Back to novellas available online: next up is “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, which you can get here, discussion to be posted on Sunday afternoon. As noted in last week’s discussion, I think it’s interesting to compare to “The Tear”.
Unsurprisingly, given that (a) it first appeared in an SFBC-only anthology and (b) it wasn’t in the Hugo voter packet until recently, there’s not much talk of substance about this one out there, that I could find at any rate. Maybe we can rectify that. Here’s what I did find:
My favorite story of the year is Ian McDonald’s “The Tear”. Gardner Dozois’s introductory material suggested that it has sufficient ideas and plot for many writers to make a trilogy from. In fact, one could argue that that is not entirely a strength of the story — there would have been nothing wrong with a more leisurely treatment of some of the stories situations.
It’s set in a future McDonald has visited before, in which the Galaxy (and perhaps beyond) has been colonized by the Clade — a vast variety of beings, all apparently based originally on Homo Sapiens, but with genetic modifications (and sometimes more extreme changes) to allow human life to spread to many different environments. On Ptey’s planet most people develop different “aspects”: completely separate personalities that take over when needed. Ptey — or the aspects he has become — play a vital role in a crisis involving a curious group of beings fleeing an implacable enemy. The story keeps leaping to radically different futures, following different aspects of Ptey, through parallel love affairs, centuries long space journeys and battles, meetings with new branches of humanity — it is fascinating, tragic, hopeful, imagination-stuffed, and powerful.
That short review doesn’t really do the story justice. There is a well-depicted central love affair. There is some play with the nature of the “aspects” Ptey’s people develop that I found fascinating. The depictions of the first visitors to Ptey’s planet are really cool. The notion that all these very different beings are human is not at all new but nicely handled. There is a certain ambiguity as to how “good” the good guys necessarily are. (But application of one main rule — “killing people is bad” — does clarify things somewhat.) I just really loved the story.
What’s good here — well, what I’ve said. And it’s as imaginatively stuffed a story as we usually see, though to be fair Rosenbaum and Doctorow’s story (see below) is also pretty stuff that way. What’s bad — as I hinted, perhaps sometimes things are a bit rushed.
Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” is a major departure from his habit, over the last few years, of writing offshoots to his novels River of Gods and Brasyl. A far-future space opera, it follows the character Ptey from his childhood and early adulthood on the planet Tay and into space, where he is first the guest of an alien race visiting Tay, then a fugitive from their enemies, then the alien visitor of another race, and finally the prodigal son returning to his ravished home world. Except that all of these aliens are humans–evolved or artificially altered into radically different forms–and that Ptey is only Ptey for the first few pages of the story. His people have a tradition of ‘manifolding’–creating new, subtly different, aspects of their personality within themselves, different people sharing the same body and carrying on their own, separate lives–and later on Ptey transforms again through exposure to alien technology. The multiplicity of personalities who are all essentially the same person is obviously intended to track with the multiple forms humanity takes in the story, from Tay’s socially-mandated schizophrenia to its visitors’ virtual existence to the accelerated aging of the inhabitants of a generation ship Ptey hitches a ride on. This is an interesting point, but it seems a little flimsy for such a long story, especially given the thinness of the its plot–Ptey leaves home, Ptey comes home. Even more problematic is the fact that McDonald doesn’t quite pull off the feat of making Ptey’s different iterations feel like different versions of the same person–they either come off, in the first half of the story, as completely different people, or, in its later parts, as the same person playing different roles in different social settings. “The Tear” is interesting and well written (though McDonald’s prose often veers from merely ornate into baroque, which occasionally made for a tough slog) but since the whole story hinges on the device of Ptey’s transformations–it is even divided into chapters according to the changes in his aspect–the unconvincing execution of that device renders “The Tear,” if not quite inert, then at least seriously underperforming.
Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” presents a water world culture that encourages multiple personalities – specifically eight- upon entering adulthood. At that time, its members relocate to a “Manifold House” where their other identities are born. This story follows the life of the protagonist born as Ptey, a male identity that is eventually replaced by eight others over the course of the story. Ptey’s passage to adulthood includes dealing with girls, a friend who cannot become multiple (Cjatay, a so-called “Lonely”), and – perhaps more prominently – the alien Anpreen that orbit the neighboring world for fuel. Ptey learns a terrible and dangerous secret of the Anpreen and their reason for emigration – a secret that forces him, against cultural taboo, to assume a ninth personality so that he can join them in their travels. Things only get worse for poor Ptey when the Anpreen situation comes to a boil. This is a very brief skimming over the central story, which itself is brief in comparison with the mind-numbing ideas being tossed about like balls in a lottery machine. Too many ideas may have taken the edge off this story, but it definitely has a most epic feel to it, the scope of which still has my mind reeling in wonder.
Given that the next Hugo-nominated novella in the schedule, Ian McDonald’s “The Tear”, has never been available online, and was only recently added to the Anticipation Hugo voter packet, I suspect an even more resounding silence than last week. Nevertheless: I’ll be rounding up opinion that I can find about “The Tear” on Sunday, and discussion would be welcome.
The story is here; so, on with the commentary.
“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.
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.
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)
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.