Hugo Nominee: “The Tear”

Unsurprisingly, given that (a) it first appeared in an SFBC-only anthology and (b) it wasn’t in the Hugo voter packet until recently, there’s not much talk of substance about this one out there, that I could find at any rate. Maybe we can rectify that. Here’s what I did find:

Rich Horton:

My favorite story of the year is Ian McDonald’s “The Tear”. Gardner Dozois’s introductory material suggested that it has sufficient ideas and plot for many writers to make a trilogy from. In fact, one could argue that that is not entirely a strength of the story — there would have been nothing wrong with a more leisurely treatment of some of the stories situations.

It’s set in a future McDonald has visited before, in which the Galaxy (and perhaps beyond) has been colonized by the Clade — a vast variety of beings, all apparently based originally on Homo Sapiens, but with genetic modifications (and sometimes more extreme changes) to allow human life to spread to many different environments. On Ptey’s planet most people develop different “aspects”: completely separate personalities that take over when needed. Ptey — or the aspects he has become — play a vital role in a crisis involving a curious group of beings fleeing an implacable enemy. The story keeps leaping to radically different futures, following different aspects of Ptey, through parallel love affairs, centuries long space journeys and battles, meetings with new branches of humanity — it is fascinating, tragic, hopeful, imagination-stuffed, and powerful.

That short review doesn’t really do the story justice. There is a well-depicted central love affair. There is some play with the nature of the “aspects” Ptey’s people develop that I found fascinating. The depictions of the first visitors to Ptey’s planet are really cool. The notion that all these very different beings are human is not at all new but nicely handled. There is a certain ambiguity as to how “good” the good guys necessarily are. (But application of one main rule — “killing people is bad” — does clarify things somewhat.) I just really loved the story.

What’s good here — well, what I’ve said. And it’s as imaginatively stuffed a story as we usually see, though to be fair Rosenbaum and Doctorow’s story (see below) is also pretty stuff that way. What’s bad — as I hinted, perhaps sometimes things are a bit rushed.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” is a major departure from his habit, over the last few years, of writing offshoots to his novels River of Gods and Brasyl. A far-future space opera, it follows the character Ptey from his childhood and early adulthood on the planet Tay and into space, where he is first the guest of an alien race visiting Tay, then a fugitive from their enemies, then the alien visitor of another race, and finally the prodigal son returning to his ravished home world. Except that all of these aliens are humans–evolved or artificially altered into radically different forms–and that Ptey is only Ptey for the first few pages of the story. His people have a tradition of ‘manifolding’–creating new, subtly different, aspects of their personality within themselves, different people sharing the same body and carrying on their own, separate lives–and later on Ptey transforms again through exposure to alien technology. The multiplicity of personalities who are all essentially the same person is obviously intended to track with the multiple forms humanity takes in the story, from Tay’s socially-mandated schizophrenia to its visitors’ virtual existence to the accelerated aging of the inhabitants of a generation ship Ptey hitches a ride on. This is an interesting point, but it seems a little flimsy for such a long story, especially given the thinness of the its plot–Ptey leaves home, Ptey comes home. Even more problematic is the fact that McDonald doesn’t quite pull off the feat of making Ptey’s different iterations feel like different versions of the same person–they either come off, in the first half of the story, as completely different people, or, in its later parts, as the same person playing different roles in different social settings. “The Tear” is interesting and well written (though McDonald’s prose often veers from merely ornate into baroque, which occasionally made for a tough slog) but since the whole story hinges on the device of Ptey’s transformations–it is even divided into chapters according to the changes in his aspect–the unconvincing execution of that device renders “The Tear,” if not quite inert, then at least seriously underperforming.

John DeNardo:

Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” presents a water world culture that encourages multiple personalities – specifically eight- upon entering adulthood. At that time, its members relocate to a “Manifold House” where their other identities are born. This story follows the life of the protagonist born as Ptey, a male identity that is eventually replaced by eight others over the course of the story. Ptey’s passage to adulthood includes dealing with girls, a friend who cannot become multiple (Cjatay, a so-called “Lonely”), and – perhaps more prominently – the alien Anpreen that orbit the neighboring world for fuel. Ptey learns a terrible and dangerous secret of the Anpreen and their reason for emigration – a secret that forces him, against cultural taboo, to assume a ninth personality so that he can join them in their travels. Things only get worse for poor Ptey when the Anpreen situation comes to a boil. This is a very brief skimming over the central story, which itself is brief in comparison with the mind-numbing ideas being tossed about like balls in a lottery machine. Too many ideas may have taken the edge off this story, but it definitely has a most epic feel to it, the scope of which still has my mind reeling in wonder.

Nicholas Whyte, and some other people, liked it; Walker of Worlds and Visions of Paradise couldn’t finish it. As usual, I’ll post my thoughts as a comment.

8 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “The Tear”

  1. Briefly: I agree with Rich.

    Less briefly: I almost feel we should be discussing this story and “True Names” at the same time, since as several of the discussions linked above note, they appear to cover quite similar territory. It’s a while since I read that story now, and my abiding memory of it is simply that it filled me with THE JOY OF SCIENCE FICTION, such that I didn’t really think anything would knock it off the number one spot on my ballot; but McDonald’s done it, at least for now. (We’ll see how I feel re-reading “True Names” next week, in light of all the things I’m about to say.)

    And he’s done it by filling me with THE WONDER OF SCIENCE FICTION, which I think is related to but distinct from THE JOY etc. (Enough all caps now.) By this I refer partly to the density and texture of the story that everyone’s commented on; there really is a virtuoso act of creation going on here, with the culture of Tay immediately solid and deep in a way that, say, the culture in last year’s other waterworld novella, “Arkfall”, was not. But I also refer to how that density is translated, and what it is used to evoke.

    My memory of “True Names” — and as I say, we’ll see if this is accurate or not when I re-read it — is that it is an “is” story. It describes its extraordinary situations directly, and the joy comes from the inventiveness and detail of those situations. In contrast, “The Tear” is a “like” story: it makes much more use of simile and metaphor to relate its situations to our own.

    A downside of this, and a weakness of the story, is that McDonald is seeking such density that the basic situations he’s chosen to underly them are … well, not as radical as you might expect given the evolution in other aspects of human society and culture. (There’s perhaps another comparison with “Arkfall” to be made here.) It is, ultimately, about friendship and rivalry between two boys who grow up to be two men. The Clade, panhumanity, is like a family, we are told, and there’s no argument like a family argument: which is true, except there’s a sense in which the diversity of relationships within the Clade isn’t even as great as that we have within families right here right now, let alone as great is it imaginably could be. So, yes, there’s a lot of strange in the story, but it’s a very anchored strange, one that I at least found easy to grasp once I realised the basic metaphors in use. Moments like, “he experienced a strange psychosomatic sensation in that part of the splinter-ship that corresponded to his testicles. Balls tightening” tells you a lot about where the imaginative focus in the story is, I think.

    The upside of this, although I imagine it’s going to be rather subjective, is the aforementioned wonder. There is a wrenching human desolation at the heart of “The Tear”; before reading it, I kept wondering how the title should be pronounced (as in crying, or as in rending), but of course it’s both. It’s surely significant that the various metaphorical tears — most notably Tay itself, and the reaction masses of the Ampreen ships — are figured as things that have separated from a larger body; similarly that the main cost of calving off new Aspects to deal with new situations seems to be the introduction of heartbreak when those Aspects and situations get mixed up. (The metaphor there, again, is direct and immediately relate-able, at least for me, as when it’s noted that ex-Ptey “moved across the social worlds of his various Aspects”; we’ve all done that, haven’t we?) And most significant of all, surely, that Torben, the Aspect created to cope with ex-Ptey’s departure from his homeworld, is “the only one” who could survive such a journey precisely because he doesn’t see numbers directly, he sees them “… as words, as images and stories, as analogies”.

    In other words: “The Tear” evokes humanity’s place as a bright spot (or, in this story, a multitude of bright spots) in the midst of the immense emptiness of the universe as effectively as anything I’ve read recently, and in doing so evokes the distances between individual humans as effectively as anything I’ve read recently.

    With respect to the other flaws raised: I didn’t ever feel the story was rushed. I did think the middle third, the journey itself, was perhaps not as absorbing as the initial worldbuilding, or the final confrontation. I didn’t feel the straightforward arc of the plot was a problem, in part for the reasons I’ve noted above, and in part because there was still plenty of incident, of character interaction, to hold my attention. And the differentiation of the Aspects of ex-Ptey simply worked for me, in a way that it didn’t for Abigail; the choice of “Aspect” itself as the descriptive term I think shaped my expectations sufficiently that I was able to accept quite a wide variance in characterisation without doubting they were part of the same gestalt.

  2. I wanted to write about it, but I couldn’t finish it either. It’s been long enough that I can’t exactly tell you why, but I have a general strong dislike for McDonald’s short fiction.

  3. I loved it. I don’t have anything much to add to Rich and Niall’s summations. I also loved True Names, even more when I read it than when I listened to it, so it’d be a toss-up for me. But I love McDonald’s writing in any context.

  4. I’ve now read ‘The Tear’ and it’s certainly the best of the novellas I’ve so far read. I wrote about it here, and said, in part:

    Looked at from a great height, ‘The Tear’ appears somewhat thin on plot. Ptey leaves, Ptey comes home again, Ptey works out why it all happened. It’s tempting to compare ‘The Tear’ to a painting by an Old Master, rich in colour and detail, but depicting only an old man sitting in a chair. Some have said there’s too much detail in it for a novella, that it would be better-suited to novel-length. I disagree: the story is the details…

    Which in turn leads to ‘The Tear’s one major failing. McDonald has created so rich a background he can’t help but stop his plot every now and again and unload exposition on the reader. In that respect, ‘The Tear’ is even moreso heartland sf than it actually presents: it displays in full the unique vision of the genre, yet fails to overcome its greatest handicap.

  5. Interestingly, my off-the-cuff complaint about a SFBC-published novella appearing on the shortlist – i.e., ‘The Tear’ – seems to have generated more hits on my blog than anything I’ve posted in the last three months. Seems most fans are more interested in the mechanics of the Hugos than the actual quality of the items shortlisted for them….

  6. Yes, the joy of science fiction is right. I’ve been slogging through some frankly miserable SF stories recently and this was a breath of fresh air. I agree with pretty much everything you say and – warts and all – it is an impressive piece. It will be interesting to compare it to ‘True Names’ next week.

    Ian: Summon Standlee is powerful voodoo.

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