Everything Is Nice

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

‘The Silver Wind’ by Nina Allan – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

with 14 comments

‘The Silver Wind’ was originally published in Interzone #233

I reviewed Nina Allan’s first short story collection, A Thread Of Truth for Strange Horizons in 2009. In the course of doing so, I identified some of the characteristics of an archetypal Allan story: “It focuses on failed, grudging and inexplicable relationships. It takes a keen interest in geography (rural, urban, and liminal). Observations are often precise and clinical. Above all it is a story that suggests rather than insists… the ineffable burns throughout the collection.” I’ve not read any of her work since so I wondered how much ‘The Silver Wind’ would continue this pattern. Well, the geography is certainly there in the opening paragraph:

Shooter’s Hill had a rough reputation. The reforestation policy had returned the place to its original state, and the tract of woodland between Blackheath and Woolwich was now as dense and extensive as it had once been in the years and centuries before the first industrial revolution. The woods were rife with carjackers and highwaymen, and scarcely a week went by without reports of some new atrocity. The situation had become so serious that there were moves in parliament to reinstate the death penalty for highway robbery as it had already been reinstated for high treason. During the course of certain conversations I noticed that local people had taken to calling Oxleas Woods by its old name, the Hanging Wood, although no hangings had occurred there as yet. At least not officially.

Otherwise this seems more like traditional science fiction than I’ve come expect from Allan. We are in the future, society has presumably undergone some form of collapse and we are soon told that this is linked to the election of a government of British Nationalists. The fascist near-future dystopia is familiar territory so I was interested to see what Allan would do with it. The answer is to confuse it with a typical and dilute it with a detached protagonist:

It sounds insane to say it, but I had never really questioned the world I lived in. I remembered the hung parliaments, the power shortages, the forced deportations of the millions of blacks and Asians from the city ghettos to the vast factory ships built to transport them to the so-called ‘home-states’ of Nigeria, Botswana and the near-uninhabitable wastelands of the exhausted Niger delta.

Martin, an estate agent, has withdraw from the world following the death of his wife but as that quote shows, he was never particularly engaged to begin with. A chance encounter in the course of a sale leads him to become obsessed with Owen Andrews, the inventor of the Silver Wind of the title, a “mechanical time-stabliser” that acts as a tourbillion for reality. The introduction of this fantastic device reveals Allan’s focus and sidelines the SF setting.

The concept, as with the rest of the story, is laid out methodically by our extremely dull narrator. Unfortunately, for the majority of ‘The Silver Wind’ I was bored and unengaged, it large part because we receive the story through the filter of a boring and unengaged narrator. For example, when Martin meets Andrews for the first time he reports that: “His force of personality was tangible. I thought he was probably the most extraordinary man I had ever met.” It isn’t at all tangible to the reader. This is one of several points where our narrator directly informs us of feelings that we are unable to intuit from the text itself. The prose is similarly blank. In previous stories, Allan’s writing has been clinical but forensically incisive; here it is merely prosaic. This is one of the most descriptive passages in the novel:

He took me through to a room at the back. The room was steeped in books, so many of them that the ochre-coloured wallpaper that lined the room showed though only in oddly-spaced random patches. Glazed double doors overlooked a narrow strip of garden. A set of library steps on castors stood close to one wall.

Now, there is nothing wrong with it but it hardly sparks the imagination. Martin is a grey man in a colourless world and I found little intellectually to hold my interest in the absence of anything more visceral. It is only after much treading of water that the story bows to the inevitable and Martin utilises the Silver Wind. When this happens, he slides into another timestream, chaotic and troubled but no longer fascis. “What I saw and felt and observed was a change not in substance but in emphasis.” He effortlessly integrates himself into this new world which already contains a hole for him (his Oyster and bank cards both work). The ease of this transition becomes faintly ludicrous when he decides on a whim to set himself up as a clock salesman and soon has a “lucrative little business”. Martin simply glides through life.

And there the story ends, as always, without insistence. Is the reader supposed to compare the two timestreams? To contemplate the concept? To empathise with Martin’s personal journey? Allan – through Martin – has given me little to gain any purchase on.

The story was collected in a book of the same title with four linked “stories of time disrupted”. In her review of The Silver Wind for Strange Horizons, Sofia Samatar suggests that the story is best read in the context of the collection:

This means that The Silver Wind as a whole is quite different from the sum of its parts. The first three stories were published previously, but they cannot have been read separately in the same way that they are read together, with their uncanny resonances. It would be like reading a single one of the twelve novels that make up Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: you might enjoy the story, but without reading more of the books you wouldn’t understand Powell’s use of repetition, coincidence, and change.

This was echoed by Niall Harrison on the Strange Horizons blog:

The only one of the five that I’d previously read was “The Silver Wind” — the most overtly and conventionally fantastic, in that it starts in an alternate universe and features a protagonist who learns to cross to another timestream, and published in Interzone earlier this year — and it gains immensely from its context in this book.

Does it work on its own? What do you think?

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Written by Martin

6 February 2012 at 09:06

14 Responses

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  1. Paul Kincaid, who has read The Silver Wind collection whereas I have not, has said precisely the same thing about ‘The Silver Wind’ story, that it works better in the context of the collection than as a stand-alone story. I was very disappointed with the story as I’d liked the other stories of hers that I’d read and was hoping for something interesting. Precise and clinical had shifted to flat and rather dull. I was reading along, hoping for the sparking moment and it never really came. I was troubled too by the ease of transition between worlds and, in many ways, the pointlessness of it all, never mind the ease (and indeed, the inconsistency – his bank account and Oyster card work but his flat is no longer his own; a convenient hand-waving moment to ensure funding but at the same time set him on a slightly different road).

    I’ve tried to turn this story around in my mind and admire it as an exercise in trying to imagine how the world seems from the point of view of a dull and boring character, but it stumbles inevitably because of that first-person narrative viewpoint. We are forever trapped in Martin’s lack of interest. There is, perhaps, an ironic argument for piecing together what’s really going on beyond his apathetic view, but insufficient material to work with. Alternatively, the somewhat mechanical assembling of the story suggests the performance of the clock as well … but I think I’m reaching a little too far to find something that isn’t really there. The title, ‘The Silver Wand’, and the presence of Andrews, and his clock, suggest throughout that something is going to happen yet the payoff seems to be that, actually, it doesn’t really, and that is insufficiently rewarding for the reader.

    I tend to think of short stories as needing to leave the reader teetering on the brink of a larger story, beyond the final word, inviting the reader to go on, but I don’t really have a sense of it here. That so many people have said it works better as one in a series of linked stories suggests to me that it doesn’t successfully stand alone. I want to like it but I find myself holding back all the time.

    Maureen Kincaid Speller

    6 February 2012 at 10:01

  2. When I read the story in Interzone, I ended up appreciating it intellectually as a low-key take on its fantastic themes; but it does make more sense as a story in the context of the collection.

    David H

    6 February 2012 at 12:03

  3. I think the story does gain from being read in the context of the rest of the collection — the various characters appear throughout the collection in different configurations, and the literal reality-shifting here casts various other events in the collection in a different light — but I read it first on its Interzone appearance and liked it then. One gloss would be to say that the collection as a whole is about connection, and this story in isolation is about disconnection.

    I didn’t find Martin’s voice boring. Muted, detached, yes, but not boring, because of the contrast between the things Martin was talking about, “the hung parliaments, the power shortages, the forced deportations”, and the way he is talking about them. That gap to me is interesting. The standard narrator in this sort of setting notices the things going on around them, is aware that they’re terrible, but for one reason or another doesn’t speak up, doesn’t do anything about it. Martin just doesn’t notice, he’s not at all politically engaged, which for me is in some ways a worse, more creeping horror. Fascist dystopia as soft apocalypse. The line quoted in the post about the shift between worlds being a change of emphasis and not substance speaks to this, I think.

    The ease with which Martin shifts between worlds works for me thematically: he travels from a strictly controlled world in which he had lost his place to a world in which “There seemed to be no overall plan” but which nevertheless has a place for him. Rather than creepy, I thought the mutedness of this part of the story was somehow desperately sad, because I think there’s something emotionally true about the way it figures grief, that one day you will just look around and find that the world, impossibly, has changed in such a way that there is still a place for you after all. You can’t go back, or go anywhere, and find the person you lost, you can only go on into something different.

    Niall

    6 February 2012 at 12:07

  4. […] Discussion of today’s story, Allan’s “The Silver Wind”, is already underway there if you’d like to join in. Share this:StumbleUponDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted in Awards, Short Fiction. Tags: BSFA Awards, Short Fiction. Leave a Comment » […]

  5. I didn’t see the narrator as a real human being at all, but only as an echo of the author. I can follow a detached character, but Martin is so detached he stops being human.
    Take for example the passage where he is saved and captured by the soldiers. In the first part of the scene Martin, by his own admission, is panicked that the soldiers will kill him, but he cinematically observes tiny details:
    “The officer flicked through it briefly, letting his eyes rest for a moment upon my photograph and national insurance number”
    This feels described from the outside, not through the subjective lens of a human being in mortal peril.

  6. Hello, everyone. Glad to be able to read a science fiction story at the same time than others readers, from here, Spain; and able to comment it, and share opinions and impressions. I have been downloading many short stories and some novellas for some time now (trying to follow what was going on that format in the genre), all of them accessible online, and related to awards (Hugo nominees, and so). But the fact of this chance to read them with others has finally made me starting reading. I apologize in advance if my English is not accurate or proper; I read a lot in your language, but it has been some time since I write in it.

    As for this first short story nominated for the BSFA, my main problem with it is of the verisimilitude kind. I think it is related with the option for a first person narrator. As others have said here, it is too detached, though I would add something that makes it more annoying to me. It is a first person narrator who expresses himself as a third person narrator. Too much detail and not a particular voice of his own (he `talks´ in orthodox grammar; there is no special feeling on it); it all make me wonder if this story wouldn’t be better with an omniscient narrator. Even when he talks about his wife, I can’t find a personal way of expressing himself that touches me as a reader.

    Most of the time, as a reader, I felt myself ahead of what was going on. So to speak, I had the impression that I was smarter than the character. Not, of course, because I am particularly smart, but because the conversation with Owen displays enough information as to foresee what will happen. And that can be the problem. If Owen tells that much (instead of, somehow, being facts that we see by ourselves), it doesn’t seem necessary to see those facts afterwards. If the idea was to create expectations, then ok, it is a valid narrative option. But then, what is to happen can be exactly what we know is going to happen. Or, to my view, it is predictable.

    On page 35, after what Owen has told him, it seems very unlikely that the protagonist doesn’t realize that going into the woods is dangerous. He feels dubious on what to do, should he return to Owen´s house? No, he fears the place… However, he doesn’t feel any worry on the idea of getting into the woods. He has been warned on the mutants there, and also about what sometime soldiers do to some people. But he seems to have forgotten it. At that moment, the protagonist `lost´ me as a reader. After that, when the soldiers take him inside the hospital, he doesn’t have a single thought on the danger we can certainly suspect: the fact that he will be used in that experiment of sending people to other times.

    The narrator is too obsessive with details, and not enough with what is really happening around him. That maybe, as somebody has pointed put, because this story may be a false first person narrative; only a third person story could justify that attention to almost anything. That, or course, could also be in order to create some sort of atmosphere. I don’t think this is the case, except, perhaps, at the beginning, when we, as readers, can have access to some details (not that many, not that interesting) on this future society.

    It is obvious, most of the time, what is about to happen, on the other hand. So, to one protagonist who appears no to have witnessed or heard what we had, it is also a problem of lack of suspense. In other words, everything is very predictable. On the narrative aspect of it, the story, I think, fails.

    And then, I may be wrong, but one important feature to be respected on short story writing is to be precise, concise. I would say that this story could have been 20 pages shorter… at least. In page 5, there is a clue of what may the story be about. It doesn’t ` pay off´ until many pages after that. It takes 35 pages to `return´ to that scene in the introduction: the meeting with Owen. I would say that is a First Act too long. That, if that meeting were in fact a turning point.

    For example, all that part about how the protagonist finds out about Owen is way too long, and doesn’t give so much relevant information. Perhaps, some detail on Miranda. But everything on Usher or Dora… was it necessary for the story to move on? Was it, from a dramatic point of view? Maybe, those characters have their aim on that wider context others commentators have mentioned here. But still, shouldn’t a short story stand by its own merits?

    Finally, I find some contradictions on the protagonist; especially one: once he is on that alternate time, why doesn’t he look for Miranda? I thought that it was precisely his motivation for looking for Owen, after he finds out about that idea of the time travelling.

    With some details unexplained (after some many details during the whole story!) as how he gets an job that easily, the final part seems to me rushing too much, when all the clues were leading to think that how that alternate time works like was going to be the theme and the central idea of the story. So, to me, the story is predictable on what it shouldn’t and it is not when it should be. The conversation with Owen was, I think, to create the expectation that, sooner or later, we were to see all those theories by ourselves. But pages and pages keep passing, and nothing happens. And when it does, in less than 5 pages everything is finished. So, in the structure matter, long First Act, Long Second Act and very short Third Act.

    I don’t know. I expected more.

    Fernando Hugo

    7 February 2012 at 01:52

  7. So, to me, the story is predictable on what it shouldn’t and it is not when it should be.

    That is a good way of pointing it. I too was disappointed that having been warned about the woods, soldiers and hospital, Martin ignores it on the very next page. And the reason Allan comes up with for this is that he is a bit worried about staying in Owen’s house despite the fact she has just set up the huge connection between the men. Very contrived.

    Above Niall makes a good case for grief being central to the story but, as you say, it is notable that Miranda is so absent from the story. We learn far more about Dora than we do about Miranda and the result is that she is much more real. Then, once Martin has timeslipped, Allan closes the loop of the story by returning to Owen rather than Miranda.

    I completely agree about the ever compressing structure as well. Very disappointing.

    Martin

    7 February 2012 at 09:23

  8. I agree about the dullness of the narrator, and like others here I found the first half of the story a bit of a slog. But when Martin left Owen’s house and found himself reluctant to either face the soldiers or turn back, I found myself thinking of “The Silver Wind” less as a science fiction story and more as a ghost story. The first half seems to make more sense if you read it with the conventions of the ghost story in mind – the fact that Martin keeps encountering people who spell out the scenario for him reminded me, even before I made the ghost story connection, of a certain type of club story. After he leaves Owen’s house Martin experiences what he himself calls an irrational dread, which precipitates his foray into the woods and everything that follows. This, again, seems in keeping with the ghost story conventions – the detached narrator who has learned the history of the haunted place as something separate from him, a story that has no affect on him, suddenly finds himself in a state of irrational terror, drawn into the situation he had previously held himself apart from.

    But of course Martin remains apart from the situation. My other observation about the story is that Martin is not simply unengaged from the politics of his world but that he walks around in a bubble of privilege. People around him are affected by his world’s collapse – the teacher who died on a deportation ship, Owen Andrews, even his wife – but he remains unaffected. Even after he’s drawn into the horror at the center of the story, Martin remains fundamentally inviolate – the mutant girl is killed, but the soldiers, despite his terror of them, acknowledge his privilege and take care of him. They do so, of course, only to use him as a test subject, but even that turns out in Martin’s favor – as our Martin points out, he is so privileged that the world he slips into has a place ready for him.

    I’m not sure what the intersection of these two observations means, and the fact that so many people have noted that the story works better, or at least differently, as part of the collection suggests that I still haven’t puzzled it out. I liked parts of “The Silver Wind,” and I do think that Martin is well done as a portrait of a detached, thoughtlessly privileged person, but I’m rather cold on the story as a whole.

    Abigail

    7 February 2012 at 14:01

  9. I just reviewed the collection at The Future Fire http://reviews.futurefire.net/2012/02/allan-silver-wind-2011.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&m=1 and for me, Allan is at her weakest the more fantastic she gets. The artificiality of the other stories is acute, here she slips in and out of it and it fails on that basis.

    Kev McVeigh

    7 February 2012 at 21:51

  10. […] protagonists is reminiscent of Nina Allan but here the cryptic delivery is far more successful than ‘The Silver Wind’. We are drawn in, we ask […]

  11. […] ”The Silver Wind’ by Nina […]

  12. […] discussion of The Silver Wind by Nina Allan (beginning at 35:30), Ian mentions this review by Martin Lewis while Kirstyn quotes from this piece by Sofia  Samatar.  The conversation then […]

  13. […] otros comentaristas del blog Everything is Nice han mencionado, para ser el protagonista, y estar contando lo que le sucede (que se supone que es, […]

  14. […] her second collection and demonstrates that her reputation continues to quietly grow and grow. The title story was shortlisted this year, could she win this […]


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