Short Story Club: “Elegy for a Young Elk”

An earlier than usual kick-off for Hannu Rajaniemi’s story, because fairly shortly I will be leaving for the airport and a two-week holiday. (Fear not! I have scheduled the other short story club posts ahead of time. Plus I’ll probably be online at points.) Anyway, Jason Sanford has tried to claim this story as Sci-Fi Strange; but is it actually any good? Over to Gardner Dozois, in the August Locus:

Also first-rate in the Summer issue is Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Elegy for a Young Elk”. Rajaniemi is a writer who cranks the bit-rate up about as high as it can go and still remain comprehensible (although there will almost certainly be some who think that this doesn’t remain comprehensible). Said by some to out-Charles Stross Charles Stross, this slender story, set in a post-Apocalyptic future society where posthumans with godlike powers are at war, manages to jam enough high-concept into a few pages to fuel a 400-page novel.

Lois Tilton is more lukewarm:

A lot of neat images here in a world transformed into something fantastic and not very explicable. There is a fragmentary story about Kosonon and his son, and parental guilt, but mostly this is a world incomprehensibly transformed and a man trying to find his place it in.

Pam Philips liked it, but can’t pin it down:

When I re-read it to make sure of the details, the story clicked. I was sucked right in and couldn’t stop reading from beginning to end of Kosonen’s quest to regain his lost poetry. I love the way he proves he has it back, with an act that skates the melting edge between scif-fi nanotech and magic. It had me wondering if the magic in the story had cast some spell of confusion on me the first time. Or maybe I was just awake on the second try. I’m still annoyed by who the lord of the city is, but if it were someone else, the ease of Kosonen’s choice at the end wouldn’t make sense.

Alex at Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth feels similarly:

Hannu Rajaniemi, Elegy for a Young Elk is… one of those stories where words fail me. I just flail my hands in the air, saying “it’s just… good… and… a bit weird but good weird. Y’know?” The idea of post-humanity and AIs taken in a really awesome direction, with the humanity still achingly there. Also, a talking bear.

Chad Orzel:

I liked this better than the previous entries in the Short Story Club, though I suspect this is more to do with it not pushing buttons of mine than any absolute quality of the story. As with “A Serpent in the Gears,” this is an excellent example of providing backstory without infodumping, though many serious gaps remain (the exact nature of the apocalypse remains a little unclear, and there are some dangling references that never quite get explained). The language is very evocative, and while it mostly uses the time-honored dodge of describing but not quoting the important poetry of the story, the bit that is quoted is perfectly fine (allowing for the fact that I am not generally a poetry person).

This does suffer a bit from a kind of incompleteness that I suspect is an unavoidable consequence of the form. It’s got a reasonable plot– Kosonen is given a quest, which turns out to have more personal significance than he expected, and its completion is different than what was presumably intended. Kosonen remains something of a cipher, though– there are hints of character there, but for the most part, he seems to do what he does because it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise. The narrative sort of floats above the core of the character, never really providing all that much depth.

Matt Hilliard’s take:

The star of the story, for me, was the magic lamp genie nanomachine device commanded by poetry. Generally I have a tin ear for poetry, but I actually was pretty impressed by the narrator’s train poem. But the poetry business was also the biggest disappointment since it was only used once. Well, once, and then sort of at the end, which almost ruined the story for me. In a great story, Esa would have been trapped and died, but his father would have used an epic poem to recreate something like him out the magic bean nanoseed. In this story, Esa uses magic quantum something or other to hide from the city’s magic guardian firewall. This was an enormous cop out of an ending. If this firewall was so easily duped, why couldn’t he escape before? I suppose the story implies his mother is helping out from her end, but come on.

And Evan also tries to puzzle out the ending:

This story was good. It was coherent, it managed not to over-explain, it was about real-feeling people and realistic relationships. Rajaniemi has the storyteller’s spark. It was a bit baggy, like it was told at the granularity of a novel, rather than a short story. It’s satisfyingly low on exposition. There are many moments where the writing is quite nice.

There are two takes on the ending, I think. Either the sky-people planned the entire affair to go off the way it did, or they didn’t. I like the former theory better. A bit of theater, allowing Kosonen to move on and his son and the quantum girl to finally go free in a way that makes them less dangerous to the people around them (presumably they’re reduced somewhat by translation into poetical form). The setting here then is a neat bit of work, but doesn’t really get behind the story and push. It’s stronger if you’ve read “Deus Ex Homine”, I think.

If the latter is the case, then the story is unfinished, the ending makes very little sense, the setup is stupid, and Rajaniemi is betrayed by the allure of his setting, much like I was.

He also says:

There’s a longer discussion to be had, now that the singularity thing is just about wound down, but I am not sure that this story is the right tee for kicking it off.

OR IS IT? Over to you.

Short Story Club: “A Serpent in the Gears”

We’ll begin with Rich Horton, in the January Locus:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens 2010 with a very fine Margret Ronald story, “A Serpent in the Gears“. It’s the story of an expedition — by airship, naturally, this being a story with steampunk elements! — to a long-isolated country. We learn that the isolated country is occupied by mechanical beings (or partly mechanical beings). The expedition, from a wholly organic nation, has both scientific and diplomatic purposes. And it has a spy — the narrator. Besides spies and airships there are dragons, a strangely preserved Professora, and, for the narrator, a crisis of loyalty.

Lois Tilton also liked it:

Another blimp, this one in a fantastic steampunky setting. The dirigible Regina is attempting to cross Sterling Pass into the forbidden valley of Aaris, which is defended by automatic gun emplacements and giant flying hybrid-mechanical serpents. Many of the passengers onboard are spies claiming more or less truthfully to be scientists. The narrator, Charles, posing as Colonel Dieterich’s valet, is a spy from Aaris.
[…]
Crammed full of Neat Steampunk Stuff, delightfully witty prose, and high adventure.

The VanderMeers have also picked it up for their Steampunk Reloaded anthology.

Pam Philips enjoyed it:

There is so much to be revealed, though, it takes nearly half the text to get the setup done. The latter half is an action sequence, with battles alternating with revelations, climaxing with one big revelation. Everyone gasps, takes a breath, and — that’s it. That’s it?

I love the inventiveness. I love the imagery. I really hope this is meant to be the first chapter of an adventure novel. And then maybe a movie, though a movie producer would probably tack on a different ending and blow stuff up.

Matt H also thinks it feels “more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story“:

Is this just a matter of taste? To some extent, it must be…in the past I’ve noted I expect more out of short stories than a lot of people seem to. But I think in this case, at least, I can point to story-specific reasons for my reaction. The story provides closure on two issues: the Regina‘s mission and the nature and origin of the narrator. The narrator’s unique circumstances are strongly hinted at all the way up to where it is confirmed about halfway through, so it wasn’t really a twist. I think my ambivalence about the Regina‘s mission comes straight from the narrator, who summarizes it in a paragraph or two and then goes back to the stuff I came away from the story interested in. If the narrator doesn’t care whether the mission succeeds or fails, why should I?

It doesn’t help that “Aaris Valley” was the thinnest part of the world building. We’re told it’s an insignificant backwater, but then it turns out that multiple countries have spies aboard the Regina with objectives we assume (for they are not actually given) are sinister. And then at the end, a militant and expansionist Aaris is a thought to be a grave threat. Just how big is this valley? None of this is clear, so neither are the stakes of the mission.

And for Evan it’s an interesting failure:

The story here moves along quickly, with deftly sketched characters straight out of steampunk central casting. We’ve a valet with a secret, an expedition into an interdicted country, vaunting overconfidence, and eventually an awakening to a grave danger. Everything flows smoothly and is topped off by a fine action sequence.

And yet… The story is somehow weightless, taking each element of the subgenre that is uses out of the box and placing it just so. Noting new is originated and nothing is actually said (I suppose that one could argue that the statement is that aggressive hegemonizing swarms are bad, or that individuality is important, or that loyalty is more important than kind, but all these seem to go without saying). We are told a story. It is fluent, complete, and hollow, concerned primarily with manipulation of scenery and furniture. No element of the standard building blocks is questioned, or goes unused (it’s even hinted that somewhere out there are magicians, although we never seem to see any).

With some more thoughts on steampunk here:

This is not steampunk at its worst, but all genre writing at its worst. The same point could have been made of the post-Tolkein fantasy boom from the late 70s to the early 90s (the hangover of which is still with us today), or the endless dreary cyberpunk follow-ons that have taken up most of the intellectual airspace in between now and then, or the mini-booms in epic fantasy, dark fantasy, the new space opera, etc., etc., etc.. Paranormal romance and steampunk are just the latest iterations and there’s fairly little that’s interesting to be said about them specifically. These are basically the publishing equivalent of momentum trading. Something equivalent will always be with us.

Your thoughts?

Short Story Club: “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

The story is here; now, on with the commentary. Sadly I don’t have my Locus back-issues to hand right now, so we start with Lois Tilton:

This is a metastory, a story about storytelling and a warning about searching too hard for meaning in stories, which should be about people, not abstract ideas. It is notable that the stories in which Isha finds so much meaning are not very storylike or memorable, unlike the immortal tales of Somadeva. Recommended.

Pam Phillips:

There are moments of beauty, and wonderful little stories that Isha collects in her net, as she travels from world to world between the stars. One of them even coins a term that describes exactly how this sort of story tends to run into trouble. There’s too many elements competing for your comprehension, too many self-referential arrows pointing at each other. I enjoyed reading it, and had fun thinking about how all the parts interact, but they never quite settle down. It’s a collection of stories drawn together only by threads of narrative, caught forever in the moment just before it gels into a solid whole.

David Hebblethwaite:

The structure of ‘Somadeva’ mirrors that of the Kathāsaritsāgara, in that it consists of a number of interlocking stories, some embedded within others (Singh also writes herself briefly into the story, as the authors of some texts did and Somadeva here wishes he had). One result of this is to make it more-or-less impossible to tell for sure whether Somadeva is in the future with Isha, or in the past telling all this to Sūryavati, or perhaps somewhere else. It’s handled elegantly by Singh, the effect is not so much disorientation as a satisfying recognition of the shape of the whole.

One of the main themes of ‘Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra’ is the extent to which stories can – or should – be pinned down to one definitive interpretation. Isha is excited to discover that a tribe named the Kiha tell stories that can be interpreted as describing fundamental scientific processes; it’s an appealing way to read them, but then Somadeva reminds us that those tales could just as easily be read in other ways – none necessarily invalid.

Perhaps, following on from this, it’s best to leave one’s interpretation of this story open. But there is one thing I think I can say with some certainty: at the start of the tale, Somadeva says,’ I was once…a poet, a teller of tales’; by its end, he’s declaring that he is those things. Whatever else stories do, they bring Somadeva to life.

And Matt Hilliard:

The final section of the story suggests, to me, that we are intended to think of the reconstructed Somadeva as being recreated not in a computer through some technobabble mechanism, but in Isha’s head through her reading of his ancient writings. Isha herself could also be a construct, part of a story thought up by Somadeva to convince Suryavati to stay alive, since he tells us he wants to put himself in a story as other authors of his tradition have done. And of course Isha and Somadeva are finally constructs in the mind of the reader reading Vandana Singh’s story on Strange Horizons. I believe this is also the meaning of Inish section with its talk of combinations of people and of unformed meanings. There’s you and there’s Vendana Singh, and the combination results in “A Sky River Sutra”. The crypto-physics stories within the story demonstrate how the reader (Isha, but also the the reader of “A Sky River Sutra”) contributes meaning, or at least interpretation, to an author’s story.

All of this is interesting, or at least I think so, but the story itself doesn’t really work for me. Part of the problem may be I’ve read a lot stories along these lines lately (Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, Kelly Link’s “Magic For Beginners” and “Lull”, and Inception too I suppose) and all of them were longer, more elaborate, more complicated, and ultimately more sophisticated. More seriously, the worldbuilding is essentially non-existent. Isha, Somadeva, and Suryavati feel more like variables in an equation than actual people. No attempt is made to convince the reader that Isha is a real person living in a plausible future (one reference to “memory raid” doesn’t count as worldbuilding), Somadeva’s own context is allocated a few sentences of description, and the cultures Isha visits are, well, teso. I’m sure someone could write a setting where the naming rules of the Inish actually make sense and result in a functioning society, but this story doesn’t do that. Proportionally, “A Sky River Sutra” is devoted almost entirely to its ideas about stories while its actual story remains little more than a schematic.

So: did it work for you? I’ll also point out Singh’s brief remark on the story at her website, and the related earlier story, “Three Tales from Sky River“.

Short Story Club: “The Things”

Here we go, then. For anyone who hasn’t read it yet, the story is here. We start with Rich Horton’s summary in the January Locus:

… Peter Watts offers “The Things”, an immediately significant title, opening with a significant list of characters: Blair, Copper, Childs. The narrator is “being” each of these. It is, in fact, a “Thing”, as in the movie, or, more importantly, John W. Campbell’s classic novella “Who Goes There?” Watts’s story is honest and thought-provoking and chilling in presenting a version of this familiar story from the alien POV.

And Gardner Dozois, in the March issue:

The Janaury 010 Clarkesworld has a strong story by Peter Watts, “The Things”, which retells the story of John W. Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” — twice filmed as The Thing from Another World and The Thing — from the perspective of the alien “monster” against whom the humans are struggling for survival in an isolated winter encampment in Antarctica. Watts does an excellent job of showing a totally alien way of looking at life, turning our understanding of the alien’s motivations for doing what he does on its head. The only potential weak spot is that the story seems to be tied specifically to John Carpenter’s 1982 film version; those who have instead seen Christian Nyby’s 1951 version — which scared the piss out of me as a little kid — may be confused.

Some supplementary links may be in order here: the text of “Who Goes There?” is available online (see also Wikipedia page, and a queer reading of the text by Wendy Pearson). Those in the US can use Hulu to watch The Thing; and Matt Cheney recently linked to an essay by John Lingan about the two films.

Online reactions to the story have mostly been positive. Chad Orzel is not so keen:

My immediate reaction is, basically, “This is the kind of gimmicky crap that annoys me when Neil Gaiman does it, and Watts is no Neil Gaiman.” After a bit more thought, it’s not as bad as that, but it’s far from impressive.

There are two main weaknesses forced on the story by the basic concept. First, I doubt it would make any sense at all to someone who hadn’t seen the movie. […] The second is that the concept requires Watts to basically retcon the goofy biology of the movie alien, which was based on the goofy biology of a John Campbell short story from the pulp magazine era. […]

The other problem is, well, Peter Watts. His stories have a tendency to fail for me because he’s trying way too hard to make clear that this is Serious Literature by piling on unpleasant elements, and banging away on the notion that humans are completely overmatched by the larger universe. Which gets to be a bit much.
[…]
This story is better than some of his other stuff (“The Island” from this year’s Hugo ballot (readable on Watts’s site, for the moment at least) is a prime example, though). Which, ironically, is probably a direct result of the constraints that cause the other problems– he’s stuck working with the movie plot, which holds him back a little. He attempts to make up for it in the last paragraph or so, though.

In among the many fannish reactions on the story, several commenters say that it worked for them without having seen the film; Amanda, for example:

Amazing piece. Really stunning. I’ve never seen the movie, and I don’t need to have for this to be a truly spectacular read.

Actually, not having seen the movie makes this possibly an even better work than it would be otherwise. It reads as though you have an incredible depth of insight into your characters and world and don’t need excessive explanation on them because you know the storyline will be consistent and hold together at the end. Normal stories need to overexplain because the writer is explaining it to himself as he goes along – here you write as though it’s a real world, real situation, and you’re transcribing it without having to apologize for any of it with excessive explanations.

David Hebblethwaite knew the reference, but hasn’t seen the film:

I don’t suppose it’s necessary to know about The Thing to understand ‘The Things’, but it did deepen my appreciation of the story.

So: a research station in Antarctica has been attacked by a creature able to take on the forms of its victims; only two survivors remain at the end of the movie, Childs and MacReady. Watts posits that ‘Childs’ is actually the creature in disguise, and tells his tale from its point of view – and what a beautifully unsettling depiction of a non-human intelligence this is. The creature in ‘The Things’ is no mindless monster, but a highly intelligent being whose awareness is suffused throughout its being, which is what allows it to assimilate others. There’s a certain grandeur, even a kind of nobility, about the way this being presents itself
[…]
the creature becomes a monster to the human characters, because its motivations are as unfathomable to them as theirs are to it.

Ditto Matt Hilliard:

It’s very well-written, but in the end it amounts to an exercise in “from the point of view of a creepy alien, humans are the creepy aliens!” This is a pretty well-trodden path in science fiction. Watts gets points for not taking the easy way out and humanizing his alien narrator. He builds a fairly convincing set of genuinely alien values for the narrator to pursue.

Typically for a short story, though, some intriguing questions are raised but are then abandoned. In what ways are humans similar to cancer? If one grants that a hive mind is desirable, what are the ethics of assimilation? Most people instinctively reject the premises of these, so it would be interesting to see them examined more closely by someone as clever as Watts, but that’s not in the cards here. The narrator mentions these things but spends most of its time piecing together shocking truths of human anatomy that are, well, not very shocking to most readers.

What redeems the story, mostly, from my usual complaints is the last line, which I won’t spoil here. It’s at once a little funny, a little offensive, and a little thought provoking (your mileage may vary on the exact proportions here). One of the comments at Clarkesworld calls it inappropriate and unearned, a criticism Watts then responds to directly. I agree with Watts that it is earned, but I’m not really sure it’s appropriate (I would argue what we’re dealing with here is a lot closer to murder). Still, I like stories that end with a bang, not to mention stories that are thought-provoking, so I was left feeling pretty positive about the whole thing.

Evan also looks at the last line, which is clearly one possible hook for discussion:

The final line signals that we’re not being told the story that we expect we’re being told. We spend the entire story meticulously repicking each pivotal moment of the film, explaining why the missionary isn’t at fault, how the harm it caused all springs from incomprehension. But at the last we see the reversal: the missionary does mean to have us all, to release use from death and our tiny, brutish suffering.

The last line is there to tell us that we’re exploring ‘evil’ from the inside and that while we’re seeing the other side of the story, the interior interperetation is entirely consonant with the exterior.

It’s a neat trick.

I’ll also pull out his conclusion, for comparison to Matt’s:

4: Conclusions

This story more than most is ensnared in nets within nets of meaning, right from the word go. “I am going to rewrite The Thing from the alien’s perspective”, is a simple enough statement. But since the source text for this remix exists in the way it does, you already have threads about cancer and paranoia and our unreliable biology and the feeling that death is hunting us all down one by one anyway, all before you write a single word. The colonialist stinger in the tail adds another layer of difficulty. I guess what I mean here is that I can’t get past the excellence of form and all of the accreted meaning to what Watts is trying to actually say. Which may be nothing, honestly, other than that it’s a fun thing to try and rewrite The Thing from the alien’s perspective.

And now, the floor is open.

Short Story Club 2

Many thanks to everyone who offered suggestions in the earlier discussion — and here’s the schedule. I’m planning to keep the same arrangement as last year: I’ll post a reminder of the week’s story on a Friday, and then a discussion post on a Sunday that rounds up as much comment as I can find (with a link from thist post to the discussion). And since we went in alphabetical order last time, I figure we’ll go in reverse alphabetical order this time.

Without further ado, then:

And there’s a wrap-up discussion here.

Return of the Short Story Club

Yes, by popular demand — or at least occasional request — the short story club will return this autumn. I’m thinking of a slightly shorter run (10 weeks?), and perhaps throwing a classic or two into the mix (but still predominantly considering stories published this year). I even have some idea of which stories I want to discuss, but I want more suggestions, so: what standout stories have you read so far this year?