A novella is a job for the weekend, so we start issue 224 with story two. I don’t think I’ve read anything else by Katherine Sparrow, but this is up to Rachel Swirsky’s usual standards. Like “Eros, Philia, Agape”, it takes a familiar sfnal conceit — in this case, absorption of an individual into a hive mind, here called Aviva — and ferrets out its implications for normal human relationships. It’s narrated by an absorb-ee, Simon, looking back at the circumstances that lead to his absorption: a painful breakup, and a rebound with Aviva.
“Relationships between people with lone bodies and lone minds are always unequal.” That’s what Aviva says. “Power springs up between them like a weed, and tangles everything.”
As Lois Tilton notes, the story is filled with contradictions: Aviva seeks out Simon because she is entranced by his dancing, but he ends the story having given up physical existence entirely; Aviva is the creation of a group of Orthodox Jewish geneticists looking for a way to preserve their culture, and does she what she’s doing as preservation, yet it’s clear there is at least some loss of individuality: personalities can be closer to or further from the surface of Aviva. But it seems to me the story is entirely aware of this, that it grows from the central contradiction of any relationship — two (or more) people trying to be one entity (also a particularly apt theme for a collaborative story, of course) — and that absorption into Aviva is far from being “too good to be true”. For Simon, at least, it’s a capitulation, an acknowledgement that he cannot — does not want to — carry on alone. “You can’t preserve things without changing them”, says Aviva, as if in explanation of the doped-up nature of existence inside her; but at some point, the title’s prediction comes true.
This is a good one, too. Sturdy. Clear narrative voice (Scotsman seeking his fortune among the stars), interesting setting (two settings, actually, but the main one is Atlas B, a heavy-metal-rich planet with a suitably adapted ecosystem), well-paced (including a couple of good action sequences), knowing (planet called Midas, group called the Robinsonade Guaranteed Lashup Company), cold-eyed about where its premises lead (brutal colonialism). It would feel wrong to ask for anything more.
Better. “Coat of Many Colours” is pretty much a pure old-fashioned idea story, nicely done. In an ecologically devastated South America, Jurassic Park-like tech is being used to engineer “a better, cheaper burger machine” — a food animal that can thrive in the desertified Amazon basin. But, in Experiment 2308, they appear to have accidentally created an intelligent creature. The Australian protagonist, Mullen, is ostensibly brought in to prove that Experiment 2308 is not intelligent, so that she can be killed and eaten without qualm; and there follows much Egan-ish discussion of the nature of intelligence, but in a pleasingly sardonic key:
Mullen bent down close to the bars, looking into the unfathomable eyes.
“I hope you don’t imagine,” she said, “that I am any sort of white knight. I am a cognitive psychologist, and it is my job to torture animals that are on the wrong side of mankind’s current designated threshold of nervous complexity by cutting their nervous systems apart and watching what parts twitch. I’m not allowed to do it to monkeys any more in most countries, but sea slugs and squid are still fair game.”
A “story-sized set of reasons” why our universe might be a space opera universe, according to the introductory notes. Sadly, neither the story nor the set of reasons is particularly exciting. An elderly man, living alone on an alien world, hitches a ride on a passing slave ship (by selling himself into slavery) in order to track down his granddaughter: the main things we learn along the way are that (a) AIs tend to think themselves into logical-philosophical blind alleys, which puts a crimp in civilization’s style but creates jobs for those who, like the protagonist, can mediate such quandries; and (b) ancient races left behind AI-based weapons that can mimic, infiltrate and destroy any societies they encounter. It’s not as perfunctory as proof-of-concept tales can be, and Green’s playfulness mostly carries it —
The superintendent scratched his forty-year service tattoo thoughtfully. “In that case, you might be of help to us. Our own mediator had arranged a system of non-overlapping magisteria between the nihilist and empiricist factions in our ship’s flight systems, but we were infected with a solipsistic virus several days ago. The accord has now broken down into open sulking. Wehave been becalmed insystem for two days while our vessel argues with itself. Our astrogator is muttering cray talk about learning to use a slide rule.”
— but I’m still somewhat surprised to see it showing up in the table of contents for a best-of-the-year volume. (And “the bunks clearly built for Svastikas, a radially symmetrical race previously conquered by the Proprietors” was pushing it a bit.)
The eagle-eyed amongst you will no doubt have noticed that my reading of Interzone has somewhat fallen by the wayside in my quest to finish various books before the end of the year. (There’s something to be said about saving up a stack of highly-praised books and then reading them in an indulgent yet satisfying splurge over Christmas, it has to be said.) The new plan is to restart on Monday, and finish the last two and a bit issues by 16th January — aka the deadline for nominating for this year’s BSFA Awards. (Send in your nominations now!)
“Silence & Roses” has the misfortune to be the third robots-outliving-humans story I’ve read in the last year. All three are driven by sentiment, and on that scale Palmer’s tale sits somewhere below Ken Scholes’ cloying “Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk”, and somewhere above Deborah Biancotti’s superior “King of All and the Metal Sentinel”. As in those stories, robots designed for routine are challenged by novelty (which reveals backstory, in this case that we’re in a care home walled off from the ruins of civilization outside), and their naive incomprehension drives a plot, with sentiment generated by the gap between what they understand (the residents are falling silent) and what we understand (the residents are dying). Confronted with the pointlessness of their existence, many of Palmer’s robots go a little mad; only our hero, Button-4-Circle-Peach, survives for long enough to fall into a situation where the rules he understands can apply again. It’s competently done (and the initial reveal is quite well done), but seems somewhat rule-bound itself. And that the robots’ programming recognises silence as a problem, but not strips of rotting flesh hanging off a resident’s face, is surely unlikely.
Skipping over the Dominic Green stories for now: I haven’t read the 1982 Philip K Dick novel on whose title this story riffs, so I don’t know if the similarities go deeper than a first-person narrator whose sense of consensus reality is out of kilter with those around her. Gregory’s narrator is an academic, travelling to an alien world to debate the nature of the first alien life humanity has encountered (and how best to talk about that life, what it means to impose human descriptions and interpretations onto it). But in travelling, she has (I think) crossed not just space but worlds. Ships seem to jump into parallel realities, leading one character to obsess about meeting versions of herself, which she believes will allow a “perfect love”, and another to insist that “we can only jump into an improbable universe”. This may be enough for one story, but Gregory adds in a psychic bond between Desai and one of the aliens, which causes trouble and may or may not indicate that she’s met a deeply improbable version of herself. It’s a curious piece, perhaps slightly too compacted, but certainly flavoursome.
I mentally graphed my reactions to this story in my head as I read, not unlike those audience-interest graphs that accompany some reviews in Total Film. “We Champions do not write, neither do we read, but we are very particular about time, numbers, family and memories. After all, we are perfect”: promising start! Interest grabbed by the promise of the construction of an alien consciousness; this continues through the jargon of the next few sentences — “I watch the scavengers”, “echospeaker arrived in her shelter engine”. Then: “Mike, how are you?”: nice shift in registers, although interest dips slightly with the following realisation that the narrator is an animal (in fact, a Cheetah) with a “machine collar”. “Substitute a pack of wolves for a coalition of cheetahs and I could believe what I just saw”: interest perks up again, although partly based on fond remembrance of Jurassic Park‘s raptors. Mike leaves, and the visitor (Ella) sets about framing him: interest dips, although if the narrator’s not going anywhere, neither can the story. “〈I am not the scavenger you call Ella〉”: nicely creepy, slight up-tick in interest. “You — you bred humanity as tools?”: Uh-oh. Cats-domesticate-humans is good for a joke, not so good for a story. “Thirteen thousand cheetahs, and one mass mind!”: I suppose if you’re going to go there, at least go gonzo! “〈It amuses cats to control you for us — nothing can use a cat〉”: and oh dear, down into the ravine of boredom we go. A certain commitment to the narrator’s arrogantly cruel demeanour is something, but can’t compensate.
After the precision of Allan, this inevitably feels baggy, and the first half of the story is routine: woman impregnated by goddess; husband doesn’t understand, blames her; she turns to a friend (that she knows has feelings for her); he agrees to help her visit the goddess. There is a novel note in this — the unborn baby is diagnosed with a congenital heart defect — which is nicely paid off later, symptomatic of the story’s generally more interesting final third. The characters reach Ys, the city of the goddess:
Ys is a dead city. No, worse than that: the husk of a city, long since deserted by both the dead and the living. But it hums with power, with an insistent beat that seeps through the soles of Francoise’s shoes, with a rhythm that is the roar of the waves and the voice of the storm — and also a lament for all the lives lost to the ocean. As she walks, the rhythm penetrates deeper into her body, insinuating itself into her womb until it mingles with her baby’s heartbeat.
This dredging of the story’s subtext to the surface, and the image of a barren goddess — driven to create life, but unable to sustain it — does linger, beyond a final confrontation that starts to surrender potency to long-windedness. But I don’t think it’s enough.
From Martin Lewis’ review: “It focuses on failed, grudging and inexplicable relationships. It takes a keen interest in geography … Observations … are often precise and clinical … Above all it is a story that suggests rather than insists … fantastic elements are extremely muted.” All spot-on. “Microcosmos” is a brilliant mix of the specific and the elliptic. A near-future, desertifying setting is sparingly sketched; the pain behind a family’s relationships is glimpsed; both are defined as much by what is unsaid as by the details picked out for the intense attentiveness of the young protagonist. The story has a clear shape, but no resolution; troubled emotions are left to ripple behind the page, potential answers ripen but remain un-plucked. All is controlled. This one will haunt, I think.
Perhaps the only problem is that, in that review, Martin’s talking about the stories collected in Allan’s first book, A Thread of Truth, which was published in 2007.