Short Story Review: “Non-Zero Probabilities” by N. K. Jemisin

(Cover by Andreas Rocha. Clarkesworld, September 2009.)

Who Goes There?

Assuming you’re “in the know,” you already know about N. K. Jemisin, by reputation if not by having read several of her many novels. With that said, a bit of an introduction is in order, for me if no one else. Jemisin is so far the only author to have won the Hugo for Best Novel three years in a row, along with the only author to win the Hugo for Best Novel for all three entries in a trilogy. (Vernor Vinge won with three consecutive novels, but said novels were all published several years apart.) The Broken Earth trilogy, a fantasy series with a dying Earth setting, did all this, along with the third entry, The Stone Sky, winning a Nebula. While her career is still very much in progress, Jemisin stands as one of the most acclaimed SFF authors of the past decade, and has achieved that certain status that the vast majority of authors crave: to be a critical darling and a regular bestseller. “Non-Zero Probabilities,” an early short story from Jemisin, was also a Hugo and Nebula finalist.

I’m ashamed to say that prior to doing this review I’ve not read a single word of Jemisin’s fiction. Sure, I’ve checked out her blog, and I follow her on a certain social media platform that has a bird for a logo, but the thing with Jemisin (this is not a criticism, please don’t kill me) is that she sure loves her series. On top of the aforementioned Broken Earth trilogy we also have the Inheritance trilogy, which I actually saw an omnibus edition of at a Barnes & Noble the other day; the thing was fucking HUGE. Most recently we have The World We Make, which came out last year from Orbit, as the sequel to The City We Became. Jemisin has yet to write a novel that’s not part of a series or franchise, so either I wait for her to write a standalone novel or I get over my fear of commitment and give one of these a shot.

Placing Coordinates

“Non-Zero Probabilities” was first published in the September 2009 issue of Clarkesworld, and you can read it for free online here. Check out also the magazine’s podcast reading of the story here. Despite the Hugo and Nebula nominations (along with being a damn fine story), “Non-Zero Probabilities” has not been reprinted much, although you can easily find a print version of it in the Jemisin collection How Long ’til Black Future Month? Jemisin has not written a great deal of short fiction over the years, with How Long ’til Black Future Month? collecting the vast majority of it, and she has not published a short story since 2019. The good news is that several of those stories have appeared in various online magazines, which means we’ll be seeing her on this site again… eventually…

Enhancing Image

Adele (no, not that one) is your standard quirky biracial (half black, half Irish) woman, although her situation as of late has not been standard. New York has been caught in a sort of bubble where statistically unlikely things have been happening with frightening regularity—for both good and ill. One of the first things we see is a shuttle train being derailed and killing bare minimum a couple dozen people—a horrifying accident that normally would be unthinkable but which recently has been inexplicably allowed into existence. “The probability of a train derailment was infinitesimal. That meant it was only a matter of time.” Incredibly unlikely yes, but not impossible. This is by no means an isolated incident; miraculous things have been happening constantly, but only in this finite space.

“It’s only New York, that’s the really crazy thing. Yonkers? Fine. Jersey? Ditto. Long Island? Well, that’s still Long Island. But past East New York everything is fine.”

At least my home state has not been affected!

New York has been transformed, sort of cut off from the rest of the world, in a way that’s not seen so much as experienced. I’m reminded very much of Bellona, that isolated wasteland (or wonderland, depending on how you look at it) of Samuel R. Delany’s mammoth novel Dhalgren. If you’re even remotely familiar with that novel and are worried that “Non-Zero Probabilities” might approach that level of opaqueness, fear not, this is basically a comedy. A rather dark comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. The fact that it’s set in New York, one of the world’s biggest punching bags, and not say, fucking Cleveland, makes the hijinks hit much harder. Granted, there’s a bit of an out-of-pocket comment made about Bangkok being “pedophile heaven,” which is a little… culturally insensitive perhaps; there’s also a joke about Chinese knockoffs, which might’ve been a fresh joke then but just feels tired now. But the insensitivity is all in good fun, and boy does this story have fun with the sheer lunacy of its premise.

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to call “Non-Zero Probabilities” fantasy or SF, given that the scientific “explanation” is only mentioned in passing and is not even confirmed to be the cause of the bubble. People who normally would not be superstitious have started taking good luck charms seriously, and conversely doing away with things meant to represent bad luck. It’s a bad time and place to be a black cat. Hundreds of thousands of people are set to gather together in Yankee Stadium and I guess push the bad vibes out of the city—although that would necessitate pushing out the good vibes as well. Sure, you could get absolutely fucked over in a convoluted series of accidents, but you could also win the lottery twice in a week. By the way, if you’re wondering if the mass prayer at Yankee Stadium will serve as the climax, just don’t think about that.

At 3,350 words this is probably the shortest story I’ve covered for the site, and it’s also a contender for the most plotless. Adele goes about her day, she meets up with a couple people she knows and they talk about the bubble that’s overtaken New York, and Adele herself does not get into any life-threatening situations. The stakes, at least from a certain angle, are low. We don’t get a plot so much as a series of happenings, which are both entertaining and logical extensions of a setting wherein the unlikely has become likely and there is no such thing as impossibility.

Question: Who would want to live in New York?

I’m not talking about the New York of the story, I’m just asking generally.

Anyway, this thing is highly readable and very short; it’s just long enough that you get a taste of what Jemisin’s doing but short enough that it doesn’t tire itself out as a comedy. It’s an episodic narrative where we get these short scenes that illustrate Adele’s character, the ways in which the city has changed, or both, often to comedic effect. The conflict does not involve Adele directly so much as a general question of science vs. superstition; on a micro level it has to do with Adele’s nominal Catholicism (ya know, the Irish in her) being challenged on two fronts, by a scientific anomaly on one and a supernatural force which may not be the Abrahamic God on the other; on a macro level it’s a question of whether “objective” reality is merely determined by numbers or if there’s an invisible hand orchestrating events.

It’s a bit of a thinker, but first and foremost it’s a slice-of-life comedy that’s constructed efficiently and written with remarkable confidence.

There Be Spoilers Here

This is a hard one to spoil, first because, like I said, it’s basically a slice-of-life narrative, but also because it doesn’t really have an “ending.” Now, not every story has to go out with a bang; it’s possible, occasionally even preferable, to leave things open, and “Non-Zero Probabilities” is one of those stories where I actually don’t mind the lack of closure. The question of whether the statistical anomalies are driven by science or superstition goes unanswered, but to answer that question, or rather to give us the answer, would probably be unsatisfying. Jemisin makes the wise choice of plopping us straight into this augmented New York for a few thousand words and then taking us out of it just as quickly, with a helpful dose of humor but also an air of mystery about what the city might become. Much like Dhalgren, like the Bellona of that novel, the mystery behind the anomaly is much more interesting than the possibility of finding a solution.

A Step Farther Out

A pretty good introduction to Jemisin’s fiction, although something tells me this is lightweight by Jemisin standards, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you want your short story of the day to be like comfort food. I also have to admit that as a fan of comedic fantasies in the Unknown tradition I’m predisposed to find the hijinks of “Non-Zero Probabilities” at least a little involving. Not all of the jokes work, but most of them do in my opinion, which is more than can be said of most comedic SFF. A lot of the humor of course has to do with Jemisin’s snappy narrator’s voice and the fact that she doesn’t waste time on flowery descriptions when she knows that’s not the kind of writing we’re here for. I can see why it’d be deemed a bit too minor to be included in best-of-the-year anthologies, but given its modest goals which it achieves with easy success, I liked it quite a bit.

See you next time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: