Next in the novelette category is “Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky, published in Eclipse Four (Night Shade Books). Read it here.
Imagining an afterlife as a story device has a long — very long — history. What do the dead do, what should they do, what can they do? Simply exist as sad shades? Endure punishment for wickedness, receive reward for the good they performed? Lament their squandered lives? In treating the subject of death and afterlife, an author almost perforce reveals a part of his or her view of human purpose and responsibility.
Swirsky depicts a tacky afterlife where the newly deceased are welcomed with a party, complete with confetti, party hats, noisemakers, and free-flowing booze. In this case, the deceased is a 34-year-old man named Dennis, who has just died in a diabetic coma. So, now what? Uncle Ed explains: “Hop from party to party… Get together with a girl and play house until the continents collide. Whatever you want.”
But wait, there is an important problem being set up in this story: Dennis was murdered, sort of, by his wife, who didn’t stop him when she saw him messing up his insulin and taking a sleeping pill. She even helped him open the pill bottle when he was too drunk to get it open himself, and watches him take the pill, knowing he is likely to die.
Which he does. She dies, too, soon after. She arrives at the same afterlife. She gets her party. There is a little tut-tutting concerning her misdeed, but whatever. The point appears to be achieving self-knowledge. She is sorry for what she did, and realizes that she doesn’t want to be with Dennis anymore.
Dennis receives a rebuke from Uncle Ed about how he conducted his life: “Not only wouldn’t you stir yourself to make a starving man a sandwich, but you’d have waited for him to bring you one before you stirred yourself to eat.” Upon hearing this, Dennis suddenly achieves a self-understanding: “I just wanted someone to take care of me… I guess I wanted to stay a kid.” And what he does with this self-understanding is — he regresses to eleven years old and goes off to play with his favorite cousin in a fadeout of two children running through fields of grass with their hair blowing behind them.
Enough people found this story satisfying to get it on the Hugo ballot, but it leaves me unmoved. Whether it’s read as drama or comedy (and I think it attempts to be partly both), the story tries to sell readers on the idea that running off to play is the happy culmination, or even salvation, of a human life that couldn’t be bothered to help others or even himself. How many people are buying that?