Story Notes 1

I’ve not been reading that much short fiction this year but, with an eye to being a half-way informed voted by the time Hugo nominations roll around, I’ve started to play catch-up. I’m going to try to post brief notes on what I’ve been reading every other week or so; and I’m going to dot around as the mood takes me, so don’t expect reviews of complete issues or anthologies.

Fellow Traveller” by Hari Kunzru
Collecting” by Zhu Wen
A Matter of Timing” by Bernadine Evaristo
(The Guardian, August-October)

The three entries so far in the Guardian’s “China Reflected” relay of stories, which alternates contributions by Western and Chinese writers, riffing off each others’ ideas and themes. Kunzru’s “Fellow Traveller”, probably the best of the three, is a gently comic piece in which a Western traveller finds himself a guest at a hotel on the summit of “Queer Stone Mountain” without quite remembering how or why he got there. By day he goes for aimless walks along misty paths, takes photographs of what he sees, and finds himself harassed by talking pandas who object to his choice of subjects:

“Many things to take pictures in China. Bridge over Yellow River. New Beijing Stadium. Development in autonomous regions. Three Gorges Damn.”

“It’s just a house.”

“House never just house, when photo taken by imperialist lackey.”

The hotel bartender is contemptuous: they’re throwbacks, she says, wishing it was the Cultural Revolution all over again. Gradually the narrator acclimates to his situation, without ever full understanding it. Zhu Wen’s short essay picks up on the idea of pandas as a Chinese national treasure (“Serve Chinese people by harness power of childlike feature, soft two-colour fur and pretending we about to have sex,” they say in Kunzru’s story. “We play major role in cold war”), and describes differing attitudes to collecting and cultural preservation in Britain and China, among other things reframing the tale of the communist party’s use of last emperor of China, Aisin Gioro Puyi, as a form of collecting.

Bernadine Evaristo’s story in turn picks up on the idea of individuals as cultural treasures, and satirically imagines a museum in a near-ish future China which presents, among other things, an “Exhibition of Britain”. Features include his former Royal Highness, King Charles III (“forced to wear, at all times, a heavy ermine cape and a rather tacky papier-mache-crown”), an ex-Beefeater held up as a “typical, everyday Englishman”, as well as more traditional treasures such as the Domesday Book, the statue of Eros from Piccadilly Circus, and a reconstructed Stonehenge. So the targets never really move beyond the obvious, but the story doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the pointed final image offers a welcome counterbalancing seriousness.

“[a ghost samba]” by Ian McDonald (Postscripts 15).
Not, so far as I noticed, directly connected to Brasyl, but set in the same country and making use of the same basic sfnal concept, this is as story narrated by a 40-something music obsessive who tracks down the only copy of a young prodigy’s second album (said prodigy having died in a fire) and then obsesses about completing it. At times it reminded me of both Stephen Baxter’s “The Twelfth Album” and Alastair Reynolds’ “Everlasting”. It’s probably a better story than either of them; arguably less sfnally ambitious, but as you’d expect, McDonald writes extremely well about the sound and sensation of music, and that’s what gives this tale its force.

Glass” by Daryl Gregory (Technology Review, November/December)
The problem with “Glass” is that it’s too short – not that much longer than one of Nature’s Futures – although whether that problem originates with constraints of the venue or with Gregory I couldn’t tell you. The story is constructed as another neurobiological thought experiment, a la “Second Person, Present Tense” or “Dead Horse Point”, except that this time there’s a literal experiment involved: a trial of a new drug that stimulates mirror neruons. Dr Alycia Liddell is administering the drug to a small group of convicted criminals — sociopaths — with the hypothesis that it will provoke empathy. That she finds herself having to talk one patient out of a violent confrontation turns out to be evidence of a not entirely anticipated kind of success; and although that confrontation is tense and focused, and the story has a vicious final turn, there’s an an inescapable sense that it ends just when it should be getting started.

“An Honest Day’s Work” by Margo Lanagan (The Starry Rift)
I enjoyed this a lot; although there’s a serious story at its heart, I think this is one of Lanagan’s more playful stories (at least compared to the likes of “The Goosle”). It also happens to be the third story I’ve read this year – after Adam Roberts’ Swiftly and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Sense and Sensibility” – that riffs on the idea of humaniform life on a different scale. The narrator, a disabled boy, lives in a coastal village whose economy is built around capturing and carving up giant human-like creatures. The story deals with one such event and, even without the obvious resonance of the central image, provides plenty of opportunity for Lanagan to showcase her imaginative reach with characteristic vividness.

“Arkfall” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF, September)
This is a story with a very interesting background – indeed, the story seems to exist in large part to allow the ecology and culture of the setting, a waterworld with the rather unconvincing name of Ben, which in the process of being terraformed, to be described. But the story itself is flat and predictable. After an accident, three characters – Okaji, one of the waterworld’s inhabitants, her mother, and an uber-obnocious Heinleinian go-getter with the unironic and stunningly hackneyed nickname of “Scrappin’ Jack” – are trapped together in one of the living vessels that contribute to the terraforming process. Okaji, and the culture from which she comes, are everything that Jack is not – in his terms, passive and introverted; though they seem actually to function perfectly well on their own terms, even if their habit of referring to each other in the third person grates after a while – and so, unsurprisingly, the two come into conflict. The simplistic nature of their interactions is intensely frustrating, as is the fact that one of the key events in their journey – they discover an undersea alien city, which admittedly is quite spectacular – apparently requires us to believe that the terraforming project was initiated before a thorough survey of the planet was carried out; and the conclusion is, as I said, is predictable. To nobody’s surprise, Okaji and Jack gradually iron out their differences and bond, their plight being resolved when Jack has a “Bennish” idea and Okaji admits her urge to explore for exploration’s sake. I’ve rather enjoyed other stories by Gilman, particularly her earlier novella “Candle in a Bottle”, so this was a real disappointment.