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.

Tributaries

I was a little surprised to realise, the other day, that I’ve been talking about River of Gods for two years now. There are a number of reasons why this is the case: publishing accident (the US edition has only just come out, after all); awards buzz (which I wouldn’t be surprised to see continue with a Campbell nomination next year); and, not least, the fact that it’s simply a good book worth talking about.

But it also doesn’t hurt that Ian McDonald has started publishing stories set in the same future. There have been two to date–“The Little Goddess” last year and “The Djinn’s Wife” this year, both novellas, both in Asimov’s—with, I gather, a few more to come. I usually resent, or at least am healthily sceptical of, authors returning to the same well too many times—there are very few worlds other than our own that really support multiple stories—but McDonald has, so far, gotten away with it. In part this is because I know there’s a new novel, a new world, coming soon, so I know he’s unlikely to draw this well dry; and in part, so far, it’s simply because he’s told more good stories worth talking about.

And he hasn’t just recreated the novel. The points of comparison are many, and the fractured future India is recognisable (if less intense: the tipping point has not yet been reached) but these stories can’t do what River of Gods did. The writing is as fluid and vibrant as ever, but simply by virtue of the fact that these are individual stories rather than a knot of ten tales bound together, they show less of the world, and are more immediately graspable. And I think McDonald knows this, because he turns it into an advantage: both are told in the first person—one direct, one reported—thus constraining their focus, personalising this future in a way that the novel can’t match. At the same time, however, neither story can be fully decoded without a certain familiarity with the bedrock of the novel. Both are clearly picking up ideas that River of Gods touched on, but perhaps didn’t explore in as much depth as they could stand; but because one person sees less of the world than ten, there are some things we never find out. This is from the start of “The Djinn’s Wife”:

I was born in Ladakh, far from the heat of the djinns—they have walls and whims quite alien to humans—but my mother was Delhi born and raised, and from her I knew its circuses and boulevards, its maidans and chowks and bazaars, like those of my own Leh. Delhi to me was a city of stories, and so if I tell the story of the djinn’s wife in the manner of a sufi legend or a tale from the Mahabharata, or even a tivi soap opera, that is how it seems to me: City of Djinns.

(Both stories, I feel obliged to say, are blighted by the patronising italics evident in the above quote. There’s no reason for them—both narrators are natives—and given the extent to which McDonald mixes up idioms and jargon, as anyone who has read River of Gods will be able to appreciate, such highlighting becomes rapidly annoying, and at times outright absurd.)

The last comparison is the most significant. The Djinn of the title is, as we expect, an aeai, AJ Rao—a diplomat, but also a player in India’s prime-time soap opera hit, Town and Country. In River of Gods, that show and all its players turned out to be part of a superintelligent aeai, tools by which that being attempted to understand how humans story their lives. In “The Djinn’s Wife” Town and Country is the background, the reflection of the surface tale—but knowing its deeper purpose gives events greater resonance. AJ Rao’s marriage to Esha, a dancer, is told in larger-than-life terms at least partly because the narrator (we do learn their identity, at the end of the story) is used to seeing life as large, as soap. So the couple meet; they court; they have the wedding of the season; they are pulled (are driven) apart. They act out the expected stages of their romance for us. How much they have been stage-managed is an open question.

Similarly, the little goddess, a future reincarnation of the Kumari Devi, is drafted to serve as the end of someone else’s story. She has, for the early years of her life, no story of her own: no caste, no village, no family, no home; not even, unless I missed it, a name. She is raised to believe that the myth of others is her myth, and when she loses her divinity (on first bleeding) it’s a hard fall. She, like Esha, ends up in Delhi, but not as a dancer. Instead she signs on at a marriage market. Men outnumber women four to one in this future: now it’s husbands that pay the dowry. But the little goddess turns out to have a disappointingly low market value, until she catches the fancy of a Brahmin, one of the genetically blessed children of this India, a boy-king who lives twice as long as the rest of us, aging half as fast. A new god, we are told, and the irony is not lost. He is gifted with the youth that betrayed the little goddess to her humanity.

It’s clear, then, that both “The Djinn’s Wife” and “The Little Goddess” are not just limited slices of this future, but are about situations that embody a similar sense of constraint; or, looked at another way, that they are both about cases that test the boundaries of their society. River of Gods featured only one marriage, and that of cold convenience, between the strait-laced Krishna Cop Mr Nandha and his quiet country wife Parvarti. These stories play variations on that theme: in “The Djinn’s Wife”, we are asked if love can find a way, while in “The Little Goddess” we are asked to consider the fate of those who don’t fit the system.

As in the novel, these questions are authentically bedded in Indian culture. The protocols that deal with them already exist (an elderly relative tells Esha that marrying Rao is “like marrying a Muslim, or even a Christian […] not a real person”), but McDonald challenges them with new situations, connecting the human dilemmas of his stories intimately to the changing technologies available. The little goddess, for example, is warned that “the kind of special it takes to be Kumari means you will find it hard in the world”, and so it proves. To withstand the trials of being a goddess, she withdraws into herself to the point of becoming autistic, and develops a dissociative disorder that separates her self and her otherness for the sake of her sanity.

Yet “The Little Goddess” turns in the end on the difference between disorder and adaptation; while for Esha and Rao, who learn to make love in unorthodox fashion, part of what dooms the relationship is a resistance to change. The fate of both progatonists is determined by how far they are willing (or unwilling) to integrate with the aeai that surround them on a daily basis, how far they accept the future that permeates their lives. They are, in that sense, not just variations on Parvarti, but variations on Aj, the driftwood girl at the heart of River of Gods—the girl who was, like Town and Country, a tool for aeais trying to understand humanity.

These stories balance their big brother in one final way: their location. River of Gods took place primarily in Varanasi, the capital of Bharat. In “The Djinn’s Wife” and “The Little Goddess” we see events leading up to one of the novel’s key events from the other side, the neighbouring state of Awadh. Both stories end in tension, on the brink of a water-war, near or after the day when Awadh signs the USA’s Hamilton Acts and outlaws any aeai above a 2.8 (indistinguishable from human 95% of the time; it is the godlike gen-threes, seeking refuge in the data-havens of Bharat, that drive River of Gods). In doing so they make Esha’s husband an instant rogue and the little goddess an instant fugitive. The world intervenes. We have free will, these stories seem to say, but we don’t have free choice. Our stories are part of one story: we are all tributaries. We flow together, our fates bound up in the current.