Apologies for the quietude around these parts at the moment; I’m going through another busy period at work. I actually have a fair few posts in the half-written or draft-that-needs-polishing stage, though, and hopefully I’ll get some of them up next week. In the meantime, have some more brief short fiction reviews.
“Greenland” by Chris Beckett (IZ 218)
A bleak story, and one which both revisits a familiar Beckett theme (identity) as well as extending into new territory, in that (as he notes in the story’s introduction) it’s one of his few tales to feature climate change as a significant background element. A solidly rendered sub-tropical Oxford is the primary location, with a dystopic background in which “Old Brits” defend the borders of their country with machine guns on the beaches. The narrator, Juan, is a refugee from a fractured Spain, and early in the story he loses his menial job at Magdalen college due to competition from newer — for which read “cheaper” — immigrants. In order to make ends meet, Juan takes up an ostensibly friendly professor’s offer of participation in an experiment for cash. But the bleakest aspect of the story is the depiction of Juan’s dysfunctional relationship with another immigrant, a French graduate called Suzanne; both have been damaged and deformed by the un-person treatment they receive from the population around them, despite the fact that immigrants now represent the majority of the population. When Juan tells Suzanne that he has a way to perhaps make enough money to get them to Greenland (a fabled refuge), her thought is not of the potential risk to him, her eyes just light up. “Here,” Juan thinks, “was the evidence of how much poverty and fear and hopelessness had coarsened and corrupted her. But I was coarsened and corrupted too.” The experiment itself turns out to be a less mundane kind of science fiction, although in Beckett’s hands it doesn’t feel incongruous, and it provides Beckett the opportunity to make some strong points about the moral value of any kind of sentence. In that, the story of Beckett’s which it most closely echoes is “Karel’s Prayer”, though it is to my mind the more effective of the two pieces; worth reading for its detail, and for the cumulative power of its voice.
“Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan (IZ 215)
Charles Stross with the lobsters filed off. This is a story about evolving AI by darwinian selection — crab-shaped AI with control of their own physiology, in fact — and the ethical pitfalls thereof. As with Beckett’s story, in fact, the deeply felt and convincingly articulated ethical concern for other forms of sentience is one of the most satisfying aspects of the story. It comes in this story from the author, not the protagonist; Daniel Cliff thinks himself not an unkind god, just one who is prepared to make some sacrifices, cause some suffering, to promote the development of the kind of intelligence he wants. The story accelerates nicely, in a “Sandkings” direction, with some welcome flashes of wit (how Daniel made his money, for instance, or what the crabs find when they reach their simulated moon), and an ending that is apt, if not completely satisfying.
“Traitor” by M. Rickert (F&SF, May)
I don’t know, you wait years for an M. Rickert science fiction story, and then … this is another near-future piece and, as with “Bread and Bombs” and “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (a) it derives quite a lot of its power from revealing exactly how the world in which it is set has changed from our own time, (b) the change is dystopic in nature, and (c) the viewpoint of a child is central. Where “Traitor” goes further than either of the others is the elliptical manner in which the world is described; a scene in which a mother and daughter visit an ice-cream parlour verges on true surrealism, and a several-page digression into another story (another familiar Rickert trick, admittedly) successfully obscures precisely how the relationship between that mother and daughter is developing until the final page of the story. I have to admit that I found “Traitor” a bit less organic than the best of Rickert’s stories, but it still achieves a commendable intensity.
“Shad’s Mess” by Alex Irvine (Postscripts 15)
Irvine strikes me above all as a competent writer; everything in his stories always fits together with a pleasing clockwork deftness. This one is about a blue-collar teleport repairman who, after a somewhat grisly transporter malfunction, gets sued by some Christian missionaries and starts seeing something he refers to as the Entropy Gremlin. You might think that the satiric/fantastic elements wouldn’t mesh with the down-to-Earth grubby space life aspects, yet they do. What it lacks, perhaps, is the ability to inspire a particularly strong emotional or intellectual connection in the reader; I’m left with a sense that as well-executed as it is, it’s a story that doesn’t add up to much more than the description I’ve just given it.
“Africa” by Karen Fishler (IZ 217)
I’ve enjoyed Fishler’s previous Interzone stories, and I enjoyed “Africa”; like the majority of modern Interzone‘s stories, it seems to me, it aspires to craft rather than innovation, but like Irvine’s story it is a good, solid piece, even if that means I’m damning it with faint praise. The set-up is this: at some point in the future, humanity is expelled from Earth by an alien race, probably (though I don’t think it is explicitly specified) for incompetent planetary stewardship, bound never to return or indeed to land on any other planet. A barrier was constructed around the Earth, with a station that travels on its surface to meet and interrogate any intruders; it is manned by long-lived Guardians, although their numbers have dwindled such that there are now only two of them, Tomeer and his clone-father. A ship approaches, which also appears to be carrying only two people, this time a daughter and her natural father, who is dying. The daughter, Ainkia, tells Tomeer that they are all that is left of Expelled humanity, the rest having died of age and sadness. Youthful, innocent Tomeer is touched by her request to bury her father in the Earth’s soil, but his father is less than impressed by the idea. What’s most satisfying about “Africa” is that, though hardly action-packed, it never feels as though it is treading water – indeed, as usual with Fishler the character relationships are well defined, such that when the inevitable hard choices come (and this is where it scores slightly over “Shad’s Mess”) they mean something. It is not an extraordinary story; but it is an admirable one.