“Lull” by Kelly Link

March 14, 2011 at 12:44 am | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments
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It’s been long enough since I last posted about Kelly Link’s anthology Magic For Beginners that it’s doubtful anyone remembers I was doing it. Well, I was, and finally I’m getting around to writing about “Lull”, the last story in the collection. Like everything except the title story, “Lull” is freely available in the collection’s electronic form from Kelly Link’s site.

The delay in getting to this story was, of course, mostly a matter of procrastination on my part, but there was another issue as well: my reaction to the story. Namely, I didn’t particularly like it. Now, if you read this blog very often you know I’m not shy about giving negative reviews when I don’t like something, and when it comes to short stories in particular I’ve long since accepted the fact that I just don’t like most of them. Kelly Link’s stories have been a different matter thus far, however, and with the possible exception of “The Cannon” I’ve liked every single story in Magic For Beginners. What really gave me pause, however, was the fact that when I first read “Magic For Beginners” I didn’t like it either, and my objections were similar to my problems with “Lull”. If I eventually changed my mind about that story, who’s to say I wouldn’t about this one as well? Even worse than that experience, when I first read “The Faery Handbag” I didn’t like the story and thought I understood it. In other words, I didn’t even get that I didn’t get it. Could the same thing be happening with “Lull”? It’s possible. But at this point, after several rereads months apart, I feel that if I don’t get it now I’m never going to get it.

So what’s this story about? Like “Magic For Beginners”, it’s a story of stories, with several different “levels” of story. But where “Magic For Beginners” was a story not just of stories but about stories, I believe “Lull” is about regret, or perhaps more specifically our relationship with the past. The men playing cards feel as though they have no place in the present and that something went wrong in their lives that has made them unable to realize their potential. Susan is so affected by the loss of her brother that she can only think about somehow getting him back. The journey of the woman in the innermost story back to the beginning of time is presented as a sort of rejuvenation, an undoing of her tangled life that will allow for something fresh and new. The Susan at the end of the story directly cites the immutability of the past as the source of the problems with her relationship with Ed.

The cheerleader’s backwards life might seem an answer to many of these concerns. And sure enough, the cheerleader doesn’t seem emotionally impacted by her parents’ death. Why should she, she hasn’t met them yet! But her life is one that is devoid of agency. The causal arrows of her world still point in the normal direction, so she cannot cause anything to happen. Wanting to have a good childhood before confronting her rather disturbing destiny of pre-birth non-existence, all she can do is appeal to the Devil for help.

This brings us to my problems with the story. If the cheerleader is living backwards, is she saying all her words backwards? In what sense is she alive at all? This is not the sort of story that is interested in technical questions of that kind, and I can with some effort suspend my disbelief on that count. There’s a much more fundamental problem, however, and that is the way the various levels of story within story interact with each other. Unlike in “Magic for Beginners”, where there was crossover that could be explained, the conceptual bleed between “Lull”‘s stories resists any attempt to rationalize them. Starlight doesn’t know Ed and Susan, but they show up in her story anyway, as does Ed’s strange house and even the men playing cards themselves. There are some details that might have pointed to some explanation, but again they don’t resolve: “Starlight” is surely an alias, and Ed actually calls her “Susan” once, but Susan works at SETI, not a phone service. The previous occupant of Ed’s house was apparently a Satanist, but how this meaningfully connects with the cheerleader’s story or anything else isn’t obvious (in a very positive article about the story, Jeffrey Ford, though not truly venturing an interpretation, cites as important the fact the Devil is the “Father of Time”…which still would not explain much if it were true, and isn’t true in any case).

In a recent review, Martin Lewis discussed how important plausibility is for the enjoyment of fiction, briefly in the main review but then at length with Adam Roberts in the comments. I don’t want to say that for me to enjoy a story like “Lull” it must not have the sort of loose ends I’ve described, if only because that sounds a little too much like the arguments of those who dismiss the entire fantasy genre. I think a reasonable test, along the lines of the one Martin applies to Picasso in those comments, is to ask whether or not the departure from realism serves an aesthetic purpose. In the case of “Lull” the issue is not so much “realism” as consistency. The fact these stories are connected in irrational ways is a constant distraction, at least for me, and what does this narrative discord have to do with the story’s theme? If all the story’s levels were flattened, their tenuous connections were removed, and they were presented one after another in a piece titled “Four Very Short Stories About Regret”, would something be lost?

My answers to these questions are “nothing” and “no”, and that’s why in the end I feel the story doesn’t work. The individual elements are all interesting and written with Link’s characteristic humor and deft characterization, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts, all of which are too short and simple to be satisfying stories when forced to stand on their own.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

March 2, 2011 at 2:36 am | Posted in Essays | 2 Comments
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I’ve never written about fan fiction here, but I’ve never read fan fiction as good as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality before, either. I guess there’s a first time for everything. I take a position of moderate snobbishness about fanfic: I believe people who say there’s some really good stuff that I’d enjoy reading, but I don’t know how to find it without plowing through a bunch of stuff I won’t like, so I don’t try. It’s nothing personal, fan fiction. If you replace “don’t” with “rarely” that pretty much describes my attitude toward mainstream fiction, historical fiction, etc.

I made an exception and tried reading Methods of Rationality because I was led to believe it was funny. Someone quoted from passages that amounted to criticism of Rowling’s worldbuilding encased in a narrative. Having been known to rant about this myself, I gave it a try. There were indeed some sections that pick some deserving nits, as I expected. What I did not expect was that I would enjoy the actual story tremendously, indeed, far more than I enjoyed the Harry Potter books.

A quick summary of my feelings about Harry Potter is perhaps in order, since apparently I never reviewed any of them here (I could have sworn I reviewed Deathly Hallows…ah, apparently I just wrote a long comment on Abigail Nussbaum’s interesting essay). I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and read all of them, but was never a huge fan. In theory I liked the way the series grew with its readers, but in practice I felt that Rowling’s strengths were better suited to the earlier, younger books…her paper-thin worldbuilding became more of a problem for me the more seriously I was supposed to take the story, culminating in a metaphysical climax whose metaphysics I didn’t respect. But it must be said few writers have concluded a long series without going off the rails, or at least sparking a serious backlash from fans, so I was really impressed she nailed the dismount.

What’s different about Methods of Rationality? The biggest difference is Harry Potter. In this story, his aunt married an Oxford professor and he grows up in a loving home voraciously reading science (and science fiction). What’s more, he’s a genius, a child prodigy of Ender-like proportions who has read and can even quote from dozens of collegiate-level books on science. I was never convinced Ender was a young boy, and I don’t believe for a second this Harry is just eleven, but so often as a reader I’m burdened with characters who are frustratingly stupid that I’m willing to suspend disbelief if that’s what it takes to read about characters who are genuinely smart (other people saying they are smart doesn’t count). Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, as he is named in this story, is genuinely…relentlessly…smart, as are many of the other characters.

The conceit here is the same as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Harry takes his massive knowledge of modern science and, in particular, the scientific method to the pre-enlightenment culture of Hogwarts. This is the perfect setup for the sort of nitpicking I discussed before, and Harry reasons through, with devastating effect, the implications of original Harry Potter series’ depiction of everything from banking to Quidditch to ghosts to snake-talking.

This nitpicking can be fun, but it also serves as a vehicle for education. The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, is what you might call an evangelical rationalist in the Dawkins mold, and he is upfront that he hopes readers will, by reading his story, learn about the conclusions of modern scientific research as well as the very methods of rationality alluded to in the title. Personally, I was familiar with much of the research that Yudkowsky explains through Harry’s mouth, but I would be lying if I claimed not to have learned some things. Although Yudkowsky probably views this as the most important part of his work, for me it’s the least interesting. Thankfully, Yudkowsky avoids the trap (so common in science fiction) of turning Harry into someone smug and perfect, either adored or hated for being special. Instead, Harry makes bad choices and while other characters respect his talents, they tend to do so the way they might respect a loaded gun. Further, while Harry’s knowledge is special, his intellect is not. He may be preternaturally intelligent, but Hermione, Draco, and most especially Professor Quirrell get similar upgrades and can hold their own as later chapters involve increasingly complex webs of intrigue.

Methods of Rationality breaks with typical preachy fiction in another way in that it proves to be surprisingly funny. Reading Bujold’s A Civil Campaign years ago, I was struck while reading the dinner party scene how rarely I see comedic set pieces done well in science fiction (that dinner party being a wonderful exception). Perhaps I don’t read the right books, but in any case, the clothes-fitting scene very early in Methods was, if quite a bit less complicated than Bujold’s party, just as funny for what it was.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality starts out as a satire, becomes a comedy, then turns into an intrigue story, and at present has increasingly grappled with how to live ethically in a world where the consequences of one’s actions aren’t obvious. I say “at present” because, alas, it’s not finished, though at about 400,000 words it’s within hailing distance of the length of the first four Harry Potter books, so rest assured there’s plenty of material here already. The story is being published in serial format, with new chapters being released reasonably frequently. Think of it like an on-going television show. Since there’s still some way to go before any ending, this is a recommendation and not, in the end, a review. When the story is finished I expect to have a lot to say about the answers provided to the questions the story currently is asking about death, justice, heroism, and morality, but for now I invite you to find out for yourself.

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