SF feel to the space scenes. But while the ending is cathartic it lacks true closure, as we see that the direction of Mariska’s career is still undetermined.

Abigail Nussbaum, Asking the Wrong Questions

Back into space we go with James Patrick Kelly’s “Plus or Minus,” a sort-of retelling of “The Cold Equations” that reconsiders and modernizes that story’s core assumptions beautifully, and shows the rest of the ballot how to have a conversation with your genre’s past without getting swallowed up by nostalgia and sentiment. The protagonist is Mariska, a low-ranking maintenance worker on a long-haul spaceship several months out of port. The first half of the story is a closely observed and extremely uncomfortable portrait of the relationships that develop among the ship’s crew, and particularly Mariska’s troubles with her boss, Beep, who resents her for being the daughter/clone of a famous space explorer. Beep harasses and bullies Mariska, whose intelligence and strength of will aren’t quite enough to compensate for the fact that she is completely under Beep’s power and has no way of escaping him until the ship arrives at its destination. These segments are tense and horrifying–the claustrophobia of space travel magnified and made so much worse by the claustrophobia of sexual harassment. In the second half of the story, an accident leaves the ship without enough oxygen to make it to its destination. Where “The Cold Equations” treated this scenario as one of blinding certainty–a simple mathematical calculation that yields only one result–“Plus or Minus,” as its title indicates, performs a more fuzzy calculation. The answer, in both cases, is the same–the ship’s remaining supply of oxygen will suffice to bring some of the crew home but not all of them–but in Kelly’s story there are many more variables–how long will the rescue ship take to arrive? How much oxygen can the crew conserve by sleeping and performing as little physical activity as possible?–and a recognition that a margin of error of even a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death. A few elements of the story don’t quite work, mainly Mariska’s resentment of her mother and her determination not to go into deep space, which feels like part of another story–presumably 2009’s “Going Deep,” which also features Mariska–that Kelly doesn’t quite have the room to properly elaborate on here, but the ending is so perfect–simultaneously recreating the harsh brutality of “The Cold Equations” and complicating it with human compassion and guilt–that these seem like minor quibbles.

Happiness is Free SF

Stories about the routine of interplanetary space defy the relatively low likelihood of seeing such things in the next generation or so. “Plus or Minus” is another kind of throwback story that got a Nebula nomination this year, much like another Asimov’s story, “Sultan of the Clouds”. We see people born and bred for space travel slogging through the routine of cleaning mold off the spaceship and overseeing robots doing cargo work. Spaceships can be ugly and purely functional. The crew are not the highly trained and selected astronauts of today, but teenage interns. And they face the classic will-we-make-it-before-the-air-runs-out danger when an accident happens during a run.

It’s fun to read, too. Kelly uses the story to tell of teen dangers of today, like creepy people creating animated photomanips of girls they are stalking, or getting deeply involved in a realistic dream-scape (OK, that one is mildly ahead of today). All the things SF is supposed to do. No new ground, more like nostalgia, but I still liked it. 3 stars.

Mark Watson, Best SF

The story was a tiny bit of a struggle for me, as at 50+ I’m not that engaged in teen angst story elements – I’d be more interested in the story as seen through the adults in the story. And I have to own up to a touch of concern about reading a story including teenage sexuality elements : absolutely fine with the explicit ‘sexuality’ of Kij Johnson’s ‘Spar’, so it’s not the sexuality per se, but I wasn’t at all too sure about reading the bit where the teenage girl fantasises about a fellow crewmember getting up close and personal.

Jo-Anne Odell, Tangent Online

When the crisis comes, it’s more a relief than a buildup. Finally, there’s something happening. Beep implicates himself as the villain, revealing that he was the one behind the fakes. Richard is innocent. Though Beep plays the hero, sacrificing himself for the crew, it’s not enough. Mariska is forced to use her own special gift in a bid to help herself and the others survive.

The most interesting aspect of this story revolves around Beep, the leader who fostered division in an environment where cooperation is essential to survival. Unfortunately, it’s an aspect of the story that goes largely un-probed. He remains a clown, almost as ridiculous as his name.

Another mixed bag of opinions, some rather more complimentary than other stories we’ve examined so far. Your thoughts?


Comment from Niall
Time June 19, 2011 at 7:45 pm

I’m lukewarm on this one, and on the other Mariska stories. I think they’re reasonably well done, but lacking in personality, by which I mean partly that I don’t find Mariska a memorable character, partly that I don’t see much sfnally memorable in the stories, but mostly that they don’t evoke strong emotional responses from me. (“Tourists” is probably the best — its Martian society is interesting, although only briefly sketched — but it also stands alone least well; I’m a little baffled that it appears in Eclipse, where there’s no guarantee readers will be familiar with the earlier stories and no easy way for them to even find out that there *are* earlier stories.) And I can’t get as enthusiastic as Abigail about the revisionism of “The Cold Equations”, either; again, it’s competently done, but the ending seems the least that we might expect from this sort of story. All three feel to me like the sort of thing I’d be happy to find in an issue of a magazine, but not at all like the sort of thing I’d want to be held up as the best of the genre.

Comment from Susan Loyal
Time June 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm

I’m inclined to agree with Niall. The story is workmanlike, without structural flaws, believable, well-paced, nicely written, and in the end I just don’t care. I can’t put my finger on what results in the “so what” reaction. It’s certainly not the protag’s age. Possibly it’s the relationship to “The Cold Equations,” which doesn’t move me either. Nonetheless, I take no issue with those who like it well enough to put it on an awards ballot. My reaction strikes me as residing entirely in the realm of “taste,” with which it is useless to argue.

Comment from Martin
Time June 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm

It isn’t very exciting, is it? The story appears to have been written for a 12 year old and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it when I was twelve. YA RUMIR that should have remained in the magazine and never made it onto a ballot.

It takes half the story for the actual plot to begin and when it does it is hinges on a hugely contrived coincidence. Then it becomes clear that the story is a revision of The Cold Equations. It may be the case that this is “how to have a conversation with your genre’s past without getting swallowed up by nostalgia and sentiment” but I’m still not interested in this conversation if that is the only reason for the story’s existence.

Comment from Abigail
Time June 20, 2011 at 5:28 pm

I feel that I should offer some defense of the story, since I’m the only one who seemed to have liked it unreservedly, but I’m not sure how to add to what I’ve already written. I thought the protagonist’s age was well handled, for example, and didn’t get a YA sense from the story at all – it’s a story about a teenager, but its concerns aren’t the concerns of teenagers. And I liked the way the focus of the story shifted jarringly halfway through – it seemed appropriate for the setting of long-haul space travel, where your only options are mind-numbing boredom or mind-numbing terror.

It’s possible, of course, that my reaction is colored by having read “Plus or Minus” last of all the Hugo-nominated novelettes (a group that includes “Leviathan”). I might have been less enthusiastic if I’d read it in isolation. But I still think it’s a strong story.

Comment from Susan Loyal
Time June 20, 2011 at 8:56 pm

@Abigail. I agree with everything you’ve said here. I also don’t think that the story is YA in any way at all. The pacing change in the middle was probably the thing I liked most about it, for very much the reasons you give. As I said previously, I think it’s well executed, and I’m really not sure why my reaction is “so what.” I”m delighted that you liked it without reservation; perhaps you can somehow have my share of liking it, too. Would you also like my share of all the butter pecan ice cream in the world? That’s actually a similar situation. I like butter, pecans, and ice cream. Butter pecan ice cream? Meh. You’re welcom to my share.

Comment from Lois Tilton
Time June 21, 2011 at 12:30 am

The first of these stories was much more YA, and I wonder if the readers who saw this one as YA had read the previous one first.

Comment from Karen Burnham
Time June 21, 2011 at 3:00 pm

I remember reading this story when it came out. Like most others here, I thought it was perfectly competently done, but it didn’t really grab me & scream ‘Award nominee!’ I had no idea that there was a previous story with the same characters though, and mad props to Jim for making the story stand alone so well. I’ve read a number of short stories where it is obvious that the author expects you to have read 5 other short stories and possibly a novel in order to understand what the heck’s going on.

I am curious about the field’s continuing obsession with “The Cold Equations.” Looking back, wasn’t one of Jim Kelly’s break-out hits, “Think Like a Dinosaur,” also in direct conversation with Godwin’s story? Why is that one story from the Fifties still so central to the field’s conception of itself?

Comment from Abigail
Time June 21, 2011 at 3:07 pm

That’s an interesting question, Karen. I don’t think I’ve ever read “The Cold Equations” (though from what I’ve read about it, the actual writing is so flat that knowing the plot is practically the same as reading the story), and I haven’t read many stories from its period, but somehow it still stands in my mind as the quintessential Golden Age SF story. Perhaps it’s because the story has so few formal qualities and is so easily summed up into the themes that SF valorized during that period – an emphasis on the immutability and inescapability of scientific fact, on mathematics as destiny, and on the tough-mindedness necessary to deal with these.

On the other hand, maybe what we see as an obsession with the story is more the fact that “The Cold Equations” was the first to plant the flag in a premise that begs telling whenever the topic of long-haul space travel comes up. Maybe there are fewer conscious homages than we think, but simply a lot of authors going to same plot point well.

Comment from Martin
Time June 21, 2011 at 4:15 pm

This is the first of the Mariska stories that I read (and it did read to me as the continuation of a series). It is interesting to hear that the first one is even more YA.

And I do get a very strong YA feeling from this story, Abigail. I agree that having a teenage protagonist is not sufficient to label a work Young Adult but Mariska does not strike me as a teenage protagonist in an adult work. In contrast, I’ve been reading Maul by Tricia Sullivan which has a narrator of the same age but presents a very different, much more nuanced portrait. You could argue that this is because Sullivan is a better writer than Kelly (which is true enough) but I also think he is deliberately harking back to Golden Age juveniles.

For the first half of the story, its concerns do seem to me to be the concerns of a teenager: life is unfair, my mom doesn’t understand me, I should be given more responsibility and respect, the opposite sex are confusing. That whole section about cleaning crud at the beginning of the story is both very old-fashioned and very Young Adult and this set the tone for me.

I guess the question, perhaps, is how much does a homage to Golden Age SF inevitably leave a work looking like contemporary YA (regardless of the authors intent)?

Comment from Lois Tilton
Time June 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm

The theme of the first one – “my mother is ruining my life” is quintessionally girl-YA, and it carries over to this one IFF you know that background.

Mariska is on the ship to spite her mother. Her rescue comes largely through her mother’s influence, which she resents.

There is also a 3rd story in which this tension is resolved with Mariska’s growing maturity, but it begins with her full of new resentment of her mother for putting her into the situation of being the survivor. I get the definite impression that Mariska, if given the choice between rescue by her mother and death, would emulate Jack Benny – “I’m THINKING!”

Comment from Susan Loyal
Time June 22, 2011 at 7:57 pm

@Martin @Lois. If the story actually were YA, Mariska’s mother really would be ruining her life. The distance you’re perceiving between the authorial voice and the whiny adolescent is a very clear marker that the narrative is not directed toward a young adult audience. Come to think of it, that may be the source of my “meh” reaction. I like YA done well.

Comment from honey
Time June 24, 2011 at 1:58 am

Re: The Cold Equations. My own opinion on reading the story for the first time was that it was memorable. A difficult moral choice and the writing was not flat as far as I was concerned. Sf writers enjoy pulling out an old classic story and pushing it one step farther. Charles Sheffield does this in his story “Humanity Test”. I myself think that story far superior to “Plus or Minus”, though at the time I do not believe it ever achieved recognition. The story can be found in Sheffield”s collection, “Georgia on my mind and other places.”

Comment from JJKessel
Time June 25, 2011 at 2:52 pm

This is not directly to the point of the discussion, but I recommend that those of you who regularly discuss the sf short story read RATIONALIZING GENIUS by John Huntington, a deconstructive analysis of the stories in THE SF HALL OF FAME, VOL. I (ed. Robert Silverberg). It has much to say about classic sf (including “The Cold Equations”) but even more represents, I believe, a way of speaking about sf that by relentlessly focusing on the text itself and its historical contexts raises the level of discourse. Even where you disagree with Huntington, you will find it stimulating and perhaps persuasive about historical perspectives, the background against which current writers create (even if they are unaware of that history), and, most relevant for this discussion and others like it, about critical practice.

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