Everything Is Nice

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

Posts Tagged ‘torque control short story club

‘A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon’ by Ken Scholes

with 3 comments

‘A Weeping Czar’ is another one from the Torque Control short story club. It was published online by Tor who also published his first novel, Lamentations, which appears to be set it the same universe. I had been interested in that novel. I am less so now. As I was reading the story I passed through several different understandings of its genre, each of which affected my enjoyment of it.

It opens with Frederico (the czar of the title) mourning the death of his thirteenth wife. This particular wife represents the province of Espira and there are many young woman eager to take her place. This is one of the tasks Frederico must attend to after her eulogy. Another is to organise a purging because although this suicide it is politically expediant to call it an assassination and blame it on the mystics. Ah ha! So this is an epic fantasy. Nobles and palace intrigue and colourful empires and so on. Well, such things are rare at short story length and the details are interesting so good stuff.

The purging turns up a strange artefact which the mystics believe puts them in communication with the moon. This “harmless curiosity of Elder Times” is a silver cresent made of an unknown metal that transmits the sound of running water. Frederico keeps it for himself and discovers it transmits words as well. These words are those of a young woman called Amal Y’Zir, daughter of the Great Blood Wizard. Surprisingly, the living god Frederice has never heard of this powerful individual. Ah ha! So this is a science fantasy. This is Earth and Amal is on the moon and they are communicating through some sort of ancient technology. I’m less keen on this type of story as it is a bit like having your cake and eating it and usually presages a revelation I will find unconvincing.

Any suggestion that this might be science fantasy in the vein of Wolfe is quickly dismissed though:

The weeping took him more often, it was true, but he’d found scarce comfort in times past. The two wives he’d most delighted in had not been able to live with the knowledge of his sorrow—the sorrow that was his family’s to bear for reasons no record remained to speak of.

That’s right, he is genetically predisposed to be made of pure emo and his sorrow is so deep and unfathomable that it has driven his favourite wives to kill themselves. Woe is me! So this is a melodrama. I shouldn’t have been surprised, the problem is, after all, suggested by the title. I just wasn’t expecting it do be so literally because who would want to read about a wet bloke moping at the moon?

It gets worse though. Amal cures him of his weeping so it must be Tru Wuv. Turns out that a thousand years ago Frederico’s forebears stole Amal’s sister away from her father, this cursed the family and caused the Blood Wizard to hide his other daughter away for eternity. Oh no! So this is a fairy tale. A melodramatic fairy tale is one thing – the two flavours go together even if they don’t taste nice – but the science fictional gloss on it makes no sense. “A thousand years ago we went to the moon and we’ve wept ever since.” What utter tosh.

Written by Martin

11 November 2009 at 16:49

‘Trembling Blue Stars’ by Richard Kadrey

with one comment

“Space is as ordinary as this street or that hotel. Once you’re over the initial shock of it, space is like anywhere else. It’s life. It’s ordinary. Even tedious, at times, but, like life, punctuated with moments of brilliance.”

“Such as?”

“Seeing a supernova as it happens. Our guests can see a wider spectrum than humans, so I can see the gamma ray fountains streaming from pulsars.”

“What else? Tell me.”

“Trembling blue stars being born in the Horsehead Nebula. Other intelligent races. The guests are slowly introducing us. I’ve met living machines that find us as strange as we find them. They can’t believe that fragile meat has thrown itself out into space.”

A simple story: Arkadi is a cosmonaut; in order to tolerate deep space he has been killed, had his organs removed and been re-animated by an alien parasite (a “guest”); returning to Earth he encounters Valentine, the woman he abandoned, in a cafe; she fails to convince him to resume their relationship. It is told in the first person but mostly consists of dialogue, interpersed with an occassional arch comment such as “Cigarettes are the perfect prop when you have nothing to say.” The dialogue is sharp and the back and forth is enjoyable but this jousting gives way to some depressingly familar battle of the sexes.

There is an overpowering whiff of girl cooties to the story. Arkadi has fled his relationship for space and it turns out space is no place for girls. “You can’t blame me for that. There are basic biological incompatibilities between female neurochemistry and the guests.” This, as Valentina points out, is very convenient. She does get her shots in but she on the whole she is portrayed as desperate, pathetic and unable to define herself except against Arkadi. The final section of story is a race to see just how much she will debase herself to try and win him back: “Take me with you. I don’t need much. I’ll be your rabbit. Give me lettuce and water and rub my ears every now and then.” Arkadi, augmented by the emotional detachment of his guest (a “meat puppet run by a space monster”), spurns her again and considers this an act of kindness.

Written by Martin

1 October 2009 at 12:17

‘Oh He Is’ by Karen Heuler

with one comment

I’ve been enjoying taking part in Niall Harrison’s short story club over at Torque Control. This week’s story is ‘Oh He Is’ by Karen Heuler which I thought I would post about now since I’m going to be out of the country on Sunday.

Unfortunately ‘Oh He Is’ does not get off to a good start:

There was a smell in the streets, past the storefronts with the children in their beds, their limbs barely moving, their eyes closed (it was late). The smell was intoxicating, vanilla, pineapple, butter, cinnamon and some spice, some spice. The smell caught at the tips of open windows, waving like a cat’s tail, just a little, before going in. Then it coiled along the floor, at the corners, under the doorways, sipping at each room, exhaling a puff of it, a tease.

There is an awful lot wrong with this opening paragraph and most of it is to do with not knowing when to stop. In the first sentence, the final section in parentheses unnecessarily makes clear what was already implied. In the second sentence, the repetition of “some spice” is presumably meant to conjure up the ineffable but again adds nothing and feels both lazy and clumsy. In fact, the whole laundry list of popular scents is pretty uninspired. The third sentence is fine, although “just a little” is superfluous and over-egging it. Then, in the final sentence, we have the smell “sipping” which is the opposite of what it is actually doing, as is made clear by the very next clause of the sentence.

Taken as a whole the paragraph is trying too hard, it is striving to make an impact but just comes across as cluttered. This very nearly put me off the entire story but I perservered. Then I got to the end of the first section and almost gave up again. This is because at the point it became obvious that ‘Oh He Is’ was a reworking of The Pied Piper Of Hamelin. Now, I’ve got nothing against such reworkings but I really wish there weren’t so bloody many of them (we’ve already had one in this short story club). Revisiting familiar material can be rewarding for both writers and readers but it can also be a sign of stagnation and laziness and, speaking personally, I need a break from them.

I kept going though. We soon return to smell: “She smelled of spices: cumin, perhaps, and lemongrass.” I don’t believe for a moment that she smells like this. In a cheap attempt to add mystery and exoticism to her character Heuler has just plucked two spices at random. We are back to the problem of fabulism, of idle noodling and uncommitted allusions.

And there are more lists. When, at the conclusion of the story, the piper is strangled, “his face flew from scorn to pity to lust.” Even in a fable I find this an unlikely series of facial emotions for someone being murdered. His murderer then “built a cottage next to him and planted herbs and spices at the head and foot of his coffin, starting with lavender, thyme, anise, lemon and rue.” Leaving aside the fact lemon is not a herb (lemon balm is), Heuler is again relying not on the precision of her prose but on an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.

‘Oh He Is’ is one of those stories which requires its world to be unpopulated. The three characters who live in the town appear to be the only residents and they are allowed to play out their little drama in isolation. This betrays a lack of interest in the world Heuler has created; how it fits together, how it came to be, how it might really smell. Into this void she simply throws anything she thinks might stick.

Written by Martin

1 October 2009 at 08:30