Short Story Club: “Trembling Blue Stars”

… which can be found here. On with the comment. James over at Big Dumb Object says:

It’s probably a story which is divides readers depending on their taste for the style, but it was my kind of thing. Stylish, cool and with a surprising upward lurch of emotion at the end.

Cory Doctorow also liked it, as did someone at the Asimov’s forum, and it gets a positive mention from Thomas Eaves here. Lois Tilton described it as “a sad story“. Martin is less keen:

There is an overpowering whiff of girl cooties to the story. Arkadi has fled his relationship for space and it turns out space is no place for girls. “You can’t blame me for that. There are basic biological incompatibilities between female neurochemistry and the guests.” This, as Valentina points out, is very convenient. She does get her shots in but she on the whole she is portrayed as desperate, pathetic and unable to define herself except against Arkadi. The final section of story is a race to see just how much she will debase herself to try and win him back: “Take me with you. I don’t need much. I’ll be your rabbit. Give me lettuce and water and rub my ears every now and then.” Arkadi, augmented by the emotional detachment of his guest (a “meat puppet run by a space monster”), spurns her again and considers this an act of kindness.

And Maureen is ambivalent:

Is it a good story? I’m not sure. If it were a typeface, it would be sensible, solid, readable Helvetica, as set against last week’s story, which would be some half-illegible, fancy display font. The prose seems clean and spare by comparison, but the story seems empty, devoid, but not performatively devoid, as if reflecting Arkadi’s emptiness. Lack, then, rather than emptiness. It feels at times as though it’s reaching for effect, and for a nostalgic effect at that. Aviator sunglasses, Gauloises, espresso, delivering supplies in the Oort Cloud; the whole thing reeks of the past, in terms of sf and film imagery. All very noirish. And indeed the story itself seems to belong to a past era of short stories. I read a lot of material like this in the late 1980s but now it seems anachronistic. Beyond that, Kadrey seems to be setting up the discussion points, but the story ends before anything happens, and one isn’t left in a position to imagine what might happen. I don’t dislike it, but I don’t love it either, and this week I am extremely keen to see what others make of it.

So: what did you make of it?

40 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Trembling Blue Stars”

  1. Hmm. A few quick notes:

    — I think I disagree with both Martin and Maureen

    — Helvetica doesn’t seem the right, or fairest, comparison to me; telling the whole thing in dialogue seems to bespeak a certain confidence. It’s not perhaps an adventurous style, but it is a distinctive style.

    –I read it primarily as a story about sf conventions, which is perhaps a limited thing to be a story about, but does make sense of the nostalgia and old-fashionedness of it. A line like “I think you love your alien more than you ever loved me” is a little funny, but also second hand, but also, I think, somewhat aware of its second-hand-ness.

    –I also don’t think the story has girl cooties, or at least not nearly as much as Martin does; it seems to me clear that what we learn about the narrator as the story goes on — loss of organs, loss of empathy, loss of memory — undermines him and supports Valentina’s version of events.

  2. I’m entirely of Martin’s opinion, and though I agree that Valentina’s version is supported by the first person narrative, what does it say about her that she still abases herself for the chance to be near her husband’s corpse? What does it say about the story that it spends so much time reveling in her abasement?

  3. It’s terrible. I can’t even get up the energy to talk about it. It wants to be a Hemingway story and is not nearly good enough.

  4. What does it say

    It says that both the characters are parodic in their adherence to stereotypical gender norms — the closed-off man, the needy woman — in addition to being parodic in their adherence to sfnal gender stereotypes — the man out in space, the woman waiting at home. I think “reveling” is very much the wrong word to describe that part of the story.

  5. The first line is awful, and I nearly gave up right there. Instead I got as far as exposition girl telling us what a cosmonaut is and stopped there instead. Perhaps I’m missing out and there’s a decent story past that point, and I may very well go back and read it later. But at this moment? It appears that it’s not for me.

  6. I thought it was a dramatisation of a male fantasy. Now maybe, maybe, it was meant ironically, but if so I don’t think the irony worked. Too much dwelling on female flesh grovelling and debasing itself. Too much gloating by the male intellect that it is now free of earthly constraints, but still gets to have it off occasionally, not that it needs that sort of thing any more of course. Yucky.

  7. For those that didn’t like it: if the genders were reversed would it have made any difference?

    It felt to me like a desperate post-break-up conversation and it could have been a man or a woman who was desperate. It’s that point where one side really wants to get back together and the other doesn’t. And it’s a bad feeling. A desperate feeling. Only this story has the lure of space as (one of?) the reason(s) for the break-up.

    @Maureen “I read a lot of material like this in the late 1980s..” Aha, perhaps that’s why I like it then ;-)

  8. Niall:

    I’m sorry, I just don’t see the parody, and I’d be interested in hearing why you think the story is parodic beyond the assumption that no one could possibly have written something like this with a straight face.

  9. So let me throw out a question:

    As Arkadi and Valentina discuss how cosmonauts are lobotomized, arguing over whether or not Arkadi’s still human or meaningfully his own self –

    Do you believe that?

    Does Arkadi strike you as having been turned into less than human? Or is the propaganda actually true?

    Despite his calm demeanor and frequent protestations, Arkadi felt to me very human, certainly aware of others’ emotions, and with quite a bit of emotion himself. So the constant discussion over “what’s left of him” was very interesting to me, since it seemed to say far more about the characters and their relationship than about the SF premise or the ‘guest.’

    In general, I enjoyed this story a lot. I felt the conflict and tension very strongly, and this was easily mixed in with an SF premise that held my interest.

    Valentina is certainly portrayed as pathetic; I think her desperation is part of what had me instinctively disagreeing with her, even about Arkadi’s remaining humanity. I disagree with the “girl cooties” remark, though, because I didn’t feel that that was where the story was going. We don’t care why Arkadi left Valentina in such an awful way; the important thing is that he did. The focus is on how hurt she is, how the betrayal has twisted her, the horrible totality of how he left her, and their confrontation so long after the fact. Valentina’s portrayed as pathetic, but the lingering question hanging over the whole piece is what kind of a person Arkadi must be to have chosen as he did.

    All in all, the story worked for me. Looks like this one’s provoking an interesting discussion, too, which is no small feat in itself…

  10. Easily the worst story considered in this reading group so far. It’s possible that the whole thing is some brilliantly subversive parody, but I don’t see direct elements of that. In large part because the narrative is so minimalistic and the ideas so derivative I’m inclined to take it at face value, which unfortunately leaves me with a poorly written, pretty misogynist piece.

    James: “For those that didn’t like it: if the genders were reversed would it have made any difference?

    It felt to me like a desperate post-break-up conversation and it could have been a man or a woman who was desperate.”

    Except that this story is clearly playing within some wider conventions. The association of men with traveling, distance, cold logic, science, isn’t accidental or something that’s directly reversible in wider norms. Likewise, linking the woman with passivity, whining, emotion and dependency connects to some very ugly and widespread ideas in our culture.

    Ziv W: “Looks like this one’s provoking an interesting discussion, too, which is no small feat in itself…’

    I don’t view this as an accomplishment in itself. If a text is ambivalent enough that there’s debate whether it’s actually insulting to a large group or if it’s parodying that attitude, I don’t see that as an accomplishment. Generally I see that as a sign of poor writing, that they couldn’t

  11. I liked the over-the-top wanna-be hipster cafe coolness, (French and Russian, always a winning combination), I liked the conversational style, I liked the idea. I initially liked Valentina’s uncomfortable public melodrama, too–a logical reaction, in her position–but after about the halfway mark, the conversation had gone on too long in that tone, and I was beginning to get tired of it. I did not feel particularly uplifted or sad at the closely paragraphs, merely slightly relieved to be done.

    Stray comments: why does space always default to a boy’s club? And Martin’s girl cooties remark offends me deeply.

  12. And yes, I realize: space is a boy’s club because girls are melodramatic and emotional messes like Valentina. This implicit assertion offends me, too.

  13. Alexander:

    In large part because the narrative is so minimalistic and the ideas so derivative I’m inclined to take it at face value,

    Interesting. You’ve just answered the question I was going to put to Abigail — why would you not think it is parodic? — by highlighting elements of the story I was going to put forward as evidence that it is parodic. That, plus some of the things Maureen already highlighted — the sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb use of “handbag”, the strikingly literal division of roles between the sexes, the pastiche nature of the setting and set-dressing. This does not strike me as an attempt to seriously imagine a possible future or — per Ziv’s question — an attempt to seriously imagine what a hollowed-out human would sound like; it strikes me as an attempt to draw attention to how sf often fails, or limits itself, in its attempts at those tasks.

    My strongest critique of the story, actually, would be that this critique itself is not new.

    I think the thread about whether or not a story provokes discussion is a bit of a red herring, by the way; both Alexander and Ziv are right, you could expect a well-done parody (which should cut close to the bone) and a poorly-done story (which could be simply unclear) to generate this sort of debate. I don’t think the simple fact that we are here and disagreeing is evidence either way.

  14. James:

    if the genders were reversed would it have made any difference?

    Why speculate?

    (I haven’t read it yet, but given my argument so far I’d expect a worse story, since I don’t think either character is rounded enough to support a straight-faced reading. But we shall see.)

  15. And yes, I realize: space is a boy’s club because girls are melodramatic and emotional messes like Valentina. This implicit assertion offends me, too.

    See, I read it the other way around: it’s only by leaving for the “boy’s club” in so extreme and hurtful a manner that reduces Valentina to such a mess. There’s still an uncomfortable implicit assumption – that Valentina is not independent enough to get over Arkadi’s betrayal – but that’s a much less damning assumption than taking the “girl cooties” at face value, no?

    I didn’t see Valentina as typifying women – again, because she seems to me initially defined by her particular relationship and history with Arkadi, which feels very extreme. Nor do I feel any implicit approval for the “boy’s club” – it’s there, but little is said of it, and while Arkadi is certainly devoted to it, I don’t get any sense that the reader is meant to be at all impressed. And in conclusion, I could easily imagine this story with the roles reversed – funnily enough, the same issue of F&SF I mentioned last discussion has a case of a man waiting for a woman who’s gone into space, debasing himself further and further until her return. I could easily imagine the same dynamic here.

    That said, I agree that towards the end, the hysteria goes over the top – the “kill me” and the “pet rabbit” stage was ridiculously exaggerated. I don’t feel, as Niall does, that this is meant as satire – it’s too straight-faced, and it feels more like the story occasionally goes too far than being over-the-top as a whole.

  16. I don’t think the simple fact that we are here and disagreeing is evidence either way.

    I’m afraid I’ve been unclear. All I meant was that any story which keeps the Club active and interesting for a few days, is already affording me far more enjoyment than the ones that don’t, whatever the story’s merits or lack-thereof might be. :)

  17. I don’t have time to discuss the story – quickly though, I agree with Niall and Maureen – parody is maybe too strong a word, but surely it reads like a pastiche, a slight exaggeration of stereotypical gender interactions – from the very first line, which is so self-consciously cool-noirish (Gauloises?) , to “I think you love your alien more than you ever loved me” (substitute work for alien and you have a line which launched a thousand soap-opera episodes).

    Of course, having read a novel by Kadrey in which the somewhat inept male viewpoint character is saved in the very first pages by the strong, smart and resourceful heroine, it is difficult for me to see this story as written with a straight face.

  18. Niall:

    why would you not think it is parodic?

    That’s not really an answer to my question. Parody is usually defined as a send-up achieved through humor or exaggeration. I definitely don’t think that “Trembling Blue Stars” is meant to be humorous, and though a case could be made for exaggeration in the depiction of Arkadi and his noirish voice, what is Valentina’s humiliation an exaggeration of? Even if we accept that parody is the wrong word and that Ziv is closer to the mark when he suggests that Arkadi is an unreliable narrator (which I think he is), Valentina’s behavior at the end of the story isn’t open to such interpretation.

  19. what is Valentina’s humiliation an exaggeration of?

    The fate stereotypically meted out to women in boy’s-own sf adventure stories: to define their existence in relation to the man of the tale.

  20. You still haven’t explained what makes this parodic rather than misogynistic. Exaggeration in parody achieves distance by being unbelievably over the top. Valentina’s humiliation isn’t unbelievably over the top – it seems par for the course for the type of story Kadrey is referencing (either ironically or otherwise), and it doesn’t achieve ironic distance but disgust or pity.

  21. Valentina’s humiliation isn’t unbelievably over the top

    Well, this is where we disagree; I think the sheer nakedness of the desperation, combined with the narrator’s muted response, pushes it over the top. It is acknowledging and foregrounding what is unacknowledged but implicit in many other stories.

  22. It is acknowledging and foregrounding what is unacknowledged but implicit in many other stories

    So being knowingly misogynistic is somehow better than just being misogynistic?

    I’ve read this story only once and quickly, but it felt very stale as a story. And it is dreadfully misogynistic, and being ironic really doesn’t change that.

  23. Inviting you to point and laugh at misogyny is better than being unaware of it or endorsing it, yes. Whether it’s better than writing stories which avoid engaging with misogyny entirely, or engage only by avoidance, is a more complex question, perhaps.

  24. I didn’t feel I was being invited to laugh at anything in this story.

    And there is no distance from the misogyny, so it does not come across as any sort of commentary upon misogyny, just an expression of it.

  25. I can see why someone would read this story as parody, but I have a harder time seeing it as a successful parody. There are, in the real world, people like Valentina. There are also people like Arkadi. Given what we see of Valentina, it does not seem to me an unreasonable or obviously “wrong” choice for Arkadi to have left her. So if the facts of the story are true (e.g., if the “guests” can only inhabit men), then there is nothing within the story itself that makes it an effective parody. In that case, it would only be effective if “the facts of the story” were so clearly absurd or twisted as to force comment on themselves. And while the guests-only-inhabiting-men thing does cant toward the misogynistic, it’s also not impossible — it doesn’t seem, by itself, sufficiently absurd as to establish a successful parody.

    (If the genders were reversed, it would at least have created an interesting commentary on traits and behaviors that are seen by some people as intrinsic to one gender, and how those might in fact develop more from social power relationships.)

    All this said, I don’t dislike the story as much as some here. It was at least blessedly brief; and I did enjoy the sleekly cool Euro-pastiche of it all; and I did discern some human content in it as well — a sense of broken relationships, and how the more one party tries to hold on the further the other may go to escape, and how the individual can become a stand-in for the species (“You want to know if I still have any human feelings? This is what I have: I hate you all.”), which seemed to me a clever use of the SF mindset.

  26. I’m not a huge fan of this story either. One element that put me off was the rhythm and explicitness of the dialog. My feeling is that most people don’t have perfect lay-it-all-out-on-the-table conversations like that. I know that in dialog it’s OK to leave out all the “ums” and “ers” and let people talk more smoothly than they ever can in real time, but this seemed way over-idealized to be realistic. Basically, it seemed that too much was stated baldly (told) instead of implied (shown).

    But that does help with a satirical reading. I definitely read it as a commentary on historical male-female relations in sf and science. I most agree with Niall then when he says “My strongest critique of the story, actually, would be that this critique itself is not new.”

    I don’t feel like this adds a huge amount to what we’ve already had with Spock and Nurse Chapel on Star Trek. The story addresses a much older model of male-female problems in sf and science itself. We’ve still got problems along those lines, but they’ve mutated considerably, and I don’t feel like this story addresses their modern forms. Whaddya say, Real Year = c. 1964?

    BTW, I’d *like* to read this in such a way that Valentina is deperate to get into space somehow rather than desperate to just get back with Arkadi, but I don’t think the text can support that reading.

  27. I’m starting to wonder whether our focus on Arkadi and Valentina’s relationship, and the question of whether they embody or satirize sexist cliches, isn’t shifting the emphasis of the story away from where the author intended it to be. The editor’s introduction in the magazine where it first appeared calls it “a black tale of spacers, with a truly ill slant that I’ve never seen before” – that slant being, presumably, the price Arkadi had to pay to get into space. Is it possible that his and Valentina’s conversation is meant to reflect on that transformation rather than as an end in its own right? Of course, that still leaves the question of Valentina’s humiliation at the end of the story, but then that bit sticks out like a sore thumb no matter how you choose to read the story.

  28. If the editor truly had never seen that slant before, then he has never read The Ship Who Sang or Light or Aye And Gomorrah or Man Plus or …

    The idea that going into space means giving up a part of yourself, and how much that part impacts your view of yourself as a human being is at least 40 years old in sf, and most of the versions I’ve read are far far more subtle, engaging, complex, believable than this story.

    If we are concentrating on the ‘wrong’ aspect of the story, it is because that aspect is what stands out to us as readers.

  29. Actually, thinking about it, Arkadi doesn’t really give up much at all, does he. He gets to do what he wants to do, he gets to smoke and drink, and though he suggests that some aliens don’t like sex it turns out it hasn’t stopped him. It’s a boy’s own wet dream isn’t it: he runs away from a wife he doesn’t like and gets everything he’s ever wanted. The only one who suffers in all this is Valentina, because girls don’t get to play like the boys do.

    Damn, the more I think about this story, the less I like it.

  30. The only one who suffers in all this is Valentina, because girls don’t get to play like the boys do.

    Damn, the more I think about this story, the less I like it.

    Well, it’s not like we’re expecting a morality play, is it?

    He hurt Valentina because it was easier for him to get what he wanted that way. The mere fact that he succeeded doesn’t make the story misogynistic; it just makes him a successful bastard.

  31. I certainly didn’t read it as a parody, and if it was intended as one, I would have to say it failed. In a parody, there should be some humor, there should be something to laugh at.

    To me, it comes down to the question whether Valentina is an object of pity or mockery, which in turn implies the question – is she a real person or only a caricature; is her pain real to her? I came down on the side of pitiable, even if taken to excess.

  32. For what it’s worth, my read on the story matched Abigail’s recent comment: the point of the conversation is the sacrifice made for space travel and the distorting effects it is having. I think the reader is supposed to find the alien possession to be chilling and dehumanizing, from the euphemism “guest” to Arkadi’s Vulcan outlook. If Valentina is distraught to the point of frankly insane behavior there at the end, that’s just one more consequence of humanity’s deal with the devil.

    I’m not particularly sensitive to gender issues when I read SF so during the early part of this discussion I figured maybe I’d missed something. But now I don’t think so, I think the use of traditional roles was meant to ground the story in the familiar. You’ve heard a thousand versions of the I-still-love-you-take-me-back conversation, the author is saying, now see how messed up it becomes when I throw in this SFnal device!

    That said, I didn’t think the story was very good. Even short stories, I feel, should have some sort of plot. This is just a vignette, a single scene without any of the details and complexity that make SF stories interesting. Short-form SF is plagued with these things, and I almost never like them. It’s especially common with Internet-published stories since, for understandable reasons, they tend to be especially short. I’m prepared to consider that my own failing, but I don’t think I’m alone, and I wonder if the current unpopularity of short fiction doesn’t come from similar reactions.

    A useful comparison here is “The Puma” which happens to have a similar structure: two ex-lovers meet after a time apart has changed them both. But “The Puma” used that structure to tell a complete story and convey substantially more, and while I think it was a lot longer, I think the issue is not so much one of length as aspiration.

  33. Aha! Finally put my finger on something that was bugging me: the dialog felt more like a script for a staged play than any natural conversation. In fact, the whole story could work a bit like a (very short) one act play for two actors. Would it be worth doing, or it is simply too over-the-top? Hmm…

  34. Curious – for about the first two thirds of this one, I was certain it was a brilliantly savage satire on that whole male autistic SF mindset that (for example) constantly bemoans the passing of “optimistic” Heinleinesque tales of heroic competent men achieving great things, and flinches violently whenever anything as icky and sticky as actual sex enters the narrative. There does seem to be some evidence in this direction – the “guests” (read the aforementioned mindset) are made uncomfortable by sex, and the one inside Arkadi flinches at human contact. There is the stilted politeness in lieu of genuine human feeling (how many stiltedly polite non-fan mails I have had complaining earnestly about the sex in my books!). There’s the cold scientific wonder of stars being born, but an accompanying lack of eyes with which to see, perhaps, more ordinary things like what you’re doing wrong in a relationship or when you’ve hurt someone. There are the (I think deliberately) clunky cyberpunk fetish items on garish display (and it’s interesting that only Arkadi accessorises in this way, not Valentina) by which Arkadi validates his hollow existence. So forth.

    So yeah, there’s all that – but then there’s Valentina’s outrageously OTT debasement, and I have to confess I’m having a hard time making that bit fit my interpretation. Is this meant to be the crucifixion of female sensibility by the genre? The crushing of women into the roles the aforementioned mindset demands (as Niall seems to be implying). If that’s it, then it has to be said it’s a remarkably subtle piece of satire compared to the brutal assault on SF maleness in the earlier stages of the story. But I think I’ll still have to buy it as such because in the end, like Marco, I have read other work by Kadrey (and met him), and I find it very hard to believe that this could be straight-faced cyberpunk-derived mysogyny. The rest of the story doesn’t support that assumption, the rest of Kadrey’s work doesn’t support that assumption – so I’m still leaning towards the idea of a (perhaps not wholly successful) micro-compact version of the same deconstructive project undertaken by M John Harrison in Nova Swing. And in that guise, I like it rather a lot. Girls don’t belong in space! Too right! So fuck off the lot of you with your feelings and your icky sex and your emotional demands and your reminders of human frailty and leave us boys to play in our hollowed-out, blind and fetish-obsessive little world! We like it here! Leave us alone! (flounces out on the thundering fire pile of a thrusting steel phallus….)

  35. ‘the price men pay to go into space’ – struck a note with me. What price? Ok, there appears to be a little medical unpleasantness involved, and he had to relearn how to smoke, but he believes he’s still the same person as before, he does the same things as before, *and* he gets to play in space. For someone who does not appear to have been in a successful relationship beore and does not even have the memory to miss what he’s missing out on, there seems to be no price to pay.

    I felt cheated when it turns out the drinking and smoking were not -really_ ‘drinking’ and ‘smoking,’ segued into wondering how the biology of ‘removing all organs’ worked (how does the brain get oxygen and nutrients? and fell completely flat because the idea has absolutely no legs to stand on whatsoever. The moment you start looking at the science, the central conceit turns into a (rather nasty) handwavium particle.

  36. he believes he’s still the same person as before

    Which of course doesn’t mean that he is. I tend to feel that the story suggests that he’s not, in fact. Certainly it is not a risk I would willingly take.

  37. Go away from the internet for a while and come back to find Niall being utterly wrong. Surprise!

    I don’t see anyway whatsoever you could read this as a parody. There is definitely a certain level of irony to the story but that isn’t the same thing at all. In fact, this irony seems more like an attempt to have your cake and eat.

    It is interesting that Marco and Richard have read better stuff by Kadrey but I think the conclusion to draw is that he had an off day, not that this is secretly a good story. I would be interested in reading more of his work though.

  38. Martin said: I think the conclusion to draw is that he had an off day, not that this is secretly a good story.

    Yeah, I wouldn’t argue that it’s secretly good (I think the second half lets the first half down too badly for that), only that it doesn’t deserve the literalist reading that a lot of people here seem to be giving it.

    Try “Metrophage” – it’ll feel a little dated these days (very much like a pulpier, less controlled “Neuromancer”), and it owes a huge debt to Harrison’s Centauri Device, but it’s still a cracking read, and its heart is massively in the right place.

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