The Surfer

If you want to write fiction with an agenda, this is how to do it. Kelly Link’s “The Surfer”, like all the stories in The Starry Rift, was written to meet Jonathan Strahan’s editorial challenge to write “stories that would offer today’s readers the same kind of thrill enjoyed by the pulp readers of over fifty years ago”; or, if you believe the version of the remit given on Wikipedia, which chimes with what I’ve actually read of the book, it was to write science fiction stories “aimed at young people, reminiscent of the type of 1950s science fiction stories that are considered to be classic SF juveniles, but that would resonate better with young people of today.” To avoid confusion, according to the book’s publicity information the target age range is that version of “young adult” that means “ages 12 and up” (or to judge by the introduction, it means anyone young enough to need a footnote explaining what the Cold War was). If you think about it for a minute, this is a mission that makes certain assumptions – notably, that not only will the science fiction of the fifties not grab contemporary young readers, but that much of the science fiction of today won’t grab them, either. (Or else why would the anthology be needed?) I have to admit I’m skeptical of this line of thinking, not least because I suspect that if you’d given me a copy of The Starry Rift when I was twelve, I’d have turned my nose up at it. I didn’t turn to science fiction because I wanted to read about “young adults” like me having extraordinary adventures; that was actually just about the last thing I was looking for. I turned to sf because I wanted to read about grown-ups having grown-up adventures, and about the world I could expect to grow up into. (In Strahan’s defence, his introduction does also say that he asked for “tales […] that ask serious questions about the world we are living in and the world we might face”. But the kid protagonists outnumber the adults.) Maybe I’m typical of sf readers and maybe I’m not, but the received wisdom, which I have no reason to doubt, is that “young adults” tend to be both sensitive and resistant to attempts to sell them something and, at least on the basis of the introduction and the four stories I’ve read so far, The Starry Rift does look an awful lot like an attempt to sell them science fiction.

But I don’t want to hold the book’s agenda against it, because it also has a pretty cover and a pretty stellar table of contents – in addition to stories by established YA authors, not all noted for their sf output, like Garth Nix and Margo Lanagan, you get offerings from established sf writers not noted for their YA output, such as Ian McDonald, Alastair Reynolds, Tricia Sullivan, and Greg Egan (!). If anyone can sell a mission, these should be the writers to do it. And it has this Kelly Link science fiction story – which, despite what looks like a conventional Kelly Link first paragraph, if I can be permitted such an oxymoron (“In the dream I was being kidnapped by aliens. I was dreaming, and then I woke up”), is science fiction, by anyone’s definition. Not “can be read as sf” like “Most of my Friends are Two-Thirds Water”, not “sf trope treated as fantasy” like “Lull”, not “future fantasy” like “Light”; in fact, for most of its length “The Surfer” is mundane science fiction. Obviously it’s not a complete departure – Link has a good few YA stories under her belt by now, and in some ways “The Surfer” is of a piece with them. I don’t think it’s a secret that in general I’ve found most of these stories less satisfying than her earlier work; there does seem to be, at least for me as an adult reader, a difference between a Link story that can be published as YA, such as “The Specialist’s Hat”, and a Link story written for a YA context, such as “The Wizards of Perfil”. The latter seems to sacrifice some weirdness, some strangeness (what you could go so far as to call Link-ness), without a compensating change in other areas.

“The Surfer” suffers from this problem a bit, too, and as science fiction, with the stronger fidelity to realism that that usually implies, is perhaps even hit a bit harder by the loss of Link-ness. Certainly there are some distinctively Linkian sentences (“It was kind of like the bats. They were there, and after a while you noticed them. Only it wasn’t like the bats at all and I don’t mean to say that it was”), and there’s a charming riff about an empty bottle that is alleged to have a genie trapped in it (guessing an author’s mood from their prose is a mug’s game, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt Link was more comfortable writing this section than some of the rest of the story), but there isn’t the same sense of freedom or play that comes through in the stories in Stranger Things Happen or Magic for Beginners. Put another way, if you gave me a copy of the manuscript without a name attached, I think I would guess that “The Surfer” is a Kelly Link story, but Kelly Link probably wouldn’t be my first guess. But it would be churlish to suggest that being less Linkian — or rather, that Link trying new things — is a bad thing per se, and crucially “The Surfer” has more compensations than a story like “The Wizards of Perfil”, such that learning how to read it is worth the time.

One major compensation is getting to see how Link thinks about the future. Not too long from now (my guess would be 2020, plus or minus five years) the US is falling apart: various bits of it have seceded to form alliances with Mexico and Canada, and what’s left is in a mess, with a healthcare system that can’t cope with outbreaks of lethal flu variants and an economy that can’t offer much in the way of prospects for anyone. Yet when his father takes our 14 year-old narrator away from all this to more prosperous Costa Rica, it’s against Dorn (Adorno)’s wishes. What Dorn wants is to stay and practice his football (here actually meaning soccer) skills (about which he is more than a little arrogant), with the aim of one day being picked up by one of the major international leagues – Italy or Japan for preference; he’s learning Japanese as a second language. When they land in Costa Rica, reports of another flu outbreak lead to them being quarantined in a hangar (a state which persists for most of the story’s sixty-odd pages and allows Link to report on the world outside without needing to provide much direct description of it), where among other people Dorn meets Naomi, a (self-described) fat computer nerd who’s come down hoping to find a job in the booming Costa Rican software industry, and Lara, a native Costa Rican who’s studying hard so that she can grow up to be an astronaut in the equally booming Costa Rican space program.

What all this looks like is an argument that’s been popping up with increasing frequency over the past few years: the future, having been American for so long, now belongs to the rest of the world. But this isn’t what the story’s about; what it’s about is how a number of the travelers, including Dorn’s father and Lara’s mother, are traveling to join a commune run by one Hans Bliss, a hippyish German surfer who was abducted by aliens several years earlier, and claims to have guidance for humanity that will encourage the aliens to return. The twist is that Bliss isn’t just another nut: his abduction was verified, albeit during a hurricane, which means that people take his claims seriously, although not always in the way he might hope. He says the aliens want humanity to disarm; human governments find this mighty suspicious, and are now stockpiling weapons as fast as they can.

Here’s the bit that’s liable to make you groan: Dorn’s dad is a science fiction reader. Bearing in mind what I said about The Starry Rift’s goal of selling sf to a YA audience, at first it’s hard not to view this revelation as cynical. We learn that he’s traveling to Bliss’ commune not because he believes the peace and love rhetoric, but because he wants to see aliens. And to cap it all, he’s traveling with a bag stuffed with old sf paperbacks, which during the quarantine get passed around and read (and discussed) by everyone, including Naomi and Lara.

If Dorn’s dad had been the protagonist of “The Surfer”, I’d probably have been unable to stop rolling my eyes. In the last year I’ve read several novels featuring protagonists, invariably middle-aged or older men, who despite reasonable expectations to the contrary get to enjoy the sort of future that science fiction promised them – which from one point of view is exactly what happens at the end of “The Surfer”. At the story’s end, the aliens do come back, and the sort of future that science fiction long promised us does seem to be arriving. To be clear, I’ve no problem with stories that address the gap between what science fiction promised and what we have, which is on one level what “The Surfer” is doing; but it has to be said that the sentiment is now a ready commodity. You can buy it on a t-shirt from threadless (in fact, I have). And I do have a problem with stories that uncritically manipulate their futures to fulfill a wish – that gift their characters with experiences that the author and readers may want, by proxy, for themselves. If Dorn’s dad had been the protagonist, that’s more or less the sort of story “The Surfer” would be.

But Dorn’s dad isn’t the protagonist, and “The Surfer”, quite literally, isn’t his story, which means Link isn’t being uncritical of either him or his wish. More important still, while Dorn reads science fiction, sure he does – he knows enough to recommend Octavia Butler or Connie Willis – he’s not a fan of the stuff in the way that his Dad is. More importantly, he doesn’t believe in it. To Dorn, sf is good for escapism, but not really relevant to him or his world. His future is football. When Lara tells him of her dream of traveling to Mars, his reaction is more cutting than scorn; he’s simply baffled.

I shrugged. It wasn’t really anything I was interested in. “What’s the point,” I said. “I mean, the aliens showed up and then they left again. Not even Hans Bliss is saying that we ought to go around chasing after them. He says that they’ll come back when the time is right. Costa Rica getting all involved in a space program is, I don’t know, it’s like my father deciding to leave everything behind, our whole life, just to come down here, even though Hans Bilss is just some surfer who started a cult. I don’t see the point.”

“The point is to go to space,” Lara said. She looked at Naomi, not at me, as if I were too stupid to understand. “To go to space. It was a good thing when the aliens came to Costa Rica. They made us think about the universe, about what might be out there. Not everybody wants to sit on a beach and wait with your Hans Bliss to see if the aliens will come back.”

He is, in other words, exactly the sort of reader that you have to suspect Strahan had in mind when he sent out the invitation to contribute to The Starry Rift, and Lara has exactly the sort of belief in the future that The Starry Rift seems to want to inspire. Link’s afterword to the story (all the stories, save Egan’s, have afterwords from their authors) very nearly makes this explicit, explaining how Dorn’s father’s love of books is her own, and how she’s jealous of her characters for having had the chance to read books she hasn’t heard of yet; and then she wonders whether some of them will be written by readers of The Starry Rift.

So ultimately, “The Surfer” is neither a story about how the future has left America and gone elsewhere, nor a story about how science fiction lied to its readers, though it raises both those issues. Ultimately, and in hindsight inevitably, “The Surfer” does come back to The Starry Rift’s mission, and becomes a story about Dorn – about an American Young Adult – learning that the future can after all be his, too. (Disguised as a story about Dorn starting to grow up, about Dorn learning a little humility and a little empathy.) The very end makes this explicit. Not long after the quarantine is lifted, as I mentioned, the aliens return, in numbers, all over the world. Everyone but Dorn goes outside to greet them; our hero, despite knowing that “outside the hangar were the aliens and the future”, initially can’t make himself leave. He wants to stay inside, to stay in goal, to make another save, to be doing something he can control, even if small, rather than face something big and uncontrollable. But go out, in the end, he does, and it’s really very hard to escape the conclusion that Link is trying to persuade her readers that they want to go out with him. “The Surfer” seems much more like a deliberate work of advocacy than anything else I’ve read by her; and as I implied, in another’s hands I think it could very easily have been nothing more than a cynical exercise. (I want to like The Starry Rift, but I fear that cynical is exactly what some of its stories will be.) But it is redeemed by wit and love – Link’s love, I think, for her characters, and not just her genre. The dialogue, as you would expect, sparkles; and there are moments of uncomfortable, for Dorn, insight that do him a world of good. He starts with the half-formed nature that seems to be so common in YA, and doesn’t quite have time to become a fully-defined adult, but when he goes out I do want to go out with him.

(Of course, I’m already a science fiction reader.)

The Feminist (and other) Appeal of Kelly Link’s Fiction

The following is a reconstruction from notes taken during a panel at Wiscon 31 (Friday 23 May, 20:45–22:00). The moderator was Margaret McBride (MMB); the panellists were Eileen Gunn (EG), Paul Kincaid (PK) and Micole Sudberg (MS). It is not a complete record: I stopped taking notes before the end, and though I write fast I did not note down every word that was said. I have used the words used by the panellists as far as possible, but have also turned a few notes into sentences. I may have got some things wrong. If you haven’t read any of Kelly Link’s fiction you should, and could start by downloading a copy of her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, from here.

MMB: What makes Link’s stories work so well? She appeals to non-genre readers as well as genre readers – why?

EG: The appeal is inherent in what she’s writing and how she’s writing. Her point of view is inclusive – she doesn’t write like a genre writer. And the issues she addresses are everyday issues. She draws out the surrealism from everyday life and makes it integral to her stories.

MS: I am a genre reader, so what I say about why she appeals to non-genre readers is going to be a guess to some extent. I think part of it is the lack of explanation and the acceptance of mystery – there’s no need to definitively pin her work down. (The cynical viewpoint would be that this means it’s easy for non-genre readers to “misread” the fantastical elements as psychological.) Does her work feel like sf? It feels more focused on the strange than on the fantastic – it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed the border into the impossible. Which perhaps means it appeals to those who like the strange and those who can be persuaded by it.

PK: Link doesn’t so much write fantasy as write about fantasy, writes realist fiction in which fantasy is a way of making sense of the world. You could say that the strange thing is why she appeals to genre readers. She could be read without any recognition of the fantastic – her stories are about story, and the way they cross boundaries allows us to cross boundaries.

MMB: How important is the recognition of other stories in Link’s work?

PK: If you look at a story like “Flying Lessons”, the longer we look the more we start to recognise the myths, legends, fairytales that have fed into it but been subverted or distorted. Most fairy tales have a familiar shape, provide a form of comfort. Link introduces distortion, which makes us look again.

MS: “Flying Lessons” is one of my favourite of Link’s stories. If you don’t know it, one of the big references is Orpheus, but part of the fun is working out the references. In the way it has a familiar plot but an unconventional structure, I think of it as a transitional piece on the way to something like “Travels with the Snow Queen”. That starts to break out of the familiar plot and change the ending (it becomes a breakup story) in a way that still gives a comfort of recognition, but an unexpected comfort. The building blocks of the story we thought we were getting are used to say something unexpected. I think this ties in to Scott Westerfeld’s response to the New York Times reviewer who seemed confused about what the zombies in “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” are for. I don’t entirely agree with Westerfeld – yes, the zombies are cool and fun, and that’s one part of what draws you into the story, but they’re also a comment on the protagonists’ need to control their anxiety. They’re doing multiple things.

MMB: And the style of the story reflects that anxiety – in the list of things you’re meant to be afraid of, for instance.

EG: The zombie contingency plans are a control strategy – they’re a story. And it’s a different use of story than you see in fairytales, it’s about people making things up as they go, why they tell and how they tell.

PK: “Lull” is another obvious use of story – the reader goes into the layers of story, but doesn’t come all the way out. It breaks your expectations, it’s as if you yourself are trapped in the story at the end.

MMB:Magic for Beginners”, which is the story about an imaginary TV show, plays a similar trick. Let’s talk a bit more about what’s good about Link’s story structures.

PK: It’s striking how many of her stories use that sort of brokenness. Even in the more conventional stories, there’s often a sense that there are bits missing and that’s hard to do. (I imagine the ultimate Kelly Link story, some years from now, which consists of a tremendously evocative title and nothing else.)

MS: I wouldn’t say they’re broken so much as they have an empty space that the reader is invited to fill. Even when the stories aren’t directly addressing the reader (which they often do) they’re making allowances for the reader to fill in the gaps. It’s interesting to compare “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” and “Monster”. In some ways “Monster” is conventional horror – at the end of the story the attempts to control chaos don’t work. It’s a campfire story that turns out to be real, the reader was lulled into a feeling of control that wasn’t real. “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” uses an unreliable narrator, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but still plays on that sense of horror-recognition. And in “The Faery Handbag” it’s up to the reader to interpret the ending as about loss or about hope.

MMB: Is this waiting space to do with how she writes her endings?

EG: I think it’s hard to consciously produce that kind of effect by conscious structuring. If I know the structure of what I’m writing ahead of time I find it impossible to write. Link’s stories defy structure in satisfying ways – they’re structured, they satisfy that reader need … but not entirely.

MMB: How do the voices she chooses – younger voices, or using the second person – affect her story structures?

PK: Her voice is very interesting. When it’s a younger voice it’s not straightforwardly a younger voice – in “The Girl Detective” the perspective shifts, never stays in one place. In “Travels with the Snow Queen” the story is told to “you”, but your role changes over the course of the story because the character changes.

MMB: It seems to me she’s writing close to the characters’ point of view but not quite inside it – you only notice this when you realise you know some things the character doesn’t.

PK: There’s a sort of meta-author, telling us that the real story is not the one we’re reading.

MS: Both the “You” and the “I” in her stories tend to slip. In “The Girl Detective”, “I” is variously the girl detective, an observer inside the story, the narrator … the playfulness of style and the combination of the deliberately young tone is one of the things that makes the story work.

MMB: What about her use of humour?

MS: A lot of the humour in a Link story is about disconcerting juxtapositions – Nancy Drew and twelve dancing princesses – which matches the way the structure works to unsettle the reader.

PK: Yes, she uses incongruence. In the bank robbery in “The Girl Detective” the vault is loaded with dirty socks. Also – the difference between humour and satire is that humour tends to need affection. Cruel humour puts people off. It’s interesting how appealing the characters and circumstances in Link’s stories almost always are.

MS: And humour is dependent on structure, it has a grammar – a bad joke is a joke that hasn’t been told in the right way, in the right order. So the way things are revealed matters.

MMB: We should also talk about the feminist aspects of her work.

MS: I think “The Girl Detective” is a feminist story because of the missing mother. We ask ourselves, why is the mother missing, and then, why is the mother always missing? The quest for the mother aligns with the reader’s quest for the girl detective – for missing women in stories.

PK: In something like “Travels with the Snow Queen” there’s a rage that is impossible to escape, a rage at the way that character has been treated. The mad and foolish actions in that story are driven by that rage. But for lots of Link’s stories, feminism is more like the air they breathe, it’s not necessarily driving.

EG: You can look at the stories from a feminist point of view but feminism is not “in” the stories. They inspire feminist reading but are larger than that one reading.

MS: A couple more stories – in “Most of my friends are two-thirds water”, one of the interesting things is the complicity of the sympathetic female characters with what’s hurting them. The story is told by a narrator who’s in love with the guy who has the story about aliens, she has this painful, dead-end conversation with him and then directs her anger at the blonde women he’s talked about. “Stone Animals” I think is another story that has a lot of rage in it, but it’s buried and (therefore?) more self-directed on the part of the female lead. One of the most potent aspects of that story is how the characters are unable to change, or even recognise, their situations.

MMB: The blurb on the back of Stranger Things Happen reads in part, “These eleven extraordinary stories are quirky, spooky, and smart. They all have happy endings.” Do they all have happy endings?

EG: That’s clearly a blurb written by the author – more unreliable narration! Can’t trust it.

PK: Although we are asked to provide endings for a number of her stories – perhaps we are more likely to invent happy endings.