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A double apology. Firstly, I should have congratulated Nina Allan for winning the BSFA Award for Short Fiction with Spin when the awards were announced. Secondly, I should have reviewed the novella but – as with Ian Sales’s BSFA Award-winning novella last year – I failed to get round to it. I was reminded of this by Daniel Libris’s recent review so go and read that then go and buy Allan’s book.

Congratulations to all the other winners and commisserations to the others on the short fiction award shortlist:

Written by Martin

30 April 2014 at 10:43

Posted in awards, sf, short stories

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‘Saga’s Children’ by EJ Swift – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Saga’s Children’ was originally published in The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013)

You will have heard of our mother, the astronaut Saga Wärmedal. She is famous, and she is infamous. Her face, instantly recognizable, appears against lists of extraordinary feats, firsts and lasts and onlys. There are the pronounced cheekbones, the long jaw, that pale hair cropped close to the head. In formal portraits she looks enigmatic, but in images caught unaware – perhaps at some function, talking to the Administrator of the CSSA or the Moon Colony Premier; in situations, in fact, where we might imagine she would feel out of place – she is animated, smiling. In those pictures, it is possible to glimpse the feted adventurer who traversed the asteroid belt without navigational aid.

So that is Saga. Speaking – collectively – are her three children, carelessly conceived and then left behind as she followed the path of her career across the solar system. The story narrates an unexpected but ambiguous end to their estrangement which is abruptly curtailed by Saga’s death.

‘Saga’s Children’ is a short, attractive story but one which I found gave me very little purchase as a reader. So I outsourced my critical faculties to Niall Harrison who suggested that rather beginning at the beginning, I start at the end. The children close their story with a mantra: “They are looking for something. They are prepared to spend a lifetime looking.” The context is a metaphor, a description of Russian women searched for their purged ancestors (“With every winter, a new layer of ice crystals hardens over the tundra, fusing and compacting upon what lies below, sealing the mass graves forever”) that stands in for the children’s own search for their mother, a Saga beyond the image. It is a longing they have previously projected onto their fathers – “we imagine, he lived out his life awaiting Saga’s return. He waited a long time.”; “his father moved to Mars, we imagine, to search for Saga. He searched a long time.” – when again they are really talking about themselves.

This does suggest two routes into the story. Is Saga a satisfying locus for this longing? And is the affect of this longing sufficient to satisfy the reader?

The first question might seem trivial or even pointless. After all, does the object of longing really matter when it is the affect that is important? And if it does, surely longing for a mother is deep and universal feeling? But I think it is worth considering since the story is built around Saga. (At first I was going to say around her abscence but then I started to think of her more as a black hole, distorting the psychic space-time around her.) The contradiction, of course, is that the whole point of the story is that Saga is not only unknown but unknowable. Our narrators the children can never get beyond the image and so neither can we. But Saga is too much of an image for me, too much of a placeholder for the rest of the story to define itself against. I do not get a sense of the real woman underneath, only her traits. All other lives are ultimately unknowable but that doesn’t mean they are unintelligble.

That brings us to the second question (which, if anything, is even more subjective) since because Saga’s traits are exceptional she moves from being merely a cipher into something approaching a saint. The whole story is couched in a mythic tone: the scale of the stage, the size of the deeds, the ineffability of the universe. This tone is well-pitched but it is still slightly overdone for my taste. A personal tragedy is not a small thing but perhaps it is not so large either. So that final sentence probably is the barometer of the story. For me, the futile, eternal longing it evokes is too grand.

Written by Martin

7 February 2014 at 12:16

Non-Hugo Awards – Art

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Right, the shortlists for the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies are out and they are looking pretty good. As with last year, I’ll be reviewing the nominated short stories and I’d love you to join me. But first – and again, as last year – the art categories.

BSFA Award For Best Artwork

1) Poster for Metropolis by Kevin Tong

Met_LArge2

One of my nominees, courtesy of a tip-off from Liz Batty. As Tong says, it is inspired by Russian Constructivist design, a highly appealing style in its own right and a good thematic match for the film. But what I like best is Maria’s robot doppelganger emerging from the background and then surging past her.

2) Cover for Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-fi

Ballantyne-DreamLondon[7]

Hi-Fi was my number vote for last year’s award but he lost out to Black Sheep’s cover for Jack Glass. I’m going to be controversial and say 2013 wasn’t – by his high standards – a great year for him (although I’ll still be nominating him for the Hugos). His vote was split three ways for this award and though this is my favourite of the three, it likes the impact of some of his other work. I like the composition but from the condensed landmarks to the splashes of red on a black and white background, it all feels a bit familiar.

3) ‘The Angel At The Heart Of The Rain’ by Richard Wagner

angel

Unlike last year, there are no outright stinkers on the shortlist (which is only three works long) but this is pretty duff. It illustrates a story entitled ‘The Angel At The Heart Of The Rain’ by Aliette de Bodard and so cunningly depicts an angel at the heart of some rain. It has the cheap, flat look of much CGI art and the reflection in the window particularly draws attention to this. The only interesting thing about the work is that it places the viewer in the position of a worshiper. No bad enough to warrant No Award, this still can’t win.

The Inky Tentacle

Unlike the BSFA Awards, I don’t get a vote for this. If I did, it would go to the cover for Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema by Amazing15:

pirate_cinemahomeland

But wait, what’s this? It has been shortlisted as a single entry with their cover for Doctorow’s Homeland. Boo, I say. On principle, I’m opposed to this and it smacks of lazy judging but perhaps more importantly, it shackles a great image to an average one. Pirate Cinema is a crisp, clever visual pun of the type that made the cover for Mira Grant’s Feed so effective; Homeland is just pastiche. In contrast to these clean designs, next up are two riotous covers:

dreams_and_shadowsapocalypse now now

There are similarities to the pair but, for me, the cover for C Robert Cargill’s Dreams And Shadows by Sinem Erkas edges out that for Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now by (that man again) Joey Hi-Fi. Its unified colour scheme makes the weirdness of the detailed illustration that bit more macabre, a portal into the book itself. Hi-Fi, in contrast, splatters the book all over the cover but without including much in the way of his trademark touches. The strong shadow on the central characters face is halfway there but really, this could be a lot of other people. And what are those at the top? Tentacles? Blatant award bait! By this point, I think it is fair to say that the judges are fans of colour blocking:

strayage_atomic

I go back and forth on the cover for Monica Hesse’s Stray by Gianmarco Magnani. I like the fact it deliberately signals a different tradition of design and I love the cropping of the image. At the same time, the image itself isn’t anythign to write home about it is all slightly anemic. It summons up ennui rather than teenage angst. Finally, there us the cover for Adam Christopher’s The Age Atomic by Will Staehle probably is a good guide to the contents but really all you can say about it is that it is green. I don’t think it has much of a place on a shortlist that already contains the Amazing15 covers.

Written by Martin

29 January 2014 at 21:17

Posted in art, awards, sf

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Second Best Is Pretty Good

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The Hugo shortlists were announced on Saturday and, if not utter twaddle, they are still pretty bad. On a personal level, I think four things I nominated made the ballot (yay, Strange Horizons!). When it comes to the actual voting, I suspect I will probably be using No Award quite liberally. But judiciously. God knows there are stupid things about the Hugos but Aidan Moher is completely right that the primary problem is not the process but the voters. So I’m going to try to be the best voter I can.

The winners of the BSFA Awards were announced the day after the Hugos. They look good in their own right but even better in comparison. Which is not to say that any of my choices actually won.

Best Novel went to Adam Roberts for Jack Glass. Obviously, my first vote went to Empty Space by M John Harrison but I’m very pleased to see Roberts win an award. As, I imagine, is he. When the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award is announced later this week, I expect Jack Glass to be on it (if not, blame me).

Best Short Fiction went to ‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales. This year’s shortlist contained three 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 slot. However, I’ll expect his next story in the series, ‘The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself’, to go further.

Best Artwork went to Black Sheep for Jack Glass. I discussed the shortlist at length when it was announced and I was obviously hoping for a Joey Hi-Fi win. Since that was not to be, I’m glad Jack Glass pulled off the double.

Best Non-Fiction went to the World SF Blog, adding to their Kitschie from last month. This is funny category and one I where I naturally gravitate towards a discrete work. So this was the only category where my second choice didn’t win. My first choice was Paul Kincaid’s ‘The Widening Gyre which crystallised some of my own thoughts and framed the most important debate of last year for me. Second place went to Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; I have my problems with the book but it is long overdue.

Written by Martin

2 April 2013 at 18:37

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‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books, 2012)
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Stranded on the moon, a group of American astronauts watch with horror as the Cold War turns hot and the Earth begins to tear itself apart. Painfully aware that reserves of food and good will are running low, they begin experimenting with a new technology in the hope that it will somehow allow them to find a new home.

First in a series of four self-published novellas, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains offers an unusual but compelling combination of immaculately researched hard sf and literary fiction. Central to the book’s strangeness is that, despite drawing on two very different literary traditions to tell his story, Sales makes no attempt to integrate the prose styles associated with these traditions. This collision of styles results in a series of arresting passages where beautifully formed and intensely poetic images loom up unexpectedly from a fog of numbers and acronyms. Initially quite unsettling, this discordant style proves highly effective once Sales begins exploring similar tensions within his characters. By juxtaposing the inhuman and technical elements of hard sf with the humanistic and lyrical elements of literary fiction, Sales suggests that his characters may well be burying themselves in the technical aspects of their jobs in order to escape from feelings which, though perfectly human, have no place amidst the square-jawed heroism of the American space programme. This ambivalent attitude towards the character of Apollo-era astronauts also provides the basis for an unflinchingly brutal assault on the myth of the ‘right stuff’. In fact, it is hard not to think of science fictional archetypes like Robert Heinlein’s Capable Man when Sales takes all the machismo and patriotism of a Sixties astronaut and forces it to decay into a hideous radioactive sludge of pride, resentment and petulant sentimentality.

Though packed with invention and fleeting displays of true literary grace, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains is a somewhat unbalanced piece of writing. For example, while the experimental juxtaposition of different prose styles is successful on the whole, Sales does occasionally lose himself in technical detail, resulting in readers having to pick their way through needlessly dense thickets of acronym-studded exposition. This sense of imbalance is also evident in his tendency to lavish attention on world building while expecting readers to fill in the gaps when it comes to characterisation. Particularly annoying is the way that Sales ends the book with both a bibliography and a potted history of his fictional space programme when those pages might have been better put to better use unpacking the human elements of the story. Thankfully, though undoubtedly a source of frustration, these imbalances prove relatively unproblematic when weighed against the scope of Sales’s ambition and the adroitness of his execution. The Apollo Quartet promises much but in order to deliver on this promise Sales must learn to trust his instincts as a literary stylist as the muse of technological correctness is only holding him back.

This review originally appeared in Vector #271.

Written by Martin

28 March 2013 at 15:44

‘3 Moments Of An Explosion’ by China Miéville – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘3 Moments Of An Explosion’ was originally published on Rejectamentalist Manifesto.

China Miéville bestrides the genre stage like a colossal sentient oil rig. He’s been shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Novel four times (winning for The City & The City) and ‘Covehithe’ was on the Best Short Fiction shortlist last year. That’s in addition to his Hugo, World Fantasy Award, three Clarke Awards and seven Locus Awards. You often get the impression that he could publish his shopping list and it would be up for a major award. Which is pretty much what has happened here – Rejectamentalist Manifesto is Miéville’s blog. The items on his shopping list are:

  1. A semi-satire on consumerism burden with crap portmanteaus and handled better in the margins of ‘Limited Edition’.
  2. A wannabe gonzo interstitial story that only reachs goofy and literalises the technology/drug metaphor of ‘Immersion’ to no greater effect than the metaphor.
  3. A smoke beast urban horror as pointless as Lost and as under-nourished as ‘The Flight Of Ravens’

You can read it as a compressed novel but I’m more inclined read it in the same was as ‘The Song Of The Body Cartographer’: as a nothing. Still, it is better than ‘4 Final Orpheuses’. But then again, ‘better’ is a useless concept when it comes to these blog posts. Putting this story on an award shortlist seems rather like compiling M John Harrison’s blog posts into a How To Be A Writer book.

Written by Martin

27 March 2013 at 10:18

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

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‘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

‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ was originally published in Philippine Genre Stories

We first see Siren and Inyanna as lovers. Siren explores Inyanna’s body – different to ours – before the scene tastefully dissolves to orgasm. We next see them as doctor and patient. Siren is the body cartographer of the title and the genetic engineering that took place whilst Inyanna was in the womb was not entirely successful. Specifically she cannot bond to her pillor’ak, a flying Pern-beast. Both women are citizens of the Matriarchy which is currently in negotiations with the Patriarchy so this failure of flight takes on a political dimension.

So ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is telling three stories – a romance, a drama and a political thriller – but Loenen-Ruiz does not have room to tell one.

When Siren and Inyanna first meet their relationship is medical, when we first meet them it is erotic, when we leave them it is true love. None of the steps in-between are depicted, leaving the relationship weightless. To fix the genetic mess that Siren uncovers, Inyanna has to be stripped back so far that her personality will be altered and their love lost. The story ends with Siren whispering “goodbye, my Only” but it is impossible for this to have any emotional force.

Instead, most of the story is devoted to sketching out bits of this ribofunk world (I was reminded of Paolo Tadini Bacigalupi’s much richer and successful ‘The Fluted Girl’). An origin story of their culture is repeated second hand through a series of canvases Siren’s, an interesting device but not one I found very illuminating. Nothing much is made of the importance of the pillor’ak despite the radical transformation required to ride them. Similarly, Siren and Inyanna are of different classes but similar status so it is pretty much irrelevant. I suspect Loenen-Ruiz has a deeper culture in her head than she has placed on the page.

This is most noticeable in the political dimension. Very little is said of their relationship with the Patriarchy and for the majority of the story I assumed it was just a background note that – like the romance – was there to give a flimsy story a bit more heft. At the end, however, it suddenly becomes clear that Inyanna has become the victim of espionage and that she is not the only one. The scope of the story is blown open and it becomes instead a first chapter. Niall Alexander agrees with this assessment and points out that it really is an extract from a novel in progress. Siren assures us she will get on the case off the page: “She would study the grids in the quiet, and hopefully she would find some clue that would point her towards whoever was behind these crimes.” Well, one day the reader will actually get that story.

Finally, I think I need to mention the title. Siren is the body cartographer so Loenen-Ruiz is explicitly evoking the song of the siren but to what possible intend? The only possible reading I can make of this is that Siren is the saboteur but that seems utterly unsupported by the text. Is it just there, as with the relationship itself, to add a bit of gold leaf in an attempt to make the story look more valuable than it is?

Written by Martin

24 March 2013 at 09:39

‘The Flight Of The Ravens’ by Chris Butler – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘The Flight Of The Ravens’ was originally published by Immersion Press.

The house looked abandoned; there were no lights showing in the windows. “What do you mean? Let’s go?”
He shook his head. “There’s something familiar, something I recognise.”
“what are you talking about? It’s just an empty house. Let’s go.”
He stepped forward and pushed at the front door.
It swung open.

Dun dun DUN! I immediately felt slightly bad for my reaction to Butler’s hackneyed opening to his story since the monster that inevitably lurks inside this haunted house is evoked with some nicely weird touches. “He had hardly eaten these last weeks, trying to weaken himself” we are told and, when the adventurous children creep into his house, he angrily smashes a garlic clove into fragments, “inhaling their pungent aroma” in an attempt to regain control of his body. But no, my first instinct was correct; ‘The Flight Of Ravens’ is gothic tripe of a the most familiar type. Our monster portentously tells the children: “You should not have come here.” Dun dun DUN!

Of the two children, Bernard dies and Elizabeth lives. Ten years pass in which she devotes herself to learning magic, a surprisingly easy business, to protect herself. In this she is encouraged by Bernard’s father, Huginn. For no particular reason, Huginn really is Huginn, one of Odin’s ravens in human form. A connection is eventually revealed since the murderous monster is a man possessed by a fire jötnar. This is unnecessary for the plot and the coincidence of two supernatural creatures from Norse mythology bumping into each other in 19th Century Amsterdam is hugely off-putting.

This setting allows Butler to play dress up, historical drag standing in for the what elsewhere in the genre would be torrential worldbuilding. So, for example: “Elizabeth rode away on her bicycle, her most-prized possession. It had been manufactured locally by Simplex, which set it apart from the more common imports from England.” There is no reason for the story to contain this sentence. It is there to try and convey veracity trhough detail which would be a bogus enterprise, even if the lot of the details weren’t incorrect. To ensure the reader gets their money’s worth of time tourism, Butler throws in several pointless meetings with Freud. Apparently he thinks Elizabeth has psychological problem rather than really being the victim of a malevolent supernatural evil. Crazy!

Pages turn, time passes. As Niall Alexander says:

At almost 100 pages long, with 25 short chapters, several narrative perspectives, three time periods and scenes taking place from Frankfurt to Amsterdam—not to mention Vienna — Chris Butler’s novella has markedly more opportunity to (ahem) spread its wings than any of this year’s nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story trophy… yet it lacks the impact of even the least of these.

Eventually we get to the end and the plot is tied up neatly at little cost. The monster (half-heartedly humanised) perishes in one final cliche: “In a matter of seconds her aged the remainder of his five centuries, and crumbled to ashes.” This is the point in a Hammer horror film where ‘The End?’ would appear before the credits. Instead, Butler or Immersion has chosen ‘Fin’. Oh dear.

Written by Martin

23 March 2013 at 11:59

‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Immersion’ was originally published in Clarkesworld #69

‘Immersion’ is a neat, symmetrical story that sets out its moral clearly at the end:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Quy lives on Longevity Station, a minority culture economically reliant on tourism from the majority culture of the Galactics. She speaks Rong which suggests Himalayan ethnicity origins but the specifics are less important than the fundamental power relationship of minority-majority. Agnes is from the same culture as Quy but has left it behind, along with her original name, to become a Galactic. The technology of the immerser allows her to discard her past far more comprehensively than is possible for us though.

Immersers were invented by the Galactics to act as holographic translators, changing not just words but appearance and gesture. Agnes used hers to more rapidly assimilate into the culture of the Galactics. However, she became addicted to it, without it she would die but with it she is unable to function and exists in a state approaching catatonia. This is mirrored in Que’s half of the narrative where there is a suggestion that she escaped a similar fate but still suffers from depression as a result (which explains but doesn’t improve the flat prose).

So distrust of technology is firmly embedded in the story. Virtual reality as drug is a well-established metaphor and the clichés of one transfer easily to the other. Similarly, well-established is the idea that digital cannot compete with analogue in terms of veracity. So, for example, we have Quy watching spaceships form the docks of the station:

She could, of course, have been anywhere on Longevity Station, and requested the feed from the network to be patched to her router—and watched, superimposed on her field of vision, the slow dance of ships slipping into their pod cradles like births watched in reverse. But there was something about standing on the spaceport’s concourse—a feeling of closeness that she just couldn’t replicate by standing in Golden Carp Gardens or Azure Dragon Temple.

Beyond this, there is a sense that the technology is impure. Quy “actually would have been glad to never put on an immerser again—she hated the feeling they gave her, the vague sensation of the system rooting around in her brain to find the best body cues to give her.” The body horror she feels is echoed in the way she describes her culture being invaded: “a unison of foreigners descending on the station like a plague of centipedes or leeches”.

It is a complacent and overly familiar treatment of technology and one that is reflected in the glibness of the plot. Agnes is saved from mental incarceration simply by Quy saying “you have to take it off”. Doctors have been unable to do anything for Agnes but have not had Quy’s internal self-knowledge and personal connection. So spiritualism is prioritised over science and all sorts of bullshit short, sharp shock theories of the treatment of addiction are validated.

This glibness is matched by the closing moral that I quoted at the beginning which is a shame because it detracts from the more interesting depiction of the unequal relationships between the two cultures. The reason Agnes has returned to Longevity is because her husband is trying to dredge up he

Quy thought of the banquet; of the food on the tables, of Galen thinking it would remind Agnes of home. Of how, in the end, it was doomed to fail, because everything would be filtered through the immerser, leaving Agnes with nothing but an exotic feast of unfamiliar flavours.

It is an excellently pointed use of the word “exotic”. Despite what Quy says, Agnes does magically achieve this conceptual breakthrough. I might not like this fact but it is beautifully expressed:

Her avatar is but a thin layer, and you can see her beneath it: a round, moon-shaped face with skin the colour of cinammon—no, not spices, not chocolate, but simply a colour you’ve seen all your life.

Written by Martin

21 March 2013 at 14:29

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