The winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the Best Short Science Fiction of 2020 was recently announced. It turned out to be a very timely selection. Rebecca Campbell’s novella “An Important Failure” explores creation in the face of the climate catastrophe.
It’s 1607 (according to some calendars) and a falling cone from an elderly Pinaceae sitchensis catches on the rotting bark of a nurse log that sprouted while Al-Ma’mun founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. On this particular north Pacific island, the days are cold, and the water in Kaatza—the big lake near where this cone has fallen—freezes thick enough that one can walk out from the villages at the southeast end and look down to see cutthroat trout flickering underfoot. On the other side of the world, the Thames has also frozen, and stout winter children play across the canvasses of lowland painters, who preserve in oil the white-stained landscapes of northern Europe. In il Bosco Che Suona—the Valley of Song, the singing forest in the Alps north of Cremona where luthiers go to find their violins hidden in the trunks of trees—the winter is bitter, slowing the growth of Picea abies until its rings are infinitesimal, a dense tonewood unlike any material before or since.
Ninety years after the cone drops near Kaatza, Antonio Stradivari travels to il Bosco Che Suona on the old road from Cremona to select wood for his workshop. He rests his head against one trunk and listens to its cold history. This is the Little Ice Age as written in the rings of a spruce tree. It sounds like a violin.