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Posts Tagged ‘short story club

‘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

My 2011 BSFA Award Short Fiction Ballot

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So, I’ve now read the five shortlisted stories for the BSFA Award and thanks to everyone else who read them and commented, it has been informative for me and hopefully enjoyable to you. If you are a BSFA member or are attending Eastercon, please do read the stories as it would be nice to have a high turnout for the vote. They are all available online but we also hope to make them available again as a printed booklet for members. Once you’ve done so, I’d welcome any more comments here as the deadline approaches.

I’ve set out my ballot below with links to each of the discussions. I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with my rankings but I wonder if anyone would disagree that, considered as a whole, it isn’t a particularly strong shortlist.

In terms of coverage of the field, it is broad in some directions and narrow in others. There are two science fiction stories: one set on another planet in the far future, one set on an alternative Earth in the near past. Then there are three fantasies that are all set in Britain and deal with a protagonist facing the intrusion of a single example of the fantastic: a magic clock, animated oil rigs and a satyr. Only one of the stories – and ironically, one of the fantasies – is set in the near future. There is a marked absence of the core tropes that people associate with science fiction and fantasy. Not a criticism, of course, but as someone who doesn’t read a lot of genre short fiction, I wonder how representative it is.

1) ‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville

The clear winner for me and the only shortlisted story that looks anything like an award-winner. It’s Miéville, innit?

2) ‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley

I liked this a lot but I primarily liked it as a companion piece to God’s War. However, it seems to have worked for Aishwarya Subramanian and Fernando Hugo, even though it was their first exposure to Hurley.

3) ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell

A fun setting that I’d like to read more of but only in a broader context. Here it is a bead on a necklace and I want to see the whole thing, particularly if the ending really did attempt to conceal a huge paradigm shift.

No Award

I can’t actually remember if the awards have a No Award option but, if they do, this is where it would go.

4) ”The Silver Wind’ by Nina Allen

A huge disappointment from an author I admire. In the comments, Niall Harrison articulates the virtues I would usually associate with Allan but I can’t find them here.

5) ‘Of Dawn’ by Al Robertson

A familiar story badly executed at unneccessary length. British SF writers really need to get out of this rut but perhaps there is no incentive since this style of story obviously continues to prove popular.

Written by Martin

10 February 2012 at 15:36

‘Of Dawn’ by Al Robertson – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Of Dawn’ was originally published in Interzone #235.

From the second paragraph of this story, I knew ‘Of Dawn’ wasn’t for me: “A bus rumbled past outside, and the floor shook gently. For a moment, she imagined a god passing by – a drift of shadow that might have been wings; a soul borne away, to cross a dark river.” That is Sarah, letting her imagination run wild as she arranges her brother Peter’s funeral. He was killed in Iraq but absolutely nothing is made of this except to position him as a modern soldier-poet. Not only is Peter a poet but Sarah is a musician and ‘Of Dawn’ is one of those depression works of art about works of art:

Peter returned obsessively to early twentieth century composer Michael Kingfisher, to the aftermath of warfare in the former Yugoslavia, to Salisbury Plain and the deserted village of Parr Hinton; to images of a skinless man, walking through the nearby woods, at once leading him into knowledge and foreshadowing his own future. “An angel satyr walks these hills,” Peter had said, quoting Kingfisher.

Kingfisher is Michael Kingfisher, a Twentieth Century composer of Robertson’s invention. The angel satyr – horrible phrase – is Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology. You can probably guess where this is going. Sarah develops an obsession with Kingfisher and discovers that Marsyas may be more than a just myth. Thankfully Robertson at least makes no attempt to play this ambiguiously, although there is a painful low point where Sarah unconvincingly mistakes a man in a red tracksuit for a flayed satyr.

In some ways it is the classic Interzone fantasy story of the pre-Andy Cox era: a lot of depictions of the English landscape, the intrusion of a fantastic figure, a supposed focus on psychology, hints of madness. Robert Holdstock and Ian R MacLeod were suggested as examples of the type on Twitter and there are many more. In the Nineties, it seemed like Interzone used to publish a story like this every month.

So they are overly familiar and Robertson’s is not even a good particularly good example. It is too long, is further slowed down by clods of research (real and imaginary) and is told in strained, overblown language throughout:

Verdancy suffused the television screen as the programme built to a climax. The camera explored ash-grey Stonehenge. Red ribbons shook and bells jangled as six men danced together. Sunset blazed through trees, a fire in the deep woods. Tumuli humped like whales in the green. Between each shot, colour bloomed across the screen like so much spilt paint.

Written by Martin

10 February 2012 at 09:55

‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Covehithe’ was originally published on the Guardian’s website.

1.

A man and his daughter are on holiday in Suffolk. He wakes her in up in the middle of the night and Miéville maps out the path they take from Dunwich to Covehithe. The focus on concrete geography and illusive mystery combined with the distance between the reader and the 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 questions.

For example, we are told that the man is called Dughan but we are not told his daughter’s name. Why is she anonymised? And how old is she? At first, she seems to be very young but when the viewpoint switches to her, she is remarkably shrewd: “All she remembered were his returnings, an exhausted, careful man who lifted her on to his lap and kissed her with wary love, brought her toys and foreign sweets.” This is uncertainty is surely incidental to the story but at the same time it is a conscious decision on Miéville’s part which gives it tang.

Another difference with Allan is language. Far from being brickwall blank, Miéville delights in words and you simply don’t get this in the other shortlisted stories. You have to love him for it, even if sometimes he goes too far: “This close to the waves the land felt, as the girl said, misbehavicious. A good word to make her feel better.” A good word? An ugly word, certainly. It is almost impossible to say, a coinage that looks better on the page than it sounds in the mouth. “Trawlings” and “returnings” works but “extrusioned” is a pointlessly ungainly, particularly when immediately followed up with this far more evocative description:

In the glow of the thing’s own flame they saw edificial flanks, the concrete and rust of them, the iron of the pylon barnacled, shaggy with benthic growth now lank gelatinous bunting.

That is an intelligent, animated oil rig emerging from the North Sea and that is the story.

2.

Inevitably we move backwards to answer the question of how we got here (although perhaps “how” is a little strong):

It was the Rowan Gorilla I. That was the first. No Piper Alpha, no Deepwater Horizon; an undistinguished disaster. A tripod jack-up rig lost to storms and hull-fracture in 1988, on its way to the North Sea. Scattered surely by its capsizing and by 30 years below but there, back. Cramped-looking for all its enormity, latticed legs braced halfway through its platform, jutting above it and below into the sea. In the videos the three skyward leg-halves switch and lean creaking towards each other, sway away again like cranes triple-knitting, as it walks the muck on spudcap feet. It staggered like a crippled Martian out of the water and onto Canada.

We might wonder in passing what the fuck a “spudcap” is but this is a lovely passage, blending the earlier lyricism with a bluntness that suits the beast that has been born. The same is true of the subsequent ones in which the Rowan Gorilla I meets its demise but they also mark a transition point in the story. This is where the story’s genesis becomes a bit too obvious: “The Guardian’s short fiction project Oil stories asks writers from around the world to drill down through layers of cliché and cant to explore the hidden reservoirs which fuel our dreams and power our nightmares.” You can’t say Miéville didn’t meet the brief but in a way he met it too well; an author’s muse should have some mystique.

As we move away from Dughan and his daughter, as the events are explicated, the story loses some of its magic to a humdrum bit of future history that doesn’t ring true. It is revealed that Dughan is a Canadian soldier who happened to be there with Rowan Gorilla I at the beginning. He is subsequently seconded to an international task force that deals with the emergence of further rigs. “National governments subcontracted strategy to the UN Platform Event Repulsion Unit.” Doesn’t strike me as very likely, especially since UNPERU is composed of “scientists, engineers, theologians and exorcists, soldiers”. The whole section is told in an entirely different register; we’ve moved from Nina Allan to Paul Cornell.

3.

We return to Covehithe to integrate the two parts of the story. Again, we flit into Dughan’s daughter’s perspective and a security guard questions her age. “Dughan whispered her name” but Miéville conceals it. Why? Names have power. But if, on the one hand, he is aiming for the numinous, Miéville is also having fun. Having playfully referred to the rigs as “petrospectral presences” earlier, he shifts the tone even further into deadpan humour: “They laid eggs, so, many people said, they must have sex. There was no logic there. They were oil rigs.” In the end, I can’t see this inconsistency of tone as a problem but rather the thing that gives the story its power. It seems an entirely fitting ending when Miéville circles back to his opening style to cap the story:

Dughan turned and took in the length of Covehithe Beach. They were out of sight, but he looked in the direction of the graveyard, and of St Andrew’s stubby hall where services continued within the medieval carapace, remains of a grander church fallen apart to time and the civil war and to economics, fallen ultimately with permission.

Written by Martin

9 February 2012 at 09:24

‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley was originally published on the author’s website.

The third story on the BSFA Award shortlist and the third story to be part of an existing universe of the author’s invention. The trend towards trilogies and series has been much remarked on with genre novels but is short fiction going the same way? Or do stories that take place in a wider continuity have an advantage in terms of profile when it comes to nominations time. Okay, my sample size isn’t massive but it still seems worth remarking on. This time round, I’ve actually read some of Hurley’s related fiction set on the planet of Nasheen. As I mentioned in my editorial for the last Vector, God’s War wasn’t eligible for the BSFA Award (although it received a few nominations) because it was only published in the US. No such restriction applies to short fiction.

Starting your story in media res, entirely in dialogue, is a pretty aggressive way of setting out your stall, particularly when the third sentence is: “And what the fuck does she want?” This isn’t a surprise if you’ve read God’s War since it is a pretty aggressive book. But ‘Afterbirth’ turns out to be a story of two halves of which the more aggressive is the lesser. This half acts as a framing device and is an interview between Bakira so Dasheem, a farmer turned astronomer turned farmer again, and an anonymous councillor. As is so often the case, the frame is rather forced and in this instance it is made more so by the fact it is solely dialogue. The personality of neither woman comes across and they are reduced to perfunctory jousting; the councillor is simply implacably hostile, Bakira is given to speechifying:

You say Nasheen is ruled by God and Queen, but it is not. It is ruled by rich, blind, First Family women like you who wish to divide and conquer us. I see what you made us, and I reject it. We are not just the bloody afterbirth, the mess you leave behind as you claw your way to prominence. We are human beings, as good as you.

The other story, Bakira’s story, is another matter. It foregrounds birth, family and work – all things central to life but depressingly alien to much SF – whilst simultaneously showing these things willingly (if grudgingly) subordinated to state: “Because it was not until that night that she realized what she was. What all of them were. They were merely bodies. Weapons of war.” The problem is that this half of the story is very short to cover the whole of Bakira’s life and left to stand on its own it is a slight work.

One of Bakira’s daughters is Nyx, the main protagonist of God’s War, which makes it a prequel of sorts but, more than that, it functions almost as a prologue. To someone who has read that novel it is a highly satisfying expansion of various strands, particularly the interstellar context, but I can’t see how it would work for someone who hadn’t read God’s War. Returning to the question I asked at the beginning, does it work as a story in its own right or is it merely a sampler of Hurley’s settings and concerns?

Written by Martin

8 February 2012 at 11:10

‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Asimov’s.

This is the third in a series of stories featuring Jonathan Hamilton, the second of which, ‘One Of Our Bastards Is Missing’, was shortlisted for the 2010 Hugo Award for novelette. I’ve not read either of the previous ones or, as far as I am aware, anything else by Paul Cornell.

The fantastic inserts itself quietly but insistantly from the beginning of the story. Hamilton arrives in Copenhagen undercover, “as etiquette demands, without weapons or folds, thoroughly out of uniform.” Soon afterwards he is informed that the Lustre Saint Clair, the woman he is there to interview, “could be folded like origami.” However, apart from this tantalising hint of magical technology, the story reads as alternate history set over a hundred years ago. It is a surprise then to suddenly come across the following sentence: “Armies across the continent and Solar System had been dispatched to ports and carriage posts.” So there is a lot for Cornell to unfold here and my interest was piqued.

What transpires is a shaggy dog story where the details are very enjoyable but the big picture dissolves. Saint Clair is a diplomatic courier with secret information locked in her head. She was kidnapped fifteen years but has now turned up having apparently not aged a day. Hamilton, who knew her as a younger man, is send to debrief her but before he can do so the embassy they are in is attacked. They flee, they are captured. Along the way I built up an understanding of the world that whilst far from complete was enough to sustain the story. This skillful doling out of information is much more preferable than dumping it all up front, whetting the appetite rather than sticking in the craw. At his best, Cornell manages to pack an awful lot of punch into asides. For example, whilst talking to a secondary character Hamilton recalls a previous encounter in passing:

He’d wanted to send her flowers afterward, but he couldn’t find anything in the Language of Blooms volume provided by his regiment that both described how he felt and kept the precious distance of the connection between them.

The sending of flowers is a completely familiar gesture but not only does the detail of that “Language of Blooms volume” free it from cliche, it casually reveals a lot about both the society in which Hamilton lives and Hamilton himself. Sometimes these asides are less successful though. We are told of Hamilton that: “His Irish blood was kept in an English jar.” That sounds a bit off to me – do you keep blood in a jar? – but, more importantly, it doesn’t explain enough to make it relevant. Usually, however, Cornell gets the balance right and the new reader is neither lost or mollycoddled.

The problem comes when the antagonists turn up. They are typical James Bond baddies, an improbably rich pair of twins with silly names: Castor and Pollux Ransom. They spin Hamilton a yarn and then proceed to torture him to death. Obviously he is rescued in the nick of time. Well, not quite the nick of time, he has his penis pulled off. Did I read that right? Or is medical technology of a sufficient level that this isn’t overly traumatic? Anyway, having escaped, it is revealed that the tale they told was part of an elaborate con that Saint Clair was in on. For me, this rather lets the air out of the story and, for the first time, changes it into more of an episode in a continuity than a story in its own right.

No one seems to have written much about the story but Blue Tyson’s typically gnomic micro review at Free SF Reader is: “Fake alien Balance tampering ship story. Fake woman too. Most likely.” That sense of uncertainty wasn’t one I really got from the story. I don’t know if we are intended to take the title to be a reference to the actual Copenhagen interpretation or whether it is simply a weak pun but I can’t really see any collapsing of wavefunctions here. Does any one read the con as not being a con at all? Or am I overthinking the title?

Finally, a stylistic point. Hamilton is a spy, perfectly happy to die serving his country in secrecy. He is very, very excitable though. Not only does Cornell give him dialogue ending in exclamation marks, on one page he gives him three interrobangs. Now, I don’t think there is much of a place in fiction for the interobang but I’m happy to but that down to personal taste. It does seem an odd choice for this character in this society though, and it is one that knocked me out of the story several times. Am I just being picky?

Written by Martin

7 February 2012 at 09:23