The Child Garden

The Child Garden cover 1The Child Garden was one of the texts set for the SFF Masterclass; one of the texts set by Wendy Pearson, to be specific, and when the time came to discuss it, she set us off with an exercise. Pick a scene that feels to you to be central to the novel, she said, and then we’ll discuss your choices. So we did; but inevitably, within the confines of the classroom we only got through a few peoples’ choices. I thought it would be interesting to gather up some of the others, and present a sort of fractal portrait of Geoff Ryman’s novel. (See Jakob Schmidt’s take for a regular review.) So:

Agnieszka Jedrzejczyk:

One of the most important and interesting scenes in The Child Garden is, for me, the meeting between Milena and Rolfa, especially the paragraph starting: “The next she went to the Graveyard [….]” and ending: “The GE was a woman.” (pp. 11-14 in Voyager edition, 1999) There are a few things worth discussing here. First, we have Milena presented for what she really is, insecure and very lonely, “hugging the unwanted boots”. We can say she is like those boots, a misfit in society for various reasons. Secondly, we have the first glimpse of Rolfa as a Polar Bear, a GE, and then, in the end, a woman (but also, or maybe first of all, a musician). I actually think there are three main characters in the novel — Milena, Rolfa and Music — and as they are shown in this scene, the three are inseparable. In the end, it is hard to decide who is whose lover; I am pretty sure there is a threesome of some kind. Music is what drives Rolfa through life; her love for music is what makes her to go through the Reading process. Why on earth would she do that? She and Milena could live together somehow, probably as outcasts, but still together; however, the desire to sing, to be able to perform (or at least compose) music is stronger. Milena, on the other hand, becomes an involuntary musician when she is left without Rolfa. Her love for Rolfa is transferred to her efforts to make the performance of the Opera of the Divine Comedy possible. There is a sense that this music cannot be lost, that it is too beautiful to be forgotten, too precious to be left unperformed. Milena believes that this music belongs to the people. When Rolfa disappears as a character, her incarnation as Music appears, like a translation into an acceptable form understood by society. Which means I have changed my mind: there are two characters, Milena and Rolfa. Rolfa is Music.

Tony Keen:

When asked to think of a key scene in The Child Garden, the first that leapt into my mind was the beginning of chapter 5 (p. 52 in the 2005 SF Masterworks edition). Milena is waking up the morning after a disastrous visit to Rolfa’s family. A strange woman enters her room in the Shell building on the South Bank (one of the delights of the novel is the way in which it is rooted in a very real and realized geography of London). Only when she speaks does Milena realize that the visitor is Rolfa.

Why I think this is a key scene is less apparent to me. I would hazard that it is because this is a transformative scene. Up to this point, the reader has seen Rolfa as what she is introduced as, a ‘polar bear’. The reader understands that she is female, but it is harder to accept her as a woman. Shaving her fur off changes Rolfa’s whole identity, certainly in Milena’s eyes, and arguably in Rolfa’s head as well. (There’s a touching moment a few pages later when a topless Rolfa covers her breasts, something that she never bothered to do when coated in fur.) At this point the notion that identity is an important theme in the novel comes to the fore. The identities of the main characters are always in flux. This is particularly the case for Milena, and who she sees herself as, and what she wants to be (which never coincide with what the Consensus thinks she is, or what they want her to be). Rolfa’s situation is similar. This scene marks the point at which she attempts to break away from her old identity and become somebody new. It also marks the beginning of a process by which Milena will help Rolfa change, but not in the way she meant; the result of this process is that Rolfa will become someone different from the person Milena wants, or that Rolfa wanted to be, and that person, who Milena is trying to preserve, is lost to her forever.

Ben Little:

I picked the same scene as Tony Keen for similar reasons. Rolfa appearing at Milena’s door shaved bare is by far the most mundane transformation in a book filled with transformative moments, and the most poignant. There are some personal associations with why I found this moment so touching: a friend at school shaved her head when she came out. Unlike Rolfa, her skin was ‘not stripped, cut, outraged,’ but the metaphorical connotations were similar. She had a rough time, dropped out of school and ran away from home. The parallel stops there. Unlike my friend, who came to terms with her sexuality, Rolfa’s symbolic shaving ultimately ends in the destruction of her personality. In contrast to Milena’s many transformations, which culminate in the permanent liberation of humanity from its physical shackles, Rolfa’s shaven nudity is a transitional thing. From being an outsider in one society she tries to hide in another. This sanctuary turns out to be anything but, and by presenting her the opportunity to live out her wildest dreams it betrays her and restores her to her socially pre-ordained role. Her transformation is, like the many Milena undergoes, transgressive, but while Milena’s transgressions change society, Rolfa’s are recuperated by it. Her grand achievements become dwarfed by Milena’s own and seem to have most significance (to the Consensus at least) as a part of Milena’s development. Thus the moment is at once tragic and liberating, romantic and destructive, an act of rebellion and of conformity. It encapsulates so many of the paradoxes that make Rolfa a convincing character. While Milena may make the final change in the world, Rolfa is the artist and in this book it is art and originality that make positive transformations possible.

The Child Garden cover 2Sarah Herbe:

For me, one of the most significant scenes comes at the end of Book One, when, after Rolfa has left, Milena discovers that Rolfa has set Dante’s Divina Commedia to music. The rest of the novel is very much determined by this discovery, foreshadowed by Milena’s vision of staging The Divine Comedy as “a great abstract opera” (Gollancz Masterwork edition, p. 95). Her ambition to stage the opera, and constantly dealing with Rolfa’s music, becomes “a way to talk to herself” (p. 107). The music “fill[s] her life” (ibid.), gives her something to do and provides her with the feeling that she “ha[s] done something with her life” (p.207). Also, Milena’s initial misunderstanding of the inscription “FOR AN AUDIENCE OF VIRUSES” gives rise to a conflict that is only resolved towards the end of The Child Garden.

Maureen Kincaid Speller:

I never actually fastened on one big scene as being emblematic of the book, but my attention was specifically caught by a couple of scenes which I seem to have yoked together.

The main section I’m thinking about is in Chapter 10 (pp.178-80 if you have the UK Unwin hardback) where Milena recalls her first meeting with Rose Ella. It’s not so much the meeting itself that interests me as Milena’s recollections of the class. The line I focused most on is:

‘You always use that word “remember”,’ said Milena. ‘You say, “remember, team”. You never tell us to think.

What strikes me here is the way in which the School Nurse seems to suggest that the Lumps are having to make an effort to recall, whereas if I understand the function of the viruses correctly, they cannot help but recall because the viruses do it for them. Thus, there is no actual effort involved in recalling what they’ve been given by the viruses. What they seem unable to do is to separate out chunks of what the virus has given them and respond to it critically. Milena may not carry all that knowledge, or have access to it in the way they do, but she can recall things that are significant and construct arguments around them, as in remembering that Plato doesn’t use the word “Pharmakolicon” for writing.

As I think we noticed in our discussion during the class, writing becomes like a virus, “artificial knowledge that people could lay claim to without really having experienced or learned anything.”

I link this to Milena’s first meeting with Rolfa, when the latter comments that while Milena can, like everyone else, read music, she hasn’t learned how to read music. “If you haven’t learned it, it isn’t yours.”

I’d like to tie that in, somehow, to everyone being Read into the Consensus, but I also had this lingering thought in the back of my mind about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the people who become books in order to preserve them. I suppose, in part, I’m thinking about the dreary performances of Love’s Labours Lost “preserved” in The Child Garden. Is this what the “books” of Fahrenheit 451 will become?

And all this interests me, I suppose, because of the masterclass itself, as a gathering of people who read and write about their reading, and attempt to draw conclusions from what they read. What are we doing?

Niall Harrison:

I have to pick the scene which brought The Child Garden fully into focus for me. It’s a conversation between Milena and Bob the Angel that takes place relatively late in the book (pp 290-3 in my 1994 Orb edition), and it struck me quite forcefully because it’s the first time we get a clear indication of what one of the key players in the novel — Consensus — actually wants; indeed arguably the first time we can be certain that Consensus is as active in shaping the events of the novel as any of the traditionally human characters. What it wants is not something obscure or willfully strange; it is a simple human desire, and Bob states it simply: “The Consensus is tired of being alone. It wants to reach out” (290). But it’s a want that draws together many of the novel’s key themes, and the conversation in this scene starts to suggest how. Reaching out is, of course, exactly what Milena is trying to do with Rolfa’s music; both gestures reflect the novel’s concern with the tension between individuals and their community (Milena’s search for a true sense of self is only meaningfully defined once we know how the alternative is defined); Milena is only suitable because of her biological individuality, which contrasts with the more common use (in the novel) of biology as a vehicle for cultural memory; and even the ways in which Milena and Consensus are planning reach out are parallel, being both performative, and both concerned with transcending rehearsal (“They need to rehearse me,” Milena thinks) to achieve something new. And reading the scene again, it seems to gesture towards the novel’s ending (and the apotheosis of its sfnal conceits); there are images of reaching out, and a reminder of the way in which Milena grew up and left the first Garden. In a novel that sometimes gets lost in its own rapturousness, this scene is a relatively understated lynchpin.

The Child Garden cover 3Karen Burnham:

Mostly, I agree that the scene where Milena finds out from the angel Bob what is actually going on is the key scene of the novel. However, at the time when Wendy posed the question, one of the scenes I jotted down was when Milena was rejected by the Restorers.

Remember she had been virus-less through her childhood, but one of her teachers had taken her under her wing. She’d taken Milena home, and Milena had come to love her guild/family. After a disaster, Milena was sleeping close to the instructor and started to act on her nascent lesbian impulses, which caused the teacher to reject her harshly. It was then that Milena decided to try to accept the viruses, so that she would be able to be part of society, instead of a perpetual outcast. It comes late in the series of flashbacks, it was something that Milena had tried to hold back from the reading, and it answers a few questions. Given that she couldn’t accept the viruses as a child, why was she able to later? Why accept them at all? And what motivates her? Fear of rejection (which is pretty darn universal, I’d imagine).

Duncan Lawie:

The scene that immediately came to my mind when we were asked is the moment when Milena discovers that Rolfa has written other works “for an audience of viruses” (p350-1 in the SF Masterworks edition)

This is very late in the book. Milena has accepted that her love for Rolfa is never going to be realised, that the Rolfa she loved doesn’t exist any more. She realises that the Opera is as much her own work as Rolfa’s, but she still considers it a monument to that love, to the fabulous woman she destroyed (through getting her Read) by trying to save her. Through all the trials of getting the Opera staged, Milena has believed herself true to Rolfa’s desire to sing, to perform, to create and present – but now there is the sudden realisation that the Divine Comedy was intended, literally, for an audience of viruses. Milena has built upon the wrong foundation, pushed the creation into the external, physical world when it was wholly meant to be inside the heads of the readers. How deeply Milena misunderstood Rolfa’s intent! And yet the seed of that revelation has been with Milena almost as long as her work – the Holy Bible “for an audience of viruses” is inside Piglet, the toy which Rolfa left behind, and from which it is birthed.

Like so many points in the book, this moment forces a reassessment of the relationship between Rolfa and Milena. Did Rolfa write this later work in Milena’s flat, trapped inside and dependent on Milena to keep her family away? Was this truly important to Rolfa, or just idle doodling? Are there other works for an audience of viruses? Can reading the books with Rolfa’s accompaniments shine a new light on the works when the received wisdom of the viruses only allows one interpretation?

Being so late in the book, these are questions that aren’t answered in the text — lending them some extra piquancy, for me at least.


iz216coverIn Elisabeth Vonarburg’s “The Invisibles” (translated in collaboration with Howard Scott), ecotastrophe has become a story to be faithfully retold every Christmas. Told for most of its length as an utterly absorbing second-person narration, it describes a future in which extreme climate change has driven humanity into domed cities, and is one of those rare short stories that fully creates the future as another country. The technological innovations, such as “integrated circuits” grafted into peoples’ hands, are sufficiently worked-through that they are explained almost entirely by the ways in which they are used, such as built-in Oyster cards. It’s groundwork that frees Vonarburg to delve into the characters she (or her narrator: the story eventually resolves into the first person, told by an observer) wishes to imagine, and the sights they see. Or the things they hear, since “The Invisibles” is a story in which sound, or its absence, plays as much of a role as more visual stimuli; early on we’re told that “silence, nowadays, is the rule”, and there’s a sense in which it’s the wheezing of the public transport or the bubbling of a fountain that grab the attention, not the sight of the dome above. The story itself, which imagines the journeys of two individuals “unmoored by circumstances” from familiar to unfamiliar regions of the domes, is a convincing portrait of loneliness, uncertainty and alienation. For my money, it’s the standout story in Interzone 216. The only problem with it — and you may be ahead of me here — is that Interzone 216 is a special issue devoted to mundane sf, and the strengths of “The Invisibles” are largely incidental to its mundanity.

“The idea,” says Geoff Ryman, in his introduction, referring to the prohibitive tone of the original mundane manifesto, “was that Mundanity would work like the Dogme school of film-making to create a space for different kinds of sf. It was about what we didn’t want. Here’s what we do.” A cynic might point to his statement later in the introduction that “if [mundane sf] gives itself some slack on the science, it does so to open up a new possibility” as a cleverly-inserted get-out clause (aha! We’re not as dogmatic as you thought!), but perhaps it would be fairer not to hold mundane sf’s advocates to their past words too strongly, and just take this as what the publicity splurge obviously positions it as: a relaunch. The adversarial tone of the manifesto — which, tellingly, is no longer online, although you can find traces of it in discussions scattered across the sf blogosphere and beyond, or a complete copy in Vector 245 — ensured that the original launch of mundane sf as a concept, way back in 2004, was comprehensively bungled; much hot air later, from both pro- and anti- camps, and you can’t blame anyone if their first reaction to a whole issue of Interzone devoted to the stuff is hostile, and about the only good thing you can say is that the “movement” outlived expectations. But it remains, to my mind, a perfectly reasonable ideological position about sf, for two reasons that Ryman articulates: one, that stories about the future should make “an effort in good faith to show a future” (i.e., and not be fantasy in drag), and two, that a lot of sf’s strength derives from originality (i.e., and tropes that are “tired” can end up being, among other things, inadvertently consolatory, rather than the challenging literature that sf, I think many would be comfortable saying, should aspire to be). Whether or not it’s actually the “best possible” sf is basically irrelevant: taking the idea that it might be as a provocation isn’t the worst thing a writer could do.

What it comes down to, I guess, is whether you agree with the mundanes’ implicit argument that in the contemporary field the pendulum has swung too far away from sf that focuses on the probable, and too far towards wild speculation. There’s evidence either way. You could look, for example, at awards shortlists. Certainly, on this year’s Hugo shortlist for Best Novel, only one nominee — Charles Stross’ Halting State — is unarguably mundane, having explicitly been written to meet mundane constraints. (Alien communications buzz out Rollback, while parallel worlds see off Brasyl and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.) On the other hand, arguably only one nominee — John Scalzi’s The Last Colony — is meaningfully anti-mundane, in its cheerful use of many familiar tropes from sf’s history; and this year’s Clarke Award shortlist drew some fire for, among other things, basically being too mundane. Another way to approach the question, though, would be to look at content. It would be fair, for instance, to ask where the climate change stories are. Stross once charmingly described the singularity as the unavoidable turd in the punchbowl of sf, but you could easily argue the the turd should be climate change, or at least the confluence of climate change and peak oil. But, with a few exceptions — Kim Stanley Robinson is the obvious one — the stories aren’t there, certainly not in the numbers that post-singularity tales now are. A reasonable number of works have climate change as a backdrop, but very few engage with it as an issue that could define our next fifty years.

And of those that do engage with it, plenty take the same approach as “The Invisibles”, and lose sight of any connection with our world. I’ve already said Vonarburg’s story is fine work, but there’s not a thing about it that couldn’t have been achieved equally well using a domed city on another planet. This is, if you like, a problem of affect, and it rears its head again in IZ216’s other major climate change story, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s “Endra — From Memory”, except that this time it’s actively to the tale’s detriment. We’re a bit further into the future this time (I think), and the tale is mostly told through the memoirs of one Melizan kem Gishcar-Shwy. He — sex is never specified, but the name sounds male to my ears — is a “Trading Monitor” for Lavrant City, which means his job is to arrange inspections of ships’ cargo when they arrive and leave, and he’s fascinated by one particular arrival, the charismatic Captain Endra YuiduJin. (I’m not actually convinced Endra is portrayed as charismatic so much as she is repeatedly described by Melizan as charismatic; but I’ll let that lie, because my main issue with the story is elsewhere.) Through Malazin’s recollections, we learn a bunch of stuff: that this Earth has become a waterworld; that the waters are still rising; that the population of Earth is now estimated to be half a billion, and declining; and that Endra is in search of a lost city, where the legends have it that “all the treasures lost to the rising waters remain pristine and perfect; where all men love knowledge and peace; where there is no hunger, no injustice, no cruelty, and sadness has been forgotten”. She sails away in search; she returns briefly, two years later; and then is never seen again. It’s a perfectly reasonable story of its type, but I can’t treat it as a good-faith attempt to engage with the future of our planet because it does absolutely nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished in a secondary-world fantasy setting, and a pretty cosily romanticised one at that. There isn’t much injustice or cruelty visible in Lavrant City, so Endra’s search seems a little pointless. In his introduction, Ryman notes that many of the stories that ended up in the issue were surprisingly hopeful, “at a time when the future looks so dark”; but to my mind, the future of “Endra — From Memory” isn’t so much hopeful as thoroughly domesticated.

Two stories which aspire to be a bit more thorny are both set in near-future America. R. R. Angell’s “Remote Control” is narrated by a US army private stationed on the Mexico/US border; his assignment is to monitor the “Atco-Johnson Perimeter Stations” that keep the border clear. They’re solar-powered gun turrets with webcams, essentially, and any patriotic American citizen can pay five dollars to log on and take control of one for a ten-minute stint. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to pop off some shots at illegal immigrants. This is, or should be, harsh stuff, and certainly has some nice touches — “Like the training says, if someone breaks into your house and you kill them it is self-defense; a homeowner has the right to do that. They call it the Castle Precedent, and it changed the way we do everything. Only Americans patrol our borders. It would be illegal otherwise” — but the military banter that drives the story is tiresome (even if deliberately parodic), and the ending, in which the system is effectively subverted, feels like a cop-out. You’re left thinking of the much better, because more committed to the logic of its premise, version of the same story that someone like Paolo Bacigalupi would write. More ambitious is Billie Aul’s “The Hour is Getting Late”, in which a critic provides commentary on “Woodstock 2044”, a VR-enhanced tribute to the spirit of the sixties (or, more accurately, what people in 2044 imagine the spirit of the sixties to be), while trying to avoid being manipulated back into marriage by her artist ex. Aul’s problem, in a sense, is the opposite to Angell’s. She does follow the logic of her concepts, for the most part — there’s the simple cynicism with which relationships are treated, for instance, or the glimpses of the lives of “Fare folk” living behind the “Manhattan wall” that keep popping up on news bulletins:

Jessica was amused by how much the hippies resembled the Fare folk. Hopefully the Fare folk were only looking for “three days of peace, love, and music”. Whatever they wanted, they were going to end up back on their farms. They should know how lucky they were to have that. There were countries where people like them were just locked up in camps to starve to death. If you couldn’t do work a robot couldn’t do, why should you be allowed to put your carbon footprint on the planet at all?

The suggestion of complexity here is, to my mind, very efficient; you get the issue, what people think about the issue, and an idea of where the issue comes from, all in one paragraph. (Similarly, though pop culture is a notoriously treacherous area for sf, Aul manages to make the scene of 2044 feel like it has a little depth, that it’s not just about aping the stuff we’re familiar with.) But the telling doesn’t have the vigour that it needs to make these concepts really bite; it’s just sentence after straightforward, unadventurous sentence. I suspect it’s intended to embody Jessica’s lack of interest in and understanding of the world beyond her horizon — in the story’s final paragraph, the Fare folk attack the Wall, and she wonders, deadpan, “what in the world they thought they could accomplish by doing that”. But, unfortunately, for the most part it is simply leaden. The story is worth reading — something I’m not sure I can say about Angell’s effort — but it’s in spite of this blankness of attitude, not because of it.

And, despite the implicit argument that mundane sf should be a way for sf to renew itself, I can’t say that either Aul’s story or Angell’s really recharges my imagination of an American future. More interesting is Anil Menon’s “Into the Night”, in which an Indian father travels to visit his daughter, and finds that he can cope with changes in the world but not changes in the people he knows — although the father’s resistance to genetics and evolutionary biology comes across as arrogant ignorance on his part, when I suspect we’re meant to read it as a failure of communication on hers. But the most provocative stories in the issue, from a mundane standpoint, are those that top and tail it, by Lavie Tidhar and Geoff Ryman, respectively.

Ryman’s “Talk is Cheap” offers a richer world than anything else in the issue; or perhaps just denser. In its few pages, it packs in cultural comment, weak AI, social recategorisation, water shortages, photosynthetic skin, self-heating paint, and much more, a world where “Reality is a tiny white stable dot in the middle of all this info,” and “Everything else, all the talk, is piled up sky high, prioritised, processed and offered back.” It’s not a new conception of the future, but the seriousness with which it is treated is enough to make the story stand out. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the technical aspects of the story — the way Ryman filters all this information through the present-tense perspective of one cranky old guy, whose job it is to go places in the real world and check their environmental qualities against records — are more interesting than the emotional aspects, or the world itself. It’s more of a good-faith attempt to portray the experience of living in a highly textured future than it is a good-faith attempt to portray that future for its own sake; but it’s so effective at that portrayal that it feels churlish to complain. (As it would be to question whether all the ideas that Ryman works in are, strictly, mundane.)

Tidhar’s “How to Make Paper Airplanes”, meanwhile, is a brief piece set on islands in the Republic of Vanuatu. The first half of the story is pure tour-guide, a series of facts and figures about the islands that establish their separateness to the lives of us rich Westerners, despite being on the same planet; the second half introduces us to four Americans (I think) working at a small base on one of the islands, three of whom are carrying out various kinds of research, and one of whom (the narrator) is a shop-keeper. I like Lavie Tidhar’s short fiction, and this has the precision of setting and emotion that I’ve come to expect; but neither half of “How to Make Paper Airplanes” is science fiction. The story’s place in the magazine is justified, presumably, by the story that one of the researchers is writing, and the comments the others make about it:

“I’m writing a science fiction story about us,” Sam Friedman says. “It has no aliens in it, no commercial space travel, no telepathy.”

“You’re a fucking alien,” Jimmy Morgan says.

“I can tell you how the story ends,” Sam says, ignoring him.

I say, “How?”

“One night,” Sam says, and the candle makes his eyes twinkle, “one night we get drunk and mix up all the experiments together. Ben uses my self-fermenting coconuts for his kava-pop experiment. Jimmy hooks up a generator to power things up –”

“It’s not that simple–” Jimmy starts.

“And then,” Sam says, again ignoring him, “the whole thing explodes. It’s a huge fireball. It makes a crater the size of Sola. But we all survive anyway, I’m not quite sure how yet.”

Sounds more like infernokrusher than mundane sf, right? And the proposed story doesn’t get any more plausible: it turns out that the source of the explosion is “a revolutionary new fuel”, which launches a Vanuatu space programme. This despite the fact that Sam later argues that sf isn’t a license to make up anything you want. The story-within-a-story is a striking contrast to what we actually see of the islands, and the comments made about which technologies are actually useful for their situation, and how contact with the West has really affected the islanders. (One particularly effective exchange reports the remarks of an islander, untranslated but dotted with words such as “virus”. The point is painfully obvious.) Sam is, in other words, the sort of sf writer that mundane sf wants to get through to: the sort who don’t see the world around them as a rich enough prompt for stories.

Which brings us back to the central question raised by this issue of Interzone. It’s not a bad issue — Vonarburg’s story is very good, and the stories by Ryman, Tidhar and Aul all have something to recommend them — but does it, as a whole, make a convincing case for mundane sf? Ironically, it’s probably Tidhar’s story — which isn’t sf at all — that best articulates the value of what something like mundane sf could offer, which is the value of extrapolating from the world as it is, and not as we imagine it to be, or would like it to be. Too many of the others don’t engage with their futures with the specificity that I’d hope for; with the exception of Ryman’s story, and possibly Aul’s, it’s not hard to see how the same points could have been made by translating the stories into, say, space opera. But perhaps the most telling indication of the failure of these stories to reinvigorate our thinking about the future is to look at who they’re about. In terms of where they’re from, the protagonists are a fairly varied bunch; in terms of how long they’ve lived, not so much. Yarbro’s story is written by an old man recalling his youth; Menon and Ryman deal with old men trying to live with the future they find themselves in; and while technically the narrator of Vonaburg’s story is relatively young, the two subjects of the narrator’s imagining are both elderly. Which means that mundane sf, on the evidence of Interzone 216, isn’t so much about looking forwards and thinking about change as it is about coming to terms; a stance which to my mind harnesses neither the best, nor the most challenging, aspects of sf.

Mundane Frenzy

Public service announcement: apparently Geoff Ryman will be talking about mundane sf on Front Row, on Radio 4, at 7.30 this evening.

The occasion (I assume) being the imminent publication of the “Mundane sf” issue of Interzone, as discussed over on the BSFA forum. It’s out next Thursday, in fact, and in the meantime here’s the fiction contents:

“How to Make Paper Airplanes” by Lavie Tidhar
“Endra” – from Memory by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
“The Hour is Getting Late” by Billie Aul
“Remote Control” by R.R. Angell
“The Invisibles” by Élisabeth Vonarburg
“Into the Night” by Anil Menon
“Talk is Cheap” by Geoff Ryman

If that’s not enough, here’s a Guardian blog piece by Damien G Walter:

The battleground for this SF smackdown would be the pages of one of the world’s most influential short fiction magazines. Where literary fiction has long since abandoned the short form in favor of the fertile intellectual territory of Waterstones 3 for 2 tables, SF has continued to value short fiction as the arena where the genre innovates and evolves. Enter Interzone, Britain’s longest-running SF magazine, at a time when British writers have come to dominate the field. Never one to shy away from a good dust-up, but smart enough not to step in front of a locomotive full of enraged SF fans, the editors of Interzone handed control to a team of guest editors representing the heartland of Mundanista territory, and the call went forth for stories that represented the Mundane manifesto.

No prizes for spotting the most ironic statement in this paragraph.

EDIT: You know, it’s almost like some mastermind is coordinating this. Here’s the first review of IZ216, which is generally positive, although it offers almost no insight into how well the issue functions as a showcase for mundane sf.

AFTER FRONT ROW: Well, that was brief, but good to hear nonetheless. Here’s the Listen Again link.

A Conversation About The King’s Last Song

Today at Strange Horizons, Abigail Nussbaum reviews The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman. Go and read it, because it’s an excellent review, and because if you don’t the rest of this post will make no sense at all.

Back? OK. After Abigail turned in her review, I finally got around to reading the book myself, and wrote my own review. I can’t post that right now, because hopefully it’s going to appear elsewhere (at which point I’ll link to it); the short version is I liked the book a good deal more than she did, despite the fact that I agree with her about a lot of its specific strengths and weaknesses. What I can post is a cleaned-up version of the conversation Abigail and I had afterwards, which I think among other things makes an interesting follow-up to Geneva’s post yesterday. We start with a quote from the review:

Ryman’s earlier novels reveled in the wildly fantastic and the outright bizarre—lesbian polar bears in the far future, Oz’s Dorothy as a bitter victim of sexual abuse, a retelling of The Spoon River Anthology for the modern, commuter era—which he couched in playful, experimental narratives. With his most recent and extremely well-received novel, Air: Or, Have Not Have, Ryman moved away from these tonal and stylistic excesses. Air‘s prose was transparent and precise, its narrative largely linear and, apart from one technological innovation, set in a world much like our own. The King’s Last Song completes this transition—it is a thoroughly naturalistic novel (no biologically unlikely pregnancy in sight), and by far the most subdued thing Ryman has ever written.

Niall Harrison: This is obviously a point you refer back to a few times. Unfortunately, while I’ve read early Ryman (Unconquered Countries, The Warrior Who Carried Life) and later Ryman (253, Air), I haven’t read much from the middle (so not The Child Garden or Was). But I’m not certain that Air is as much a departure in terms of tone and style as you suggest.

Abigail Nussbaum: I’m exactly the opposite, but you’re right that in something like “The Unconquered Country” Ryman’s language and tone aren’t as adventurous as they would later become.

NH: Although to undercut my argument completely, there’s a story in the same collection as that story called “A Fall of Angels”, of which about half is a conversation between two posthumans and a being that might or might not be an alien, carried out entirely through pictograms. But something like The Warrior Who Carried Life, his first novel, certainly has the storybookishness you mention with regards to TKLS’s historical segments—it feels like Ryman is trying to strip out as much window-dressing as possible, and get down to the pure story. Which is very imprecise, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it right now. It’s wildly fantastical, but the fantasy is deliberately described in plain, matter-of-fact terms, and avoids the high tone of most such ‘epic’ stories. The characters are (IIRC explicitly) archetypal, rather than being individual and nuanced. And so on.

AN: This is precisely what he does in the historical segments of TKLS, especially the characters. The really puzzling thing is that you’d expect an author who retells an epic story in, as you put it, plain terms to be aiming for psychological realism. But then he turns around and makes the characters inhuman, so that they feel completely out of place and all emotional resonance—the emotional pull of the epic story and the empathy we might develop with realistic characters—is lost. I have no idea what he’s trying to do.

NH: I wonder if it isn’t in some way deliberately symbolic. Most fantasy isn’t deliberately symbolic—indeed most fantasy aims for the opposite, I would say, burying its symbolism under worldbuilding. I wonder if Ryman might be trying to point out the artificialiality of history, or the risks of making fantasy out of it. Or something.

AN: I think I’d be very unhappy to think of Ryman trying to manipulate his readers in this manner. I, for one, read the historical segments expecting them to attempt some version of realism—clearly Ryman can’t tell me exactly what happened, but his speculation can have the ring of psychological and political truth. It’s a little disturbing to consider that Ryman might have been lambasting me for something I had never intended to do.

NH: You could also say it’s the side of Jayavarman’s life that the leaves don’t tell us (since the two accounts clearly, and I think deliberately, conflict), but that brings us back to your problem of the lack of verisimilitude. Alternatively, I wonder whether it’s meant to be the version of the past that, say, Map remembers before reading the leaves. Its message is essentially that Jayavarman existed, but everything inevitably fell apart after him, and even he wasn’t perfect, just as everything always falls apart and nothing is perfect in Cambodia. The leaves, precisely because they leave out the real person, provide the sort of aspirational hope that myths provide. They reclaim the past as something to believe in—in contrast to, say, the 20th-century memories of Map and others.

AN: Are you sure that Map doesn’t know how things worked out for Jayavarman and his heirs? When the book is found, there’s a second, smaller, packet of golden leaves that’s separately wrapped. I had assumed that this was the crippled son’s tragic epilogue, although I don’t remember whether Luc translates it as well as the book itself.

NH: Yet another thought: you say in your review that it’s “by far the most subdued thing Ryman has ever written”—and in terms of being extravagant/fantastic, that’s spot-on, but in terms of emotion…? It occurs to me that one reason Ryman’s books work the way they do is because he is unashamed of extremes of sentiment—very good and very bad things happen to his characters all the time–but tells them in a very matter-of-fact way. I thought Map’s recollection of his time in post-Khmer Rouges Cambodia was one of the strongest parts of the novel for precisely that reason. (And it occurs to me that that section, which effectively operates as a novella within the novel, is set at about the time that ‘The Unconquered Country’ was written—must compare the two at some point.) On the other hand, while I agree that the impact of the historical strand isn’t what it might have been, I’m not sure I agree that Jayavarman’s story is uninspiring; the portrayal of the city he creates, for instance, was awe-inspiring, almost like a utopia I never knew existed—which I’m sure was Ryman’s intent.

More generally, you also say “the novel’s primary function seems to be to act as a guided tour”, and I think this may be the key to the book—tourism keeps coming up, both as a way people make their living and as an evil, or at least damaging, influence on Cambodia’s attempts to become a whole country. I think the casting of the reader as tourist is vital: I got the feeling that at times Ryman was very deliberately saying to a presumed Western audience, this is not your story.

AN: That’s a very nice observation, but it’s not as if Ryman is telling the Cambodians’ story either, is it?

NH: Because he’s not Cambodian? I don’t know; he certainly spent a lot of time there while writing it. I’m not sure I buy the argument that no author can ever accurately represent a culture other than their own—it’s too close to saying an author can’t write about people who are different to themselves.

AN: No, I meant because he’s more interested in convincing us that Cambodians are good, kind, and hospitable people than in genuinely talking about them as complex human beings—he’s telling the story of Cambodians as he wants us to see them. His politics, however well-intentioned, keep getting in the way of his subject.

Have you read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow? It’s a novel that questions the wisdom of writing political novels and the viability of art in the service of a political agenda, no matter how well-intentioned. The book ends with the author asking one of the characters if he has something to say to his (Western) readers. The character responds “If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.” The act of placing an intermediary between ourselves and the people we’re reading about inevitably blurs the resulting image (although another plot strand in the book also deals with problems in face-to-face communication. It’s an excellent read by the way – meaty and dense). Ryman ignores, and even purposefully sublimates, this complexity in favor of his political agenda.

NH: You said that about the characters in the book, but I don’t think they’re politically uniform so much as they’re morally uniform. Or to put it another way, I haven’t read a book which believes so completely in the fundamental decency of people for ages. And on one level this is good—the book is brilliant at showing how society crushes and twists people like Map and Rith, and leaves them misunderstanding each other. And then they find a degree of reconciliation, even while I strongly suspect they would disagree with each other on matters of policy and justice. On the other hand, precisely because it’s so optimistic it seems a bit unreal, and therefore at times a little patronising.

AN: Which is actually worse, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to claim moral superiority for my nation, but are we really going to ignore—is Ryman really expecting us to ignore—the systematic murder of 1.7 million people by the same people that Ryman would have us believe are morally uniform and fundamentally decent? The civil war and its atrocities are the boogeyman in Cambodia’s closet. They poison the lives of people who never experienced them, and yet when Ryman references them, he refuses to assign personal responsibility, to consider that there are Cambodians living today who were intimately involved with this slaughter, who might not be nice people. Even Map, a former Khmer Rouge, is only joined by the narrative after he’s left that group. We’d be up in arms if the novel offered this kind of wholesale apologia for Europeans—Germans during WWII, for instance.

NH: No, clearly he doesn’t expect us to ignore it—the Cambodia of TKLS is clearly damaged at every level by the actions of the Khmer Rouge. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s apologia to argue that terrible things can be done by good people. To an extent, I think the novel suggests that any attempt to assign personal responsibility would be meaningless; it’s by taking collective responsibility for their past that Cambodians can move forward.

AN: I actually see the novel as offering a collective amnesty – not ‘we’re all responsible’ (which I would have problems with as well) but ‘no one is responsible’. I don’t have serious problems with the notion that good people can do terrible things, or that a person who has done terrible things might deserve compassion, but that’s not what Ryman is doing—rather, he deliberately ignores the fact that there are people who are responsible for these atrocities. In the debate about offering forgiveness to mass murderers and war criminals, there has always been one universally agreed-upon truism—that forgiveness cannot be offered without a full accounting and acknowledgment of responsibility. Also, the one true moment of catharsis in the novel comes when Map takes personal responsibility and confesses to William.

NH: Yes, and William’s immediate realisation is that he is a part of the war as well, that he (and by extension every Cambodian) has to face up to his country’s past. I would say.

AN: Face up to their victimhood, not their culpability. That’s what’s insidious about Ryman’s approach. All Cambodians are victims. No Cambodians are victimizers. We acknowledge the atrocity but not the people who committed it. (And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one person we see truly recognizing their connection to the war is the one person who is completely innocent of any wrongdoing.)

NH: The last thing I wanted to talk about is the ending. I think it works—again, if you like it’s symbolic, giving Cambodians back their history as common knowledge—but you felt it was contrived?

AN: It’s a device that falls flat for me. In spite of the fact that he has roots in science fiction, in spite of the fact that he’s written a novel like Air, Ryman chooses to ignore the fact that information, once set loose, can never be contained. Once the translation exists, the book’s physical location ceases to matter.

NH: Aren’t we saying two different versions of the same thing, here? I think the point of the ending is that the information is no longer contained—but because it’s equally available to all Cambodians, because it’s being passed on by word of mouth, it’s outside Western control. Whereas if the book had been taken and put in a museum, it would have been in some sense gatekeepered, distanced from Cambodians, even if the actual translation was still made available.

AN: See, it’s that last part that I find unconvincing. If the translation is available, why does the book’s location matter? It’s practically the crux of the novel, and Ryman fails to sell me on his outlook on the situation.

NH: Simply because symbols matter, I think; because ownership matters, because information isn’t always independent of its context. My knowledge of the cultural heritage of other countries isn’t what it should be, but I’m pretty sure there are various priceless artifacts locked up in the British Museum that come from countries who would quite like them back, please.

AN: True, although only to a point. It’s also something that I think Ryman should have worked harder to stress in the novel (if that is indeed his point) rather than hoping we wouldn’t notice the thoughtless conflation of the physical object and the text.

You know, I think we mostly agree about the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s just that, as you say, you seem to find its flaws less problematic. I think for me the issue was plotlessness and manipulation. One or the other would have been OK, but not both. I would have been able to accept a novel whose purpose was to guide us through Cambodia, but in that case I can’t accept Ryman’s propaganda work. And manipulative novels are usually much more effective when they offer the readers something to grab onto, such as a tight plot.