Last year’s Hugo winner was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.” It’s a gorgeous story very beautifully done, and there are a ton of things to pull apart in it. I want to focus on just one thing, though: the translation.
Everyone in the room speaks at least two languages, but there isn’t one language everyone speaks.
There is a lot of translation going on in this story, and no just because the cast of characters doesn’t have a single language in common. But the people for whom translation is critical are not the people you’d expect: Gus gets along with Matt’s family even when he doesn’t share a language and he seems genuinely enthused about them, too. The readers, or at least the readers who can’t read Chinese (including me) need translation, or a noticeable quantity of the dialog is completely indecipherable. We won’t know that Matt’s parents are on board with his relationship and intended future. We won’t know that Gus has been given the critical information necessary to communicate that. This would matter for the reader, but not all readers – a significant portion of the world can read both English and Chinese and leaving the rest of us out is a valid choice. No, the translator this story hinges on is the water, and Matt is its audience.
I know I’m supposed to be rooting for him to hold on for as long as possible, but I just want him to stop.
At this point in the story we, the audience, don’t know a whole lot about Matt and Gus’s relationship. We know what Matt thinks of people who challenge the water, and we know and are learning that Gus is that type. But what we’re also seeing, very clearly, is that the dismissive, quasi-disdain Matt is using has to, to some extent, be a cover because he clearly cares deeply about Gus. Most people do not sympathetically suffer for idiot frat boys endure the consequences of macho stunts. Matt has assured us he is like most people, comfortable with that situation, and he’s suffering anyway. So there’s something else, and that’s his affection for Gus. The reader has no idea why, because all we have is Gus being a macho stooge.
Not only does no water fall on him, but all the sweat evaporates from his body.
We could have merely been given a story where a closeted protagonist has to deal with his boyfriend declaring love. We could have been given a story where, aw, he pulled the stunt to prove he meant it. Instead, we’re given a story where the water, through not only being absent but conspicuously and positively so, gives us detailed and final assurances that yes, this is LOVE. There is no question of sincerity here. Given Matt’s internal denial and general density about things the readers need that sort of clear indicator to be sure.
And for the rest of the story, the water is there, or not there, mostly to translate Matt to himself.
I want to scream, “What the fuck?” but if I even breathed, I’d drown.
That is known as a cosmic, “STFU you in denial lying liar.” Gus, I think, was not surprised by this outcome. Readers were not terribly surprised by this outcome. Matt’s surprise? Genuine. He knows how the water works – he’s tested it in the lab for goodness’s sake. We know what he thinks of stunts pulled with the water. His triggering statement wasn’t a stunt. He really thought he could get away with it, and the water showed up go to, “Hi, I’ll be your Matt-Matt interpreter. You are an idiot.”
Both of these points come together in the scene where Matt’s cooking dinner with his sister.
Three words into her last sentence, I know what she’ll say. I leap to pull her pan away as I shut off the burner. The water that falls from nowhere drenches her and the burner where the pan was. Had the water hit the pan, the steam and splattered oil would have burned her.
The whole story lives in this paragraph. He knows his sister well enough to know what she’s going to say. He knows Gus well enough to know it’s not true. And he cares about her enough that he saves her from getting burned. And he’s being honest about that. He could have as easily said, “Had the water hit the pan, the spinach would have been ruined.” But that wasn’t the salient risk to him. The sister who has tormented him for years and is actively in the middle of attempted sabotage of his relationship and future happiness, matters enough that he protects her from the worst of her cosmic comeuppance.
This is important, because Matt has trouble being honest about his feelings.
And it’s also why the story ends, not with a sibling reconciliation, or a wedding, or the parents telling Matt to be happy. It has to end with him curled up in bed, dry even when natural water was tracked in, and saying “I love you,” out loud. It was in the subtext when he got rained on, and when he rescued his sister, and with every bit of agony he goes through in interacting with his family, but he’s never gotten the words out, even in his head narration. This isn’t a coming out story, or a love story, or an immigration story; it’s a story about the translation that lets Matt be himself.