Short Story Club: “No Time Like the Present”

I’m away from my stack of Locuses this week, so if they’ve covered “No Time Like the Present” I’ll have to tell you later. In the meantime, here’s Lois Tilton:

Here are characteristic Emshwillerian themes: alienation, the way a society regards Others. It is a straightforward narrative without hidden hooks – an effective last line. It makes me think that this new SF zine might be staking out YA territory.

Pam Phillips:

Maybe the story wants to be mystifying and unexplained, but for me it all seemed so vague, I couldn’t really engage with it. So I skimmed Installment Eight in the Torque Control short story club.

I couldn’t help thinking of “Out of All Them Bright Stars“, another story about strangers where the narrator is one of the few to reach out. It’s more moving, but perhaps because the narrator is an adult, she is filled with rage and despair at the end. Both stories leave me wishing for an SF story about xenophobia that’s somewhere in between.

Matt Hilliard worries at the ambiguity so more:

My first inclination, reading the story, was that the author was going for a 1930s setting and just made a few mistakes. After finishing it, though, I looked her up and, whoops, she grew up in the Great Depression. I think she knows what it was like. So then I decided she must have been shooting for a modern voice and just not done it very well. Then I wondered if it might be on purpose. Gene Wolfe, although amazingly he is ten years younger than Emshwiller, has recently written several stories and novels set explicitly in the future while using a deliberately old-fashioned voice. There was no similar explicit marking here, though. So at length I’ve decided the ambiguity must have been intentional. The references to tasers on the one hand and Tarzan on the other are too overt. Given the Marietta’s causality concerns, the implication must be that the timeline is already altered from ours (or vice versa, I guess).

And Chad Orzel:

It’s a very nice story, with all the connotations that come with that term, both good and bad: it’s well written, well paced, and has an engaging if weirdly atemporal narrative voice; it’s also very polite and inoffensive, with no real attempt to push the boundaries of, well, much of anything, or do anything novel with the well-worn subject matter. This would fit well into basically any general-interest SF anthology written in the last, say, fifty years. That’s both good and bad, which is probably appropriate given the ambiguity of the ending.

16 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “No Time Like the Present”

  1. I did cover it, in the July issue. (And I’m SO disappointed that Niall doesn’t pack a bag full of Locuses wherever he goes!)

    I wrote:
    “Now to the online magazines. Lightspeed, the new SF companion to Fantasy Magazine, has a wonderful Carol Emshwiller piece in July, “No Time Like the Present”. A group of wealthy people move into the narrator’s town, causing plenty of suspicion and resentment. The narrator, a teenaged girl, befriends one of the young girls among the newcomers, even while the rest of the town grows increasingly hostile. We realize quickly enough from whence the new folks come – it’s an old enough SF idea. And in the end that’s pretty much the story – but it resonates particularly well as told by Emshwiller, through her narrator, and the well-pointed slang, and the implications of this particular “invasion”. Emshwiller remains simply remarkable.”

    In retrospect, the word “wonderful” is an overstatement, but I did enjoy the story quite a bit. Chad’s comments that it doesn’t really push boundaries, or do much new, are quite fair (and I think I was trying to say the same things).

    The Wolfe/Emshwiller comparison Matt makes, about narrative voice, is interesting. I hadn’t thought of it, but it’s quite true. Wolfe’s recent novels, and Emshwiller’s recent shorter work, are all told in an oddly innocent, indeed one might say naive, voice, with some old-fashionedness to the tone and structure.

  2. I thought it was, tonally, very nicely handled, actually: an understated, melancholy, unmelodramatic narrative voice. No surprises in the way the plot unspooled, thought, and something of a feel of anticlimax at the end; although in a sense that feeds into the broader theme.

    My problem with the story is that its emotional target is too much a barn-door. Yes, there are kids at school who are popular, sporty, attractive and confident. Then — yes — there are other kids who are a bit nerdy, a bit unprepossessing, who don’t fit in terribly well. Obviously the world of SF fandom draws more heavily on the second group than the first. So, OK, this story is about those gawky, unfitting kids, and uses its timetravelling children as a way of metaphorically articulating the adolescent experience of its readership. But there’s something a bit self-regarding about this gesture, fictively speaking: something a bit too cosy, not to say clichéd. It reads like us (SF folk) patting ourselves on the back for being different and embracing difference. Put it this way: imagine if the time travelling kids were handsome/beautiful Jocks and promqueens. How much harder to generate the elegaic sympathy for them!

  3. I’m not sure I get a triumph of the geeks vibe off the story, Adam. It’s true that there’s a marginalized group of kids within the school (and later in the town itself), but the attributes that set them apart from the other children aren’t negative. They’re rich, tall, pale, blond – all indications of privilege in our society – but they’re not smart or knowledgeable, surely the quintessential geek attributes. The local kids, as well, are not segregated into popular and unpopular groups. I don’t get a sense that the narrator is either a prom queen or a wannabe prom queen, or that there is a prom queen in the school that she envies. If there are jocks and prom queens in the story – and I don’t get a strong sense that there are – I think that given the emphasis on their looks and wealth the visitors have a stronger claim to the title, and I think the story capitalizes on that. Much of the townspeoples’ resentment of the visitors is rooted in class, in the fact that the newcomers have a lot of money and are flashing it around.

    I’m interested in Matt’s observation that the story must be taking place in the 30s, because that wasn’t my sense at all. I took it to be a contemporary story, and that the visitors had misjudged their period, aiming for the 50s and 60s and landing in the present (where, for example, boys wear their hair longer than girls).

  4. Abigail: well, the salient isn’t ‘privilege’, surely; it’s ‘fitting in.’ Well-off parents, tall, pale, blond — that was me at school. But I never fitted in. And it’s a not-fitting-in Being-in-the-world that determines the narrator’s p.o.v., and that gets metaphorized in the time travellers. I’d say.

  5. I enjoyed the story, and was left wishing there was more to it than the sudden ending.

    The not fitting in bit was more High School Musical than geek outsiders: attractive popular star basketball player wants to sing. Except with references to a terrible future from which they had come, unlike Troy Bolton. In fact I really liked that contrast, by *accident* they are well off.

    Oh and I assumed the story was set present day.

  6. I read this story very much like Abigail. It was a story of privilege and class. The things that emphasize the difference in the time traveling children and those who are of the story’s present is the privilege the time travelers have simply in the fact that they’re able to retreat into a past that is obviously better than the future they come from, much like the process of gentrification. They are colonizing the past instead of another place. The children of the town see the differences in their clothes, the homes they build and own, the material possessions, and the difference in cultural mores. This is a story of class up and down. It’s hard not to see it as anything else.

  7. I enjoyed the story quite a bit on my first reading, a few months back. I like the idea of an exodus to the past; I enjoyed the “forbidden friendship” and the odd description of the travellers; the melancholy tone worked well for me.

    Christopher’s understanding of the story as portraying gentrification really struck a chord with me; certainly the tension and distrust of the town towards the newcomers is central to the story. On the other hand, there’s also an opposite current: the newcomers are straining to fit in inside the existing community, even if only for the purposes of camouflage. They’re well aware of the extent to which they’re at the mercy of the existing populace; if they were perceptive enough to imitate the townspeople perfectly and imperceptibly, they certainly would. So “high-class invades low-class” certainly doesn’t cover the whole thing; a lot here is about the difficulty of blending in – and how the conscious effort to do so can, itself, emphasize and encourage alienation.

    (I think that’s the theme here that’s resonating with geek mentality – who’s trying to blend in with who is entirely different, but the sense of “the more I try to imitate them, the more awkward I look and feel” still holds.)

    I was far more bothered, this time around, by a lot of detail I felt was implausible about the travelers’ methods, behavior and plans. It’s painfully clear in the story, right from the start, that the newcomers stick out like sore thumbs and are a constant source of tension – the idea that they could successfully hide in the past and yet not disrupt the future seems ludicrous from the start. Much of this can be attributed to their obvious naivete, and eventually perhaps they do come to the same conclusion and withdraw, but between those two bookends, that kind of makes the story a second-order idiot plot. Even once they see what their up against (and Marietta and Huxley certainly seem plenty aware), they don’t manage to make any adjustments to their plan, or attempts to cope with the problem.

    Other implausible detail that bothered me:

    The travelers seem utterly ignorant of present-day conventions, yet nevertheless have appreciation for “rich stuff” and luxuries, yet nevertheless seem to not actually use or enjoy these luxuries in any way (e.g. the barbecue and the picnic table at Marietta’s house). One senses that the only reason the newcomers choose luxury over what’s locally common is because the author needed it to create tension.
    The newcomers, oblivious to present-day culture and avoiding social ties, do not seem to have any complementing culture or social ties of their own. We don’t see much indication of friendship between the new kids themselves (Marietta “needs a friend”), or hobbies or occupations besides their odd slang. It’s like they’ve come back in time to be well-fed and to gape at the natives.
    It seems that it would be much simpler and safer to form their own, exclusive community somewhere, rather than trying to integrate into an existing one. Particularly if they want to avoid affecting the timeline. Plopping an exodus in the middle of a large-ish suburban community, when they could have chosen something far more remote, seems to me implausible even giving very naive assumptions.

  8. This story reminded a lot of Bradbury, particularly that feeling of American small-town isolation. THis is a good thing and a bad thing: Bradbury’s a great writer, but he was doing his best fifty years ago! This story reads like something that Ray might have published in Esquire or Atlantic Monthly in late fifties, both in tone and subject matter.

    I praised this aspect of the story when I covered it for Short Fiction Wednesday. ( These comments were made in the context of the previous discussion here about “pushing the envelope”, a silly phrase, in my opinion, and a suspect ambition.

    I still admire that aspect of this story. It feels like the type of story that Mums could enjoy, the sort of thing that might be turned into forty-five minutes of satisfying TV in the sort of SF anthology show that Stephen Speilberg used to executive produce.

    Reading it again, though, I began getting very irritated by the non-specific era of the story. The setting seems very separated from anywhere or anywhen. It felt like the fifties to me, but I could find nothing to confirm that. There are none of the type of pop culture refs that teenagers have been making since Alan Friedman invented them. The narrator worries and wonders at their odd turns of phrase, but doesn’t ask something as basic as “Don’t you like Frankie Vallee?” This became a big problem for me, because for all the story’s other merits the characters rang entirely false to me – they just didn’t seem to be real people inhabiting a real place.

    The talk of class and gentrification is interesting, and casts the story into a slightly different lgith than what I saw. Again, it looked like a more old fashioned idea to me: “townies versus immigrants” with a touch of “OMFG The Environment!” for the kid’s dystopian future (although the name “Huxley” was another big clue, perhaps, of what they were fleeiing.) I’m not really convinced by more sophisticated readings based on class: I don’t think you need to introduce that for the story to be clear, and perhaps because this doesn’t feel like a real place to me (and so I can’t get interested in their societal dysfunctions).

    It’s perfectly decent story, and it’s definitely nice to see something with a classic feel in a space that, it seems to me, often reaches out for innovation for innovation’s sake. If she’d anchored it more specifically in time and place, though, it would have been a far more satisfying story.

  9. My own assumption about the setting was the near future, although an alternate timeline would also work. What I don’t see here is any real ambiguity. Vagueness, yes, but that’s not the same thing.

  10. Like Matt H, I assumed that the story took place in a world whose timeline had already been altered from ours–that’s how I took their worry that the death Huxley caused would “be even worse than that butterfly back in the Jurassic era.” So wondering which of our decades the story corresponds to is almost a category error to my reading.

    That quote, and of course the Burroughs references, does make it seem like a somewhat meta SF story; and I agree with Adam, not about what the story is trying to do, but about how it goes about doing it, how it manufactures SF reader sympathy without delving deeply into character. The newcomers are unathletic and use computers and like SF&F books…. (As someone who both read a lot and played sports for many years growing up, this divide always annoys me.)

    I don’t think its a wonderful or remarkable story, but I do think it skillfully meshes the naïve voice and fascination with the new of the young, with a deep cynicism about humanity and technology. I do wish the story gave itself more room to construct an argument around these matters, though. Insofar as it doesn’t, I suspect reactions to the story will thus depend partly on how much one agrees with its cynicism (and partly on how much one desires an argument in one’s fiction; I’m in the Michael Palin camp). Or, perhaps on how much one agrees with the timelessness of its cynicism, which seems to be the main argument on offer: the vagueness intended as a feature, not a bug. I suppose I find it a bit of both. Yes, I agree with Abigail and Christopher that the story is to a large degree about class, but that doesn’t map the entirety of the story. As Ziv says, in a story purely about class, it wouldn’t be the newcomers having to adjust their fashions in order to fit in, and the police wouldn’t be quite so on the side of the poorer natives. So I can also maybe see hints of colonial issues–the complicated ways affluent, high-tech colonials and natives of various generations regard each other–as well as a quirky sort of post-colonialism: what happens when the world runs out of space and white people start colonizing their own past?

  11. Did anybody here ever watch Heartbeat on the telly on a Sunday evening, before it was recently axed? I didn’t mind watching it now and then in a ‘check your brains at the door’ sort of way when I had nothing else to do, but I’d hardly call it great telly.

    For anyone who doesn’t know it, it was a gentle crime drama series set in the fictional village of Aidensfield in 1960s Yorkshire. The chronology was all mixed up – one episode would show the first moon landing in July 1969, a later episode would be set in March that year – and a lot of its appeal was based on a faux nostalgia for the 1960s, a version of the 1960s that probably never really existed. A typical plot had one or more outsiders appearing, causing some sort of disruption to the natural order, and then leaving.

    No Time Like The Present? Okay, I’ll spell it out. With its uncertain time period as noted on this thread – John Carter books, references to Tazers – its overwhelming sense of nostalgia – snow days, what Matt D calls ‘the naive voice’, Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn-like escapades – and also with its plotline, No Time Like The Present strikes me as being Heartbeat SF. Sunday evening sci-fi.

    I think the author lives in Aidensfield.

  12. No idea what to say about this one, mostly because I absolutely could not finish it. Emshwiller’s homey, affected, and invariant authorial voice gets right up my nose. That in addition to the trope so aged that it’s worn its footprints into the floor stopped me cold.

    Now, I will return to lurking because I feel like a jerk.

  13. This was absolutely bloody awful with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The comparison to Heartbeat is apt; you would indeed have to eat yourself into coma, lose the remote and actively hate art to find the experience tolerable.

  14. For the record, I find the comparison to Heartbeat dramatically off-base; I find the story much more Twilight Zone-ish, with that naive voice covering a sense of threat. The worst things don’t happen, but I had a clear sense that they could.

    So I liked it. Rather a lot, actually. Contra Lois, I think the story is ambiguous, in the sense that I don’t think it’s possible to say precisely what the visitors “stand for”. We’re invited to try on a number of different models — as described in the various readings here, all nearly sustainable — and, realising that nome of them precisely fit, retain the aspects of them that do fit, ask whether that introduces contradictions, whether those contradictions are also present in the initial, supposedly simple models we were first applying, and so on.

    I’m also baffled by the hostility to the atemporality coming from some quarters. For one thing, it’s that imprecision that undercuts the first-glance cosiness of the voice. (I agree, Bradburyesque, as the reference to “A Sound of Thunder” is surely meant to make us realise.) Things like the tazers, or the computers, feel like intrusions — and yet so do the references to Tarzan. I think there actually is something, if not “envelope pushing”, then unusual and interesting in the choice to refuse the sort of concreteness that time travel stories usually offer.

    I do think that if you’re willing to give Emshwiller credit, which I certainly am based on the handling of the visitors, then by the end of the story the voice strongly suggests altered timeline over near future. Which I also like because it suggests a broader use of time travel, rather than these being the only travellers and this town the only place and time where visitors turn up.

    I liked this story a lot.

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