Story Notes 2

Apologies for the quietude around these parts at the moment; I’m going through another busy period at work. I actually have a fair few posts in the half-written or draft-that-needs-polishing stage, though, and hopefully I’ll get some of them up next week. In the meantime, have some more brief short fiction reviews.

“Greenland” by Chris Beckett (IZ 218)
A bleak story, and one which both revisits a familiar Beckett theme (identity) as well as extending into new territory, in that (as he notes in the story’s introduction) it’s one of his few tales to feature climate change as a significant background element. A solidly rendered sub-tropical Oxford is the primary location, with a dystopic background in which “Old Brits” defend the borders of their country with machine guns on the beaches. The narrator, Juan, is a refugee from a fractured Spain, and early in the story he loses his menial job at Magdalen college due to competition from newer — for which read “cheaper” — immigrants. In order to make ends meet, Juan takes up an ostensibly friendly professor’s offer of participation in an experiment for cash. But the bleakest aspect of the story is the depiction of Juan’s dysfunctional relationship with another immigrant, a French graduate called Suzanne; both have been damaged and deformed by the un-person treatment they receive from the population around them, despite the fact that immigrants now represent the majority of the population. When Juan tells Suzanne that he has a way to perhaps make enough money to get them to Greenland (a fabled refuge), her thought is not of the potential risk to him, her eyes just light up. “Here,” Juan thinks, “was the evidence of how much poverty and fear and hopelessness had coarsened and corrupted her. But I was coarsened and corrupted too.” The experiment itself turns out to be a less mundane kind of science fiction, although in Beckett’s hands it doesn’t feel incongruous, and it provides Beckett the opportunity to make some strong points about the moral value of any kind of sentence. In that, the story of Beckett’s which it most closely echoes is “Karel’s Prayer”, though it is to my mind the more effective of the two pieces; worth reading for its detail, and for the cumulative power of its voice.

“Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan (IZ 215)
Charles Stross with the lobsters filed off. This is a story about evolving AI by darwinian selection — crab-shaped AI with control of their own physiology, in fact — and the ethical pitfalls thereof. As with Beckett’s story, in fact, the deeply felt and convincingly articulated ethical concern for other forms of sentience is one of the most satisfying aspects of the story. It comes in this story from the author, not the protagonist; Daniel Cliff thinks himself not an unkind god, just one who is prepared to make some sacrifices, cause some suffering, to promote the development of the kind of intelligence he wants. The story accelerates nicely, in a “Sandkings” direction, with some welcome flashes of wit (how Daniel made his money, for instance, or what the crabs find when they reach their simulated moon), and an ending that is apt, if not completely satisfying.

“Traitor” by M. Rickert (F&SF, May)
I don’t know, you wait years for an M. Rickert science fiction story, and then … this is another near-future piece and, as with “Bread and Bombs” and “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (a) it derives quite a lot of its power from revealing exactly how the world in which it is set has changed from our own time, (b) the change is dystopic in nature, and (c) the viewpoint of a child is central. Where “Traitor” goes further than either of the others is the elliptical manner in which the world is described; a scene in which a mother and daughter visit an ice-cream parlour verges on true surrealism, and a several-page digression into another story (another familiar Rickert trick, admittedly) successfully obscures precisely how the relationship between that mother and daughter is developing until the final page of the story. I have to admit that I found “Traitor” a bit less organic than the best of Rickert’s stories, but it still achieves a commendable intensity.

“Shad’s Mess” by Alex Irvine (Postscripts 15)
Irvine strikes me above all as a competent writer; everything in his stories always fits together with a pleasing clockwork deftness. This one is about a blue-collar teleport repairman who, after a somewhat grisly transporter malfunction, gets sued by some Christian missionaries and starts seeing something he refers to as the Entropy Gremlin. You might think that the satiric/fantastic elements wouldn’t mesh with the down-to-Earth grubby space life aspects, yet they do. What it lacks, perhaps, is the ability to inspire a particularly strong emotional or intellectual connection in the reader; I’m left with a sense that as well-executed as it is, it’s a story that doesn’t add up to much more than the description I’ve just given it.

“Africa” by Karen Fishler (IZ 217)
I’ve enjoyed Fishler’s previous Interzone stories, and I enjoyed “Africa”; like the majority of modern Interzone‘s stories, it seems to me, it aspires to craft rather than innovation, but like Irvine’s story it is a good, solid piece, even if that means I’m damning it with faint praise. The set-up is this: at some point in the future, humanity is expelled from Earth by an alien race, probably (though I don’t think it is explicitly specified) for incompetent planetary stewardship, bound never to return or indeed to land on any other planet. A barrier was constructed around the Earth, with a station that travels on its surface to meet and interrogate any intruders; it is manned by long-lived Guardians, although their numbers have dwindled such that there are now only two of them, Tomeer and his clone-father. A ship approaches, which also appears to be carrying only two people, this time a daughter and her natural father, who is dying. The daughter, Ainkia, tells Tomeer that they are all that is left of Expelled humanity, the rest having died of age and sadness. Youthful, innocent Tomeer is touched by her request to bury her father in the Earth’s soil, but his father is less than impressed by the idea. What’s most satisfying about “Africa” is that, though hardly action-packed, it never feels as though it is treading water – indeed, as usual with Fishler the character relationships are well defined, such that when the inevitable hard choices come (and this is where it scores slightly over “Shad’s Mess”) they mean something. It is not an extraordinary story; but it is an admirable one.

Story Notes 1

I’ve not been reading that much short fiction this year but, with an eye to being a half-way informed voted by the time Hugo nominations roll around, I’ve started to play catch-up. I’m going to try to post brief notes on what I’ve been reading every other week or so; and I’m going to dot around as the mood takes me, so don’t expect reviews of complete issues or anthologies.

Fellow Traveller” by Hari Kunzru
Collecting” by Zhu Wen
A Matter of Timing” by Bernadine Evaristo
(The Guardian, August-October)

The three entries so far in the Guardian’s “China Reflected” relay of stories, which alternates contributions by Western and Chinese writers, riffing off each others’ ideas and themes. Kunzru’s “Fellow Traveller”, probably the best of the three, is a gently comic piece in which a Western traveller finds himself a guest at a hotel on the summit of “Queer Stone Mountain” without quite remembering how or why he got there. By day he goes for aimless walks along misty paths, takes photographs of what he sees, and finds himself harassed by talking pandas who object to his choice of subjects:

“Many things to take pictures in China. Bridge over Yellow River. New Beijing Stadium. Development in autonomous regions. Three Gorges Damn.”

“It’s just a house.”

“House never just house, when photo taken by imperialist lackey.”

The hotel bartender is contemptuous: they’re throwbacks, she says, wishing it was the Cultural Revolution all over again. Gradually the narrator acclimates to his situation, without ever full understanding it. Zhu Wen’s short essay picks up on the idea of pandas as a Chinese national treasure (“Serve Chinese people by harness power of childlike feature, soft two-colour fur and pretending we about to have sex,” they say in Kunzru’s story. “We play major role in cold war”), and describes differing attitudes to collecting and cultural preservation in Britain and China, among other things reframing the tale of the communist party’s use of last emperor of China, Aisin Gioro Puyi, as a form of collecting.

Bernadine Evaristo’s story in turn picks up on the idea of individuals as cultural treasures, and satirically imagines a museum in a near-ish future China which presents, among other things, an “Exhibition of Britain”. Features include his former Royal Highness, King Charles III (“forced to wear, at all times, a heavy ermine cape and a rather tacky papier-mache-crown”), an ex-Beefeater held up as a “typical, everyday Englishman”, as well as more traditional treasures such as the Domesday Book, the statue of Eros from Piccadilly Circus, and a reconstructed Stonehenge. So the targets never really move beyond the obvious, but the story doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the pointed final image offers a welcome counterbalancing seriousness.

“[a ghost samba]” by Ian McDonald (Postscripts 15).
Not, so far as I noticed, directly connected to Brasyl, but set in the same country and making use of the same basic sfnal concept, this is as story narrated by a 40-something music obsessive who tracks down the only copy of a young prodigy’s second album (said prodigy having died in a fire) and then obsesses about completing it. At times it reminded me of both Stephen Baxter’s “The Twelfth Album” and Alastair Reynolds’ “Everlasting”. It’s probably a better story than either of them; arguably less sfnally ambitious, but as you’d expect, McDonald writes extremely well about the sound and sensation of music, and that’s what gives this tale its force.

Glass” by Daryl Gregory (Technology Review, November/December)
The problem with “Glass” is that it’s too short – not that much longer than one of Nature’s Futures – although whether that problem originates with constraints of the venue or with Gregory I couldn’t tell you. The story is constructed as another neurobiological thought experiment, a la “Second Person, Present Tense” or “Dead Horse Point”, except that this time there’s a literal experiment involved: a trial of a new drug that stimulates mirror neruons. Dr Alycia Liddell is administering the drug to a small group of convicted criminals — sociopaths — with the hypothesis that it will provoke empathy. That she finds herself having to talk one patient out of a violent confrontation turns out to be evidence of a not entirely anticipated kind of success; and although that confrontation is tense and focused, and the story has a vicious final turn, there’s an an inescapable sense that it ends just when it should be getting started.

“An Honest Day’s Work” by Margo Lanagan (The Starry Rift)
I enjoyed this a lot; although there’s a serious story at its heart, I think this is one of Lanagan’s more playful stories (at least compared to the likes of “The Goosle”). It also happens to be the third story I’ve read this year – after Adam Roberts’ Swiftly and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Sense and Sensibility” – that riffs on the idea of humaniform life on a different scale. The narrator, a disabled boy, lives in a coastal village whose economy is built around capturing and carving up giant human-like creatures. The story deals with one such event and, even without the obvious resonance of the central image, provides plenty of opportunity for Lanagan to showcase her imaginative reach with characteristic vividness.

“Arkfall” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF, September)
This is a story with a very interesting background – indeed, the story seems to exist in large part to allow the ecology and culture of the setting, a waterworld with the rather unconvincing name of Ben, which in the process of being terraformed, to be described. But the story itself is flat and predictable. After an accident, three characters – Okaji, one of the waterworld’s inhabitants, her mother, and an uber-obnocious Heinleinian go-getter with the unironic and stunningly hackneyed nickname of “Scrappin’ Jack” – are trapped together in one of the living vessels that contribute to the terraforming process. Okaji, and the culture from which she comes, are everything that Jack is not – in his terms, passive and introverted; though they seem actually to function perfectly well on their own terms, even if their habit of referring to each other in the third person grates after a while – and so, unsurprisingly, the two come into conflict. The simplistic nature of their interactions is intensely frustrating, as is the fact that one of the key events in their journey – they discover an undersea alien city, which admittedly is quite spectacular – apparently requires us to believe that the terraforming project was initiated before a thorough survey of the planet was carried out; and the conclusion is, as I said, is predictable. To nobody’s surprise, Okaji and Jack gradually iron out their differences and bond, their plight being resolved when Jack has a “Bennish” idea and Okaji admits her urge to explore for exploration’s sake. I’ve rather enjoyed other stories by Gilman, particularly her earlier novella “Candle in a Bottle”, so this was a real disappointment.