River of Gods (Ian McDonald)

A Hugo Nominee

"Well," said Great Uncle Leadbelly. "I have to say --"

"No, actually," I interrupted. "You don't have to say."

We sat in silence for a moment while he absorbed this. I could imagine what he wanted to say, and I needed no part of it. Sadly, I was frozen in place and could provide no other route for the conversation. So we sat at Great Uncle Leadbelly's dining room table in grumpy silence.

I was thinking of my twelfth summer, a time when everything embarrassed me. My body, my home, my family -- all were great pools of mortification. Even the cat embarrassed me, with his obviously sensuous behaviour and lack of concern about societal convention. I remembered that there were girls everywhere. And so I spent much of -- nay, all of -- my time attempting to find the perfect balance between completely suppressing my drooling, lustful nature on the one hand and denying any suggestion of social phobia on the other. Which would have been worse for my parents, that I was overly interested or not interested enough?

Tough times.

In the midst of the worst of summers, there were wells of even deeper embarrassment. My grandparents had gotten into the routine of watching soap operas. My sister and I spent many summer afternoons with my grandparents in their living room. I'd hide in a novel, my sister in a magazine, and my grandparents would stare at the tube.

And the tube was not a safe place for them to be looking, as far as I was concerned. The soaps were full of loose talk, and bedrooms, and adultery, and even kissing. Right there in front of my grandparents! Shouldn't old people spend their time knitting or doing puzzles or something? I would shrink into the sofa pillows and hope the grandparents wouldn't notice me noticing them watching all that trash, because they might be tempted to talk to me right then.

Gosh, I'm still embarrassed now, even just writing it.

At any rate, Great Uncle Leadbelly had finished reading River of Gods -- at my suggestion, because of the Hugos -- and I knew he would want to go over each and every salacious detail of this science fictional Kama Sutra. I was more than embarrassed, I was positively sick to my stomach. Honestly, I hadn't expected so many of the Hugo nominees to be stuck in some male adolescent wish-fulfillment mode. The number of women-initiated fantasy sex scenes in this pack of books is embarrassing even without a nonagenarian looking on. I never meant to offend him, no matter how imaginary he might be.

I didn't even want to think about him thinking about sex.


"It has to be said," he insisted. I closed my eyes and held my breath. "Authors these days are given too free a hand."

"Yes, Uncle."

"Look at this book! It is entirely too long."

I squeezed one eye open a smidgeon. "What was that, Great Uncle?"

"These authors are molly-coddled, that's what they are," he blustered. "They wouldn't know a decent edit if one bit them on the bum. All of these books are interesting , but too long. And then listen to this." He picked up the book and read from it.

The Muslim man goes down without even a cry, hands clutched to head. The man's cry becomes the crowd's...
Thomas Lull almost drops it in surprise. Lisa intercepts the thing on its way to moksha in the Ganga...
"Did he drop it or didn't he? If he almost drops it, how can she catch it? Dang, but a little editing would've gone a long way --"

I sat a little straighter. I smiled and relaxed. Oh, breathing felt so good. Then, a knock at the door was immediately followed by the entrance of Great Aunt Iva.

"Keep meaning to get that lock changed," grumbled Great Uncle Leadbelly.

"Hey, kiddoes," said Great Aunt Iva. "Oh, look at that! Did you read River of Gods?"

We nodded nervously.

"How about that acrobatic shower scene?" she asked, waggling her septuagenarian eyebrows up and down.

"I liked the airplane ride," Great Uncle leered.

I covered my ears and chanted: "I can't hear you. I'm not listening. La la la la la la."

Eventually, they ended their comparison of favorite scenes and went off to the cafeteria for lunch, but I just sat there with my hands over my ears.

"La la la la la la. I'm not listening!"

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