Hugo Nominee: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled”

This is it: the final story. Read it here and comment below …
Rich Horton:

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” is fascinating SF about a human embassy to an alien city. The city is attacked, and everyone killed but one human, who escapes in the company of one of the aliens, wearing a spacesuit whose intelligence is based on his now-dead lover. The story deals with economics, with the biology and culture (and economics) of the aliens, and with the dangers of crossing an unfamiliar planet — it is intelligent, full of adventure, original, wry. This is really fine smart SF, and I particularly liked the economic slant to the whole thing. It’s not a breathtaking story, and I rank it behind most of this ballot, but it’s strong work.

Aliette de Bodard:

In “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” by Michael Swanwick, Quivera is a diplomat sent from Europa to a planet peopled with insect aliens—and most particularly to Babel, greatest of the alien cities. When Babel falls to the hands of other cities, Quivera and the alien Uncle Vanya have to carry the library of Babel—the only record of that civilisation—to safety, without being caught by the soldiers hunting them.

This is one of the two standouts of the issue. Swanwick keeps a taut pace throughout the narration as his protagonists try to rally the safety of another alien city, and he succeeds in making the aliens a fundamentally different species for whom the reader can still grieve. The ending is unexpected and a bit hard to accept at first, but in retrospect, it is perfectly in keeping with both the story’s theme and the various characters involved

Tpi:

Story starts straight away in action. Human station on an alien planet has been attacked, and sole survivor, his AI survival suit with a personality modeled on his girlfriend killed on the attack and an alien must make a hasty escape. The start of the story is a bit confusing, as fairly little back-story is given. The story improves a bit towards the end, when it comes a bit easier to understand just what the hell is going on. I wonder if this story is a part of some series?

Matt Hilliard:

Out of all the nominees this one is the most traditionally structured story, which these days is somewhat rare for this length (of course it just barely slides in under the novellette wire length-wise). The world was interesting and the writing was effective. In fact, pretty much everything was great except the story actually being told, which wasn’t all that interesting to me. Unfortunately I exalt plot over other things so this left me feeling vaguely disgruntled, but it’s worth still worth reading.

Best SF:

The opening paragraph is a doozy – it describes the titular city on Europa, and does so quite beautifully across several sentences, and then kicks into a higher gear as the narrator describes herself : a simulation of one of the humans killed in the destruction of the city, and then the story starts with a “Here’s what it was like…”

It’s an opening that you could use over the first month of a Science Fiction Writing 101 course, and the rest of the story lives up to that standard. The narrator, Rosamund, is embedded in the hi-tech suit of one of the survivors of the meteorite strike – Carlos, her lover. She has to care for him using the suit’s advanced medical capabilities to get him to the point of being in a state to be brought back to consciousness, and we follow them as she guides him, and one of the strange, definitely non-human race on the planet. In order to escape the armed warriors of his race, Uncle Vanya has to undergo the unkindest cut of all – “The first thing we have to do is castrate you..” is the kind of line you can only come up with after some years in the business. Swanwick takes the unlikely trio through an alien world, effectively getting across the alieness of Uncle Vanya through his speech patterns, and cleverly intertwining the action with backstory.

And the ending is just terrific – with Rosamund left embedded in the spacesuit, hanging up in a locker. It’s a story that is simply top class.

Russ Allbery:

Swanwick stories are often at a bit of an angle to the rest of the genre, and this one is no exception. The plot, once you dig it out of the story, is full of classic SF tropes of alien contact, diplomacy, misunderstanding, and cross-cultural confusion. There are some fun branching syntax diagrams of alien speech patterns thrown in, which I greatly enjoyed probably because they’re similar to, but more subtlely done than, something I played with in my own writing. But the story is told from the perspective of a protective suit worn by the nominal protagonist and is full of weird diversions and fun descriptions of how the suit works. It also has an unexpected ending that fits its viewpoint. Without the charming perspective, it’s a rather forgettable story, but the perspective makes it worth reading. (7)

John DeNardo:

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick starts with a meteor strike on a human city on an alien planet of millipede-like creatures. The human named Quivera is guided to safety by his armor suit AI, which is based on Rosamund, the woman with whom he had an affair. Quivera’s trek through the dangerous steam jungles of the planet with “Uncle Vanya” (a native millie with low social status) leads to several interesting discussions about their two economies: the humans based on information, the millies’ based on trust. As much as I usually dislike economics in my sf, I have to say this didn’t bother me a bit, as it offered up a nice contrast to the two characters whose relationship begins as one of mutual utility, but evolved in the face of their predicament and adventures.

Das Ubernerd:

Swanwick’s story also uses an ancient SF theme: two seperate aliens that cannot trust each other are forced together by circumstances to join together in order to cross dangerous territory. In this case it’s a human from a libertarian distopia joining with an alien from a society that holds trust as the highest virtue. Together they’re on the run from the destruction of the alien’s city which was betrayed and they carry with them a library containing information beyond calculable value. What makes this story work is the ambiguousness of it; while both character’s hold their society’s values in great esteem they also recognize the limitations of it even before the story begins. So while it plays with the “learning about other cultures” theme there is an undercurrent that both already know those lessons. It also helps that the story has a unique viewpoint: a ghost AI that runs one a spacesuit. It’s a subtle story that has some interesting layers and I appreciated it for that.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Johnson’s story makes for an interesting counterpoint to Michael Swanwick’s “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled,” which is good old fashioned Proper SF, set in the far future and on an alien planet, and featuring interplanetary intrigue, cataclysmic destruction, fights to the death, a mad scramble across hostile, alien terrain, and bug people. Swanwick is a pro at this stuff, and “Babel” finds him very much on top of his game. It’s exciting and well-done, cramming a hell of a lot of exposition, action and description into every single sentence until it draws a meticulously detailed portrait of two civilizations, their history, their cherished values, and the often fraught interactions between them. Still, given all the pyrotechnics and grand adventure involved in getting us to its end, “Babel” is somewhat underperforming.

Underpinning the story is a discussion of the economics of the two species–humans, represented by the diplomat Quivera, have an information-based economy, while that of the bug-like Gehennans, represented by the sole survivor of the recently destroyed Babel with whom Quivera flees its ruins, is based on trust–but Swanwick’s descriptions of of these systems are messy and difficult to follow, and I found myself unpersuaded by his conclusions. “Babel” ends with one half of its unlikley partnership sacrificing himself to save the other, and in order to safeguard the precious (in many different senses) cargo they are carrying, but it’s left to us to decide whether the survivor acted as an adventure hero would and honored his friend’s dying wish, or whether he cashed in on an unexpected windfall. Obviously Swanwick is trying to undermine the adventure plot, and remind us that in the real world, it’s cold hard numbers, profit and loss, that drive our decisions, but this feels like a petty sort of ‘gotcha!’ to the readers, whom Swanwick has worked hard to invest in the adventure aspect of his story only to snatch the rug out from under them at the last minute. I can’t help but compare “Babel” to last year’s Hugo-nominated novelette, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” by Daniel Abraham, which so much more intelligently and elegantly managed to fuse adventure and economics into a single, satisfying whole, without ever resorting to wagging its finger in the readers’ faces as Swanwick seems to be doing.

Speculative Japan

Speculative Japan coverI’ve got a new review up at Strange Horizons: Speculative Japan, edited by Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis. It’s a somewhat belated review, in that the anthology was actually published this time last year to mark the first Worldcon held in Japan, but it’s an interesting book, worth reading and (hopefully) talking about. Not that it’s been entirely ignored until now — I was pleased to see the Hugo nomination statistics, for instance, which revealed that what is probably my favourite story (“Where do the Birds Fly Now?”) got ten nominations for Best Novelette, while another story (“Hikari”) got the same number of nominations in Best Short Story.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 2

Dreamers of the Day coverLet’s get one thing clear from the get-go: taken as a bundle, the stories in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 2 will almost certainly not be the best science fiction and fantasy stories of the year for anyone except Jonathan Strahan. Taste is too fickle a thing, and the acreage the book tries to encompass too great. As if to ram home the point, only six of the sf choices overlap with Dozois’ behemoth; only two from Rich Horton’s fantasy collection, and one from his sf book; there are two selections also in the Hartwell/Cramer fantasy book, and there’s no overlap at all with their sf volume. Strahan does get four Hugo nominees, two Nebula nominees, and two Sturgeon nominees, and his anthology is a good read, cover to cover, if that’s the only thing that matters to you; but the larger point indicated by the diversity of contents is that there are reasons beyond simple quality to read a Year’s Best. Strahan — while being quite clear that these are indeed his favourite stories of 2007 — acknowledges this in his introduction, saying that any Year’s Best is “an attempt by an informed reader to identify the best work published in a given year, to put it in context, and to sketch out where SF and fantasy might be going” (2). It’s an attempt, in other words, to provide a map; or, more aggrandizingly, to define a canon. Year’s Bests are one of the most visible and enduring ways in which the sf and fantasy genres memorialise themselves. They are a source to which historians will return.

And what will such historians conclude, on the basis of Strahan’s selections, about 2007? They will, I would imagine, be less interested than most of the book’s present-tense readers about whether it was a good year or a bad year, and more interested in the validity of Strahan’s core assertion about the twenty-first-century field. This assertion, arguably implicit in the decision to include sf and fantasy between one set of covers but made explicit in the introduction, is simply that the walls are breaking down. Strahan credits the change mostly to the ongoing expansion of the field, and the effect this has on how the genre talks to itself: “In effect, the direct dialogue from old to new works has been disrupted, and the nature of the dialogue has broadened enormously … SF and fantasy are broadening, changing, diverging” (2-3). Though he’s careful to note the limitations of grouping the two forms together, and reassure readers that there are traditional SF and fantasy stories in the book-to-come, it’s in the fluidity of the contemporary conversation that Strahan seems to be most interested, building on Gary Wolfe’s argument (I’m brutally paraphrasing “Evaporating Genres”) that the genres of the fantastic have to either live free or die hard: expand their discourse or stagnate.

So even without considering the story’s quality, it’s no surprise that Strahan opens with Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate“, and points out that it’s a hybrid: time travel may be a classic science fiction theme, but stylistically the story’s ancestry is fantasy. A lot has (inevitably) already been said about this story, and I don’t intend to repeat it all; William Mingin’s review is the clearest enumeration of the story’s virtues that I’ve seen, but it’s also worth noting Abigail Nussbaum’s observation that it’s precisely the story’s mixed heritage that allows Chiang to approach one of time travel’s core issues from a fresh angle. The only thing I’d add is another measure of praise for Chiang’s technique, particularly the way in which he renders abstracts concrete (for example, the description of how the time gate works as akin to a secret passage in a palace), and for the way this allows him, as Mingin puts it, to “suggest how we should be and act”. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is beautifully gentle in its moralizing; on one level it’s about how we know the world, but it frames its debate in the most practical terms, such that what can and cannot be done is central, and how people act is the most meaningful measure of their character. Perhaps the only contemporary writer whose skill and thoroughness at working through an argument can match Chiang is Greg Egan, represented here by the purely science-fictional “Glory” [pdf]. I’ve written about it, or specifically about the brilliantly barmy opening set-piece, before; second time around it struck me as a bit more coherent, more integrated in its presentation of its core argument, namely that the underlying information of the universe is consistent and can be understood. So, for example, the information that makes up the story’s protagonists, Joan and Anne, can be transformed from human to alien; and in their alien form they can understand other aliens as naturally as they understand their own species; and the ancient mathematics they seek is described in a novel algebra but is still comprehensible; and the final theorem can be re-described by a feat of aerial acrobatics. This pleasing neatness notwithstanding, “Glory” still strikes me as a little too rickety to be first-rank Egan. While there’s something endearing about the blatant way the story is rigged to focus on purely intellectual questions (by, for example, hand-waving away the potential problem of sexual attraction), after those first few pages the glory of the mind isn’t quite conveyed with enough conviction to carry the story on its own, and there’s nothing to tie the mind and the heart together the way they’re interlocked in Chiang’s tale.

If Strahan is arguing that the part of a Year’s Best job that involves teasing out such influences and connections is as important as it has ever been, though, we should be able to find stories among his selections that sit in the same conversation as, say, Chiang and Egan: stories that circle the same issues, that are heirs to the same tradition. And we can. One example is Daryl Gregory’s marvelous, economical “Dead Horse Point”. In its exploration of the psychological consequences of the pursuit of intellectual satisfaction it echoes “Glory”, not to mention some of Egan’s earlier stories, although there’s no evidence of Egan’s sometimes-clinical approach. (Strahan identifies a Tiptree influence, which I can see in the outdoorsy setting, although the story itself is gentler than any Tiptree I’ve read.) In some ways, it’s little more than a character vignette: a woman receives a call from her girlfriend of years earlier, and travels to visit her and her brother; there is some reminiscing about old times, and some discussion of the present; and then a turning point is reached. The sfnal elements, too, are minimal: the girlfriend, Julia, suffers from a psychological abnormality that, so far as I know, doesn’t exist, but which is characterised as “the opposite of attention deficit disorder”, meaning that she has a tendency to disappear into fugue states for periods of time ranging between hours or months, focused utterly on solving whatever problem has snagged her attention. The current problem, which may be drawing Julia so deep into a fugue that she will never return, is a new interpretation of quantum mechanics, the implications of which — and the ways in which those implications are refracted by the actions of the trio — echo not just Egan, but also “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”. The balance in “Dead Horse Point”, though, is tilted more towards heart than head, which is enough to ensure that the story is in the end nothing but itself. Another story in the book, though, seems to owe an even clearer debt to Chiang; in fact, if you told me you’d read a story about the conflict between belief and reason, set in a world where creationists were proved right about the age of the Earth by carbon-dating in the mid-twentieth century, and I didn’t know better, Chiang would be my first guess for the author. In fact it’s Ted Kosmatka. Like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, “The Prophet of Flores” derives its strength from its hybridity — in this case a science-fictional exploration of a fantastical conceit, rather than vice-versa — and though the pacing, among other things, is not as polished as it might be, the story’s portrait of life in a cosmologically alternate history is thorough and convincing. The protagonist is a boy who grows up to be a “paleometagenomicist” (a sort of cross between an anthropologist and a geneticist) and, as the title suggests, is ultimately sent to investigate the story’s novum — the discovery of the bones of the hobbits of Flores, which, by representing a challenge to the idea that all life was originally created by God, has the potential to send shock waves through this world’s society. Kosmatka’s execution of this pregnant conceit is notable first for its sensible handling of the faultlines between faith and evidence, and second because he finds a resolution which remains true to the parameters of the world established, but still manages to deliver a good old-fashioned conceptual breakthrough.

All four of the stories I’ve discussed so far have recognisable science fiction antecedents, even if two of them are not pure sf and one of them is only tenuously speculative; and none of them ever doubts that reason and logic are appropriate tools with which to try to understand the world, even if they are interested in the emotional consequences of that understanding. A story like Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk” is more in orbit around this cluster than a part of it, but displays a similar faith that the world can be grasped, albeit with business nous rather than pure rationality. “Kiosk” is your everyday tale of economic revolution, or the Third Transition for the Eastern European country in which it’s set (the first two, we are told, being the fall of communism and the trauma of peak oil), in which a small-time businessman acquires a high-grade cornucopia device and finds himself getting step by step deeper into what eventually becomes a full-blow revolutionary conspiracy. Along the way, there’s a lot of energetic, energising and funny talk — it’s a much more lively story than any of the four above — plus plenty of pithy encapsulations of the way the world is changing. The ultimate moral is that it’s not enough just to have a mechanical invention; you need a social invention to go with it, because one will ultimately be demanded if the technology is pervasive enough. “Kiosk” is certainly one of Sterling’s better stories of recent years, and the most complete dramatisation of a social change in this Year’s Best; but I don’t think it’s the best story about economics. I’d give that honour to Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics“, which is a less raggedy and ramshackle story, and impressive for the thoroughness with which it does exactly what it says on the tin. Formally, Abraham’s story is indeed a fairy tale, in which an admirable hero (“a man of few needs, tepid passions, and great kindness”) overcomes a series of challenges in order to live happily ever after. But there’s no magic, and in fact the setting is a version of our world (Cairo and Paris are mentioned), though not in an analogue of any single historical period I could confidently pin down. The challenges, which are set for Our Hero by a debauched local lord, have to do with the principle of exchange, and quickly become about more than mere physical goods, at which point they demonstrate every bit as much as “Kiosk” how much economic forces shape our lives. But Abraham’s story is told with a much lighter touch than Sterling’s, although both are charmingly logical at points, and offer the satisfaction of seeing smarts win out.

As I’ve hinted, you can argue half of the stories I’ve discussed so far — Chiang, Kosmatka, Abraham — as either science fiction or fantasy. Another example would be Susan Palwick’s “Sorrel’s Heart”, which is once more science fiction — set in a world where extreme mutation has become both rife and survivable, and where people born with their organs external to their body are relatively commonplace — and told in a fantastical tone. (The year’s other girl-with-her-heart-outside-her-body story, Rachel Swirsky’s “Heartstrung“, which inevitably shares some themes, can be found in Rich Horton’s Fantasy Best.) A relationship develops between the title character and a man, Quartz, whose abnormality is less visible; he is a sociopath, but decides that because he can see how his desires hurt Sorrel, he doesn’t actually need to act them out. Their relationship is an abnormal kind of normal; caring and coping and complementing are at the heart of it. Palwick’s touch is sure, and if the use of the heart as a symbol becomes a little bit too explicit at the end (we didn’t need to be told that Quartz’ child becomes his heart) there are powerful moments along the way. But you can also put her story, or Abraham’s, into a fantasy conversation rather than an sf one, by heading into fairy tale and folk tale, and looking at the contrast between Abraham’s story and an ostensibly more traditional fairytale retelling such as Holly Black’s “The Coat of Stars”. The tale of a gay costume maker, a troubled visit to his redneck home, and his attempts to rescue a childhood friend from the clutches of the fairy queen — yes, the double meaning is both conscious and worked through the story — by a succession of increasingly elaborate coats as gifts, it’s a thoroughly unsentimental offering and, in some ways, not that much more traditional than Abraham’s story. Although there is magic, the presentation of it is notably un-magical, and in fact I suspect the complete lack of ethereality is the only reason the happy ending is bearable. You could also look at the two witch stories in the book, by Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Hand; both are to an extent engaged in dialogue with the conventions of fairy tale, although I’m not sure that the image of a witch as an evil old woman, which both stories clearly want to bounce off, is as pervasive as it used to be. This is not a problem for Hand’s story, which has a lot of other resonance to juice it up; the small-town setting is evoked with skill, but the story’s real triumph is that it manages to talk about the preservation of the environment — in this case, represented by three old trees — from the depredations of business without getting drippy. The magic is real and fierce — the sort of thing that is felt as much as seen — which makes the tinge of wish-fulfillment inherent in the premise bearable.

The feeling that the story might not actually add much to the ongoing dialogue is more of a problem for Gaiman’s “The Witch’s Headstone”, which is as much about Good and Bad as Hand’s story, but is surprisingly clumsy — featuring such convenient environmental responses as the fact that, immediately after the protagonist is captured, what had been a fine autumn day turns gray — although perhaps some of its other clumsiness can be attributed to the fact that it’s an extract from a novel, and is thus filled with hanging references. Still following the trail of a fantasy conversation, from Chiang’s (quite literal) portal-quest story you could skip to a piece like Alex Irvine’s “Wizard’s Six”, which makes more use of traditional high fantasy gamepieces — formal language, unironic wizards and dragon-slaying — than any other story in the book, and goes to some lengths to frame its narrative as one of moral questioning. (Although unlike Chiang’s story, the protagonist is probably not a good match for many of the people reading about him.) Or you could go to another hybrid form, alternate history, and look at Chris Roberson’s “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small”, an entry in his interesting Celestial Empire series. This time around I think the detail of the research is more impressive than the detail of the prose, but like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” the story is structured as a series of philosophical challenges, in which an old man leads a young man through an argument, in an attempt to get him to see the wider world.

The concept for The Graveyard Book — from which Gaiman’s story is taken — is, of course, is itself another example of fantasy dialogue, in this case with Kipling’s Jungle Book, a work substantially older than anything most of the sf stories try to engage with. (The exception is Charles Stross’ cacophonously unfunny Wodehouse-homage/parody “Trunk and Disorderly”, but frankly the less said about that the better.) Fantasy has a rather longer tradition to draw on than sf, so it’s not at all a surprise to find other similar examples in Strahan’s selections; such as Theodora Goss’s decision to respond to “Kubla Khan” in “Singing of Mount Abora”. In doing so she is clearly aiming for something of the same intensity of image and feeling — an approach summed up by the observation that “beauty was not a quality but a state of being” — but although there are many things to like about the story, particularly the dance between segments set in Xanadu and those set in contemporary Boston, for me at least the end result is (oddly, like Egan’s story) more beautiful in its conception than its execution. Individual moments, such as the matter-of-fact way the narrator tells us that she’s been to Xanadu and Coleridge got the details wrong, work wonderfully as a way of asserting the importance of individual imagination; but ultimately the story as a whole is too dependent to truly live. More generally, stories like Goss’ and Gaiman’s, and indeed most of the fantasy stories in this collection, seem to point to a difference in the way genre dialogue works, compared with science fiction, specifically that fantasy stories don’t seem to draw as directly on its contemporary tradition in the way that sf does. That may be changing — look at the response to Perdido Street Station (at least if you read it as fantasy), and to a lesser extent the response to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — but it still seems more common to see direct inspiration (such as Accelerando leading to Postsingular) in sf, and there’s more of a sense of common purpose between Egan/Chiang/Gregory/Kosmatka than between any of the more traditional fantasies collected here.

If this isn’t just observer bias, it may be something to do with the fact that fantasy has a wider range of established narratives to draw on. The danger is that stories that aim to deploy a formula end up mastered by them. Hence stories like Black’s, or to an extent like Elizabeth Bear’s “Orm the Beautiful“, which is an almost flawlessly executed story about a last dragon, but is still a last dragon story. The twist is that said dragon is emerging into the contemporary world; the resulting negotiation with mundane concerns is witty, and the conception of the dragon society is original and impressively fully-formed for a story of this length, but it never feels as though it desperately needed to be told. Similarly, Michael Swanwick’s exodus/development-of-language myth mash-up is impressively textured, obviously knowing in several ways, and better than most examples of his short fiction that I’ve read, but can’t quite overcome the (necessary?) familiarity of its basic plot, in which a girl is kidnapped, an honourable man rescues her, and a treacherous man causes trouble. None of these stories are without merit, but next to, for example, Abraham’s twist on the fairy-tale formula, they feel too well-worn. I’ve praised M. Rickert’s “Holiday” before, and its skillful insinuation of unease into the narrator’s apparent attempt to be straight with us retains its power third time around, but it’s worth noting that it’s effective as a ghostly horror story not just because of its general grimness of tone, but because it successfully misdirects us as to where the horror is going to come from. The presence or absence of that sort of surprise, I think, makes or breaks any story that’s operating within a particular form. It’s why I think that, say, Nancy Kress’s “By Fools Like Me” is not her best work; the setting is almost generically post-Crash — global warming, disease, birth rate way down, garbled religious teachings — and what the characters stand for starts to overwhelm who they actually are. It’s also why I think Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact” is admirable in concept but not quite deft enough in execution. I’m still a little surprised that it earned Baxter a Hugo nomination. Some of the detail is nice (particularly the idea that the announcement of a universal apocalypse would be made on Radio 4, and that the schedulers would be thoughtful enough to make the entirely pointless gesture of scheduling it for after the watershed), and the total impersonality of the catastrophe is as chilling as Baxter ever is. But some of the rest — particularly the guff about establishing a shelter to survive the end of the universe for about 30 seconds, just to eke out that little bit more knowledge, and the intuitive decryption of alien messages — is trying too hard. It might work in a longer story, but here I can feel my buttons being deliberately pushed. I don’t object to similar button-pushing in Ken MacLeod’s “Jesus Christ, Reanimator”, which depicts a 21st-century second coming, simply because the story is so funny and inventive, from the opening image of the Heavenly host being welcomed with an F-16 fighter escort to the concept of Jesus’ blog (and his “devastating put-downs in the comments”), or Jesus’ own admission that reading Tipler helped him understand how the universe works. It’s a story that ends in the only way it could, but has an awful lot of fun getting there, and is probably MacLeod’s strongest short-form work to date.

What’s left after all this discussion is the set of stories which, for one reason or another, I couldn’t fit into a neat discursive category. In some cases, that’s because the premise seems truly original; the notable example here is Peter S Beagle’s “The Last and Only, Or, Mr Moscowitz Becomes French”, in which nationality is, literally, a disease. But it’s an originality whose charm passes me by, as with so much Beagle; “Mr Moscowitz” seems too fable-like to be satisfying as a rational fantasy (for example, nobody talks about potential treatment of Mr Moscowitz) and yet not fable-like enough to achieve much power (the scattershot targeting of everything that comes within range — law, celebrity, marriage — ends up feeling ineffective). It feels like it should be a story about identity, yet because of the totalizing nature of the change, it has frustratingly little to say there (certainly in comparison to a story like “Dead Horse Point”); yet it is not simply beautiful enough to absorb. In contrast, there’s “The Dreaming Wind”, which is both unlike any other fantasy in the anthology and successful, although perhaps not exactly new ground for its author. “There is no way,” the narrator says near the start, “to encompass in language the inexhaustible creative energy and crackpot genius that was the Dreaming Wind”. But Jeffrey Ford gives it the old college try. The dreaming wind sweeps through the town of Lipora once a year, when summer and autumn “are in bed together” (a lovely phrase), bringing in its wake a rush of surreality. People and landscape become jumbled and strange, and only rearrange themselves when the wind has passed. It’s an event that serves as a demonstration of Ford’s tremendous gift for invention, and the story is worth reading for that alone. But then “The Dreaming Wind” becomes something more: one year, the wind does not come, and as so often happens the absence of a feared thing becomes scarier than the thing itself; at least it turns out not to be the expected blessing. Eventually, the townsfolk put on a play, telling a story that explains why the dreaming wind was and why it is no more; when the magic vanishes, in other words, it is recreated in story, and magic and story might almost as well be the same thing. Tony Daniel’s “In the Valley of the Garden” is, like “Glory”, taken from The New Space Opera, although like “Glory” I’m not sure I could actually call it that; a story about someone who’s survived a space opera, maybe. Strahan places it immediately after Rickert’s story, and initially the change from the intensely personal supernatural horror of that story to the still-personal but much more expansive and adventurous sf of Daniel provides the sharpest whiplash in the book; but the story outstays its welcome somewhat. Interestingly, it echoes Swanwick’s story in several ways: both stories play with sf/fantasy texturing; they have similar villains (Daniel’s aliens are described as “parasites, feeding on order”, which makes them sound awfully like Swanwick’s language-eating demons); and in “Valley”, as in “Urdumheim”, inventiveness is ultimately tamed by a conventional undercarriage.

Strahan closes his anthology with a story by possibly the only contemporary short story writer as near-universally acclaimed as Ted Chiang; but Kelly Link’s “The Constable of Abel” seems to me a less secure anchor, not just because I find it less engaging as a story than my pick for Link story of the year, “Light” (I’m able to believe that Strahan disagrees), but because “Light” seems so much better-placed to illustrate Strahan’s core argument about the breaking down of barriers. Like “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, it fantasticates a science fictional conceit (pocket universes), but it does so in a provocatively different way. “The Constable of Abel”, by contrast, is set in a more straightforward fantasy world than is usual for Link, and has a more traditional narrative architecture, built around a mother and daughter con-artist team who leave one town and move to another after the mother kills the local constable. There’s a lot of talk about death, which only Link’s narrative voice manages to avoid making morbid; but it seems more of a struggle than usual, as though the demands of plot cut down the characteristic interplay. Though there are still Linkish touches — such as the way people keep ghosts, which are pocket-sized and need blood to live — under such bright light they start to seem unconvincing, rather than illuminatingly weird. And the final revelation, much as Link tries to spin it into a new riff, can’t stop the story being a rather wearying note on which to end an otherwise good anthology.

But what “The Constable of Abel” does have going for it is that it’s more typical of the direction Link’s work has been going in; and even if you like fewer of them than me, I think it’s hard to deny that Strahan’s selections capture something of the fluidity of the contemporary genre, and range widely over the territory. Of the handful of omissions I think really weaken the collection, for instance, I can see that “By Fools Like Me” already covers the post-ecotastrophe terrain that Holly Phillips’ “Three Days of Rain” evokes so wonderfully; and while I’d have taken Rachel Swirsky’s “Dispersed by the sun, Melting in the Wind“, I can see that the clear debt to classic end-of-the-world stories that “Last Contact” brings is interesting in itself; and while I find the omission of David Moles’ “Finisterra” baffling, I suppose Tony Daniel’s story supplies the heavy-worldbuilding sf adventure. As for the fourth story I’d have picked, Ian R MacLeod’s “The Master Miller’s Tale”, its industrial magic isn’t particularly well represented elsewhere in the book, but it’s a novella, and even in Night Shade’s somewhat cramped layout that demands a certain number of pages. You may have noticed that all my omissions — and all the stories Strahan did pick — are, however they might colonise other narratives, solidly genre stories, drawn from genre sources (for a different kind of fluidity, drawing on newer markets or non-genre markets, you’ll want Horton’s volumes, or Best American Fantasy, I suspect — and in fact, see Abigail Nussbaum’s review here); but if Strahan’s self-appointed task is to map the field of speculative fiction, rather than the mode in the broadest sense, then that makes perfect sense. And I find myself in agreement with the sense of the field that this book promotes: which is to say that I like this map.

Hopeful Monsters

Hopeful Monsters coverThe strangest things in Hiromi Goto’s first collection happen at night. The first two stories in Hopeful Monsters are little more than experiments in capturing the distinctive textures of night — the seeming loudness of a stray thought, in the claustrophobic intensity of “Night” (1993), and contrariwise the freeing anonymity of darkness in “Osmosis” (1998) — but they set a precedent for what is to come. For example, it’s in the middle of the night that “Tales from the Breast” (1995), which is for most of its length a relatively uninspiring portrait of the travails of breastfeeding, making in a somewhat laboured fashion the point that just because something is biologically natural doesn’t make it enjoyable, suddenly blooms into an extraordinary image. The baby is demanding to be nursed, and the skin of your breasts (the story is told in the second person, in parts) is so tight that

Like a pressured zipper, it tears, spreading across the surface of your chest, directed by your fingers, tears in a complete circle around the entire breast.

There is no blood.

You lean slightly forward and the breast falls gently into your cupped hands. The flesh is a deep red and you wonder at its beauty, how flesh becomes food without you asking or even wanting it. You set the breast on your lap and slice your other breast. Two pulsing orbs still spurting breast milk. (63-4)

This is typical of Goto’s prose — a cleverly used perspective, short descriptive sentences or sentence fragments, an emphasis on physicality — but what’s really interesting and impressive about it, I think, is the way it mingles horror and release. The separation of self from self should (surely?) be a horrific image, and certainly “two pulsing orbs” is the sort of language you’d expect to see in a horror story; yet the horror is a backnote. Because of the gentle, bloodless ease with which it happens (and the weight of uncomfortableness that has been built up through the rest of the story) the dominant emotion evoked is freedom. What happens next — the wife places her detached breasts on her husband, they “seep into his skin, soft whisper of cells joining cells” (64), and he wakes up in shock — is more traditionally horrific, albeit refracted through the wife’s more sanguine perspective. And, in fact, the story ends with the wife falling asleep, such that if you really want to you can read the entire episode as a dream. But neither of these things, for me, diminishes the power of that initial image, and I think in a way it’s emblematic of one of Goto’s core concerns: to challenge us to reclaim things from which we would normally recoil.

She is, for sure, not always successful. “Stinky Girl” (1996), about a fat, coloured (her terms) 33-year-old woman, wants to be about exactly this subject, but falls flat. Goto goes to some lengths to establish that the titular smell that adheres to the narrator, driving away passers-by, is “not a causal phenomenon”, that it has nothing to do with Stinky’s physique or hygiene. Stinky is not abnormal “medically speaking”, but “not normal in the commonly held sense of the word” (39). And we are told with equal carefulness that none of Stinky’s attributes have any reflection on her character; indeed she is “blessed with a certain higher intelligence, a certain sensitivity which enables me to more than endure the trials of this existence” (45). (The ego probably helps, too.) The coup-de-grace up to which the story leads is the idea that smell is as subjective as, say, visual standards of beauty: “If one were taught as a very small child that roses were disgusting […] would one not despite the very thought of their scent? It may be that I smell beautiful beyond the capacity of human recognition” (46). The truth of this is apparently born out by an encounter with a child who, unlike everyone else, does not react to Stinky’s stench. But for me, at the very least the ask is too big, and at worst the story is being deliberately disingenuous for the sake of a striking idea. I don’t doubt that there is a socially constructed element of smell, but there are also sound reasons why we experience (or are taught to experience) the smell of rotting meat and faeces as bad, in exactly the way that there aren’t sound reasons for prejudices based on weight or skin colour.

Arguably the problem with “Stinky Girl” is that it takes place in a near-vacuum; at least, Stinky doesn’t have much in the way of personal attachments, and the stories that take place within deftly sketched family units are mostly more effective. (I was reminded, occasionally, of the similar care with human relationships in Maureen McHugh’s fiction.) There are still some transferrals that are too obvious, as when the mother in “Drift” (1999), unable to come to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism, ends up feeling like the child in the relationship. But in a story like “Tilting” (1993), in which a young girl, her brother and her father meet their mother and grandparents on their return from a trip to Japan, the faultlines are delineated with a minimum of judgement; the memories of the recent trip provoke memories of earlier trips with not a little elegance. Similarly, “Home Stay” (1999), which describes the odd relationship that develops between an Asian man and the parents of his estranged wife, manages to portray a mutual incomprehension born of imagined difference (which is no less “real” than “real difference”, of course) without condescending to anyone involved. In each of these stories, it’s worth noting, the family is multi-racial; an Asian (usually Japanese) man has married a Canadian woman, or vice versa. It seems only natural. Families, in Hopeful Monsters, are always in flux, always sprawling things without true edges or borders, breeding grounds of hybridity in just about every way; which is why they are natural focal points for the sort of tension between prejudice and acceptance that Goto seems to be interested in.

The fantastic is deployed sparingly and, although it may be dramatic, as often as not (as in “Tales from the Breast”) it’s the questionable, equipoisal kind, where it’s up to you to decide how much really happened. The closest Goto comes to a straightforward horror story is probably “From Across a River” (2001), in which a mother is confronted with an unnerving faceless manifestation of the daughter she lost some years earlier. In “Camp Americana” (2005), we encounter one of Goto’s less charitable characterisations, in the form of a Japanese grandfather, on a camping trip with his wife, his son, his son’s Canadian-born wife, and his two grandchildren. He is not shy about his traditional — which in this story is to say sexist — views, which can make him hard to endure: “His son’s wife wasn’t raised properly, that was obvious […] the females of this country are uncivilized” (116). The conflict that develops is left unresolved when, on a solo night-time trip to the bathroom, the grandfather falls and experiences a visionary hallucination in which his grandchildren appear with the heads of cats, and his wife’s disembodied head and neck wrap around him like a snake. Once more, the horrific potential of the images themselves is secondary; what’s important is the instability in how they are explained, with a succession of possibilities being quickly raised, each trumping the last — they are creatures that have taken his family’s forms, they are a dream, they are his family having gone through a secret transformation, they are a stroke-vision. I think it’s the impossibility of accommodation that Goto is drawing on here, or perhaps the trauma that results from a rigid mind refusing to bend.

And then there’s the title story, which is the closest the collection comes to science fiction, which is presumably why it’s on the reading list for this year’s Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism (which is, in turn, why I acquired the book in the first place). It’s here, in a quasi-scientific epigraph, that we get a definition of “hopeful monsters” — which turn out to be that small percentage of “macromutations” that can “with chance and luck, equip an organism with radically beneficial adaptive traits with which to survive and prosper” (135). Immediately after this, we encounter a pregnant woman, and so wonder: will her child be such a creature?

The first part of the story is a description of Hisa’s pregnancy, of the support her “sweet” husband Bobby attempts to give her, and of her conversations with her superstitious (but possibly also actually psychic) mother; the second part describes the birth itself; and the third part describes Hisa’s reactions to her child’s unusual physiology — she is born with what the doctors describe as a “caudal appendage”, and what Hisa sees as a tail — and the decision she makes about it. The tone throughout is unsentimental, from the physical and psychological discomforts of pregnancy (“Ridley Scott had a lot to answer for, she thought”, 138) to the more dramatic discomforts of birth (“Hisa pushed and pushed. She held her breath, pushing down with her abdominal muscles, a squirt of residual fecal mater forced along as well, she pushed, pain no longer a sensation but a entity …” 144), and the less cute details of a newborn baby (the stain of bruising, the strangeness of the fontanelle, the unpleasantness of poo). But at times the point seems laboured, as though Goto intends Hisa’s experiences to be as alien to us as detaching breasts; such an aim would fit with the collection’s overarching investigation of what is really alien to us and what is simply unexamined normality, except that I’m not convinced pregnancy and birth fall into either category.

More interesting is Hisa’s arc, from pre-birth nerves to an understandable franticness after the birth (when she senses that something is “wrong” with her child, but nobody will tell her what), to her attempts to come to terms with the abnormality. At times, the story becomes the inverse of “Stinky Girl”: “If she looked at it long enough, would she lose this skin-crawling repulsion?” (153). But here Goto has an extra twist to add, since it turns out that Hisa was also born with a tale, subsequently removed, and thus has to come to terms with the idea that what she perceived as strangeness is also a part of her. The latter is clearly more challenging; there is a dramatic difference between Hisa’s initial reaction to the sight of her child — “Hisa stared. What moisture left in her mouth withered: a bitter dust on her tongue. Her heart boomed inside her ears” (149) — and Hisa’s reaction to the news about her own heritage: “The room ballooned, a sudden vacuum. […] The fluorescent light buzzed with frenetic electrons. […] The baby’s breathing split into air, heart, blood, hemoglobin. Hisa gasped. The world cracked. Then the shards slid back to create an entire picture once more” (155). Ultimately, Hisa decides to steal away her child, so that the doctors will not remove the tail; an effective grace note is that just before she goes, worried that she doesn’t have enough practice at being “abnormal” she calls a lesbian couple from her prenatal classes to ask for advice, and is given the short shrift she deserves.

What’s somewhat perplexing is how this story is meant to be understood as in any sense speculative. Caudal appendages are a known phenomenon; vestigial functionality is rare but not completely unknown; so the only point at which the story might cross over into unexplored territory is the suggestion that Hisa’s child’s tale is an inherited feature, not a developmental abnormality. (So far as I know, caudal appendages are always the result of developmental abnormality.) Yet Goto writes in an afterword that the story was inspired by Wendy Pearson’s essay “Sex/uality and the Hermaphrodite in Science Fiction, or, The Revenge of Herculin Barbin”, from Edging into the Future (2002). The parallel, presumably, is intended to be with the way medicalisation of human biology ends up excluding all but the two “true” biological sexes (that is, excludes intersex individuals); thus Hisa’s child is, we are meant to believe, similarly excluded by a medical establishment that doesn’t recognize a true mutation when it’s right in front of them. But as with “Stinky Girl”, the parallel seems to me inexact in ways that undermine the story. A caudal appendage simply is not functional in the way that genitalia are — and if the sfnal point of the story is that this one is, then it doesn’t do the work necessary to make this plain. A reflexive grasp in a newborn is not enough to convince me that a tail would be a “radically beneficial adaptive trait” for a modern human (or that it could be a marker for other, more profound mutations), which leaves the story looking rather hollow. It does occur to me, though, that there’s another possibility: perhaps we are meant to be thinking this way, to reinforce the ambiguity of Hisa’s final decision. Even as she leaves, it’s not clear to what extent Hisa is acting for her child, and to what extent she’s acting for herself. It may be that Hisa is, in a wishful sense, the true hopeful monster, walking away into the night.