Who Goes There?
Rebecca Roanhorse is a fairly new writer, with her first story in the field being published in 2017; “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is that first story. It’s also the only short story Roanhorse would see published that year, and sadly her body of short work remains quite small. The good news is that if you want more Roanhorse, she has (contrary to her short fiction output) been highly productive as a novelist, with six novels published in just five years and with a seventh already coming out soon. Her next novel, Tread of Angels, is due in November… 2022. This year. In about three months. And she already had a 2022 release with Fevered Star.
Well, you can’t say she’s not putting in the work.
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” must’ve blown people’s socks off, since it not only won the Hugo and Nebula for Best Short Story (insane already for someone’s debut), but it also pretty much singlehandedly earned Roanhorse the 2018
John W. Campbell Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Roanhorse was the first person to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Astounding Award in the same year since Barry B. Longyear took his share of glory in 1980 (we’ll get to Longyear eventually, fret not), so clearly people were hyped to shit. I wasn’t in on the buzz at the time, though, so this is actually my first time with Roanhorse at all, and it’s not a reread.
First published digitally in the August 2017 issue of Apex Magazine, and you can read it for free here. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” has been reprinted several times, although curiously not in any of the year’s-best-SF anthologies, with the exception of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2018. I probably wouldn’t call Roanhorse’s story horror and I most certainly wouldn’t call it dark fantasy—it’s clearly SF. People be smoking CRACK up in here. Even so, it’s freely available online and you won’t have trouble finding a book reprint.
A brief rant before I begin properly. I don’t have a problem with the Astounding Award being renamed (I get the rationale for it), but my beef with it has to do with something that’s always apparently been part of the Astounding Award: eligibility. An author becomes eligible for the Astounding Award after their first professional publication, and they’re eligible for nomination twice—i.e., within two years of their professional debut. This is such an arcane and unbelievably stupid rule that I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with it. Why two years? Why not just one? Why not three? What if an author technically debuts with like one story, but then goes away for a few years and doesn’t debut in earnest until after the two-year mark? At what point does a new writer stop being a new writer? These are philosophical questions the Astounding Award does not seem equipped to handle.
What first struck me about this is that the “You” in the title is no joke; this was written as a second-person narrative. Which is not to say the protagonist is unnamed. No, the protagonist is Jesse
Pinkman Turnblatt, though he goes by the “stage name” of Jesse Trueblood, to make himself sound more Indian, even though he already has a good dose of Indian blood in him. Jesse lives with his wife Theresa, who does not approve of his job but is at least glad he has one, since if the narrator is right then Jesse has a bit of a history of fucking things up. The thing is that Jesse currently works a virtual reality gig, setting up scenarios called Experiences which place him and the client in “authentic” Indian scenarios from the Old West—by that, we of course mean the Old West as depicted in cowboy movies.
What Theresa doesn’t understand is that Tourists don’t want a real Indian experience. They want what they see in the movies, and who can blame them? Movie Indians are terrific! So you watch the same movies the Tourists do, until John Dunbar becomes your spirit animal and Stands with Fists your best girl. You memorize Johnny Depp’s lines from The Lone Ranger and hang a picture of Iron Eyes Cody in your work locker. For a while you are really into Dustin Hoffman’s Little Big Man.
I seriously doubt anyone would subject themselves to The Long Ranger, but to each his own. The point being that Jesse gives so-called Tourists what they want, which is a fantasy that makes them feel good about themselves, or gives them the illusion of spiritual enlightenment. If you know anything about the kind of person who buys fake arrowheads and rabbit’s-feet at a trinket shop, then you can guess that these Tourists are pretty much all white folks; they’re at least assumed to be such, since both performers and clients don avatars when in the Experiences. The VR part of “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is the only even tangentially SF part of the story, so you can bet Roanhorse milks it a good deal.
While I do feel tempted to criticize how upfront the cultural appropriation theme here is, it almost feels like a red herring. You take one look at the title, complete with the trademark symbol, and you know you’re in for some juicy satire about white people copping alleged Indian souvenirs; the twist is that the story does, in fact, cover more ground than that. We don’t have to wait long for Jesse to have an unusual encounter with a Tourist—a man who claims to be have some Cherokee blood in his veins. We don’t get the man’s real name, but as part of the Experience (and because he’s desperate to not fuck up and have his boss sack him), Jesse gives him the vaguely Indian-sounding name of White Wolf. Jesse isn’t sure if White Wolf really is part Cherokee; the truth is that Jesse doesn’t know shit about Cherokees.
You’ve heard of ancestral memories, but you’ve also heard of people claiming Cherokee blood where there is none. Theresa calls them “pretendians,” but you think that’s unkind. Maybe White Wolf really is Cherokee. You don’t know any Cherokees, so maybe they really do look like this guy. There’s a half-Tlingit in payroll and he’s pale.
The Experience is basically a success, and Jesse and White Wolf become pals. Performers and clients aren’t supposed to interact outside of Experiences, but Jesse can’t help himself; he even tells White Wolf his true name. The story then skims through at least a couple months in-story, which is honestly a bit of a problem, because we don’t get to see Jesse and White Wolf’s relationship develop gradually, nor do we get much of an idea as to what they even talk about. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is quite short indeed (I’d be shocked if it goes over 5,000 words, though Apex frustratingly does not give a word count), and I do feel like the virtual lack of a middle section hurts it.
I’m conflicted about the plausibility of the premise here. I want to say it’d be way too obviously distasteful for a company to profit off of such blatant cultural appropriation, but again, trinket shop with fake arrowheads and rabbit’s-feet. I also live in a timeline where The Lone Ranger, starring actual cannable Armie Hammer, is a real thing that exists. I suppose my suspension of disbelief isn’t strained by the Experiences (the tech needed for such things is not far off, after all), but rather something I’ll have to get into with the spoiler section.
There Be Spoilers Here
In a way that feels like something out a cheap thriller, White Wolf takes over Jesse’s life—first by taking up so much of his time by chatting with him a local bar, then by taking his job and even his wife. Jesse gets replaced by the more “authentic” Indian, despite White Wolf’s heritage being dubious, and we see him at the end of the story as a broken husk of a man.
Now, I have a few questions.
White Wolf seems to take advantage of Jesse falling ill in the back half of the story and swipe his wife out from under him while he’s not looking. And his co-workers. And his boss. What if Jesse didn’t become bedridden for days on end? Was he poisoned? Was it a coincidence? Did White Wolf have some weird plan to cuck Jesse this whole time? Why plot to steal some guy’s job which, by all accounts, looks pretty self-demeaning? What information did Jesse tell White Wolf that would presumably let the latter run the former’s name through the mud? According to Jesse he told White Wolf things he’s never even told Theresa. Why? Surely they can’t be that close. I could’ve sworn this was building up to Jesse realizing he’s in love with White Wolf, but that’s not the route Roanhorse goes down; indeed, she seemingly implies the beginning of a homosexual affair, but then she deflects it.
The best thing about “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is that, as a psychological metaphor, it’s very much convincing. We’re given a man of actual Indian background who plays into his role for the sake of profit, and for being fake, a poser, even a bit of a scoundrel, he pays a big price for it. The narrative arc of the protagonist having his life taken over by a doppelganger is not new at all—actually it’s quite old. The trick with Roanhorse’s story is that we have the replaced-protagonist narrative combined with the surface commentary about people of a certain demographic selling out their own history; that Jesse suffers because he doesn’t respect his own heritage, nor the heritages of adjacent peoples (those of other Indian nations), makes his fate at least somewhat deserved.
As an allegory, the story works, but if taken on a literal level, it’s kinda rubbish. If taken literally, there are far too many questions left unanswered for it to be altogether satisfying for me. We get the message that Jesse is a fuck-up, but we get so little concrete backstory from him, about his strenuous relationship with Theresa and why she’s apparently threatened to leave him many times already, about why he’s drawn to White Wolf (a character who remains mostly mysterious, at least to us) in particular, and so on. The second-person narration doesn’t help things since it puts you, the reader, in the shoes of a character who already has a name and something like a backstory; that some of Jesse’s actions are inexplicable and unexplained is not helped by the peppering of you’s.
It’s certainly a thought-provoking story, to some extent, but I came out of it asking questions that are almost certainly not the ones Roanhorse wanted me to ask. In a way it feels like a story that’s only half-finished; it feels like maybe the penultimate draft, rather than the finished product. And yet, I can’t fault it for being thematically ambitious.
A Step Farther Out
I got a feeling reading “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” similar to when I first read C. J. Cherryh’s Hugo-winning short story “Cassandra.” In both cases, an author most active in novel-writing has her first or second short story win surprisingly big, and like with Cherryh, I can’t shake the feeling that Roanhorse’s story will eventually be regarded as minor in the context of her career. This is not to be taken as a put-down exactly; we’re talking about someone who’s not only just getting started, but who is already proving herself to be a powerhouse. Only it’s not in the mode of writing that won her a Hugo. Whereas Cherryh’s story got hardly any emotion out of me, though, Roanhorse’s left me feeling polarized, which I suppose is the preferred reaction.
Like I said earlier, the lack of this story’s inclusion in the biggest year’s-best anthologies is conspicuous. It didn’t show up on what turned out to be the late Gardner Dozois’s final The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology, nor did Neil Clarke include it in his The Best Science Fiction of the Year anthology for 2017. Does this underexposure mean Roanhorse’s debut is destined to not be regarded as a classic in twenty years’ time? Probably not. Who the hell knows what will be considered a classic for future generations? I have to admit, though, that I did find it overrated, and I’m personally not convinced it’ll withstand the great funnel of the coming decades; more importantly, I am convinced that Roanhorse will (like Cherryh) move on to bigger and better things if she hasn’t already.
See you next time.