The Short Story Nominees

I am usually underwhelmed by the Hugo short story nominees. I accept that my tastes are out of step with the pool of Hugo voters, as I am not a big fan of Michael Burstein’s short fiction, and the less said about most of Mike Resnick and Robert J. Sawyer’s previous nominees the better, but the one time I voted in the Hugos I put No Award first as a protest against how uniformly terrible the stories on that year’s ballot were. So it’s pleasing to report that the short stories, while not all great, range from pretty decent to really pretty damn good. Here’s my ranking:

Bottom of my ballot I would put Mike Resnick’s Distant Replay. It’s the best Mike Resnick story I have ever read, and that’s why it wouldn’t end up below No Award, but the appeal of his work remains a total mystery to me. Yet another story about science fiction being used in some way to reunite a man with his love, (in this case, a man meets a young man and woman who are exactly like him and his (dead) wife, and hooks them up), it’s less cloyingly sentimental than usual and has a couple of nice ideas, and that’s about it.

A Small Room in Koboldtown, by Michael Swanwick, is a locked-room mystery noir in a fantasy setting. The internet informs me it’s a universe he’s written in before, and the setting is interesting, but then it uses the fantasy setting to pull a big cheat. I like mysteries, and they work best when they are clever enough that you can’t work out exactly how it was done but all the clues are there. When the resolution of the mystery is a magical solution I couldn’t predict, I feel cheated out of my ending.

Having dispatched with the bottom two, we get to two stalwarts of the UK SF scene who are harder to separate – Ken MacLeod’s Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? and Stephen Baxter’s Last Contact. Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? is space opera from Ken MacLeod, in the same setting as his BSFA-award-winning Lighting Out. Proper hard SF, it has AIs and seedships and lots of future civilizations, I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I expected. I think it could do with being longer, to flesh out the events around the ending, and give us more of the central character. There’s just nothing which particularly grabs me, so I put it at number three.

Last Contact is a very English disaster story – the big SFnal idea is the end of the world, but the story is about two women preparing for the end in Oxfodshire, planting flowers that will never grow and sitting in the garden drinking tea while they wait for the ground to be ripped apart under them. It’s a cosy catastrophe, with a much lower degree of looting and general chaos and anarchy than what I think would actually happen if you announced the world was going to end in six month’s time, but I found it rather charming. I don’t think Baxter quite pulls it off, but it’s in second place for me.

My pick of the short stories is Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline, which is a great example of how a small SF idea can turn into a lovely story. Lovely is the appropriate word, as it’s a heartwarming little tale of a shipwrecked war-machine, alone on a beach mourning her lost compatriots, and the human boy she meets and takes care of. The hints of worldbuilding fit around the well-drawn characters, filling out enough of the background to satisfy but leaving parts of it unknown, and Bear’s prose is probably the best of all the stories, bar maybe the Swanwick. It pulls off beautifully what Last Contact can’t quite do.

So I’d like the Best Short Story Hugo to go to Elizabeth Bear, but I won’t be upset if it goes to MacLeod or Baxter.

Other views:
Abigail Nussbaum mostly agrees with me, but doesn’t like Baxter as much. Nicholas Whyte doesn’t like the MacLeod at all, but agrees with my top pick. Karen Burnham agrees with my top two, but hasn’t read any of the others. John at SF Signal also isn’t fond of the Macleod, and likes the Resnick much more.

Two Reviews Elsewhere

I’m having the good fortune to be going through a period of reading good books, reviews of two of which have recently gone up elsewhere. First: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, at Strange Horizons:
Dreamers of the Day cover

And then every so often comes a reminder that Agnes is dead. The effect of this, which I take to be deliberate, is to break the immersion associated with historical fiction. Agnes’s times are not for us to live in—they are for us to watch (as, later, our times are for her), and to read Dreamers of the Day is to take part in a game of knowingness with Agnes and her author: they know we know they know we know, and so on. So we see Agnes in conversation with Lawrence, and we interpret what is said according to our knowledge; later, Agnes discusses the events with Karl Weilbacher—a German with whom she has struck up a friendship—and he provides his own interpretation, which is then on the table for us to interpret once more. As a formal device for relating the politics of 1921 to those of our times this is elegant and often extraordinarily effective, the more so because the tale is of sufficient complexity—and aware enough of the limits of the possible—that it cannot be summarized as a lesson. (Agnes herself tries and fails at the end of the novel.)

On the basis of this review, yesterday I got involved in an email debate about whether or not a novel with a dead narrator should count as fantasy, which involved mutual incomprehension on both sides. (Although I have the satisfaction of having the author on my side.) For me it’s as simple as saying the narrator’s position is impossible, and that it implies the existence of a secondary (fantastic) world, whether or not the author chooses to explore it. If the author doesn’t choose to explore it, it may not be very satisfying to consider the work in question as fantasy — there may be other, better ways to approach the book — but that doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy. In fact, in Dreamers of the Day Russell does spend some time in the afterlife world, although it’s towards the end of the book, so I didn’t want to talk about it in the review; but even if she hadn’t, my knowledge that the narrator was dead would have made the book a fantasy for me. And that had an effect on my reading experience: for example, it made the moments where Agnes (the narrator) remembers hearing the voice of her dead mother more ambiguous since, after all, Agnes herself proves that communication from beyond the grave is possible.

The second review is of Stephen Baxter’s latest novel, Flood, in the Internet Review of SF; as I understand their subscription options you should be able to access the review for free even if you’re not a subscriber, unless you’ve already looked at an article from the current issue this week. A quote:
Flood cover

In order to make something as slow-moving as climate change storyable, you either need to make your characters live longer, as, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson does in Blue Mars, or you need to make the change shorter and sharper, which is the route Robinson takes in Science in the Capital and the route Baxter takes, to a much greater degree, here. (Of course you can set stories within an ecologically devastated future without deploying either of these strategies, and many writers have; but they then stop being stories about the process of climate change, and become stories about living with it.) The big advantage to Baxter’s strategy is that it tremendously intensifies the problem, particularly in the early stages, creating a crucible within which the dramas caused by a changing environment—mass migration, for one—can play out on a human timescale. Stern currents of class, race, gender, religion and evolutionary biology all swirl through Flood, driving and shaping the drama. (The religious echoes, in particular, are well handled.) But once you’ve introduced that sort of acceleration, if you’re a writer like Baxter you have to follow it through to its conclusion; and in this case that means shifting modes. So Flood skyhooks us into a story that—while still predominantly literal—is stranger and more emblematic than it at first appears.

As this indicates, one of the things that really interests me about the book is how it negotiates between two forms of writing about its subject: the opening is very literal, realistic, climate-change-ish stuff, whereas the later parts of the novel are more extreme and strange. But that’s only the most impressive aspect, for me, of what is quite possibly Baxter’s best novel this decade (Evolution runs it close), and certainly the best new science fiction novel I’ve read so far this year. I’m hoping to organize a Swiftly-style discussion of this book, to look at it in more detail.

2008 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

It may look as if everything is normal, but actually, I’m in Switzerland, where I’ve just had an absurdly early breakfast in anticipation of a long day’s work. But I’ve found time (and some internet) to bring you the shortlist for the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award anyway. (OK, I wrote most of this post at the weekend. But the principle stands.) Am I good to you, or what?

Tom Hunter, Award Administrator, says:

Featuring visions as diverse as a dystopian Cumbria and a future Hackney, time-travel adventures in 1960’s Liverpool and an alternate world British Isles in the throes of terrorist attack, through to tech-noir thrillers and a trawl through subconscious worlds where memories fall prey to metaphysical sharks, the Clarke Award has never been so close to home and relevant to the British literary scene.

The Clarke Award has always been about pushing at the speculative edges of its genre. It’s one possible map amongst many, never the whole territory, and this year’s shortlist stands as both the perfect introduction to the state of modern science fiction writing as well as a first tantalising glimpse of possible futures to come.

And those books? Read on.

Shortlist overviews
Abigail Nussbaum at Strange Horizons
Adam Roberts at Futurismic
Lisa Tuttle in The Times
Steven Shaviro
Tony Keen

A poll

The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter

The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod

Black Man by Richard Morgan

So. Run the numbers. Six novels, five publishers. Four stories set in the future. Three first-time nominees — two debut novels, in fact. One young adult book. What else?

(When everyone in the UK’s woken up, there may well be some discussion here, here and here.)

John Jarrold
Abigail Nussbaum
Paul Raven
The Guardian
Martin Lewis
Jeff VanderMeer

The Siege of Earth

Writing about favourites is always hard. Not — at least for me — because it’s hard to be critical, but because it’s too easy. Writing about something I really like, I often feel somewhat self-conscious, and try to compensate by pointing out all the flaws before anyone does. And when we’re talking about a writer like Stephen Baxter — who started publishing just as I reached the golden age of twelve, who I keep thinking I should try to write about in some vaguely substantive way, and who remains one of my favourite writers — it has to be admitted that there are flaws to be pointed out. Baxter stories are full of passages such as this, from “Last Contact” (in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, ed George Mann). Caitlin is visiting her mother, Maureen; at this point, on the second page of the story, all we know about the larger situation is that Caitlin is about to deliver news about something called the “Big Rip”:

It was just a scrap of lawn really, with a quite nicely stocked border, behind a cottage that was a little more than a hundred years old, in this village on the outskirts of Oxford. “It’s the first time I’ve seen this properly.”

“Well, it’s the first bright day we’ve had. My first spring here.” They walked around the lawn. “It’s not bad. It’s been let to run to seed a bit by Mrs Murdoch. Who was another lonely old widow,” Maureen said.

“You mustn’t think like that.”

“Well, it’s true. This little house is fine for someone on their own, like me, or her. I suppose I’d pass it on to somebody else in the same boat, when I’m done.”

Caitlin was silent at that, silent at the mention of the future.

It’s that last phrase — “silent at the mention of the future” — that grates, a clumsy intrusion into Caitlin’s thoughts. And it seems both unnecessary — we don’t yet know for certain that we’re reading an end-of-the-world story, but we could have made an informed guess without that sort of nudge — and premature. Why not build up the atmosphere of unease just a bit longer?

Baxter’s writing is never going to be lauded as beautiful, exactly (although more often than not he has a good eye for description), and I think this sort of infelicity is part of the reason why — the sort of thing that, even if entirely intentional, looks like it would have been caught and removed if there’d been one more draft. Of course, there are compensations, most commonly the sort of cosmological vistas that almost nobody else is writing right now. Which is why I was so glad to read, and so dazzled by, “The Siege of Earth”. It’s been over year since I read a really mind-expanding Stephen Baxter story — Transcendent, the third of the three novels that make up what is probably Baxter’s most consistently impressive (if somewhat unfortunately named) sequence of novels to date, Destiny’s Children. “A Siege of Earth” is another pure hit of no-apologies, no-compromises science fiction.

It’s the closing story — and the only original story — in Resplendent, a (very) loosely linked collection of short stories which was published as “volume four” of Destiny’s Children. All four books are set in Baxter’s well-established Xeelee universe, a future history in which godlike and eternally-offscreen aliens deliver as thorough a kicking to the idea of a manifest destiny for humanity as you could wish for. Moreover, all four track the fate of humanity over evolutionary timescales, but in truth most of the stories in Resplendent add little to arguments already made in the novels. In particular, many of them read as pendants to the second Destiny’s Children novel, Exultant. Some of the stories explicate events referenced in the novel — as part of a Grand Tour of the solar system, for instance, Exultant’s protagonists visit the site of “Reality Dust”; you don’t need to know that, but if you do the scene in the novel acquires an additional resonance. Most of the stories are also set in roughly the same period as the novel — give or take ten thousand years, and on the scale Baxter’s working to you can give or take ten thousand years quite easily — and share a predominantly militaristic tone. “The Siege of Earth”, though, is a leap forward from the rest of the book, more elegiac in tone, and set almost four times further in the future than its nearest neighbour, “Between Worlds” (AD 27,152). Admittedly this may seem rather inadequate by the standards of something like “The Baryonic Lords”, which capped Baxter’s previous Xeelee collection, Vacuum Diagrams, and which takes place more than four times further into the future again; but it’s still deep enough into time for the solar system to be virtually unrecognisable, and well past the events of Transcendent, noted in Resplendent‘s timeline as “the high water-mark of human destiny”.

Most of Baxter’s Xeelee stories have a specific date attached to them, but the date of “The Siege of Earth” is tidier than most: 1,000,000 AD. Such an ostentatious declaration of futurity can’t be accidental, and nor, surely, are the associations raised by the oh-so-familiar image in the story’s opening line: “The canal cut a perfect line across the flat Martian landscape, arrowing straight for the crimson rim of sun at the horizon.” Not for the last time, the writing trades openly on a presumed familiarity with earlier sfnal visions to gain emotional power. (With a commendably broad scope of reference; one character even says, in so many words, that “Earth got used up”, albeit to an extent far beyond that implied in Firefly.) The three paragraphs immediately following that opening sentence establish the tone of the story more firmly:

Walking along the canal’s bank, Symat was struck by the sheer scale on which people had reshaped the landscape for a purpose — in this case to carry water from Mars’s perpetually warm side to the cold. Of course the whole world was engineered, but terraforming a world was beyond Symat’s imagination, whereas a canal was not.

His mother had always said he had the instincts of an engineer. But it wasn’t likely he would ever get to be an engineer, for this wasn’t an age when people built things. A million years after the first human footsteps had been planted in its ancient soil, Mars was growing silent once more.

Symat was fourteen years old, however, and that was exactly how old the world was to him. And he was unhappy for much more immediate reasons than man’s cosmic destiny. He stumbled on, alone.

Plainspoken these may be, but they achieve an impressive amount nonetheless, taking us with satisfying economy through several different understandings of what the story is going to be about. Depending on the reader, the “Of course” in the first of the above paragraphs is either a slight jolt (how casually such grand work is mentioned!) or an expression of trust (yeah, you know what Mars is going to be like in 1,000,000 AD). The next paragraph swiftly punctures any hopes we might have been harbouring that this is a time of human prosperity: Mars is “growing silent”. But we’re not given time to fully absorb the implications of that, either, because the next paragraph focuses the story down onto Symat, the boy-engineer, and his much more mundane unhappiness. He has, in fact, run away from home.

The first part of the story continues Symat’s exploration of Mars, gradually unpacking some of the other implications of those opening paragraphs. Through his eyes, we start to see a solar system not just engineered (Mars no longer rotates) but prematurely aged (the sun has swollen into a red giant before its time, and has already swallowed Mercury and Venus). The towns and cities through which Symat passes are magnificent but empty. He encounters some other children, and befriends one in particular, a girl called Mela. But none of them are true humans; they’re Virtuals, holographic projections of Mars’s own artificial mind (which is in turn part of a galactic-scale assembly known as the Conclave), created as surrogates by a human race so broken it seems to have forsaken the future altogether. This turns out to be more of a literal truth than we might expect; in fact, it’s another iteration of evolutionary destiny, probably the grimmest anywhere in Destiny’s Children. The forces shaping human development in Coalescent, Exultant, and Transcendent were (loosely) family, war, and religion: here it is ultimate defeat that provides a selection pressure. The humans of “The Siege of Earth” live between the might of the Xeelee on one hand, humanity having become enough of an annoyance that they merit being dealt with permanently, and the inevitability of the sun’s death on the other. “The trap of history”, we are told, “closing in Symat’s lifetime.”

“The Scourge has been continuing now for three hundred thousand years. To the Xeelee the Scourge is a conscious project. To humans it has become our environment.” Mela’s voice was neutral, her words not quite her own, Symat thought. “A steady force applied to a population for long enough becomes a selection pressure. In such an environment those able psychologically to accept the reality of inevitable defeat will prosper. And that is why you are prepared to walk trustingly into the booths, even without knowing what lies beyond. Your ancestors have learned to accept similar bolt-holes without question, far back into your history. You’ve been preadapted to accept the booths for ten thousand generations! Perhaps even that was part of the grand design of the Scourge.”

As evolutionary theory this may not be entirely convincing, even with godlike aliens to help the process along, but it’s a powerful starting point for a story. Of course the reason Symat is the protagonist of the story, it transpires, is that he’s different. He has, as his mother says, the instincts of an engineer, the engineer’s urge to investigate, find out, solve; which is a shorthand way of saying he has the instincts of someone from our own time, that he is someone we can safely identify with in this alien deep time. The very last thing Symat wants to do is walk into a “transfer booth” of uncertain origin, even if it does ostensibly lead to a pocket universe that might be a sanctuary for humanity. (And others: one of the story’s multiple grace notes establishes that booths have also been provided for the solar system’s other indigenous intelligences, such as those identified in Baxter’s 1993 story “The Sun-People”. Another sidebar notes that Saturn’s moon Titan, now warmed by the sun, is finally blooming into life, an idea Baxter spent more time on in his 1996 novel Titan.)

In pursuit of an alternative ending, Symat and Mela embark on their own Tour of the solar system. Revelations come thick and fast, producing repeated shocks of perspective in Symat, and the cumulative effect is powerful, even if some of the surprises are easily enough anticipated by readers familiar with the shape of the Xeelee timeline. There are still some immortals (described, perhaps too cutely, as “Ascendents”) trying to save humanity from the transfer booths. The plan involves saving the Earth, over the course of millennia — although given the state of it, you’d be forgiven for wondering why they’re bothering. The Earth Symat imagines, our Earth, is a “story-book vision”. In reality, “The mountains were worn down”, and “the air seemed thin, supporting only wispy traces of cloud. And though a few cities still glittered, the ground of Earth shone brick red, the red of Mars, of rust and lifelessness.” The ecology is even more radically reconfigured than this suggests, imported alien species gone wild having developed a new balance with the native flora and fauna. Even the gravity has been reduced. It is through such dramatic aftereffects, rather than direct effects, that Baxter most effectively conveys the scope and power of the forces which have worked on the solar system over time.

There is an extent to which a good-sized chunk of Baxter’s recent sf, and certainly a story like “The Siege of Earth”, can be read as grappling with the challenge of personalising cosmic-scale events. Primo Levi’s recent story notwithstanding, a date like “1,000,000 AD” is not meaningless — quite the opposite. Such a great vista of time, so effortlessly stated, is invested with an almost overpowering amount of meaning. The challenge, for a writer, is to draw that meaning out, and shape it into something resembling a readable story. “The Siege of Earth” is arguably not entirely successful, if you object to being told things by fiction: it contains great gobs of backstory to explain the mighty ruins that Symat finds around him, such as the changed Earth noted above, either exposited by other characters, or by the omniscient narrator. What makes it work, I think, is the impersonal tone with which such information — and the story as a whole — is delivered, the casual mentions of immense projects, and the contrast between that tone and Symat’s emotional, excitable reactions.

Ultimately, as you may already suspect, the story’s resolution involves a choice made by Symat that only Symat can make (in flat contradiction of an earlier assertion by Mela that “every important choice was made long ago”). The setup is a black inversion of the robots-poison-Earth dilemma in Asimov’s Robots and Empire: here, the Ascendents know how to save Earth, but like the robots they need to have their solution authorised, and to do that they have to get around a restrictive definition of “human” that prevents them enacting their solution. So, R. Giskard invented the Zeroth Law; and Luru Parz, first Ascendent, spent several millennia selectively breeding herself a throwback human to fool an ancient machine. The whole situation is so extensively and coldly rigged — not to mention fail-safed, since if things don’t go the way Luru wants, she’ll just start again from scratch; she has time, after all — that the only response left to the reader is a kind of bleak awe.

I don’t know of any contemporary writers as skilled at evoking this sort of vertigo of perspective as Baxter, from the cold immensity of Ring to the dizzying well of futurity in Time to the epic sweep of Evolution. Like the vast emptiness that suffuses “The Siege of Earth”, it’s something that can’t be trivialised, can’t be reduced to something within normal human experience by refiguring it as a metaphor; it simply is. It’s the sort of choice that results, Baxter seems to be saying, when you look the universe as it really is in the eye and don’t blink. It’s also a choice that kills Symat. The story, however, lives on: in the last few pages, it becomes apparent that Luru Parz’s vision of an “Old Earth” is one that Baxter has already started exploring. A sequence of stories beginning with “PeriAndry’s Quest” (2004) has explored a world encased in a pit of spacetime that isolates it from the universe outside, where time runs faster the higher you climb — an extraordinarly resonant setting for all sorts of stories. Symat’s choice is where “The Siege of Earth” ends, where Resplendent ends, where Destiny’s Children ends; but not where the story ends. We’re only in 1,000,000 AD, after all. There’s plenty of time left on the clock yet.