Novella Review: “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker

(Cover by Julie Dillon. Uncanny, March/April 2017.)

Who Goes There?

Sarah Pinsker debuted in 2012 with her short story “Not Dying in Central Texas,” and ten years later she’s still going at it. She won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for her 2013 short story “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” and she would win her first Nebula in 2016 for “Our Lady of the Open Road.” Okay, now put a pin in that last one. Pinsker would win another Nebula for her debut novel A Song for a New Day, and her second novel, We Are Satellites, came out just last year from Berkley Books. If I sound a bit like an encyclopedia right now, it’s because unfortunately I’ve not read any of these. I know, I’m stupid. But better late than never! Her novella “And Then There Were (N-One)” was nominated for seemingly every award under the sun, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and so on. This is a weird and yet illuminating introduction to Pinsker, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

Pinsker is known to us as an SFF writer, but she’s also a productive musician, being part of the indie band Stalking Horses. My God, she’s a horse girl. As I’m writing this, her short story “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” is up for this year’s Hugo for Best Short Story, and given that it already won the Nebula its chances of also taking home the most famous award in the field are not low. I recommend checking out her website for updates and other things.

Placing Coordinates

“And Then There Were (N-One)” was first published online in the March/April 2017 issue of Uncanny Magazine. This issue also contains an interview with Pinsker which coincides with the story, and for the sake of convenience I’ll link it here as well. Now, if you’re like me, you’re wondering about where you can find this novella in book form; the good news is that we have a few options. Firstly there’s Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018, and last I checked it’s still in print. There’s also Pinsker’s collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, which also contains the aforementioned award-winning stories “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” and “Our Lady of the Open Road.” If you wanna play this reprint game on Hard Mode, may I suggest the bulky best-of anthology The Best of Uncanny? I say it’s Hard Mode because not only is it not in print, but it’s a limited edition set. That’s right, we’re looking at over $70 for this bad boy. Then again, you’re doing this book-only reprint thing more for collection’s sake than for just being able to read the story.

Enhancing Image

We start with Sarah Pinsker being invited to a convention. That’s right, the protagonist/narrator is Sarah Pinsker, though as we soon realize, she’s not our Sarah Pinsker. So, Sarah gets invited to SarahCon, a Comic Con or Worldcon-like affair being held on a secluded island off the coast of Canada, for reasons that’ll be explained later. SarahCon is a convention where all of the attendees are Sarah Pinskers from alternate universes. That’s right, this is a multiverse story; I can’t help but wonder what Pinsker would’ve done differently with the premise had she written it in 2022 and not 2016, given how much of a meme (to the point of being honestly tiresome) the whole multiverse thing has become since then. Naturally Sarah (the in-story Sarah) is skeptical about such an outlandish event, but her wife Mabel (who is apparently Pinsker’s wife IRL, more on that later) convinces her, and quickly enough we’re off to the races.

At SarahCon, Sarah finds alternate versions of herself by the dozens—some of them made most of the same choices she did, some are younger, some are older, many of them having different professions (there’s at least one Sarah who’s a rabbi), and yet conspicuously, none of these Sarahs are too different from each other. We never, for instance, get a “Sarah” who is actually a cis man, nor do we get an AMAB trans Sarah (I could be wrong), nor do we get any Sarahs who come from alternate universes whose timelines are radically different. Aside from diverging in a select number of events, all the Sarahs seem to come from recognizably the same United States and/or Canada. The biggest divergence, at least in terms of big-picture history, between the Sarahs is the fate of Seattle, which either turns out fine or gets wrecked to hell and back by a severe earthquake. We never get a Sarah who comes from a world that was conquered by Martians. Sad.

The list grouped us by surname first. Mine the most common, a trunk instead of a branch. I paged past, curious. Mostly Pinskers like myself. Made sense if we were the closest realities to the Pinsker who had invited us. There were other random surnames I chalked up to marriage. A full page of Sarah Sweetloves. I’d never really considered changing my name for anyone, even Mabel, but apparently others had.

After surname came city, divided evenly between Seattle, Toronto, and Baltimore, with a few outliers in Northampton, Somerville, Asheville, New York, Pretoria. After that came birthdate, occupation. The occupation list read like a collection of every “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d ever answered. Geneticist, writer, therapeutic riding instructor, teacher, history professor, astronomer, journalist, dog trainer, barn manager. I was the only insurance investigator. In fairness, it had never exactly been on the greatest hits list.

We know the Sarah telling the story isn’t ours because she’s not an SFF writer, but an insurance investigator. I don’t know what the hell that means. Something that’s about as mysterious to me is the fictitious occupation of quantologist, though it’s all but said outright that quantology has to do with the study of alternate universes, and there’s a team of Sarahs at the con who are quantologists. It is worth mentioning again, albeit with different phrasing, that these Sarahs attending SarahCon have many traits in common, and we can gather from these shared traits what kind of person Pinsker—not to take shots at her or anything, of course, this is all in good fun. Aside from being a horse girl (the most Lovecraftian of girls), Pinsker is big on farm life generally; she’s also, unsurprisingly, big on writing in some form, be it fiction writing, songwriting, or screenwriting.

It’s possible that, much like communism, this is all a red herring, but digging into Pinsker’s background (which admittedly wasn’t a lot of digging) leads me to believe good chunks of the autobiographical info we get are actually autobiographical, though obviously there are a lot of non-facts that would belong to alternate Sarahs, including the narrator. The fun of reading “And Then There Were (N-One)” is mostly two-pronged: we get a meta story (though it’s not as meta as it at first appears) about the author herself taking up about 95% of the cast, as well as a fictional depiction of a con, and don’t we love those? I find the first half of the story the most enjoyable simply because there’s basically no urgency; we’re allowed to take in the ridiculousness of the situation and Sarah gets to have some slice-of-life conversations with other Sarahs (whom she names depending on physical differences about them, like a Sarah wearing a No Good Deeds band shirt being called No Good Deeds).

Oh, and there are references to SFF culture, because of course there are, though since Narrator!Sarah is not into SFF herself, the references are not too obvious. It’s not like we’re being subjected to cries of “Aha yes, I too am a woman of culture,” but I have to admit these things did often get this reaction out of me.

Concerns assuaged, I dumped my backpack’s contents onto the table and repacked the stuff I wanted to carry with me for the evening, then flopped onto the bed to read the program. It contained a basic explanation of the multiverse theory, a welcome note, a sponsor page, a thank you page, a map, and “Fun Statistics!” based on the questionnaires we’d filled out prior to arriving. Ninety two percent of us played instruments. Five percent of us owned horses, thirteen percent owned cats, eighty percent owned dogs. One person lived in a world where dogs had been rendered extinct by a virus. So much for fun.

Is that last part a reference to Connie Willis’s novella “The Last of the Winnebagos”? I’ve got my eye on you, Sarah.

“And There Were (N-One)” is definitely a novella, clocking in at 23,786 words; even so, it feels more like a novelette than a proper novella, which is far from a bad thing. It’s an undemanding read, both because the plot only really demands half the story’s length and also because Narrator!Sarah is a very likable and readable protagonist. First-person narratives, at their best, often (not always) feel like we’re getting to know the narrator on a personal level, and ultimately I did end up wondering how much Narrator!Sarah and our Sarah diverge, since I felt like I was getting to know Pinsker as a person to an extent. On the one hand I hope she doesn’t check out this review, but I also want her to know that I think she’s quite the wordsmith—not in terms of crafting complicated sentences or coming up with delightful metaphors, but rather in keeping the reader thoroughly engaged. Her inventiveness combined with her colloquialism reminds me of John Varley, or at least early Varley. The title is clearly referencing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but tonally I was far more reminded of one of my favorite Varley stories, “The Phantom of Kansas.”

Which reminds me—this is a murder mystery.

There Be Spoilers Here

Narrator!Sarah investigates a disturbance in the nightclub area of the building and finds a corpse, and not just any corpse: one of the Sarah quantologists, or so it seems. The death is reported, and soon Sarah discovers firsthand that the death could not have been natural, and likely was not accidental, for the back of the dead Sarah’s head must’ve been hit with some kind of blunt instrument. There’s no policewoman or private detective among the crowd, and due to a storm coming in, authorities won’t be able to arrive until later. Since Narrator!Sarah is an insurance investigator she’s the closest thing they’ve got to figuring out whodunnit. Aside from being an Agatha Christie reference, the title is the way it is because there’s only one victim, and we don’t know the number of Sarahs attending SarahCon, hence N – One. Finding a motive proves difficult, since the workers at the hotel (who are not Sarahs themselves, mind you) don’t have any conceivable motive to kill one of the attendees, and Narrator!Sarah has a hard time imagining herself as a killer.

So, motive, and also the method. When looking for possible murder weapons our improvised sleuth goes through some items held for presentation at a Show & Tell section (which is just cute), and we get something we know our Sarah would have: the Nebula Award.

As I touched the award, I felt a strange certainty this was it. That if I were to murder someone, which I absolutely wouldn’t do, this would be the weapon of choice. Not the mic stands, not the chairs, not the turntable case: this glittering block that would travel back to another reality at the end of the weekend with its owner none the wiser. I shuddered and shook the thought off.

To be fair, you could very feasibly kill someone with one of those.

Now, the question as to who killed the quantologist is really not hard to solve, though there are a couple twists. For one thing, the quantologist who had her head bashed in is not in fact a quantologist—she’s the DJ who was set to play at the nightclub. Somebody had swapped clothes with her while nobody was looking. But why? Another easy answer when you think about it. The Sarahs at SarahCon are mostly similar, if not almost the exact same. Suppose, however, that one Sarah who knew about the background of another Sarah saw her as a good target to swap places with? Suppose a Sarah who has had a shitty life mostly due to circumstance were to swap with a Sarah who had mostly screwed her own life up? The Seattle earthquake is a big divergence point, and also a plausible motive; you’d have a Sarah who lost loved ones in the earthquake swapping with someone who came from an alternate universe where Seattle didn’t suffer that natural disaster.

You also have Sarahs who are with Mabel and those who aren’t; a surprisingly large portion of the Sarahs are with Mabel. Which, okay, fine. Personally I find it hard to believe, just because you could sneeze and probably end up with a different person, but it’s not like this is a story which calls for realism or even plausibility. While Narrator!Sarah finding the killer hinges on the Sarahs differing in mostly subtle ways, as opposed to massive differences, I can’t help but feel like Pinsker willfully ignored the opportunity to go totally bonkers with the idea. I also can’t help but feel like the ending is a bit of a copout, even though I understand why thematically it makes sense. It’s sort of an open ending; we don’t know if Narrator!Sarah will turn in the killer/impostor. There are, of course, at least two choices Narrator!Sarah could make here that would then (theoretically, anyway) result in two different Sarahs, and so on and so on, and she openly recognizes this.

I guess what I’m saying is that the sequence of events with the murder mystery is logical in itself, but it’s hindered by maybe being too logical. Of the novella’s 23,000+ words, it seems like relatively few are actually spent on solving the mystery, and that’s because the mystery is by no means complicated, nor is it the most gripping part of the narrative. If anything I wish we’d spent a few thousand more words exploring the many possibilities of the convention, having some fun with the many Sarahs, maybe get in on a panel (there’s apparently one on gender, but we don’t get to hear anything about it). Of course, having it turn into a wacky slice of life would require basically writing a different story altogether, and I do like very much what I like about it.

A Step Farther Out

There’s a plot-important reason for why the Sarahs at the SarahCon are all so similar when you get down to it, but I can’t help but feel like Pinsker held herself back from having more fun with what is (let’s face it) an inherently silly premise. Like why not go nuts with it? It’s possible, of course, that Everything Everywhere All At Once spoiled me on the whole multiverse thing, since that movie basically takes it to the logical extreme, but what if there was a different Sarah Pinsker who made the decision to turn “And then There Were (N-One)” into an outright comedy? Though conversely there would also be a Sarah Pinsker who made it more serious, which is such a horrid idea I dare not think it. I’m honestly surprised this didn’t get the Hugo, because it seems like exactly the kind of story Hugo voters (i.e., Worldcon attendees) would latch onto, but I’m also saying this because it’s quite a fun read. Pinsker may not make 100% use of her premise, but this is something that could easily devolve into bullshit.

The decision to have Narrator!Sarah not be our Sarah is a key one; first off, I imagine it was a challenge (albeit a fun challenge) to devise a version of yourself who is much the same as yourself, but different in ways that are often subtle. I’m reminded of Lunar Park, in which Bret Easton Ellis is both author and protagonist, but past some initial biographical similarities Ellis the narrator turns out to be a decidedly different person from Ellis the author. Another key decision is that while it’s implied our Sarah is one of the many attendees at SarahCon, we never run into her—at least not as far as we can tell. There are enough degrees of separation to keep the self-reflexive aspect while also not coming off as a painful self-insert. Yes, it’s solipsistic just by virtue of its existence, but it doesn’t turn into the author patting themselves on the back (okay, there’s a little back-patting, but I’ll let it slide), and hell, Pinsker knows what she’s doing. I guess that’s the highest praise I can give this novella, aside from its entertainment value: Pinsker knows what she’s doing.

See you next time.


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