Short Story Club: “This Must Be The Place”

Here’s the story; and here’s the comment, starting with readers on the Strange Horizons forum:

KYL: I was really stunned by this story. A beautiful variation on an old theme, and very movingly done. Some parts made me sad because I don’t know if I can ever write anything that good.

Coolchinamonkey: I came across your story after having googled the song. Temporal etiquette. Brilliant. The whole damn story is brilliant. Keep writing like that and you’ll find your way. Superb.

Jason Sanford at The Fix:

The February 2009 fiction from Strange Horizons features four stories from new writers. The first is “This Must Be the Place” by Elliott Bangs, which is also Elliott’s first professional publication. The story is the tale of Andrea, who is newly dumped, slightly drunk, and far from home when she meets Loren Wells in a San Francisco club. Loren is a fascinating guy who seems to already know Andrea, which simply can’t be true. But then Andrea discovers Loren’s secret: he is a time traveler from the future, reliving over and over what he consider the best year in history.

Elliott’s story is well-told, with a sharp style that enhances the story without ever overwhelming the actually storytelling. For example, when Andrea is dumped by a new boyfriend, she mutters that “All Bud had left me was a heap of dirty bowls and spoons, a crap sci-fi paperback, and that same old case of rabies,” with the rabies being her curiosity to discover who this Loren Wells character truly is. Because this is a first story, there is a small problem with the narrative. The story is set in 1984, but the reader doesn’t realize this until halfway through the story (meaning the writer should have set up this little fact better). But the mere fact that someone from the future would want to relive 1984 over and over delighted the hell out of me, while the story’s ending is as perfect as can be. As a result, the reader can’t help but overlook the story’s minor flaws. Recommended.

Rich Horton, in Locus, also liked it:

Elliott Wells’s [sic] first sale appears in February at Strange Horizons, and it’s a delight. Sometimes SF is a game, and especially so when dealing with time travel. “This Must Be The Place” mixes one part The Time Traveler’s Wife with perhaps a hint of Hobson’s Choice and a cup or so of “If This Is Winnetka, You Must Be Judy”, while adding a healthy dose of ’80s nostalgia (of a sort) and with a great last line, to bring yet another slight change to an old theme. Andrea is stuck in a boring corporate job when she meets a guy who seems to have met her before, then they meet again in another city and the guy seems younger and doesn’t know her at all. Okay, SF readers know what’s going on right way, but Wells has found another way to make it fresh, to ring a fine new change or two on the old melody.

Lois Tilton, at IROSF, wasn’t so impressed:

Time travel. Andrea, a workaholic who drinks too much in bars, meets an equally undesirable man named Loren Wells who seems to have known her before. In another city, she is the one who recognizes a younger Loren. Elsewhere, she has the affair with another version of him and finally learns his secret.

An interesting idea, but the characters are both so disagreeable that I don’t particularly care when they are or what happens to them.

Among Torque Control readers, Evan didn’t care for it:

Not a lot to say about this one. I hate time travel stories, and this one is a particularly odious example of the breed. Too many time travel stories go into puzzle mode, and so too here. The writing is all right, but the characterization is of necessity a bit thin. As a disclaimer, it takes Gene Wolfe level talent to get me interested in this sort of thing, so my opinion is best ignored here.

Nor did Chance:

My main beefs with the story are basically two: There’s no real sense of time identity here. We either get 80s cliches or no description at all. Andrea was wearing a “borrowed dress” There’s “throbbing music.” Of course, we don’t get the details on why the future isn’t very interesting either. And then you get the talking points: flock of seagulls hair, she blinded me with science, talking heads (though she blinded me with science was in heavy rotation on MTV in 83, not 84. And the Talking heads song on MTV was almost certainly Burning Down the House, not the song the story is named for.) It all adds up to a bland vagueness that gives the impression that the author knows very little about 1984 and didn’t live through it.

The other problem is neither of the two main characters is very interesting.(and the other characters are nothing but plot movers, especially Bud.) Loren loves pop culture to the point where he doesn’t care about seeing his family or friends. He’d much rather live in a time when Michael Jackson wasn’t considered a nutbag. Excuse me while I yawn at the dullness of his interests. But at least he has an interest–Andrea appears to have none. We don’t even get the details on why she and Loren break up. So ultimately I could not care less what happens to these two vapid bores.

If I ever get a time travel machine, I’m going to travel back in time and tell myself not to read this story. I just hope I listen.

Maureen wasn’t wild about it, either:

But we are in the hands of a first-person narrator who is utterly clueless about such things. I’d hesitate to say she’s a monster but she is not a very thoughtful person. Her life is shallow but in many respects it seems to be the life she deserves. She seems to be very isolated, and although she clearly hates it she seems to show little inclination to move on – determinism at work. The one time she takes action is to move to Seattle, away from everything reminding her of Loren, and it’s interesting that she a) does not talk about what went wrong, but b) does for the first time mention making friends. And yet, at the end, she blows it. Having discovered the secret of the mysterious motorbike, she determines that she is going back in time because she likes The Beatles. (Is it bad of me to wonder which moment of Beatles history she would want to go back to?)

In fact, it’s that ending that undoes the story for me. I can put up with some horribly clunky and ill-thought-through descriptions, such as ‘My borrowed dress was heavy with perspiration and self-consciousness’ (you know, I bet it wasn’t heavy with either), and the alliterative arabesques, like the ‘sequin-scaled scarecrow’ … sounds lovely, what does it mean; not to mention the ‘chatter of cocaine conversation’ but that cutesy ending? No, really, it’s so trite it’s ridiculous. Until then I would be quite willing to argue that despite superficial appearances, there is more going on in this story than is obvious at first sight, and that while I wasn’t in love it it, I did enjoy the process of reading it critically, but that last paragraph did sound as though it was lifted from a school essay. Not the idea, which is in keeping with her lack of self-awareness, but the execution.

But Rose liked it:

As someone who deeply and seriously loves 80s music, I approve of this story. Light and sweet, very cute.

And now, the floor is open.