Short Story Club: “The Best Monkey”

Here we go then: first short story club discussion, for Daniel Abraham’s “The Best Monkey“.

As anticipated, not huge amounts of detailed discussion of this story to date. Here’s Rich Horton in the May Locus:

The next best story here [and one of his recommended stories for the month] is more traditional near future SF: “The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham, which intriguingly speculates on the nature of beauty,on its ties to sex, on how what we perceive as elegant might be hardwired with what we perceive as a good mating prospect. And what might result if those perceptions were altered. All this revealed as a reporter tries to track the secret behind a strangely successful corporation.

Variety SF:

Good concept, but average execution.

Similarly, Jonathan Cowie:

In the (near?) future a net journalist (or the equivalent) who summarises and distils news is asked by his boss to become an investigative reporter. A company has grown fast and is rumoured that its secret is Roswell technology. Could this be true or is there some other explanation? At its heart ‘The Best Monkey’ is an interesting enough story but, for my taste at least, its assembly could be improved.

John DeNardo at SF Signal:

A shady corporation is the subject of a reporter’s investigations in “The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham. The protagonist, Jimmy, works for a news corporation who is trying to go from news aggregator to news source and he gets a lead on said company’s exploration into experimental research. Abraham weaves in other interesting elements, like Jimmy’s prior relationship with the company’s research director and generation differences noted by the aging Jimmy, but the core examination of perception and beauty is the foundation of the story. (3.5 stars)

Mark Watson at Best SF:

A strong science thriller – a struggling journo in new-media publishing finds his past catching up with him, as an old flame whose career has far outstripped his, is the target of investigative journalism. He has to face up to where his life has gone (or not) in dealing with his ex-lover, and he finds out just what she has lost in order to get where she has gotten.

Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic:

Another superb story, this time about a mysterious corporation called Fifth Layer which dominates current tech with extraordinary inventions that are unorthodox and inelegant, but work. There is talk of the Roswell theory, namely that Fifth Layer is a front for secretive aliens, so older investigative reporter Jimmy is put on the case since a senior executive of Fifth Layer was his girlfriend thirty years ago. Highlight of the anthology for idea-based sf.

Eric Brown in The Guardian says it is a:

psychologically insightful thriller about an investigative journalist’s inquiries into the career of a former lover

Aside from leaving me thoroughly depressed (again) about the state of short fiction reviewing in this field (where’s the engagement with the story’s argument, folks?), none of these do a lot for me. However! A couple of people have already done their club homework. So here’s Chance:

So you know your ex-? The one who is beautiful and ended up way more successful than you? Turns out she’s not human any more so you win! Go on and delete her contact info now. (Do we really need another story where the successful woman is defective or evil or just-not-right somehow?)

“The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham is a story about what it means to be human and the not very plausible premise is that you need to be able to appreciate symmetric beauty to truly human. (Minus points for the Clarke’s law bit at the end.)

Jimmy works in a dead end job where he’s called to investigate the secret of his far more successful ex-lover Elaine. Intercut between interviews with people who have had their sense of symmetry turned off are convenient flashbacks where Jimmy and Elaine discuss her personal philosophies on how humans should pull out all the stops and see how far they can go, and pattern making and beauty.

So she shuts off the part of her brain that appreciates symmetry and voila! she starts thinking differently. And at the same time it makes her alien and repugnant to Jimmy.

And a thorough reading by Maureen Kincaid Speller, which I will only quote in part:

… one thing this story seems to lack so far as I’m concerned is a plausible progression from the recognition of the wrongness of Fifth Layer designs, through Jimmy’s recognition of Salvati’s discovery of the effects of eliminating a desire for symmetry to the realisation that, actually, Salvati is pretty much the same as she always was, except insofar as her philosophy has become a reality, and she is entirely willing to take whatever risks are necessary to gain the edge.
[…]
But we don’t know who or what Jimmy is. We’re not even really invited to think about it, in the same way that we’re not really invited to think about things, just notice them. And that, perhaps, is the biggest disagreement I have with this story. All these things are laid out but Jimmy has no view, and as a result for the reader there is nothing to really engage with. In the way, the elements of the story are laid out but there’s nothing that can be easily enaged with. It’s all shoved together and, superficially, like ‘Lucite neo-futurist kitsch’, the story looks the part. Dig into it, and there isn’t so much going on. A lot is signalled, but in a way that feels like Abraham is using a ‘fill this bit in for yourself’ shorthand rather than because he is being sparing with descriptions. ‘Blinkcasts’, ‘accretors’ and ‘neural nets’ all sound nicely familiar and comfortable, but I don’t think Abraham is using them to evoke the world so much as to avoid having to evoke it; they’re furniture, not reality. In fact, they’re precisely what Jimmy protests about: neo-futurist kitsch. This easy sliding together of components pervades the whole story, in fact. Jimmy never struggles for his story. It turns up in neat ‘blinkcast’ chunks as he goes looking for it, all slotted together in its frame. One is left with a faint sense of being as manipulated as Jimmy is, but again, I don’t think that’s a matter of performance so much as expedience.

And with that, it’s over to everyone else. What did you make of it?