“A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy” by Rebecca Roanhorse (2020 Ignyte Awards)

Having covered four of the Ignyte Award finalists for Best Short Story – “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen”, “And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas, “Dune Song” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa and “Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan” by Christopher Caldwell – I’m wrapping things up with a look at the fifth and final contender in the category: Rebecca Roanhorse’s “A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy”.

Included in the anthology The Mythic Dream, this story is set in a future where virtual reality is more immersive than before; where the famous can have their images projected into space, leaving them visible in the night sky like stars of a more literal sort; and where medical technology can keep a person alive for a century and a half – if they can afford it.

Dez Hunter is one of the celebrities inhabiting this techno-wonderland. While his career is built in large part around playing Native American stereotypes (“Can’t remember the last time I smiled for the camera. They want stoic, so I give them stoic”) this is sufficient to make him a success. There is one thing he yearns for, however: reunion with his deceased girlfriend Cherie Agoyd.

As it happens, Dez’s employer has technology to make such a thing possible – in a manner of speaking:

I shake the contents of the white envelope. A small glass vial, marked with the initials C.A., a little red band wound around the cap as a warning that the contents are high potency.

“Is this…?” I say, suddenly breathless.

“We keep some high-grade en grams of all our stars for…emergencies. Someone dies mid-production and a vial of quality engrams provides us with enough of the person to project a replicant that will get us through filming and retakes. Sometimes even a few promo interviews. Not in the flesh,” she adds hastily. “We’re not magicians. The replicant is digital, but it is interactive…”

Dez is advised to load Cherie’s personality into a VR machine, but he instead goes all-out and injects the stored engrams into his own digitally-enhanced mind. From his perspective, at least, Cherie has returned: he is able to see, to smell and even to touch the replicant that exists inside his head. The process is not perfect, however, as Dez learns when the virtual body of his sometime girlfriend begins to decay…

As Rebecca Roanhorse explains in her afterword to the story, “A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy” is based n the Tewa folktale of Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden. This is a story about a man who wishes for his wife to return from the dead, with unpleasant results; the most widely-disseminated version appears to be the one translated by Alfonso Ortiz:

He brushed her pleas aside by pledging his undying love and promising that he would let nothing part them. Eventually she relented, saying that she would hold him to his promise. They entered the village just as their relatives were marching to the shrine with the food offering that would release the soul of White Corn Maiden. They were horrified when they saw her, and again they and the village elders begged Deer Hunter to let her go. He ignored them, and an air of grim expectancy settled over the village.

The couple returned to their home, but before many days had passed, Deer Hunter noticed that his wife was beginning to have an unpleasant odor. Then he saw that her beautiful face had grown ashen and her skin dry. At first he only turned his back on her as they slept. Later he began to sit up on the roof all night, but White Corn Maiden always joined him. In time the villagers became used to the sight of Deer Hunter racing among the houses and through the fields with White Corn Maiden, now not much more than skin and bones, in hot pursuit.

In Roanhorse’s hands this becomes a cyberpunk story of the sort popularised by Black Mirror, where wider social ramifications of technology are less important than the main character’s personal narrative and the eventual sting in the tail. This is a genre that meshes well with ghost stories. “A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy” successfully captures the satirical aspects of cyberpunk, with commentaries on the nature of stardom and the stereotypical roles afforded to Native Americans (Cherie’s audition-reel performances include “a Plains Indian maiden, her hair in two braids… a prostitute, her hair in two braids… an alcoholic mother, her hair in two braids”) alongside the psychological and spiritual dimensions of a ghost story.

Central to the story is the theme of image. All of its secondary themes – memories of the deceased, the fabricated personas of stardom, cultural (mis)perceptions, virtual reality, ghosts, projections – are variations of this one motif. “A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy” fits together as precisely and as perfectly as a beloved folktale should.

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