Vector #291

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Vector291 - 22 June
Cover art by David Lunt

In this issue you’ll find several insightful articles: “The Dystopian Narrative: an Analysis of Texts that Portray Nightmarish Futures” by Giovanna Chinellato; “The Needle and the Wedge: Digital Games as a Medium for Science Fiction” by Monica Evans; and “Amazofuturism and Indigenous Futurism in Brazilian Science Fiction” by Gama and Garcia.

There’s also an exciting array of interviews, including “This Is How You Produce The Time War”: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone; “Another Kind of Party”: Vector interviews Catherynne M. Valente; “The Science and the Politics”: Vector interviews Nancy Kress; “Actions and Reactions and Ripple Effects”: Liz Lutgendorff interviews Valerie Valdes; “Living among the Leviathans”: Robert S. Malan interviews Stewart Hotston; and “More Politics, More Magic, and More Queer”: Alison Baker interviews Juliet Kemp.

Paul Kincaid‘s regular column, “Kincaid in Short,” is devoted in Vector 291 to a short story by Brian Aldiss, “The Girl and the Robot with Flowers”. There are three highlighted book reviews from The BSFA Review by Andy Sawyer,  Maureen Kincaid Speller and Kate Onyett, as well as a special review-essay by Nick Hubble about Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel. Finally, this issue features a review-essay by Dev Agarwal “Us: A film about ‘Them’?”, a conference report by Jasmine Sharma on “Productive Futures: The Political Economy of Science Fiction,” and several artworks by the artist David Lunt.

Hugo Nominee: “The Erdmann Nexus”

The story is here; so, on with the commentary.

Rich Horton:

“The Erdmann Nexus” seems a bit old-fashioned: almost explicitly channeling Theodore Sturgeon. Indeed elsewhere I called it, a bit meanly, “warmed-over Sturgeon”. But mean or not, read “To Marry Medusa” and “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff”, let’s say, then read “The Erdmann Nexus”. For all that both Sturgeon stories marry moments, whole sequences, of utter brilliance with some real disappointing elements, there’s just something special about them that isn’t present here. Anyway, Henry Erdmann is an aging physicist living in a nursing home, who is scared by brief strokelike incidents — but no brain damage is involved, and eventually there are apparent links to the memories of other residents of the home. And soon he learns that many of his fellow residents are indeed having similar episodes. The resolution — signaled from the beginning — is not surprising: elderly people are evolving into a higher consciousness. Kress does take this familiar idea in a slightly unexpected direction at the end — and there is a subplot involving a young attendant and her abusive husband that I found involving — but there’s no denying that not much really new is going on here.

So: what’s good: slightly unexpected ending. (But even so, one that didn’t thrill me.) And an interesting subplot that alas wasn’t enough of the story. What’s bad — not enough here new. A certain inevitability of the working out of things.

Ian Sales:

Unfortunately, hiding the extraordinary’s explanation, and only revealing it at the end, doesn’t work because it makes for an uninvolving narrative. And, for all its many viewpoints, ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ is pretty dull. […]

Kress throws in a framing narrative, describing a sentient spaceship approaching Earth, but it seems entirely gratuitous. The plot certainly doesn’t require it. And the mentions of split photons, quantum entanglement and emergent complexity just obfuscate. When an author holds the explanation close to their chest, it has to be a damned impressive explanation to redeem the story. Kress’s isn’t. We’ve seen it before, in both science fiction and fantasy. […]

The single-note characterisation in ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ doesn’t help either – gossipy granny, bible-basher, ex-ballerina who pines for her past, blue-collar retiree out of his depth…. And detective Geraci – Kress might as well have named him Goren since he’s plainly based on Vince D’Onofrio’s character in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Val Grimm, at The Fix:

I haven’t seen Cocoon or anything else most folks would probably compare Nancy Kress’s “The Erdmann Nexus” to, so bear with my cultural illiteracy. Although I haven’t seen this specific plot before, it feels familiar and a bit predictable (I can’t reveal quite why without spoilers, so bear with me). That said, I didn’t particularly care because the characterization was so strong. I don’t usually get attached to characters in novellas the way Kress managed to get my empathy engaged here; there usually isn’t enough room. But what she tells us about Henry and Carrie and some of the other central characters makes them solid and interesting, and the interactions between her dramatis personae are ultimately what make the story. In a way, and not just because it is a mystery, it feels like The Westing Game, with each character or group of characters getting their own moment in the spotlight, each vignette fitting into the whole neatly.

Russ Allbery:

Kress isn’t a writer I particularly look for, but she’s a competent writer and rarely writes a bad story. This is one of her better ones, mostly because of the detailed and varied characterization of the residents of a nursing home. The focus is Henry Erdmann, a retired physicist, who takes the role of detective in figuring out mysterious ailments linked with visions and apparent mental powers that the residents begin to experience. It’s a Nancy Kress story, so unsurprisingly there’s a theme of human evolution and transcendence, but there are also moments of character conflict that reminded me of Connie Willis. That’s a rather good mix. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying, but the story was solid entertainment. (7)

SF Gospel:

In the story’s final pages, our third-person omnipotent grants us some glimpses inside several characters’ minds as they are given the choice to join the group mind or continue their . For Erin Bass, the experience is defined within the terms of her spirituality. It is “satori… oneness with all reality.” Similarly, a nameless woman in Shanghai interprets the experience of joining the transcendent mind as “the gods entering her soul.” What, then, does Gina Martinelli experience? Unlike Bass, she does not see the experience through the lens of her faith. She experiences transcendence, but does not see Jesus there. She concludes: “If Christ was not there, then this wasn’t Heaven. It was a trick of the Cunning One, of Satan who knows a million disguises and sends his demons to mislead the faithful.” She rejects the group mind, opting to wait for the Second Coming outside of the collective intelligence.

What does this say about faith and religious experience? If two non-Christian characters are allowed to interpret their experiences in the vocabulary of their faith, why isn’t the Christian character allowed the same leeway? My guess is that Kress’s intention was to show that non-Western religions have provided a vocabulary that is better suited to describing transcendent experiences than Christianity has. But that simply isn’t true—from Pseudo-Dionysius to Meister Eckhart to Philip K. Dick, Christianity is chock full of mysticism that would allow for the kind of collective experience this story describes to be described quite well. Of course, Gina is presented as having a particularly narrow kind of faith. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here—after all, I complain about the close-mindedness of conservative Christianity pretty frequently, and ignorance of the history of mysticism is certainly part of that close-mindedness. But even I will allow that conservative Christians have their own strands of mysticism, as the growing popularity of Pentecostalism shows. I would expect that even as stereotypical a Bible-thumper as Gina Martinelli would be able to see her faith reflected in the totality of all existence. To describe a transcendent experience with culturally-specific terms—”satori,” “the gods”—and to refuse to allow a character from a different faith-tradition to have the same kind of culturally-specific interpretation strikes me as a double-standard. It’s a quibble, really: Martinelli is a pretty minor character, and Kress’s story is characteristically good. Nevertheless, that kind of detail does tends to rankle.

Elsewhere, Colin Harvey liked it and Nicholas Whyte was unconvinced. Your thoughts?

Story Notes 3

The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen (The New Yorker, March)
“Surely,” the nameless narrator says near the end of this tale, “our world obeys rules still alien to our imaginations”. She’s ostensibly talking about the possibility of time travel, though the larger point “The Region of Unlikeness” is structured to make is that she may as well be talking about the impulses of the human heart. From the start, the story emphasizes what is unknown or uncertain: describing how she fell into an intellectual pose of friendship with two ostentatiously erudite older men, the first thing the narrator admits is that she doesn’t actually know whether one of them is a philosopher or a physicist; nor does she understand the relationship between them, although now she suspects it may hide “a scientific secret, that rare kind of secret that, in our current age, still manages to bend our knee”. If that sounds like the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this; the story is brim-full with carefully observed quotidian (New York) detail, the contours of the relationships between the three characters are finely delineated, and the tension between the story’s science fictional and mundane explanations well balanced. I do like this sort of thing, and I did like this, particularly the last, caught as it is between an evoked longing for the conspiratorial explanation to be true – for there to be rules still alien to our imaginations – and a recognition that its truth is potentially horrifying. It’s made me bump Atmospheric Disturbances a few notches back up the reading stack, anyway. It also reminded me of Justina Robson’s “Legolas Does the Dishes“ at some points, though Galchen’s tale is more conspicuous about guiding its readers; but then, the narrator is the sort of person who thinks playing a video game is de facto evidence of childishness, so it makes sense that she’d be proud of her learning.

“The Kindness of Strangers” by Nancy Kress (Fast Forward 2)
Kress also sets up a balance between the human and the science-fictional, but of a more traditional kind, telling a story about an implacable but literally incomprehensible alien visitation contrasted with an implacable but all too comprehensible human story. For it to work the aliens must be impressive, and they are – they start removing Earth’s cities, in decreasing size order, made retrospectively even more impressive when their appearance afterward in human form has the feel of a more simple magic – and the personal crisis be affecting, and it is. Jenny is the other woman in an affair that she knows can’t go anywhere – or couldn’t, before Eric’s family were apparently obliterated by the aliens and they were trapped, with a small group of others, between invisible barriers. Several stylistic and structural choices on Kress’ part maximise the story’s effectiveness; it’s told in the present tense, and notably Eric is kept almost entirely off-screen, placing the emphasis on Jenny being drawn into interacting with one of the other families. The answer for the aliens’ actions obtained in the inevitable final confrontation isn’t new – none could be – but it reaffirms the chill contrast in perspectives that’s at the heart of the story. Likewise, the story as a whole isn’t new, but it’s done with satisfying skill.

“The Sun Also Explodes” by Chris Nakashima-Brown (Fast Forward 2)
A story which is clearly trying to be new, and depending on your reading is either caught between its utopian and satiric impulses, or productively exploits the tension between those impulses; being charitable, I lean towards the latter. The tension is there in the setting, a desert micro-state advertised as a haven for artistic, cultural, political, sexual and interpersonal experimentation – where topics of conversation range freely from new planets to comics – if you can afford the entry fee. You suspect a wink when Nakashima-Brown describes his characters as a “posturban hipster crowd”, and the relationship/collaboration that develops between the narrator, a kind of literal landscape artist, and Elkin, a bio-artist, has the kind of casualness (at least on the surface) which that characterisation suggests. But it’s also a bond informed and altered by the new biological and cybernetic technologies that infuse their work and bodies. The terms of success the story sets up for itself are ambitious, and more met than not; the major disappointment is that there is not, in fact, an exploding sun.

“Little Lost Robot” by Paul McAuley (IZ217)
This is a fun story on several levels. For starters, it’s about an immense civilization-killing robot, travelling from solar system to solar system, carrying out a prime directive to wipe out The Enemy, which basically seems to be any organic life. It’s not hugely pyrotechnic, but there is a sense of intoxicating power hanging over the story. The style is rather droll; the robot is described simply as “the big space robot”, and the narrator says things like, “Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you and it will rock your world”. And although the dilemma that ultimately faces the robot – it uncovers evidence that it may be about to destroy the civilization that birthed it; can said evidence be trusted? – is familiar, McAuley finds an angle on the dilemma, and a resolution, that feel fresh. It’s big, clever fun in five pages.

Divining Light” by Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s, August)
A perhaps slightly overlong, but very proficient, sf story about quantum mechanics in the classic mode, which is to say idea-driven and didactic. As with Kress’s story, it’s a piece that does what it needs to do to work – three things, in this case. First, it makes its chosen idea – the famous, although apparently not as famous as I thought, given that the story includes a diagram, two-slit experiment demonstrating the wav/particle nature of electrons – parsable, both in terms of a literal clear explanation of the experiment and in rendering the experiments and their implications human-scaled and easy to grasp. Second, it gives its new idea (an implementation of Wheeler’s Delayed Choice thought experiment) human weight: this in part flows from the voice of the narrator, Eric Argus, a researcher driven to bitter existential despair by his work on quantum computers, who faces down drink and the solace of a gun every day at his “new start” job in Boston, and is prone to saying noir-ish things like, “I learned this: there is no bottom to see” of his experience with Scanning Electron Microscope scans, or “the more research I did, the less I believed in the world”. (Just as well, since he’s the only half-way real character in the piece.) And third, “Divining Light” brings the idea and the human story together with appropriate elegance. The story’s last ten pages spin off implications of Eric’s work rapidly in several directions (animal welfare, the nature of faith, human evolution), such that the world begins to be changed; but ultimately the story comes down to one devastating moment, rendered comprehensible by the explanations that have gone before. A very nice performance, and one that handles the slide between the real and the speculative expertly.