The Surfer

If you want to write fiction with an agenda, this is how to do it. Kelly Link’s “The Surfer”, like all the stories in The Starry Rift, was written to meet Jonathan Strahan’s editorial challenge to write “stories that would offer today’s readers the same kind of thrill enjoyed by the pulp readers of over fifty years ago”; or, if you believe the version of the remit given on Wikipedia, which chimes with what I’ve actually read of the book, it was to write science fiction stories “aimed at young people, reminiscent of the type of 1950s science fiction stories that are considered to be classic SF juveniles, but that would resonate better with young people of today.” To avoid confusion, according to the book’s publicity information the target age range is that version of “young adult” that means “ages 12 and up” (or to judge by the introduction, it means anyone young enough to need a footnote explaining what the Cold War was). If you think about it for a minute, this is a mission that makes certain assumptions – notably, that not only will the science fiction of the fifties not grab contemporary young readers, but that much of the science fiction of today won’t grab them, either. (Or else why would the anthology be needed?) I have to admit I’m skeptical of this line of thinking, not least because I suspect that if you’d given me a copy of The Starry Rift when I was twelve, I’d have turned my nose up at it. I didn’t turn to science fiction because I wanted to read about “young adults” like me having extraordinary adventures; that was actually just about the last thing I was looking for. I turned to sf because I wanted to read about grown-ups having grown-up adventures, and about the world I could expect to grow up into. (In Strahan’s defence, his introduction does also say that he asked for “tales […] that ask serious questions about the world we are living in and the world we might face”. But the kid protagonists outnumber the adults.) Maybe I’m typical of sf readers and maybe I’m not, but the received wisdom, which I have no reason to doubt, is that “young adults” tend to be both sensitive and resistant to attempts to sell them something and, at least on the basis of the introduction and the four stories I’ve read so far, The Starry Rift does look an awful lot like an attempt to sell them science fiction.

But I don’t want to hold the book’s agenda against it, because it also has a pretty cover and a pretty stellar table of contents – in addition to stories by established YA authors, not all noted for their sf output, like Garth Nix and Margo Lanagan, you get offerings from established sf writers not noted for their YA output, such as Ian McDonald, Alastair Reynolds, Tricia Sullivan, and Greg Egan (!). If anyone can sell a mission, these should be the writers to do it. And it has this Kelly Link science fiction story – which, despite what looks like a conventional Kelly Link first paragraph, if I can be permitted such an oxymoron (“In the dream I was being kidnapped by aliens. I was dreaming, and then I woke up”), is science fiction, by anyone’s definition. Not “can be read as sf” like “Most of my Friends are Two-Thirds Water”, not “sf trope treated as fantasy” like “Lull”, not “future fantasy” like “Light”; in fact, for most of its length “The Surfer” is mundane science fiction. Obviously it’s not a complete departure – Link has a good few YA stories under her belt by now, and in some ways “The Surfer” is of a piece with them. I don’t think it’s a secret that in general I’ve found most of these stories less satisfying than her earlier work; there does seem to be, at least for me as an adult reader, a difference between a Link story that can be published as YA, such as “The Specialist’s Hat”, and a Link story written for a YA context, such as “The Wizards of Perfil”. The latter seems to sacrifice some weirdness, some strangeness (what you could go so far as to call Link-ness), without a compensating change in other areas.

“The Surfer” suffers from this problem a bit, too, and as science fiction, with the stronger fidelity to realism that that usually implies, is perhaps even hit a bit harder by the loss of Link-ness. Certainly there are some distinctively Linkian sentences (“It was kind of like the bats. They were there, and after a while you noticed them. Only it wasn’t like the bats at all and I don’t mean to say that it was”), and there’s a charming riff about an empty bottle that is alleged to have a genie trapped in it (guessing an author’s mood from their prose is a mug’s game, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt Link was more comfortable writing this section than some of the rest of the story), but there isn’t the same sense of freedom or play that comes through in the stories in Stranger Things Happen or Magic for Beginners. Put another way, if you gave me a copy of the manuscript without a name attached, I think I would guess that “The Surfer” is a Kelly Link story, but Kelly Link probably wouldn’t be my first guess. But it would be churlish to suggest that being less Linkian — or rather, that Link trying new things — is a bad thing per se, and crucially “The Surfer” has more compensations than a story like “The Wizards of Perfil”, such that learning how to read it is worth the time.

One major compensation is getting to see how Link thinks about the future. Not too long from now (my guess would be 2020, plus or minus five years) the US is falling apart: various bits of it have seceded to form alliances with Mexico and Canada, and what’s left is in a mess, with a healthcare system that can’t cope with outbreaks of lethal flu variants and an economy that can’t offer much in the way of prospects for anyone. Yet when his father takes our 14 year-old narrator away from all this to more prosperous Costa Rica, it’s against Dorn (Adorno)’s wishes. What Dorn wants is to stay and practice his football (here actually meaning soccer) skills (about which he is more than a little arrogant), with the aim of one day being picked up by one of the major international leagues – Italy or Japan for preference; he’s learning Japanese as a second language. When they land in Costa Rica, reports of another flu outbreak lead to them being quarantined in a hangar (a state which persists for most of the story’s sixty-odd pages and allows Link to report on the world outside without needing to provide much direct description of it), where among other people Dorn meets Naomi, a (self-described) fat computer nerd who’s come down hoping to find a job in the booming Costa Rican software industry, and Lara, a native Costa Rican who’s studying hard so that she can grow up to be an astronaut in the equally booming Costa Rican space program.

What all this looks like is an argument that’s been popping up with increasing frequency over the past few years: the future, having been American for so long, now belongs to the rest of the world. But this isn’t what the story’s about; what it’s about is how a number of the travelers, including Dorn’s father and Lara’s mother, are traveling to join a commune run by one Hans Bliss, a hippyish German surfer who was abducted by aliens several years earlier, and claims to have guidance for humanity that will encourage the aliens to return. The twist is that Bliss isn’t just another nut: his abduction was verified, albeit during a hurricane, which means that people take his claims seriously, although not always in the way he might hope. He says the aliens want humanity to disarm; human governments find this mighty suspicious, and are now stockpiling weapons as fast as they can.

Here’s the bit that’s liable to make you groan: Dorn’s dad is a science fiction reader. Bearing in mind what I said about The Starry Rift’s goal of selling sf to a YA audience, at first it’s hard not to view this revelation as cynical. We learn that he’s traveling to Bliss’ commune not because he believes the peace and love rhetoric, but because he wants to see aliens. And to cap it all, he’s traveling with a bag stuffed with old sf paperbacks, which during the quarantine get passed around and read (and discussed) by everyone, including Naomi and Lara.

If Dorn’s dad had been the protagonist of “The Surfer”, I’d probably have been unable to stop rolling my eyes. In the last year I’ve read several novels featuring protagonists, invariably middle-aged or older men, who despite reasonable expectations to the contrary get to enjoy the sort of future that science fiction promised them – which from one point of view is exactly what happens at the end of “The Surfer”. At the story’s end, the aliens do come back, and the sort of future that science fiction long promised us does seem to be arriving. To be clear, I’ve no problem with stories that address the gap between what science fiction promised and what we have, which is on one level what “The Surfer” is doing; but it has to be said that the sentiment is now a ready commodity. You can buy it on a t-shirt from threadless (in fact, I have). And I do have a problem with stories that uncritically manipulate their futures to fulfill a wish – that gift their characters with experiences that the author and readers may want, by proxy, for themselves. If Dorn’s dad had been the protagonist, that’s more or less the sort of story “The Surfer” would be.

But Dorn’s dad isn’t the protagonist, and “The Surfer”, quite literally, isn’t his story, which means Link isn’t being uncritical of either him or his wish. More important still, while Dorn reads science fiction, sure he does – he knows enough to recommend Octavia Butler or Connie Willis – he’s not a fan of the stuff in the way that his Dad is. More importantly, he doesn’t believe in it. To Dorn, sf is good for escapism, but not really relevant to him or his world. His future is football. When Lara tells him of her dream of traveling to Mars, his reaction is more cutting than scorn; he’s simply baffled.

I shrugged. It wasn’t really anything I was interested in. “What’s the point,” I said. “I mean, the aliens showed up and then they left again. Not even Hans Bliss is saying that we ought to go around chasing after them. He says that they’ll come back when the time is right. Costa Rica getting all involved in a space program is, I don’t know, it’s like my father deciding to leave everything behind, our whole life, just to come down here, even though Hans Bilss is just some surfer who started a cult. I don’t see the point.”

“The point is to go to space,” Lara said. She looked at Naomi, not at me, as if I were too stupid to understand. “To go to space. It was a good thing when the aliens came to Costa Rica. They made us think about the universe, about what might be out there. Not everybody wants to sit on a beach and wait with your Hans Bliss to see if the aliens will come back.”

He is, in other words, exactly the sort of reader that you have to suspect Strahan had in mind when he sent out the invitation to contribute to The Starry Rift, and Lara has exactly the sort of belief in the future that The Starry Rift seems to want to inspire. Link’s afterword to the story (all the stories, save Egan’s, have afterwords from their authors) very nearly makes this explicit, explaining how Dorn’s father’s love of books is her own, and how she’s jealous of her characters for having had the chance to read books she hasn’t heard of yet; and then she wonders whether some of them will be written by readers of The Starry Rift.

So ultimately, “The Surfer” is neither a story about how the future has left America and gone elsewhere, nor a story about how science fiction lied to its readers, though it raises both those issues. Ultimately, and in hindsight inevitably, “The Surfer” does come back to The Starry Rift’s mission, and becomes a story about Dorn – about an American Young Adult – learning that the future can after all be his, too. (Disguised as a story about Dorn starting to grow up, about Dorn learning a little humility and a little empathy.) The very end makes this explicit. Not long after the quarantine is lifted, as I mentioned, the aliens return, in numbers, all over the world. Everyone but Dorn goes outside to greet them; our hero, despite knowing that “outside the hangar were the aliens and the future”, initially can’t make himself leave. He wants to stay inside, to stay in goal, to make another save, to be doing something he can control, even if small, rather than face something big and uncontrollable. But go out, in the end, he does, and it’s really very hard to escape the conclusion that Link is trying to persuade her readers that they want to go out with him. “The Surfer” seems much more like a deliberate work of advocacy than anything else I’ve read by her; and as I implied, in another’s hands I think it could very easily have been nothing more than a cynical exercise. (I want to like The Starry Rift, but I fear that cynical is exactly what some of its stories will be.) But it is redeemed by wit and love – Link’s love, I think, for her characters, and not just her genre. The dialogue, as you would expect, sparkles; and there are moments of uncomfortable, for Dorn, insight that do him a world of good. He starts with the half-formed nature that seems to be so common in YA, and doesn’t quite have time to become a fully-defined adult, but when he goes out I do want to go out with him.

(Of course, I’m already a science fiction reader.)

25 thoughts on “The Surfer

  1. The idea of fiction that “resonates” with young adults reminds me of that piece the comedian Stewart Lee did for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe which compares contemporary British YA drama with two pieces of 70’s YA genre drama.

    I think a similar question applies to YA literature.

    I’ve not read THAT much YA but the YA I have encountered has always been quite polite, something that I think may well be a common perception given how many people turn their nose up at YA because they want grown up stories.

    Even the stuff Doctorow read at Picocon felt very polite and very much like an adult’s perspective on what it might be like to be young in the future and the best selling work of YA, Harry Potter is so utterly sanitised that it bears no relation at all to even my very middle class and well-behaved teenage years.

    Harry never gets sexually confused or sores on his cock from too much wanking or get hammered on White Lightening on the utterly false assumption that that’s what Jack Kerouac drank.

    So I wonder… is there a YA equivalent of Skins?

    I share Lee’s feeling that Skins is an utterly nightmarish image of a teenager’s life (in fact, I think the programme’s completely unwatchable) but I kind of sympathise with the idea that really… teenagers lives do contain more transgressive behaviour than you get in Harry Potter or the Children of the Stones and that the politeness of some YA has more to do with complying with parents’ opinions of what childhood should be like than what childhood really is like.

    Does anyone else share this feeling or is there, in fact, a huge tradition of Adrian Mole-style social realism running through modern genre YA fiction?

  2. get hammered on White Lightening on the utterly false assumption that that’s what Jack Kerouac drank.

    Why must you constantly shatter all my illusions?

  3. Oh, I love that story. And thanks for the reminder about this anthology.

    One little note: The Faery Handbag was also written for a YA anthology.

  4. The Faery Handbag was also written for a YA anthology

    Gah, I knew that. I meant “The Specialist’s Hat”, I think. That’s the one from Stranger Things Happen that’s going to be in the new collection, isn’t it? If it’s not, just ignore me …

    And in case anyone is as confused as last time, I liked the story as well. :)

  5. Jonathan- worse than being polite, I sometimes find YA fiction condescending. However, I thought that “Starry Rift” mostly managed to avoid that tone, which speaks well of both the authors and the editor.

    Niall- I think that Kelly’s “propagandizing” in “The Surfer” serves a very useful purpose. Imagine that you’re an imaginative kid and find this in a library somewhere. You really like this stuff and want to read more. Your local librarian thinks that sf stopped with Jules Verne. Now what do you do? Thanks to Kelly’s story, you know just what authors to look for next. An added bonus, that.

  6. Now what do you do?

    Follow-up on the recommendations the authors give in their story notes? ;-)

    I don’t disagree that the name-and-title-dropping serves a purpose. What impressed me, really, was that it was utterly transparent it was about that purpose (having the characters spending so much time swapping, recommending and discussing books) but managed to avoid coming across as lecturing, or condescending, or cynical, or any of that. I think it helps that Dorn, himself, is a sceptic.

  7. “The Specialist’s Hat” is from Event Horizon: sf/f/h and was reprinted in STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN. I think a lot of Kelly’s work that’s been written for adult markets would be fine for the YA market as well.

  8. I think a lot of Kelly’s work that’s been written for adult markets would be fine for the YA market as well.

    Yes — hence the collection this autumn, right? I’m aware I’m in a minority in finding, eg, “Monster” and “The Wizards of Perfil” disappointing. I’m actually looking forward to the collection so I can re-read them and see if I can pin down why beyond a vague and unsatisfactory “oh, it’s not as Linkian”.

  9. I too found “The Wizards of Perfil” disappointing — though that’s not quite fair: I enjoyed it greatly, just not as much as most Link stories. But “The Faery Handbag” and “The Constable of Abal” are delights, despite being unambiguously YA.

    I did roll my eyes just a bit at the SF propagandizing in “The Surfer”, but I think it works, for the reasons you cite. My eyes rolled a lot more at the more overt “reading propagandizing” in Scott Westerfeld’s “Ass-Hat Magic Spider”, in which a star travelling kid dehydrates himself in order to lose enough weight to carry Charlotte’s Web on the ship with him. (Most unbelievably to me, it’s important to him that it’s a near mint first edition. I don’t care that much about first editions NOW — I damn sure didn’t care when I was 13, and I can’t believe this kid would.)

    That story and a couple more do have a strong redolence of preaching and overselling to them, but on the whole I think the book works very well.

  10. I actually liked “The Wizards of Perfil” quite a bit, largely *because* I like to see writers go in different directions than they usually go. I love the stories that exemplify Kelly’s growing body of work, but I think these other sorts of stories that don’t fit into that body exactly, or in the way we expect them to, are signs of a writer who’s trying out different things, and when I see that, I think it’s a good thing, whether the different sort of story clashes with my expectations of their work or not. But maybe that’s because I’m a writer. I sometimes think readers, writers, reviewers and editors often approach stories a little differently from one another. Which is why the dynamic between them, in conversations like this one for example, is always so interesting in regards to finding out how other people read a story, rather than finding out about a story.

    I haven’t read the Westerfeld story you refer to, Rich, and it could be all you describe it, but I think it’s wrong to assume that all people hold no regard for first editions simply because you don’t. I purchase first editions of books that have come to mean something important to me, and have done so since I was seventeen and sought out a first edition of Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry.

  11. I haven’t read the Westerfeld story you refer to, Rich, and it could be all you describe it,

    It’s one of the others I have read, and I have to say that I didn’t find it particularly convincing either. It seemed like an odd choice to open the book.

    I think these other sorts of stories that don’t fit into that body exactly, or in the way we expect them to, are signs of a writer who’s trying out different things, and when I see that, I think it’s a good thing

    It can be, definitely — particularly when it pays off, as I think it does in “The Surfer”. From the perspective of someone interested in a writer’s career, seeing them experiment and challenges themselves is exactly what you want to see. And I think reviewers (and readers in general) should try not to convict a writer for just trying something different; but at the same time they shouldn’t be expected to give a writer points just for trying. As you say, it’s the dynamic between the different perspectives that makes the conversation interesting.

  12. Fair enough, Christopher. I have to admit that when I was a teen the idea of carrying about anything but the words on the page was strange to me — but now that I am not precisely a teenager (except in base 40) I do care! (Though not enough to actively seek out firsts.)

    I still think that Westerfeld failed to make me believe that in the context of the story.

    (Did you get a UK first of the Winterson book? (Not trying to be snarky, either, just interested.))

  13. Rich: I agree with you on the Westerfeld story. It got dangerously close to the condescension level. I understand that it’s aimed at kids who already love books, but really – he wouldn’t loose even a bit off the back cover even if it meant the difference between having it and not having it? I’m with you, I couldn’t relate. It felt like Westerfeld was trying to reprise “The Cold Equations” but with something more innocuous at stake and a happy ending. Probably my least favorite story in there, which does make it an unfortunate starting choice.

  14. Rich, I did get the UK first of the Winterson. :-) I’m not quite sure why that even made sense to me at 17, so I can honestly say I do see where you’re coming from when you say it’s hard to believe a 13 year old doing something like this is hard to believe. I do think it’s an exceptional kid who would do something like that, which is also similar to saying it’s unlikely, but I sometimes like to think the exceptions are more interesting than rules.

    Niall, I’m on board with you about not giving points to a writer simply because they’ve tried something different. And actually, after reading your description of “The Surfer” I can’t wait to read it, so you’ve sold a copy of the book to one reader/writer over here.

  15. The politeness of the children in “Children of the Stones” was there for a reason. They were being brainwashed. The non-brainwashed kids were very much *not* too polite. Matt calls Dai a nutter and the village idiot, Jimmo makes a crack about the sexual proclivities of his farm animals, and Kevin blows raspberries in class and tries to beat up both Matt and Bob.

    It’s only once they’ve been assimilated into the circle that they become polite.

    Happy Day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s