“My Father’s Singularity” by Brenda Cooper

October 31, 2010 at 12:43 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment

This week’s short story club story is “My Father’s Singularity” by Brenda Cooper published in Clarkesworld. This is a very short story (about 2700 words) and to return to something I think I mentioned in an earlier review, at that length a story is best served by picking one thing to communicate, getting that across, and then getting out. “My Father’s Singularity” actually manages to meander, which, while not inappropriate for a story that covers about 45 years or so, means it never really gets around to making a strong point. It gestures towards being a story about the way life moves faster and faster, dallies in a very incomplete consideration of medical ethics, and finally gives its narrator about sixty words to cope with the loss of his father.

Two major elements of the story, namely its narrator Paul and the future he’s moving into, are left mostly to the reader’s imagination. Paul comes off as a fairly cold fish with apparently no emotional attachments except a weak sense of filial duty. We are encouraged to think that Paul, after initial difficulties, has completely left his rural past behind and become wholly modern, but the world around him is given such scanty detail that the reader is left to guess what, if anything, that might imply. His father, theoretically the subject of the story, is given even less time. We learn he likes science fiction books, dogs, farming, and that’s about it. You’d think a man who read science fiction would have some sort of opinion about gene therapy or whatever the magic medicine of Paul’s future is, but the reader isn’t told anything that would clue us in to what he thought. Paul and Mona probably knew, but it doesn’t occur to either of them to mention his preferences when discussing his treatment.

Given how unimpressed I was with Paul, it’s not surprising that I didn’t find the conclusion of the story very moving. Paul, who only a moment ago was saying nothing bad ever happened to him, spends about three sentences coping with the fact his father (a man he was so close to he couldn’t bear to spend more than a day with him) can’t recognize him now. Then the story ends on a vaguely distasteful note by suggesting that getting Alzheimer’s is a singularity in the opposite direction from the SF kind. Perhaps it’s one last bit of characterization: Paul is so self-centered that he feels someone who no longer recognizes him has become something less than human.

One final note: in my (very limited) experience if there are comments on a story on the site where it was published, they tend to be universally effusive. There’s a selection effect there so that’s fine. So it’s interesting to note that there were a surprising number of negative comments on Clarkesworld. Most surprising, given I had plenty of problems with the story, the main criticisms were that it wasn’t SF (even going so far as to calling it mundane) and that the narrator was inadequately male. To me, it’s clearly SF, and when the narrator is such a cipher anyway complaining about the voice is odd. I’m guessing if this was attributed by “B. Cooper” no one would have complained.

“The Cage” by A.M. Dellamonica

October 24, 2010 at 4:57 am | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments

This week’s short story club story was “The Cage” by A.M. Dellamonica published on Tor.com. I guess you could call this an alternate history story, since it turns out that humanity discovered “monsterkind” in 2002 and has been struggling to deal with this right up to the present. Just what sort of monsters are out there isn’t specified beyond the werewolves around whom the story is centered, and while the story is told in a very down to earth, realistic tone the rules governing werewolf behavior are never spelled out. Does the werewolf remain a free moral agent while changed? Does their intelligence remain that of a human or does it regress toward that of a wolf?

The story doesn’t concern itself with such details, preferring to focus on werewolves and society. It seems that lycanthropes are on the receiving end of a great deal of hatred, prejudice, and violence. This is where my problems began with the story. Positioning werewolves as a stand-in for persecuted minorities is all well and good, but just like when the X-men movies did this, there’s kind of a weird dissonance. It’s taken decades to convince society that minority racial, religious, and sexual identities need not be threatening, yet when taken at face value, most of the mutants in X-men really are kind of threatening. If Scott Summers gets drunk and becomes careless with his glasses, he could kill thousands of people in a few minutes. In this story, werewolves are depicted as being extremely fast and deadly, but because the story never makes clear how functional the werewolf’s mind is while changed, it’s ambiguous just how valid the concerns of the anti-werewolf faction are. The story takes it for granted they are hateful bigots, of course, and makes them act the part, but the best evidence presented for the innocuousness of werewolves amounts to “no one’s been murdered when the moon is full lately.”

In fact, I spent the entire story struggling with the worldbuilding. Not the picture it paints of Vancouver, which seemed readily believable (and probably based to a large degree on the author’s experience there), but of everything having to do with the werewolves. It seems that werewolves successfully hid the fact they even existed right up to 2002, but now are helpless in the face of anti-werewolf vigilantes. Most of the action of the story revolves around the struggle to deal with a baby werewolf, and while that was an interesting spin on the werewolf concept, one I hadn’t seen before, it again doesn’t make sense given the story’s invented history. The werewolf’s surrogate mother comes from a long line of werewolves, and yet she seems to be inventing procedures for raising a werewolf baby from first principles. She knows a werewolf society that will take the child in but for reasons never articulated they will only do so at age five, even though it’s clearly in their best interest to keep poorly constrained baby werewolves from bringing disrepute and thus further persecution on werewolves as a whole. Also, I don’t know anything about Canadian law, but the villain apparently traveled to Canada, found a werewolf’s associate, tortured this person to get the werewolf’s location, went there and killed her, and now is in danger of escaping conviction because he said it was self defense. How is that even remotely believable? What about the whole torture thing? Was that self defense too?

Since I never got over my strong sense of disbelief in the story’s world, it’s not surprising I didn’t end up caring too much about the characters and their struggles. I did find it amusing that the author managed to find a way for her progressive characters to fight The Man, complete with a climactic stare down of police officers…while at the same time pinning all their hopes for the future in the Canadian court system. In general the story seemed a little confused as to the proper role of the government and rule of law in all this. On one hand, the government was the only thing restraining the vigilantes, but on the other, half the police department were themselves vigilantes and substantial swaths of the populace (the people who will be voting for the people writing the laws in the future) seemed sympathetic to the whole killing werewolves thing. Meanwhile, one of the characters mentions that having werewolves around can be considered a benefit because they “keep the rest of monsterkind away”, implying perhaps that werewolves are themselves anti-other-monster vigilantes, or else that, well, werewolves are basically like us, but these other monsters, they don’t deserve to be integrated into society and the rule of law. And how, one wonders, do werewolves keep the bad monsters away on those days (most of them, I believe) when the moon isn’t full?

I will note in passing that, in contrast to some of the other stories in this series, this one had a beginning, a middle, and an end. You wouldn’t think this would be unusual enough to be worthy of note, but, well, apparently it is.

“No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller

October 17, 2010 at 2:28 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment

This week’s short story club story is “No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller, published in Lightspeed Magazine. I don’t think I’ve ever read a time travel story that left me so uncertain as to when it was happening. The narrator refers to a depression in the second sentence. There’s much about the story that feels appropriate for the Great Depression, from the narrator’s voice to the pace of her life to Tarzan and John Carter references. On the other hand, the narrator talks of televisions, uses the word computer, and while I had to look it up, tasers weren’t invented until the seventies (named after Tom Swift, strangely enough). So when does this story take place?

My first inclination, reading the story, was that the author was going for a 1930s setting and just made a few mistakes. After finishing it, though, I looked her up and, whoops, she grew up in the Great Depression. I think she knows what it was like. So then I decided she must have been shooting for a modern voice and just not done it very well. Then I wondered if it might be on purpose. Gene Wolfe, although amazingly he is ten years younger than Emshwiller, has recently written several stories and novels set explicitly in the future while using a deliberately old-fashioned voice. There was no similar explicit marking here, though. So at length I’ve decided the ambiguity must have been intentional. The references to tasers on the one hand and Tarzan on the other are too overt. Given the Marietta’s causality concerns, the implication must be that the timeline is already altered from ours (or vice versa, I guess).

Unfortunately there wasn’t a whole lot else interesting about the story. Structurally it’s similar to Rendezvous with Rama (and a whole lot of other older SF stories, but I find Rama a useful template) in that the story introduces an idea, explores it somewhat, then eschews strong resolution in favor of an ambiguous ending. Clarke used this structure to invoke a feeling of awe from the reader. God moves in mysterious ways, and whoever built the Rama spacecraft was sufficiently advanced that, well, you know. Unfortunately this story doesn’t get nearly as much mileage from its vague ending, and the familiar idea of future people struggling to cope with living in the past wasn’t interesting enough to me to carry the weight the story placed on it. There is briefly a mystery as to the true nature of the new people, but it is resolved very early in the story. The time dislocation effect is pretty unusual but the story never goes anywhere with it, so all told this was another story that was just too insubstantial for my taste.

“Miguel and the Viatura” by Eric Gregory

October 10, 2010 at 4:07 am | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments

This week’s short story club story is “Miguel and the Viatura” by Eric Gregory from Futurismic. The preceding note describes it as a near-future version of “urban vampire” stories (I didn’t realize vampire fiction has subgenres now), but to me it felt like Gregory was taking the ideas of Stephenson’s Diamond Age but writing it in the mode of William Gibson (that is to say, without Stephenson’s satire).

My reaction to the story is similar to how I felt about “A Serpent in the Gears”. That story was steampunk and this one is cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk, or whatever it’s called this week) but both stories spend almost their entire length on introductions. We are introduced to the titular Miguel and his brother, but, like “Serpent”, the emphasis is on introducing the world. Also like “Serpent”, this story assembles a set of tropes common to its subgenre almost as if it is ticking off boxes: poverty-stricken non-first world setting, telepresence, nanites, environmental problems, evil corporations, and a technofetishist cult, just to name some of the big ones. Like “Serpent” it does a good job with these things, and is in fact tied together with what I thought was somewhat stronger writing, but alas it has a final similarity with “Serpent” in that I found the plot to be incomplete and unsatisfying.

“Serpent” ran into issues with me when it introduced two problems for its characters, a small one I didn’t care about (the mission) and a large one that was more interesting (the reshaped society), then only resolved the former. “Miguel and the Viatura” really is telling a single story about Miguel’s fall from grace, but it just stops. Miguel doesn’t work to redeem himself or hit rock bottom, the two ways most of these stories usually end. He doesn’t even reach any kind of equilibrium in his new circumstances, which probably would have also worked. The story could have ended anywhere in the second half of the story and had the same (small) amount of resolution. The only things we learn at the end–that Miguel’s brother had an ulterior motive in disposing of his parent’s corpse in a soft echo of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and that the police and/or the evil corporation are tracking Miguel–were obvious from the start.

As it is, it feels like a good first chapter to a book, but not a satisfying short story.

“The Red Bride” by Samantha Henderson

October 3, 2010 at 12:30 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment

This week’s short story club story is “The Red Bride” by Samantha Henderson, published in Strange Horizons. This is a very short story. Not quite flash fiction, I suppose, but it’s well under two thousand words. The shorter a story is, the harder it becomes to tell a satisfying story. Henderson makes this even harder, in my opinion, by essentially telling two linked stories instead of one. The story is ostensibly about the titular Red Bride, related in casual second person by an unnamed alien narrator to a human child. The second story, embedded in the first, is about how this alien servant has become fond of its master’s child and wants to save him from a sort of slave uprising. The first is less a story than a concept and the latter is so simple it would be about four sentences long if presented unadorned.

The narrator spends a lot of time (relative to the story’s overall length, at least) talking about the differences between Var and human ways of thinking, but never seems at all different in its own thinking and, indeed, eventually endorses the idea that humans and Var have identical psychologies. If the two species are “one under the skin”, why does the story open with several paragraphs complaining about the listener’s (and readers’) human preconceptions? As far as I can tell the Red Bride is an allegory for revolutionary rage, which is interesting, but allegory is hardly an alien mode.

I spent most of the story preoccupied by what the story implies about humans in the story. The position of the servants seems mostly analogous to manor house slavery, and the narrator (who is apparently an optimist among Var when it comes to humans) takes it for granted that if humans discover they can get shiny rocks from Var corpses they will harvest them as if the Var were animals. While there’s plenty of historical examples of this sort of thing, I have a hard time believing future humans would act this way. It’s not that it couldn’t happen again…humans are gifted at rationalization…but I feel like such a regression in ethics needs to be explained. I can imagine all sorts of reasons, but none are provided.

It occurs to me that while I read this story as science fiction, it might actually be fantasy. Glancing back over the story, the only thing I can point to is the “seeded race” concept, which is a trope from the science fiction tradition. But even if these are alternate humans instead of future humans, the story comes off to me as preachy, but the message (underestimating and oppressing people who look different is bad) is so widely held by the story’s likely audience I feel like this couldn’t have been the author’s intention. One of the comments on Strange Horizons calls the story “an interesting echo…of such real-life events as the Haitian uprising and the Sepoy mutiny”. At the risk of sounding like a mainstream reviewer writing off a genre story, I don’t see what purpose the genre element serves if that’s the goal. If this same story was translated into historical fiction in one of those settings, even leaving it the same length, I feel like it would be much more effective.

It’s interesting to compare this week’s story to the first one, Peter Watts’ “The Things”. Both feature alien narrators meditating on the differences between themselves and humans and both revolve around conflict and misunderstandings between humans and aliens. I preferred the way “The Red Bride” positions its text in time and space versus the other narration’s lack of context, but otherwise I think “The Things” is a better story on all fronts. Part of this can be put down to length, but the hive narrator was both more interesting and far better realized.

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