Hugo Nominee: “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders”

Time for this week’s discussion. The story is here, and for the opinion round-up we start with Rich Horton:

“Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” is a thoughtful story about one of those mysterious shops, this on a magic supply store at which a couple of boys meet, leading to a lifelong partnership. And now they are aging, and try to find the store one last time. Inevitably, when they find it, they find that there is real magic on offer. But is such magic really worth the price? This is one of Resnick’s better stories, though still not really one to which I’d give a Hugo. In the end, for me, the final revelations weren’t intriguing or new enough to push the story from “decent” to “special”.

The Fix:

In “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick, Silver and Gold are two old men who met each other as kids in the titular shop, which purports to sell magic tricks. They are now ninety-year-olds in a retirement home, reminiscing on the past, but they decide to take one last look at the shop, to see whether it’s still there, and when they find out it is, Baffle makes them an offer hard to refuse…

Although this starts slowly, I loved the atmosphere that it drew, from Chicago in the thirties to the present day, and the Emporium of Wonders is truly a wonderful place. The interplay between the two main characters was spot-on and often hilarious as they nagged at each other. The ending was not altogether surprising, but it succeeded in presenting both answers to a dilemma in a clever fashion, while not passing judgments on either. Recommended.

Russ Allbery:

Like a lot of Resnick’s writing, this story is a bit sentimental, but it didn’t take the obvious and expected ending. It’s about two old men, lifetime friends and partners in all sorts of things, who first met in a mysterious magic store. As retirees living in a nursing home, they decide on a final adventure and try to find some trace of the store that meant so much to their childhood. As one might expect, they succeed in finding it, and from there the two men have different reactions nad follow different paths. I liked the ending; it avoids any obvious happy ending and tells a more complicated story about aging, belief, memories, and decisions. (7)

Jason Sanford:

The short story “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick (in the January 2008 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine) deserves to be on every award and anthology short-list next year. Not only is the story amazingly well written, it’ll stab you through the heart while leaving you both sad and optimistic about humanity and our desires. This is Resnick at his very best.

John Berlyne:

Stalwart Mike Resnick’s story “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” is a haunting tale of two old men having one last roll of the dice. They venture out of their sheltered home in search of a magic shop they remembered from the youth and lo and behold, they find it, just exactly as it was seventy years ago. Weirdly, the proprietor is equally unchanged. It is a bittersweet story of ambitions unfulfilled, suffused with gentle humour and a generous pinch of pathos.

Best SF:

At the other end of the age range, is a very, very satisfying story from Resnick. Two old guys, sharing a flat in a retirement complex, are getting very near to the end of their lives and their almost life-long friendship. With creaking joints and failing organs, they reflect on their moment of first meeting, in the magic store which they visited as children. They reflect on that time, as young boys when all was possible, and indeed, Alastair Baffle seemed to suggest that even more was possible.

Maury Gold is determined to see if the shop is still there. Against all the odds, of course, as he is 92, so the shop must be long gone. Nate Silver reluctantly accompanies him, and they find that not only is the shop still there, but so is the owner, and Mr Baffle appears to be not a year older. It appears that Baffle has much more to offer than sleight of hand tricks, and Gold is quite willing to take what is on offer, whilst Silver less so.

It’s an extremely effective but gentle and subtle story.

A bit more positive than the initial reactions here, then. But what did you think?

19 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders”

  1. Let me make sure I understand: people give money to Asimov’s in order to read stories like this?

    And not, as I was wondering after just the first few paragraphs, the other way around?

    The story seems to be about justifying its existence, and nothing more. The two protagonists are rather a stand-in for what I imagine as the prototypical old-guard reader of Asimov’s: self-satisfied with their status as an older generation, with little interest in newer actors and football players writers and types of story. By offering two extremes in the ending, neither of which is made to feel entirely positive — complete rejection of fantasy on one hand, uncritical belief on the other — the in-between position of the reader of such stories becomes a safe, affirming place: we enjoy the fantastic, yet neither of these two extremes is true of us.

    And that’s it. Whereas to my tastes, a story — certainly a story this long — needs to try to do more.

  2. I have to admit, when I saw this on the ballot, I was confused. I know I read, or at least started, every story in Asimov’s in 2008, but I couldn’t remember this one. That didn’t bode well. I read a few paragraphs and finally did remember it, but it still isn’t very impressive. To me, it never rises above the level of sentimentality.

    Basically, this is the only story on the ballot that I hadn’t recommended during the nomination period.

  3. When I read this on Thursday I thought you would actually have to be mentally sub-normal to enjoy it. However, Rich Horton isn’t so now I’m confused. Particularly when he says: “This is one of Resnick’s better stories” Christ!

    That said, it is no surprise it is on the shortlist since it perfectly matches the demographic of the Hugos: old Americans with no taste in literature.

  4. Yes, I’m with you three, and not with the reviews quoted in the post, unfortunately. Specific statements that make me wonder whether I read the same story as all those people include:

    I loved the atmosphere that it drew, from Chicago in the thirties to the present day

    It seemed to me purely a succession of glib cliches: mentions of Al Capone and Fred Astaire and Wrigley Field. Now, I don’t know Chicago well — I’ve only been there twice, both for short visits — and everyone knows a different version of a city, but the specific failure of “Alastair Baffle” seems to me that it doesn’t create a distinctive version of Chicago for me to inhabit for the duration of the story. It gives me a series of empty short-cuts.

    The interplay between the two main characters was spot-on and often hilarious

    Same problem. Maybe it comes from something real, but it never felt real to me within the compass of the story; it felt like stereotypical geezer comedy, complete with one of them asking the other whether they think they’re the only person who ever got old. The setup-punchline structure is so painfully obvious — “you didn’t used to be like this”/”I didn’t used to need my own private oxygen supply” — but in a way that evokes other, similar stories, not a well-established, familiar and comfortable friendship.

    I liked the ending; it avoids any obvious happy ending and tells a more complicated story about aging, belief, memories, and decisions.

    This, to me, is the real tragedy of the story. Much as the cynic in me agrees with Matt that it feels like an attempt to play to a particular demographic, there is surely a place within sf for stories about getting old, even for stories about how the sf and fantasy dreams of youth withstand getting old. (“New Light on the Drake Equation” is, after all, one of my favourite stories of the last decade.) But, as Karen put it, I never felt that this story rose above sentimentality. And what made it worse is that I don’t think the story is un-self-conscious about what it’s doing. The reference to Miracle on 34th Street, the question of “real magic” in an age of special effects, the distinction drawn between “magic” and “miracles” and, in particular, the distinction between “tricks” for children and “wonders” for adults: these things are signs of a story that seems to be aware that it’s shamelessly appealing to nostalgic but is doing it anyway. It’s notable, I think, that Resnick skips over the moment of belief, which must have happened; Nate never tells us what it feels like to start believing in Baffle’s magic after his initial period of scepticism.

    (Also, am I really the only person who kept thinking of another Nate Silver?)

  5. Martin, when I say “This is one of Resnick’s better stories”, do you think that’s particularly high praise?

    It’s clearly the least of the stories on the Novelette shortlist. But it’s clearly better than the other Resnick shortlisted story, I would say, and it’s far better than earlier Resnick nominees like “The Elephants on Neptune”.

    Clearly I liked it more than, well, everyone on this group so far. I will admit that I show weakness on occasion for nostalgia, and that as a Chicago native perhaps I am seduced overly by a story that at least nods at my hometown. (As for Niall’s comments … you’re probably right, the story doesn’t really communicate Chicago particularly strongly, but it also doesn’t get it blatantly wrong.)

    Resnick is a very calculating writer, and it always shows, and that gets people’s back up, understandably. More than anything, this story seemed to try to sell itself as “significant” too strongly, and that really gets people’s backs up.

  6. Niall: I also thought of fivethirtyeight’s Nate Silver. Perhaps because he lived in Chicago until this year.

  7. Martin, when I say “This is one of Resnick’s better stories”, do you think that’s particularly high praise?

    No, I’m just shocked that his other stories could be worse than this.

  8. There’s another story with exactly the same premise – two crumblies go looking for their lost youth and find it in a shop with a mysterious proprietor… But for the life of me I can’t remember who it was by. I’ve a feeling it was written in the 1940s or 1950s. But for all I know it could have been another Resnick…

  9. That was sentimental, predictable, and failed to sell me on the setting or the characters in any way. I think it is one of Resnick’s better stories, in that I found it boring rather than actively annoying, but I am totally baffled as to why so many people like his work.

  10. Rich: Resnick is a very calculating writer, and it always shows, and that gets people’s back up, understandably.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for me. Let me use an analogy.

    At the risk of sounding girly, I’ve been known to leak a few tears at the end of tear-jerker movies. Now, a lot of times it’s because of blatant manipulation by the film-maker, and I actually get pissed off. I feel like I’ve been played (Titanic). On the other hand, some stories get the same effect while feeling perfectly natural and beautiful, and I don’t mind that at all (Cyrano de Bergerac).

    Reading Resnick, I often wind up on the “feeling manipulated” side of the spectrum.

  11. Wow, what a terrible story. The ending was obvious from the very start, the writing is tiresome and cliched, the characters aren’t. I just can’t see why the quoted reviews see anything at all in this, and how it got printed or on the Hugo ballot is beyond me.

  12. Why Alastair Baffle should not be a Hugo nominee, let’s count the ways: The sentimentality is cloying. The nostalgia is superficial. The characters are flat. The plot is a retread.

    There was the old Twilight Zone episode, Kick the Can, screenplay by George Clayton Johnson, (air date: February 9, 1962), which featured cranky old folks at a rest home. One refuses to play the magical kid’s game and stays old and sickly, his best friend and some others become children. It was remade in 1983 for Twilight Zone: The Movie.

    Merge that story with the massively overused conceit of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and out pops Baffle.

    Steve Lovekin

  13. I hate to break it to you, Martin, but for a Mike Resnick story this is actually pretty decent. It’s a lousy piece of writing, but still light years better than his nominated short, or the Hugo-winning “Travels With My Cats.”

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