Here we go then: first short story club discussion, for Daniel Abraham’s “The Best Monkey“.
As anticipated, not huge amounts of detailed discussion of this story to date. Here’s Rich Horton in the May Locus:
The next best story here [and one of his recommended stories for the month] is more traditional near future SF: “The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham, which intriguingly speculates on the nature of beauty,on its ties to sex, on how what we perceive as elegant might be hardwired with what we perceive as a good mating prospect. And what might result if those perceptions were altered. All this revealed as a reporter tries to track the secret behind a strangely successful corporation.
Good concept, but average execution.
Similarly, Jonathan Cowie:
In the (near?) future a net journalist (or the equivalent) who summarises and distils news is asked by his boss to become an investigative reporter. A company has grown fast and is rumoured that its secret is Roswell technology. Could this be true or is there some other explanation? At its heart ‘The Best Monkey’ is an interesting enough story but, for my taste at least, its assembly could be improved.
John DeNardo at SF Signal:
A shady corporation is the subject of a reporter’s investigations in “The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham. The protagonist, Jimmy, works for a news corporation who is trying to go from news aggregator to news source and he gets a lead on said company’s exploration into experimental research. Abraham weaves in other interesting elements, like Jimmy’s prior relationship with the company’s research director and generation differences noted by the aging Jimmy, but the core examination of perception and beauty is the foundation of the story. (3.5 stars)
Mark Watson at Best SF:
A strong science thriller – a struggling journo in new-media publishing finds his past catching up with him, as an old flame whose career has far outstripped his, is the target of investigative journalism. He has to face up to where his life has gone (or not) in dealing with his ex-lover, and he finds out just what she has lost in order to get where she has gotten.
Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic:
Another superb story, this time about a mysterious corporation called Fifth Layer which dominates current tech with extraordinary inventions that are unorthodox and inelegant, but work. There is talk of the Roswell theory, namely that Fifth Layer is a front for secretive aliens, so older investigative reporter Jimmy is put on the case since a senior executive of Fifth Layer was his girlfriend thirty years ago. Highlight of the anthology for idea-based sf.
Eric Brown in The Guardian says it is a:
psychologically insightful thriller about an investigative journalist’s inquiries into the career of a former lover
Aside from leaving me thoroughly depressed (again) about the state of short fiction reviewing in this field (where’s the engagement with the story’s argument, folks?), none of these do a lot for me. However! A couple of people have already done their club homework. So here’s Chance:
So you know your ex-? The one who is beautiful and ended up way more successful than you? Turns out she’s not human any more so you win! Go on and delete her contact info now. (Do we really need another story where the successful woman is defective or evil or just-not-right somehow?)
“The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham is a story about what it means to be human and the not very plausible premise is that you need to be able to appreciate symmetric beauty to truly human. (Minus points for the Clarke’s law bit at the end.)
Jimmy works in a dead end job where he’s called to investigate the secret of his far more successful ex-lover Elaine. Intercut between interviews with people who have had their sense of symmetry turned off are convenient flashbacks where Jimmy and Elaine discuss her personal philosophies on how humans should pull out all the stops and see how far they can go, and pattern making and beauty.
So she shuts off the part of her brain that appreciates symmetry and voila! she starts thinking differently. And at the same time it makes her alien and repugnant to Jimmy.
And a thorough reading by Maureen Kincaid Speller, which I will only quote in part:
… one thing this story seems to lack so far as I’m concerned is a plausible progression from the recognition of the wrongness of Fifth Layer designs, through Jimmy’s recognition of Salvati’s discovery of the effects of eliminating a desire for symmetry to the realisation that, actually, Salvati is pretty much the same as she always was, except insofar as her philosophy has become a reality, and she is entirely willing to take whatever risks are necessary to gain the edge.
But we don’t know who or what Jimmy is. We’re not even really invited to think about it, in the same way that we’re not really invited to think about things, just notice them. And that, perhaps, is the biggest disagreement I have with this story. All these things are laid out but Jimmy has no view, and as a result for the reader there is nothing to really engage with. In the way, the elements of the story are laid out but there’s nothing that can be easily enaged with. It’s all shoved together and, superficially, like ‘Lucite neo-futurist kitsch’, the story looks the part. Dig into it, and there isn’t so much going on. A lot is signalled, but in a way that feels like Abraham is using a ‘fill this bit in for yourself’ shorthand rather than because he is being sparing with descriptions. ‘Blinkcasts’, ‘accretors’ and ‘neural nets’ all sound nicely familiar and comfortable, but I don’t think Abraham is using them to evoke the world so much as to avoid having to evoke it; they’re furniture, not reality. In fact, they’re precisely what Jimmy protests about: neo-futurist kitsch. This easy sliding together of components pervades the whole story, in fact. Jimmy never struggles for his story. It turns up in neat ‘blinkcast’ chunks as he goes looking for it, all slotted together in its frame. One is left with a faint sense of being as manipulated as Jimmy is, but again, I don’t think that’s a matter of performance so much as expedience.
And with that, it’s over to everyone else. What did you make of it?
88 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “The Best Monkey””
I’ll come back with more comments later, but to kick things off I did want to comment on the use of neologisms that Maureen picks apart, because actually I thought it was rather clever. Much of it does sound familiar, but I also thought it was made to feel wrong, thanks to Jimmy’s translations: “Clicky meant interesting this month”; and:
It was a point of characterisation that I thought actually worked, positioning Jimmy as alienated from the world he’s living in at the start of a story that is about alienation of a kind.
The other thing that strikes me about the story is how classically science fictional it is, in that its goal seems to me to build an argument to the point where you feel the emotional implications of it at the end of the story. And to that extent, it worked reasonably well for me: much of the story is given over to the ugliest aspects of humanity’s beauty-obsession, and yet the prospect of escaping from that obsession was still creepy (or at least, seen by creepy as Jimmy, and I felt how creeped he was). Compare to, perhaps, to the form and tone of Chiang’s “Liking What You See”.
I was also disappointed by this story, and doubly so because I’ve so enjoyed Abraham’s short fiction in the past.
I agree that the story recalls classic science fiction, but that seems to me to be its core flaw. There’s a subset of science fiction stories which are about a fear of the future. Some of them posit social change and others posit a change in what it means to be human, but always from a fearful, almost xenophobic perspective. That’s what Abraham is doing here, and it feels both old-fashioned and distasteful. The comparison to Chiang is apt – while Chiang considers that it is possible to hack the subconscious while maintaining personhood (even if that person is not quite what we think of as human anymore) Abraham’s narrator recoils from any change in baseline humanity, and the story doesn’t leave us any space to disagree. On the contrary, it draws a line from athletes using steroids to companies putting pressure on their employees to use speed to the brain hacking that Jimmy discovers.
What’s more, I’m not even persuaded by its central conceit. It’s true that evolution has inclined us to find symmetric faces and living creatures beautiful, but I don’t see that that preference extends to inanimate objects. On the contrary, it seems to me that there’s a trend towards asymmetry, in architecture certainly and also in industrial design, and though I’m not an expert, the one modern dance performance I’ve been to was as far from symmetrical as possible (I didn’t enjoy it, but then I’m not an aficionado – it was a well-reviewed troupe and piece).
I thought it was a decent story, if not exceptional in any way. Its strength was that it is fairly wide-open, it doesn’t shut down avenues of thought. But as Maureen Kincaid Speller wrote, it doesn’t engage very deeply with its own ideas, either: its openness has the feel of an incomplete thought rather than a skillful attempt to present ideas in a way that encourages further consideration.
Most centrally to me, there is the question of Fifth Layer’s apparent success at creating superior engineering solutions based on asymmetry. There are, as I understand it, logical reasons for valuing symmetry in solutions to problems in engineering, physics, mathematics, etc. A solution with more symmetry requires less information to be encoded, and thus less energy to construct, with less likelihood of error, and with less difficulty in procuring replacements in the event of failure, etc.
Now, it is certainly possible that this understanding of symmetry’s superiority is an artifact of our symmetry-loving brains. It may be that the reason we haven’t been able to come up with a working and testable unified theory of physics, for example, is because we perceive the universe as based on symmetry when in fact it is not. But this level of possibility isn’t even hinted at in the story.
And that leaves a void. It’s not just that the story doesn’t engage with its ideas at that level of principles — I can appreciate a story where we’re meant to figure out such matters on our own, derived from a more street-level, human-centered story. But there’s a lack of even a suggestion of why asymmetrical engineering solutions might work better — even if they felt subtly wrong — for a symmetry-minded general populace that couldn’t grok Swanson’s dance. There’s a difference, I tend to think unless convinced otherwise, between the aesthetics of art — dance, to use the story’s example, or more generally “decisions between logically equivalent options” — and engineering solutions for things like encryption, computing, basic physics, engine design, and prosthetics, that may have more measurable logical differences; a distinction that the story doesn’t really engage with.
(And even on the artistic level I was left pondering, for example, the degree to which cultural factors influence conceptions of aesthetics.)
All that said, I don’t think it was a bad story. What probably worked best for me was the old-fashioned aspect that Niall and especially Abigail mention: the fear of true change. I didn’t find this distasteful in the way Abigail did because I thought Jimmy was crafted well enough as a character, flaws and all, that I could sympathize with him while not feeling that I had to agree with him; he seems to me entirely separate from the author Abraham. I wouldn’t want all stories to be like this, but with Jimmy we get a reasonable human reaction of a fairly ordinary guy, whose “greatest comfort was that forty years down the line, their kids were gonna do the same to them,” confronted, perhaps for the first time, by change that is more than just label-deep.
Indeed what I think Abraham does fairly well here as a craftsman (minus some of the more obvious monkey/primate bits, which I find tedious) is fill the story with enough nods towards thematic complexity like that, that it obfuscates his central manipulation: the setting up of two polar oppositions in Jimmy and Elaine and then allowing the reader to safely navigate to a middle ground.
In a nutshell, the story does that well, but where it falters is in providing readers with enough markers to help them triangulate where in that vast middle ground their own personal position is.
I’m a huge fan of Abraham’s novels, but I think this is the first short story of his I’ve ever read, and it would certainly not encourage me to read more. What a huge disappointment.
As I often do with first-person narration, I played around a bit with my concept of the narrator: how would this story change if Jimmy were female, if he were 600 years old, etc. It doesn’t change at all, as it turns out, which leaves me feeling as though Jimmy as a character is tremendously underdeveloped. He describes objects and people and elements of the situation but has no feelings about them. The few adjectives that Abraham does supply, like “romantic” and even “old”, fit badly; we are told but never shown. The drugs don’t help, and incidentally, I got no sense whatsoever that the narrator was actually on speed. His narration was just as flat and perhaps even more so, blurry and vague, with none of the razor sharpness or agitated excitement that characterizes stimulant use.
I didn’t like most of the other characters either, though the choreographer and the pedophile were at least fairly human and interesting. (They had actual emotions! It was like color suddenly appearing in a black-and-white film.) All the women are sketchy and unflattering caricatures; a disappointment especially from Abraham, who put several interesting and sympathetic female characters in the Long Price Quartet.
I’ve seen various claims that the story has a thesis and none of them seem to fit. Liking symmetry is what makes you human? Swanson and Hammer looked pretty human to me–more so than Jimmy, even–so that theory seems to exist just to vilify Elaine’s calm, calculated, and successful approach to business. Besides, Fifth Layer has sold a ton of their odd asymmetric stuff, which means millions of consumers also like the asymmetry. Are they not human? Why do they like the asymmetric furniture but not Swanson’s asymmetric choreography? The implications of that are never explored. It’s like the company became successful in a vacuum. Elaine pays attention to consumer feelings only en masse, talking about the way people generally see patterns. Jimmy ignores them entirely, a tremendous flaw in his profession; journalists must always keep the audience in mind. The net effect is to completely blur the setting as well as the characters, leaving nothing for the reader to hold on to.
In short: Yawn.
I’ve already written up my initial thoughts on this story elsewhere, and so won’t repeat myself here; but Maureen’s comments especially chime with me. I hold my hand up to not engaging with the ideas fully; but I think part of the reason for this is, as Maureen says, that the story doesn’t really invite such engagement.
It’s not a stinker of a story, but I don’t think it’s anything special either.
PS. Meant to include the link to my original thoughts.
And I meant to include your thoughts in the original post. Sorry, David!
No worries, Niall; these things happen. Besides, there’s always next week…
Having read Matt Denault’s comment, I went back and looked at the story again and was surprised to find that Fifth Layer is described as doing “encryption. Computing. Basic physics. Engine design. Prosthetics.” I had somehow picked up the idea that they did things like furniture and buildings. I agree with Matt that the notion of not preferring symmetry in physics and encryption is bizarre and certainly insufficiently explored here.
I have this feeling I’m going to end up as the story’s defender, purely by dint of liking it slightly more than everyone else. (Which is not the same as thinking it a great story.) There’s quite a bit above that I want to pick up on, but I think most of it will have to wait until tomorrow. However, on this:
There’s a difference, I tend to think unless convinced otherwise, between the aesthetics of art — dance, to use the story’s example, or more generally “decisions between logically equivalent options” — and engineering solutions for things like encryption, computing, basic physics, engine design, and prosthetics, that may have more measurable logical differences; a distinction that the story doesn’t really engage with.
That was one of the more audacious elements of the story, for me: the assertion that we are so trapped in our subjectivity that we cannot see that other solutions to physics might indeed be “logically equivalent options”. To us, as Rose puts it, the notion of not preferring symmetry in physics is bizarre; yet the story posits that alternatives are possible. It put me in mind of Egan’s “Luminous” and “Dark Integers” — the suggestion that the entire foundation of our system of thought is a story we have imposed on the universe, and that there are other ways, perhaps incompatible ways, of structuring the raw information. Do I actually believe it is the case? Perhaps not; but as a device to draw attention to the very real subjectivity of science, I think it works.
yet the story posits that alternatives are possible
So does the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but simply mentioning that some people believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is insufficient to compel me to even consider investigating conversion.
Mathematicians understand the interactions between esthetics and numbers. Higher math is an art, and as dependent on leaps of intuition and concepts of elegance as it is on logic; perhaps more so. From that perspective, I understand that Abraham is suggesting that a new kind of intuition might lead to new solutions, but that’s all he’s doing. His approach is about as SFnal as a ray gun. There’s no discussion or analysis of the current state of the art, nor of what those new designs might look like. As a sometime mathematician, I am entirely unconvinced that he even knows anything about mathematics beyond “I heard somewhere that elegant solutions are more likely to be correct”, so I have no reason to pay attention to his alternative theories.
(Not to mention that esthetic judgment doesn’t happen in a vacuum, especially in mathematics. It’s not just that elegant solutions are more likely to be correct, it’s that thousands of years of figuring out what’s correct have honed our judgments of elegance. It has very little to do with symmetry, either. e^(i*π)+1=0 isn’t symmetrical but it is astonishingly elegant.)
I suppose I might feel more charitable were there a bunch of pseudoscience/pseudomath in the middle of a story that populates a fully-realized setting with intriguing three-dimensional characters. If the author can’t convince me that the place and people are real, though, he stands very little chance of convincing me about any other element of the story. That’s my esthetic judgment at work.
OK, the only other Abraham story that I’ve read was “The Cambist and Lord Iron” and I liked “The Best Monkey” for very similar reasons. It took a rather obscure concept (how are things valued/the aesthetics of art and engineering) and held it up and invited me to look at the world a little differently through its lens.
(Although I’ll say here that in retrospect, what Rose pointed out about the narration not changing when the narrator was on speed were spot on.)
Let’s see, I didn’t get the impression that losing symmetrical aesthetics made you less human. I interpreted Jimmy’s dislike of his ex as disdain for her illegal/unethical research operation, not the fundamental principle. On the other hand, I tend to give stories the benefit of the doubt on those kinds of issues.
I also thought the question of how much are artificial enhancements appropriate was a more open one in the story. Using alcohol as a social lubricant? No one will complain. Using speed/steroids to perform better for some goal? Lots of people think that’s squidgy. A paedophile changing his brain to not desire children anymore? It didn’t work for this guy, but wouldn’t that be positive? Changing your sense of aesthetics to come up with innovative solutions to engineering problems? Interesting! Certainly Jimmy notes that they’ve generated effective solutions; I wouldn’t call that an outright condemnation.
Rose mentions:There’s no discussion or analysis of the current state of the art, nor of what those new designs might look like. That sounds like an article in Nature to me, and less of a story. I guess I don’t feel like getting the design drawings of these proposed innovative solutions would have added much to the narrative. As an engineer, it’s more interesting to me to think about how much symmetrical aesthetic influences my approach to things. Also, I’d rather not have the tech-speak in at all than have it done badly, and I’m not sure anyone could do that well. That way I’ve got more leeway to imagine how things could be different in my own niche of engineering.
Also, I think it’s interesting that, coincidentally, he took the same starting point as Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler” and wound up with a more positive view of investigative reporting’s continuation into the future.
Even quicker response before I really really go to bed:
(Although I’ll say here that in retrospect, what Rose pointed out about the narration not changing when the narrator was on speed were spot on.)
Er, why? It’s not written in the present tense. The narrator is recalling all of this after the fact, so you wouldn’t expect his narration to change when he’s recalling the period when he’s on speed.
I found the central premise that the unconscious premise for symmetry blinds us to asymmetrical solutions to be very interesting – the sort of “I never thought of that” idea that I enjoy about classic SF. The depictions of the pedophile and the choreographer as examples how ‘fixing’ this preference might work, or not, were by far the most compelling parts of the story to me.
With others above, I did wish that I cared more about Jimmy, whom I found only minimally sympathetic.
I was also bit skeptical of how certain concepts of the premise were explained. In particular, just how often are we faced with decisions between ‘logically equivalent’ options? The example of ants and grains of rice is used, but even an ant, presumably, has ways of choosing between two grains of rice: size, distance from destination, freshness. It seems unlikely to me that early man was faced with so many such decisions that the symmetry preference became hard-coded to the extent that Abraham describes.
At first I was a bit boggled by Abraham’s description of solutions that were both ‘elegant’ and ‘ugly.’ In my mathematical training these were generally considered to be opposite descriptors; beauty and elegance were basically synonymous. Now, after some thought, I think that opposition neatly describes Abraham’s whole idea: that humanity equates symmetry with beauty, thus allowing for the possibility of asymmetric, and therefore ugly, elegance.
However, as various folks point out above, this shuttered view is no longer necessarily true of either the arts or the sciences.
Abraham has intrigued me about the role symmetry plays in human decision-making, and how it would affect us to have that changed. However, when I’d finished the story what I really wanted to see was his society a hundred or several hundred years in the future, after these changes had already occurred.
“The Best Monkey” has several things going for it: mostly good crisp dialog; a moderate use of invented terms that generally help the story rather than hinder it and locate it in a briefly sketched future; a strong interview with the pedophile, which achieves creepiness without going overboard; and a central idea that is interesting.
I like the idea of modifying researchers’ brains to accelerate new innovations, with those brain modifications being tied to the individuals’ sexual selection process — the modifications leading, perhaps, to speciation. I just don’t think this story is the best vehicle for those ideas.
As others have commented, the storytelling has an old-fashioned feel. The investigative reporter pursing leads is a hoary structure on which to hang the story. It could be made interesting if journalism were better developed (see Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler”).
Also, feeling old-fashioned, why the amphetamines? It seems a fairly obvious tactic to put added stress on the narrator, producing an antiquated noir-ish feel. Is staying awake all hours shown to be necessary? Does the narrator, Jimmy, need it in order to have a conversation with an institutionalized pedophile during regular visiting hours?
Back to the central idea: as the narrator interviews people whose brains have been modified we learn that removing a preference for symmetry doesn’t suppress the sexual selection processes, it merely changes and broadens the criteria, making the subject less selective without reducing libido. How does this help researchers? They are less selective in their choices regarding their research and that is somehow better? Nor, for those who are not modified, is it likely that symmetry is responsible for researchers fruitlessly thinking the same thoughts, pursuing the same ideas, and performing the same tasks.
I understand that symmetry is a “what if” placeholder. It could be any alteration to the brain. What makes it interesting is the speculation that it affects both sexual selection and the thought processes essential to research. It’s certainly fertile ground for a story.
@ Niall: That was one of the more audacious elements of the story, for me: the assertion that we are so trapped in our subjectivity that we cannot see that other solutions to physics might indeed be “logically equivalent options”.
As you can tell from the amount I blathered about it in my first comment, I find that kind of big concept idea intriguing as well. But I didn’t think raising this possibility worked especially well in this story. There is a gap in language and presentation between the story’s foreground focus on the artistic/aesthetic “decisions between logically equivalent options” and the background math-and-physics decisions where the options are not logically equivalent — where there can be measures of effectiveness other than symmetry — and where the story suggests that asymmetric designs could be superior. Those are two qualitatively different ideas and positions, as I read them; or at least, the story never really bridges them. It’s not simply that the big picture stuff is too off-stage, but that it is too disconnected: I, like Rose, am unconvinced by its mere suggestion.
Or in brief: does the story deploy its elements in any way that is more convincing as even a suggestion of possibility than the single paragraph you wrote? To my mind, no; it’s an okay story, but it doesn’t unpack its basic conceit at all.
@ Rose: Liking symmetry is what makes you human? Swanson and Hammer looked pretty human to me
In fairness to the story, I think it is made pretty clear by the story’s end, with Elaine’s goals and behavior, that the Fifth Layer process is very embryonic and limited, particularly in these early test cases. Nobody has had their instinctual desire for symmetry completely removed, it’s a matter of degrees. (Elaine’s machinations to get Jimmy to be the one who breaks the story, for example, are not the actions of someone with no appreciation for symmetry.)
@ Sarah: With others above, I did wish that I cared more about Jimmy
I don’t think we’re meant to like or care much about Jimmy; at least, I hope not. I find Jimmy interesting and effective as the narrator of this story because of his own subjectivity and how that subjectivity mirrors (and to some degree challenges) the themes of the larger story. But he’s not very likable, and he’s not especially bright. And almost everything we’re shown of Jimmy reveals his constant inability to understand women, such that by the end, when he’s relating his conversation with Elaine and says…
“Does it hurt?” I asked. “Do you miss anything?”
That odd, inhuman pause, and then:
“There are tradeoffs.”
…I have to wonder what’s so inhuman about pausing after being asked such a question? Does Jimmy see Elaine as so alien because the procedure she underwent was more thorough than that undergone by his two male interviewees, or is it because she is female?
@Karen: Oh, he wrote “The Cambist and Lord Iron”? I loved that story! …and now I’m even more disappointed in this one, sigh.
I didn’t like “The Gambler” either. As a journalist, I am perhaps oversensitive to portrayals of journalists in fiction.
The narrator is recalling all of this after the fact, so you wouldn’t expect his narration to change when he’s recalling the period when he’s on speed.
Sure I would, just like the way I talk about happy past things is different from the way I talk about sad past things. If he’s recalling enough detail to provide precise transcriptions of conversations down to the pauses, he’s recalling enough detail to describe what he was feeling and thinking.
@Matt: I was referring to someone else’s suggestion that “liking symmetry is what makes you human” is the thesis of the story, and saying that I disagree with that suggestion, so I think you and I are on the same page there.
I don’t think we’re meant to like or care much about Jimmy; at least, I hope not.
Agreed on both counts.
As everyone might have guessed from my LJ post, I didn’t care for this story. I thought the idea that if blinded to symmetric beauty something would rise to take its place intriguing, though I am not convinced that beauty blindness would not be just like actual blindness (or color blindness) – a permanent thing that people learn to cope with. Why am I supposed to believe that perception of symmetric beauty is so innate and necessary that your mind is going to develop an alternate system to compensate? (And I could not help wondering if Elaine had all her chairs redesigned to have all the legs on one side so they would not be offputting to her.)
I wasn’t convinced by the central premise. I can see how it’s a “neat” idea that a writer would want to explore in a story…. But. Everyone’s aesthetic is predicated on symmetry? Makes you wonder how Picasso ever made a living. And it does suggest that all decisions – irrespective of nature or possible outcomes – are made such that the most aesthetically pleasing solution is privileged. Which isn’t true – cf ‘The Cold Equations’. It’s an anti-logic argument. I also can’t really understand how any such solutions would be viewed as “off” by those who’ve not had their appreciation of symmetry removed.
A jaded journalist strikes me as a poor choice of protagonist. He won’t engage with the central idea. Even his commentary on it feels tired, he doesn’t care about what Elaine has done or the ramifications of what she’s done. He can’t even get upset about being used by her.
There’s also a logical leap somewhere towards the end. Jimmy interviews the dancer and then the paedophile. He learns of the clinic in Mexico…. How does he work out from that they’ve had their aesthetic sense surgically altered?
Oh, and the occasional spelling out of words was really annoying.
Sure I would, just like the way I talk about happy past things is different from the way I talk about sad past things.
OK, let me be more specific: I wouldn’t expect his narration to change to have “the razor sharpness or agitated excitement that characterizes stimulant use”. I would expect a recollection of that condition, but not an embodiment of it in the narrative. And he certainly describes what he was feeling — “my mind leaping around in my skull like an excited monkey”, etc.
And almost everything we’re shown of Jimmy reveals his constant inability to understand women
Yes, I think you’re spot on in that comment — which is also my response to Chance’s comments quoted in the original post — that Elaine is not definitively defective or evil, but is perceived as such by Jimmy. I agree that the other characters in the story aren’t particularly well-developed, but the focus is on Jimmy, and I thought his particular brand of flawed male-ness was convincing, to the point where, as I said in my first comment, his perception of Elaine as creepy came across very clearly.
Picasso used a lot of highly symmetric elements in his cubist paintings, surely. He just arranged them in (what was then) an unconventional fashion.
>This doesn’t look all that symmetrical to me….
@Niall: I reread the story and don’t see any indication that it’s being remembered from a distant point in the future. Set in past tense, sure, but that’s so conventional as to be nearly invisible. So yes, actually, I would expect there to be some embodiment of his drugged state in the narrative. What’s the point of it otherwise? I also found the few, sparse, told-not-shown descriptions of it to be entirely unconvincing, except for the “spike of rage”.
I thought his particular brand of flawed male-ness was convincing
Are Chance and I the only ones who are entirely sick of stories told from the perspective of flawed men and filled with their skewed, unkind thoughts about women? You seem to be describing this “convincing” depiction as a positive trait of the story, while I find that behavior and mindset just as repulsive in a fictional man as I would in a real one.
I’m not sure Picasso is a good example, because he was deliberately trying to wrong-foot his audience, and the fact that we find his paintings beautiful today is the result of his sensibility having been subsumed into the cultural morass. If you showed someone from the 17th century a Picasso (or, for that matter, a Monet or Van Gogh), they’d probably find it hideous.
On the other hand, that ties into my point that our concept of beauty in art and inanimate objects probably has more to do with culture than biology, and that extrapolating from the evolutionary preference for symmetric faces into graphic art and design is probably not a supportable leap.
And to bring this back to the discussion at hand, though I agree that the idea that there are avenues of mathematics and physics that we haven’t considered because of an evolutionary preference for symmetry is intriguing, I didn’t feel that the story prioritized this aspect of Elaine’s brain hacking. It seemed to foreground the aesthetic issue (for example in the testimony of the choreographer). Which only made the story harder to swallow as far as I was concerned.
What’s the point of it otherwise?
Thematic, clearly, as Abigail suggested. It’s part of the argument being built.
You seem to be describing this “convincing” depiction as a positive trait of the story
Yes, because in most cases I can think of it’s unexamined, tangential and the result of authorial clumsiness, and here I feel that it is examined (such that it in fact draws attention to unexamined cases), thematically relevant (as I suggested, it is framed as one of the ugly consequences of one of the central conceit re: symmetry), and well executed (clearly we disagree about this!). And to be honest, I’m so fed up of stories that go out of their way to present “sympathetic” protagonists, anything that bucks that “rule” gets some points from me.
Thematic, clearly, as Abigail suggested. It’s part of the argument being built.
I should point out that I find that argument spurious and manipulative. There are as many examples of helpful body and brain modifications as there are negative ones, and by focusing on steroid abuse and forced consumption of speed Ambraham is stacking the deck.
it is examined (such that it in fact draws attention to unexamined cases), thematically relevant (as I suggested, it is framed as one of the ugly consequences of one of the central conceit re: symmetry), and well executed (clearly we disagree about this!)
1. “Deliberate” isn’t the same thing as “examined”; it is presented on purpose, but not investigated in any depth. There’s a depressed old guy. He’s obtuse about women and it makes him dislike them. The end.
2. Wait, you think Jimmy’s attitude towards e.g. his boss (who doesn’t even rate a name) has something to do with his brain being wired to prefer symmetry? Do you think the suggestion is that as long as we think about people in terms of whether they’re sexually attractive or esthetically pleasing, we are doomed to objectify and dismiss them? Because I don’t find that in the text–Elaine objectifies and dismisses people just as much as Jimmy does, and from her it’s presented as appalling and inhuman behavior that may be innate but is further enhanced by her brain modification–but if I did I’d really want it to be better explained and explored.
3. I don’t disagree that it’s a convincing portrayal of a really rather awful person; at no point while reading the story did I say “Hang on, Jimmy’s not really that bad, this story just makes him look bad”. I just don’t feel that the rest of the story gives me any reason to spend time in that person’s company. I don’t see the story value of him being an awful person.
And to be honest, I’m so fed up of stories that go out of their way to present “sympathetic” protagonists, anything that bucks that “rule” gets some points from me.
I think there’s quite a distance between “sympathetic” and “odious” (and I’m even willing to put up with “odious” if there’s something else to keep me engaged; cf. Song of Ice and Fire, though I’m sure many people would disagree with that particular example). I also think any story that goes out of its way to present its protagonists in a certain light is flawed by definition, and this story–which goes out of its way to emphasize that Jimmy is bored, boring, decrepit, cynical, morose, unkind to other people, and somehow both self-hating and self-serving–is a case in point.
@Abigail – Picasso: which only further demonstrates that aesthetic value is imposed, not innate.
Agreed, performance-enhancing drugs are not the same as non-reversible brain surgery. There are also people whose wiring is so faulty, they amputate parts of themselves in order to match their body image – I remember reading somewhere about someone who chopped off one of his hands because in his mind he felt he should only have one hand.
Rose, your points seem to me like elaborations of the same basic question: what does Jimmy’s personality have to do with the rest of the story? My answer would be a variation on your point 2.
Do you think the suggestion is that as long as we think about people in terms of whether they’re sexually attractive or esthetically pleasing, we are doomed to objectify and dismiss them?
I think the story is, in part, an exploration of the extent to which that is true for men. That’s why there are so few female characters in the story, for two reasons — first, it means the case studies are male; and second, because one of the case studies is Jimmy, it means that the perspective of the story excludes women, except within a certain frame. The suggestion I take from the conversations with the choreographer and the paedophile is that Jimmy’s responses are presented as, if not typical, then common; the link with the story’s main argument is that it’s easy to see such responses as something Jimmy (and men like him, and perhaps men in general) would be better off without.
I’d also argue that although “Elaine objectifies and dismisses people just as much as Jimmy does” the way in which she objectifies people is (insofar as we can tell from inside Jimmy’s head) very different to the way in which Jimmy objectifies women. First, she does objectify people, not a subset of people — seeing them as functional units to be improved, rather than thinking, feeling beings. Second, I see no implication that there is a sexual root to her objectification. That contrast, I think, is precisely why Jimmy finds her inhuman: he can’t see, as we can, the congruence between her attitudes and his.
And I think this also explains the reason why, as Abigail notes, the story focuses on the aesthetic rather than the scientific implications of its conceit: the aesthetic side is (intended to be) more immediate, easier to grasp, because of its day-to-day familiarity. We’re all familiar with the idea of “conventional beauty”, which is to say a narrative imposed by society on the aesthetic diversity of the human population precisely to select between logically equivalent options. (Examples of asymmetric design and art seem to me to feed into Abraham’s argument, in that they are still predicated on the notion of symmetry, even if to challenge it.) The notion that you might find a different way to parse that information is straightforward, and (I think) is meant to provide the foothold for the imaginative leap towards different ways of parsing other kinds of information (which in any case, definitionally within the story, cannot be fully described).
You could, in other words, write “The Best Monkey” with a different protagonist, but I think that any other protagonist would put a different spin on the central idea. The play of sympathies set up in the final scene strikes me as having enough tension in it — changing Jimmy doesn’t seem like a terrible thing; but Jimmy’s horror at the idea of being changed is palpable; is there a point at which we would feel the same horror, at which our (and sf’s) technophilia expires, and if so how far is it from this point? — that as a character he earns his existence.
I’m much more with you when you talk about the heavy-handedness of the depiction of Jimmy: a lighter touch might have worked better. But I think Jimmy’s basic character and position in the story can be reconciled with its themes and aims.
Examples of asymmetric design and art seem to me to feed into Abraham’s argument, in that they are still predicated on the notion of symmetry, even if to challenge it.
While confounding the expectation of symmetry is an aspect of the trend away from it in design and architecture, I saying that these designs are predicated on symmetry is an extreme statement. Most of them are predicated on organic, naturally occurring shapes, which is also the source of their beauty. To put it another way, it’s possible that in 50 years’ time the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum will no longer strike people as a shocking or unusual building (see the Picasso example above), but it’ll still be beautiful.
The play of sympathies set up in the final scene strikes me as having enough tension in it
This, I think, is our core disagreement about the story. I don’t see that there is tension in the final scene. As I said, I don’t think the story leaves us any room to disagree with Jimmy’s final conclusion even if it expects us to recoil from him – the analogy between brain hacking and steroid abuse is too stark and too manipulative.
Most of them are predicated on organic, naturally occurring shapes, which is also the source of their beauty.
But surely that takes us right back to the story’s starting point: that our conception of what is beautiful about “natural” shapes is, from the outset, proscribed in certain ways?
the analogy between brain hacking and steroid abuse is too stark and too manipulative.
Yes, I think this is indeed the core of our disagreement. Or at least, I think a more varied treatment of the idea of human modification — perhaps less fixated on the cost/benefit ratio of modification — could make a better story, but I don’t agree that this treatment fails completely, for the reasons outlined above, plus the fact that, per Karen’s comment, and regarding the interviews Jimmy conducts in particular I don’t think the steroids/amphetamines/brainhacking lineage is as clearly presented as BAD BAD BAD as you do. And to Ian’s point about permanence, I’d say that if you use steroids or amphetamines for too long, they certainly will irreversibly modify you.
But surely that takes us right back to the story’s starting point: that our conception of what is beautiful about “natural” shapes is, from the outset, proscribed in certain ways?
That’s a pretty narrow definition of ‘natural’ (which, to be fair, is the one Abraham is using). Yes, we find humans and animals beautiful if they’re symmetrical (though this applies mostly to mammals, whom we can more easily anthropomorphize), but most of us think trees are beautiful even if they aren’t symmetrical (which most of them aren’t). The organic shapes that have been informing architecture and design in the last decade or so are plant shapes, often deliberately asymmetrical, and the response to them has been overwhelmingly positive.
I don’t think the steroids/amphetamines/brainhacking lineage is as clearly presented as BAD BAD BAD as you do
1. Elaine asks Jimmy why steroid abuse shouldn’t be permitted if the athletes know the risks and are willing to take them in order to be the best
2. Thirty years later, we get the answer Jimmy couldn’t think of when his boss forces him to take speed – if you legalize dangerous performance enhancing drugs people will feel financial pressure to risk their health even if they don’t want to or risk being left behind.
3. Jimmy links Elaine’s thoughts about steroid abuse and how it allows humans to maximize their potential to her project of hacking the brain.
Seems like a pretty obvious logical chain with only one possible conclusion.
I think it’s only the only possible conclusion if you accept Jimmy’s viewpoint as objective. Once you allow his subjectivity you can disagree with his views up to and including the link he sees between steroid abuse and brainhacking. That is to say, it’s not clear to me that Jimmy is correct to believe the purported “dehumanizing” aspect of brainhacking outweighs the concrete benefits produced by Fifth Layer. (I actually felt the technophilic shadow-story in my head while I was reading, in which Elaine is the hero, outsmarting and taking advantage of her ex to improve humanity, I was that aware of Jimmy’s particular viewpoint.) But now I’m starting to repeat myself.
Once you allow his subjectivity you can disagree with his views up to and including the link he sees between steroid abuse and brainhacking
I don’t think Jimmy’s subjectivity extends to that link, which is a direct quote from Elaine that clearly expresses her philosophy, which she has taken to its logical conclusion with brain hacking. By the same token, the other steps in the logical chain are presented as objective truths, not colored by Jimmy’s subjectivity – athletes abuse steroids, companies force their employees to take dangerous drugs.
Jimmy’s disgust with what Elaine has become is something that we can (and are maybe even expected to) disagree with, but his conclusion that what she’s doing is bad isn’t rooted solely in that disgust. For one thing, it’s not a huge leap to the conclusion that Fifth Layer’s success will force its competitors to lop off bits of their humanity in order to keep up. That’s where I see the story’s fear of the future, and where I feel that I’ve been left with no room to disagree.
Wow, lots of comments since I saw Abigail’s first one last night. I don’t have much to add, everyone has said it already. Good to see Niall is out on a limb on his own again though.
The concept could be interesting but, everyone says, it makes so many implausible assumptions predicated on one fact about human evolution that does not seem obviously transferable to other areas. We don’t need to produce healthy offspring by mating with trees so we don’t have the same desire for symetry. The same applies to everything else and the binary approach to aesthetics Abraham lays out – something is either symetrical or assymetrical and we are pre-programmed to only like the former – is just bizarre and wrong.
SF Strangelove mentions the hoary structure and it is really pretty bad. “Oh, we’ve just found this tape of sercret from somewhere; hey, didn’t you used to go out with her?” Then we get interview with Person A plus one clue, then interview with Person B plus another clue, then interview with Person C and the final explanation. It is a bland and implausibly easy and linear progression.
Rose: Niall has very weird beliefs about the first person so that explains your confusion about what the hell he is on about.
I’ve finally got a chance to catch up on the discussion of ‘The Best Monkey’. My, people have been busy since last night.
First of all, I have a bad memory for titles/authors where short stories are concerned, and hadn’t realised that Abraham had written ‘The Cambist and Lord Iron’, which I read last year. Like Karen and Rose I really liked that story, and like Rose I am now disappointed to realise that he wrote ‘The Best Monkey’ as well. I clearly need to seek out more of his fiction, to determine which story might be atypical.
I note Niall’s despair at the state of short story reviewing, but would query whether it is possible in any of the venues linked to (the Guardian especially) to engage fully with individual stories at any length. Are there any structured venues, other than here, of course, where it is possible to discuss short stories on a title-by-title basis in greater depth? I’ve not come across any recently (admittedly, I don’t get around the web much, so if there is, point me at it); it’s all about summarising anthologies and collections.
Moving on to actual comments, I’d like to pick up first on Niall’s comments @1 re. neologisms. I’ve no objection to neologisms in sf; to an extent it’s necessary in order to get concepts across quickly (as Paul Kincaid has previously pointed out), but that’s not what I find here. What Niall sees as a point of characterisation, underlining Jimmy’s own alienation, I still see as hand-waving attempts to conjure up atmosphere without doing too much work. (And I’ll come back to Jimmy as character later.)
Trying to dig my way into what bothers me about this overly foregrounded use of neologism, it occurs to me that I don’t think we’ve addressed the business of ‘audience’. It’s not clear ‘when’ Jimmy is telling the story, nor who he is telling it to. Is he confiding it to a journal? In which case, why bother with the neologistic hand-waving; or rather, why do it in the way he’s chosen to do it. Most people don’t keep journals based on the assumption that someone will be reading over their shoulder, after all. Those that do write an even more self-conscious kind of journal.
It doesn’t feel, either, as though Jimmy is making a record for someone else who is going to come along later, in search of the truth Jimmy stumbled across. This doesn’t read like ‘terrible warning’ fiction to me. So, who’s his audience? Disaffected old codgers like himself? Or an audience that will be entirely comfortable with the evanescent nature of slang and in-phrases, as are we already, surely. I’d hazard a guess that most of us are used to navigating a linguistic landscape in which internet-speak flummoxes those who spend less time online than we do, and that we all function in a series of different life theatres where the language changes subtly all the time. We adjust, comprehend, guess, dismiss (or go away and look it up on the web later – ahem) but we navigate.
So either Jimmy is loud and proud in his refusal to navigate the linguistic landscape, which I find unlikely as it seems to require more dynamism than he’s so far mustered, or else I conclude this hand-waving is being done for the benefit of the reader, myself, and that’s why it irritates me.
Going back to the character of Jimmy, I notice a number of comments debating whether he’s alienated or t’d off that Elaine is more successful, whether he is flawed or what. In particular, Chance in her LJ piece, and Rose @#22, both express dissatisfaction with male viewpoint characters being described as convincingly flawed, as if this somehow excuses or justifies their use as narrators. The suggestion that Jimmy is convincingly flawed (Niall, @#20) does rather offer up the twin notions that other fictional characters are unconvincingly flawed, and that all real people are of course without any fault whatsoever. To talk of him as convincingly flawed suggests that he is in some way tragic, whereas I think Jimmy’s biggest problem is catastrophic ennui; he feels it, he exudes it, and for us as readers travelling in his head, we can’t get away from it. He’s not flawed except insofar as he is dull and unenquiring. One could ask why; all sorts of quite exciting possibilities lurk in the background, focusing on thoughts that this is what Fifth Layer technology does to non-‘enhanced’ people, who struggle to keep up (and I find myself wondering when Herself offers him aphetamines, is it because she is enhanced and knows that he will struggle, or is in some other way acknowledging that ‘normal’ people are already having to struggle to keep up?)
The trouble is, I keep coming back to the notion that Jimmy is an underwritten character, a device to carry us through the story, like a taxi, with a few dubious literary flourishes to encourage us to strike up a rapport with him. Except that it’s clear it really doesn’t work for a lot of us. Niall@#24, picking up on Rose@#22 suggests that this results not from carelessness but is ‘examined’. I agree that endless sympathetic protagonists can be tiresome, but Jimmy is just as tiresome. If I were being generous, I’d try to take the line that Jimmy can’t be arsed any more, but I think it’s more that Abraham, for whatever reason, hasn’t managed to pull together a rounded character and is relying on tics of behaviour to get him through.
Like several commenters here, I wasn’t particularly taken with the story. That said, I think it does give readers quite a bit of space to engage with its idea, and that it allows challenges to its apparent logical chain to seep through – specifically, in the area of beauty vs. attractiveness.
For example, one line that struck me, towards the end, was the rhetorical question:
Why does one actor flash a smile that makes the world swoon, while a thousand others struggle to be noticed?
To me, the answer is obvious: it has nothing to do with symmetry, and everything to do with celebrity. The attraction, here, is not about the beauty of one smile or the other, but about exposure, familiarity, and fashion. It’s about romance: imagination/affection/optimism/whatever improving perception of the real. It does the airbrushing for us. This is something the narrator explicitly refers to at the end, when he reflects on his attraction to Elaine, and how it lived on as nostalgia:
The romantic visions I’d conjured were gone. The memories of my time with this woman, with the body there before me, seemed like a story I’d told myself too many times. My skin had a crawling sensation that might have been speed and alcohol in physical battle or else my simple, drug-scrubbed primate mind reacting to something wrong in the way she held herself, the way she smiled.
It’s not that her beauty has changed, or that his objective ability to see it has; it’s that he now sees *her* differently, through the lens of her actions. (And coming down from the drugs.)
I wonder if what’s really going on is that Fifth Layer strips away romance, not adherence to symmetry. This helps make sense, I think, of the choreographer’s reaction after his treatment. At first I was thrown by what he gives as his reason for rejecting the girl he’d once found so distracting:
“I didn’t cast Auslander. She was good, but her left ankle wobbled.”
He rejects her (it seems) not because he’s got a brand new non-symmetrical outlook on the world, but *because* she’s asymmetrical – the ankle – and now the haze of romance has gone he can see it, where he couldn’t before. Without romance, perhaps, he can truly tell the difference between symmetry and asymmetry – truly see beauty, as it were, stripped of attraction – and make an objective choice.
Wow, lots of comments
Indeed! I can only hope the other discussions prove as lively…
Good to see Niall is out on a limb on his own again though.
Well, I don’t want to overstate my case; were this to turn up in a Year’s Best I’d think it a weak choice, or evidence of a weak year. I just think it has more merit than some here do, which I think ties in part into its traditional-ness — in terms of structure, for example, as you point out. It’s clearly not a plausible representation or extrapolation of a real world, or an insight into the way people “really” are; but I wonder whether asking for those things from the story isn’t asking it to be something it’s not trying to be. I take it, as I do many sf short stories, as a playful prompt to think about my own assumptions and beliefs. And on that level, I think it works well enough.
Maureen: brilliant comment, and interestingly enough in your comments about first-person voice you articulate what Martin calls my “weird beliefs” about first person, i.e. that it’s a good thing to know when and why and how a narrator is talking. (Martin does not believe these things are necessary.) You are absolutely right to point out that in this story the lack of that information is damaging (and indeed is partly why the earlier debate between Rose and me is unresolvable); but to be honest that’s so common that I just forgave it, and chose to accept what it did do. So I was being generous. On “flawed”: well, I do pity Jimmy for being trapped in his head, so in that sense I do find him tragic. His head isn’t a fun place to be.
Nic: interesting comment.
To me, the answer is obvious: it has nothing to do with symmetry, and everything to do with celebrity.
There’s a sort of chicken-and-egg situation here, though, isn’t there? — how does one actor become famous while another does not. And there is a “Hollywood look” (changing over time, but still) that strikes me as … advantageous.
I’ll have to think about your point about the dancer some more!
That’s an interesting reading – more interesting than the story, I suspect – but it doesn’t work with Jimmy’s description of Fifth Layer’s designs being ugly. If the operation allowed people to see true beauty without the distraction of attraction and romance, surely their work would appeal rather than repel normal people (that’s not even getting into the question of the part attraction plays, or doesn’t play, in architecture or cryptography).
Well, I quite liked it……
I wonder if anyone here (or indeed Daniel Abraham himself) has ever read Bob Shaw’s A Full Member of the Club? There’s a definite chime between that and The Best Monkey. Both stories involve a female ex who has gone on to better and more mysterious things, and a dogged left-behind male investigator who tracks the secret down and has a confrontation with said ex. (some male brain hard-wiring well and truly exposing itself there, I suspect!). Both stories involve a putative alien tech explanation for the weird shit going on, and both carry an undercurrent of sadness and loss. And there’s an almost symmetrical (!) inversion in that the conceit in the Shaw story has to do with inexplicably alien beauty and the value that can be made from it while Abraham’s piece explores the (allegedly) polar opposite and a corresponding killing that can be made from that
Shaw’s story is the better, I think, but quite possibly that’s only because it’s a longer piece and has the space to unpack its concept and characters properly. Reading The Best Monkey, I felt, repeatedly, that this was an idea crammed uncomfortably into a format way too tight for what it wanted to achieve. I actually imagined at some points I could hear the author going Shit! Over word count! Gotta cut.
Still, I felt the style held up, and Abraham employed some of the same savage flashback/forward techniques you see deployed in early Gibson. And in much the same way as early Gibson, what you end up with is as much a mood piece as anything else – something like “Fragments of a Hologram Rose”, or maybe “New Rose Hotel” but with the yakuza flic menace filleted out and replaced by vague existential misgiving.
As a mood piece, The Best Monkey succeeds rather well, I think. I’d not rate it anywhere near as highly as those Gibson pieces, but that’s simply because it mistakes its ground; mood and milieu is specifically what Gibson was after in “Fragments…” and “New Rose Hotel”, he made no attempt to explore a big SF concept along the way. Whereas Abraham is simultaneously giving us brooding mood and milieu (storm damage on the windows, corporate-couriered amphetamines, electromag trains at dawn) but also hunting the big game of classic SF high-concept story-telling. He sold me on the scenery along the way (his writing is really very good) but failed to bring home the rhino. That may simply be because he was less interested in the rhino than the scenery, it may be because he was locked into an 8,000 word-limit requirement; either way, I’d rate the story an honourable near miss, but will certainly seek out some of his longer form work.
(Should probably add that, like some others, I found the phonemic ticks and the endline Clarke-ism both irritating and beside the point, but again I wonder to what extent the latter at least was dictated by a need to stump up some suitably weighty last line for the short story format.)
how does one actor become famous while another does not
I’d be surprised if it’s because one is more symmetrical than another. Try: right place/right time, right friends, slept with the right producer, pushy agent, never-out-of-the-tabloids social life, adopted an African baby; perhaps even acting talent.
And, as you say, the ‘Hollywood look’ changes over time.
Well, it’s always possible that, given a choice, Fifth-Layered people *wouldn’t* choose beauty, when making art. (They might choose, say, function or novelty instead.) Also, as someone suggested upthread, that the treatment to-date only addresses specific (requested) aspects, and not the whole aesthetic, er, impulse: just sex, or just dance, or whatever. I agree this is reaching, though!
“surely their work appeal rather than repel normal people”
Only if normal/non-modified people find this hypothetical ‘true beauty’ appealing, which (if they’re influenced by fashion or romance, say) they need not, necessarily.
“that’s not even getting into the question of the part attraction plays, or doesn’t play, in architecture or cryptography”
Yes. I was using ‘attraction’ specifically of people, but there could be similar blinders for art – fashion, convention, tradition, technology (pigments etc) – that obscure objective contemplation. But I run out of inspiration when it comes to cryptography ;-)
The problem with this story is that it can only work if you accept Abraham’s presentation of symmetry: that symmetry is a matter of perception; and that perceptions of symmetry are fundamental to aesthetics, technology, and just about everything else. I don’t happen to believe either part of that is true. It is not just our perception that makes a snow flake or a seed pod symmetrical, and they are symmetrical for good reasons. And beauty is not synonymous with symmetry; a beautiful face is never symmetrical, a beautiful painting is never symmetrical. Symmetry is involved in our perceptions of beauty, but so is divergence from symmetry. But if that is the case, then the great edifice that Abraham has built is not a paradigm shift but simply a matter of degree, and we have seen those shifts by degree before. The asymmetric ballet in the story thus becomes another ‘Rite of Spring’, a radical upset to accepted notions of ballet but not career-ending.
And this, to me, is symptomatic of the story: it is all so much less than it presents itself as being. It is appallingly thinly characterised, weakly structured, and makes no atempt to do anything interesting with the ideas it does present.
I found this story richer and more suggestive than just about anyone else who has posted here. Let me try to explain why.
I think that making it all hang on “symmetry” is too simplistic and reductive. But this is actually part of what the story is saying. The narrator sardonically remarks that cognitive science studies have shown that our sense of beauty is simply a preference for symmetry; in the same way, that men choose women simply on the basis of “hip-to-waist ratio,” and women choose men simply on the basis of “height.” Now, we know that this can’t be true, because it is not the case that everyone has exactly the same desires and preferences. Scientists who have discovered these things (in the real world, as well as in the near-future world of the story) have really found norms or averages — which is a far different thing from absolute laws. A formula like “hip-to-waist ratio” is a lot like the slang expressions that the narrator mocks (or at least grimaces at) in the course of the story. It’s a reduction, a shorthand, that fails to do justice to the richness of the phenomena it refers to.
Now, supposedly what Fifth Level is doing, is to open minds to think differently (or, excuse the pun, think laterally) by removing the engrained prejudice for symmetry. Our drive for beauty is supposed to be forced into other paths. But in fact, what Fifth Level comes up with — and what the choreographer comes up with, as well — is something that is cognitively rich but not emotionally satisfying — indeed, that feels “wrong,” creepy, to anyone who hasn’t had the surgery to remove the sense of symmetry. I think that what this really implies is not new forms of beauty, but precisely a separation of the cognitive from the emotional and from the aesthetic. This is the “trade-off” to which Elaine refers. Cognition without feeling — or more precisely, without that extra sense of beauty that algorithms can never quite pin down. You get products that work really well, but that never seem quite “right.” Or you get works of art that are brilliant and lucid but somehow don’t have soul. Or you have the situation of the child molester in the story: a horrible compulsion that not only doesn’t go away, but even becomes worse, precisely because it is no longer attached to a sense of something special, something extra, something alluring in a way that cannot quite be expressed.
I think that “The Best Monkey” is both subtle and brilliant in the way that it suggests how something like an “aesthetic sense,” even though it is impalpable and unquantifiable and always slipping beyond science’s grasp nonetheless *makes a difference* in ways of life. And I’d say, therefore, that the story is not about fear of the future per se, so much as it is about fear of what happens when everything is subordinated to technological efficiency, when things that apparently cannot be quantified are therefore simply left out of consideration.
(Technical note: I’d been blithely referring to numbered comments from other people, as numbers show up when I print out the comments and go away and write on them. I’ve just noticed that the comments aren’t numbered onscreen. Bother. Niall, is there any way of generating numbered comments as it’s a lot easier to refer back now we’re at 40+ comments.)
I’ve been pushing away at this symmetry/assymmetry aesthetic which is purportedly at the heart of the story, though curiously elusive at the same time. I don’t have a scientific background so I take things like the beauty of equations and computer programming hacks, etc. on trust, because enough people have made the comment before for it to hold some anecdotal veracity. And the story invites us to take this on trust as well, because Abraham, for whatever reason, seems unable to show us one of these elegantly ugly solutions. It would have been an interesting test of fiction to see if he could.
So we come instead to artistic and aesthetic symmetry, which seems to incorporate certain ideas of beauty and attraction, and is, of course, something that Abraham can write about because it’s something we all think we can imagine.
We supposedly want perfectly symmetrical faces because they’re more beautiful; my recollection of all the rigged symmetrical faces I’ve ever seen is not that they are beautiful but somehow unformed and incomplete. Which makes me think in turn of a supposed human preference for neoteny; I throw that in just because it struck me rather than because I can see how it fits into the ongoing discussion.
But I come back to this central contradiction: we want beauty, which is symmetry, but if we forego the need for symmetry in favour of assymmetry, this suposedly opens up greater creativity, greater productivity. I find it very difficult to buy into the dichotomy that Abraham puts in front of us. Partly, I dislike binary oppositions on principle, but partly I’m just not convinced that Abraham has dug sufficiently deeply into ideas of symmetry, either at a biological/genetic level or at a philosophical level. Abigail touches on a number of difficulties I have about ideas and appreciation of symmetry being hard-wired or acculturated. Picasso is a name that has been evoked a number of times, and one can think of Sgtravinksy and atonal music, etc. It strikes me that we are all making constant adjustments to our personal aesthetic, what we like, what we don’t like, what we can live with, what jars, so how would Abraham’s dichotomy explain away that?
I can’t see that it does because the dichotomy is reductive – conveniently so in terms of the fiction, and it slides off all over the place. It’s about sex, except it isn’t really; it’s about symmetry, except it isn’t really. Abraham seems to constantly be distracting the reader with almost spurious possibilities because he’s really not sure himself.
I think, though, that Nic is getting to the heart of the problem when she notes that it is about ‘romance’ rather than about symmetry. Which, I think also chimes with some of what I find so irritating about Jimmy’s narration. I have a theory that most if not all writers at some point sit down and write their story about the hard slog of being a writer; warning signs used to include loving descriptions of feeding a sheet of paper into a typewriter, but in this instance, one has a sense that Jimmy is attempting to rekindle a romance with his job as a journalist, being a real journalist, and pointing out to us that he’s being a real journalist because, look, he’s asking questions, chasing down leads. Which, of course, turns out to be rubbish as the whole thing has been fed to him and Herself as near as dammit without Salvati turning up and saying ‘interview me’. (I don’t think, incidentally, that she has specifically gone after Jimmy, because, of course, she supposedly thinks assymmetrically; it’s presumably Abraham who is buying into the symmetry of the story by engineering this meeting. An assymmetric writer would ignore that. So there’s romance if you like.)
Abigail picks up on Nic’s idea, noting how the alleged ugliness of Fifth Layer designs doesn’t work, but I thikn that steers us back to ideas of subjectivity. I am reminded so often of William Morris’s comment about not giving house room to anything you don’t believe to be beautiful and know to be useful, which is possibly the greatest comment ever on the subjective application of an aesthetic (and then think how many people hate William Morris designs!)
I did also want to take issue with Niall about Jimmy being ‘tragic’. It’s a grossly overused word, I think, particularly in journalistic terms. Just because Jimmy is flawed as are many other people doesn’t, to my mind, mean he is also tragic. He’s limited, not as bright as he thinks he is, yes, and that is possibly his own personal little tragedy but in fictional terms, I don’t see him as tragic in any significant way.
Niall, is there any way of generating numbered comments
I wish I could find one. I think it’s something to do with the selected style; by which I mean, it’s not a default option with this style sheet. And I think the fact that TC is hosted on WordPress.com, rather than on a site of my own, means that I can’t edit the bit of the style sheet that I need to edit. I’ll keep poking around, though.
Note that you can link directly to any comment – click on the time/date under the commenter’s name.
In particular, Chance in her LJ piece, and Rose @#22, both express dissatisfaction with male viewpoint characters being described as convincingly flawed, as if this somehow excuses or justifies their use as narrators.
No, I haven’t. (I also don’t find Jimmy convincingly anything.)
Upon re-reading, I think Jimmy is a ‘damn you kids get off my lawn” character. The world is passing him by and he’s bitter about it–definitely not an appealing guy to read about. That’s why he’s so angry at Herself & Elaine–but it’s his issue, not the story as a whole. I think the story leaves lots of room to agree with Elaine’s arguments, no matter how much Jimmy dismisses them.
I especially don’t think the story insists that losing the symmetric aesthetic makes people inhuman. On the contrary, it goes to some lengths to point out that ants and ANNs (advanced neural networks–the suit Jimmy buys) have this kind of aesthetic sense, and that it is not critical to our humanity.
Likewise with the question about drug enhancements: Jimmy doesn’t like them, but we’re not supposed to buy into what Jimmy thinks about things; he’s a loser. Elaine’s arguments starting from even mild drugs (alcohol as social lubricant) are rather more convincing than Jimmy’s knee-jerk denials (at least to me).
Chance, no I didn’t mean that you are Rose are excusing the narrator; I phrased it badly. I was trying to suggest that using the phrase ‘convincingly flawed’ seemed intended to excuse the narrator whereas I agree with you and Rose that it doesn’t remotely do so.
am reminded so often of William Morris’s comment about not giving house room to anything you don’t believe to be beautiful and know to be useful
The conjunction there is actually “or”, not “and”, so in that way the story upholds it: people adopt the Fifth Layer engines and prosthetics and so on because they’re useful, even though they’re not beautiful.
Actually, that part of the story–where people give over esthetics in favor of pragmatism, using ugly-but-superior rather than preferring beautiful-but-inferior–is completely unexplored. There are so many interesting stories this could have been! How really frustrating.
I actually felt the technophilic shadow-story in my head while I was reading, in which Elaine is the hero, outsmarting and taking advantage of her ex to improve humanity, I was that aware of Jimmy’s particular viewpoint.
And there’s another example of an interesting story this could have been, and another example of the ways our reading attitudes differ: when you find yourself reading one story but wanting to read a different story, you count it as the actual story’s success, whereas I count it as the actual story’s failure.
Karen: Likewise with the question about drug enhancements: Jimmy doesn’t like them, but we’re not supposed to buy into what Jimmy thinks about things; he’s a loser.
Not wanting to risk organ failure in order to keep your job makes you a loser? I didn’t see any ambiguity in this part of the story – it quite clearly painted Herself and the corporate culture she moved in as exploitative.
Abigail–He’s also against steroids (but is fine with alcohol), and he thinks the brain-change makes Elaine inhuman when that’s clearly not the case. Basically, he’s a horse-buggy salesman as the automobile revolution comes in. (See also his dislike of current slang, nostalgia for the past, satisifaction in thinking that these kids will be old someday too, etc… I think this is most strongly established in the opening paragraphs.)
I guess I’m saying that there are lots of arguments for and against these kinds of enhancements, and certainly the corporate exploitation you mention is a strong one against. But I think the story as a whole is more nuanced on the topic than an all-artificial-changes-and/or-enhancements-are-bad stance.
Hmm – have to say that for a story that allegedly fails, this one is certainly keeping us all very exercised. People here seem to have engaged pretty solidly with Jimmy, albeit mostly without liking him very much. And now we’re arguing who has the better argument on enhancement, him or Elaine. Generally speaking, that kind of thing, being prepared to have feelings about a character and their beliefs, does tend to indicate the writer has done (at least that part of) their job rather well.
As to the argument about concept, I’m afraid I can’t agree (with Paul Kincaid) that the story stands or falls on whether you buy this stuff about symmetry. Hell, I don’t believe in magic for a minute, but it never stopped me enjoying a novel by Tim Powers or Ray Bradbury. Fair enough, I don’t think Abraham nails his central concept in place particularly successfully, but it limped along more or less okay as a vehicle for the narrative and tone, and where those are concerned at least, I’m with Steven Shaviro – I think there’s something remarkably subtle and quite well-executed going on in there.
Hell, I’m opposed to steroid abuse and don’t have a problem with recreational drinking. Is that such a controversial stance? For that matter, the comparison is false – there’s no such thing as a recreational steroid user, and the alcoholic equivalent of steroid abuse is regular binge drinking. There are a lot of ways in which we’re probably expected to disapprove of Jimmy’s opinion, but I really doubt that his position on steroid and amphetamine abuse is one of them.
Paul Kincaid says: The problem with this story is that it can only work if you accept Abraham’s presentation of symmetry: that symmetry is a matter of perception; and that perceptions of symmetry are fundamental to aesthetics, technology, and just about everything else. I don’t happen to believe either part of that is true.
I agree. It isn’t argued well-enough in the story to be convincing. I still see “symmetry” as a placeholder for a brain-alteration idea that Abraham doesn’t really deliver on. It’s part of the “better version” of the story that I find myself trying to imagine.
However, I think the other half of the symmetry concept, the effect it has on sexual selection, informs many of Rose’s complaints about the unappealing nature of the narrator.
The story gives us a spectrum of three examples of men and their relationship to their own sexuality: choreographer, pedophile, and narrator, Jimmy. The choreographer and the pedophile are the extreme cases. The choreographer becomes aware of how his sexual perceptions are coloring his choice of dancers and he acts to correct it. The pedophile is a predator before and after the brain alteration. I think Jimmy is offered as the middle ground in the male-ness spectrum. He doesn’t see how his sexual concerns color his perceptions, but neither, at least, is he a predator. It’s a bit depressing that this character, who has clear misogynist leanings, represents the average male.
Read the story, have yet to go through the (55!) comments to date. This one reminded me a lot of Watts’ Rifters Trilogy–backdrop of environmental disaster, heavy focus on neruochemistry of human motivation, possibilities of self-modification with a tone of menace, highlighting pedophilia as part of the argument. Enough common elements to be interesting, partly because Watts’ tone isn’t one I’ve seen a huge amount of in the broader genre.
Taken on its own merits the story was interesting, but felt too much like an embeded argument or thought experiment rather than a narrative. Aspects of what it said interested me, but the story itself didn’t appear to do enough. Partly it was because I was reading it online, but I kept wandering away from “The Best Monkey”, going away and reading other stuff, then coming back to it more from a sense of wanting to be able to follow the discussion on this site then genuine engagement with the text. At it’s core the failure to make a sympathetic or engaging protagonist weakened the story past the breaking point for me.
There are a lot of ways in which we’re probably expected to disapprove of Jimmy’s opinion, but I really doubt that his position on steroid and amphetamine abuse is one of them.
I dunno, I found that Elaine’s flashback position on steroid use is one I have considerable sympathy with. So I guess I felt it was given a fair hearing within the story, and that the story wasn’t knee-jerk insisting that steroid use (and all the other artificial enhancements) are Bad. Here’s my breakdown of the impressions I got as I read the story:
-Alcohol for social purposes = fine
-Amphetamines forced on employees = bad
-Steroids = bad if used to cheat, OK when used by people fairly to enhance their potential, with awareness of the trade-offs
-Brain-modification to stop paedophiles = would be OK, but didn’t work for this guy
-Brain-modification to open up new avenues of innovation = intriguing
Again, those certainly aren’t Jimmy’s positions, and I’m probably bringing too much of my own opinions to the text (again), but I’m just saying that the text allows for more nuanced readings than the straight-up technophobic one.
More later, perhaps — and a very interesting discussion this has been, but I’d like to add an even earlier example of a theme that recalls “the Best Monkey” and “A Full Member of the Club” — Avram Davidson’s “The Sources of the Nile”. (Which ALSO features a man mooning over a woman, though the relationship between the two is different. At any rate, the women in these stories seem to represent, to an extent, the “unattainable mystery” that the narrator is left short of.)
I’d rank Davidson’s story best of the three … though really all are different to each other.
And going back to Abigail’s comment about trends towards asymmetry in things like architecture and modern dance, I’d suggest that these — and, especially, much public reaction to them — support rather than oppose Abraham’s point. Indeed, isn’t some avant-garde dance called “creepy” by the uninitiated, or at any rate disparaged in similar terms?
These architects and dancers (and other avant-garde artists in many fields) are, in James Patrick Kelly’s words from an early novel (Planet of Whispers) “trying to find a new kind of beauty”. (I’m hope I’m not misquoting him.) The key is “new kind”. They know they are doing something different to established standards of beauty. (Granting that sometimes artists reject “beauty” as a goal to strive for.) And, too — I think they are often trying for symmetry, just a different sort of symmetry. Symmetry about different axes, if you will. (Certainly that applies to the “modern” work I like best, certain 20th Century poetry. And also I think it would apply to stuff like 12-tone music.)
None of which necessarily addresses much the story at hand, per se!
I don’t see how that supports Abraham. You are saying that definitions of beauty change, aesthetics evolve and that appreciation can be learnt. This is true (and applicable to other areas) but it is something that Abraham’s story denies. Instead our preferences are hardwired and it is only Fifth Layer that are able to make paradigm shifts because of their secret knowledge of asymmetry. The history of civilisation denies this.
1: Are we giving too much attention to a story that even its defenders seem to agree doesn’t warrant it?
2: I don’t understand why some people have talked about this as a mood piece. It isn’t. Abraham may drop in lots of flashy new words, but these do not add up to any genuine sense of what it is like to live in this place at this time. Jimmy is a non-character who wanders through life without it making any impact upon him, so seeing everything through his eyes tells us nothing about what is around him, and as a character he is both undeveloped and uninteresting.
3: The story is based on an underdeveloped premise and is poorly structured. Most of the arguments we have been having about symmetry and its effects are based on what we have read into the story not on what is actually in the text. Abraham has a potentially interesting idea but hasn’t done the basic job of making it work. And the story structure is feeble. If Elaine deliberately targetted Jimmy, why should she do that? He was so long in her past, there is no reason given why she should seek him out again at this time, in these circumstances and by this peculiarly cackhanded route.If she didn’t deliberately target Jimmy, then the whole plot rests on an outrageous coincidence, particularly since things can only be unravelled through his memories. And his ‘investigative’ reporting consists solely of going to two of the three people whose names he has been given in advance, who then tell him precisely what he needs to know without the need for any prompting. There is no discovery, nothing is revealed, because nothing is actually hidden. As story structure, regardless of everything else, this is lame
Are we giving too much attention to a story that even its defenders seem to agree doesn’t warrant it?
Possibly. Or maybe we’re engaging (rather passionately actually) with a story that actually does some subtle and interesting stuff despite its flaws. Counter-example – I can and do rant on for hours to anyone who’ll listen about what an awful movie 300 was. But those rants don’t include detailed character critique or debate on the validity of the Spartan outlook on life, because those aspects of the film were dumb-as-fuck one dimensional shite. That’s not what’s going on here.
I don’t understand why some people have talked about this as a mood piece. It isn’t.
Er….in your humble opinion, that would be, right? In my humble opinion, the story is primarily a mood piece, and in a sense that’s part of its problem. See my cf with Gibson above for why.
Jimmy is a non-character who wanders through life without it making any impact upon him
And? You were expecting Conan the Barbarian, perhaps? That a character is ineffectual or misguided doesn’t make him badly drawn or useless to the narrative. Again, look at the protagonist of Gibson’s “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” What a loser! Ditto “New Rose Hotel”, where all the p.o.v. character does is mope about a traitorous girlfriend who betrayed him and wait around for death to catch up with him. If you always demand a character who seizes life by the scruff of the neck and does stuff, you’re cutting yourself off from some very powerful and interesting literature. (I’m not claiming such status for this story, but I am saying that Jimmy’s character is quite sufficiently effective in this piece to convey a brooding sense of “It’s all moving too fast for me” and “The best is already gone.” and “The future is a frightening and fiercely competitive event I have no desire to run in but no way to escape”. Maybe when we’re older, we’ll all look back and feel like this. Maybe some of us already do.
The story is based on an underdeveloped premise and is poorly structured.
Amen, pretty much, to the first half of that. For the back half, I’d argue for replacing “poorly structured” with “too tightly constrained for its ambitions and intentions”. I think the structuring itself is pretty good – it just needed another couple of thousand words of similar stuff.
If Elaine deliberately targetted Jimmy…..If she didn’t deliberately target Jimmy, then the whole plot rests on an outrageous coincidence
I think the implication is that Elaine’s loose lips were a generalised strategy to blow 5th Layer’s competitive advantage, and that Jimmy in particular probably never crossed her mind. That it was Jimmy who came calling is a coincidence but not one I had any problem swallowing. Narrative fiction is jammed in a long, torrid love affair with coincidence, and always has been. Plus, well, weak form of the anthropic principle, Doug Adams’ puddle in the hole example, I am the one telling this story, I just am, and so forth…..
But I come back to my original point. A lot of the critique appearing here seems to be built around an anger against Jimmy as a character, and the validity or not of genetic preference for symmetry/beauty. Which seems to me a bit like bitching about Wuthering Heights because Heathcliff is a bastard, and you don’t believe in ghosts or that eternal unbreakable love shit. That the story has generated these strong feelings seems to me proof positive that it is, at least in part, an effective piece of fiction.
At any rate, the women in these stories seem to represent, to an extent, the “unattainable mystery” that the narrator is left short of
Indeed. A hugely fruitful area for general discussion right there, and something that informs (or infects, depending on how you feel about it) a massive tranche of literature both in and out of genre.
Steroids = bad if used to cheat, OK when used by people fairly to enhance their potential, with awareness of the trade-offs
I don’t think that’s the position the story takes at all. It’s Elaine’s argument, but the story debunks it when Jimmy is forced to take speed to keep his job. Steroid abuse isn’t wrong because it’s ‘cheating.’ It’s wrong because if you permit it then all athletes come under professional and economic pressure to endanger their health in order to keep up, just as Jimmy is.
A lot of the critique appearing here seems to be built around an anger against Jimmy as a character, and the validity or not of genetic preference for symmetry/beauty. Which seems to me a bit like bitching about Wuthering Heights because Heathcliff is a bastard, and you don’t believe in ghosts or that eternal unbreakable love shit.
Though I agree that anger at Jimmy may be an indication that the story is working (though Rose makes a persuasive argument against that point) I most certainly don’t grant your second point. That human perception of beauty in all realms is rooted in symmetry is the story’s core assumption. If you reject it – as logic demands we do – then the story simply doesn’t work. Unless you’re suggesting that Abraham intended for us to argue with this point – and I see no indication of this in the story, nor any way in which such an argument would add to the story rather than disassemble it – then rejecting it equals rejecting the story.
If you reject it – as logic demands we do – then the story simply doesn’t work
Logic demands that we reject ghosts, too, and rejecting a ghost from a ghost story does equal rejecting the story; but we accept ghosts in ghost stories on the grounds that they illuminate something about life as a human. I think (though perhaps only because I was trying to argue along similar lines earlier) Richard is suggesting taking a similar approach to the symmetry argument here. You don’t have to buy it hook, line and sinker to find the arguments made about aesthetic perception provocative or, to use Steven’s word, suggestive.
Are we giving too much attention to a story that even its defenders seem to agree doesn’t warrant it?
If you mean, have we between us now put more person-hours into thinking about the story than Abraham put into its construction, and are we attributing more complexity and nuance to it than was intentionally placed there … possibly. (At least some of us.) On the other hand, without wanting to abandon value judgement entirely, part of me resists the idea that a given piece of writing — particularly a piece of writing that is clearly not slipshod or careless, that clearly has had at least some thought put into it — does not “warrant” a certain level of discussion. Part of the function of literature is to be suggestive, after all. And in the context of this short story club, I at least find it worthwhile to delve into what doesn’t work at least as deeply as what does.
If you reject it – as logic demands we do
But does logic demand that? I’d say logic demands we question it, probe it, pick it up and shake it and see what falls out, but I’ve seen a lot of pretty compelling evidence, both academic and empirical, to support the symmetry argument. And my point about ghosts in WH still stands.
In any case, my feeling is that the story is not so much concerned with such a tight concept as beauty=symmetry, but more that the symmetry dynamic is a surface symptom of some more generalised genetic wiring that 5th Layer are fucking with. This is where I think Paul’s charge of “underdeveloped” is entirely fair – Abraham really hasn’t given himself the space to take this where it needs to go.
As to what Abraham intends us to do with his story, of course, I can’t speak to that (maybe someone should wander over to his website and ask him?), but I will say that where I have written novels built around questionable scientific concepts or tech, my intention is very much that the reader should pick that stuff up, shake it, see what falls out and generally engage with it at whatever level they like. I don’t expect my readers to just straight up believe the genetic arguments made in Black Man, but I’m continually delighted when they like to argue them back and forth, and the more passionately the better.
I guess it’s the old adage about the job of an SF writer being to wonder not just What if?, but MY GOD, What if? The problem here is that instead of reading The Best Monkey and wondering what if, we seem to be reading it and saying no fucking way, bullshit, never happen And I have to wonder how much of that is Abraham’s fault, and how much ours……
I accept ghosts in ghost fiction because ghosts are a more broadly and generally established plot element than ‘humans are predisposed by evolution to prefer symmetry in all walks of life,’ and because horror fiction operates according to different protocols than science fiction. I expect science fiction – and particularly stories like “The Best Monkey,” which rest on a Neat SFnal Concept and derive much of their effect from the intimation that it is plausible – to be consistent with my understanding of reality in a way that I don’t expect from ghost stories, which is why I often find supernatural elements in otherwise naturalistic (or logic-driven, if you want to include SF) stories jarring, such as Lilly’s ghost saving Veronica’s life in the Veronica Mars season 2 premiere.
Richard, I think you are actually close to agreeing with us. The story wants be “more that the symmetry dynamic is a surface symptom of some more generalised genetic wiring” but, as you say, Abraham doesn’t develop this so it does end up as the simple beauty=symmetry concept that people are complaining about.
Genetic predisposition and the way it affects our perceptions and decisions is a fascinating thing. That story – that unwritten story – is one I would like to read. As it stands though, the exploration of the concept mirrors the execution of the story in its simplistic, superficial progression.
On the underdevelopment of concept, I do agree with you, a hundred percent. But I don’t think it’s fair to level the same charges of simplistic or superficial at the characterisation, the story-telling structure, the world-building or the style. For me, all of those elements worked, and worked on a scale somewhere between “pretty well” to “really very good”.
And to be honest I worry a bit that the reaction we’re seeing here is an endemic problem of genre – that we’re way too ready to discount areas of accomplishment such as style, character, mood, telling detail – in fact, the established hallmarks of fine literature – in favour of blunt conceptual wow, rip-roaring narrative plunge and a side order of kick-ass protagonist. Not that, god knows, I have anything against those elements – I make my living from them! But there is more to it than that, and I think in genre we miss, or at least misplace, that fact way too often.
Richard, we are clearly going to have to agree to disagree on this story. I felt the characterisation, apart from Jimmy, was non-existent, and Jimmy was flat and uninteresting. I thought the story-telling structure was appallingly weak, even in its own terms. And as for world-building – what world? I got no sense of place, no sense of social structure, and apart from a few lazy neologisms no sense of a coherent technology. The writing style was not bad, but neither was it particularly good. The most interesting things about this discussion have been what other people have read into the story, not what was actually in the text.
That human perception of beauty in all realms is rooted in symmetry is the story’s core assumption. If you reject it — as logic demands we do…
Folks probably know this already, but it’s important to note that the symmetries that science suggests humans are hard-coded to appreciate aren’t simply basic symmetries like bilateral or radial. There are also things like fractal symmetries where what is pleasing to us are certain proportions that arise from iterations and scale (the “Divine Proportion,” etc.). These symmetries are often found in nature — in trees, mountains, etc. — so I wonder whether the evidence you give, Abigail, that modern architecture and dance are taking their inspiration from shapes (and thus presumably proportions) in nature is persuasive as an argument for humans not always appreciating symmetry. Perhaps we’re just appreciating less obvious symmetries, or appreciating proportions that derive from (are rooted in) symmetries?
Similarly, looking at Rose’s post way up-thread, I wonder if any mathematical expression of equality isn’t in a sense symmetrical: it’s asserting that the abstraction on one side of an equal sign is symmetrical with the abstraction on the other side. The satisfaction that comes from solving such an equation might be, in part, from seeing that symmetry proven and made manifest.
Etc. Etc. I think what I’m saying is that I’m closer to Niall in being willing to consider the idea of the story not as a binary true/false but on the level of “to what extent might this be true and what would that mean for the enterprise of science?” But I’m closer to the majority in thinking Abraham didn’t use the elements of his story to grapple with the idea much himself. For example, the very prevalence of symmetry in nature I noted above is an argument for symmetry as an effective and efficient design methodology tested by millions of years of evolutionary competition. But Abraham’s focus on aesthetics and human beauty doesn’t let him engage with that level of his premise.
have to say that for a story that allegedly fails, this one is certainly keeping us all very exercised.
I suspect that we’ll have much less to say when we encounter a story that we all like.
Also, I think you misread Paul Kincaid: Paul didn’t say that Jimmy was a poor character because he failed to impact his environment; he said that Jimmy was a poor character because his environment did not seem to have any impact on Jimmy.
Also, I think you misread Paul Kincaid: Paul didn’t say that Jimmy was a poor character because he failed to impact his environment; he said that Jimmy was a poor character because his environment did not seem to have any impact on Jimmy.
Not really – the Conan comment was used advisedly, to cover both ends of that dichotomy. Conan’s environment does have an impact on him – he’s taken by the great beauty of a slave girl, the chance to grab some glittery loot, he has strong opinions about decadent versus barbarian cultures and their impact on things like manners etc etc…. Conan lives his environment, whether that’s in feeling its impact, or having an impact of his own upon it. And yes, that’s certainly an intensity that’s missing from Jimmy’s character in this story, but lack of intensity in a character is not the same as lack of good characterisation.
And speaking to Paul’s complaint directly, it really doesn’t hold water – Jimmy’s environment does have an impact on him, a big impact; he dislikes/mistrusts the youth and success of his boss, and the speed with which such bosses come and go, he despises the turnover in “cool” terminology, he laments the passing of “real” journalism, he doesn’t want to take amphetamines, but does so in the end because he needs to keep his job. He’s a bit of a grumpy old fart, he seems to have some issues with dynamic and successful women, and he can’t cope with the speed of the future…..but in all of this, there’s no sign of the stuff going on around him not having an impact – it’s just that he doesn’t like the impact it has, and flinches away from it as much as he can. I hesitate to use the word tragic as Niall has done, but certainly there’s something achingly sad and human in Jimmy, and I responded to it.
he most interesting things about this discussion have been what other people have read into the story, not what was actually in the text.
Well, of course, that’s a very iffy proposition in itself, isn’t it; some would say that the strength of a piece of fiction is found in exactly that – how much can be read into it (rather than what it overtly says). And again, I think this is an area where genre fiction often falls down, a large subsection of the readership very often wanting its narrative meat and potatoes laid out absolutely unequivocally upon the plate. The very fact we can read so much into these characters and scenarios suggests to me they were pretty well built (though of course my other criticisms of the story still stand).
You know as well as I do that there is a world of difference between the reader teasing out what is implicit in the text, and the reader trying to fill in the gaps that an author has left in their work.The arguments that I see here about ‘The Best Monkey’ are not reading things into the characters or the scenario, they are trying to come up with coherent characters and scenario because the author hasn’t done his job properly. And the fact that what is being read into the story varies so much from reader to reader, and is the subject of s much disagreement, I think supports this view.
And no, this isn’t a matter of genre fiction readers wanting everything laid down pat for them. Many of us who are objecting most strongly to this story are people who have a record of making very subtle readings of fictions, both genre and mainstream. If it was a matter of subtle reading rather than doing the author’s job for him, I think the response would have been very different.
I’d like to see more discussion of the gender politics of this one, because they kind of irritated me the whole way through. In a way which may have been intentional rather than unconscious?
Jackie – Yes! My feelings exactly; is it Jimmy who has an issue with successful women or Abraham? What about the Women-as-the-unconquered-country dynamic that Rich Horton highlighted? And what’s going on generally with the gender relations in noir inclined fiction like my own? You – or someone – should definitely start a dedicated thread somewhere. It’s a party I’d certainly come to – actually, I’d start it myself, but I kind of feel it’s the prerogative of a female writer/reader to kick it off……
@Richard: I think it’s entirely appropriate for men to step up unprompted and say that they care about handling gender well in their fiction. In fact, it’s necessary. This can’t just be a conversation women have among ourselves.
@Jackie: I thought the gender politics were pretty obvious: the only thing worse than a pedophile is a woman who succeeds in business. Abraham is pretty clueful about writing good female characters and men who respect them in his long fiction, so I’m really disappointed that in this story, as Richard notes, it’s impossible for the casual reader to know whether Jimmy’s attitudes reflect the author’s.
Perhaps equally important, I’d say that Jackie just did start that conversation; I’m perfectly happy for it to continue here.
Okay – I’m in.
Seems to me a solid keynote to this issue comes from an Anni diFranco song from a few years (eek, just checked, quite a few years) back, in which she’s singing to a casual lover/one night stand who’s hurrying out the door with guilt stamped through him like he’s a piece of Brighton rock (actually that would be a piece of Guilt rock, I suppose)…..anyway, the lyric goes something like please don’t pretend that I’m something that HAPPENED TO YOU Male writers (and I include myself) do have a tendency to portray the females in their stories as exactly that – a feature of the narrative not dissimilar to a mountain that must be climbed or a really cool car chase or a dangerous beast. I won’t actually decry that tendency, not least because I detect the exact inverse (gender-wise) going on in True Blood right now, and they seem to be getting away with it. And also, a point with a fraction more gravitas, because I think you’re on a hiding to nothing trying to pussy-foot around the salients of human sexual relations with too much sensitivity, not least if what you’re writing is a brutal noir-inflected thriller.
But – and it’s a fucking huge but – it does behove you, as a male author, to be aware of these dynamics and put a governor of some sort on them, mainly through the simple expedient of applying some telling human detail to your women. As much as anything, that’s simply saying you should strive to be a better writer by standing a bit closer to the truth (see Jim Faber’s speech about good writing in Fahrenheit 451 for further and rather beautiful elucidation)
So – some thin relevance back to the original point of the thread – whether there is a governor of this type on The Best Monkey is anybody’s guess, but in a sense it’s almost irrelevant. I think Jimmy works fine the way he is – whether that’s because Daniel Abraham is an immensely talented (and gender-sensitive) writer, or because he’s got a bunch of sub-conscious hang-ups about successful women, I wouldn’t know. Does it in fact matter? I’m pretty sure James Ellroy has some obnoxious political ideas I wouldn’t approve of, but it doesn’t alter the fact that his crime novels are sheer brawling brilliance. I’d doubtless clash badly with China Mieville on the validity of Marxism in a modern context, but he is still a bloody superb imaginer. For me, it’s all about end product – I don’t have to like or agree with my favourite authors any more than I have to like or agree with the guy who delivers my mail.
I don’t think I’m up to the level of criticism here, but apropos the last comment from Rose Fox above, I want to say that this story failed to work for me almost completely because of the normalized misogyny of the narration. By normalized, I mean that I felt like I, as a male reader, was being (unsuccessfully) manipulated by the author to recognize it and nod along.
It’s a shame, because the central idea — not of eliminating beauty but of eliminating one evolved shortcut to beauty to explore what other beauties exist — is one that deserves a story that doesn’t leave such a bad taste in my mouth.
Jaysus, folks, this is a hell of a thing to stumble onto. After the litany of people for whom this didn’t work, I’m feeling a little humbled and defensive, but I’ll do my best here.
First off, let me offer a blanket apology to those folks who thought my little effort was a waste of time. I do my best. Sometimes it works for some folks. I hope you’ll give me another shot on other stories. I’ve been told I do OK sometimes.
For me, the story was more of a thought problem. I have to say, I personally take Elaine Salvati’s position on steroid use. I think rewarding people to be the best, only not is hilariously naiive. Either you want the best, or you don’t.
I’m a little surprised and uncomfortable with the misogyny argument, but enough people have said it that I have to agree it must be there. *I* find Elaine a fairly sympathetic character. I intended her to be the flip-side of Jimmy. Jimmy’s the guy who can’t change and will be left behind by the world. Elaine’s the woman who’s embraced change and (like the choreographer) lost some of her common context with folks like Jimmy. Herself was originally Himself, but it seemed to me there was no reason for Jimmy’s boss to be a guy, so I changed that. Perhaps that wasn’t wise.
As to the symmetry argument in particular, I had a professor in college who was deeply into the human preference for symmetry, so I’ve been subjected to a *lot* of the theory on that, and while I think we’ve established pretty well that humans like symmetry, I’m skeptical about the interpretation of it. The idea of *a* sense of beauty being necessary is my own, but the example Elaine uses if from Douglas Hofstader. I wanted to use the idea of changing perception (at a cost) as a way to talk about other performance enhancements, and then put these two former lovers in a position where they’re both left broken by the stand they took on it.
And again, for all the folks who think the story’s (for instance) “based on an underdeveloped premise and is poorly structured.” Sorry. It was the best I could do at the time.
@Daniel: I’m intrigued that you decided to join the conversation; it’s good to have your perspective, but I hope it won’t shift things from interrogating the text to interrogating the author. In that light, I, at least, will attempt to treat your comments as though they came from another reader, though this might not be successful. (And I’m sorry this discussion came as such a shock to you!)
I think a lot of the debate around the issue of misogyny is precisely because Elaine seems like she would indeed be a sympathetic, interesting, appealing character–if we were allowed to see her other than through Jimmy’s eyes. Instead, the perspective we are given, and in some ways forced to accept because of the first-person narration, is that of a bitter misogynist. I think everyone here is pretty clear that the author is not the character, but it’s still not really enjoyable to spend time in a misogynist’s head, and that inevitably raises the question of why the author is insisting that we do so. In this case it doesn’t seem to serve the story at all–the same story would be just as interesting and maybe even more so were it told by Elaine, or were Jimmy not a misogynist–so it seems to be either a failed attempt at communicating something or an inadvertent insertion of the author’s views.
Now that you point it out, I do think having two female targets of Jimmy’s disgust–his boss and his ex–emphasizes his misogyny the way a male and a female target might not have. There’s a lot to be said for bosses not always being men, but a male boss is a subtle comment on the culture while a man with a hate-on for two powerful, successful women is a strong comment on that man. If there are going to be only two people in the story that Jimmy really overtly dislikes, then the more different those people are, the more the emphasis is on Jimmy as someone who dislikes everyone as opposed to someone who dislikes [characteristics those two people share]. That is getting firmly into the realm of rewriting a story that’s already been published, though, so I will leave it at that.
Well, it feels a little odd leaving authorial intent behind, but what the hell . . .
If I were to make a a purely feminist critique of the story, I’d say that Jimmy’s dislike specifically of the two powerful female characters reflects the way in which he’s a man still living in a past. Clearly the world of the story is one in which women are commonly in positions of authority and power. What Jimmy resents about these characters isn’t their femininity per se, but their power, and more specifically, their power over him.
This is unambiguously the case with Herself. The story makes the point that Herself (and in fact all the Him- and Herselves before her) are younger than Jimmy, emphasizing the point that his resentment grows from being left behind, and tying back to the plot in which he’s no longer in step with his culture.
The case with Elaine is more problematic. Again, I have some trouble stepping away from my relationship with the text, but Elaine isn’t I think treated with resentment or anger so much as Jimmy recoiling in horror from the choices she’s made. And while Elaine is an idealist and fascinating and (to me, at least) often right-headed and sympathetic, she is also someone who bonsaied her own brain just to see how different the world looked when she did it. In that case, I imagine it would read to me if I were a different reader (whew) as an instance of Jimmy being forced to abandon the image he had of his former lover and his hopes of recapturing the past both in the small sense (rekindling a relationship with Elaine) and large (being an effective member of human culture).
Returning for a moment to the land of authorial intent, I’d point out that a lot of this hinges on there being two women in positions of power. Herself wasn’t Himself because in part because I was feeling like I wanted more female characters in the story, but I wanted the choreographer to be male (and thus with a more visually-oriented sexuality) and didn’t feel comfortable with a female pedophile. The only other characters I had were Safwan Cadir (Elaine’s companion), Jimmy’s boss, and his coworker who gets something like two lines at the start. Making Elaine a lesbian would, I think, have muddied the waters. When it didn’t seem to me that it mattered whether the character was a man or a woman, I kept it a woman. In the case of Herself, I misjudged.
I wonder how much of the other misogyny (some of the previous posters do seem to feel the text is fairly soaked in it — is that a fair read?) comes out of the story being wrapped up in specifically masculine sexual responses to women. It certainly wasn’t my (authorial) intent to denigrate or demean my female characters, but the male gaze (and specifically the male experience of the male gaze) was so much a part of the material I can understand folks having a fairly allergic reaction to it.
I’ll be the first to admit that my reaction to the story is at least as much about the cultural context that I occupy with it as about the specific text itself. And in that context, my impression was that I was supposed to agree that Jimmy’s point of view, for whatever its flaws, represented a neurotypical male, the everyman — especially with regard to how he experiences the male gaze. For all that there may be some grain of truth in that caricature, it’s still a caricature, and I ran out of patience with it quite a while ago. So it’s possible that I’m not giving the story a fair shot — but it would take a lot for me to put that aside.
Thanks to the author for showing up and taking heat in a way that should be a model for authors everywhere.