Short Story Club: “The Shangri-La Affair”

Pretty much praise all around for this one. Let’s start with Rich Horton, in the March Locus:

[at Strange Horizons] In January, my favourite story is sf: “The Shangri-La Affair” by Lavie Tidhar. Sometime in the near future a man comes to Laos on a mysterious mission, as war continues to sweep through Asia. The familiar routines are enacted: the flight in on Nuevo Air Amerika; the rendezvous with an enchanting woman; the journey to a hidden city. Slowly we learn the man’s mission. He is trying to find and destroy the only samples of a dangerous plague, but is it dangerous? That turns out to be a good question, one Tidhar leaves the reader to answer, making this a fine, thought-provoking story.

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

Very edgy and unsettling stuff, best read to the Ride of the Valkyries and evoking a cynical world of spooks and black ops as well as a skiffy side of robotic and cyborg warriors and designer bioweapons, as well as the obligatory sexy Asian girl.


Jason Sanford declares it a story of the week, and writes:

Tidhar’s story reads like a drug-infused John Le Carré novel, if Le Carré wrote science fiction and dropped LSD as he pounded on the typewriter. The narrative is tense and action-based, pulling the reader through a story with flat-out beautiful prose. The result is a tale which is both fun to read, and a fascinating glimpse into the madness of future wars. All in all, an amazing accomplishment, and highly recommended.

It’s James’ favourite of the short story club:

I loved the style of the writing, it had a great sense of place, with some really groovy description: funky, cool and foreign. It has plenty of background tech scenery, the sort of layers that give the future a good sense of believability, combined with some striking descriptive images.

The POV is a bit slippery in places, along with the nameless protagonist, and I liked both, producing a tale-of-the-past feel combined with a kind of Ludlum-esque Bourne style espionage.

It doesn’t skimp on ideas either, leaving a rather large question for discussion at the end: is peace enforced by biological means something we should use? Peace or slavery?

I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Probably my favourite of the entire story club so far. Highly recommended.

And it sent Evan on a Tidhar binge:

This week’s short story club story is The Shangri-La Affair by Lavie Tidhar, who I’d never heard of before.

It’s really quite good.

I was struck from the first by the confidence of the narrative voice. The story follows an unnamed protagonist from a quite close third-person perspective through a future war in South-East Asia, concerning a particular MacGuffin in the form of a peace plague (the Shangri-La of the title), virally transmissable fellow-feeling that stops hostilities in their tracks. We only get to see its effects for a moment before everything is blown to atoms by the unseen backers of our nameless viewpoint character. The story’s prime emotional conflict is his struggle between destroying the peace plague and letting it spread. Finally, he decides that peace not chosen is no peace worth having. This struggle would have more resonance if we had some theory as to how the peace plague works. If the reader were allowed another viewpoint on whether or not the plague nullifies free will, it very well might deepen the effect of his choice. The doubt it still there, but I think that it’d be better if it were made a bit more explicit.

The story isn’t perfect, of course. There are only token female characters and the people that we encounter for the most part are generic Men of Action and Consequence. The plot is at least four decades old and the tone is taken straight from smeary spy novels set in warzones far away from the home front, without any real engagement with the consequences of the war on the people who live there. What virtue the piece has lies in the cleverness of its synthesis of these elements, and I think that it succeeds very well (that said, I tend towards synthesis in my tastes, perhaps to a fault, Gene Wolfe and Michael Swanwick being favorites of mine).

Since reading it, I’ve gone on something of a Tidhar binge, and what is out there on line really strikes me as quality stuff, some of it better, I think, than this particular piece, 304 Adolf Hitler Strasse over at Clarkesworld being the best of the stuff online, in my opinion, at least that I’ve found. I also went out and bought HebrewPunk and ordered The Bookman, so I may be in the throes of an irrational enthusiasm. Looking forward to what he produces in the future.

With an explanation of how he’s using synthesis here (useful perspective, I think). But what did everyone else think?

27 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “The Shangri-La Affair”

  1. I’m torn. As the reviewers you’ve quoted have said, it’s a very well done story, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s a little too well done. After a while, the cyberpunkish detail starts to feel a little tongue in cheek, as though Tidhar is piling every single one of the subgenre’s tropes one on top of the other in order to create the definitive hard-boiled, high-octane, high-concept story. You’ve got your tough as nails narrator (whose name and nationality Tidhar deliberately leaves blank), and your exotic yet kickass female (note singular) character, and your capable, no-nonsense military sidekick who is all about the money but really about the thrills, and your Asian setting, and your future war and high-tech squalor, and twelve different varieties of modified humans, cyborgs, manimals, artificial entities, and killer robots, culminating in a battle between two armies of the latter two. It’s a bit hard to take seriously, is what I’m saying (even harder than cyberpunk in general), and I have to conclude that Tidhar is either entirely earnest in trying to write the punkiest cyberpunk story ever, or he’s having a laugh. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

    But if “The Shangri-La Affair” is a send-up of the subgenre, I can’t quite see what the point of it is. The story’s McGuffing is familiar in a rather tired way, and its conclusion even more so. It’s a stylistic triumph – whether or not its over-the-topness is intentional – but somewhat hollow.

  2. I think the hollow feeling is the point, suggesting the moral emptiness of war for its own sake.

  3. I’m coming in a bit on the negative side of this one. There were parts I liked (world-building, setting, atmosphere) but parts I didn’t (structure, info-dumping and heavy-handed allegory). I have certainly enjoyed other Tidhe stories more.

    I think my biggest problem is how the info-dump sequences interrupt the flow; at one point even interrupting an on-going fire-fight. If you’re going to undermine your action sequences like that, why have them? It may be to emphasize the world-weariness and been-there-done-that-ness of the protagonist, but it seemed egregious to me.

    Also, the McGuffin ended up being too allegorical for me. It’s a cliche that everyone is always in favor of peace, love and motherhood. I think a real-world person in the situation the protagonist finds himself in would need to do a bit more mental tap-dancing and re-defining before he’d be able to cold-heartedly destroy Peace. Again, I see the way it emphasizes what bad guys and bad corporations actually *do*, but it neglects the psychology that enables them to do it.

    But I’m with the folks who favorably compare the atmosphere to Le Carre, and really appreciated the setting, cast of characters and world-building.

  4. Lois:

    I think the hollow feeling is the point, suggesting the moral emptiness of war for its own sake.

    I think that’s certainly one way of reading it; although I wonder whether it doesn’t stumble in the same way that I have problem with Austin Grossman’s praise of Leviathan:

    If it poses a big question, that question would be, Wouldn’t it be cool if the First World War had been fought with genetically engineered mutant animals, against steam-­powered walking machines like the ones from “The Empire Strikes Back”? And the answer is, Yes, it would.

    To which I say: no, it bloody wouldn’t. And I think that maybe the “funky, cool and foreign” gloss that James (rightly) identifies sends Tidhar in the same direction, that the surface is so effectively distracting — Ravenz and dolls and Dragon Boyz, oh my! — that it’s hard to get past.

    On the other hand, given Karen’s reaction to the “undermining” of the action sequences, maybe I’m fretting needlessly. I certainly agree that the story is very technically competent, and like Evan, I find myself getting more and more interested in Tidhar’s fiction in general.

  5. I think what he’s doing is subverting the cool, scraping off the surface for a look behind it.

  6. This is certainly one of the better stories so far.

    I guess the atmosphere and such was neat, but I had a hard time taking it seriously. It felt like Snow Crash, not Neuromancer, if you know what I mean. And that was a shame, because I thought the whole Peace thing merited a more serious and thoughtful investigation.

  7. Matt:

    I thought the whole Peace thing merited a more serious and thoughtful investigation.

    You’ll be wanting Stand on Zanzibar, then.

  8. Great story. Quickly made a compelling and believable setting, and pulled both atmosphere and the plot in effectively. An energetic smart piece from an author clearly at the top of his game.

    The first time I’ve encountered Tidar, and it’s definitely sending me on a search for more of his stuff.

  9. I second Niall’s last comment to Matt. _Stand on Zanzibar_ was immediately what I thought of when the macguffin finally came clear. Although, honestly, I thought that Brunner could have given us more time after the discovery to really work through the implications of it, which is something that this story is short on, too. If you’re a cyberpunk fan at all, I think that _SoZ_ is an important historical document as well, for style, content and feel.

    As for the rest of Matt’s comment, I totally hear what you’re saying. It can be a little too knowing, sometimes, especially with the repetition of, “Richard, or John, or Enrique — but call me Rick–” and “London or Zurich or Bonn, or wherever the fuck he was from”. That Tidhar has enough command of the material to really make it sing is clear, but what is less clear is whether or not he has enough to really make it mean something. As I said in my post, I think that he half-succeeds, but that there’s something missing there, although I don’t know what, precisely, I’d suggest if he were to come to me for a fix.

  10. Wouldn’t it be cool if the First World War had been fought with genetically engineered mutant animals, against steam- powered walking machines like the ones from “The Empire Strikes Back”? And the answer is, Yes, it would.

    To which I say: no, it bloody wouldn’t.

    Niall, you’re no fun any more.

  11. I was a bit surprised to find myself reacting so viscerally against that statement, too. I’m all for the hojillion-Rohirrim charge at Pelennor Fields, for instance. But apparently I feel the lesser abstraction of alternate history demands a certain amount of respect for the tragedy of the real thing.

  12. I’m guessing this is a regional thing. Grossman probably doesn’t have the same visceral associations with the first World War that a British person would, especially around this time of year.

  13. It is a fun story and I enjoyed reading it but it is all surface. As Abigail says, it is virtually a parody in its deployment of cyperpunk elements. I think the over-the-topness is intentional and I think it works but it does limit the story.

    Evan talks about its “prime emotional conflict” but I don’t believe there is any conflict here. “He” always going to destroy peace. Any hesitation is simply for dramatic tension.

    It reminded me of Bruce Sterling’s Leggy Starlitz stories but without the same sense of irony and the weight of history.

    Re: WWI. I think it is just the sheer pointlessness of it that obviates any sense of coolness. There are no noble narratives, even if you add new set dressing it is still putting millions of men through the mincer for no reason.

  14. Now I have a sudden urge to write a WWI story.

    W.r.t. “The Shangri-La Affair” I thought it was, as Martin says, fun but all surface. I don’t think the Le Carré comparisons are remotely justified — The Honourable Schoolboy was probably on the background reading list, but that’s about it. Fluffier Bruce Sterling is closer — I didn’t see much cyber, or any punk at all, but it did feel a bit like some of the stories from the Crystal Express era.

    Suspect I would have enjoyed it more blown out into a novel, but that might just be how I roll.

  15. Cyberpunk isn’t a term which I would have used if it hadn’t already been mentioned in this thread but I do think it fits. That Sterling vibe, transnational, post-nation, even the compressed novel feel. Colonel Wu strikes me as very cyberpunk. Obviously we are a long way from the Sprawl but maybe this is what cyberpunk does on its holidays.

    Suspect I would have enjoyed it more blown out into a novel, but that might just be how I roll.

    I was also thinking that but at the same time extending to that length might have fatally exposed the essential absence of “He”. I’m interested in reading Tindar at novel length though and I’m looking forward to The Bookman.

  16. Niall, Evan: Actually, I’ve read Stand on Zanzibar and it’s one of my favorite novels. The big difference is that in this story I feel like Peace is the one interesting note, the only one that seems to strike at deeper issues in a story that otherwise doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. In contrast, in SoZ, the revelation of Beninia’s version of Peace struck me as far less serious than the rest of the story when I first read the novel years ago. Throughout the novel, Beninia’s secret is the one bit of good news in an unrelenting stream of depressing predictions, and it turns out to be the story’s least plausible element. But since this isn’t a discussion of SoZ I will save that digression for another time.

  17. I’ve read a rather random sampling of Tidhar’s stories; I’ll count myself among those who found “Shangri-La” lacking depth, and I’ve had similar reactions to other stories of Tidhar’s in the past.

    This felt to me something like a great pitch for a TV series: a foreign, war-torn backdrop, great narration, and a slew of characters, factions, and races which are immediately gripping and who mostly have quite a bit of potential. But that’s just the pitch – fun, exciting, but: actually delving into all that, filling it in, fleshing it out, finding the storylines this setting can tell, aren’t even taken a stab at.

    The plot revolves around a simplistic device, familiar and not particularly well-handled. And for all the exotic elements that are thrown at us, the main thrust of the story would fit comfortably in a contemporary setting, in a Star Trek episode, or just about anywhere else.

    I’d be thrilled to read future stories about war in Laos; about Ravens and Klandestines; about a modern Captain Hook; about New Air America. But this story wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t about any of its elements except the one that was executed most poorly, which, when you get down to it, is really something of a shame.

  18. I agree with everyone who found that this was style over substance, mostly I was just saying, “what style!”. For me, this story scored big points for being the first (or second, I guess I read “spider moon” first, maybe two days before) story I’d read by an exciting new author. Like I said in my post, there are a lot of weaknesses there, but I am willing to take a lot on faith, I guess, and assuming that at some point Tidhar will tire of just being clever and find a weightier theme that he can work his teeth into. Perhaps I shouldn’t assume, as for many authors, being clever is apparently its own reward. But still, I’m hopeful.

  19. Other people’s wars are always more fun to reimagine. I find that my visceral reaction to a genetically engineered South going up against a steampunk North (which, actually, makes a lot of sense on some metahistorical level) is much more intense than my reaction to a reimagined WWI, or Boer War, or storming of the Bastille.

  20. It was the stylish cyberpunk-ness that I loved, being a sucker for cyberpunk. I think it’s a bit harsh to say there was no substance, there was at least a question at the end.

    Interesting discussion about style/substance though, left me wondering if I’d mind a story that *was* pure style. Maybe not. Depends how good the style is I suppose, if it’s entertaining, it’s entertaining.

  21. Look, I just don’t ever want to read another story with sexbots. I don’t care if you are doing it ironically, subversively or some other -ly I haven’t thought of. (Of course, in this case it was just gratuitously – it does nothing for the story. Similarly, why evoke the KKK if you aren’t going to do something with it? When I read Klan Klandestine I thought “oh, so you are going there” and by the end I was thinking “so you went there and you did nothing with it. Why did you do that?”)

    As others have said, it’s a superficial treatment of something that’s been done fairly often and done better elsewhere.

    Tonally, I found the story to be a mashup of a sultry noir and campy cyberpunk that didn’t work – the meld didn’t gel and the disparate parts weren’t very engaging.

    I’m surprised that this seems to be one of the more popular stories in the short story club so far.

  22. I’m surprised that this seems to be one of the more popular stories in the short story club so far.

    Chance: I’m afraid it speaks ill of the previous stories. We seem to be, as the phrase goes, a tough crowd. :P

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