Winning a Hugo for best short story is probably recommendation enough but I am going to add my redundant praises for Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘For want of a nail’ anyway. Quite simply it made me think in a way I have never done before – not just about the story itself but about the way in which it was told.
In theory, all of the best stories are supposed to fire the reader’s imagination and make them think but I’ve never before read a story that was so… interactive. Interactive is usually a word we reserve for video games but trust me, this book is nothing if not interactive because all the best bits occur inside the reader’s own mind. And that effect was deliberate. Therein lies the mastery.
On the surface, ‘For want of a nail’ is a very simple story told from the point of view of Rava, a twenty-something female protagonist who is the ‘wrangler’ for the family AI, Cordelia. It is her task to look after Cordelia. Cordelia’s task is to record the day to day lives of all the members of the extended family via the VR glasses they all wear. Why this recording is so critical is never explained. We are however told that this particular family is one of many on board a generation ship. That is never explained either but most sci-fi readers will know that generation ships are colony ships that can take scores of generations to reach their destination.
All is well until a silly accident in which Cordelia is dropped. That accident causes her to lose connection with the main databases in which her long term memory is stored. To fix Cordelia, Rava must find a replacement socket – the metaphorical ‘nail’. And this is when the story becomes really interesting.
AIs are not only recording devices, they are also communications devices – again through the ubiquitous VR glasses – so with Cordelia only functioning on ‘short term memory’, Rava and her brother must physically interact with key characters in order to track down the elusive socket. This interaction exposes a secret that ends rather badly.
Those are the bare bones of the plot but the beauty of the story and the sheer mastery of MRK’s story-telling lie in the backstory she does not tell. Oh, she gives us clues, never fear, but they are all delivered in an off-hand, almost casual way that suggests there is more without ever spelling it out.
In some ways, reading this story was akin to peering at the negative of an old style photograph; all the bits are there but reversed so you have to work to make sense of the picture.
When I finished reading “For want of a nail’ I was disturbed without knowing why and bewildered that such a simple story could win the prestigious Hugo award. Why?
It was not until I woke up this morning that I realised how much MRK had done with so little. I can’t remember what I dreamt last night but I know it was a ‘working’ dream – the kind that makes you wake up feeling as if your brain has been wrestling with E=MC2 all night. And perhaps mine had because I awoke feeling a strange sense of wonder. As my conscious brain caught up with my dreaming brain I began to see the staggering backstory emerging from the hints and clues I’d read the night before. To be honest I’m still getting little ‘ah hah!’ flashes as I write this review.
Am I going to tell you what these ‘ah hah’ flashes were?
Nope, sorry. Reading ‘For want of a nail’ is an experience in the true sense of the word and spoilers would be criminal. I’ve probably already said too much. Just read it. Magic does happen.
I’ll leave you with the rhyme from which the story gets its name :
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.