Story notes, assortments #2

A variety of stories read over a long period of time from a variety of sources.

The Girls in their Summer Dresses, Irwin Shaw. Michael and Frances are a young married couple in New York City, and in many respects they’re a sweet duo. They make romantic plans, they joke and banter easily. But Michael cannot stop looking at other women and Frances cannot ignore it. Even when she brings it up he does not stop; when she tells him how it makes her feel he hushes and soothes her. Their plans deteriorate. They drink brandy at a bar. Michael is honest and lays out why he looks at women: he wants them, all of them. He even admits he might make a move on another woman. Forlorn, Frances asks if Michael will at least keep his opinions to himself, and he agrees. They attempt to move on with their plans for the day, but a coldness has settled over their relationship.

Nothing so much happens in this story, but over the course of a short walk and a conversation we see a sweet relationship irreparably fractured, essentially by a man who has a flaw and decides to combine honesty and inflexibility rather than, say, attempt to rein himself in, or at least respect his wife’s feelings. The way he also ogles his wife in the final paragraph, eyeing up her legs as she walks away from him, speaks volumes.

The Black Cat, Edgar Allen Poe. Am I alone in finding this story… funny? Not in a sociopathic “ha ha he killed his wife” manner, but because the story lacks much emotional register from its protagonist – who, it must be emphasised, murders his wife in what we are told is a sudden fit of drunken rage – but is simultaneously told in Poe’s routinely overwrought Wo! Alas! style.

The Venus Effect, Violet Allen. I really, really like this story’s playfulness, its perspectives, its iteration through a succession of miniature narratives, the way it discusses the crafting of narrative between each tale. Successive impacts & the story’s overall force are delivered in the way each component narrative is brought to a sharp and brutal end.

I was actually slightly underwhelmed by the final ending on first read, but thinking back on it I think the open-ended appearance of it is suitably undermined by everything which has come before. I missed this story on publication in 2016 and I’m actually slightly surprised to learn that it didn’t win any awards that year, and was not obviously shortlisted for any either (source: googling for a few minutes).

The Blue Hotel, Stephen Crane. Three guys stay at a hotel, and it goes really badly for one of them. It’s everybody’s fault.

Okay, okay, there’s more to this story than that! It’s an entertaining tale of a Nebraskan hotel that’s well-maintained by its owner, who is obsessed with ensuring that no one can say they weren’t treated well at his establishment. I paraphrase, but his words are along the lines of ‘no one can say’ rather than ‘no one would be’. Anyway, one of the visitors is prone to acting out on the basis of paranoia and fear, and whilst the owner mollifies him for a time with whiskey, he only delays and exacerbates the culmination of his behaviour by reinforcing it with braggadocio.

Fun story that deftly illustrates how nothing occurs in isolation, that any incident is contextualised by what preceded it, and that people ought to consider responsibility differently to how the judicial system does. The law does not and cannot encompass the complexity of human interrelationships.

The Beast in the Jungle, Henry James. I was not a fan of Henry James whilst studying literature in my late teens and early twenties, and it was with substantial reservations that I came to this story. I remembered James’ prose being sufficiently dense and meandering – studded with caveats and ornament, a clause here and a clause there – that retaining the thread required substantial effort. He’s a writer whose stories unfold slowly and at an unhurried own pace, is another way of putting it, and perhaps I’ve always been a little too impatient for that.

Well, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ has not disabused me of that opinion, but I do like the way this story unfolds over many years to tell its unusual tale of loss. Its concept resonates, and the dialogue is more engaging than the chewy blocks of narration. I feel it is overlong, but an advantage of that length is the way it helps reinforce its central theme, and allows time for awareness to bloom for the reader – if not the protagonist.

Story notes, assortments #1

A variety of stories read over a long period of time from a variety of sources. Actually includes some non-genre stories for once…

Shit Flower, Anil Menon. One of the most interesting and entertaining stories I’ve read in ages, and it is for the most part a story about shit. Yep, the artificial intelligences running Mumbai’s sewer systems have told each other a bad joke and now the city is overflowing with shit. The people in a position to stop this are Simon, an Indian-naturalised Canadian mathematician, and Ada, a senior official in the city’s waste management department. Simon is old now, but long before had consulted on the creation of those sewage AIs. Ada, young and exploring a total identity transplant, reaches out to him to combat the problem.

This story feels casually polymathic, roving across mathematics, heterogeneity in social stability, history, cross-linguistic jokes and so on, with a conclusion that is warm and welcoming of interpretation. Hindu reincarnation? SFnal identity injection? Why not both, or neither?

Absolutely a story to come back to, and Anil Menon is an author I also now need to revisit.

Abeokuta52, Wole Talabi. This story tells of the “Abeokuta 52” scandal from the point of view of Bidemi Akindele. Akindele’s mother was one of the first responders to an extraterrestrial impact near the Nigerian city of Abeokuta, and of these responders 52 were diagnosed with severe pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer. All subsequently died.

In the ten years since the impact, Nigeria has grown prosperous by exploiting alien technology recovered from the impact site, whilst Akindele and other activists campaign for justice for those who died in defiance of official policy: “forget the past and embrace the future in silence”. The story is structured like a message board thread and begins with a copy-paste Guardian article by Akindele; the story developers in the comments that follow. These messages deftly expand and continue the story, driving toward a dark conclusion of collusion and greed.

The story reminded me of the grim end of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine in the mid-90s, or indeed the fates of many activists around the world who sought justice in the face of authoritarian government and extractive big business.

Exhalation, Ted Chiang. My first read of this multiple award-winning story. Set within a pocket universe surrounded by walls of impenetrable chromium and populated by sophisticated mechanical beings, who breathe pressurised argon extracted from an underground reservoir. These beings are sentient and sapient but in composition more similar to the clockwork automata of past futurities and the vacuum tubes of early computing than, say, the ‘positronic men’ of contemporary SF.

The protagonist is a scientist who speaks of two things: firstly the ongoing effort by its people to understand the inner working of their own brains, and secondly a succession of strange events where town criers reading precisely timed speeches are unexpectedly cut off by the ringing of bells before reaching their conclusion. The protagonist performs an act of self-dissection, believing these events are linked, and discovers a great truth.

This story essentially makes a modern fable of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, explaining it by way of air pressure rather than energy exchange. Its phlegmatic acceptance of the inevitable, its lifting of its gaze outwards and forwards, its exhortations that pondering existence and finding common ground with the Other of a future that is impossible to know, are effective and deeply SFnal.

The Necklace, Guy de Maupassant. A “pretty and charming” girl born into a minor bourgeois family is married off to a minor government official. She is tormented by a feeling of entitlement: that her poor home and single servant are less than she is due, whilst she dreams of grand ornaments and armed footmen and vast rooms in a sprawling home, built for a life of idle leisure.

When M. and Mme. Loisel are invited to the home of a senior minister her husband is shocked that she is resentful, having little idea of her feelings, but turns over the money he has been saving so that she may buy a new dress, and suggests she borrows a necklace from a wealthy friend. With dress and necklace in place Mme. Loisel is able to enjoy the party, but on their return home she realises the necklace is lost. Visiting the jeweller they believe sold it, they are horrified to discover a replacement will cost 36,000 francs. By borrowing from multiple lenders and exhausting a bequest from M. Loisel’s father they are able to pay and spend the next decade living hand-to-mouth as they repay their debts. Subsequently, Mme. Loisel tells the friend from whom she borrowed the necklace what happened. Her friend is stunned, and tells her that the necklace was an imitation, worth a tiny fraction of what they paid.

The story obviously depends greatly on that brutal, ironic closing twist. It is difficult to be sympathetic with Mme. Loisel, entitled and dissatisfied as she is, but even so skewed a character doesn’t warrant the loss of ten years of life. Still, the point here is that she is brought low by her own character flaw.

Story notes, Interzone #287

Tim Lees, Night Town of Mars. A boy, not popular among his peers at school, has a fondness and respect for his uncle, an eccentric prone to expounding weird ideas and arguments. One Summer the boy insists that he go to stay with his uncle and aunt – it’s preferable to Scouts. Whilst there he learns of a crude plot by local worthies to un-home his uncle, who apparently is no more popular among his peers than the boy is among his. And at nights he begins to experience another place that is like but unlike his relatives’ home atop a hill, looking down upon the nearby town.

I’ve enjoyed Tim Lees’ work in the past but the only story of his I’ve read in the last few years, Soldiers Things, felt a little slight. This I enjoyed more: Lees has a knack for juxtaposing the strange and the homely, horror and humour, eccentricity and the banal. The scenes in the other world are a lot of fun and echo Alice in Wonderland (an over-used reference point, but hush for I rarely draw upon it) whilst the scenes in our reality are almost as fun. The ending drags on a little, but it works well enough.

Eugenia Triantafyllou, Those We Serve. A group of ‘artificials’ serve seasonal tourists at a beautiful island resort, but their status as artificials is a closely-guarded secret. The artificials are programmed never to reveal their nature – they experience pain and compulsions if an internal watchdog senses the possibility of revelation – and the secret has been kept for a long time. The artificials are copies of humans who, long ago, vanished beneath the seas to a hidden city. Our protagonist is one such artificial who loves – but perhaps cannot acknowledge this to himself – a woman he recognises both from the memories of the man he is based upon, and from his own memories of her annual visits to the island.

I really liked this story. It does a great job of presenting the churning conflict beneath icy calm for the protagonist, the probing questions of the tourist he loves and who, perhaps, recognises something of what he is and what his existence means. It is also evocative of the lives of those working in the hospitality sector – of exploitation and secrets and callousness behind the smiles that greet transient visitors.

John Possidente, The Transport of Bodies. Another returning Interzone writer, Possidente wrote Dead Man’s Coffee, which was previously reviewed on this blog. Er, I also found that story enjoyable but slight – a snapshot of a world, a vignette in a life. This story takes place in the same setting, perhaps featuring the same protagonist (I don’t remember and would need to check, but I believe both are freelance journalists). I think it functions a little better as a standalone, perhaps because it’s almost a self-contained murder mystery – although the mystery unfolds in a character’s monologue rather than under probing investigation. Of course, there’s always the chance there is more to a story…

Val Nolan, Make America Great Again. Nolan’s Cyberstar was a great lead story in another recent issue of Interzone. In contrast to that tale of a far future solar system and a religious cult’s bizarre plans, this is set in the ugly and violent today of America, with its resurgent fascism, vigilante violence toward protestors, and racist cops. It’s also about a WW2 soldier who disappeared and who returns, perplexed at how the Nazis he fought have also returned.

I’ll be honest: I was excited to read this story but it did not work for me. It engages with intense and vital events and issues, but doesn’t engage with any of the structural, material or socio-political conditions that underpin them. Rather, it engages with a mythic concept of what “makes America great” that I found banal, and is obsessed with the purity and heroism of mythic figures from the past, which I also found banal. Its climax also suggests that although things are bad there are mysterious aliens – parental figures, if you will – who are prepared to nudge events to ensure the ‘right’ timeline occurs. But maybe it’s all just a story. And maybe America is just a story. And maybe if you tell the right story, and get the right person into power, things will get better. For me, this produced a conclusion hopelessly out of touch with the dysfunction, decline and sadism of the contemporary USA.

Story notes, BSFA Awards 2019

This was a periodical sent out by the BSFA for members to review before voting in the 2019 BSFA Awards, although sadly – living overseas as I do – it arrived after the Awards had been awarded.

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. A bunch of astronauts travelling through space in suspended animation wake up and we see some glimpses of their characters. The narrator muses on the nature of space travel and the experience thereof, and on the history that has led to their journey, in a missive home that may take fourteen years to arrive. It concludes with an underdeveloped idea of crowdfunded space travel, born of frustration with, one supposes, states and private industry, though one wonders who administered and utilised the crowdfunds to make all this happen, and what infrastructure all that rested upon?

The conclusion that the narrator’s journey is the result of “a fragile endeavour that can only stand thanks to the contributions of many” is momentarily stirring, but I can’t say I found the idea of people donating to an Escape To Space, I Don’t Want To Live On This Planet Any More patreon a bit lacking in substance. There’s so little of the concept presented here that it feels like clicktivism, where some people threw what money they could at a problem and somehow money was magically transformed into a space program.

So: I didn’t care for what was in the magazine I was sent. But then I realised it’s about 6 pages of a 136 page novella. Ohhhh. The contents page does identify it as an extract, but the text itself doesn’t. Well, I’ve not read Chambers’ work since her debut, so perhaps I should – although not on the strength of this excerpt, which doesn’t work as a standalone at all.

Fiona Moore, Jolene. I greatly enjoyed this story when I originally read it and I still liked it a lot on re-reading. See my original thoughts in my review of Interzone #283.

Gareth Powell, Ragged Alice. Another excerpt, thought fortunately I was already aware of what Ragged Alice is so wasn’t taken by surprise this time. This extract does do a solid job of setting up the story and leaving me wanting more, and whilst it also doesn’t completely work as a standalone it does at least function as an episodic slice of something larger, ending on a delicious cliffhanger. Powell also consistently delivers good character work and that talent is on display here.

A side note: this is a contemporary police procedural with supernatural elements, and an extract from a 200-page short novel. Maybe it does fit within the strict definition of a novella but I’m bemused as to why this was up for a BSFA Short Fiction award. I did like it, though.

Tade Thompson, The Survival of Molly Southborne. Another extract from another novella. Did no one read any short stories this year? Is the short story form dead? Are we doomed to only read novellas in future?

I don’t know the answers to such questions, but I do know that the idea of a woman whose spilled blood forms rapidly-growing psychopathic and homicidal clones of herself is a great conceit for a story, and all the more so when the story is told from the point of view of one of those clones.

This also doesn’t work as a standalone and the extract ends a little aimlessly, but the concept alone has me interested in reading more.

Ian Whates, For Your Own Good. Another short story! At last!

Our narrator’s consciousness is segueing between a beautiful and calm Mediterranean environment, and sitting in his car which is clearly malfunctioning. Distressed, he tries to understand what is going on, and eventually engages his car’s AI in dialogue. It explains to him what is happening, and why. The protagonist is, literally, a passenger along for the ride.

It’s a respectable execution of a spin on a hoary SF trope, but the passivity of the story and the unsurprising way it unfolds did not leave me feeling it was among the best British short SF of last year.

Amal Eh-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War. Another extract from a short novel – at 200 pages it’s as long as the novel I’m currently reading, Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation – but due to the back-and-forth nature of the story’s structure of letters and vignettes, it works better than most of the others.

There are some striking images here rich with SFnal invention, and the relationship between ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ is intriguing, although this doesn’t stand alone as anything more than an advertisement for the larger work. As with pretty much all the other ‘novella’ extracts, however, I was left wanting to read more.

This extract, or the book it is from, ultimately won the short fiction category, which I think is a respectable choice, despite my suspicion that a 200 page book is going to run to well past 40,000 words. Ah well. I didn’t nominate or vote in the awards, so why be pedantic? At least I have some more novellas and novels to read now. 😉