Short Story Club: “The Rising Waters”

Not so much comment out there for Benjamin Crowell’s story, that I could find; but we start with comments from the Strange Horizons forum:

BionicValkyrie: I loved this story. I’ve been reading Strange Horizons fiction off and on for a couple years, and this story prompted me to register just so I could say how much I liked it. The characters seemed very real … which now sounds kind of silly to say, given the nature of this story! I’m going to search out more stories by Crowell.

KNB: Really good story.

Liritar: This story was intense.

Then we have Rich Horton, in the July Locus:

At Strange Horizons I most enjoyed “The Rising Waters” by Benjamin Crowell. It’s about an attempt to develop an AI that can devise a cure for a plague unleashed in a war between Europe and the US. The heart of the story, though, is the relationship between the developing AI and the human who interfaces with it — or her. Maybe there’s not much new here — fairly familiar arguments about the rights of AIs — but the story is involving and the last line is wonderful.

and Lois Tilton in IROSF:

Sue’s dilemma is an artifact of the story’s premise, in which a person who is not supposed to become emotionally identified with the project puts on a VR suit with virtual breasts to feed a newly-online software program. That conflicts will arise from this is inevitable; the question is whether such humanization would be necessary at all.

Maureen Kincaid Speller:

It may be that I am just a very stern and demanding reader (and if I am, I make no apology for it), but I found this story to be very far from satisfactory. Rather like last week’s story, it seems to raise more questions than it answered, and like last week’s story, I felt this arose as much from poor story-telling as from anything intentional on the author’s part. As I’ve said before, I don’t mind having to really engage with a story in order to work out what is going on, but again, as with last week’s story, I really do object to pretty much having to dig my own foundations, and then provide most of the bricks, mortar and plaster as well, leaving the author to deal with the decorative accents, which is pretty much what reading this story felt like. I had no real sense that the author knew what was happening off the page, but had chosen for some reason to conceal things for the time being, and every sense that things happened on the page as he thought of them, hence a constant pulling up short, thinking ‘where the hell did that come from all of a sudden?’ in between feeling that although the story brushes against ideas and issues, it simultaneously skates around them. It may be that Crowell thinks that this is what his character does, and therefore the reader can only get the bits that the narrator hasn’t blocked off for herself. Or possibly, given the fact that censorship and control of the flow of information is a big issue within the story, Crowell is trying to reflect what it is like to have access to only part of the story. I would be far more sympathetic to this approach if the narrator herself was ignorant, but it’s clear she isn’t. And given her general attitude towards what is going on, you would suppose she would be more forthcoming herself.

And finally, Paul Kincaid on craft:

The narrator didn’t recognise the intruders at first. I’m not surprised, neither did I, because we’ve not met them before. There has been no mention of a gym or a treadmill or kids or grunts; I know, because I went back and checked. It would have needed the insertion of probably no more than one sentence earlier in the story to justify this scene. I spotted several places where that sentence might have been inserted without the slightest bother. Without that set-up it reads like what it very probably is: an author just putting down whatever comes into his mind next, and then not taking the elementary step of going back over the story and making sure that the whole thing cohered. That is, to my mind, just poor craft.

There is an old adage that when you don’t know how your fiction develops next, have someone burst into the room with a gun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it executed so literally and so clumsily.

A well-crafted story is not the be-all and end-all of fiction. There are times when you can break free, do something different; but when that happens you have got to be sure you know what you are doing, and you have got to convince your readers that you know as well. I don’t believe that Crowell know what he is doing on the basic level of craft.

Agree? Disagree?