Short Story Club: “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew”

So, here we are, for the last time this run. Here’s the story. I can’t find much comment on this one — I’m sure we’ll rectify that! — but Lois really liked it:

Steampunk is generally regarded as an alternate genre, usually alternate history. This, I believe, must be an alternate steampunk, one further step removed from the mundane reality with which we are familiar. Strange—wondrous strange—poetic, fantastic, mythic, visionary cosmology.

For those of you who enjoy such things, Valente also made a post about writing sf. (This may be of particular interest to James…)

Anyway. The floor is open; what did you think?

29 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew”

  1. Wrote my comments then went to read what Catherynne had to say about writing SF on her blog. Interesting. I do think the story is erring towards the Fantasy circle of the SF Venn Diagram. I still haven’t figured out a way to describe how I categorise stories that way, something internal.

  2. I was surprised to see how wide a gulf she sees between the SF and fantasy sides of the genre. I agree with James that this one has a fantastical tone for something that can be classified as SF. Since for me it’s all fantasy, rivets or no, I don’t consider this any kind of problem.

    Her comments on the differences in writing the two are insightful, though.

  3. The pressure that Catherynne seemed to feel to write Hard SF is also interesting. There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into SF that you need to know real science to write good SF. Which is of course rubbish.

    I heard someone once ask Richard Morgan, in a very serious tone, how he dealt with SCIENCE in his books, how he did the research etc. etc. etc. He replied “I just make it up.” The shock on the persons face made me laugh out loud.

    You just have to pretend that you know what you are talking about, surely?!

  4. The days of sf authors just winging it are surely over? The title of my blog aside, readers now can look up something just as easily as writers, and no matter how vigorously the author waves their hands in their face, they’ll not put up with obvious bollocks science.

  5. Firstly I think Valente is one of those writers whose prose is delightful whatever her subject. It is rich, dense, potent somehow offering more than is there.
    The actual story here reminds me simultaneously of early Ballard with its artistic decadence and of Calvino as it cuts and fades between fragments.

  6. It’s surprising that someone as young as Valente would feel like SF has to be hard. I feel like most of the “canonical” SF of the last 25 years has been soft, like Ender’s Game, Hyperion, Player of Games, and A Fire Upon the Deep. I suppose books like Neuromancer and Cyteen might seem hard at first glance, but they aren’t either. I’m struggling to think of really prominent hard SF from the same time period: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books, certainly, Greg Egan’s work, Snow Crash, kind of. I don’t know.

    In any event, I can certainly understand that the folkloric fantasy that Valente wrote so well in The Orphan’s Tales involves a totally different toolbox than most science fiction. But I think it’s just as far away from, say, the fantasy of Glen Cook, George R R Martin, and Steven Erikson.

    It’s too bad she says in that piece she has no interest in folkloric SF, it’d be neat to see what she’d come up with.

  7. It’s too bad she says in that piece she has no interest in folkloric SF,

    I’m not sure she does say that and indeed The Radiant Car seems like an example of folkloric SF to me.

  8. I settled in for a nice little steampunk read and then found the story kept curving in impossible directions and left me feeling very strange. So, “slipstream”, surely? And measured for it’s effect, very successful.

  9. First: is anyone actually interested in, as DGW seems to think you are, having “a moan about the lack of science in science fiction”? No, didn’t think so.

    Second: that said, even leaving aside Valente’s blog post, this strikes me as a story that is very self-conscious about its generic placement. The first sentence is an argument in itself about the urge behind space exploration and sf — “Being unable to retrace our steps in Time, we decided to move forward in Space” — that is immediately undercut by the archaisms in the style and setting. This is a story that, in some sense, has retraced our steps in Time, or retraced sf’s steps in Time, to recreate a version of the solar system that only ever existed in sf. Then you have the comparison between Unck’s fantasies and Bysshe’s documentaries — from the assertion that the protagonist is recording “the genuine and righteous world of the true tale”, which is in fact a fantastical, impossible world, to the intercutting of the two in the shows mentioned at the end. I read the story and feel it challenging me: can you accept this as sf? What about this?

    Third: I know enough to think “Shelley” when I see “Bysshe”, but I don’t know enough to know whether the reference goes any deeper. Anyone?

    Fourth: Martin, what do you mean by “folkloric sf”?

    Fifth: My reservation about the story is that I don’t think it actually evokes Bysshe’s commitment to the actual all that well; what I want, with a documentarian as protagonist, is a sense of anthropoloigical solidity to any encounter with the alien, and what I get is much more drawn from the mystical/transcendent strand of sf — which I also like, but doesn’t feel quite integrated here.

    Sixth: I assume the 1986 setting is not accidental. And not to reduce everything to Baxter, but I do happen to have just re-read Voyage, which of course references the same date in its alternate history. And it strikes me as in some sense the inversion of this story: an immensely technical book (rather than a fanciful short), with a woman scientist at its heart who struggles throughout the book to find the human and emotional language to describe her experiences (rather than struggles to capture the actual).

    Seventh: Duncan, which bits left you feeling veryy strange?

  10. Martin: well I was paraphrasing. Valente: “…it’s certainly possible to retell fairy tales and such in an SF universe. Somehow I’m not actually all that interested in doing that.

    I interpreted this to mean she’s not interested in a set of SF stories in the style of Orphan’s Tales, but I may be guilty of casting everything she says in the light of the one book (well really two) of hers that I’ve read.

  11. Martin: “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into SF that you need to know real science to write good SF. Which is of course rubbish.”

    Both statements are false. What speculative fiction demands, regardess of subgenre, is convincing worldbuilding — which in turn demands that the author stick to the rules s/he has made. In this regard, fantasy grants slightly larger leeway than SF.

    Fiction is — must be — the dominant partner in all literary efforts. However, writing SF in deliberate ignorance of science doth not a strong or convincing story make, if only because it jolts many readers out of the “willing disbelief” trance.

    If a story’s outcome doesn’t depend on science, real, extended or speculative, the work is not SF. It’s magic realism, fantasy… Not that it matters. The less the larger genre ghettoizes and nitpicks itself, the better it will be for its writers and readers.

    What SFF seems to be suffering from right now is not necessarily ignorance of science, but extreme parochialism: most of its practitioners not only proudly proclaim that they don’t know no science; they also don’t read outside the genre, even subgenres. No wonder much of the gruel tastes thin.

  12. Wonderful. Although, as always with Valente, in the immediate aftermath I’m too caught up in her glorious prose (completely agree with Kev’s characterisation of it, above as “rich, dense, potent”) to be able to discuss it coherently. There’s something so hypnotic about the layers of detail and suggestion. Definitely need some time to digest (and possibly re-read); but a few ramblings follow.

    Niall, interesting thoughts on sf/fantasy (or fact/fiction) in the story. It’s also there in the telling of the story: the way the narrator initially allows us to think of him as a more-or-less detached observer – just documenting the events – and only after discussing himself in the third person for some time finally reveals that he is the boy in question. (And yet continues to avoid virtually all observation and discussion of Bysshe, in favour of extracts from the film.) Bysshe’s father’s comments about the impossibility of finding objective truth through the subjective medium of film, and the opening quotation, also feed into this.

    I wonder if “the true tale” is as much about emotional truth, ultimately, as it is about observed fact: at the end, Bysshe goes from observing and recording to experiencing and understanding. Or, at least, that’s what the film fragments suggest she’s doing, but again the final paragraph juxtaposes instinct and artifice; which takes me back to the glimpse of young Bysshe in her father’s film, insisting she wants only to be herself. But the manner of her leaving life – documented on film – presumably only guaranteed that she’ll forever be fair game to the kind of speculation and reimagining mentioned elsewhere in the narration (the editing of her final film, the tabloid stories, etc).

    I don’t know. And, more importantly, my lunch hour is over!

  13. And just as I was closing the story window, I spotted that the final film extract is introduced with ‘INT.’, not ‘EXT.’ Heh. Maybe it isn’t so fantastical, after all?

  14. Seventh: Duncan, which bits left you feeling very strange?

    Wind burn from wearing a swimming costume to be shot out of a cannon to Venus (already undercutting the Steampunkish typography).

    The undercutting of the objective idea of the Documentarian with the ‘reality tv’ of Bysshe, deciding where her next adventure will be (and what that means about her reported “I only want to be myself”).

    The sudden conversion of anonymous narrator into the adult of the child on the film (and why we might now expect a revision of the vision, but we don’t get it).

    The idea that many humans who have “supped all our lives on this alien milk” are becoming alien themselves (but the narrator “once saw” that, so what happened afterwards?)

  15. Fourth: Martin, what do you mean by “folkloric sf”?

    I was just using it in response to Matt who I thought was referring to this quote from Valente’s blog:

    But while I’ve gotten very used to inventing on the folkloric level, to creating fantasy worlds and situations, it really is a different thing to suddenly apply that skill set to SF, which has a whole other set of reader demands and expectations.

    I took her to be using folkloric in a similar way to worldbuilding and saying that a skill in fantasy worldbuilding does not necessarily immediately transfer to an equal skill in SF worldbuilding. So I found Matt’s comment odd because I thought she was saying folkloric SF was a learning curve not that she wasn’t interested in it. And, indeed, a sense of place and worldbuilding is very important to this story. On top of this though, there is a mythic, amplified treatment of Bysshe which does more literally turn the story into a type of folklore.

    There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into SF that you need to know real science to write good SF. Which is of course rubbish.

    I didn’t write that, James did. Although I agree.

  16. Not a whole lot to say here, other than I loved the atmosphere and the writing but found the whole thing a bit too allusive. I feel like I need to re-read it, and doubtless will, but the first read-through left me wondering, at least a little, what the point was. It felt introductory, and since I liked the writing and the atmosphere so much, I felt cheated when it ended. It sets up so many mysteries, and then solves precisely none of them. Leaving threads unresolved is fine, I think, but something about the structure here is off.

  17. James and Martin:

    “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into historical fiction that you need to know real history — or, at least, the history of the era you intend to visit — to write good historical fiction or alternate history. Which is of course rubbish.”

  18. I recall Lewis Shiner saying that he didn’t feel any need to know how helicopters worked to write about a helicopter pilot, just how pilots think. A lot of the stories in Geoff Ryman’s anthology When It Changed use science but are more focussed on the scientist and the process than the theory.
    SF needs science in the mix, but it has to be fiction first. A story with no made up science is not science fiction its just fiction surely.

  19. Kevin, I substantially agree with you, as you can see from these points in my earlier post on this thread:

    “What speculative fiction demands, regardess of subgenre, is convincing worldbuilding — which in turn demands that the author stick to the rules s/he has made. // Fiction is — must be — the dominant partner in all literary efforts.”

    However, a story with no made up science can still be science fiction. An obvious example: exploring one of the solar planets. You can stay entirely within known science and technology, and still weave a stirring story with speculative elements in it.

  20. Nic:

    I don’t know.

    No, neither do I. As in: like Evan, I cannot completely piece together the events that lie behind these fragments. And I can’t decide whether we’re meant to be able to do so, or not. Perhaps as Martin says, the idea is that we embrace the incompleteness, impose our own meaning on the fragments, and in so doing continue the myth of Bysshe. (Another refusal of a conventionally sfnal understanding of the world, perhaps.)

  21. Niall: I cannot completely piece together the events that lie behind these fragments. And I can’t decide whether we’re meant to be able to do so, or not.

    Upon finishing a Gene Wolfe novel I usually don’t really understand what happened but I always feel like if I just paid more attention I could figure it out…that the truth is out there, so to speak.

    This story, along with a lot of stories more readily identifiable as fantasy like Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, left me not understanding what happened but also with the impression that I wasn’t supposed to understand it. Or maybe that the story is meant to be understood emotionally rather than logically? Certainly viewed in terms of theme and emotion this story is actually pretty straightforward and accessible. I enjoyed the story and the skill with which it was written.

    But I still kind of wish I knew what really happened.

  22. I’ll mostly keep out of the discussion, as I didn’t really connect to this story at all. I tend to like steampunk, and not to like slipstream – it seems that combined into streampunk, I still don’t like.

    The “surface” plot only kicked in in the last couple of pages; by the time we got to it, it really didn’t interest me, so it’s no surprise that the cosmic resolution didn’t resonate with me. Bysshe, as a character, didn’t strike a chord with me either – she didn’t seem to have much substance beyond her description as being larger-than-life. The setting, atmosphere, style… well, I have nothing against them, but they certainly didn’t make the story for me, as it seems they have for others. Whatever qualities they had, I kept looking for substance to back them up, and I came up empty.

    Oh, and the “twist” revealing the narrator as being the trapped boy rubbed me the wrong way. It didn’t seem to add anything; it felt contrived and mismatched with the rest of the story; and yet by the fact that it is an unexpected addition at the end, I feel as though I’m expected to be impressed by it.

    Evidently not my cup of tea. Alas.

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