Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Limited Edition’ by Tim Maughan – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

with 15 comments

‘Limited Edition’ was originally published in Arc 1.3: Afterparty Overdrive

The BSFA Award is open to all types of speculative fiction but, given its full title, it is pleasing to see some actual science fiction about Britain on the shortlist rather than, say, supernatural Victoriana.

“GRIIDS PUT YOUR SPEX OOOONN,” Melody screams again. Echoes.
“I GOT NO CREDIT,” replies Grids.
“WHAAAT?”
“NO CREDIIIIIIT.”
“Jesus fam, nuff shouting,” mumbles College.

‘Limited Edition’ is, of all the things to be nominated for an award in 2013, a cyberpunk story. Reading it, I was surprised how much missed what the subgenre spoke to and how timely and relevant is occasional outbreaks remain. I was also reminded of my review of another one of those outbreaks, Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:

Amongst many aphorisms, Gibson is famous for suggesting that the future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. This is a great soundbite but is really just another way of saying that wealth is not evenly distributed. If the social safety net seems tenuous in the late 21st Century Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis of the Sprawl then it is virtually non-existent in the early 21st Century Johannesburg of Moxyland.

We all live within a system that exists solely to unevenly distribute wealth. Even when a technology itself is universal, the rich will always get more for less. In a genre so often obsessed with the exceptional, Beukes and Maughan know that most people will be losers and their story is just as important to tell. You might call this Pay As You Go SF.

The story opens with an advert, an advert for limited edition trainers, “serious nice kicks” endorsed by Eugene Sureshot and due to be released in ten days. Grids finds out that the trainers are already in storage at his local retail park in Bristol and organises a smash and grab. Since this is the future, he uses the Smash/Grab server to both anonymously co-ordinate and gameify the raid.

So ‘Limited Edition’ is situated in obvious response to the 2011 riots in England but perhaps more importantly in response to the response. There are a few broad stabs at political satire such as a reference to the 2014 Anti-terrorism, Illegal Protest, Sporting Events-Related Violence and Retail-Slash-Enterprise Zone Security And Management Act but generally (and more successfully than that clunker) Maughan takes a street-level approach. It is an attempt to sympathetically imagine what life will be like in the near future for kids like those who took part in the riots and much more science fiction should be trying something similar.

Some is. His peers, as I see it, are Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross since their fiction so often shows the dirty interaction between nerd-rapture tech meeting humanity. Which is not to say their writing itself is similar – a comparison between the kids of ‘Limited Edition’ and those of Little Brother leaves is just embarrassing for Doctorow. But comparing them to the twenty and thirty somethings of Rule 34 is less comforting for Maughan. It is unfair to compare the scope of a novel to that of a short story but Stross revels in the economic and class complexity of world whereas Maughan is pretty wobbly outside of the immediate social strata he is interested it. At one point Grids wonders about the followers piggybacking his feed and it stands as a wider comment on the story:

Who knows who they are? Bored office workers, slum kids, stockbrokers, fashionistas, online griefers, lazy journalists, housewives, angry Daily Mail readers.

Never mind the journalists, this is a pretty lazy list. It also points to a tension in the story: Maughan rightly deplores the casual contempt of the term chav but is happy to indulge in his own broad stereotyping. The story is punctuated by tweets providing commentary on the events that are unfolding and the negative ones come from people with names like WhiteVanStan, F1 Fan and ManU4eva. The dichotomy of meathead sports fans versus the cool kid gamers doesn’t sit easily with the aim of the story to look beyond labels to individuals. In fact, given the unwieldy title of that imaginary 2014 legislation, Maughan should be making common cause between the two groups. The other group associated with negative comments are women or girls with names like KattyKins13 and xxKayleighxx. This is even more uncomfortable, particularly when set against Melody:

She screw-faces, and he feels embarrassed again, because she looks cute when she does. Not bimbo, high-street, wannabe-gamer cute, but smart, confident. And cute. He kinda likes her, but he’s known her for time. Since they were little. Plus her mum would kill him.

That is Grids in full girl next door crush mode. Not only does this reduce Maughan to clichés, it also reinforces the sense of dividing people up into categories; I’m sure he doesn’t believe in the existence of fake geek girls but he is leading himself down that path. This partisan deployment of sympathies is most clearly seen in Grids himself. Why does he Smash/Grab? The story’s first answer is ego: “Nothing scares him like the insignificance.” The second and perhaps more disingenuous answer comes at the very end when we discover he is the surrogate rather to his two younger siblings:

It’s the last of the few quid he made by trading in some of his points on the Smash/Grab server. Meaning his ranking has taken a major kicking, but it’s all good if it means he can feed everyone for a few days.

So nicking a pair of trainers is literally equivalent to stealing a loaf of bread. This big rhetorical land grab and not one Maughan backs up, tying in with Niall Alexander’s point that there is “a sense of tension between what is right outside the story, and what is true within its narrow, claustrophobic confines.” It also gives the lie to an earlier protestation:

Grids ain’t no sociologist, but he’s pretty sure that’s not how a community is meant to work. And even if it is then he’s not part of it, because he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider.

Grids is pay as you go crew: not in the game but not out of it either. To return to Gibson, saying the street finds its own use for things is another way of saying the losers of capitalism will always subvert it for their own gain. In this sense, it is a shame that globalisation rose to prominence as a concept (and counter-concept) just as cyberpunk started to decline. It is to Maughan’s credit that he explicitly aligns the two since they are such obvious bedfellows but unfortunately the lack of depth with which he explores the issues is also a weakness of the story.

Just before they arrive at the sportswear shop, it is tagged with a QR code by a political activist who is dragged off sharpish by the police. The code links to a video clip of the sweatshop conditions in which the Eugene Sureshots are made. Grids views the clip and has an epiphany which leads to him torching rather than stealing the trainers:

“If you’ve seen what’s playing on my stream yeah, then you know why I’m going to do this. This is for them yeah, them girls. For all the kids. For all the kids that can’t come down here and do what we do. This is for them cos it’s their world now.”

Not massively convincing. A quote like that wouldn’t look out of place in a Doctorow novel and I imagine that is the last thing Maughan wants. Things like this take the edge off the passages that really give the story its power:

Whenever there’s any trouble with youth in places like this the timelines erupt with opinions, people angry and shouting, saying why are people like him making trouble and tearing up their own community. He shakes his head and laughs to himself. Community? There’s no community down here – it’s nowhere, a non-place.

That power remains though, expressed through prose alternating between the limber and the abrasive. ‘Limited Edition’ has far more vitality, verve and curiosity than the previous three stories on the shortlist and I hope Maughan will continue to immerse himself deeper into the poetry and politics of his work.

Written by Martin

25 March 2013 at 22:11

15 Responses

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  1. It’s probably a massive faux-pas to comment, but fuck it:

    ‘Grids views the clip and has an epiphany which leads to him torching rather than stealing the trainers’

    Actually he doesn’t. He pretends to, so he can torch all the trainers apart from the pair he’s already wearing – meaning nobody else gets any. I probably made it far too subtle, which I regret now as it’s kind of the whole point of the story, but it’s there in the final paragraph.

    Tim Maughan

    25 March 2013 at 23:51

  2. Yeah Tim, I was going to comment on just that point :)

    Peter Hollo (@frogworth)

    26 March 2013 at 01:25

  3. I wrote a section that followed immediately on from the epiphany section that began: “Perhaps more plausibly (but logistically tricky) he keeps one pair of kicks for himself, swinging immediately back from altruism to ego.” But I couldn’t make that fit with the review and I didn’t see it as the point of the story. Maybe I misread this bit:

    He’s pissed off plenty of people with his little stunt. Melody bought it, he thinks – in fact she even seemed a little impressed… As for the Lawrence Hill crew – well, best he keep a low profile round the codes for while, unless he wants to get jacked.

    Given that the crew who risked limb and liberty for nowt, I’d say Grids is more likely to get murked. And I can’t imagine Melody being impressed that he kept a pair for himself and not her. So I have to read the story as a) the ‘stunt’ being the torching rather than the sleight of hand and it being a genuine act (the clip obviously resonates with him when he views it for the first time) and b) talk of wearing the Sureshots on the street is just bullshit and that actually he’ll be trapped in the flat with them. I prefer my reading to your one, Tim ;)

    Martin

    26 March 2013 at 08:06

  4. “I probably made it far too subtle, which I regret now as it’s kind of the whole point of the story, but it’s there in the final paragraph.”

    Just for the record, Tim, I read it precisely thus, and would deem your regret entirely unnecessary. But I very much enjoyed this piece, Martin – a thought-provoking review of an interesting story. Thanks for blogging the shortlist – great stuff.

    nina allan

    26 March 2013 at 08:58

  5. Real quick re the “rhetorical land grab”: the background to that has GOT to be the 2011 riots & the huge ugly insistence that came drooling up out of the wordwork that this violence was APOLITICAL; well-intentioned liberals (“just goes to show how our materialist, consumer culture ACK ACK ACK”) & well-intentioned radicals (“why can’t they go smash & burn in the City where it would count”) inadvertently taking sides with delightfully-intentioned Middle England (“why are the greedy feral scum drinking the champagne?”) etc. So against THAT background, the identification of nicking some kicks with nicking a loaf of bread feels to me totally convincing, in a way that I don’t think it would have in 2010. Not sure why. Maybe it is a land grab, but it’s a land grab on behalf of the disempowered and dispossessed (dispossessed of symbolic capital, if you like) in a situation where no legitimate claims to that territory are permissible. I guess I just came to distrust almost every style of , especially those operating in a moral register. (BTW that may have some bearing on the broad brush / categories point … stereotyping is obviously deplorable in the abstract, or as a regulative principle of any social order, but it is also a real characteristic of spasms of mass social antagonism: when everyone is spinning around trying to work out what bloc(s) you should glom on to, it may feel like some of the subtler & rarefied aspects of your identity burn away; there is often a greater reliance on shibboleths, energy & time are compressed, & these quasi-allegorical barrow wights like xxKayleighxx & WhiteVanStan shoot up out of the tarmac, ready to give you a make-over in their image if try to be overly subtle about who you are come some crunch point. Which is not to say that I totally disagree with that drift, but maybe that’s why the story works so well, not just despite it but because of it).

    Also: maybe I’m just paranoid, but (& despite the somewhat streamlined (& maybe Doctorowesque?) epiphanic Sweatshop Spectacle (I didn’t read it as a fake epiphany so much as a real epiphany qualified by a dose of pragmatism)) … Limited Edition seemed like the most totally pessimistic cyberpunk story I’ve ever read. Right? Gamification & corporate monetisation (as marketing) of almost the most spontaneous kind of dissent imaginable, with a real knowing, cynical hollowness about the feelgood bits at the end, whether or not you think Grids kept the kicks?

    Not that cynicism itself is some kind of badge of honour …

    Anyways!

    Obviously Grids should sell those shoes IMMEDIATELY …

    Jo

    barackobamasuicidebomber

    26 March 2013 at 12:20

  6. Durr left that thought unwritten… something like, “I grew to distrust every style of attacking the riots as lamentable, especially if conducted in a moral register.”

    barackobamasuicidebomber

    26 March 2013 at 12:59

  7. I’m totally with you on being deeply suspicious of the political and moral criticism levelled at the rioters, I’m just not sure that means that political and moral criticism isn’t possible. WhiteVanStan is wrong but maybe Grids is wrong too and I think the story is too quick to shield him from that possibility. But I guess the point here is that Maughan is shifting the Overton window – that the response to the riots was so extreme that you need to push really hard in the opposite direction just to reframe the debate.

    ‘Limited Edition’ is certainly pessimistic but I’m not sure it is any more pessimistic than any other story set in the near future needs to be. I don’t actually get a cynical vibe from Maughan’s fiction which might be one of the reasons I found the final act unsatisfying. Grids fucks his friends over for the shoes but I don’t detect much in the way of hollowness there.

    Martin

    26 March 2013 at 14:58

  8. Back again – faux-pas round 2:

    “It also points to a tension in the story: Maughan rightly deplores the casual contempt of the term chav but is happy to indulge in his own broad stereotyping. The story is punctuated by tweets providing commentary on the events that are unfolding and the negative ones come from people with names like WhiteVanStan, F1 Fan and ManU4eva.”

    I’m pretty sure I wasn’t indulging in stereotyping – I was just attempting to describe Twitter. Which, to be fair, may well be the same thing…but the aim is not to suggest these people are worthless stereotypes, but that social networking encourages a kind of angry, disconnected, fleeting mob rule (or, just as equally from the left, what Evgeny Morozov describes as ‘slacktivism’, which I see play out every day in the form of people believing they can achieve social justice by shouting at complete strangers) and reduces US ALL to stereotypes. Twitter is a place where people sign up to have themselves reduced to a stereotype – a profile pic, a username and 140 characters. It’s where, as Adam Curtis likes to point out, people have their emotions, opinions and identities willingly reduced into bite-sized content to fuel consumer networks. Hopefully my writing isn’t so cack-handed that it’s unclear that this was also the point I was trying to make with Smash/Grab and the gamification of looting and political protest.

    (Maybe Curtis and Morozov are overly-obvious sources, but their analysis is under-represented in SF, where too often the mantra of the cyber-utopains is repeated by people like Doctorow. Plus I enjoy their stuff).

    It is very easy due to the way twitter works to fall into a comfort zone of friends and followers – when you get out of that and have a look around it can be shockingly two-dimensional, reductive and alienating. During the 2011 riots I spent days trawling through #UKriots reading what people had said (and actually prior to that substantial time reading Baby P groups on Facebook, which I do hope some academic somewhere was also doing).

    BTW: cheers for this Martin, it’s a hugely stimulating review and it’s nice to have a chance to actually discuss the nitty-gritty of my work.

    Tim Maughan

    26 March 2013 at 19:31

  9. social networking… reduces US ALL to stereotypes. Twitter is a place where people sign up to have themselves reduced to a stereotype.

    Completely. But if this is universal and WhiteVanStan, Grids and me are all liable to fall into the same traps on Twitter, it doesn’t get us past the fact the only people seen to fall into the trap are branded in a particular way and with particular social signifies. I don’t believe showing Grids partaking in Smash/Grab is equivalent to showing WhiteVanStan tweeting “Little chav kids kicking off at Avonmeads!” One story is told from the inside, in detail and with sympathy, the other lacks all three qualities; this gap is my problem.

    I’d go so far as to suggest you don’t even need to embed the tweets in the story achieve to achieve the same effect because the resonance with the 2011 riots is so strong (then again, that connection will seem less obvious as time passes. But since they are embedded, I do think you could make them less loaded.

    (I wouldn’t say Morovoz and Curtis are overly-obvious sources, I might say they are too strongly attracted to narrative explanations which is something I might also say about ‘Limited Edition’.)

    Martin

    26 March 2013 at 20:36

  10. ‘Completely. But if this is universal and WhiteVanStan, Grids and me are all liable to fall into the same traps on Twitter, it doesn’t get us past the fact the only people seen to fall into the trap are branded in a particular way and with particular social signifies. I don’t believe showing Grids partaking in Smash/Grab is equivalent to showing WhiteVanStan tweeting “Little chav kids kicking off at Avonmeads!” One story is told from the inside, in detail and with sympathy, the other lacks all three qualities; this gap is my problem.’

    Okay, that’s interesting.

    I’m also not convinced the two stories are equivalent. The first involves serious criminal damage and very real ramifications (at least one ‘innocent’ person is in fear of losing their job/benefits as a result, although partly due to their own actions) and the other is a throw-away comment on a social network that trades in throw-away comments. Does that story require further sympathy or exploration? Perhaps. But it’s not an act that makes headlines or incites outrage, and it’s also representative of a barely questioned mainstream/media narrative and I don’t know if this was the space to sympathise with that yet again? The telling of the same story from a van driver getting lunch’s POV would have been interesting, especially for an SF piece. But it was a commissioned short story and obvious restrictions applied. Interestingly, one of my first-readers (a writer who’s opinion I value greatly) felt that the portrayal of the security guard was *too* sympathetic. I didn’t change it, however.

    Tim Maughan

    26 March 2013 at 21:33

  11. I’m interested by the suggestion that this story is ‘cyberpunk’, as that’s not a label that occurred to me. Rather, this seemed to me simply near future SF. Is there a difference? Near future SF which focusses on the climate catastrophe could well have just as many spex and twitter references – is it the urban / underclass subject that makes it cyberpubnk?

    Duncan Lawie (@lawiedc)

    27 March 2013 at 06:55

  12. [...] A semi-satire on consumerism burden with crap portmanteaus and handled better in the margins of ‘Limited Edition’. [...]

  13. Tim: The telling of the same story from a van driver getting lunch’s POV would have been interesting, especially for an SF piece. But it was a commissioned short story and obvious restrictions applied.

    Luckily no such restrictions apply to critics! I should, of course, point out that there is a sympathetic depcition of a white van man in the story: the security guard.

    Duncan: I’m interested by the suggestion that this story is ‘cyberpunk’, as that’s not a label that occurred to me. Rather, this seemed to me simply near future SF. Is there a difference?

    I think there is a difference. You’d never mistake, say, The Cahullan Army for cyberpunk. so you can knock out dystopias as well as disasters, apocalypses and collapses. So the setting and protagonists are important and I can see a clear line leading straight back to the original cyberpunk stories; this is quite rare, I think – you wouldn’t call Rule 34 cyberpunk. But then cyberpunk is a tricky beast.

    Martin

    27 March 2013 at 10:37

  14. Would the van driver’s perspective truly be “interesting”? Surely we can all just read the Daily Mail?

    Cel

    2 April 2013 at 17:31

  15. [...] interesting but flawed stories and three stories that were beneath consideration. Of the former, ‘Limited Edition’ was the most interesting and least flawed and got my first vote but this novella got my second [...]


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