Short Story Club: “The Slows”

Unfortunately, I have run out of time today — I’m rushing out the door to catch a train to catch a flight — so you don’t get a round-up of quotes this week. Just another link to the story, “The Slows” by Gail Hareven, and instructions to have at it! I’ll check in again this evening, hopefully.

UPDATE: OK, here we go.


This is a very dense story. There’s a lot going on in it anyway, and a lot more if one chooses to read it against Brave New World. It’s not a story to love, not because it’s a badly constructed story but because it is difficult and complex and unpleasant. It’s a rich story which can be read in a number of different ways, and that is something I do like.


The story fails as a science fictional one – the worldbuilding is paper thin and the story never engages with the consequences of accelerated growth and the ensuing population explosion and cultural shifts except in a most cursory manner. Nor does it lead the reader to engage with the question about how minority populations are treated because the narrator’s perspective is so obnoxious and closed-minded that it’s easy to dismiss him without thought.

Instead, it works best as a horror story in the vein of Lovecraft where the narrator has been confronted with something unknowable and viscerally repulsive to him and as a result he cracks and commits a horrific act that he can’t reconcile with his supposedly superior nature.

Big Dumb Object (with bonus comment on the previous two stories):

The revulsion of the post-humans to small children is a good idea and shown nicely to begin with, tediously by the end. There’s some emotion in there, but it stays on one note – don’t take my child away – and never moves beyond that, consequently leaving me feeling a bit flat by the end, rather than moved.

Overall The Slows felt like a great SF idea needing a story, instead of just a conversation investigating that idea.

Perpetual Folly:

A bit of allegory is it? The problem with allegory often is that you can make it mean whatever you want it to. So, I pick a political interpretation. Obviously, the Slows are the Conservatives/Republicans. They think they are preserving the old ways, but they are really just standing in the way of progress. And the Accelerateds are Progressives/Democrats, who are on the verge of eliminating the last of the Slows. Total domination. (There is that nagging bit bout an outbreak of Slow behavior in the colonies, but maybe that’s just the suggestion that backwardness, like polio, cannot truly be eradicated.) Or something. (Of course the author isn’t American, she’s Israeli, and so I’m almost certainly wrong. So then, what’s it about?)

Slouching Towards Bushwick:

He ends the story with an explicit lie, the final denial. After she “spat out” “Don’t touch me!” he says, “No one’s touching you” in a deluded and defensive tone, emphasizing the levels of denial that his society foists on him: denial of physical experiences and truth-telling. Not only has he just touched her but the guards are on their way. But her vision of him as a sexual creature immediately eradicates his sympathy for her. If his superior sense of self as a person without needs, emotionality, and desires is threatened, he shuts down, loses composure, and hastens the immolation of something he values.

Hareven characterizes a person in power with wavering, not depraved, morality. The quality of his disdain, empathy, and repulsion is fleshed out, explicitly contradictory, hard to pin. “Why do you hate us so?” she asks. He gives a brief explanation to the reader, a “key to understanding the Slows’ culture” that does not consider the culture on its own terms but, of course, compares it to the dominant culture. Although her physical territory is threatened at the level of her body and geography, the researcher is isolated. He replies to her, “Hate? Hate is a strong word.”

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

This is the sort of thing that typically happens when a mainstream author gets hold of a SFnal idea. The idea absorbs the narrative at the expense of the story. [Admittedly, this sad result is hardly uncommon in the case of genre authors, as well.] The premise is not without interest, though unoriginal, but it is not well thought through in this case. It seems that the acceleration process does more than speed up growth, it eliminates certain obsolete physical features such as mammary glands. Yet this process is apparently only initiated after birth, which, as far as the text suggests, is accomplished in the same primitive fashion it is now. This is hardly reasonable—who would continue a grotesque and cumbersome nine-month pregnancy when you could instead begin acceleration at conception? The author also suggests that their primitive biology is causing the Slows to die out because they rarely produce more than four offspring. The historical rate of human population growth suggests that this notion is mistaken. But if the accelerated population is still stuck with a 9-month pregnancy, they’re not going to be accelerating all that much, even if women are stuck in a continual lifelong process of gestation. I don’t call this progress, even if we are rid of diapers.

As for the story, such as it is, we have an unsubtle moral message: readers are meant to be revolted by the narrator’s revulsion at the normal state of childhood, at the bonds of love between mother and dependent child. I would not quite call it a political screed advocating breast-feeding, but it serves the purpose.

Some discussion on LJ here; the story scores null points in this New Yorker fiction scoring system; and two members of NESFA commend it to your consideration for Hugo nominations.

Also, wow:

In my book, to the extent that a story is “thought-provoking” — and “The Slows” is certainly that — it cannot be good adult fiction. Only last week, The New Yorker published a story, “Vast Hell,” of incomparably deeper political significance, but the significance is rich because it cannot be reduced to a political decision. In “Vast Hell,” townsmen discover some graves of “the disappeared,” victims of a very bad spell in Argentinian history. The story is about the townsmen, however, and not about the desaparecidos. Guillermo Martínez’s fiction does not teach the reader anything; rather, it kindles a host of synesthetic responses in the mind that recreate, to the extent that the reader is attentive and imaginative, the complexity of making a ghastly discovery that one had been dead set on not making.

“The Slows” is an excellent story for younger readers who are beginning to learn not to read literally: it will kindle outrage. I mean that in earnest and without snark of any kind. There is nothing concealed in my conviction that science fiction has no place in The New Yorker — or in any magazine that I read regularly.

(“Vast Hell”, if you’re interested, can be found here.)

London Meeting: Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer

The guests at tonight’s BSFA London meeting are Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer, editors of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Banana Wings. They will be interviewed by Tony Keen.

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

As usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. (I’m going, this month! Though I probably will not arrive until just before 7.) The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Short Story Club: “The Puma”

Theodora Goss’s story is here. We start our round-up of comment with Kimberley Lundstrom for The Fix:

“The Puma” by Theodora Goss is an interesting take on H.G. Wells’ classic The Island of Dr. Moreau. In Goss’ version, Edward Prendick’s post-island seclusion in the English countryside is interrupted by Catherine, a distinctly feline woman who calls herself Mrs. Prendick. Edward is struck by her beauty, the scars now erased from the face of the Puma Woman who killed Moraeu. Her presence releases a flood of memories for him: of the island, of Moreau, Montgomery, the Beast Men, of the fire and of subsequent actions of his own he would like to forget. But Catherine has come not only to reminisce — she has a favor she would ask, a favor she knows he cannot refuse.

This story is fascinating and well-wrought, flowing smoothly from a conversation between a civilized lady and gentleman in an English garden to the savagery of men and beasts on the island, and back again. Alive with sensory detail, gripping tension, and social commentary, “The Puma” is an engrossing story in its own right as well as a fitting homage to Wells’ novel.

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

A derivative work tends to assume that readers are familiar with the original. Given this, I find that the Puma repeats rather too much of the events on the island, even if they are not quite the same events as in the book. This is otherwise a rather unsettling evocation of the original tale, suggesting that the consequences of evil continue to propagate long before the original evildoer is gone.


Read ‘The Puma‘ today at Apex Magazine and really liked the delicate diction, very controlled plotting and neatly researched background. Almost like a fable, with lovely touches of inventive horror and mysterious revenge. So Chabon, ‘influence is bliss.’

Michele Lee:

“The Puma” is a continuation of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, in which Catherine, the puma-woman, tracks down Edward Prendick with a request. One might even say a demand. Goss’ prose is seamless, capturing a deeper meaning of the original story that hints at our own future.

Maureen’s thoughts:

My feelings towards this story are ambivalent. It’s an interesting story, a thought-provoking story, and I think it does interrogate the original novel in useful ways. Certainly, it’s a rich story in terms of topics for discussion, and that can’t be bad. On that level, I’m glad to have read it, to have been prompted to read The Island of Doctor Moreau, and to start thinking more deeply about it. But my ‘entertainment’ … I suppose one should call it that … has come as much from the greater project as from the story on its own. However one addresses a story there surely needs to be, at some point, an umami moment, a moment of just knowing that it’s right, without having to analyse it, and I’m just not getting that from this story. (Of the five I’ve now read for this exercise, the Chris Adrian comes closest, but I’m having a similar struggle with the contents of the latest Dozois Best of Year.) Is it me as a reader that is at fault, jaded as my palate appears to be, or are writers just not pushing far enough? I don’t know, but it’s frustrating.

Rich Horton listed it as a recommended story in the May Locus, but didn’t offer any analysis. A few supplementary links that may or may not be of interest: Goss on the circumstances of the writing of the story; Mark at Dinosaur Blues suggests that it make’s an interesting counterpoint to Jeffrey Ford’s “After Moreau“, and by way of an editorial for the relevant issue of Apex, Sarah Brandel has an essay on “Beast Men and the Human Animal“, discussing both Goss’s story and Ekaterina Sedia’s “The Mind of a Pig“. So a few hooks for discussion there, perhaps. The floor is open.

Where’s the sf?

Well, this is fun. Kim Stanley Robinson sayeth of sf:

The result is the best British literature of our time. Oh, I know there is a Booker prize, I’ve heard of it even in California – supposedly given to the best fiction published in the Commonwealth every year – but there are no Woolves on those juries, and so they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels.

Sometimes these are fine historical novels, written by tremendous writers; I particularly like Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, and my favorite was Penelope Fitzgerald. But working, like all of us, in the rain shadow of the great modernists, they tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways. A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is. Thus it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.

I note (a) that Life could not have won, alas, since it has not yet been published in the UK; and (b) that I really should get around to reading Yellow Blue Tibia. More usefully and proactively, the Guardian has put the issue to this year’s Booker judges. Quoth the chair of judges:

James Naughtie admitted that Robinson “may well have a point”, but suggested that “perhaps his arrows could be directed even more towards publishers than to judges”.

“There has always been a debate about whether the prize is sufficiently sensitive to all the forms of contemporary writing. He may well have a point,” he said. “We judge books that are submitted. The fact is that the science fiction component this year was very, very thin. If it is the best contemporary fiction in this country then most publishers haven’t yet tumbled to the fact.”

He said that judges had, collectively, been “disappointed at the way ‘the new’ was represented” in this year’s submissions, but said that “the idea that historical fiction is fusty is absurd”. “Our shortlist speaks to us about things around us, from whenever and wherever the books are set,” he said.

And John Mullan:

According to Mullan there was “essentially no” science fiction submitted for this year’s Booker prize, apart from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, set in a dystopian future, which failed to make the longlist. “We as judges depend a great deal on what publishers submit,” he said. “There are certain kinds of genre fiction which get submitted – thrillers and detective books – which publishers think have literary quality, but this year I find it hard to think of any science fiction which was submitted.”

Around 40 years ago, it was historical fiction which was overlooked, he said. “Thirty to 40 years ago there was Georgette Heyer and it was generally speaking a fairly derided genre, whose standing was rather lower than science fiction where you had John Wyndham. Yet historical fiction has escaped the bodice ripper, so everyone does it,” he said, rejecting Robinson’s claim that historical novels “tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways” and “are not about now”.

“That’s absolute bullshit,” he said. “Of course historical novels can be like that, but really it is not to do with being a historical novel.”

To be pedantic, Robinson didn’t say historical novels aren’t about now, he said they aren’t about now in the way science fiction is. Though of course whether you apply a value judgement to that difference, and if so what judgement you apply, will differ from person to person.

But I have wondered, before, whether sf writers get submitted for the Booker. If I understand the rules correctly, publishers get two titles per imprint, so it doesn’t seem like (in most cases) they’d be using up slots by submitting sf; just getting extra slots, in effect. Of course, I may not understand the rules correctly. Ultimately, this is just one more reason why it would be nice to see a list of what’s submitted for the Booker prize in any given year.

This is the Summer of Love

This is the Summer of Love coverAs I have noted before, it’s not that I deliberately disparage horror fiction. It’s just that in general, what disturbs me is not, it seems, what disturbs writers of horror, or what such writers think should disturb me. I think this is partly a matter of familiarity, and partly a matter of presentation. Editorial hyperbole, certainly, is never more distracting than when it’s telling you how you’re going to feel. So it’s a shock in itself when the introduction to a story such as Monica J O’Rourke’s “Cell” — “as fiercely uncompromising as anything we’ve published” — really does turn out to denote a story of comparable quality to the work of other newish horror writers such as Joe Hill and M. Rickert. In outline, “Cell” is formulaic: a second-person narrative in which “you” find yourself imprisoned in an unidentified prison, with your fellow inmates being carted off by black-robed folks one by one, or else banging their heads against the wall as a way of committing suicide. Two things make it work: that the narrative doesn’t flinch; and that it is self-interrogative. By the first I don’t mean that it’s graphic, but that it remains tense throughout, and stays true to the totalising, intimidating nature of its premise. (“You” pass in and out of sleep several times; on one such occasion, O’Rourke writes that sleep “has been searching the darkness for you” [74]. Were I to indulge in my own hyperbole, I’d suggest that the same could be said of this story.) And by self-interrogative, I mean that “Cell” foregrounds the nature of both second-person narration and horror fiction. The disjunct between the “you” of the story — a married caucasian Christian man with two children — and the “you” reading is never downplayed; indeed the central questions of the story involve guilt and empathy, how the former, including in the form of watching others suffer, engenders the latter, and what that implies for the sincerity of either emotion.

But self-awareness, sadly, is not always self-interrogation; if it were, then This is the Summer of Love, the first anthology edition of PS’s Postscripts magazine, which at least so far as I’m concerned has more than its share of mildly metafictional horror tales, would be much more to my taste than it is. (The anthology becomes the latest victim of my ongoing skirmishes with genre horror quite inadvertently: I read it because it’s advertised as simply a “new writers” special — albeit with a flexible definition of “new” that translates to “people who may have published quite a few stories that we think you won’t have heard of”.) Into the category of “middling success”, for instance, falls RB Russell’s “Literary Remains”. The setup involves an older woman recalling an episode from her youth: she was in her early twenties, living on her own for the first time, in a band, and working in a second-hand bookshop to make ends meet. One of the shop’s customers, an elderly man, develops a creepy but seemingly harmless mild obsession with the narrator, leading him to donate various books of ghost stories — some rare editions, some pulp, all heavily annotated. The narrator finds her interest sparked by the annotations, and from there she develops an appreciation of the man’s own, little-known, fiction. Then the man dies, and becomes posthumously successful, and the narrator finds herself visiting his flat to help with an assessment of his book collection for resale. The voice throughout is unfussy and well suited to the denoument; the trouble is that the denoument delivers nothing unexpected. That is to say, creepiness ensues, of a kind that may be in the narrator’s head (having been sensitised by the man’s fiction) or may be real and which, if real, constitutes sexual abuse. Russell leaves enough unstated, and introduces enough doubt about his narrator’s perceptiveness and accuracy of recall, for the story to work passably well, but there’s no denying its predictability, and predictability (as a story like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” demonstrates) is itself a form of comfort. Although that said, arguably the most terrifying sentence in the story is the first, with its utter dreariness: ‘When I look back on my life in Eastbourne in the late 1980s, I find it amazing that I could ever have had enough time and energy to accomplish what I did’ (129).

There’s a writer at the centre of “The Family Face” by James Cooper, too, and here predictability has produced a story so snug in the grooves of genre that it’s barely there to criticize. Said writer is English, called Michael, and heading to the country for a week’s peace, quiet and writing; on his way he meets an odd and apparently itinerant family, one of whose members specialises in carving uncannily life-like dolls. Michael declines to take one, but on arriving at his remote retreat he finds himself haunted by a child carrying a half-finished doll. There is a wearying laziness to the tale — Michael’s first encounter with the boy is described as being ‘as though somewhere, just out of sight, the trace of someone’s nightmare was being inexplicably defined’ (91), rather than in a way that might actually evoke nightmarishness — and by the time Michael is thinking that ‘he knew implicitly that there was nothing remotely derivative about his own mounting disquiet’ (95) all you can do is roll your eyes.

Speaking, as we were earlier, of bad ways to introduce stories, here’s another: “I believe new writers are forced to be copyists by publishers who accept only work of a kind that has been successfully received”, says Clive Johnson. Whatever the truth of this assertion — and I’ll be charitable and accept that some attenuated version of it is true for at least some publishers at least some of the time — it smacks of defensivness for a writer, let alone a relatively new writer, to introduce his work this way. Unlike “Cell”, “Pieland’s Dream” doesn’t quite escape its introduction, either. It begins as a sort of club story, with one member of a writing group relating his dream to the others (and in the process renders the introduction doubly redundant by putting very similar sentiments into the mouths of its characters), and develops into a deconstruction of the desire for and impossibility of originality, as another member of the writing group begins to experience the dream, before they all perform in a play that recreates a key scene from the dream; the story gradually tightens its grip on them, ultimately killing one of the group. What’s good is Johnson’s willingness to be inventive; there’s a decent dialogue-heavy opening section that juggles its characters well, an almost dialogue-free section of some intensity, and sections towards the end rendered as a transcript. What doesn’t work so well is pacing; none of the sections feels quite the right length, and Johnson doesn’t quite manage to balance the different levels at which the story is operating. And there’s the sense that even if the form is original, acknowledging the familiarity of the base tale does not, here as in “Literary Remains” and “The Family Face”, translate into a successful iteration of it.

There are fewer writers, but not much more success, in the non-horror tales. Deborah Kalin’s “The Wages of Salt”, for example, seems to me a classic case of an interesting setting coupled to under-developed story. Alessia is a student in New Persia, an intriguing if sometimes baffling city-state on a salt desert. (One source of bafflement: why is salt “white gold”, the basis of New Persia’s economy, given its apparent abundance?) She is researching the nature of the “theriomorphs”, nicely realized half-man half-animal creatures that occupy the salt plains around the city; that research ultimately leads her, and us, to a new understanding of the therimorphs, and her. And sadly, that — plus a few rather perfunctory exchanges on ethics and pragmatism, and the abstract value of knowledge versus the immediate value of coin — is it. Similarly inessential is Neil Grimmett’s “A Hard Water”, a short, mimetic piece about fishing. The water of the title is a spot that appears to be idyllic and undiscovered, but in actuality is a hard water, which is to say one that refuses to give up its fish. The narrator, obsessesed with the place, is one of only two fishermen to stick it out over the season, hoping to land an enormous carp. There is a sort of rivalry with the other fisherman; there is the suggestion that his wife is using his absences to have an affair; there is a climactic storm, and a hint of the immanent fantastic. It is perfectly reasonable and unexceptional.

Livia Llwellyn’s “Horses” is the most fully realized sf piece, although it certainly carries a horror glaze: it is the story of the nuclear apocalypse and after as experienced by an American Missile Facilities Technician called Angela Kingston. Its ambitions are good, aiming for a mix of McCarthy nihilism and Russ anger, but the end result is too messy and melodramatic to match either. Llwellyn aspires to the cinematic, and some images, such as an emaciated man emerging from a dark tunnel “as if a swimmer is breaking the surface of the ocean”, are vivid; but too many others, such as nuclear explosions on the horizon described as “voluptuous jets of lightning-shot ziggurats” (22), are confused (can you even have a jet of ziggurats?). Emotional moments, too, tend to be overly dramatic, such as Kingston’s acceptance of radiation poisoning on the grounds that when it reaches her heart, it will be surprised to find said organ already gone; or the establishing assertion that “In the next twenty-four hours, she’ll take the pill, or a bullet. Which one it will be, she cannot say” (16). Which is a shame, because in many ways Kingston’s dysfunctionality — suicidal yet driven to survive — is narratively and psychologically promising, at least until Llewellyn stoops to soften her (slightly) with maternal love. Even the lack of a happy ending can’t stop that feeling like a bit of a betrayal. But it is better, at least, than Chris Bell’s “Shem-el-Nessim”, the title of which is also the name of a magically bewitching perfume, which may be linked to visions of a mysterious beautiful woman, and which includes sentences of this kind: “They lay together in the failing light of a late afternoon, the indescribably oriental fragrance of her skin buffering the room’s airlessness” (64). I’m not convinced a strong perfume in an airless room would work quite like that, but fine, it’s magic; and the deployment of “oriental” makes me cringe; but what really gets my goat is the addition of “indescribably”. Admittedly it is an easy word to misuse, but here it is misused in a way that makes everything else about the sentence worse. There is no irony: this is entirely straight-faced exoticisation for no original, or even unoriginal but strongly felt, reason.

Leaving “Cell” aside, the most intriguing stories are those which open and close the collection. Like so many of the pieces here, they reflect on storytelling; but they do so via cinema rather than prose, which seems to work better. Unsurprisingly, given that it both closes and lends its title to the anthology, Rio Youers’ “This is the Summer of Love” is also more explicitly than most of the pieces here about love — as an emotion, and as a story humans tell to each other. Nick Gevers’ overall introduction to the anthology singles Youers out as a “major discovery”; he apparently has a novella, a novel, and some more shorter fiction forthcoming from PS. “This is the Summer of Love” doesn’t, by itself, justify this investment, but it doesn’t suggest it’s a terrible mistake, either. It is assured and occasionally bold work: the story of Terri and Billy, two teenagers obsessed with classic film who fall in together for a summer. The perspective is primarily Terri’s. The story opens with an exchange of overheard, unattributed dialogue: Terri (as it turns out) asking Billy to take her away to California. Billy says no, because “he knows he can only be her hero for as long as she needs one” (158), which may raise eyebrows. Flashback to when they met: Terri miserable, beaten by her father, convinced that love exists only in movies, that it is “all sweet fiction” (159). Suddenly Billy is there, and Terri has fallen head over heels: “Everything was gray next to him” (159). His smile is so beautiful it is “celluloid”(161) — a particularly effective choice that, I think. He is Brando, Dean, Stewart rolled into one.

The most appealing thing about “This is the Summer of Love” is its willingness to be shamelessly intense and (unlike, say, “Horses”) to recognize the absurdity of that intensity. It is at times hyperreal, a tale of young love and domestic abuse told with the fevered vision of Hollywood. The highs are very high, the lows very low; and the highs often disguise the lows, like the make-up Terri applies to turn the ghostly image in her mirror into a starlet. A melancholy ambivalence can be discerned: Hollywood saves Terri, day to day, possesses her in a sense, while Billy saves and possesses her in another; and at the end she achieves a happy ending, but it is happy in large part because she wants to be possessed, just not by her father. Billy’s opening worry, in other words, seems in no danger of passing: she’ll always want a hero.

And in Norman Prentiss’ opening tale, “In the porches of my ears”, out of what at first seems to be blandly middle-class American narration — meet Steve, who is snobbish enough about cinema to disdain the usual blockbuster fare, but thinks arthouse means “subtitles or excessive nudity” — but becomes slightly more warty and convincing, something quite clever and moving emerges. Steve recounts a trip to the cinema with his wife Helen, in which a (deliberately genericised version of a) Working Title-esque contemporary British romantic comedy is spoilt by the couple sitting in front, one of whom is blind and the other of whom narrates the events on screen. Steve and Helen’s annoyance appears to be validated when the woman, seemingly cruelly, changes the ending, relaying a bitter interpretation of the closing scenes that causes her companion to break down in tears; yet when Steve approaches the man afterwards to explain the real ending, the thanks he gets is deeply sarcastic.

There is an obvious commentary here on writing and rewriting, and the idea that different people get different things from stories (something of which I’m never so conscious as when reading work marketed as horror); and it’s deepened by a second part to the story, which establishes certain parallels between the two couples, and is explicit about the idea — the horror — that there may be “awful, unnarrated tragedy” (10) beneath the surface of a tale. Much is left unsaid (in the satisfying, rather than maddeningly oblique, sense), and any fantastic component is (appropriately) left to the reader to infer. But what makes the story work particularly well as an opening tale is its dark spin on the overall title: certainly love has a summer, but by implication it therefore also, inevitably, has an autumn and winter. To resist this, the tale suggests, is a kind of solipsism, a desire to make a story of love ours, to own it and make it relevant to us, to close the aching gap between story and life without regard for the consequences. As an introduction, it might be saying: do not try to make the stories that follow fit your love. Let them be their own thing. I might reply: if only more of them had managed to achieve such independence, or aspired to.

Short Story Club: “The Rising Waters”

Not so much comment out there for Benjamin Crowell’s story, that I could find; but we start with comments from the Strange Horizons forum:

BionicValkyrie: I loved this story. I’ve been reading Strange Horizons fiction off and on for a couple years, and this story prompted me to register just so I could say how much I liked it. The characters seemed very real … which now sounds kind of silly to say, given the nature of this story! I’m going to search out more stories by Crowell.

KNB: Really good story.

Liritar: This story was intense.

Then we have Rich Horton, in the July Locus:

At Strange Horizons I most enjoyed “The Rising Waters” by Benjamin Crowell. It’s about an attempt to develop an AI that can devise a cure for a plague unleashed in a war between Europe and the US. The heart of the story, though, is the relationship between the developing AI and the human who interfaces with it — or her. Maybe there’s not much new here — fairly familiar arguments about the rights of AIs — but the story is involving and the last line is wonderful.

and Lois Tilton in IROSF:

Sue’s dilemma is an artifact of the story’s premise, in which a person who is not supposed to become emotionally identified with the project puts on a VR suit with virtual breasts to feed a newly-online software program. That conflicts will arise from this is inevitable; the question is whether such humanization would be necessary at all.

Maureen Kincaid Speller:

It may be that I am just a very stern and demanding reader (and if I am, I make no apology for it), but I found this story to be very far from satisfactory. Rather like last week’s story, it seems to raise more questions than it answered, and like last week’s story, I felt this arose as much from poor story-telling as from anything intentional on the author’s part. As I’ve said before, I don’t mind having to really engage with a story in order to work out what is going on, but again, as with last week’s story, I really do object to pretty much having to dig my own foundations, and then provide most of the bricks, mortar and plaster as well, leaving the author to deal with the decorative accents, which is pretty much what reading this story felt like. I had no real sense that the author knew what was happening off the page, but had chosen for some reason to conceal things for the time being, and every sense that things happened on the page as he thought of them, hence a constant pulling up short, thinking ‘where the hell did that come from all of a sudden?’ in between feeling that although the story brushes against ideas and issues, it simultaneously skates around them. It may be that Crowell thinks that this is what his character does, and therefore the reader can only get the bits that the narrator hasn’t blocked off for herself. Or possibly, given the fact that censorship and control of the flow of information is a big issue within the story, Crowell is trying to reflect what it is like to have access to only part of the story. I would be far more sympathetic to this approach if the narrator herself was ignorant, but it’s clear she isn’t. And given her general attitude towards what is going on, you would suppose she would be more forthcoming herself.

And finally, Paul Kincaid on craft:

The narrator didn’t recognise the intruders at first. I’m not surprised, neither did I, because we’ve not met them before. There has been no mention of a gym or a treadmill or kids or grunts; I know, because I went back and checked. It would have needed the insertion of probably no more than one sentence earlier in the story to justify this scene. I spotted several places where that sentence might have been inserted without the slightest bother. Without that set-up it reads like what it very probably is: an author just putting down whatever comes into his mind next, and then not taking the elementary step of going back over the story and making sure that the whole thing cohered. That is, to my mind, just poor craft.

There is an old adage that when you don’t know how your fiction develops next, have someone burst into the room with a gun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it executed so literally and so clumsily.

A well-crafted story is not the be-all and end-all of fiction. There are times when you can break free, do something different; but when that happens you have got to be sure you know what you are doing, and you have got to convince your readers that you know as well. I don’t believe that Crowell know what he is doing on the basic level of craft.

Agree? Disagree?

A Discussion About Lavinia

Lavinia coverLavinia US coverA little while ago now, I pointed to Lavinia as being one of the best books I’d read so far this year, and suggesting that (since this year sees its first UK publication) it should end up on the BSFA Award ballot. But I didn’t back up my praise. In part that was because I was rushing out the door to go on holiday, having meant to write slightly more and been caught out by a lack of time; and in part it was because I was aware that this discussion was (very) slowly gestating. Because it ended up being so (very) long, I and the other participants have split it over our respective blogs; so you can, or will shortly be able to, find part two hosted by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle, part three hosted by Abigail Nussbaum at Asking the Wrong Questions, and the concluding part hosted by Nic Clarke and Jo Coleman at Eve’s Alexandria. In the meantime, enjoy:

Niall Harrison: There are two reasons, initially, why I wanted to organize a discussion about Lavinia. One is that for all that I enjoyed it, I found myself in a similar position to Adam at the end of his review: “We might ask, in what ways is this book so very good? But the temptation would be to reply: in all the ways. There’s a quality to this fiction that I cannot capture in a review.” I’d like to try to pin down its strengths and weaknesses a bit more. But the other reason, and the main one if I’m honest, is that I’m very conscious that I’m a long way from being the book’s ideal reader.

Once you get beyond a general, holistic picture of the book, there are at least two obvious ways of approaching it — as an Ursula Le Guin novel, or as a response to the Aeneid — that are closed to me, in that I haven’t read much Le Guin, and I haven’t read Virgil. What’s left, I find, is to approach Lavinia as a fantasy novel; but I can’t help feeling that I’m not responding to the heart of the book. How about the rest of you?

Adam Roberts: I’m curious where everybody else stands on this, because of course it will have a bearing on how we react to Lavinia.

So: Le Guin is one of the three most important SFF writers in my own relationship with genre. I’ve read everything she has written, some of it many times; and if I haven’t liked some of her more recent things (like the later Earthsea books or the rather stiff and, to me, unconvincing The Telling) this may have meant that I’ve fallen rather more hungrily on Lavinia precisely as a return to form.

So: Vergil. My university education was English/Classics (I did a PhD on Browning and the Classics), and I’ve been pretty familiar with the Aeneid for a long time: I have, for instance, taught it to undergraduates. Knowing it as well as I do meant that my reading of Le Guin’s version was shadowed throughout by my sense of the original. Without that, I do wonder what I’d have made of it.

(Of course, been pretty familiar with the Aeneid was so completely the norm, for so many centuries, that it wouldn’t have been worth boasting about. People of all classes across Europe used to treat Vergil’s poem as almost a sacred text: it was second only to the Bible for bibliomancy. See Wikipedia on the Sortes Virgilianae.)

Jo Coleman: I fall somewhere in the middle, as I’ve read (and loved) some of Le Guin, and bits of the Aeneid were wonderfully engraved into my mind at school but never got back to reading it fully. I’m quite interested to see that I may be the least enthusiastic of us. I certainly enjoyed it, particularly in parts, but I wouldn’t rave over it in the way that I would over some of Earthsea, for example.

Nic Clarke: Le Guin: I’ve read quite a few of the novels — beginning with Earthsea, which was recommended to me by a school librarian when I was 13 or 14 — and three of her short fiction collections. I’ve always felt more at home with Le Guin than with most SF writers — I should probably note here that my genre preferences generally lie with fantasy, and always have — because the SFnal possibilities she’s interested in are the ones that interest me: different social and cultural configurations, and how the individual interacts with them. Social science rather than hard science.

Virgil: I studied the Aeneid in A-Level Classics, and again as part of a Classics module I took as an undergrad. I adored it — definitely one of those texts that just gets more fascinating the closer you look at! — although for whatever reason I’ve never got round to reading either the Georgics or the Eclogues. Reading Lavinia gave me a whole new appreciation for just how good my A-Level teaching was — I was astonished by how much of the poem I remembered, given that it will be ten years this summer since I took that exam.

Abigail Nussbaum: I think that within this group, my credentials are the least impressive. Like Niall, I haven’t read the Aeneid, but having grown up and been educated in a non-English speaking country I feel that I’m perhaps even farther away from it than he is, since my education placed a lesser emphasis on Western literature and its founding texts than it did on Hebrew literature (plus, having been in a math and science track in high school, I took only the very basic literature classes). On the Le Guin front, Lavinia is only the second of her novels that I’ve managed to finish (the other is A Wizard of Earthsea, though I’ve never felt compelled to seek out its sequels). I bounced hard off Always Coming Home and The Left Hand of Darkness, though the latter, I think, has to do with having been too young when I picked it up, and I have enjoyed some of her short stories. I’ve been aware for a while that this a major gap in my reading, and Lavinia seemed like a good place to start a second attempt at Le Guin because of its excellent reception (Adam’s SH review was a major factor in my deciding to give the book a try) and because it seemed like a fairly simple, straightforward concept which I would either love or at least be able to get through quickly and easily.

In the end, my response is somewhere between these two extremes. I enjoyed reading Lavinia very much — it’s beautifully written and an almost effortless read, which I was able to appreciate all the more because I came to it right after finishing a rather poorly written novel. But appreciating and enjoying the experience of reading a novel aren’t quite the same as loving it, and I can’t put my finger on one thing that Lavinia does or is trying to do that makes it particularly excellent. As Adam says, this is a book that’s easier to praise as a gestalt than it is for its parts.

Niall Harrison: So can you pin down which elements of Lavinia you find yourself responding most strongly to — for better or worse?

Jo Coleman: What I enjoyed was Le Guin’s portrayal of early Italian religion. I loved Lavinia’s visit to Albunea, and particularly that scene of the Ambarvalia, which seemed to typify that ability Le Guin has to, as Adam put it, make the magic feel natural. She never makes a big deal about it, and simply makes a quiet, clear assumption that people live according to magic, whether it be “fantasy” magic or magic of pre-Christianity. To me, it’s that quiet, clear assumption that brings the day to day rituals she describes to life, and makes them seem both absolutely normal and wonderful at the same time.

She also deals very lightly with the values of Lavinia’s world — I love the way piety is explained, for example, or fas and nefas, what is the right and what, on the other hand, is against the right. I also agree with Adam, in his review, that Lavinia and Aeneas’ marriage is wonderfully portrayed.

On the other hand, I thought the very existence of Lavinia was uncharacteristically heavy-handed. I’m looking forward to disagreement here, but I didn’t think Lavinia’s meditations on whether she existed or not were necessary. Such metaphysical ponderings seemed to me to clash with the grounded practicality with which Lavinia and her world are brought to life. They didn’t seem part of its values, with its deep piety and respect for ancestors. Admittedly I don’t know much about pre-Roman Italian philosophy, but I’m hesitant as to whether Lavinia would, as Le Guin has painted her, so self-respecting and so pious, be willing to accept without a fuss the fact that she was only a creation of a Poet and therefore exempt from normal life and death, remaining a shadowy fictional ghost.

Which brings me to my second quibble, which is harder to pinpoint — and that is that despite the fact that Le Guin renders beautifully a pre-Roman Italian world, and that the battle scenes are certainly violent and tragic, it all felt to me a bit polished. Perhaps the polish is the quality of epic poetry which finds its way into the novel, or rather which Le Guin borrows, as I think she was certainly clear about exactly how she wanted her novel to be shaped by epic poetry and how she didn’t. But I’m not sure if I entirely believed in Lavinia’s world as a whole. Take the moment when she is telling us about her idyllic childhood exploring the hills with Silvia, who seems a bit like an early Italian Dicken with her tamed foxes and beribboned stag. This, Lavinia’s childhood, “the golden time of the first days when there was no fear in the world”. But is this a rendering of childhood, or a peculiarly idealized rendering of pre-Roman Italy? Is Ascanius’ shooting of the stag meant to symbolize its end? If so, it seems to me that Lavinia’s five years in the wood in her old age, surrounded by a herb garden and willing help and yet known as Mother Wolf because she shows no fear of the wilderness, seem a peculiarly cosy exile.

Le Guin’s writing (or, what I’ve read) is often beautifully calm, often fable like, in its evocation of the relationship between man and nature. But in this instance I think the historical novel and the fable like lullaby of its telling are at odds.

Nic Clarke: I think I read Lavinia primarily as an Aeneid fan, noting what was added, what was left out (several instances where the gods swoop in to save people, Iliad-style, which I guess we’ll discuss later), and what Le Guin did with certain scenes and themes. I also thought she mediated the poem’s transition between Odyssey and Iliad modes very well.

My litmus test, I suppose, is the death of Turnus, which haunted the novel — very properly — even if Le Guin’s, or Lavinia’s, desire to idealise Aeneas perhaps dulls some of its sharper edges. Or at least the sharper edges I think it has. (As in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand, I was struck by the portrayal of Aeneas as the thinking woman’s Classical crumpet. But, again, that’s a topic for later!) Which is, I think, my verdict on the novel as a whole: for the most part, a wonderful reading experience, but there were just a few aspects that seemed to me to lack bite.

I’m with Jo on the portrayal of pre-Roman religion and daily life, and I would broaden it to encompass the novel’s entire sense of place. The world was wonderfully lush and rich; I swear there were places where I could feel the sunshine radiating from the page. It is idealised, there’s no doubt, but I think this fits with the concerns of the poem — Virgil, too, is intensely interested in all things bucolic — and of our narrator.

Niall Harrison: So perhaps I should try to talk a bit more about how and why Lavinia worked for me in as someone who hasn’t read the Aeneid, and also about the world of the book. Certainly, I was apprehensive before I started the book — I’m generally wary of retellings and riffs of this sort, because I often find they can be irritating, and result in works with little identity of their own. You might even say there’s something perverse about sitting down to read a novel when it’s explicitly dependent on an earlier work with which you are unfamiliar, and I couldn’t entirely disagree.

In the first instance, I was won over by the reviews. Actually, wait, in the first instance I was put off by a review, specifically Cecelia Holland’s review in Locus, which stated:

Most of the time, Le Guin is vivifying a seamless, sacred, blessed time which may never have existed but which we all fervently long to believe in: the morning of the world, when the whole of nature was suffused with spirit, and people lived in reverence to it. The details of sacrifice and rite and oracle are lovingly described not for their own sake but because they reveal the deep sense of oneness with the world that supported and uplifted the ancients.

And to which my response was: speak for yourself. Not only do I not believe in any such time, I do not fervently long to believe in it. Had Holland said “Le Guin manages to make us long for a time which may never have existed…” I’d have been fine with it; and, having read the book, I’d say that Le Guin actually does achieve something quite close to that. As Jo and Nic noted, the sense of closeness to nature, of the magic of nature, is full and almost overwhelming at times. There’s a very simple and attractive physicality to the book.

But I didn’t know that originally, and what won me over to the book was Adam’s review, and Gary Wolfe’s, which emphasised precisely the narratorial games that Jo expressed reservations about. I do have some reservations of my own (which in a sense relate to the sense of polish Jo mentions), but I also think it’s a brilliant conceit. Most importantly to me, Lavinia’s self-awareness gives Le Guin an excuse to fill in all the context I felt I was missing in a completely non-annoying way. I really don’t think I can emphasize how impressed I was by that, given how sceptical I usually am of such devices. She won me over entirely.

But I also think Lavinia‘s self-awareness actually helps to create the attractiveness of Lavinia’s world, or perhaps to throw it into relief. Consider a passage like this:

It is only too likely that little Publius Virgilius Maro might have died at six or seven, ashes under a small gravestone in Mantua, before he was ever a poet; and with him would have died the hero’s glory, leaving a mere name among a thousand names of warriors, not even a myth on the Italian shore. We are all contingent. Resentment is foolish and ungenerous, and even anger is inadequate. I am a fleck of light on the surface of the sea, a glint of light from the evening star. I live in awe. If I never lived at all, yet I am a silent wing on the wind, a bodiless voice in the forest of Albunea. I speak, but all I can say is: go, go on. (65-6)

To me, the “We are all contingent” — which comes from Lavinia’s anxiety about her reality — and “I live in awe” — which speaks to the luminous world Le Guin is creating — are inextricably linked. The one reinforces the other. Similarly, I think the intrusion of Virgil allows Le Guin to very carefully control her reader’s response to the events of the book, in terms of what expectations it creates, which parts of the story it emphasizes, and so on — and I think that is one of the tricks that meant I, as someone who hadn’t read Virgil, felt at home in Lavinia.