Hugo Nominee: “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story”

OK, I suck. But better late than never, eh? Here is the story; and here is the commentary:
Rich Horton:

James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” is just what it says. A boy finds an alien ray-gun in the woods. He is convinced it means his is special, and he works to make himself worthy of it — but at the same time his relationships with other people, particularly women, are poisoned. The story reflects on the dangers of the power such a gun might confer — as it notes internally, not entirely in a new way: “he realized he was not Spiderman, he was Frodo”. I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and I am reprinting. I acknowledge one weakness — as Science Fiction, it’s a bit lacking, in that (as Gardner announces at the opening) the central Maguffin is not explained at all, and is really not that SFnally interesting — it is just a device (no pun intended) for stringing a character story on. Fair enough … and reason enough for me to decide to vote Bear’s story ahead of this one on my final ballot. But the story does what it intends to do very well, I think.

SF Gospel:

James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” (Asimov’s, February 2008) is my kind of SF story. It takes a simple premise—a young boy discovers the eponymous alien artifact—and explores it with strong characters and a healthy does of philosophy. Jack, the boy who finds the weapon, becomes obsessed with his discovery, and as he grows into adulthood this obsession comes to define him. His interest in the gun leads him to a career in science; his fears about its discovery lead him to push away those whom he loves. Before long both he and the reader begin to wonder if the ray-gun is intelligently guiding its owner to predetermined ends. This sort of high-tech teleology is a common trope in SF—among other things, it’s the foundation of Asimov’s Foundation. The idea that there is a way things are supposed to be, a conclusion to which everything is moving, is essential to any satisfying story, but SF allows a greater degree of transparency about the intelligence(s) that determine that end. The whys of Gardner’s story remain sketchy; the ray-gun is, after all, wholly alien, and its design is as ineffable as its tech. Nevertheless, it’s a moving exploration of the concept of the happy ending. The real strength of the story is its characters. Jack seems to be painted in broad strokes—we learn few concrete details about him, and he doesn’t even have a last name. But Gardner tells his story confidently, and as a result he feels more real by the story’s end than if he were granted more exposition.

Aliette de Bodard, for The Fix:

“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner is the other standout. About a mysterious alien ray gun which falls to Earth, it follows the life of Jack, the boy who finds it and keeps it, and the various ways in which the gun affects his life. As the narrator warns us, this isn’t a story about how ray guns work, but rather a very intelligent look at how having a mysterious artifact can change lives. Both Jack and his girlfriends are profoundly affected by the ray gun’s secret in utterly believable ways. The last paragraph did feel a tad superfluous, but don’t let that deter you from reading this fine story.

Russ Allbery:

Gardner has a matter-of-fact story-telling voice with a hint of wry wit under the surface that, when he’s on, is oddly compelling. I found myself thoroughly enjoying this story without being able to put a finger on why. I think it’s because the story is so confident in itself; it doesn’t spend time explaining or justifying. A boy finds a ray-gun. The ray-gun changes his life, for both good and bad. As he matures, he realizes what a responsibility it is, and the problems it causes. And by the end of the story, it’s the spark for a touching love story. The whole story is in the title, really, but Gardner writes it with such confidence and gentle emotion that it’s the highlight of the issue. (7)“:

  • The good:
    • I loved all the references to Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings, and how they worked so well with this story. Very cool!
    • Like the title implies this really is a love story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romantic science fiction story and enjoyed it as much as this one. Really well done!
    • The ending of “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” was really quite nifty – it was totally fun to see how things all came together.
  • The bad:
    • The story telling style was a little bit different with its “simplistic narrator” point of view. But after the first part of the story I eventually got used to it and it didn’t really bother me any more.
    • Even though “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” starts out with young teenagers, it isn’t really a story for kids.

Abigail Nussbaum:

The result is pleasant but not very exciting. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s the appeal to so many readers’ own experiences as young science fiction fans, convinced that any minute their life was going to transform into something out of their favorite stories, that is at the root of “The Ray-Gun”‘s appeal (though by the same token it’s not much of a stretch to view the ray gun as a metaphor for being an SF fan, and the story’s ending, in which Jack and his new girlfriend send the gun to the bottom of the ocean, as saying that if you want to get a girl, you’ll have to give up that creepy science fiction habit). I can’t say that I think nostalgia and sentimentality are, on their own, good enough reasons to give a story a Hugo nomination, or indeed to lavish it with all the praise that “The Ray-Gun” has received.

14 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story”

  1. Another one driven by nostalgia, and somewhat old-fashioned in style – in fact, it’s difficult to pin down when it actually takes place. I also agree that the story isn’t really sf – there’s no real exploration of the central idea. For all the difference it makes, Jack could have found a leprechaun’s hat or a magic dog turd. Which does make you wonder what the point is. It’s a well-written and engaging novelette… but I’d still like to know why the Hugo shortlists this year seem to be avoided heartland genre sf.

  2. I’ve just read Gardner’s ‘The One with Interstellar Group Consciousnesses’… and it’s the same as ‘The Ray Gun: A Love Story’ – i.e., a story that borrows the language of science fiction to tell a story that isn’t actually science fiction.

  3. This is a story about a ray-gun. The ray-gun will not be explained except to say, “It shoots rays.”

    I thought this was a pretty good opening sentence. However, this tone becomes annoying within a dozen paragraphs and there are still 15 pages to go.

    This tone also allows a lot to be left unsaid with the outcome that I don’t believe in Jack at all, certainly not as a 15 year old but not as an adult either. I don’t believe in Kirsten either and her re-appearance halfway through the story is just silly. A little after that Gardner acknowledges how contrived his story is but acknowledging something doesn’t excuse it.

    And yes, the timeless, nameless whitebread small town American nostalgia is pretty cloying.

  4. I think I’m with Abigail on this one – it’s pleasant enough, but nothing more. It’s barely science fiction except for the unexplained ray gun, and while it’s not nearly as bad as the Resnick it appeals to the same nostalgia for being a teenage science fiction fan in an era of ray-guns, and I’m not that interested in Jack, or convinced by any of his interactions with Kirsten and Donna.

  5. My initial reaction on reading the story was “Youthful innocence + romance + sfnal meta = Hugo bait.” There’s enough in there that I don’t think it’s done entirely cynically, but still.

    I’ve seen some comment on how the story riffs on (or reiterates) the story of Bluebeard. Any thoughts on that?


    ‘The One with Interstellar Group Consciousnesses’… and it’s the same as ‘The Ray Gun: A Love Story’

    Good title, though — where’s it published?

    Several years ago, I reviewed Gardner’s collection Gravity Wells for Interzone, from which my takeaway impressions were (a) he has fun with his titles, and (b) he’s often more interested in the resonances provided by sf elements than in sf elements in themselves.

  6. The connection to Bluebeard hadn’t occured to me and I don’t really see it. Sure, curiosity kills the cat but the parallels are pretty vague, particularly in terms of Jack’s role. You are refering to an unlinkable discussion so it seems pointless to go into specifics here but I do agree with some of the wider points raised there.

    In terms of the science fictional content of the story, this didn’t bother me at all. You can just as easily read it as a fantasy but so what? Generally too much emphasis is placed on the difference between SF and fantasy and, besides, the Hugo is open to both.
    I don’t even see “the resonances provided by sf elements than in sf elements in themselves” are a distinction to be interested in.

  7. The story in some ways loses me from the start: Gardner writes that “if someone spent a month explaining alien thoughts to us, we’d think we understood but we wouldn’t,” but in the same paragraph states that “the crew mutinied.” How would we know? The actions of captain and crew could have been a rite or ritual. The “captain” could have been a prisoner trying to escape. The “aliens” might have been crude biological support mechanisms for the real lovers of the story, the ray-gun and the ship. Etc. The degree of understanding presented seems to me to be a slip, Gardner trying to have things both ways.

    I can handle the fairytale style of writing in shorter pieces, but in something this long it grates…or at least, there just weren’t enough statements made profound by the baldly simple style to justify its use here. “In the dark, Jack muttered, ‘It was her own damned fault.’ His words were true, but not true enough.” — I liked that, but there wasn’t enough like it.

    Also Jack wasn’t terribly believable as a 14-year old. Maybe 11.

    On the other hand, I did like the way the story seemed to hint at being about many things, without solidly being About any one thing — it’s certainly better in this regard than the Resnick. To the extent the story works for me, it’s more as a tone poem about otherness and story. There is the otherness of aliens, and the otherness to a young boy of girls. There is the sense of the good and bad impacts stories can have on us, and yet of our need to understand our lives as stories. There is the understanding that maturity comes when we become aware not just of our own story, but that those external to us are trying to live their own story; yet at the same time, we realize that we can never fully understand someone else’s story, or even the degree to which what happens in our lives that seems coincidental can be an important part in someone else’s life story.

    I can see Abigail’s critical reading, of Jack needing to give up SF in order to get the girl; on the other hand, I can also read it as Jack needing to find a girl he can share SF with, who will understand not so much him directly as the impact SF had on his life. And I think there is an element of truth in both readings, but neither is the whole truth; I like that the story seems to recognize this, rather than focusing on just one.

    (And I liked other minor elements…the hints of a gun control message without that being something the story is really “about”; the way Jack is not the stereotypical sickly-thin, constantly-bullied science geek.)

    Frankly I’m less concerned than everyone else seems to be with whether or not the story is science fiction, because it is at least playing with a SF-nal sense of otherness. If you make the ray-gun an ordinary handgun, the story still works on some level, but loses that pervasive thematic layer.

    In sum I don’t think it’s a story in the upper echelon of the nominees, but I can at least imagine a thoughtful reader nominating it. (Though I do wonder how much of that is because I’m closer in age and character to Jack than to, say, Resnick’s protagonists.)

  8. I’m not bothered by the story being arguably fantasy rather than SF, I’m just less interested in the story because the genre elements are so thin.

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