Story Notes 3

The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen (The New Yorker, March)
“Surely,” the nameless narrator says near the end of this tale, “our world obeys rules still alien to our imaginations”. She’s ostensibly talking about the possibility of time travel, though the larger point “The Region of Unlikeness” is structured to make is that she may as well be talking about the impulses of the human heart. From the start, the story emphasizes what is unknown or uncertain: describing how she fell into an intellectual pose of friendship with two ostentatiously erudite older men, the first thing the narrator admits is that she doesn’t actually know whether one of them is a philosopher or a physicist; nor does she understand the relationship between them, although now she suspects it may hide “a scientific secret, that rare kind of secret that, in our current age, still manages to bend our knee”. If that sounds like the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this; the story is brim-full with carefully observed quotidian (New York) detail, the contours of the relationships between the three characters are finely delineated, and the tension between the story’s science fictional and mundane explanations well balanced. I do like this sort of thing, and I did like this, particularly the last, caught as it is between an evoked longing for the conspiratorial explanation to be true – for there to be rules still alien to our imaginations – and a recognition that its truth is potentially horrifying. It’s made me bump Atmospheric Disturbances a few notches back up the reading stack, anyway. It also reminded me of Justina Robson’s “Legolas Does the Dishes“ at some points, though Galchen’s tale is more conspicuous about guiding its readers; but then, the narrator is the sort of person who thinks playing a video game is de facto evidence of childishness, so it makes sense that she’d be proud of her learning.

“The Kindness of Strangers” by Nancy Kress (Fast Forward 2)
Kress also sets up a balance between the human and the science-fictional, but of a more traditional kind, telling a story about an implacable but literally incomprehensible alien visitation contrasted with an implacable but all too comprehensible human story. For it to work the aliens must be impressive, and they are – they start removing Earth’s cities, in decreasing size order, made retrospectively even more impressive when their appearance afterward in human form has the feel of a more simple magic – and the personal crisis be affecting, and it is. Jenny is the other woman in an affair that she knows can’t go anywhere – or couldn’t, before Eric’s family were apparently obliterated by the aliens and they were trapped, with a small group of others, between invisible barriers. Several stylistic and structural choices on Kress’ part maximise the story’s effectiveness; it’s told in the present tense, and notably Eric is kept almost entirely off-screen, placing the emphasis on Jenny being drawn into interacting with one of the other families. The answer for the aliens’ actions obtained in the inevitable final confrontation isn’t new – none could be – but it reaffirms the chill contrast in perspectives that’s at the heart of the story. Likewise, the story as a whole isn’t new, but it’s done with satisfying skill.

“The Sun Also Explodes” by Chris Nakashima-Brown (Fast Forward 2)
A story which is clearly trying to be new, and depending on your reading is either caught between its utopian and satiric impulses, or productively exploits the tension between those impulses; being charitable, I lean towards the latter. The tension is there in the setting, a desert micro-state advertised as a haven for artistic, cultural, political, sexual and interpersonal experimentation – where topics of conversation range freely from new planets to comics – if you can afford the entry fee. You suspect a wink when Nakashima-Brown describes his characters as a “posturban hipster crowd”, and the relationship/collaboration that develops between the narrator, a kind of literal landscape artist, and Elkin, a bio-artist, has the kind of casualness (at least on the surface) which that characterisation suggests. But it’s also a bond informed and altered by the new biological and cybernetic technologies that infuse their work and bodies. The terms of success the story sets up for itself are ambitious, and more met than not; the major disappointment is that there is not, in fact, an exploding sun.

“Little Lost Robot” by Paul McAuley (IZ217)
This is a fun story on several levels. For starters, it’s about an immense civilization-killing robot, travelling from solar system to solar system, carrying out a prime directive to wipe out The Enemy, which basically seems to be any organic life. It’s not hugely pyrotechnic, but there is a sense of intoxicating power hanging over the story. The style is rather droll; the robot is described simply as “the big space robot”, and the narrator says things like, “Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you and it will rock your world”. And although the dilemma that ultimately faces the robot – it uncovers evidence that it may be about to destroy the civilization that birthed it; can said evidence be trusted? – is familiar, McAuley finds an angle on the dilemma, and a resolution, that feel fresh. It’s big, clever fun in five pages.

Divining Light” by Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s, August)
A perhaps slightly overlong, but very proficient, sf story about quantum mechanics in the classic mode, which is to say idea-driven and didactic. As with Kress’s story, it’s a piece that does what it needs to do to work – three things, in this case. First, it makes its chosen idea – the famous, although apparently not as famous as I thought, given that the story includes a diagram, two-slit experiment demonstrating the wav/particle nature of electrons – parsable, both in terms of a literal clear explanation of the experiment and in rendering the experiments and their implications human-scaled and easy to grasp. Second, it gives its new idea (an implementation of Wheeler’s Delayed Choice thought experiment) human weight: this in part flows from the voice of the narrator, Eric Argus, a researcher driven to bitter existential despair by his work on quantum computers, who faces down drink and the solace of a gun every day at his “new start” job in Boston, and is prone to saying noir-ish things like, “I learned this: there is no bottom to see” of his experience with Scanning Electron Microscope scans, or “the more research I did, the less I believed in the world”. (Just as well, since he’s the only half-way real character in the piece.) And third, “Divining Light” brings the idea and the human story together with appropriate elegance. The story’s last ten pages spin off implications of Eric’s work rapidly in several directions (animal welfare, the nature of faith, human evolution), such that the world begins to be changed; but ultimately the story comes down to one devastating moment, rendered comprehensible by the explanations that have gone before. A very nice performance, and one that handles the slide between the real and the speculative expertly.

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