Short Story Club: “Miguel and the Viatura”

I can’t see any coverage for this week’s story in either the print Locus or the online one, so it’s left to the SSC stalwarts to kick things off. Matt Hilliard:

My reaction to the story is similar to how I felt about “A Serpent in the Gears”. That story was steampunk and this one is cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk, or whatever it’s called this week) but both stories spend almost their entire length on introductions. We are introduced to the titular Miguel and his brother, but, like “Serpent”, the emphasis is on introducing the world. Also like “Serpent”, this story assembles a set of tropes common to its subgenre almost as if it is ticking off boxes: poverty-stricken non-first world setting, telepresence, nanites, environmental problems, evil corporations, and a technofetishist cult, just to name some of the big ones. Like “Serpent” it does a good job with these things, and is in fact tied together with what I thought was somewhat stronger writing, but alas it has a final similarity with “Serpent” in that I found the plot to be incomplete and unsatisfying.

Pam Philips:

Maybe I missed some clues or unstated assumptions, but it’s not entirely clear to me why Joaõ asks Miguel to help him find their father. Joaõ is so vague about the situation that he manages to hurt Miguel deeply without even touching him. Miguel is almost entirely on the receiving end of the action, but the powers that be leap to the conclusion that he is to blame. Mostly things happen to Miguel, and all he can do is protest. Sure he’s a kid, and he grows up a little, but I was left with no idea what he was going to do in the end. There’s also a “torture is pointless and cruel” scene that goes on way too long, but I suppose it wouldn’t be torture if it stopped when you got tired of it.

As for the technology, this comes off as one of those nano-can-do-anything stories. I was also jarred by the term “nanite”, which I mostly associate with Star Trek. Finally, what we see of nanotech seems to be confined to making people into monsters. What’s the point? These people sure as hell don’t need technology to act monstrously.

Chad Orzel:

I don’t recognize the author’s name, but this story is very much in the same vein as the stuff I’ve read by Paolo Bacigalupi and others. I’m not sure if there’s really a formal literary movement in this, a la “cyberpunk” or the “New Weird,” but it’s tempting to think of this sort of story in those terms, as a part of the Recent Unpleasantness. Because, really, that’s the defining trait of these stories: every aspect of the thing, from the setting to the characters to the actions that drive the plot, is chosen to make the result as unpleasant as possible.

Is there more to it? The floor is open.

19 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Miguel and the Viatura”

  1. What mostly struck me about this story was how passive and naive the point of view character, Miguel, was. As Pam says, there are reasons for this – he’s young, and his father’s sacrifice has afforded him a relatively sheltered existence – but the story doesn’t deal with either his passivity or naivete in an interesting way. Rather, they feel like a way for Gregory to justify infodumping – Miguel doesn’t know his world any better than we do (in fact he knows it less well, as most of us have read stories set in worlds similar to this, so we can guess that, for example, helping the cop will land Miguel in trouble, or that the evil corporation has bugged him so he can lead them to his brother), so it needs to be explained to him, and therefore to us. What growth he experiences over the course of the story is pretty faint, as he takes a second place to Gregory’s worldbuilding. Both that worldbuilding and Miguel’s fumbling exploration of it obscure the story’s most interesting character, Joaõ. We never get a sense of whether he’s a villain or just selfish, whether his destruction of Miguel’s life is deliberate or thoughtless, whether he loves his brother or just sees him as a means to an end. That’s the story I would have liked to read.

  2. I hadn’t seen this piece before. It gives me the strong sense of being an outtake, something from a larger story set in this world, where all the stuff crammed into it might make sense. There’s a fine line between lots of stuff = richness of setting and lots of stuff = tripping over junk in the alley.

    There is obviously supposed to be a parallel between the viatura, who is some sort of zombie, and the vampires – two varieties of the undead: one that sacrifices himself for others, the other that parasitizes others. But we see both too much and too little of the vampires for them to work, and they don’t seem to be dead, which makes the parallel meaningless.

    What it does is create initial confusion, as it might seem that the father is actually a vampire, so the reader is misled throughout the first half of the story. The vampires as they’re shown here are too shallowly drawn to be credible or interesting. There seem to be two storylines – the viatura and the vampires – not strongly enough connected into a whole.

  3. I see this story as an exploration of faith. We have the cult faith of the Boners versus the human faith of a father in the success of his son/s. IMHO, the ending leaves the main character’s action up to the reader, and I like that.

    I did feel the story had too much world building and not enough characterization. In fact, I felt the strongest character was the torturer. I felt the female characters (and perhaps, their stories) would have been more interesting than the too naive Miguel and the too undefined Joao.

    As short fiction, it’s pretty, but not strong enough for me to point at it and say, “Wow.”

  4. Very much a mixed bag, as others here have said. There are some fine individual sentences–I particularly liked “Sunlight filtered through the fire escapes above to decorate his chest with a bright barcode” at just the right point in the story (although I could have done without “faceless behind their faceplates”)–describing an interesting world and premise for a story. But as Abigail says, the actual Point A-to-Point B storytelling doesn’t maximize the premise or the world; and as Pam says, the story is accomplished by a selection of authorial prods to actions and choices that don’t necessarily make sense. The religious aspect got a bit heavy-handed for my tastes at the end–in particular the alternation between “Joaõ” and “the Saint” in the final section–although as others have said, it doesn’t truly end so much as stop.

    My reaction to this one feels similar to Karen’s reaction to the MacLeod/Balthasar story a few weeks ago–religious stuff going on, character who seems mainly there to show off the world to the reader, etc. Contrasting Balthasar’s role in that story with Miguel in this one may help illustrate what I was trying to say in that previous discussion thread about agency.

    @ Chad:

    I don’t recognize the author’s name, but this story is very much in the same vein as the stuff I’ve read by Paolo Bacigalupi and others. I’m not sure if there’s really a formal literary movement in this, a la “cyberpunk” or the “New Weird”

    Mundane SF?

  5. I liked the way that Gregory mapped out the various forces pulling Miguel this way and that: obligations to family, to tribe, the need to bootstrap himself out of poverty. I agree that Miguel never quite comes to grips with it all, but the situation was perceptively outlined.

    The idea of viatura was appealingly ghastly, but hard to take seriously: I dunno what sort of world it is where virtual reality corpse control seems preferable to a teleconference or a few days in a business hotel. It works better as metaphor than an actual SF idea and might have been more effective with a fruitier satirical tone.

    I read this one around the same time I read Shine, and I too noticed A Trend, mostly around the exotic setting and what shits we are to the third world poor. If I were an unkind person (surely not!) I might be inclined to call this “Gap Year SF”.

  6. Matt mentions it reads like the first chapter of a novel. I’d follow up what Abigail said about Miguel’s passiveness and Joaõ’s greater potential and say this reads like the first chapter of a novel which uses one character to introduce the world and then discards him immediately to concentrate on a more interesting character. (I think Neal Stephenson does this in The Diamond Age and there are probably lots of other examples.)

    “Gap Year SF”: this term really needs to take off.

  7. I loved the first sequence. I thought it was masterfully done. It sets out a clear, immediate goal that works well a story hook. It throws out quick twists and turns into our understanding of that goal – things that force us to revise the meaning of what we’re seeing, and that carry resonance; I didn’t feel like the author was misleading me for shock effect – the story and the world were unfolding before my eyes. And finally, Joao’s demand that Miguel appreciate their father’s sacrifice worked wonderfully for me – showing a loving, fiercely emotional side to a character initially presented simply as violent and brash. I really liked that.

    That said, I’m entirely in agreement with most of the comments here, particularly Chad’s and Abigail’s. This story could have been a lot more than it is. On the other hand, these points didn’t sink the story in my opinion – for example, @Abigail, I felt we got enough of Joao’s story to grab my interest; @Chad, I’m aware of the contrivance of making everything unpleasant, but I enjoy the resulting unpleasantness.

    A couple of minor responses to points people have raised:

    @Pam: To my eyes, it’s not that Joao *needed* Miguel’s help; it’s that he *wanted* his brother to be a part of bringing their father to rest. I read that pretty clearly – it’s important to Joao that Miguel say some last parting words to his father; he brings Miguel to the extraction ceremony even though he shouldn’t and he doesn’t need him there, because “he wants him to see.”

    re: the viatura, I’m personally willing to suspend my disbelief around them, simply because the story doesn’t try to explain what their purpose is. The immediate uses for inhabiting dead bodies do sound unlikely, but maybe in this world there’s a good reason for them, or some trend to using them even though they’re entirely unnecessary (I have the same approach to iPhones).

    The vampires didn’t work well for me; they seemed to me a very implausible religion, and what’s worse – all we saw of them was details about their implausible religion.

    Perhaps more thoughts later.

  8. I agree with most of what people have said above.

    I do feel that the story has heart, that there is the germ of something decent in both literary and moral senses in there, but I fear this heart has been staked by cliches. Here are a few picked out of the first section:

    old enough to
    dangled limply
    stammered an apology
    raced after
    in spite of himself
    told himself
    pulled him close
    darted down
    breathed a word into his ear

    This use of sentence level cliches fits in with what Matt Hilliard said about how the story was ‘ticking off boxes’ – in other words, story level cliches. It looks like the author didn’t revise the story enough to trim the cliches at all levels and get his meaning across clearly – if I was the editor I would have asked for a major rewrite.

    As George Orwell probably said, cliches drain the life from a piece of writing. And this confused metaphor of mine – cliches as both Van Helsing and Dracula – best expresses my understanding of the story.

  9. “Gap Year SF”: this term really needs to take off.

    Yes, I think Patrick may have nailed the story (and a chunk of other contemporary sf) there. Although does it have resonance for non-Brits? I have no idea whether Americans do gap years in the same way we do.

    Anyway, I think it ties in to the contrast Matt D draws between this story and MacLeod’s. I liked MacLeod’s story very much, in part because of its contrast to stories like this, in which the action-driven “agency” feels artificial, and the pace keeps the setting shallow.

    The story does at least throw into relief why I felt the objections to the ending of “A Serpent in the Gears” as not being a proper ending were overstated. As Matt H, this story could have ended anywhere in its second half and offered the same quasi-resolution; the stopping point feel arbitrary. Although there is room for more story after the end of “Serpent”, I do feel that it reaches a natural stopping point, and that an early stopping point would not have worked.

  10. Although does it have resonance for non-Brits?

    Speaking as an American, I had to look up “Gap Year” on Wikipedia. The concept is certainly familiar but I’ve never heard that particular expression here, though Googling it shows American newspapers using it at times, so maybe it’s just me. When Patrick mentioned, it the only association I had was the expression “gap-toothed”.

    Now that I’m spun up though, I think it’s a great label (and a lot easier to say than “Paolo Bacigalupi SF” which is how I’ve been thinking about it in my head).

  11. I do feel that it reaches a natural stopping point, and that an early stopping point would not have worked.

    I’m not sure about this. I think both stories reach natural stopping point but, in both cases, this stopping point is a comma rather than a full stop. The difference is that Ronald is rather better at mimicking resolution to give the illusion of a full stop whereas Gregory just can’t be bothered.

  12. It might be that I am five years old, but I did struggle somewhat with this story.

    You see, I thought it suffered from the same problem that had British audiences corpsing at M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar movie; the same problem that saw Jack Vance retitling one of his novels. The problem being that of a word being used which carries unintended meanings.

    In this case, the word was ‘Boner’.

    When it first cropped up – “He must have had some contact of a contact among the excitadors, Miguel guessed, some crooked (or earnest) young recruit at Buraq. Another Boner, maybe.” I did something of a double-take. Then in came up again – “The graffiti on the bridge’s underside marked the space as Boner territory” – and started be giggling.

    By the time I got to “Joaõ and Miguel and the half-dozen Boners all stood in an intimate huddle” I nearly died.

    So, yes. Perhaps I am five. But regrettably, I did find it all too distracting.

  13. Pam McNew wrote:

    I felt the female characters (and perhaps, their stories) would have been more interesting

    And Martin wrote:

    I’d follow up what Abigail said about Miguel’s passiveness and Joaõ’s greater potential and say this reads like the first chapter of a novel which uses one character to introduce the world and then discards him immediately to concentrate on a more interesting character.

    Now I want to read the novel in which this story/first chapter is followed up by a chapter in which Picayune is the POV character.

  14. This discussion inspired me to have another google to see if anyone has been using “gap year fiction” in the way we were describing here; I didn’t find anyone, but I did find this article (and, to be fair, the case for the defence), which may help to explain the connotations of the term to non-Brits.

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