Short Story Club: “Second Journey of the Magus”

Once more, here’s the story; it seems to have missed out on any coverage in the print Locus, so here’s Lois Tilton:

With this powerfully disturbing tale of faith and doubt, MacLeod joins a notable list of authors who have reimagined the temptations of Christ. It is not really an alternate history; Jesus’ choice has taken the story entirely out of history into eschatology. This vision of Jerusalem transformed by a Satanic Christ is strongly unsettling in its resemblance to the heavenly city of so many pious imaginations. But the conclusion may leave the reader puzzled as Balthasar finally makes his own choice, which the author leaves us to imagine. Recommended.

… and since I’m writing this before I go on holiday, at the moment that’s your lot. What did you think?

Short Story Club: “A Serpent in the Gears”

We’ll begin with Rich Horton, in the January Locus:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens 2010 with a very fine Margret Ronald story, “A Serpent in the Gears“. It’s the story of an expedition — by airship, naturally, this being a story with steampunk elements! — to a long-isolated country. We learn that the isolated country is occupied by mechanical beings (or partly mechanical beings). The expedition, from a wholly organic nation, has both scientific and diplomatic purposes. And it has a spy — the narrator. Besides spies and airships there are dragons, a strangely preserved Professora, and, for the narrator, a crisis of loyalty.

Lois Tilton also liked it:

Another blimp, this one in a fantastic steampunky setting. The dirigible Regina is attempting to cross Sterling Pass into the forbidden valley of Aaris, which is defended by automatic gun emplacements and giant flying hybrid-mechanical serpents. Many of the passengers onboard are spies claiming more or less truthfully to be scientists. The narrator, Charles, posing as Colonel Dieterich’s valet, is a spy from Aaris.
[…]
Crammed full of Neat Steampunk Stuff, delightfully witty prose, and high adventure.

The VanderMeers have also picked it up for their Steampunk Reloaded anthology.

Pam Philips enjoyed it:

There is so much to be revealed, though, it takes nearly half the text to get the setup done. The latter half is an action sequence, with battles alternating with revelations, climaxing with one big revelation. Everyone gasps, takes a breath, and — that’s it. That’s it?

I love the inventiveness. I love the imagery. I really hope this is meant to be the first chapter of an adventure novel. And then maybe a movie, though a movie producer would probably tack on a different ending and blow stuff up.

Matt H also thinks it feels “more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story“:

Is this just a matter of taste? To some extent, it must be…in the past I’ve noted I expect more out of short stories than a lot of people seem to. But I think in this case, at least, I can point to story-specific reasons for my reaction. The story provides closure on two issues: the Regina‘s mission and the nature and origin of the narrator. The narrator’s unique circumstances are strongly hinted at all the way up to where it is confirmed about halfway through, so it wasn’t really a twist. I think my ambivalence about the Regina‘s mission comes straight from the narrator, who summarizes it in a paragraph or two and then goes back to the stuff I came away from the story interested in. If the narrator doesn’t care whether the mission succeeds or fails, why should I?

It doesn’t help that “Aaris Valley” was the thinnest part of the world building. We’re told it’s an insignificant backwater, but then it turns out that multiple countries have spies aboard the Regina with objectives we assume (for they are not actually given) are sinister. And then at the end, a militant and expansionist Aaris is a thought to be a grave threat. Just how big is this valley? None of this is clear, so neither are the stakes of the mission.

And for Evan it’s an interesting failure:

The story here moves along quickly, with deftly sketched characters straight out of steampunk central casting. We’ve a valet with a secret, an expedition into an interdicted country, vaunting overconfidence, and eventually an awakening to a grave danger. Everything flows smoothly and is topped off by a fine action sequence.

And yet… The story is somehow weightless, taking each element of the subgenre that is uses out of the box and placing it just so. Noting new is originated and nothing is actually said (I suppose that one could argue that the statement is that aggressive hegemonizing swarms are bad, or that individuality is important, or that loyalty is more important than kind, but all these seem to go without saying). We are told a story. It is fluent, complete, and hollow, concerned primarily with manipulation of scenery and furniture. No element of the standard building blocks is questioned, or goes unused (it’s even hinted that somewhere out there are magicians, although we never seem to see any).

With some more thoughts on steampunk here:

This is not steampunk at its worst, but all genre writing at its worst. The same point could have been made of the post-Tolkein fantasy boom from the late 70s to the early 90s (the hangover of which is still with us today), or the endless dreary cyberpunk follow-ons that have taken up most of the intellectual airspace in between now and then, or the mini-booms in epic fantasy, dark fantasy, the new space opera, etc., etc., etc.. Paranormal romance and steampunk are just the latest iterations and there’s fairly little that’s interesting to be said about them specifically. These are basically the publishing equivalent of momentum trading. Something equivalent will always be with us.

Your thoughts?

Teaching Fantasy

Saladin Ahmed drops by the open thread with a question:

Since so many smart critics frequent here, I’d like to pitch a question to y’all: I’ve been teaching undergraduate creative writing for years (am an English MA/ poetry MFA) but this semester for the first time I’m teaching a course focused on writing fantasy fiction. As part of this I’ll be having the students read extensively, in several subgenres of fantasy. I’m looking to fill some holes in the syllabus, esp. at the 1K-3K length. So, if you were teaching a course intended to model fantasy writing for undergrads, and you could assign ANY flash or short-short fantasy stories, classic or contemporary, what would you choose? Bonus points for pieces available online…

So: any suggestions?

Short Story Club 2

Many thanks to everyone who offered suggestions in the earlier discussion — and here’s the schedule. I’m planning to keep the same arrangement as last year: I’ll post a reminder of the week’s story on a Friday, and then a discussion post on a Sunday that rounds up as much comment as I can find (with a link from thist post to the discussion). And since we went in alphabetical order last time, I figure we’ll go in reverse alphabetical order this time.

Without further ado, then:

And there’s a wrap-up discussion here.

Under Heaven

Under Heaven coverCasting around for a way to start to convey what Guy Gavriel Kay gets up to in Under Heaven, I found myself thinking of another recent fantasy novel. Jo Walton’s Lifelode (2009) is a rather different kind of book, one that does not attract adjectives like “sumptuous” so readily — it is, for not quite enough of its length, a beautifully low-key rural-domestic fantasy, set in a world in which time moves faster, and life is more wild, the further East you travel. Perhaps partly in response to this flux, and the effect it has on people as they travel, the characters in Walton’s novel have a word to describe someone who is being utterly, characteristically, themselves: truly embodying a quality. No such word exists within the world of Under Heaven, and for a reader looking in from outside the reason seems clear: it is unthinkable that any character in Kay’s novel could act in any way other than to be utterly, characteristically, themselves.

The daunting clarity of Kay’s vision extends beyond the individual. It’s probably well-known by now that Under Heaven tells a story inspired by events that took place in China’s Tang Dynasty — it’s certainly not a secret, since a letter to readers at the start of the Roc ARC sets out to justify this choice. And in fact, I’d argue that any solid understanding of the novel must confront and absorb at least the implications of Kay’s approach. (A deep reading would consider the details of the execution as well, but that’s not something I’m competent to attempt.) Under Heaven’s debt to history is heavier than most epic fantasy seeks, and evident in its choice of setting, story and characters, most of which have real counterparts; even if you don’t accept Kay’s assertion that this is a more moral strategy than straightforward history would be, it’s worth recognising how it shapes the narrative and tone of the novel. Precisely because it is a fantasy novel, and not a historical novel, Kay’s creation can be what you might call a platonic ideal of Tang China: a world of heart-stopping beauty, home to humans capable of astonishing subtlety and cruelty, all described with precision and thoroughness. Or to use Walton’s term, Under Heaven seems raensome.

This affect — magic but little mystery — is familiar from the other Kay novel I’ve read, The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), and from what I gather it’s an increasingly prominent feature of his work. But it seems particularly useful here, given the particular history being reworked, in defusing the notion of inscrutability. Characters outside the empire of Kitai — Kay’s Tang — are liable to find its citizens as baffling as Western stereotypes assert in our world, complaining of “the breeding and courtesy” that Kitai citizens “donned like a cloak” (29). A courtesan known as Spring Rain, brought to the very heart of Kitai from Western lands, reflects that she could study her masters until she was “bent like an ox-cart wheel” without understanding them, “or how the Celestial Empire dominates the world they know” (148). And Kay’s superlative-rich style risks beauty fatigue; there are more than a few moments when it seems the extravagance of his vision might be better expressed as one of the poems whose cultural importance he so openly admires.

But we readers are led into the minds the outsiders cannot know: so we can appreciate how the elaborate dances of the Kitai Court are designed to both channel and restrain human responses, how they perpetuate themselves and how human passions, like water from a dammed river, may find a new course. It is an article of faith within Kitai that it represents “the most civilized empire the world had ever known” (79). The intertwined superiority and fear that this attitude breeds snake into every character’s heart, surfacing in the superstitious caricaturisation of the world beyond Kitai; or in the tendency to philosophise about changes in “the world”, as though Kitai were the whole of it. The empire is a weight; a lot of characters spend a lot of time being angry under its burden, or exhausted by the attempt to negotiate the elaborate formalities of their society.

Our guide in this, the figure to which the novel most consistently returns, is so far as I can tell one of the characters that Kay creates from whole cloth. Shen Tai is the second son of a dead general; a man of deep passions and firm convictions. When we meet him he is embarked on a ritual mourning whose duration and ambition would be absurd if not rendered within Kay’s stately narrative. He has travelled to the edge of the empire and beyond, to the site of a great battle — a place whose extraordinary beauty is thrown into relief by the numberless bones that litter it — to bury the dead of both sides. As the novel opens, two things happen that will draw Tai back East, to the heart of the Empire. The first is that he escapes an assassination attempt for which there is no clear motive. The second is that a princess of Kitai’s past opponents, ostensibly as a token of her admiration for Tai’s work, gifts him two hundred and fifty quality horses — “Heavenly Horses”, as they are known, bigger and stronger than any Imperial stock — instantly, and unwelcomely, making him a player in the Emperor’s court.

Although the assassination attempt initially provides the more urgent narrative impetus, in the end it’s the existence of the horses that shapes the story told in Under Heaven as much or more than the actions of any individual characters, providing the new angle on the well-known story. It’s an interesting frame; it keeps some of what might be expected to be big set-piece events off-stage, but I think Kay is less interested in capturing those than he is in describing the feel of a moment of historical possibility. What’s significant about the gift of horses is that it positions Tai as someone able “to play a role in the balance of power towards the end of a long reign” (139). Certainly, Tai himself seems crafted to play this role: his connectedness allows him to slide in and out of the levels of society, while his initial innocence enables him to serve as our guide. It is easy to follow him. But more than that, both Kay’s letter-to-reader and the text of the novel are at pains to point out that creating a fantasy of history such as this is inherently an act that creates possibility. That is, the novel does successfully open up a space between what was and what might happen: enable a sense that, in contrast to the fatalism on display from some in the Kitai court, lives can and do fork, and that there can be, for better or worse, other worlds.

At this point I should probably specify that the historical event from which Kay weaves his story, the narrative through which Tai and his horses ghost, is the eighth century An Shi rebellion, in which a powerful governor of humble ancestry attempted to usurp the ruling dynasty, resulting in nearly a decade of strife and the deaths — as much from famine and disease as anything else — of several tens of millions of people. To set this out is not a spoiler, not just because Kay acknowledges the inspiration, but because of that possibility space, which refreshes the seeming inevitability of history.

But the relationship goes deeper. Kay is scrupulous about emphasising that Under Heaven is a story. We are, he writes, pattern-seeking creatures, and this shapes our approach to history: we are liable to abstract it, to simplify it, to use it for our own ends. Put another way, the creation of a possibility space — the creation of story from history — creates meaning. The novelistic attention to coincidence becomes an illustration of such: “Only a patient historian with access to records is likely to discover such links,” Kay writes; only “someone shaping a story for palace or marketplace … would note these conjunctions and judge them worth the telling” (542). And for all that Kitai is no less concrete than a description of the historical Tang would be, for all that the overlap between the two is not nearly small enough for Kitai to be taken as entirely independent — for all that Under Heaven’s raensomeness inescapably makes it a novel “about” Tang China in a way that it is not a novel “about” any specific Tang figures — it is still an abstraction, still a use of history. Under Heaven aims to extract the essence of a time and a place, such that it becomes “universalized in powerful ways”: but it tells you it’s doing it, and argues that if all history is story, there can be no final, specific truth, only degrees and directions of universalization.

Such an argument requires a carefully controlled narrative, and Kay’s control of his narrative is very good indeed; may be the best thing about the book, in fact. He works diligently not just to create but to maintain the spaces he claims, particularly in Under Heaven’s final third, when it is confirmed that the novel is a threnody for a culture at the height of its power choosing to diminish. As the implied narrator becomes a real narrator, and the focus gradually pulls back from the story’s present, we are reminded that this telling is only one among an endless series of interpretations and reinterpretations. It’s a hugely moving and fascinating gambit: never in the novel is the potency of historiography clearer, never the distinction between story and history more important, never the tension between the transparency of Kay’s created characters and the unattainability of the people who really lived more palpable. It is, in many ways, a tremendous achievement.

Return of the Short Story Club

Yes, by popular demand — or at least occasional request — the short story club will return this autumn. I’m thinking of a slightly shorter run (10 weeks?), and perhaps throwing a classic or two into the mix (but still predominantly considering stories published this year). I even have some idea of which stories I want to discuss, but I want more suggestions, so: what standout stories have you read so far this year?

Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

BSFA members should be receiving the latest issue of Vector this week:

Torque Control — editorial
No Easy Choices: Some Thoughts of an Adult Reading Children’s and Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy by Andrew M. Butler
Writing a Ruritania in a Post-Colonialist World by Farah Mendlesohn
Taking Control of the World: Kristin Cashore interviewed by Nic Clarke
Nicholas Fisk: Ten Short Novels by Niall Harrison
First Impressions — book reviewed edited by Martin Lewis
Resonances 59 by Stephen Baxter
Foundation’s Favourites: Catseye by Andre Norton by Andy Sawyer
Progressive Scan: The Sarah Jane Adventures by Abigail Nussbaum

The smashing cover photo is by Tom Ryan. This is Martin’s first issue as Reviews Editor, and he’s instituted a few changes — not least of which is his opening column, which you can read here.

As ever, we welcome letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

Also of note: you can listen to Jonathan McCalmont’s interview of Lauren Beukes (from last week’s BSFA meeting) on the BSFA website, here.

2009 Shirley Jackson Award Winners

The winners of this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards were announced at Readercon last weekend:

Best Novel: Big Machine by Victor LaValle (Speigel & Grau)
Best Novella: Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca (Word Riot Press)
Best Novelette: “Morality” by Stephen King (in Esquire)
Best Short Story: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler (in Eclipse 3)
Best Single-Author Collection: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson (Harper Perennial), and Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman (Big Finish)
Best Edited Anthology: Poe, ed. Ellen Datlow (Solaris)

I’m cautiously optimistic about the SJAs, which are awarded “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” This is their third year, and as for 2007 and 2008, the 2009 winners — and even more so the shortlists — strike me as interesting and inclusive. Partly this just means they’re playing to my taste. I’d had my eye on Big Machine, for instance, since Elizabeth Hand’s glowing review; I was half-hoping for a UK edition, but the award has given me the necessary nudge to order a US copy. Several other nominees and winners are also on the “actually, yes, I’d like to read that” list, which gives me a certain amount of confidence that the ones I haven’t encountered before will also be worth looking at. And Richard Larson’s shortlist review, the first part of which is up at Strange Horizons today (second part on Friday) makes all six of the Best Novel nominees sound worthwhile.

I have a couple of reservations. It’s a juried award, which is good, but I believe that two of the judges for this year’s awards also served for the previous two years. I prefer to see a bit more turnover among the judges — a World Fantasy Award or Clarke Award replacement rate rather than a Campbell Award replacement rate, if you like. I wouldn’t want to see too many ties like this year’s for Best Collection, either. And part of me wishes there were fewer categories, if only to increase my confidence that the jurors are making a thorough survey of the eligible work in each category; but this is a genre award, so everyone must get their spotlight. Still, they’ve had a good track record so far, and I look forward to next year’s shortlists.

In a related confession, I’ve barely read any Shirley Jackson. The recent Library of America volume seems like a good place to start; there’s a review of that at SH this week, too, by L. Timmel Duchamp:

Two themes run through most of the fiction in the volume: the volatility of group dynamics and the collusion of social silence with psychological and even physical violence against individuals who are outsiders or have been excluded from the in-group. Jackson’s fiction is for the most part not actually fantastic, but she frequently depicts behavior and psychological violence that is not acknowledged as such at the conscious level of the narrative, and in doing so presents mundane reality as troubled with sinister currents that can lead, unpredictably, to bizarre and even dangerous situations beyond the individual’s control. Jackson’s treatment of mundane reality, that is to say, casts into sharp relief the artificiality of the style known as “realism.”

(I hadn’t realised LoA use such thin paper, though! I’m afraid to start reading my copy for fear I’ll tear the pages.)

EDIT: See also Laura Miller on is Shirley Jackson a great American writer?