Short Story Club: “The Heart of a Mouse”

The story is here; let’s kick off the comment round-up with Matt H, this time.

Boiled down like this, this seems like a parody of the post-apocalypse genre. This apocalypse makes no sense whatsoever, but really, do they ever? Meanwhile it literalizes what is usually implicit in the subgenre: the loss of humanity, the emergence of animal instincts, and the destruction of the artifacts of civilization. It’s a situation, and in fact a whole world, that the reader can’t possibly take seriously. Even the characters–the hard-edged father, the naive son, the mother whose death haunts both of them–are right out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

But the story is completely deadpan. The cartoon world around the characters isn’t even remotely as frightening as McCarthy’s, but the relationship between the narrator and his son is far more dysfunctional. […]

An interesting story, and well written I thought, but while it’s clearly a story in dialogue with the rest of the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I don’t understand what it’s saying. It feels a little like steampunk, having fun indulging in unusual scenery, but ultimately telling an overly familiar story.

It didn’t work for Pam Phillips:

Ugh. I feel like I’m being hit over the head. Even a talking animal can’t overcome my hate for depressing post-apocalypse settings. Sorry guys, I really don’t want to read this one.

Lois Tilton also sees echoes of…

It’s impossible to read this without hearing overwhelming echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. It is a slightly more humane, less desperate scenario, in that there actually is an economy of sorts and cannibalism is not the only food option, despite most of the creatures at large being predatory. There seems to be unexplained purpose at work. Still, while the author treats the narrator’s mouseness seriously, the echoes of the more realistic work make this one less credible.

And apparently Chad has posted about the story here, but I can’t get the page to load. While I hit refresh a few more times, over to the rest of you.

Short Story Club: “My Father’s Singularity”

The discussion for this week’s story might be interesting. Chad thinks it’s the best of the club so far:

This story’s a little difficult for me to approach objectively, because it hits a little close to home, in that I grew up in a small town, and went off to college, and when I go back nothing is the same as it was. […]

With that as a disclaimer of sorts, I thought this was an excellent story. It nails the emotional target it’s aiming for, that sense of a difference that has grown up and can’t quite be overcome. Unlike a lot of first-person narratives, I can actually imagine a real person telling this story in more or less this way. The outlines of the future world are there in the background, but as the narrator says at one point, that’s not this story, so we don’t get the changes spelled out for us in any great detail.

It’s subtle and restrained, but all the more powerful for it. And I think this is the best story of the lot so far, by a good margin. Both the SF elements and the human elements are handled deftly, and fit together really well. Whether I read any more award-eligible short fiction or not, this will almost certainly be going on my Hugo nominating ballot next year.

Evan had some problems:

The embedded assumptions are maybe going to be less apparent or obnoxious to the non-American people; it might even be West Coast specific. Capitalist/libertarian-oriented, dully US-centric, assuming that each tech boom will be followed by another, the country is better than the city, manual work better than intellectual work, government is evil when not incompetent, etc., etc., so on and so forth. It circumscribes the world declaring that while it might be different, it can never really be better. I am against the golden age, as a human concept. The fact that we all feel it says something about us, rather than something about the world. If the story had been a dissection of this feeling through its blinkered and backwards-looking main character, it might have been something interesting, but it doesn’t even remain unexamined; it seems to be the explicit position of the story. […]

Even putting aside the ideological underpinnings of the story, the failures of character would be enough to damn it, all on their own. Prose-wise, it feels under-baked, larded with a few too many stock phrasings.

Lois is in the positive camp:

This is a tale of loss, inevitable but unbearably sad. Here is another story in which the well-wrought characters are its heart. The emotion is genuine, the situation universal, the future too familiar in its disappointment.

And Pam Philips liked it:

The payoff moment comes when his father crosses a singularity of his own. All the technology at Paul’s command can’t undo the effects of age. While the situation is poignant, the tone of the story is restrained, as if it were asking permission to tug on my heartstrings.

It’s all right. You can tug.

But it didn’t work for Matt H:

Two major elements of the story, namely its narrator Paul and the future he’s moving into, are left mostly to the reader’s imagination. Paul comes off as a fairly cold fish with apparently no emotional attachments except a weak sense of filial duty. We are encouraged to think that Paul, after initial difficulties, has completely left his rural past behind and become wholly modern, but the world around him is given such scanty detail that the reader is left to guess what, if anything, that might imply. His father, theoretically the subject of the story, is given even less time. We learn he likes science fiction books, dogs, farming, and that’s about it. You’d think a man who read science fiction would have some sort of opinion about gene therapy or whatever the magic medicine of Paul’s future is, but the reader isn’t told anything that would clue us in to what he thought. Paul and Mona probably knew, but it doesn’t occur to either of them to mention his preferences when discussing his treatment.

Given how unimpressed I was with Paul, it’s not surprising that I didn’t find the conclusion of the story very moving. Paul, who only a moment ago was saying nothing bad ever happened to him, spends about three sentences coping with the fact his father (a man he was so close to he couldn’t bear to spend more than a day with him) can’t recognize him now. Then the story ends on a vaguely distasteful note by suggesting that getting Alzheimer’s is a singularity in the opposite direction from the SF kind. Perhaps it’s one last bit of characterization: Paul is so self-centered that he feels someone who no longer recognizes him has become something less than human.

So: which side are you on?

Short Story Club: “The Cage”

I have belatedly added my thoughts on last week’s story, so now on to “The Cage“, which as a couple of people note, appeared as part of a paranormal romance/urban fantasy month at Tor.com. This was a bit of a stumbling block for, say, Bob Blough, although it seems to have won him over:

“The Cage” by A.M. Dellamonica is more interesting than the urban fantasies and paranormal romances offered this month because it’s not simply regurgitating the tropes of those specific subgenres. Unfortunately, it does involve werewolves (albeit, a standard horror trope) and so I had to work hard to become interested in the story. The writing is much better and the characters are characters instead of ciphers, but the story about a young girl needing to be caged each month at the full moon is old and tired as well. The characters and writing style do make up for these cliches to a certain degree, so I give it a qualified thumbs up.

Matt Hilliard had issues with the worldbuilding:

In fact, I spent the entire story struggling with the worldbuilding. Not the picture it paints of Vancouver, which seemed readily believable (and probably based to a large degree on the author’s experience there), but of everything having to do with the werewolves. It seems that werewolves successfully hid the fact they even existed right up to 2002, but now are helpless in the face of anti-werewolf vigilantes. Most of the action of the story revolves around the struggle to deal with a baby werewolf, and while that was an interesting spin on the werewolf concept, one I hadn’t seen before, it again doesn’t make sense given the story’s invented history. The werewolf’s surrogate mother comes from a long line of werewolves, and yet she seems to be inventing procedures for raising a werewolf baby from first principles. She knows a werewolf society that will take the child in but for reasons never articulated they will only do so at age five, even though it’s clearly in their best interest to keep poorly constrained baby werewolves from bringing disrepute and thus further persecution on werewolves as a whole. Also, I don’t know anything about Canadian law, but the villain apparently traveled to Canada, found a werewolf’s associate, tortured this person to get the werewolf’s location, went there and killed her, and now is in danger of escaping conviction because he said it was self defense. How is that even remotely believable? What about the whole torture thing? Was that self defense too?

Lois Tilon wasn’t convinced by the premise either:

If werewolves, like the normal kind, are pack animals, isolating the puppy is not the way to raise it, and waiting until it is five years old would be much too late for socialization at its apparent rate of development.

The author seems to have gone to a certain amount of trouble to establish her protagonist’s sexual ambiguity in the first scenes, but if this was her intention, it was undercut by the illustration and the too-cutesy blurb: The littlest werewolf has two mommies.

Although it didn’t tip off Pam Phillips:

The tone is light, well sprinkled with chuckles. A pleasant bit of fluff, with just enough peril to keep it from getting too nice.

There is a bit of a gender detection test, which I flunked, despite several obvious clues. Worse, it wasn’t until the third read that I realized that almost everyone in the story is a woman. Except the villains. It all seems utterly normal, which is the point. Eventually, even a lazy reader like me will figure it out. For anyone else who feels dumb about this, the baby is a little clue-impaired himself.

Chad Orzel divines a lack of substance:

The closest thing to a Serious Point in this is having the innocent werewolf saved by Vancouver’s lesbian community banding together to throw a wild party, about which the best thing I can say is that it doesn’t hammer home the parallel between gay rights and supernatural rights as hard as it might. It’s not a story you can hate– it’s a little too insubstantial for that, plus there’s the adorable werewolf puppy– but there’s not a lot here to love, either. It’s cute and clever, and that’s about it.

Evan seems to have liked it most:

Since I don’t read a lot of PR books, I might be missing the people who’re trying to subvert the conventions of the genre, but this is the best piece that I’ve read so far in that vein. Werewolf hunters as psychopaths and sadists rather than bad-ass superheroes is a subversion that resonates with a lot of my complaints about the entire genre, not just its PR subsections (cyberpunk did us a disservice, I think).

The thematic spine of the story is, of course, the ties here between othered communities. Normally, an LGBT community (or another outsider community) springing to the defense of ‘monsterkind’ here would be a bit obvious, but somehow she manages it here without making it too terribly unsubtle. Normally outsider communities don’t like to go around borrowing trouble, but in larger cities, there’s a sense that the more people who band together the more powerful you become. So it makes sense, narrative-wise that the whole community that this women has access to would come out and stand up. This isn’t simple, of course. Just witness the difficulties transgender persons have had getting properly represented by the ‘mainstream’ LGBT organizations. It’d have amped up the realism a bit more to show the phonecalls that she made, so that we could see not just who came, but who couldn’t be bothered and who actively didn’t want to come.

I also like how government is presented as complicated, with multiple levels and factions. Too often, especially in literature coming from the notional left, or from any non-centrist ideological position, that government is one single block oozing evil and simpering henchmen. The evocation of this here wasn’t necessary to the plot, but I thought that it was a nice touch all the same.

Any more for any more?

Short Story Club: “No Time Like the Present”

I’m away from my stack of Locuses this week, so if they’ve covered “No Time Like the Present” I’ll have to tell you later. In the meantime, here’s Lois Tilton:

Here are characteristic Emshwillerian themes: alienation, the way a society regards Others. It is a straightforward narrative without hidden hooks – an effective last line. It makes me think that this new SF zine might be staking out YA territory.

Pam Phillips:

Maybe the story wants to be mystifying and unexplained, but for me it all seemed so vague, I couldn’t really engage with it. So I skimmed Installment Eight in the Torque Control short story club.

I couldn’t help thinking of “Out of All Them Bright Stars“, another story about strangers where the narrator is one of the few to reach out. It’s more moving, but perhaps because the narrator is an adult, she is filled with rage and despair at the end. Both stories leave me wishing for an SF story about xenophobia that’s somewhere in between.

Matt Hilliard worries at the ambiguity so more:

My first inclination, reading the story, was that the author was going for a 1930s setting and just made a few mistakes. After finishing it, though, I looked her up and, whoops, she grew up in the Great Depression. I think she knows what it was like. So then I decided she must have been shooting for a modern voice and just not done it very well. Then I wondered if it might be on purpose. Gene Wolfe, although amazingly he is ten years younger than Emshwiller, has recently written several stories and novels set explicitly in the future while using a deliberately old-fashioned voice. There was no similar explicit marking here, though. So at length I’ve decided the ambiguity must have been intentional. The references to tasers on the one hand and Tarzan on the other are too overt. Given the Marietta’s causality concerns, the implication must be that the timeline is already altered from ours (or vice versa, I guess).

And Chad Orzel:

It’s a very nice story, with all the connotations that come with that term, both good and bad: it’s well written, well paced, and has an engaging if weirdly atemporal narrative voice; it’s also very polite and inoffensive, with no real attempt to push the boundaries of, well, much of anything, or do anything novel with the well-worn subject matter. This would fit well into basically any general-interest SF anthology written in the last, say, fifty years. That’s both good and bad, which is probably appropriate given the ambiguity of the ending.

Short Story Club: “Miguel and the Viatura”

I can’t see any coverage for this week’s story in either the print Locus or the online one, so it’s left to the SSC stalwarts to kick things off. Matt Hilliard:

My reaction to the story is similar to how I felt about “A Serpent in the Gears”. That story was steampunk and this one is cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk, or whatever it’s called this week) but both stories spend almost their entire length on introductions. We are introduced to the titular Miguel and his brother, but, like “Serpent”, the emphasis is on introducing the world. Also like “Serpent”, this story assembles a set of tropes common to its subgenre almost as if it is ticking off boxes: poverty-stricken non-first world setting, telepresence, nanites, environmental problems, evil corporations, and a technofetishist cult, just to name some of the big ones. Like “Serpent” it does a good job with these things, and is in fact tied together with what I thought was somewhat stronger writing, but alas it has a final similarity with “Serpent” in that I found the plot to be incomplete and unsatisfying.

Pam Philips:

Maybe I missed some clues or unstated assumptions, but it’s not entirely clear to me why Joaõ asks Miguel to help him find their father. Joaõ is so vague about the situation that he manages to hurt Miguel deeply without even touching him. Miguel is almost entirely on the receiving end of the action, but the powers that be leap to the conclusion that he is to blame. Mostly things happen to Miguel, and all he can do is protest. Sure he’s a kid, and he grows up a little, but I was left with no idea what he was going to do in the end. There’s also a “torture is pointless and cruel” scene that goes on way too long, but I suppose it wouldn’t be torture if it stopped when you got tired of it.

As for the technology, this comes off as one of those nano-can-do-anything stories. I was also jarred by the term “nanite”, which I mostly associate with Star Trek. Finally, what we see of nanotech seems to be confined to making people into monsters. What’s the point? These people sure as hell don’t need technology to act monstrously.

Chad Orzel:

I don’t recognize the author’s name, but this story is very much in the same vein as the stuff I’ve read by Paolo Bacigalupi and others. I’m not sure if there’s really a formal literary movement in this, a la “cyberpunk” or the “New Weird,” but it’s tempting to think of this sort of story in those terms, as a part of the Recent Unpleasantness. Because, really, that’s the defining trait of these stories: every aspect of the thing, from the setting to the characters to the actions that drive the plot, is chosen to make the result as unpleasant as possible.

Is there more to it? The floor is open.